Monastic life can be a regime of intensifying renunciation. This turning away from worldy pleasure is not undertaken for its own sake but to keep us on our toes, clarify our truest goals and sweep away the many webs of desire that constantly deceive, distract and thwart our spiritual development.
Traditionally, the three month period of the Rains Retreat or ‘Vassa’, is a time suited to special practices of study, seclusion, or renunciation in order to sharpen or perfect wholesome qualities of the mind. Carried out in the right spirit, these special renunciations, like spring cleaning in household life, can have a purifying effect.
One Vassa, while I was still living in community, I decided to give up chocolate, one of our few afternoon allowables. With little reserve in the body and a tendency to feel very hungry at night, I felt some resistance to doing this. I enjoy chocolate, and for years had delayed giving it up. That year, I felt ready. So I made a strong resolve to do it.
I also love simplicity, so taking on a new austerity promised to simplify my daily choices. Already our afternoons were free of activities connected to the preparation and consumption of meals, and cleaning up afterwards. This lent more time for study, meditation, community meetings, or ongoing work projects.
One of the junior nuns began to notice my absence at evening tea and would sometimes invisibly leave allowables outside my door – a basket would appear with the familiar shiny red wrappings. I had not informed anyone of my vow so these offerings continued as my retreat unfolded.
Whenever I caught sight of the basket with its attractive contents, I became agitated. Assaulted by pangs of hunger, yet remaining faithful to my resolve, I wrestled with the maggots of craving.
At dusk, I would return the chocolates to the tea room or leave them for other members of the community. Offering in this way to my sisters brought me joy, albeit slightly tainted by a sense of self-congratulation. So I took to distributing the chocolates anonymously. Finally, I left a note to explain my Vassa vow so that no more would be sent in my direction.
It worked. The deliveries came to an end and with no more chocolates to share I was released from the buzz generated by these peripheral activities. Peace, I thought, would return and I could concentrate on my meditation practice undisturbed.
Still, in the evenings, I would find myself peeking with curiosity out the window of my cabin for the familiar basket and wondering if anything would arrive. “What is this?!” I asked myself. I was besieged by a new wave of intrusive thoughts.
Sometimes, I would parent myself, stopping the mind by reflecting, “This is greed. It’s a little thing really” – not as disruptive as fear or anger. And so, in the ensuing months, I studied and sat with the insidious ways that greed arose, determined to abandon it so that I could dedicate myself to the silence, to emptiness.
Sustained by that relentless effort, my preoccupation with chocolate eventually fell away completely. It was not chocolate that I had renounced, but the yearning for something that would comfort, console or occupy the mind and relieve its desire for stimulation.
I gave up the distraction, the worldly sweets of this life, to taste much more – just from one intention to renounce. I never understood this until I began monastic training. Prior to that, I believed that my faith in, and application of, formal meditation practice would be enough to transform me.
These days, I no longer pride myself on special renunciations. I live a simple life, committed to my vows, a disciple of kindness, compassion, and truth. If someone offers me chocolate, I have a little. I see the way the mind grasps the world and the peace that comes from letting it go. I even drink cappuccino. But I gave up the froth.
© Ayyā Medhānandī
This a post from Ayyā Medhānandī’s blog written while based in Penang. She draws on her experiences in a monastic community in England as a solitary nun in a coastal hamlet of New Zealand and as an urban nun perched in a ‘sky temple’ overlooking the Malacca Straits. Other posts from this blog can be found under “Penang’s Blog” topic category.