The Essence of Wisdom

Since no knowledge is better than that by which a man knows himself, let us examine our thoughts, words, and deeds. For what does it avail us if we are to investigate carefully and understand rightly the nature of all things, yet do not understand ourselves?

Liber de Spiritu et Anima, LI. (Migne, P.L., vol. 40, cols. 816-7) (Author unknown)

Quoted in Jung, Aspects of the Masculine, p. 171 note 14.

Monks and the Feminine

C.G. Jung, Aspects of the Feminine.

p.21 (#401)
… spiritualization always means the retention of a certain amount of libido, which would otherwise be immediately squandered in sexuality. Experience shows that when the libido is retained, one part of it flows into the spiritualized expression, while the remainder sinks into the unconscious and activates images that correspond to it…

p. 22 (#402)
The detachment of libido from the object transfers it to the subject, where it activates the images lying dormant in the unconscious.

I’m still reading Jung, and finding here and there glimpses of understanding. I feel a bit of a klutz, groping around in the dark for some understanding of the things that are in me and around me. I’m not at all sure I understand what Jung is getting at, yet there are things that illuminate some of the basic problems that i have been struggling with. People still ask me, ‘How come some monks have such negative attitudes towards women?’ and after all this time, I still really don’t know. But in these couple of fragments, perhaps, I’ve grokked another little piece of the puzzle.

First up, the usual disclaimers (skip to the next paragraph if you’re not interested.) I’m writing from a normative male hetero position, so if you’ve got perspectives to share from other viewpoints, please do. These thoughts are rough, still in the process of formation, and no doubt somewhat crude. That’s what blogs are for! I’m still, as in my recent post on Letting Go the Hero, trying to understand something of the group psychology of the Sangha, especially the Western Sangha. That obviously includes me, so this is partly autobiographical. However, despite my long time in the Sangha, these are not really issues that the monks discuss among themselves, so I am really unsure how generally they can be applied. This is a set of thoughts, which are of course informed by my experience, but not based on detailed empirical study.

Before we start, a little point on terminology. We are used to using the word libido in the Freudian sense of ‘sexual energy’. However Jung, in a manner characteristic of his critique of Freud, used it much more broadly, to mean ‘psychic energy’ in general, including sexual energy – as in the first quote above – but typically much broader.

The discussion in which the above quotes occur is called ‘The Worship of Woman and the Worship of the Soul’. In Jung’s thought, the soul in men is the anima, the internalized image of woman. Jung is concerned with the relationship between external forms of devotion to the feminine, such as the worship of Mary in medieval Europe, and men’s relationship with actual women, on whom the idealized anima is projected. His discussion here is complex, and I don’t understand all of it. Nevertheless, the basic dynamic he is expressing here seems clear enough.

When a person desires an object, there is a movement of psychic energy (libido) towards it. they become invested in that thing, consumed with a need to possess it, and fixated upon it. This happens with any object of desire – chocolate, beer, gambling, cars, whatever. If a person is not able to restrain that desire, they are doomed. This is what we call addiction. The object becomes, not just one among many things that might provide some passing pleasure to leaven life’s struggles, but the purpose of living itself. So it is essential, regarding any object of desire whatsoever, that restraint and moderation be found. We learn this from the cradle. It is not an exclusively ascetic or monastic principle, but something that everyone must develop.

If there is sufficient restraint regarding the object of desire, one’s psychic energy is not so completely bound up with that, and there is excess energy for higher things – whatever that may be. It may be simply having a responsible attitude to work, or the energy to invest time into one’s family, or any relatively refined and selfless activity. Or, of course, it may be activities of a distinctly spiritual kind, such as meditation.

Jung’s point here is that whenever such development happens, it is never completely simple. While on the one hand there is a genuine development, such development never really uses 100% of the available libido. Some of that is cut off where it sinks down and remains in potential form in the unconscious. It’s like squeezing a balloon in the middle – it bulges out at both ends.

