Notes on a Buddhist path

The Monk and TED

April 8, 2012 By | Leave a Comment

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Growing up Catholic in America my ideas about monks centered around what I had surmised from books and movies. I knew our parish priest who visited our home on occasion for dinner. After dessert he would join my father in the living room to smoke and drink Chivas Regal scotch, its bottle plucked from the far reaches of the top shelf of our kitchen cabinet for such special events, but I had never met a real monk. I did know this though. Monks lived in drafty and damp seclusion usually in 12th century monasteries, even in America. They were called Father, Brother or Friar and wore hair shirts and equally scratchy brown sack tunics tied at the waist with a rope. They all had Moe Howard haircuts, sang Gregorian chants quite well and made some pretty darn good champagne.

When I waded into Buddhism a few years ago I began to learn more about monks and the various monastic traditions within Zen, Tibetan and Theravadan schools of thought. All Buddhists, lay people and monastics, are asked to follow five basic precepts:

  1. Do not kill.
  2. Do not steal.
  3. Do not indulge in sexual misconduct.
  4. Do not make false speech.
  5. Do not take intoxicants.

Monks of the Theravadan tradition are asked to follow 227 precepts when they are ordained. That’s a lot of rules. No hair shirts or tunics; instead their robes are the colours of nature: saffron, crimson, mustard and aubergine. Hairstyles are pretty basic: shaved heads all around. They have their own chants which lack any sort of melody and champagne is definitely not fermenting in the basement.

Ajahn Sona, the abbot and head monk at Birken Forest Monastery, wears his brilliant robes with matching thermal wear to meet the bitter cold of interior British Columbia. The monastery itself, located about 40 km south of Kamloops, is far from being cold, damp or drafty. Its warm and welcoming presence of wood and floor-to-ceiling windows doesn’t hint to its less than legal beginnings as a grow-op before it was purchased by the Birken community.

Ven. Bhikkhu Sona has a way with words. He weaves humour and his intimate understanding of western ways into the corners and plains of his teachings. In a recent post I wrote of my visit to the monastery last month and Ajahn Sona’s Dhamma talk about the elements (earth, air, fire and water) in our practice. Besides reminding us that we and everything are made up of stardust, he also pointed out that we humans are primarily composed of H2O and called us “walking bags of sea water.” A colourful image to be sure and a soft reminder that as walking bags of ocean we really are just like the ocean, devoid of self and all its trappings.

Birken, besides being a monastery that survives solely on donations, is also off the grid. Its 10,000 square foot main building runs on solar electricity and uses 1/10 the power of a traditionally plugged in facility. Friar Tuck could not have imagined the comfort and ease of motion sensor lights, the efficient wood stove that warms the entire space nor the brightness of the rooms as the sun filters in through tall exterior and interior windows. Birken’s facilities are a labour of love for its Abbot and a statement of presence, protecting what precious stardust we have remaining on this tender planet of ours.

How cool is Ajahn Sona? Well, he even has a TED Talk.  Not that cool means anything. That would assume a self and pride and all the trappings of suffering that Buddhist monks practice each moment to release. Despite all the Dhamma talks and his environmental fortitude, at the end of the day he too is just a walking bag of sea water and a bit of stardust. And I for one am glad he’s walking amongst us.

Excerpt from “Silent friend of many distances, feel” by Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, by Stephen Mitchell

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