2021-05-14 Stories from The Monastery Within
3:26PM May 14, 2021
Today I want to tell a few stories from a little storybook I wrote called "The Monastery Within." Many of the stories have to do with the Abbess of the monastery.
The first one I'll tell is that the Abbess, one day, called together all the monastics of the monastery who had been there for less than six months. Maybe this was a time when they had started to get a little bit restless, wondering why they were there. Maybe they had gotten used to the routine and were starting to get bored, remembering their life before the monastery – it's allures and pleasures. She called them together and said, "Pack your bags, because I'm going to take you on a pilgrimage to the holy sites of Buddhism."
Now these monastics knew about the holy sites in India, the place where the Buddha was born, where he was enlightened, where he first taught, and where he died. These are considered the most holy places for Theravāda Buddhists. People do pilgrimages there and visit. So they said, "Oh. Great! We're going on a trip." They packed their bags ready for travel. They climbed onto the monastery bus and off they went.
First, the Abbess took them to a hospital where they visited the sick. They were surprised by all the different kinds of sicknesses that people were struggling with there. Some were pretty severe. They had a chance to go through the ICU and even the emergency room. It was almost mind boggling to see the extent of the injuries and illnesses. And then back on the bus, and they went to an old age home.
They saw what for them – most of the monastics were young – seemed like the ravages of old age. People who could no longer care for themselves. Some of them couldn't walk anymore. Some of them had all kinds of challenges and decreased capacities. It was pretty impressive for these young monastics to see. Then they went back on the bus.
The Abbess took them to a hospice where they saw people in the stages of dying. Some of them scared of dying. Some of them kind of disconnected from the whole experience. Some of them not really present anymore and semi-aware, semi-conscious. All kinds of challenging ways of dying. And some had already died. They spent time next to a bed where a corpse was lying, a recently dead person. Then the Abbess took them back to the monastery.
The monastery had an infirmary where there was an old sick monk. They spent time with the sick monk who seemed very present. He seemed quite tired by the illness he had, but very calm. It seemed like he was very engaged in his Buddhist practice. He'd spent years doing it and he was just continuing in bed. They could feel the sincerity and the intentness of his engagement with his practice in his life. He seemed like he was just as content to practice in bed as he was anywhere else.
Then they went to visit a very old nun, ninety-six years old and in a wheelchair. But there was a sparkle in her eyes of joy. They looked more closely and it seemed like her eyes were marveling at the mystery of it all and the delight of it all. It was almost like she was surprised to be alive and delighted. She had no fear, no regrets, and just was there in a content way. This deep contentment was palpable for the new monastics.
Then they went to the hospice of the monastery. And there, in fact, was a monk who was dying. And there was such peace. It was clear that the monk was in some pain. But there was so much peace. When they entered the room, it was so peaceful and so calm, everyone got quiet. Everyone felt like they should bow deeply. There was something reverent and profound about the presence of this person who'd spent decades in the monastery, practicing. The level of peace. And there was no iota of fear.
Then the Abbess took them back to the courtyard of the monastery. They sat down there under a big tree. The Abbess said, "Now you've seen the sacred sites of Buddhism. Knowing these, practice well. Plunge into the monastic life. Plunge into the practice you've come to do. And you too will become the sacred sites of Buddhism." So that's one story.
It kind of sacralizes something that's common in almost every day, sickness, old age and death. That can be a catalyst for practicing, for really getting to the bottom of what it means to be alive, and to the bottom – the origins – of the suffering we have in this life. It can also be a catalyst for waking up and finding our freedom and our peace.
The second story involves a monk who was known for having a very deep, seemingly deep, peace and acceptance of life, and a deep trust in life itself. This monk, one day, went off to the edges of the monastery – the edges of the wilderness, or the forest, away from the others – where the monastery had a few meditation huts. Monastics would go out there to meditate for weeks at a time. And so he went out there.
There was a clearing in the woods, with a grass meadow, in front of his meditation hut. One day, he heard a deer crashing through the woods. It collapsed in the meadow in front of his hut. Clearly, the deer was injured and it just collapsed there.
But soon, behind the deer, there came a lion. "Oh," said the monk, "This deer, I guess maybe that's why it's injured. It was attacked by the lion. The lion is going to eat it." The lion came along, and the deer seemed completely relaxed, at ease. It was just there, accepting its condition almost. Just there. It could see the lion, was not afraid, was not trying to get up to run away, and was seemingly just there. And the lion came along.
The lion proceeded, for the next two days, to stand guard over the deer to keep it safe from other predators so the deer could heal well enough to get up and walk away. That was a pretty impressive thing to see. The monastic said, "Oh. This is an affirmation. This is like proof of my practice of deep acceptance of everything. If I just accept life as it really is, then life will provide. The Dharma will provide. Things will arise. But the art of it is to really accept.
Some weeks later, there was a nun staying at a hut not very far away. For some reason, the hut caught on fire. The monk saw that and said, "Oh. Look at that." At first it was just a small fire on the roof. Then it got bigger. Because he was into this acceptance thing, just allowing things and letting things arise, he just watched and was curious. He watched what was happening as the fire got bigger and bigger.
Then he saw the nun come out of the hut and try to get some water. She tried to put the fire out. She got a little injured in the process, but to no avail, and the whole hut burned to the ground. It just was ashes when it was over. It happened very quickly. It was only after it was burned that the monks, nuns, and the Abbess came to see what was going on.
The Abbess came to the monk and said, "What happened here?" He explained what happened. And the Abbess said, "Why didn't you help?" He said, "Oh. Well, I was really inspired. I saw how profound it is to just accept things." He explained what happened with the deer and the lion.
The Abbess got angry and said, "It's time for you to leave the monastery and return to the world. Sometimes it's important to be the deer and just accept your condition. And sometimes it's important to be the lion. So you have to leave, and only come back when you know how to be the lion."
So, naive acceptance. Sometimes we have to accept the fact that we are lions here to protect and care for the world with our strength, our power, and our abilities. To have a policy of acceptance, allowing, and just being at peace with everything, is really to live a truncated life and denies a whole part of who we are. In a sense, we're both the deer and the lion. Don't be afraid to be either one. But do have the wisdom to know which one is appropriate at any time.
May you discover your monastery within – meaning your wisdom inside – your place of practice. And may that be a gift you give to the world. Thank you.
Then for next week, right now I'm thinking that, in some ways, I'll continue with stories for next week. But they will be a whole different genre of stories. That is, stories from the Buddha's life that are teaching stories or provide context for the Buddha's teachings. So I thought I would pick some of these stories from the Buddha's life in which appear some of the important teachings he gives. It will be a way of combining the teachings and the ancient stories from the canon. That's what I'm thinking now. I look forward to our time next week.