This is part four of the series
I must have been born into the wrong millennium. As a child growing up in the ‘burbs of Sydney’s South-West, I yearned to become a part of King Arthur’s Round Table and by degrees grew cynical about the fact that the highest prospect anyone had was election into Bob Hawke’s cabinet. What I wanted — with a memorably asthmatic ache — was a vision of grace, beauty, excellence and nobility to which I could pledge my life and allegiance (and plastic Easter Show He-Man sword). Ah … for the days of old-timey religion that provided that for us. We thrived on stories of David, Moses, Jesus and the Saints. But the bare paedophilic reality of the Church has pushed too hard against the faith of us mere mortals. It’s enough to make one suspect that King Arthur was really just another crook in shining armour.
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After dreams and ideals are shattered, even looking back in their direction is painful. Most people prefer to head the opposite way. Thus, while once we sought out and worshipped those who embodied grace, excellence, beauty and nobility; now we see such shows as puffery, pretentiousness and arrogance, anathemas to the Good life. And ’tis one of the enduring trends of the human heart, when injured, to seek out with the wild enthusiasm of a spurned lover for his new beau, the very opposite of what it once cherished. So it is, that now we embrace pettiness, ugliness, mediocrity and vulgarity as our ideals.
If that seems a bit strange, then some would say that it is simply because you have been indoctrinated into thinking in terms of classical categories of Good and Evil. But we have broken free from the rigid ideological shackles from the past. We now have post-modern relativism. The evidence is in that if we say all values are up for grabs, then everyone becomes more able to pursue their own life-path. This multiplication of variety and quantity of desires is the very stuff of happiness and, coincidentally, is the life-force behind the miracle of modern global economy. How could we have allowed the traditional fuddy-duddies of restraint, rectitude and frugality hold back true (post-modern relativistic) science and economic progress for so long. Why, in the past we only had two genders, now Facebook allows us to choose from (at least) fifty-eight. Do the numbers. We are now in a Brave New World that is (at least) twenty-nine times better than the past. More is always better, so they say.
But what, this wandering monk wants to ask, about the elegance and nobility that arise from contentment and willingness to operate within the space of natural limits? The wise of all times have consistently exhorted us that less is more, that we should strive to make good from what we have, pursuing happiness in quality and not quantity. This is the founding principle of the Buddhist monks’ life and grace. Grace, that is, of the graceful and supple variety as opposed to the unmerited God-given kind.
For Sāriputta, who would later become the Blessed One’s right-hand man, introduction to the Dhamma first came in the form of the visage of a wandering Buddhist monk on alms-round. The grace and composure with which the Venerable Assaji conducted himself as he walked silently through the streets, bowl cradled in his hands, eyes gentle and downcast, aimed steadily one plough-length ahead, prompted Sariputta, who was already a seasoned wanderer of another religion by this time, to ask the Venerable for teachings. After hearing the Dhamma, Sāriputta sought out the Buddha for ordination as a bhikkhu (a fully ordained Buddhist monk), and the rest is history really.
I’m often asked why I became a monk. I tend to give a variety of answers, largely to keep me from boring myself silly. But at the heart, what I wanted was a place where nobility, grace and composure are respected, held dear and not denigrated as quaint, old-fashioned and backward. Did I find that place inside the Sangha?
In a few months time, I will have completed my 7th rainy season as a bhikkhu. Close to six out of those seven years, I have pursued the wandering mendicant life of the Early Buddhist monks. It’s been, at once, a joyous and lonely journey. I’ve done the monk’s life differently to the extant traditions and I understand that I am dismissed by and large as being arrogant and even mad. I’ve been around the traps for long enough to know that something has gone terribly wrong inside the traditions. This is hardly breaking news given the history of humanity and religion. Nobility and grace have been lost. I walk alone because I want to rediscover and revive the nobility and grace of the monks of the time of the Buddha and make it more than just a theatrical show to be performed before the adoring and wilfully-blinded eyes of lay-people. I am under no illusions that at this early stage of my life as a monk, what I say will be given much weight next to thousands of years of authoritative tradition. Nonetheless, I fold these words into this digital bottle out of trust that over time, the force of the quiet truth will win out like the drops of water that bring down stone walls.
It seems to me that some time ago, maybe even as far back as over two millennia ago, from the time of King Ashoka, Buddhism has suffered from an over-tolerance for syncretism justified through fanciful and grand imaginings about the all-encompassing metaphysical nature of the Buddha. As it moved from place to place, the preachers of the doctrine, the bhikkhus, failed to hold the line of the truth based upon historical evidence, empirical observation and honest experimentation and developed a penchant for poetic and inscrutable grandiosity. As a result the teaching has cross-bred with deluded local-culture after deluded local-culture to create a multiplicity of doctrines and traditions that score high on the quantity (grandiosity) card and low on the quality (truth) card. We have lost the boundaries of the truth in our well-intended embrace of the many.
