“Regret”, even the possibility of it, and the noble psyche!

The case for seclusion, renunciation, and withdrawal, is not only made on circumstantial grounds, or those of monastic social organisation and coexistence; there are further purely psychological concerns:

Wisdom and gnosis, at least in Buddhism, are not all or nothing, have it all or have none phenomena. The wisdom that you have today maybe still lacking, and the lack may become transcended tomorrow. We know this because it is something that we observe in our experience, all of us, even in mundane settings. A person whose wisdom never develops, is never wise!

Thus, a position that you take today with a wisdom that you have developed today, may become something that you _regret_ with a wisdom that you will develop further in the future. The same applies to those who, today, trust in you and act upon your wise Dhamma advices, but regret having done so at some point in the future when they will have outgrown their faith in you. This is actually the grounds for the offence of promoting abortion in the vinaya; the origin-story shows a woman abusing the monk (and denouncing the whole tri-ratana while she’s at it) upon whose advice she made an abortion that she later regreted.

Both the Dhamma experts and the followers of them can, and should, outgrow their yet unperfected wisdom. Wisdom is not an ultimate state, it is a process of development. Understanding this, a heart that is exercising its effort in the ennobling path should not promote any kind of position over any kind of issue that may be regretted in the future; especially if that position is one that will have impact on others rather than on strictly one’s own self. For there is no anavajja-sukha without freedom from regret; there can be no bliss and joy in the renunciate life while regret is hovering upon it, even if just as a mere possibility. The freedom from the morbid effect of that mere possibility of regret is worth infinitely more than whatever temporal mundane situation one could get right, for a while, before it dies out into change and oblivion.

To DEATH, is where all mundane things are headed.

On nissaya and dependence

To understand anything is to learn what is its purpose, what is it for. And ours is like any other situation of “mentoring”: the ultimate purpose of the nissaya or “dependence”, is to learn how to become precisely independent or self-sufficient in terms of external circumstantial and inward psychological needs and support. A successful period of nissaya leads precisely to the situation where no more nissaya is needed!

Of course after that we will always continue to learn from others, and the end of nissaya doesn’t mean the end of learning. But the difference is that, as is the case in any period of mentoring, one at first may need to take certain things on faith, or apply himself to what the mentor prescribes whether or not it makes sense at first, and so on. So long the practitioner sees progress in the course of time, and discerns the development of a higher level of understanding and knowledge, and confidence in himself; this means that one is in the company of a good mentor, be it another human being or ancient words written in a text. It is for this reason that, in its description of nissaya rules and procedures, the Vinaya places so much more emphasis on the required qualities of the mentor or provider, than the duties of the dependent!

Thus a good nissaya is one which results in a practitioner who is more readily capable of independently scrutinising and evaluating the word of the Buddha, and the interpretations of such by others, and the advices that he receives from others, including the advices of other venerable and respected monks concerning “nissaya” itself! And he does no longer accept anything on faith or trust alone, or without independent judgement and discernment.

People in general differ in their capacities to develop such independence, and some –many- live their entire lives in need for support and dependence, and they do falter and go astray the moment they lose it. It is a curious question to me, whether a practitioner could ever really make any substantial progress in this transcendental path of deliverance, without such independence and self-sufficiency of mind?!

“Should Monks Vote?!”

Strolling through the city; sipping coffee or eating out in a restaurant; visiting tourist cites … things of that sort, which we monastics actually do and are not prohibited from doing; yet feel somewhat uneasy whenever we do them! It is a spontaneous sense of shame, which comes from the stark contrast between the perceived indulgent nature of these activities, and the ideal of renunciation, which we not only have freely chosen, but which also governs the social relationship which we have with the laity, and for which we receive in exchange all that we need in terms of material sustenance, and furthermore, a continually owe-inspiring respect and reverence.

How could a mendicant with any such basic sense of shame, and whose life symbolizes the very effort of deliverance from the world, even from the most fundamental forces of it, such as sexual and egoist drives and impulses, and who is supported in this individual quest of deliverance by all people of faith, irrespective of their political inclinations – how could he show his face in the polling booth?! With whom will he be competing at that moment, and over what miserable worldly concern?! And what face does he show later, when the one he voted for wins and brings ruins and destruction upon that portion of the earth that common people call “my country” and “my national homeland”, or abuses the power given to him by people who, with a high-powered self-righteous sense of sociopolitical “responsibility”, go so far in their arrogant delusion as to demand political participation from others, even from mendicants, who are supposed to carry upon themselves no responsibility other than that of renunciation! [You can’t blame mendicants for dropping their social involvement and “responsibility” without at the same time blaming the Buddha for leaving his family behind! Show consistency over this matter and you will end up all China!]

