A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Lifeby Wayne Teasdale
Teasdale is a Chicago-based lay monk who combines the traditions of Christianity and Hinduism in the way of Christian Sannyasa. He explains what it means to him to lead a life of activism and teaching outside the monastery. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR See more details below
Teasdale is a Chicago-based lay monk who combines the traditions of Christianity and Hinduism in the way of Christian Sannyasa. He explains what it means to him to lead a life of activism and teaching outside the monastery. Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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A Monk in the World
Notes on Cultivating the Spiritual Life
By Wayne Teasdale
New World Library
Copyright © 2002 Wayne Teasdale.
All rights reserved.
The World As Presence and Community
We can never escape the world, no matter how much we try. Yet that is precisely what our human nature urges us to do sometimes. When I first lived in a monastery, I learned very quickly that monastic life did not afford more escape from the world than any other place. Rather, it presented a deeper encounter with it. The monastic life is not a rejection of the world; it is a decision to engage with this world from a different dimension, from the enlarged perspective of love, as perceived by the Gospel in its utter simplicity and clarity.
In a very real sense, we are all integrally part of the world, even if we live in the relative peace of the cloister. I say "relative" because sometimes monasteries are anything but peaceful. They can be islands of turmoil, discontent, and unhappiness. It all depends on where individual members are in their development, If monks or nuns feel ambiguous about their vocation, their spiritual life will be clouded by their doubts, and their monastic experience will reflect a divided heart. If, however, they are confident in their monastic commitment, at peace within, and enjoying a vital spiritual life in union with God, they will be centered deeply in their source of hope. This experience is magnified for a monk, or mystic, in the world.
For me the world has always been an exciting, fearful, and often overwhelming place. The sounds, sights, and frenetic pace of our cities, with their fascinating diversity and physical presence, while compelling, have also challenged me. The world, where anonymity is reinforced by the indifference of strangers and a mass culture that fears intimacy, is fraught with many dangers. Most of us experience this, even if we don't acknowledge it. Even if we feel physically safe, and many do not, we experience so much stimulation from so many directions that it is easy to feel overwhelmed.
As I said in the introduction, to be in the world as a monk, as someone consecrated to God, is first of all to be in the world, but not of it. This distinction contributes to my unease at times, yet I know I'm not alone in these feelings. For many years as a hermit in the city and for years before I really felt like a stranger in a world I didn't understand. It has not always been easy to be a monk living in the heart of a secular culture unsupportive of the spiritual quest. In India and other societies of Asia where there is a larger cultural support system, this is not as much of a problem. But the West is a different kind of place.
The world is, in a sense, a place of exile. We are never fully at home here, and in my tradition, we are taught by St. Paul that we really "don't have a lasting city here." As the Buddha taught in his first noble truth, life is suffering, or as Buddhist psychologist Mark Epstein more accurately translates it, life has "pervasive unsatisfactoriness." We are transients, pilgrims on our way, passing through this vale of tears, snatching a bit of joy where we can from the mouth of death before it devours our dreams. I think the unease people experience, our existential anxiety in the face of this fleeting drama, has much to do with the sense of alienation we feel once we realize our mortality. I have often felt like Jonah in the belly of the great whale, only the whale is not so benign! But whatever my feelings at facing my mortality, I continually look to the sacred in the world, which is so often represented in the realms of nature as well as in the human community.
The Community of Nature
More fundamental than the human community, which we so often think of as the "world," is the pervasive presence of nature a nurturing, omnipresent, and sometimes menacing reality that sustains us in every sense and without which we cannot survive. Nature's surrounding, enveloping presence has always been magical for me, especially as I was growing up in Connecticut. I loved its wildness, its capacity for unbounded freedom. I loved the fragrance of flowers, with their ability to awaken moods, stir distant associations long forgotten, and carry me to magical realms in my imagination. This experience was common during my childhood and acted as a frame of reference in those idyllic years.
Nature has always been a friend, a mysterious presence, a constant source of inspiration, insight, and joy. As a child I never regarded it as an inert material substance, but a living, vibrant reality imposing itself on my life. It captured my imagination. I first became aware of the Divine as the magical in nature, and later as the Presence in everything. The natural world emanates or expresses the mystery of the One beyond all the multiplicity of forms we perceive. This One can be felt moving in all things; its energy pervades everything that is manifested. Nature celebrates it in an endless diversity, an immanent presence ever giving life to everything.
