I recently had the pleasure to spend a few days at Birken Forest Monastery. The monastery is tucked away in BC's high ranch land, not somewhere you'd necessarily expect to find a Buddhist monastery. But hey, Buddhism is about working with our expectations, right, so might as well start from the get-go?
As we headed up the road toward Birken we gorged on the sight of velvety green hills ( we'd already gorged on lunch to fortify ourselves for the "no food past noon rule" at Theravaden monasteries. The temperature in the car registered 97 degrees and the wind from the open window tossed my hair about as we turned on to the gravelly, potholed part of the road for the last bit of the drive.
The weekend was steeped in silence and 5:15 wake-up bells , the whistles of marmots and the wind rattling in the poplar leaves. There is something about the way monastics hold a space. Somehow it manages to be filled with a wordless generosity and peace, both grounded and groundless, if that makes any sense.
|marmots making themselves at home at Birken|
I had the occasion to ask about one of my pet topics (which has been getting a bit of work out lately due to household circumstances): anger. And as all good lay people, I wanted a recipe to dispel my anger, something simple and instant and fool proof (what else would a fool want but something fool proof?) I have heard Ajahn Sona speak before and his answers always surprise me (which I love) and he did not disappoint.
"Just think of the world as an insane asylum," he suggested. "People are always doing crazy things, unskillful things all the time. You never know what they are going to do. Think of yourself as a psychiatric nurse in the insane asylum. You are never surprised because anybody might do anything at anytime."
Now we are going to think of the world as an insane asylum in the nicest of ways, right? We're not going to use this idea to make ourselves more jaundiced or jaded. Goodness knows we don't need that! We're going to use it to make ourselves more agile and skillful. We're going to use this to hone our skills of "anything can happen at anytime." We are always standing on the edge of the unknown, it's just that we're constantly forgetting that we're on the edge of this precipice.
Instead of getting angry when someone doesn't keep their word, when they do something rude or inconsiderate, we simply nod and go "yep that's what it's like in the asylum." We have compassion for the inmates of this world (and we are one of them) and some days we're the craziest one in the asylum. Sometimes the inmates' delusion or greed or hatred (just like us) gets the best of them and they do crazy stuff.
Ajahn Sona suggested doing a "surprise meditation" each morning where we take a few minutes to remind ourselves that we live in a place where anything can happen at any time. This helps us remember when the person that promised to help us, has forgotten or changed his mind, when someone cuts us off in traffic, when any number of crazy making things happens.
I realized later, rather than discussing the afflictive emotion of anger, Ajahn Sona had chosen to focus on "right view". He didn't need to advise me on the specifics of working with anger. He simply reminded me that if "we see things as they are" we won't have unrealistic expectations, we won't be disappointed when our desires are not met. The view of ourselves as the centre of the universe may actually weaken and we will feel freer, less tossed about and buffeted by the circumstances of life.
|Buddha in the marsh|
As I have started working at my job in the asylum I can see how much "ego" I need to let go of to hold this view, how strong my craving to be right is. The stories of my righteous indignation seem much thinner and more wobbly, like a spinning top, slowing down. In the insane asylum, crazy stuff happens. That's all I need to know, really. It's that simple.
As a post script, that doesn't mean I never take action. Sometimes the craziness requires some skillful intervention. It just means I don't need to get mad about it. I may live in the insane asylum but I don't need to make it the Cuckoo's nest.