“A monk, a nun, who cultivates a joyous disposition
and is filled with confidence in the Way
will find peace, stillness and bliss.
Yet still a youth, a renunciate fully devoted to the Way
lights up the world like the moon emerging from clouds.”
(Dhammapada, v. 381-382)
Dear friends, it’s been a while… This week marks my three-year anniversary of monastery life here in the blessed forests of British Columbia. Three years! Who knows how long I have been walking this path, or how many lifetimes I have been cultivating this practice. But let me just take a moment to pay homage to this latest chapter of my spiritual journey. The days and nights that I have spent here in this sacred place of refuge have witnessed inner adventures of the deepest kind. Golden drops of wisdom are percolating here and there. I have died and been reborn a million times. Throughout it all, there has been only one constant: a beautiful deepening of my peace, wisdom and happiness.
My gratitude for all of the blessings of the last three years is simply inexpressible. I am grateful to an endless list of beings, seen and unseen, who have guided and supported me from near and far. But mostly, I am grateful to myself. In this day and age, it is often considered uncouth to say such things. Under veils of egotistical modesty, we are reluctant to ever acknowledge our own goodness. But the Buddha encouraged us to regularly reflect on our own wholesome qualities and to take joy in our own happiness, just as we would do for others. So let me say this loud and clear, dear friends: I am deeply grateful to myself for making the decision to leave behind the world I knew in search of something higher… for disregarding the voices of the many well-intentioned people in my life who misunderstood and ridiculed my intentions…for having the courage to listen to my rather inconvenient and unconventional inner callings. The reward has been a blossoming of a calm wellbeing in my heart that continues to deepen with each passing breath - something I would not trade for any worldly pleasure or praise.
Unsurprisingly, this last year has been marked with much change. Just a couple of days after writing my last blog entry, I received word that my mother had suffered from a debilitating stroke while visiting relatives in Sri Lanka. Overnight, her whole experience of life changed dramatically. When she told her right limbs to move, they no longer listened. Her carefully laid plans for the future were swept away in an ocean of uncertainty. Why did this happen? What had she done to deserve this? Who was responsible? Would she ever recover? These were the questions floating around her mind and the minds of those around her as she tried to come to terms with this painful reality. Her vacation, if not the rest of her life, appeared to have been hijacked. Mine too. All of a sudden, I found myself plucked from the serenity and quietude of winter retreat here at the monastery and on a plane to cacophonic Colombo to look after my mother’s care for the next two months.
I have mentioned previously how traumatic it can be for me to leave the monastery these days. This was on another level altogether. While I deeply cherished the beautiful experience of taking care of my mother at a time when she really needed me, and would not have traded it for anything, I will not pretend that it was easy to be back in the world again. For spiritual types such as I, being in the world is akin to the feeling of being an ugly duckling. It’s highly uncomfortable… You can quack with the best of them, but you’ll just never be a duck. In my case, I have been fortunate enough to find my fellow swans, but being apart from them is painful indeed. Alas, the inevitable winds of change were to swoop my dear mother and I into a whole new reality that was not of our own choosing. In response, we counted our many blessings and tried to face each new day with equanimity, love and light-heartedness. In the background, a silent mantra reverberated in my heart and mind: “Don’t worry. Everything’s out of control.”
This is of course the lesson that life is always trying to teach us. No matter how much good we’ve done in our lives or how many insurance policies we’ve secured, none of us are exempt from the harsh realities of sickness, aging, death and loss. They will visit each of us at some point or another, often when we least expect them. This has been the case since time immemorial. Yet for some reason, we are shocked and outraged every time it happens. We make desperate pleas and angry recriminations to the Gods, demanding some explanation for the injustice. But these acts of desperation are all in vain and only contribute more pain and delusion to the world. The simple reality that the Buddha tried to tell us again and again was that this is the way things are. Every being, every thing, every relationship that is born is of the nature to die. The world and this endless round of existence are inherently unsatisfactory and full of suffering. We all (my mother, you, me and everyone that was ever born) will get old, get sick and die. Everything and everybody that we hold so dear to our hearts will be separated from us, no matter how much love and attachment once held us together.