The diaphanous quality and power of the natural world, the realm of wilderness, or wildness, often breaks through our ordinary awareness, our mundane preoccupations, in moments of natural revelation in which something more real and ultimate discloses itself to us when we are receptive. These moments in my life have often been fleeting, but their intensity has changed how I view the Divine and the world as a whole.
On one of my long stays in India, while I was visiting Madras, I was walking in a small pasture near an ocean inlet where some cows were grazing. It was an average winter day, very much like a perfect summer's day in New England. An incredible peace pervaded the field and as I stood there I was enveloped in an intense mystical experience. Butterflies, swallows, and dragonflies were buzzing about serenely, while cows and water buffalos stood munching away at the flowing grass. Other water buffalos were blissfully resting in the coolness of a water hole. The essential timelessness of this scene made me feel I was in the presence of an eternal mystery. The entire experience seemed like a kind of cosmic liturgy to me, much like what Bede Griffiths describes occurring to him when he was a teenager in England. A subtle, mysterious presence, though hidden, was everywhere.
Many years later, in Sri Lanka, at the mountain sanctuary of Sri Pada, or Adam's Peak, the power of the natural world again took hold of my inner life. Although little known in Europe or America, Sri Pada is well known in India and Sri Lanka as a pilgrimage site sacred to four religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Pilgrims arrive at Sri Pada at evening to climb the mountain meditatively during the night, reaching the summit at dawn. I arrived there with two friends on a February evening to a steady drizzle. It was already dark, and a thick mist had settled in, enveloping the holy mountain. All the way up the path were soft electric lights, adding to the air of mystery. Every few minutes an eerie bell would toll, inviting weary pilgrims to the summit. Never one to enjoy losing a night's sleep, I wasn't looking forward to the nocturnal ascent, but my two companions were eager to start.
As we began the ascent, I was fired and a little cranky, complaining to myself how I really wanted to be in bed. In truth, I was being a bit of a wimp about it all. As I trudged along in self-pity, two elderly women carrying infants on their backs scurried past me up the steep trail . I felt a little ashamed and resolved to cease my internal whining. As I settled into the six-hour trek broken only by occasional stops at tea stalls I found myself reflecting on the meaning of Sri Pada and the pilgrimage I was engaged in. I began to recognize it as a metaphor for life's gradual journey. While often interrupted by other attractions and distractions on the way, it is essentially an ascent to God, with the Divine hidden everywhere on the way, always calling us from the depths of our desire. All Sri Pada's elements contributed to this realization: the fog and rain, the lights illuminating the ascending, irregular path, the bell at the summit summoning pilgrims to the heights all seemed part of our ultimate, inner journey to wholeness, enlightenment, and divine love.
As my companions and I were nearing the top, I thought pessimistically, "With this fog and drizzle, we'll never be able to see the sun." As we arrived at the summit, I watched as each pilgrim rang the bell the number of times they had climbed Sri Pada. My two friends disappeared in the peak's fortlike maze, and I found myself curiously alone to face the dawn. As I looked out into the thick clouds that obscured its approach, the sun appeared as a slight, pale presence in the midst of the fog, a barely perceptible, ghostly specter. But as I watched, its rays literally melted through the clouds, which then parted, and I found myself face-to-face with the sun. It seemed like more than the sun, however. Something had happened; a sort of mythic dimension had opened, and nature's mythic quality became a vehicle for a mystical experience.
As I stood with the sun on the summit of this modest mountain peak, the solar orb became a catalyst for my encounter with the Divine. As often appears in myths, the sun became the conveyance for God, like a chariot of fire. It ushered me into the Divine Presence through its powerful symbolic function, its archetypal capacity to represent the One. I was overcome as I stood alone before the Divine. I was seized by the Presence communicated through the sudden appearance of the sun. It carried me into an intense awareness of the Divine's utter reality. I knew then why I had made this journey to Sri Pada, and the peace it conveyed remains with me to this day.
The world, particularly the natural world, contains a symbolic dimension of meaning, a sacramental economy. This symbolic dimension is an archetypal level of reality that affects even our dreams. Mountains, trees, oceans, rivers, fields, birds, spiders, turtles, pets, stars, galaxies, our moon indeed everything has an intrinsic meaning beyond its physical reality. And everyone holds a timeless contemplative capacity to understand this symbolic world, to grasp its inner meanings, the essential patterns that unite all reality. This capacity has been obscured in the last century by our Western preoccupation with frenetic work, scientific analysis, rational discourse, and technology. Intuition has been choked off, especially in men. The contemplative capacity to discern the natural symbols embedded in our experience of nature is essentially an intuitive ability that everyone has but that few use.