If there is no prohibition on voting in the vinaya, this be the case only because any mention in this ancient text of ballots and democracy would only be anachronistic! And it takes no genius to discern how such liberty of monastics to vote will instantly create divisions, not only between monastics and the laity, but worse, between monastics and monastics. And the world already laments how parents and children, brothers and sister, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, and many other people and communities which were once integrated and whole, have now become divided and separated, antagonistic, hateful, resentful, even violent, due to the process of “political participation”. Indeed, it’s already a telltale that there is any question or confusion about whether renunciate mendicants, or any serious practitioners for that matter, should join this miserly mundane festival!

For it is not like it’s the official ordination or the vinaya that restrains mendicants from doing this or that; rather it is “shame”, arising spontaneously and naturally in the heart of any sincere and genuine practitioner, literally, right at the center of the chest, where the piercing poke of guilt strikes mercilessly the moment he consciously acts in a way that contradicts what he publicly states to believe in, and what his life represents and for which he takes the material support of the laity, and accepts their reverence. And don’t take my word for it; just use your imagination: picture him whose sense of shame arises with great urgency even when the careless act is done in private, and then have a look on the other: Here he stands in the polling booth, in front of everyone, in robes yet competing with others, including those who just offered him food and medicine because they believe in the spiritual worth of his renunciate quest – there he stands, deeply confused about what should constitute his own purpose, neither living the renunciation which he preaches after the Buddha, nor practicing even its appearance!

And then it might all appear so clearly: indeed, it was precisely for such type of people, that we ever needed any vinaya. Dummaṅkūnaṃ puggalānaṃ niggahāya!

Why & How the Vinaya!

What’s unique about the Theravada tradition, in my understanding, is the devotion to the way things were in the earliest times, this is what the word “Thera” very much indicates in this context. But contrary to that devotion, there are the challenges of living in a complex monetary economy that did not exist in the time of the Buddha, and there is also the compromising or even sometimes absence of that devotion in the majority of present-day ordained Theravada monastics, in the case of minor rules! Today those who follow the precepts to the letter and continue to uphold minor rules, do so either because they experience devotion to the Vinaya as a whole or to the original Theravada spirit, independently and against all odds i’d say, or because they are requested or trained to follow them in a minority strict traditions (such as Forest Traditions), or because they have developed some understanding and appreciation of the psychological benefits of following them.

Then for those who do not follow the precepts strictly; why vow or claim to respect the precepts, though one does not intend to follow them? A relevant question here is also, why perform the confession procedure (for fully ordained monastics) over an offence that one intends to repeat?! This happens because there are different layers or a hierarchy of precepts here; and not all of them are compromisable or negotiable. And this hierarchy is not altogether haphazard or illogical, or produced by tradition, or even hypocritical as some may think; but rather it is based on monastics’ understanding of the qualitative difference between minor and serious rules, which even the Buddha points out, in his most significant declaration just before He passes into parinibbana, which gave licence to monastics to change minor rules in the future if they so wished. And while originally, the whole point about the Theravada tradition lies in its insistence on not changing any such minor rules, by way of showing utter devotion to the word and wisdom of Buddha, yet nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, this devotion is no longer practically upheld by the great majority of Theravada monastics in the case of minor rules, but it persists quite vibrantly in the case of serious rules or established Theravada traditions. This is how we finally arrive at the situation where monastics will break a minor rule intentionally and publicly, but will not neglect or ignore the practice of confessing it, because performing the confession is not a minor rule that can be compromised.

If one examines the text, not just the Vinayapitaka but also Suttapitaka, one will find that the emphasis on not using money is as clear as daylight; and the rules are detailed and intricate even regarding how monastics should manage donations from a distance, what language to use with the donor and the lay steward who will be in possession of the funds, and so forth. But all these rules have practically been abandoned in the Theravada tradition that thrives today, even consciously and willingly and without any sense of shame or guilt or self-contempt; this is so because rules about handling money are minor ones. But attempting to change serious rules or established Theravada traditions (such as confessing violating minor rules!) – that would bring the most vehement and passionate opposition by the great majority of Theravada monastics, including those who themselves no longer follow minor rules. In this context may also be better understood the widespread opposition to resuming bhikkhuni ordination.

Despite of all this, there are significant problems in the practice of taking a precept by way of show! Taking it but not taking it! Or confessing a normal behaviour! It’s like making a promise although one knows that one will not keep, or apologising for an act that one does not consider wrong! Or apologising today for a wrong act that one intends to repeat tomorrow! There are paradoxes here, and they do pose psychological challenges for those who insist on living with a consistent and integrated heart. And the Buddha wants us to live with precisely such heart! But although there will always be certain realities and practices that we will have to accept and accommodate once we choose to ordain in any tradition; yet the nice thing is that the mature understanding of all these dynamics, which are mundane(!), allows us to find the wisdom to transcend their challenges in our own private and individual experience and practice.

So good luck! 🙂