Actually, any energetic transformation is similar, if you think about it. When we burn a log, the potential energy that has previously be fixed in the wood is liberated and can be used for a variety of good purposes. But there’s always ashes left behind and these have to be dealt with.

This process happens in monks in more-or-less the same way it happens for anyone else. The difference is not of kind but of degree. We undertake our vows of celibacy and so on, which require a huge redirection of our psychic energies, in a way that is far more drastic than most ordinary life experiences. The restraint of monastic life does indeed liberate a tremendous energy, which I felt very strongly as a young monk. There is a burning enthusiasm, sense of certainty, dedication to the task, willingness to undertake ever more ascetic practices to free up even more energy. It is this energy that the Indic tradition calls tapas, the burning fervor of asceticism, which is rightly believed to have such potency that it can unseat the very gods themselves.

Let us consider the process more carefully. A young man feels attraction, desire for women, who is perceived as an object external to him. Normally that desire leads him to an intimate relationship, with sexual, emotional, intellectual, and other dimensions. Prior to entering into such a relationship, however, he already has an image of woman in his mind, the anima. He projects this image onto the women he meets; while it is true that our encounters with all people are colored by our subjective projections, this is even more strong in the case of members of the opposite sex, who are perceived as ‘other’. In the relationship itself, he encounters the gap between his idealized woman and the actual woman he experiences, and his ability to negotiate this, together of course with the woman’s corresponding process, determines the outcome of the relationship. In other words, not only is there an external relationship between two people, there is an internal relationship in each person, between the feminine (or masculine) as imagined (the anima/animus) and as experienced in the other person.

This relationship moderates the man’s experience of the feminine; his fantasies, whether sexual or spiritual, become more mature and moderate as his love grows and he understands more of what she is in herself, rather than his projections.

Now, there is the decision to go forth. This comes, it may be, when the development that a sexual relationship formerly supported becomes stuck. Instead of leading him upwards to greater love and empathy, it becomes restrictive and binding. He withdraws from intimate sexual and emotional connection with women. The energy that formerly was directed to this external relationship is strongly restrained, and directed upwards. No longer loving just one woman, he loves ‘all sentient beings’. A variety of spiritual teachings and practices are employed to enable this transformation. The Sangha offers a supportive community where his choice is valorized and his development applauded.

During this process, notice how the specific objects and activities of the mind change, but the common factor is energy. In relationship, one brings tremendous energy to another person in thought, speech, emotion, behavior. When one ordains, or undertakes a similar spiritual transformation, this energy is redirected to ones’ spiritual practices. And the result is an energy of consciousness, a realization of purified, bright states of mind. This is a general feature of spiritual transformation, not just the specific case of monasticism that I am considering here.

And then there are the ashes. What is left behind? In general, all one’s negative thoughts, experience, or emotions regarding the feminine. As I have said before, any development leaves something behind – the sesa – and this is not necessarily a problem, as long as we deal with it. Empty out the trash every so often, no worries. Nevertheless, there often are problems, depending on the situation. And the monastic situation is no different.

It seems to me that there are a number of potentially problematic areas here. The most general is simply the size of the transformation. It’s a big shift, and the energies involved can simply overwhelm our coping mechanisms – which one can see in many of the monastics who choose to disrobe.

More specific to this context, however, is that as monks we see ourselves as Heroes of Consciousness. We’re out there on the cutting edge, battling defilements, getting those cool states of altered consciousness, not like those defiled laypeople still blindly trapped in their attachments. We’ve let go a lot, and to compensate we identify strongly with our new situation, our communities, our Awakened teachers. It is hard for us to think that the painful and difficult practices we do may, in fact, have a cost. So we excessively focus on the higher development which we are so heavily invested in, and strongly disidentify with the rubbish that has been left behind. We really don’t want to know. This disidentification strengthens the tendency, already mentioned, to see ones’ own feminine side, or at least the shadow of this, as ‘other’ and hence to project it out from the unconscious onto actual women.

