by Ayya Seri Bhikkhuni
This reflection was shared on 11th October 2013 at Dhammaloka Centre of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambudhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambudhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambudhassa
Buddham, Dhammam, Sangham Namasami.
Good evening everyone. I am Ayya Seri Bhikkhuni. I am a resident bhikkhuni at Patacara Bhikkhuni Hermitage.
Tonight, I would like to explore the topic of CONFIDENCE.
I especially would like to investigate ‘CONFIDENCE’ from the aspect of a spiritual warrior practising on the path, the Eightfold Path.
This confidence is a feeling of security, a rock-solid inner conviction that we will be up to whatever may come in life. It leads to peace and ease, liberation and freedom.
Keeping the precepts, especially practising harmlessness and lovingkindness, practising mindfulness and meditation, and being honest and truthful, kind and gentle to ourselves, are very important in the cultivation of Confidence as a spiritual warrior.
To develop and cultivate this Confidence that can eventually lead us to our goal of liberation and freedom, we need to have confidence in the teacher, the Buddha, who can show us the way. We also need to be open to the fact that we have the ability to follow the instructions, to learn, to experiment and to train to gain the skills that we need to achieve the goal of liberation and freedom from suffering. This ability is like what the Buddha mentioned in the Lovingkindness Sutta, the quality of Sakko, able.
This is like learning how to swim. I remember when I started to learn swimming in school. Initially, I was frightened of the water. I was very frightened of even letting go of the side of the pool. The fear helped to protect me from danger, from being hurt, a great survival skill. But, the fear also stopped me from letting go of the side of the pool, to be able to swim. Whenever the teacher came to me and asked me to demonstrate the skill of treading water in the deep pool, I could only tread water for probably one to two seconds and then quickly held on to the side of the pool again. This went on for a few weeks. Over the few weeks, I found out that no one actually drowned in the class. My teacher always put out a stick to rescue whoever was in trouble. She seemed capable of saving us from danger. Then, one day, when my turn came again to demonstrate the skill of treading water in the deep pool, I managed to gather enough courage to kick hard, away from the side of the pool and to start treading water. After a few seconds, it seemed like a long time to me, I started to lose control and went under the water. I started to panic. Then, I saw this stick come towards me and I managed to grab the stick that took me to safety-the side of the pool-again. I must admit, the stick only came after I had swallowed a few mouthfuls of water!
From then on, I had confidence with my ability to follow the instructions and perform the activity accordingly. I started to have confidence and trust towards the teacher and the fear of water disappeared. I let go of holding onto the side of the pool and followed whatever instructions the teacher gave me and I learned to swim. I even became a lifesaver later!
I am sure most of you have some similar experiences with learning how to swim, or how to ride a bike, or how to use the computer etc.
The cultivation of the Confidence on the Spiritual warrior path is similar to leaning how to swim. We have the intention to cultivate and practise in a way that brings us happiness and peace and leads us to liberation and freedom. We come to a Buddhist centre like Dhammaloka to listen to the Dhamma, the teachings, and to share in other people’s experiences.
In my case, I started to explore Buddhism in the late 1980’s. I do not come from a Buddhist background. Both my parents are atheists. My brother and sister are Christian. I formally declared myself as a Buddhist when I took the three refuges in a Mahayana temple in Taiwan in 1992 during a Buddhist pilgrimage. I went on pilgrimage upon the invitation of my friend and her mother after my graduation and training in pharmacy. Initially, I was reluctant to take the three refuges because I was not sure at that time, that I could sincerely take refuge in the Sangha. The lay teacher who was with me gave me a very good simile and advice. She said that practising as a Buddhist is like planting a tree. You need water, sunlight and fertiliser, like the three refuges. If you only provide water and sun light and do not provide the fertiliser, because you are not sure the tree requires fertiliser, then the tree would not be able to grow. You do need to have the confidence and trust initially, to try it out, to experiment in the use of these three ingredients for the tree of liberation and freedom to grow in the heart. However, we also need to have the confidence and trust that if, the experiment does not work out, we have the wisdom and courage to let the experiment go and continue our search. At that time, I was inspired by the pilgrimage and I took the three refuges.
