Kythorn 30, 1356 DR – in a field just north of Baldur’s Gate
The conversation was not exactly going well.
“Your proselytizing is only revealed that you live in a wold separate that of reality, where virtue might overcome the simplicity of not starving to death," the Tuigan steppelander said bitterly to Mi-Le. Near the beginning of their conversation, Mi-Le had tried to explain why he was unbothered by her presence, even though their two peoples had not historically gotten along. That had lead the Tuigan to challenge the idea that a person could gain mastery over their feelings. Then she’d expressed skepticism when Mi-Le spoke of the transcendent happiness of renunciation. And now her accusation that the monk did not live in the real world. Well, she wasn’t entirely wrong.
Mi-Le smiled. "Certainly, the world does not permit lay life to be lived in an ideal virtuous manner. For many people, this is quite difficult. Perhaps impossible for some."
impossible, perhaps. It is been for me. But I should wonder: is doing what you are done fulfilling? Are you happy? From an outsider's perspective, it seems more keenly that you are merely convinced that you are, with naught to show for it."
Mi-Le wondered for a moment what she thought a person could show to demonstrate happiness. Coin? Power? Social influence? A person could have these things and still be unhappy. "That is, unfortunately, not something about me that you can know for certain,”
he told her. True happiness was a thing that people had to realize for themselves. “And I'll not deny that the path is difficult to walk. But, for what it's worth, yes. I am happy."
"Hmm," she murmured thoughtfully, looking back down at him. "I am not yet introduced, am I? You may call me 'Suul,' if it pleases you, monk."
"Well met, Suul."
He smiled. "The happiness I spoke of before? The happiness borne of renunciation and letting go? It is a real thing, and it is possible for one to know it for herself. Until one knows it for herself, what I say is only words."
"I do not think it is a thing for me," she said uncertainly. "I am always been a woman of simplicity, alack for the virtues or the aspirations of greater people. For you, however, may it suit you well. I shall keep to mine chosen path."
"Well. This Way is a path for those of simplicity, without any pretension. But all the same, it is certainly not for everyone."
She broke contact with his gaze, looking down at the ground, reconsidering her previous words. "You would argue for this thing? I am much too beholden to what mine heart desires. Even now, I am beholden and conflicted, despite mine age and what wisdom it should
have long since imparted."
"No, I would not argue for it. You mentioned earlier that I was proselytizing, but it is not my wish to push anything on anyone. I wished only to answer the questions posed to me. This Way must be walked by one's own will."
"Fair enough," she said softly. She waved, as if to make the subject seem unimportant to her.
"If you wish to know more about it, I am always happy to oblige. If you do not, then I would think it quite inappropriate for me to speak on it."
"I do not know," she said honesty, reluctantly. Her misgivings were plain on her face.
"A good answer. An honest one."
"I do not know what I want, from you or from anyone. If you will forgive me the ... indecisiveness, for I know it is unbecoming me."
"Why do you say that?"
The monk shrugged. "There's so much we don't know. It's unbecoming to pretend otherwise."
"I am much too old to be so uncertain.” The woman returned the shrug. “I am troubled because the words you speak contrast words spoken previously this evening, by another. I know not which to believe in."
"You should not follow anyone's words based on some claimed authority or even by so-called logical reasoning, but rather see if the teachings lead to beneficial results. Do what works."
"You speak these suggestions so easily, yet it is not a thing I could frivolously bring mineself to do." She looked towards a nearby tree, then a hill, then towards his shoulder. But she did not meet his eyes. "Many people are watching for mine failure. I cannot allow mineself to try and fail, and lose their confidence."
The monk chuckled. "It's a heavy burden to bear, isn't it?"
"It is the weight of the entire wold at times, aye."
"If I may... we can't control the externals, Suul. Whether we succeed or fail, oftentimes these are things outside of our control. All we can do is our best. We needn't attach to the result. So long as we do our best, we can rest assured in the knowledge that we've done all we can. What others think, whether they praise or blame us, it's nothing to do with us."
"So dismissively spoken," she said, taking a moment to mull over her response. The wind, though gentle, seemed to chill her to the bone as she contemplated. "But I want
to be infallible. I do not want to fail. I am tired of it."
Mi-Le remembered his own defeats throughout his long journey. Simple misunderstandings. Students of the Way abandoned to attackers. A child who’d lost everyone he’d known. Plague victims. So many hurt and dead. The people he’d failed to reach. He knew the feeling Suul described, knew it all too well. And he knew the suffering that came from holding onto it. He considered briefly sharing some of his experiences with Suul, but tried for simplicity instead: "If it's worth dismissing, it should be dismissed. Things are always breaking down; we just keep propping them back up."
"There is many things that cannot be returned to their normal state, despite your allusion otherwise,” she said sharply. "Despite our toil. When a life is lost, it is gone forever. So I should be contented with failure when that happens? Nay."