This is even further exaggerated due to another factor, that is, the lack of meaningful relationship with real women. When entering the monks’ life, one does not merely stop having sex with women, one hardly even sees or talks to them at all. This is especially true in the first few years of monastic life, when restraint of sexuality is a dominant force in shaping the lifestyle. This means that ones’ ability to empathize with and understand real women remains largely frozen at the point when one ordains. After that, ones’ anima is essentially split off from relationship with real women, and takes its own course. It is free to idealize or demonize women without the complicated business of dealing with actual women.

If ones’ anima was essentially healthy and balanced before this, there should be no problem. Obviously, however, this is often not the case. In any group of men there will be some whose relationship with the feminine is troubled and unhealthy; this is also true of monks. It is possible that among monks this may be even higher than the general population, as men come to monastic life seeking a refuge from women, but I don’t know whether this is actually the case.

So, as an result of the spiritual transformation of ordination, monks will have a residue of negative attitudes around women. This will presumably last until Awakening. In many cases this will be expressed through simple, normal means: dreams, negative emotions, crude locker-room chat, and the like. When it is recognized for what it is, the monk understands it is unwholesome and lets go. No big deal. In some cases, however, either because of the strength of the problem or the inadequacy of the means of dealing with it, it is not recognized and will form unhealthy patterns of thought, emotion, and ideology.

A word of caution here: don’t reify this tendency. I’m not saying this is a dominant force, or that there are not many other issues to consider, including a monk’s relation to his masculinity. I’m trying to understand why there has been such an outcry of opposition to bhikkhuni ordination among some circles of monks. The conventional explanations in terms of legal proceedings are manifestly inadequate to account for the tremendous energy that was unleashed; and, what’s more, the even more tremendous energy of the support for bhikkhuni ordination clearly touches on something far deeper than simply the existence of a few woman practicing meditation in a forest somewhere.

So, what’s next for our woman-challenged monk? Projection. When he detaches his libido from his relationships with real women – as described in the second quote above – the energy becomes internalized as a magnification of his own feminine. The shadow side of this sinks into the unconscious, where it becomes ‘not mine’. As long as it is undisturbed, he can rest assured, since the development of the higher feminine – through, say, metta meditation and the like – is in fact taking place quite well at the same time. However, with the proper stimulus, his unwholesome attitudes are expelled from his unconscious and their energy, which may be very great, is experienced in the external object, that is, a real woman or women.

This projection is not formless – for example, it is not sheer emotion – but is shaped by various symbols or images that characterize the feminine. These images lie very deep in the psyche, and appear in countless forms. Context gives them specific meaning. Perhaps the most pervasive feminine image is the vessel. In medieval thought this appears as the Holy Grail – which may be identified with Mary’s virginal womb – but at the same time it is the witch’s cauldron. In this article, in fact, Jung argues that the late medieval scourge of the witch hunt was an outcome of the excessive idealizing of Mary.

p. 20 (#399)
‘Since the psychic relation to women was expressed in the collective worship of Mary, the image of woman lost a value… In the unconscious the image of woman received an energy charge that activated the archaic and infantile dominants. And since all unconscious contents, when activated by dissociated libido, are projected upon external objects, the devaluation of the real woman was compensated by daemonic traits. She no longer appeared as an object of love, but as a persecutor or witch. The consequence of increasing Mariolatry was the witch hunt, that indelible blot on the later Middle Ages.’

This is an interesting point. One would expect that a man’s confusion regarding women was primarily sexual, and that the bad woman would therefore be imagined as the whore – which of course does happen a lot; think of the voluptuous man-eating yakkhinis of Indian legend. Here, on the other hand, it is not the enticing, beautiful whore on whom the daemonic feminine is projected, but the repulsive witch. She is not sexy, despite that fact that she is usually suspected of unnatural congress with the devil. It is the witch who is specially subject to the hatred of spiritual man, since she operates within the same sphere. She has a source of spiritual authority that competes with his, and claims to have powers of miraculous healing and salvation that he would claim for himself alone.

Now who, I wonder, is the modern-day witch? Let me nominate one candidate: the feminist! If you hang around with western monks at all, you’ll hear this term, used in a reflexively negative sense. It’s enough to say that a person or ideology is feminist for it to be dismissed.

