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Tending the Holy
Spiritual Direction Across Traditions
By Norvene Vest
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 Norvene Vest
All rights reserved.
Making a Cup of Tea
Some Aspects of Spiritual Direction within a Living Buddhist Tradition
The young monk approached the elder seeking permission to go to another monastery in order to spend some time in intensive meditation practice. The elder refused his request. A week or two later he again approached the elder with the same request, but this time added some points he hoped would entice the elder to grant permission for the journey. Again, the elder replied that he must remain where he was. Some weeks later, refusing to let go of his plan, he approached the elder with what he thought was a fool-proof scheme. The young monk would go to the other monastery for practice but on the way would visit the elder's relatives who were ill and take some small gifts to them on his behalf. The elder's response was direct and simple: "Tell me why you want to do this." The young monk hesitated and then replied, "In order to deepen and improve my meditation practice." The old monk looked directly at him and said quietly, "Wonderful! Come back here this evening at nine o'clock." With that, the elder walked back into his hut. The younger monk thought that he was going to make the arrangements for him to travel, although it did cross his mind that nine o'clock at night was a strange time to be setting out on such a journey.
Feeling a little uncertain, he stood at the door of the elder's hut just before nine o'clock. Without a word, the thera emerged and, taking the young monk by the hand, led him across the sandy courtyard of the monastery toward the main chapel or shrine hall. Silently he unlocked the outer gates and, after they entered, locked them again. Likewise, he opened the heavy wooden inner doors and, as soon as they stepped into the darkness within, he locked the doors behind them. Standing in the dark the young monk wondered what was going to happen. The thera quietly moved toward the darkened altar and then lit a single candle, which radiated a small pool of light into the dark hall. There was light enough so that they could see each other's faces and the face of the Buddha image resting above the altar table. The thera then knelt, bowed three times, and sat down in the posture of meditation. The student followed his example and sat beside him. He thought that the old man was going to teach him some kind of meditation. "Soon he will start his instruction," thought the student.
After many minutes there was still nothing but silence. The student realized that he could see a little more by the light of the candle flame. While the teacher sat still and silent, he looked around the hall and into its darker recesses. This soon became boring and he began to examine the lines on the teacher's face, watching the way the golden light played over its ancient landscape. Still there was only silence and the almost imperceptible sound of the old man breathing gently. The student thought that he may as well do some meditation himself, since there was clearly to be no teaching tonight. He fixed his posture and began his meditation, but his mind was like a waterfall or a river in flood sweeping away all before it. Now this thought, now that. This memory swept up and away by plans and schemes. Thoughts and feelings, images and ideas, in a ceaseless cascade that was exhausting. He lost all sense of time very quickly, but the pain and discomfort he felt told him that they must have been sitting for an age. He opened his eyes and looked at the old man, who sat as silent as stone, the rise and fall of his breathing so light it was almost impossible to detect. He could have been carved of stone or wood except for the strange vividness of his stillness. The elder opened his eyes, turned toward him, and said, "Good." He bowed again and the student followed. Extinguishing the candle, they moved toward the door. When the elder unlocked the doors, the clanking sound of the keys seemed to echo loudly throughout the dark shrine. They emerged into the moonlit night and the doors were locked again. The outer gates were opened and then locked behind them. They stepped back into the sandy courtyard, now flooded with a soft white light from the almost full moon high above them.
"Thank goodness that's finished. We must have been there for hours," thought the student, already anticipating his bed and sleep. Reaching his hut the elder turned toward his student and said, "Tomorrow evening at the same time." The student was alarmed and a little disconcerted at this. He didn't mind doing meditation, but when was the teaching going to begin? Back in his own kuti (hut), he looked at the clock only to discover that they had been in the shrine room for a little over an hour. His heart sank.