Mi-Le laughed, wondering how he had implied that anything could be returned to some natural state. Such an idea actually contradicted the teachings of his monastery; his order believed that all things were constantly changing, in flux from moment to moment. "When did I allude to that?"
His amusement seemed to jab Suul like a thorn, and she hardened her stance as if bracing for a blow. Mi-Le decided to try changing tack. "I'm not saying failure is some enjoyable thing. But in reacting to failure with aversion, we suffer twice."
Suul shook her head, and Mi-Le got the sense that the gesture was more about her own thoughts than it was about him. She seemed very hard on herself, he thought. He smiled self-deprecatingly. "But perhaps I am failing to not proselytize."
He chuckled at himself, an open admission of his own shortcoming. It’s okay to fail, he was trying to communicate. One could accept it, acknowledge it without judgment.
"Your casual airs offend me," she said bluntly, the message apparently missed. Suul marched away toward the city without another word.
Mi-Le wondered briefly what his own teacher would have said, and he watched a faint feeling of failure ripple through his mind. He watched the mental undercurrent as it gently tugged at his thoughts, and he neither fought against it nor chased after it. After some time, he observed the feeling of failure grow distant and weak, and then evaporate entirely. The mind was left clear, still, and joyous: the first Chán.
The monk continued meditating.
The greatest, most profound, and meaningful human potential is overlooked by most people, and this is the ability to understand the truth of the way it is, to see the Way, to be free from all delusions.
When you are contemplating reality, begin to reflect on where there is no self. Whenever there is the cessation of self, there is just clarity, knowing, and contentedness – you feel at ease and balanced. It takes a while to be able to give up all the striving, and restless tendencies of the body and mind. But, in moments, that will cease; and there’s a real clarity, contented peacefulness. And in that also, there is no self, no ‘me’ and ‘my’. You can contemplate that.
We must recognise that we have to learn through being totally humbled, by never succeeding at anything we are doing in this meditation, by never being successful, never getting what we want; if we do get what we want, we lose it right away. We have to be totally humbled to where any form of self-view is relinquished willingly, graciously, humbly. That’s why, in meditation, the more it comes from will-power based on a self-view and on ‘me achieving and attaining’, then of course, you can only expect failure and despair because this is not a worldly pursuit. In worldly situations, if you are clever and strong, gifted and have opportunities, and the conditions are there, you can barge your way through and become a great success, can’t you? With the survival of the fittest you can manage to get above and destroy the competition – you can be a winner.
But even a winner, on the worldly plane, is still going to be a failure, because if you win something you are going to lose something too. Winning and losing go together. So winning is never as wonderful as it might look, is it? It is more the anticipation of winning. If you’ve actually won something – so what? You have a moment of elation, maybe – ‘I’m a winner!’ – but then, ‘Now what do I do? What do I have to win next?’
Winning, worldly goals, and worldly values are really not going to satisfy us, so if we apply that same attitude toward the religious life, it’s just not going to work. We just feel a sense of total despair, helplessness – because we need to lose everything, to let go of everything, all hope, all expectations, all demands, to where we can just be with the way things are, and not expect or demand them to be otherwise.
The practice of the Way is to accept life as it is. This is the way it is. Our reflection as monks is that we have enough to eat, robes to wear, a roof over our heads and medicine for illness. The Way is taught. It is good enough; therefore we begin to say, ‘It’s all right, I’m content’, and not make problems or dwell on the irritations and frustrations that we find here.
I find myself now much more at ease with letting life be as it is, and with the way things are – with the weather, with the people, with this land. Not to compare it, not to judge it, but to be grateful for the opportunity, and to be accepting of whatever is. And it isn’t all that easy, believe me, because I can be critical too. There’s also a strong sense of responsibility in wanting to make things right, and work properly – not in wanting nice things for myself, but wanting to make everything right and good for everyone else. I can really be caught up with responsibility, being a monk and all that – you try to set a good example. You get obsessed with that. I always felt I had to be a kind of model monk, a perfect follower of the Old Order and the Way! If you saw anything other than the perfect smile and the stereotypical presence, then you’d lose all faith in the Way!
So we begin to let go of that, even the altruistic tendencies of feeling responsible. It doesn’t mean that one is irresponsible, but one is letting go of those ideas, those views that we can be so blinded by. They might be very good views, but if you grasp them you can’t get beyond them.
In living the holy life you train yourself to being open and willing to learn form the ups and downs and the way things happen to be – the irritations and problems of life, and the way things are – rather than resist, avoid and reject life. You give up controlling and manipulating, and trying to change the world and make it into what you want it to be. One has to give up, let go of that kind of inclination, and abide in the knowing, in the mindfulness.
((IC portion adapted from The Way It Is
, by Ajahn Sumedho.))