Like the witch, the feminist is decidedly unsexy, all hairy armpits and saggy boobs, like a classic hag of old. Her strength is not in her appearance, which implicitly valorizes men’s desires, but in her voice and her intellect. She speaks, boldly and intelligently, and does not recognize the patriarchy’s right to monopolize discourse. She intrudes on men’s domain, and does not apologize.

Just as the witch so feverishly imagined in medieval minds had little or no relation to what the women were actually doing, the stereotypical feminist has little in common with what empowered women actually do. I’m an unusual monk: I’ve actually met feminists! Yes I have, and I lived to tell the tale. I’ve even listened to them teach, read their books, and discussed things with them. They didn’t eat me up – they didn’t even shout me down with their shrill ideology, blame men for all the world’s ills, or stomp on me with their jackboots.

As a matter of fact, I have found that most feminists have a very reasonable take on things. They have lived through experiences we men have not, and have learned something from that. They have struggled to make sense of inequalities and injustices, and often have some pretty insightful things to say about them. The quality of discourse around gender issues that I have experienced in feminist circles is way, way more sophisticated and powerful than anything I’ve ever heard on the topic from monks. I’ve been so impressed that I have no hesitation in saying that I’m a feminist; and, dare I say it, if the essence of feminism is the recognition that women experience special forms of suffering and injustice, and that we have a moral obligation to work to overcome this, then the Buddha was a feminist as well.

It is hard, however, to find a monk with anything good to say about feminism. This makes its way into the Buddhism mainstream, dominated as it is by the voices of the monks, and so feminism is deprecated in Buddhism generally – I am speaking here, of course, of traditional Buddhist countries. Even those who support bhikkhunis and want to improve women’s lot rarely identify themselves as feminists, even though this is precisely what they are.

As a result, there is a disconnect with feminist discourse, and a pretty universal tendency to project negative attributes on to feminism. Feminism is, of course, originally a Western idea, although it has produced many great improvements for Asian women as well. Nevertheless, the modern bhikkhuni ordination movement, although it started in Asia and is an attempt to practice in accordance with ancient Asian customs, is often decried as ‘Western’ due to this association with feminism.

I’ve probably said too much about this connection with feminism – I don’t mean to imply this is the sole way that the daemonic feminine is projected out by monks. I have focused on this for one reason. Feminism has one great advantage: it offers a simple solution. It is easy enough for monks to get hold of some feminist books, listen to some talks, and, better yet, have some discussions about feminism with women. Not from a defensive position, just wanting to learn. The same would apply to teachings by nuns or by women generally. If the problem is disconnect from real women, and projection of negativity onto them, then learn to engage with positive, enlightening expressions of femininity.

I remember when we acquired an edition of the Therīgāthā – verses of the ancient Awakened bhikkhunis. One of the monks rejected it, energetically pushing it away and mocking any suggestion that it might have anything worth reading. (He’s since disrobed, by the way.) When you’ve seen this sort of thing often enough, you cannot avoid concluding that there is a deeply held energetic imbalance at work. Listening to women’s voices won’t solve the whole problem – but it’d be a pretty good start.

Letting Go the Hero

I came across this idea in an essay of Jung’s the other day: as a person reaches middle age, they must let go the Hero if they are to grow successfully into their new stage of life. I think we’re familiar with the middle-aged man who is lost in recounting the glories of his youth, unable to move on, until he becomes a tiresome bore.

And I think many of us are also familiar with the refrain, “When I was young monk…” that pops up so regularly in some Dhamma talks. I’ve always had a problem with this; for a start I can’t say it without breaking into a faux-Yorkshire accent.

When I encountered the idea of letting go the Hero it immediately stuck me. I hadn’t thought about things in this way before. I started reflecting on my own experience in the Thai forest tradition, and it helped to make more sense about what I’ve gone through and where I’m going.

