Please find below some reflections from Sister Sumedha, one of the siladharas in the English Sangha.
“To echo something that was said earlier (I think on Sujato’s blog) I am amazed at the level of fear, denial, almost soporific group trance that the UK monasteries seem to be in the sway of.
I feel that our role as concerned, observant lay people is to try and wake monastics up to what is happening in their name”
When I read this in the ongoing discussion on the web I felt a strong need – as a woman living in the UK communities for over a decade – to write a response.
What I want to say is: I am not asleep to what is happening. I applaud the current unfurling of the complexities and denials that are active in our community life. The issue for me is not just one of gender equality or democracy, though those are important results that come from a heart that is genuinely open and something I very much wish to see. This, to me, is rooted in a spiritual emergency.
The core of why I came here is this: I was deeply suffering but sensed, even more deeply, that in our very nature is the capacity to awaken. Hearing the Buddha’s teaching on non – clinging brought a light which has helped an inner perspective to grow. Where is the heart closed, where is there fear, need to control, protect, hide etc? Learning to let this light flow and be active – to bring its power to transform into real, living life – this is the human/spiritual journey as I see… My experience shows it does bring space for wisdom, love, and compassion to shine. From our nature – all of us.
To have been able to ordain was in effect making an outer commitment to this inner capacity to awaken. Tradition, a vehicle. Living in a place where I felt a shared aspiration has been profoundly helpful. Having a community, teachings, living as an alms mendicant, have nourished me beyond words. I want to see that openly and fully available for anyone to whom it is beneficial, as the Buddha intended.
In these ways I respect the place of teachers, of tradition and of training.
But any aspect that has become institutionalised can cut rather than celebrate this awakening life. In everyone: those that apparently hold power as much as those who apparently don’t. Whatever spiritual authority comes through our forms, if it is true, belongs to no-one, and everyone, so when the form takes hold of it – in rigid hierarchies or whatever – we are lost.
Structure/freedom, solitude/engagement, accepting teachings/knowing one’s inner authority – these are some of the most wonderful and creative paradoxes we have. But when rigidity sets in, and uses liberation teachings and vinaya to justify its stance, the creative relationship with freedom is endangered (to say the least).
It is out of concern for this, as a monastic regarding the “what is happening in our name”, that I feel moved to write.
What I see happening in our name is spiritual justification of certain loyalties – to Thailand, to the lineage and whatever attitudes prevail in that family. Of course this has, in part, a genuine spiritual basis in terms of a lineage of teachers who have truly affected one’s life, and I respect that, I feel and honour it in myself.
But there is also a loyalty process that is more to do with the sense of family, with acceptance and, importantly, with support, social, political and financial. Examining family values is notoriously difficult; they get embedded. Without listening to outside feedback, without valuing it, without being willing to speak when timely and risk losing support, we just condition each other in certain attitudes – around hierarchy, gender, around what is or isn’t proper practice. And how then does one preserve an openness of view? How does practice connect to anything outside its own small world? What happens when one steps out – as is evident with Aj Brahm – is uproar…
Experiencing this kind of ‘world closure’ – ever more clearly – is heartbreaking. Truly heartbreaking when the Buddha’s teaching is such an open ground. I experience it as something like a betrayal of the beauty and potential that is within us all. Not defeating, but deeply deeply saddening and sobering.
Where it leaves me is with an ever firmer conviction that practice must be connected in our lives. That our work as monastics is not just to transcend the world – when anyway, even as renunciates, we live in it – but to acknowledge the drives of fear, anger, control, desire, human need – and not just play them out in our monastic forms. Then the vinaya could again become a vehicle that facilitates awakening rather than a model of purity that replaces the heart. Its a big task.
What nourishes me is that the model of practice that the Buddha established was not something static. 2500 years ago, in the social conditions of his time, the Buddha established ordination for women. The vinaya was established through a series of responses to specific situations. Responses. He also took conventions of purity and reestablished them in saying a Brahmin is not a Brahmin by birth alone but by deed. This was a fearless heart putting its wisdom and clarity into action. He was connecting practice in the world.
So, personally, I find the discussions and events unfolding crucially important. Questioning: issues of authority, how transcendence can become avoidance (so, integration), the importance of presence and embodiment…these are basic and pressing areas.
If, as someone said recently, these are areas of more ‘feminine’ insight, they are something the presence of women in and around this tradition can bring – and partly why we (and men who enter these arenas) seem to be so threatening. We are not the threat. It is that work that is the threat, but so important in terms of Dhamma.