The truth, is exclusionary. We can’t have it any way that we want. Buddhists tend to be ahead of their time for good and for ill. Buddhism went into post-modern decadence well before the post-modernists, and it is now but a waif next to the full-bodied woman it once was – enough to get into the glossies and the VIP bars, but not enough to lift the hearts of the many to face the demons within in search of the truth that shall set them free.
Most idealists inside the Sangha give up. Give them anything up to ten years and they disrobe. Sometimes they denounce the Sangha, and sometimes they denounce not just the Sangha but the very idea that monasticism can be of relevance to the modern world. They become lay teachers and start lay movements. The monks that stay behind tend to be the ones who are happy to let standards slide for the sake of a life peaceful denial, delusion and complacency. Or else there are monks who just disappear and do their own thing deep in the jungles. There is a middle way, however, between radical lay-Buddhism, staid acceptance of the status quo inside the Sangha or becoming a Pacceka Buddha (an enlightened one who does not teach): it is genuinely going back to doing things the way the Teacher instructed us monks to live.
Holding the line is never an easy thing. Human beings aren’t machines. We can’t be programmed one day with a set of principles and effortlessly execute them by switching the on-button. Our actions are rooted in the energy of the mind and our minds are constantly being effected by the minds of others. The tendency therefore is for human standards to slip by way of entropy to the lowest common denominator, and that is a sinking floor. With those standards goes high culture and civilisation. But that slide can be held and even beaten back by the power of courage, in the way enemy hordes are held back or even put into retreat by a courageous Captain who holds his men together by the shear power of his will. But courage in the Buddha’s dispensation is not a holy quality bestowed from above, it is a trained skill that is built upon other trained skills. Foremost among these is composure.
‘Sati’ does not mean ‘mindfulness’, it means composure, and ‘ānāpānasati’ does not mean ‘mindfulness of breathing’, it means composure of Yin and Yang (see last weeks essay for more on that). Only he who has mastered the forces of Yin and Yang within through composure will have the internal integrity to tame the untamed forces of Yin and Yang in the world.
True courage is no fool’s courage. He who bites off more than he can chew is soon keeling over the basin in a retch. For example, it is quite possible that Mr Trump went into the White House with real intentions to ‘drain the swamp’ and that it was more than mere sloganeering on his part. Assuming this is true, we still need to ask ourselves whether he has the internal mastery necessary to impose his vision of a multi-polar world where nations mind their own business and encourage other nations to mind there own business onto the shadowy and powerful figures behind the Whitehouse who have very different ideas about how and for whom the world’s largest military and financial centre should be run. Or does the fact that Mr Trump is an elderly man who, like a teenager, is still obsessed with sensual pleasures, tell us something about how deep his internal Yin-Yang immaturity goes and about the real prospects for a better world to flow from him?
And yet, I’m not complaining. Too much energy is lost in lamenting the paucity of true statesmen in this world. If we don’t invest in the creation of new oil rigs, then down the track we run into oil shortages. So too, there’s no point crying over our poor leadership when we are the ones who have failed to raise the best among us to be courageous and virtuous heroes capable of resisting evil and lifting the gaze of the many to noble horizons. We followed Māra down the road of self-indulgence and now all we have to lead us are men of super-sized egos and rapacious ambition.
Everything we need to know about the way the world works for good or for ill can be discerned from mastery of the universe within. This starts with self-control, full-awareness and recall, that is, composure in relation to the in-breath and the out-breath. For those who have eyes to see (that is, for those who have not trained themselves into a meditation technique that makes them specialists at wilful blindness), it is obvious that the subtle mental energy that accompanies the in-breath is different to that which follows the out-breath. Thus, the tenor of the attention and thoughts that go with in-breath are different to those that go with the out-breath too. This is the beginning of the journey of discovery and mastery over the forces of Yin and Yang internally. From here a meditator learns about how man and woman, young and old, innovation and tradition, man and environment etc can dance together in harmony and symbiosis.
When the Buddha said, ‘Strive on with diligence,’ before he passed into ultimate bliss. He was telling us to constantly apply our will power, strength, composure and courage in a harmonious way (neither too hard nor too soft but firm, flexible and in-tune) for the sake of higher and higher stages of Yin-Yang harmony that lead step by step upwards on the spiral Stairway beyond the heavens to Nibbana.
The extent to which men and women of this world take up the hero’s journey up the Stairway is the extent to which true leaders will arise once more to guide humanity out of compassion towards the Republic of the Dhamma. That’s (at least) one of the reasons I became a monk. The world needs real monks to hold up the standards set by the Buddha two and a half millennia ago. Monks who are actually fully enlightened and who have the internal strength to guide the Kings and the Presidents of this world without being sullied and dragged down by their gifts. Monks who have enough sense to do their bit for humanity and then move on. I know that I’m not the only one on this lonely and joyous road. Godspeed to all who will not stop until they are free.