First up, who or what is the Hero? The basic idea is that the Hero is the One who overcomes obstacles (the dragon fight) to win a prize (the treasure that is hard to gain) and returns home to re-enter society (the divine wedding). This story is portrayed in countless forms in myth and story, and according to Jungians its prevalence is because the Hero is in fact simply the Self, and the story of the Hero is the story of how each person finds himself (individuation).

Generally, the term Hero can be used for the individual in any stage of life, overcoming any kind of obstacle. But the most characteristic hero stories concern the young man – a warrior, student, or adventurer – who successfully grows from childhood into a mature adult life. And that is the sense that Jung is using here.

Of course, every life is different, and the obstacles we overcome and the successes we gain are all different. This is why there are so many forms of the hero myth. But the basic pattern remains the same. There is a formal consistency in the myth that seems to reflect universal truths about the human, or perhaps especially masculine, psyche.

In this essay I’m trying to express as concisely as I can some insights about the way that gender dynamics have informed the recent conflicts and difficulties over bhikkhuni ordination. Be warned: generalizations and stereotypes follow. While this is unfortunate, I think it is essential in this case, since we are dealing with a largely communal issue. It’s Sangha. There is a culture which has its own typical mindset; teachings are predominantly given to a group of people in general, not to individuals as in psychotherapy; and the dominant culture itself insists on and creates strong gender divisions. As one nun said to me, “I never felt like a woman until I went to the monastery”.

The prize that is hard to gain is always different – a ring, a treasure, a battle, a bride – but at its essence it is always the same: knowledge of ones’ self. This is why the Buddha’s life story is one of the clearest and most perfect examples of the hero myth: the central quest for Awakening is not hidden by a metaphor. This in itself points to the notion that the Buddha’s message, while delivered in a hero myth, goes beyond that and is not merely a mythic truth.

I am digressing here; my point is simply that the hero myth is central to Buddhism, and applies very much to the spiritual quest of monastics. Incidentally – and here’s another digression – the biographies of the forest Ajahns include many of the standard tropes of the hero myth (descent to the underworld, miraculous birth, marvellous childhood, encounter with the gods, and so on) and it would be fascinating to analyse them in detail in this light.

In the heroic, gung-ho warrior society of forest monks, what exactly is the hero’s quest? What are the obstacles? And how do they mesh with the particular needs of the monks?

Now, I’ve been using the masculine forms so far, quite deliberately. The hero myth is itself primarily masculine, and the environment I was immersed in at Wat Nanachat in Thailand was almost exclusively so. So for now I’ll proceed from this point of view, and consider the feminine perspective a little later.

It seems to me that we should exclude the general teachings of Buddhism here. Mindfulness, meditation, and so on are relevant in many different contexts, not just a forest monastery in Thailand. What are those teachings that are highly characteristic of that particular context?

When I thought of this, two things sprang to mind immediately. One concerns the body; the other, the mind.

Regarding the body, the basic message is – subdue it! As young monks, we undertake celibacy, eat one meal a day, and go without sleep once a week. We have just one set of robes, follow a strict discipline and ascetic code. We endure heat, cold, sickness, snakebite. All of which is pretty trivial compared with the real suffering: enduring postures. Sitting for many hours a day on hard floors, often with little or no cushion; it’s natural for Thais, but highly unnatural for westerners, so much so that many of us have ended up in the hospital. In retrospect it seems obvious that such a marked feature of the lifestyle should have significant psychological effects, and these effects would strongly differentiate our experience as westerners unused to such postures. Yet it never occurred to us to discuss this. We just endured.

In regard to the mind, the message is equally straightforward: don’t have any views! Meditation is about being silent, stopping thought. So if you have any views then obviously your meditation is no good, and so why should anyone listen to what you have to say? Of course this is a caricature, but it captures the spirit pretty well. When an idea is brought up, the response often was, “Well, that sounds like a view…”. Opinions and especially learning are considered to be close to or identical with pride; this association is encouraged by the peculiar Thai usage of the Pali diṭṭḥimāna, lit “conceit of views”, which in colloquial use comes to mean just “pride”.

