There is a wonderful text that records the saying of the Desert Fathers or Abba. The Abba were hermits who lived in the desert of North Africa in the early Christian period. The stories are of a similar genre to the Buddhist stories of enlightenment encounters that one reads in the records of the transmission of the Dharma.
Here is one of the Abba dialogues:
Abba Poemen: Tell me how to become a monk.
Abba Joseph: If you want to find peace here and hereafter, do not judge anybody and, always ask yourself, “Who am I?”
What is Poemen really asking? The term monk came to mean a person living by a religious rule in a monastery. However, the Abba were in a period before monasticism had fully developed. The great Christian monastic orders did not yet exist. So Poemen is surely asking something more fundamental than how to fulfil a religious role. What is the fundamental meaning of being a monk?
The word monk is closely related to the Greek monos meaning singular. It seems quite likely to me, therefore, that Poemen is asking about something rather close to the Buddhist notion of ekagata. It is quite possible that the abba were influenced by Buddhism and that their concerns were similar. In any case, whether there was influence or not, this is a fundamental question. How can one become alone, not merely in the sense of going into one’s cell and closing the door, but in a more all encompassing manner relevant to every situation in life. A Christian might say, how can I be alone with God? How can one be alone with one’s faith. In Buddhist terms, how can I take refuge completely and be liberated from all the other ties that pull at me, all the internalised voices that chatter on the periphery of the mind, endlessly trying to seduce one into less worthy avenues?
Joseph clearly grasps the nature of Poemen’s concern and agitation. The reference to "peace here and hereafter" tells us that the peace that is sought goes beyond mere happiness here and now. What is being sought is something more basic and enduring, something beyond transient conditions. This tells us something more about the nature of being a monk. The monk’s mind is quiet in a way that is not just an exercise. It has a deep assurance. We can say that the monk entrusts himself to his faith, but even this, perhaps, gives too active a colouring. Grace comes to him, fills him, encompasses him, if he will allow it. Amida descends. But how does one allow it?
So Joseph provides a very practical advice. He says, “Do not judge anybody.” This is the same as the Mahayana precept, “Do not be proud of oneself and devalue others.” It is the real meaning of what in Buddhism we talk about as love and compassion. We are here talking about complete acceptance. It is difficult to convey exactly what this means, because we are so used to living in a world where everything has a positive or negative valuation attached. To accept the bombu nature of another person just as it is is enormously challenging when one has spent one’s whole life assuming one knows what is good and what is bad. We tend to assume that compassion is a matter of discerning what is wrong and removing it in some way. If the other is anxious, we assume, without a moment’s thought, that the best thing would be to remove this anxiety. We take it that that is what would be compassionate. If the other person is dejected, likewise. Similarly if they are angry, jealous, envious or any number of other common human modes of being. This way of understanding compassion, however, is superficial. There is a deeper compassion that accepts the whole person, warts and all. The warts may not be socially approved, but they are what make the person spiritually interesting. All these expressions are saying something about the inner state. When we criticise and think that this or that aspect of a person should be abolished as soon as possible, we are missing a lot. Furthermore, it is not just the other person who experiences such states. We all experience them.
So how can one break the habit of a lifetime and let it go? By reflecting that one is no better oneself. This is the meaning of Joseph’s last remark, to always ask oneself “Who am I?”
Joseph is not here advocating long introspective searching for one’s supposedly true nature or anything so grand. He is just suggesting that if we are honest with ourselves, we soon realise that we are in no position to criticise others because we have all the same impulses within ourselves. They manifest from time to time according to conditions. When the balance of conditions changes, one’s state changes. If one were able to live within the conditions that bear on the other, one would understand.
These days I do a lot of writing. If somebody tells me how brilliant my writing is and how totally thrilled they are with it, I feel my body responding. I try to keep a moderately cool demeanour, but inside the child in me is already jumping up and down with glee. Or, on another occasion somebody remarks that my latest writing is boring, off the point and has completely missed what is important about the subject. Again I try to keep my cool, but inside something is shrinking. I wish it were not so, but there is nothing I can do about it. Well, there is something I can still do, and that is that I can learn from it that this is how it is for every human being. We are all inwardly equipped with a set of reflexes of this kind. We might train ourselves to overcome them to the extent of not acting them out in an embarrassing or destructive fashion, but they are still there.
At the time when one is inclined to criticise or blame somebody else, one has conveniently detached oneself from such self-knowledge. For a short time one implicitly entertains the delusive notion that one is completely immune oneself from the kind of folly that is being made such a show of by the other person. The truth is otherwise. Who am I to criticise?
In Christianity, this message is closely related to the story of the occasion when Jesus came across a group of people who were about to stone to death a woman who had been caught in adultery. Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Nobody moved, and the woman’s life was saved.
In Pureland, we talk about bombu nature. It is the same message. When we say, “Namo,” we are referring to our own guchi nature. Guchi is a Japanese word with several meanings. The relevant one here is that it refers to a foolish person, especially the kind who is likely to grumble about everything. When we say “Namo Amida Bu” there are a thousand meanings, but one of them is that we offer up this internal grumbler to the Buddha. The Buddha is always completely full of warm acceptance and blesses our grumbler just like an innocent child. In this way, the nembutsu brings the grace of Amida to our side, reassuring us that all shall be well and there is no need to worry.
So even if we are not going to go away and live in a monastery nor adopt a religious rule of life, we can all aspire to be monks in this sense of following the path of ekagata. Aware of our own human nature, we can let the grace of Amida provide a little comfort for our internal grumbler, the critical mind that disturbs our peace. We can know that the real peace is not just a matter of the present situation, but is something that transcends all particular conditions, here and hereafter. When we know this we can relax. Circumstances no longer seem so irritating and faith grows.
I have some praise for your jumping-up-and-down child :) Thank you.
I have meant to read the Desert Fathers for a while... do you recommend any books? If not I'll just have a look on Amazon.
Sending love - I'm avoiding my own writing so I'm going to go back to that now!
Thank you, Dayamay. Very good observations ! Yes, noticing our ceaselessly judging mind does throw us back on an awareness of "Who am I?" and offering this to Amida is the best practice I know.