Living with contentment sounds easy. And it can be, particularly for one already withdrawn from the world and committed to a life of simplicity and renunciation – until that inevitable day when we are confronted with not getting what we want or, conversely, getting what we don’t want. Discontentment seeps in as soon as mindfulness grows slack, especially when our primary needs are not met.
Ironically, such privation was unknown to me in the monastery. Though I had taken renunciant vows, I never feared going without daily food, medicine, or my other requisites. In that abundance lay the danger of complacency and the dulling of appreciation for the support and attention lavished upon us as members of a community upholding the Buddha’s teachings.
It is mealtime and a young couple have brought offerings for the almsgiving. I must finish eating before noon. It is their first visit and they are late – but it is kind of them to come.
Smiling widely, they bow and nervously scoop spoon after spoon of tepid white rice as I hold out my stainless steel alms bowl. I hear the grains settle into it with a diminutive tinkle. Soon these are obscured by vegetable curry and a sparse topping of sliced fruit. Once the food has been offered, my young benefactors kneel with joined palms, waiting for the ritual chants.
Though I feel somewhat anxious about the meal, I try to give myself fully to the chanting as if it is indeed a feast. I am grateful that they remembered to come, grateful to chant blessings, to have any meal at all today.
When they have gone, I study the contents of my bowl. It is a private moment of giving thanks and reflecting on what I have received. It will be good enough – it has to be. With an added chant and my lap-cloth in place, I work my spoon into the rice for the first bite – only to find it hard. I chew and chew to no avail. It is simply not fully cooked.
Another mouthful – am I imagining it? Rice is their staple and surely they know how to cook it! But no, it is inedible. And with the curry and fruit well-mixed into it, I won’t be able to salvage anything of this meal.
I have only one choice. It feels onerous. Having renounced often, why is it so difficult today? I empty the contents of my bowl for the birds and wash up.
A haze settles over me. I am unable to stretch a mantle of gratitude over the embers of my equilibrium, nor yield to receiving food that I need but cannot eat. Nor can I forgive my humanness in wanting it to be otherwise, anticipating the hunger to come.
It would pass, I knew, but the daily meal is vital for my well-being. I glanced through the glass doors where my supporters had gone, carrying their empty pots. They had no malice – they just didn’t know how to cook! Then compassion for them – and for myself – arose and soon, on its heels, a truer sense of gratitude trickled through with its inimitable fragrance of peace.
On another occasion, gratitude again rescued me when, returning with friends from an evening at the temple, they stopped to buy ice-cream. That was an ominous signal of the start of a new training exercise.
Having prided myself that I could easily renounce, I sat in the back seat ‘not minding’ while they contentedly licked their cones all the way home. Without the freedom or the choice to join them, the tone of my renunciation grew shrill – not for want of ice-cream but for them to have shown even a sliver of deference to my Rule if not my commitment to it and eaten their treats after leaving me in my hermitage.
That night, I could relish neither the black hills draped along the coast nor the sea’s thrashing until I was alone again. Listening to my heart, I clearly saw the tricks of the world. In that moment, Mother Gratitude came infinitely more sweet and sustaining than any dessert.
© 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.