It seems to me that the special emphasis on these two aspects of Dhamma practice are specially targeted at the core demographic of Wat Nanachat: educated western men in their twenties. Much like me.

Ahh, those were the days! For a man in his twenties, his body is still a potent instrument. At the height of his strength and sexual virility, he has yet to see the signs of ageing and decay, yet to experience an illness that he does not quite recover from. And the mind: from maybe fifteen or so, he has learned how to think, how to subject the world to the blinding power of his reason. He is frustrated with those, like his parents for example, who simply don’t get the intricate truths that he unveils. It never occurs to him that maybe they get it all too well; maybe they know that not all wisdom can be reasoned out and that life’s experience teach one a certain humility in the face of uncertainty and wonder.

Or at least, that’s how it was for me. And, I suspect, for a sizeable percentage of those who washed up at Nanachat looking for … something. And ending up in robes.

So, if that’s who you are, then the heroic teachings and lifestyle of Nanachat is the bomb. There’s a huge vitality, energy, and joy that comes from overcoming the body. A vast sense of relief from experiencing for the first time a peaceful mind; from realizing that not every thought is a profound world-shattering event. Let go of the body, disdentify from thoughts, and life suddenly becomes much, much better.

This is really an overwhelming experience. Before this most of us were lost. We didn’t know what life was about, where we were going, or what the point of it all was. For all our intellect and strength, we didn’t know what to do. Now, suddenly, we find who we are. We have real idols to look up to, paragons of virtue and wisdom (and some pretty cool magic tricks, too). We overcome the twin dragons of our attachment to body and views, and discover our True Self (which, of course, we say is “not self”).

I haven’t digressed for a while, so here’s one for you. The archetypal dragon in Indic myth is Vṛtṛa, the cosmic serpent whose defeat by Indra is celebrated in many hymns of the Ṛg Veda. Vṛtṛa had trapped the waters and the cows, condemning the earth to famine until Indra released them, ensuring bounty. But etymologically the root of Vṛtṛa means to bind or constrict; and it is the same as the well-known Pali term nīvaraṇa, as in the five “hindrances”. So when Jung read the ancient dragon myths as a metaphor for psychological realities, he was following a precedent already found in Buddhism…

But the story doesn’t end there. Just when when we thought the drama of the quest was at its height it gets turned up to eleven. At that very point where we discover our own self, we turn around and find ourself placed on an altar and worshipped like a god! We’ve gone from being hobos, backpackers, or itinerant musicians, all of a sudden to being the ethical and spiritual exemplars for a hall full of good people, who bow down to the ground in homage to us. Whoa.

The conscious teaching is that the people are not bowing to you, they are bowing to the robe. The worship of others should not be taken as a sign that we are anything special, but as a reminder of our sacred duty to live up to the honour of wearing the Banner of the Arahants. Like all conscious teachings, this works only partially. If we have really succeeded in subsuming our personal identity within the Sangha, it is fine. But many don’t; and there are two paths of downfall. If we feel like a failure, like we don’t deserve it, then we will become more and more depressed and either hide out from people in a hermitage or the like, or else disrobe. Or if we really do identify with the homage – which is especially likely if we tell ourselves that we don’t – then ego inflation follows “like a shadow that never leaves”.

In reality, of course, all of us have all of these tendencies, and it is a matter of a constant reflection and reminder that can keep the unwholesome at bay and the wholesome in the forefront.

So the training for young monks at Wat Nanachat is especially useful for young men like myself, as it answers specific problems and needs and in doing overcomes meaninglessness and unleashes a tremendous faith and focussed energy. I want to emphasize here that I am not trying to be reductive. I know there is much more to it than this. I am trying to keep it simple by focussing on just a few important things, very narrowly considered.

Like all good things, however, there is a shadow. And it is those of us who are so transfixed by the light who are most blind to the dark. What is the shadow here? It is the inversion of the things I have already considered.

The body: not all young men are infatuated by their bodies. There are some who are confused, shamed, uncertain. There are those who are bewildered by women, fearful of sex. Letting go of the body is not, for these, a much-needed distancing to counterbalance an over-identification, but a validation of their own self-disgust, an over-repulsion from they were already repulsed by.