This might be the moment that some of you choose to stop reading this tale of woe. But woeful it need not be, my friends. The story does not end here. The Buddha didn’t necessarily agree with this unsatisfactory nature of existence. He just called it for what it was. The first step, after all, is to acknowledge that there is a problem. Then, thankfully, He taught us the way out. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, a systematic and comprehensive path of mental cultivation, is entirely concerned with getting out of this sad state of affairs. It is a path to the ‘Deathless’ state of Enlightenment. This is why the Buddha encouraged us to “come and see”. At first, the act of really seeing life as it is can be unbearably harsh on the eyes. But soon, we realize that it’s just the light of wisdom that is blinding us. If we can only dare to look, with open eyes and joyful heart, we will eventually see the whole picture as it really is. The big picture is neither alluring, nor repulsive, but simply and profoundly, the Truth. Once we adjust our eyes to the penetrating light of wisdom, there is nothing that could make us shed a tear, wince in pain, or turn away in horror. In this new perspective, everything belongs. We have ‘Samma Ditthi’ – Right View…
Of course it’s easy to read and write about these lofty Buddhist aspirations. The hard part is really feeling liberation in our hearts. The path for most of us is long and sometimes arduous. The Buddha didn’t promise us instant liberation, but reassured us that the road to awakening is a gradual path of mental cultivation. Each time we incline our minds towards seeing the truth of the way things are, we are readjusting our focus just a little more, letting just a little more wisdom shine through. That’s all we really need to do… as little or as much as is in our capacity in this moment, to turn our eyes towards the Truth. Life then becomes a true adventure of the most joyous kind. Each unexpected turn of events, no matter how jarring, is an opportunity to assimilate new information about the way things really are… to refine our view and to let go of our misperceptions about reality. It is these misperceptions, after all, that cause us to suffer. We think it’s something out there that’s causing us to suffer, but the cause is always our own delusion. We perceive permanence in that which is impermanent. We perceive an abiding self in that which has no abiding self. We perceive satisfactoriness in that which is unsatisfactory. And so, we suffer. We wish for, and rely on, permanence, substantiality and satisfactoriness where there is none. The logicians and investors amongst you may be the first to spot the flaw. We’ve bet against the way things really are. A poor bet indeed.
As I write these words to you, I find myself in the warm hospitality of the kuti (‘cabin’) where I spent the first four months of my time here (‘The Rainbow Connection Kuti’). It’s somewhat awe-inspiring to observe that while the beautiful view outside my window appears largely the same as it did three years ago, the view of the person beholding it has changed completely. If you find me here a few months or even a few breaths from now, that process of change will not have abated for even a split second. We are in a constant process of profound change, but we rarely realize it.
A couple of years ago, after one of my cousins read my blog entry “Butterfly Gliding”, she confessed to me that it had brought her to tears. She felt that she was losing me, as if I had somehow died. With a chuckle, she admitted how strange a feeling this had seemed to her, as we rarely saw each other when I was out there in the world anyways. Even I have felt this loss on some level. I have grieved the loss of the person I thought I was. I have felt the pain of misplaced attachment and self-identification. Our heart trembles when it is forced to let go of something we have grasped onto so tightly. But grasping is not love, my friends. It is not love that propels us to entangle ourselves, and those close to us, in snares of worldly drama and sentimentality. Love is unconditional and all-inclusive, with no strings attached. It is a soft and quiet embrace that holds no ache. As my own process of self-discovery deepens, I feel this unconditional love expanding, both for myself and for others. My idealistic and insatiable quest for perfection is evolving into a patient and curious meeting of things as they really are, right here, right now. I must say, life is much more fun this way.
As the days have rolled on here, I have come to the somewhat haunting realization that I will never be able to go back to the world I once knew. I may physically return to the world one day, but I will never see it the way I used to. Those doors are slammed shut. This has led many to question why I haven’t yet become a nun. With a heart so devoted, why not commit to the monastic way of life? I have no clear response, other than to tell you that the inner voice that led me here three years ago also tells me that the monastic path is not for me, at least not right now. I am somehow caught between these two worlds. Deep inside, I feel that I may still have some unfinished business with the world. I don’t know exactly what this means, or how it will manifest, but I do know that my inner voice has never led me astray, even though I haven’t always understood its mysterious ways.
If I lived solely from my ideals, I would have jumped into monasticism long ago. It is an institution that I deeply, deeply revere. My closest spiritual guides have all been monastics and their level of wisdom is undoubtedly a fruit of their monastic training. But ideaLs are just ideas that we would Love to be true. Truth is the way we really feel. If we live our lives solely based on ideals, we can miss the subtle intuitive cues that our deeper minds are giving us; we can miss the Truth even as it’s staring us in the face. My own truth is that I have never had a calling to don the robes of a Buddhist nun. But in my heart, I ordained long ago. As my teacher once told me, ordination is a state of mind. When our primary aspiration in life is to cultivate the Buddha’s path of awakening, we are already a monastic at heart. When we have renounced worldly aims and values to focus our energies on realizing the Truth, we are walking the very same path as the Blessed One. It is not a piece of cloth or a shaved head that makes one a monastic – it is an aspiration and commitment of the heart. In fact, my very name means “Nun of the Heart”. Well, that’s my own recent spin on it, at least. I have always known that ‘Dil’ means ‘heart’ in the Hindi language; this year I discovered that ‘Ani’ means ‘nun’ in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Draw your own conclusions, friends.
So on this, my three-year anniversary of monastery life here in B.C., I give thanks and bow deeply to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, the three jewels that have proven to be my truest refuge. I pay homage to my teacher, Ajahn, who continues to guide me with utmost skill and compassion. And I offer myself a gentle pat on the back for braving the journey thus far. If anything, my experience here has proven that the feelings that I express to you today could easily vanish tomorrow. The person who writes these words will have already died by the time you read them. But let’s not get too lost in ultimate realities. Right here and now, as I look out my window, a most glorious full moon is peeking through the darkness of the evening, illuminating the landscape before me. And as I look deep in my heart, my inner light of wisdom is doing the same. May it be so for you too. May it be so for all beings.
There is no butterfly
There was no caterpillar
Said the moon to the cocoon