Although most people relate to nature's beauty with enthusiasm and delight, few today understand its deeper symbolic function. Virtually every ancient and medieval culture exercised this capacity, and many Native American, Aboriginal, and African tribal societies still do. This ability to see and know in this natural, contemplative way was called by St Francis's follower, St. Bonaventure, reading the Book of Nature, and we can all regain this faculty through spiritual practice. St. Francis of Assisi and St. Bonaventure were both skilled in this kind of sacred reading. Francis once observed: "If your heart were pure then all of nature would be a great book of holy wisdom and sacred doctrine."
No view of the world is complete without including this subtle form of knowing, a kind of illumination that relies on fully developed intuition. I awakened to this capacity in myself very gradually. It began when, as an undergraduate, I visited a monastery in upstate New York. While on a walk in the monastic garden, the prior remarked to me that "flowers are a contemplation in which God is expressing his love for us." Although I heard his words, they took time to sink in. It didn't happen immediately, but when it did, I experienced a sudden irruption of insight, a stream of intense illumination, a holistic apprehension of an entire process of knowing.
It all came together while I was contemplating a rose bush in my front yard in West Hartford, Connecticut. In watching the bush over time, I realized that reality, like the rose, is a process of growth, or unfolding. Just as the rose is more than any one stage of its development bud, stem, or bloom so life and reality are more than any one moment of time or experience. What is real is not just its moments of duration but also the totality of the process in its manifestation in time. This insight can comfort us in facing death and disintegration. All nature communicates this truth to us all the time, if we would but pay attention the attention of the heart, of intuition, of our being to the sacred mystery. Nature constantly teaches us that a larger picture exists than what we see. It compels us to awaken by confronting us with order, design, and perfection everywhere.
A spider weaving its web, the perfect symmetry of a snowflake, the beauty and harmony of the lily, the cosmic quality of trees, the mysterious presence of the wind, the attraction of stillness, the radiance of light, the transparency of fragrances, the flow of water, the movement of leaves, the timeless feeling of some days and nights, the poetry of birds in flight, the transfiguring moments of dawn and sunset, the hypnotic rhythm of the tides all speak to us of something beyond ourselves, something that transcends our understanding. All point to nature's ability to nourish us aesthetically and psychologically as well as materially.
When I reflect on the natural world and its glorious messages for us, I remember our responsibility to restore and preserve it, to work toward a sustainable future in which the human community lives in harmony with nature. We have a sacred duty to the earth itself, to one another, and to all the other species that inhabit our planet, to live in a state of friendship with the natural world, enhancing its life by simplifying our needs and desires. We are entrusted with the ongoing task of preserving the systems of the biosphere, the aesthetic reality of nature, and the rights of all sentient beings who dwell here with us. We are admonished to make peace with all of them. The safeguarding of the earth is our highest moral priority, and nothing can take precedence over it any longer.
Once we possess the sensitivity, the larger awareness, to understand and experience the deeper value of nature, and if we have the generosity to strive for its preservation and well-being, we will work untiringly to inform others of the necessity to protect the earth, all species, and also the human species, particularly in its most vulnerable members, the homeless. I will explore in more detail the urgency of the plight of the homeless and our responsibility toward them in chapter 6.
The World as Community
We are social beings who grow in relation to others; we are defined through our relationships with them. Our ancestors lived their lives in the bosom of a supportive tribe. Every need was met within the context of that tribe. The tribe was community. When we moved out of tribes and into extended families, and then into nuclear families, we gained greater freedom and mobility, but something was lost: a fundamental sense of security based on the experience of belonging. We must seek to rediscover and recover community in our lives. Community gives us psychological balance, promotes healthy human development, creates stability in the midst of change, and acts as an anchor that gives us focus and calm a timeless, restful, and deeply human order. Community also helps us to meet the needs of all for food, shelter, recreation, work, study, sharing the tasks of child rearing, the whole complex of spiritual life. All are supported through the group.
We need to be conscious of the social world, as well as the natural and symbolic worlds, because we have a permanent responsibility to it, to our human family. The social world embraces all relationships, from the most indifferent to the most intimate, and the different contexts in which these relationships unfold. This realm also includes the various communities that bind people together, which allow us to meet and work together for the common good. It is also through these forums that our cultural life develops, and stimulation whether aesthetic, intellectual, or emotional is marshaled into creative outlets that give us culture. We produce culture as a way to cocreate our sense of world. We are all engaged in some act of creating culture, a definitively human act.
Excerpted from A Monk in the World by Wayne Teasdale. Copyright © 2002 by Wayne Teasdale. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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