The mind: not all young men are caught up in their own views and conceits. Some are simply lost in the world. They don’t know what to think, and more importantly, how to think. They have experienced our post-modern world of relativism and moral quicksand and they can’t cope. They need a simple, externally imposed set of values and views that they can accept by way of submission to authority. And, having lost faith that such an authority can be found in the west, they are fascinated by the forest masters as the last vestige of higher truth. They love the idea of letting go of views, because they have never had any. They are happy to stop thinking, because they never really learned how to do so.

In both of these cases, the life and teachings that are so beneficial for many are just the wrong medicine, and the outcome is not good.

When I was writing earlier about the stereotypical “young male” psychology I found myself using “I” and “we”, while just now in speaking of the shadow I automatically shifted to the third person: “they”. When I noticed this it made me uncomfortable; I felt like my language was externalizing and projecting. But of course, all of these tendencies and forces are found within all of us, and how it works out in practice is a matter of balance. My aim in isolating the shadow is not to externalize it and project it on others, but to bring it into the light. I use the first person because that’s how it felt to me, my primary identification. The shadow feels to me like an “other”, so that’s how I talk about it.

Up until now we’ve only been considering the male perspective. How might these things work in feminine experience? The most obvious thing is that the values and struggles so far have been highly masculine in nature, with little emphasis on feminine qualities, which does very much reflect the reality of life at Wat Nanachat as I experienced it. It was acknowledged among the monks that a softer, more metta-oriented approach was emerging at that time (mid-90s) from the English communities, and this was specifically associated with the sīladharā communities. This approach had a certain limited influence on how we went about things.

I don’t want to stress this point too much, as in many ways the monks’ lifestyle did develop what are stereotypically feminine values, such as nursing and looking after each other, even though the orientation was clearly towards the masculine. A discussion of this would lead us too far astray. So rather than look into the question of the overall balance of practice, I’ll stick with the two characteristic teachings that I have used so far.

It seems to me that in regards to the body and to views, women typically have a quite different set of problems.

Body issues for women are often, not the over-identification with one’s physicality, but revulsion, doubt, and image problems. This is a major theme of feminist psychology: the pervasive images of physically perfect women, air-brushed visions constructed for the gaze of men, are an ideal hardly any women (even those in the images!) can actually live up to in reality. As a consequence women are worried, sometimes obsessed with the imperfections of their own bodies, something the advertising, fashion and cosmetic surgery industries thrive on. But these are only the modern expressions of an age-old problem; the Roman myth of Cupid & Psyche revolves around similar issues. More troubling, eating disorders are the outcome of this tendency taken to a pathological extreme. It is a disturbing fact that the history of eating disorders before modern times is, by and large, a history of nuns.

Turning to views, it is another theme of feminist psychology that women still, even in modern societies today, struggle to find their “voice”. The opinions of women are undervalued, disregarded. To express opinions they have to adapt themselves to the male discourse or find themselves ignored. It is not, in modern secular society at least, that they cannot have anything to say, but that what they do say glides past male ears without leaving much of an impression.

It is very striking to me that these issues are virtually the opposite of the monks’. In fact, the mainstream problems of the women seem very similar to the shadow side of the men. In both cases the problems are disgust and confusion about the body, and doubt and a struggle to articulate one’s ideas and views.

This is something I’ve heard from the nuns several times: they have to carry the shadow of the monks. I’ve never fully understood what this entails, but here I seem to be getting a clearer notion. The monks at the conscious level have to work with disidentifying from the body. At the shadow level we have unconscious confusions about our strength and sexuality. These shadow elements are for women not the shadow but the primary conscious struggle; women often express the path as an “embodiment”, a coming into conscious relation with the body and earth.