The scenario was repeated for many, many nights. Each evening the pair crossed the courtyard and entered the shrine, and each evening they sat together in complete silence. The time they sat together grew longer and longer. After many nights and many long hours of sitting in the gentle darkness with his teacher, the young monk finally followed him into the silence and stillness. The river of the mind gathered into still pools and the roar of the waterfall fell away. The light of the single candle became as nothing in the presence of the elder. One morning they emerged from their practice just before sunrise and prepared to go on alms round into the village together. As they stepped out of the monastery gate, it occurred to the student that the old man had not said his by now customary, "Tomorrow evening at the same time." As the sun slowly rose and they walked quietly together toward the edge of the village, he knew that he didn't want to go anywhere, that just this walking was enough.
In this small story we glimpse the way in which the elder, "thera" in the Buddhist tradition, gives direction and helps to open the eyes of the student. The thera says very little and gives no explicit or wordy instructions. There is no long discussion of the student's problems and no criticism of his thoughts, words, or deeds. There is no analysis of the student and certainly no questions except the simple and direct, "Tell me why you want to do this," which is immediately followed by a very encouraging, "Wonderful ...," and then the concrete instruction to come to the teacher's kuti or hut that evening. No explanation is offered as to what will take place and none is sought, though there may be much questioning within the heart and mind of the student. The student knows and trusts that the teacher seeks only his well-being and happiness and therefore follows his instruction. The teaching or direction given that night and over the many nights that follow is also wordless. After many hours and nights of painful struggle in the presence of the thera, the student finally emerges into a new kind of freedom. The new freedom of heart and mind is not an end in itself but is an opening that simply allows for further growth and movement toward the goal of all practice in the Buddhist tradition: cetovimutti, or the complete liberation of heart and mind. Boundlessness. Limitlessness. Nibbana. At the end of the story, the thera again makes no comment and his silence is understood and accepted as authenticating what has taken place. This small event and its positive outcome are not the end of the relationship but a further deepening of it.
This story outlines or provides a taste of what you might encounter on the path of spiritual direction within the Buddhist tradition as found in Theravadin Buddhist practice and, more specifically, within a monastic context or setting. At the heart of all Buddhist practice is the experience of bhavana or meditation—the cultivation of complete liberation of heart and mind or the destruction of greed, hatred, delusion, and fear. Much that may be thought of as spiritual direction is bound up with the experience and practice of meditation.
There is no single word, term, or set of terms within Buddhist teaching that describes spiritual direction as it is broadly understood in the Western European tradition. There is, however, an interesting correspondence between the Christian Orthodox traditions and Buddhist practice in the area of spiritual direction. The importance of finding a suitable elder (thera in Pali, geron in Greek) who can act as a guide and mirror for the practitioner is one link at the level of practice. The emphasis on the elder's Wisdom and Compassion or love rather than any kind of formal learning is another interesting convergence. The many stories describing spiritual direction in the various lives of the Desert Fathers, the Vita Antonii of Athanasius, the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Philokalia, and other early Christian texts have their counterparts in the Buddhist tradition.
Watching, observing, interacting, and being with the student are seen as essential elements in giving real direction. The director or thera is one who can look into the heart and mind of the student in order to encourage him to see for himself. The Buddha teaches the importance of opening the eye of Dhamma (Dhammacakku), allowing one to see things just as they are. This is realizing within oneself the unsatisfactoriness and suffering (dukkha), the transience/impermanence (anicca), and the self-lessness/not-self (anatta) of our existence and experience. This is what the spiritual director seeks to help the student to do—to be open to the real or truth (sacca).
The director employs a wide range of skilful means to assist the student to realize this experience of opening of the eyes of the heart and mind. Frequently the director becomes a mirror for the student, allowing the student to see him or herself clearly with honesty and integrity in the director and within their interaction. Sometimes the director mirrors the student's emotions or moods and sometimes deflects them via their opposite—what the Buddha calls "the antidote."
The relationship between director and directed is unequal in terms of power and authority, yet students are always encouraged to find their own real authority and power. Direction is not about gaining knowledge from one who knows but rather about being in a living relationship with one who is knowing, which makes possible the ending of all dukkha (suffering and unsatisfactoriness) and fosters the experience of real liberation of heart and mind.