A similar pattern makes sense in the realm of views. Young western men are used to being listened to, to having their views taken seriously, and are intoxicated with their own ability to work things out rationally. Their practice is to subdue this tendency, experience quiet, and understand that their views are not always the truth. The shadow is the fear of the irrational. Women’s voices are not valorized, so their practice should be a coming-to-voice, a finding of ways to understand and articulate their own vision of the truth. In the masculinist monasteries, however, this is not possible: women’s wisdom is dismissed as “feminism”, which by definition is not worth listening to. There was apparently a book by Simone de Beauvoir at the Nanachat library before I got there: it was burnt. The monks have found themselves by subduing their voice, and they don’t consider that maybe the women have to find themselves by expressing their voice.

In both these cases the nuns are quite literally the monks’ shadows coming to life. They are the very thing the monks have struggled so manfully against, and in their triumph over which their own positive sense of self has been formed. I think this is why monks find it so hard to understand why nuns can’t just let go and submit to the form. That’s what they’ve been doing and it doesn’t work: not because they can’t let go, but because the form is wrong for them.

So what about middle-age? Here I am, 44. The section on ageing in the four noble truths is no longer just a reflection but a reality: the breaking of the teeth, the wrinkling of the skin, the greying of the hair… How do I relate to these two principles now?

Jung gives a lovely image for the development process through life. He compares it to the sun, which rises out of the waters of the unconscious in the morning. In the first half of life, the sun is oriented to the zenith. It is climbing towards ever higher consciousness, illuminating ever more widely and more brightly. And every passing hour is a further revelation of splendour. From noon, however, things change. Each hour signifies a diminishing of light. One is no longer looking up, but down towards the horizon. One is approaching, once more, the darkness of the twilight. But the twilight of the dusk is very different than the twilight of the dawn, which is full of excitement and hope. The dusk is peaceful, full of memory and reflection as one draws into the completion of a life.

So once again: the body. The primary task is no longer the disidentification, but the acceptance. The intoxication with the body in all its pleasures and possibilities has faded. The foolish response is despair and a desperate attempt to hang on and relive the glories of youth. For many people, this is what “not letting go the hero” is. The wise approach is just what the Buddha said when Ānanda pointed out the wrinkles on his back: “So it is, Ānanda! So it is, Ānanda!”

The mind: here too the basic problem is quite different from youth. I’ve been around quite a bit, and have been in discussions with many people of all sorts of values and ideologies. I know very well that my voice is only one among many, and that my views and ideas are often wildly off the mark. And yet: I have to make decisions. I’m responsible. I’m here in the monastery, and in many other contexts, where decisions need to be made. And, sometimes, argued for and insisted upon. In any case there is a decision, whether or not it is my view; and I have to accept responsibility for that. This is, I think, a key difference between middle age and youth. The young can play with ideas and largely escape their consequences – or at least, so they think. This notion of making mature decisions is not something that has been taught in monasteries, to my knowledge.

The stages of life and their importance has not, it seems to me, been considered carefully in Buddhism. Perhaps this is because in the prime story of Buddhism, the Buddha himself seems to transcend such development, reaching a completion of his journey while still a young man. Most of us have a slower and more uncertain path. Such lesser lives as ours are recounted throughout the Jātakas, and these often tell of spiritual progress through the stages of life. We find that the young man is a student, a prince, or a warrior; defeating his dragon he ascends to the mature stage, a teacher, king, or family leader; in the last stage of life he continues his growth, finally becoming a sage, an embodiment of wisdom for all.

I think there are some great examples of monks who have continued their growth through their lives. Two examples that come to mind: Ajahn Brahm and Bhikkhu Bodhi. They are both in places in their lives that would have seemed unthinkable twenty years ago. Yet their growth does not come from a rejection of the values of their youth, but grows out of it, assimilating and integrating, while moving towards a wider, deeper, and more powerful vision.

If we have some understanding of this, we’ll be able to better appreciate how what appear to be contradictory or problematic teachings are sometimes simply appropriate for different stages of life. It also reminds me not to get stuck in the past. Whenever I say “When I was a young monk…” the real issue is not my struggle to avoid a Yorkshire accent, but the words themselves: “I was”. What “I was” is not the issue: it’s what I am, and what I can be.