The experience of direction is very much embedded within a story or living narrative that is relational, frequently nondirective, nontheoretical, and very immediate. It deals with what is arising here and now rather than with theoretical constructs about past events or projections into an unknown and un- arisen future. This immediacy also allows for a great deal of genuine humor in the encounter between student and director, a humor that arises out of and is deeply rooted in genuine, non-pious humility. However, it is important to add that students may not always see what directors have placed before them until a short time afterward.
This chapter will attempt to outline these and other aspects of Buddhist spiritual direction through the recounting of stories and narratives of direction in the hope that story might convey what theory never can.
Nissaya or Dependence: The Beginning of the Relationship
In a monastic setting, the relationship between the thera or director and the student begins with the taking of nissaya or dependence during the ceremony of ordination. Nissaya or requesting dependence is an important part of the ordination ceremony and an essential part of establishing the relationship between teacher and student or master and disciple. "Aham Bhante nissayam yacami" (Venerable Sir, I beg or plead for dependence) is repeated three times and followed by, "Upajjhayo me Bhante hohi" (May you be my preceptor, Venerable Sir). The Upajjhaya responds with a simple "Sadhu" (It is well) or with "Pasadikena Sampadehi" (Make an effort in this with friendliness). The young student replies, "Sadhu Bhante" (Yes, Venerable Sir), and then says three times, "Ajjataggedani Thero mayham bharo ahampi Therassa bharo" (From this day forward the thera's burden will be mine, I shall be the burden of the thera).
This small part of the ordination is literally its center and comes just before the candidate is questioned by the two acariyas (formal teachers). During the questioning the candidate is asked for the name of his upajjhaya (preceptor/director). Having a preceptor is essential because it guarantees that new monks will have someone on whom they can depend and rely for real guidance and instruction, someone with whom they have a relationship of growing trust and confidence. In this nissaya or dependence, both individuals have very specific duties and responsibilities. The relationship between the newly ordained monk and his preceptor is an interactive kind of dependence in which the teacher/master also takes very seriously his duty and obligation to the young monk. While the new monk is now in a relationship of dependence on the thera (rather like the geron in the Orthodox tradition), the elder also enters the relationship with a serious level of personal commitment. The seriousness with which this is regarded can be seen in the reluctance shown by some theras in taking many new disciples.
The Young Monk
Having entered into this nissaya, the young monk cannot choose to do many simple things that may have previously been possible. Permission is required from the thera even to go outside the monastery gates for a short walk. In a traditional setting, then, the newly ordained has become in a very real sense apprenticed to the older, more experienced, and hopefully wiser thera. There is a traditional period of dependence of five years; less is considered inadequate to have properly begun the formation of the new monk. During this period of time, the student must remain with the elder. The student is expected to take care of the elder, making sure that his hut is kept clean and that his robes are washed and that any other areas in which he might genuinely care for the elder are looked after. It is in these interactions—which appear to be so mundane, so simple, so ordinary— that the real and most powerful direction takes place. The student's responsibilities may be found set out clearly in the Visudhimagga (Part II, Chapter 3, vv. 66-73). Either the student or the teacher may end the dependence/ nissaya relationship within the five-year limit, usually by mutual consent. Normally this would arise if the student wishes to take dependence with another teacher, if the student disrobes, or if his present teacher has passed away. Otherwise, their relationship or heart connection will continue to grow and develop long after five years has passed.
The student must be willing to reveal his thoughts and feelings, the inner movements of heart and mind to the director, so that the director may guide and assist him toward the goal of liberation of heart and mind (cetovimutti). This requires great trust, faith, and confidence (saddha), which will grow as the student witnesses for himself the day-to-day care, kindness, and wisdom of the thera. Each observes the other mindfully and with metta or loving-kindness. The student is expected to rouse up the energy (viriya) for practice and show diligence in carrying out the instructions of the thera. Great honesty and fearlessness are also essential in this relationship. The student requires great perseverance and patience because, although he recognizes that this is a relationship of inequality in terms of power and position, he is always encouraged and helped to find his own power and to see for himself.
Excerpted from Tending the Holy by Norvene Vest. Copyright © 2003 Norvene Vest. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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