My journey in the cultivation of confidence on the Spiritual warrior path, the Eightfold path, started some 21 years ago. Now, I am sitting here sharing with you about my journey. It has been an amazing journey!
I learned about meditation soon after I took the refuges at a Buddhist Centre in Singapore, as I was working there at that time. I also attended a few of the one day meditation retreats at the centre. My first weekend meditation retreat was at Safety Bay in 1999 taught by Ajahn Vayama. I tried to practise very hard at the retreat. After the retreat, I went to my normal aerobic class the next day. I was only beginning to attend the classes. I was quite unco-ordinated. Normally, when everyone lifted their right hand, I was the only one with my left hand up. When everyone moved to the left side of the room, I would be the one who moved to the right. It was funny and yet embarrassing. The aerobic class that I went to after the retreat was the first time I could follow the instructions and moved in the same direction with everyone in the class! At that time, I realised that this meditation must be good to train my concentration and clarity of mind! My Confidence in the practice started to grow!
There was another incident that showed me that the practice of the Eightfold path is beneficial to my life. One Sunday evening, I was held up in the pharmacy while I was on duty as a pharmacist with another pharmacist assistant. After the hold up, I had to call the police, contact the pharmacy owner and be interviewed by the police, so I went home late that night. Unfortunately, my family was away on holiday and I was home alone. I was aware that I was stressed by the incident. I did not know what to do as it was late and I did not want to disturb or alarm my family or friends. I made a very good decision that night. I sat down, crossed my legs, closed my eyes and meditated before I went to bed. I slept through the night and went back to the pharmacy to work the next morning. When I reflected later, the one thing that I did that made the difference was meditation. It helped me to deal with the stress of the hold-up. I still needed to work with some of the other side effects of the stress caused by the hold-up, such as I jumped when someone ran towards me quickly, and I did not go for my regular morning walks for a few weeks, because of fear of meeting the robbers as I lived very close to the pharmacy. The confidence in the practice of the Eightfold path grew deeper after that.
I went on my first pilgrimage to India in 2001 with Ajahn Vayama and a few other Sangha. I met Ajahn Vayama personally for the first time during this pilgrimage. During the journey we had a packed lunch on the bus. After dana, the tour leader kindly organised to give away the left-over dana to the villagers. Ajahn Vayama took some of her left-over lunch and went down from the bus when we had a stopover. I was curious and volunteered to be the chaperone and followed Ajahn Vayama. I saw that Ajahn Vayama went to the dogs on the street and put down the left-over food for them. I was standing there feeling in awe of Ajahn‘s gesture of kindness and metta. Most of all, I was touched by her connectedness to the beings, to all beings. She was not frightened, but friendly even to the dogs in India. There is not enough food for all the people in India that we met, let alone much consideration for the dogs. And the dogs are not cute “pixie-mop” types of dogs. This connectedness and openness of the heart left a very strong impression on me.
I later went to the monastery to study and train with Ajahn Vayama. I had no hesitation to take Ajahn Vayama as my teacher.
One of the ways to strengthen our confidence in the practice of a spiritual warrior on the Eightfold path is to keep the precepts. We need some guidelines and boundaries in our mental, verbal and bodily expression for our well-being and happiness. For example, harmlessness. I remembered when I first went to the monastery to be a trainee, an anagarikaa. Ajahn Vayama took the anagarikaas for a walk around the monastery so that we could familiarise ourselves with the environment, especially the bush. Ajahn Vayama was very familiar with the land of the monastery. We were walking along the firebreak next to the horse stud, Barabadeen, and I was enchanted by the beauty and freshness of the bush. Suddenly, I heard Ajahn Vayama say: “Stop!” I stopped and looked puzzled. She asked me whether I knew what I was just about to step on. I lived in the cities and in the suburbs all my life. I knew nothing about the bush! I only managed to say: “No”. Then Ajahn asked me to look closely. I saw a few black ants crawling out of the mound in the middle of the firebreak. I realised it was an ant mound, the ant house. The realisation brought up this softness and tenderness to my heart. This bush and space does not belong only to me, to us. We share the space and land with countless beings. It allowed me to be in touch with the feeling of harmlessness and connectedness with other beings, whether they are human beings or something that I am frightened of, the biting ants! All beings, regardless of their religion, regardless of their cultural background, whether they are biting ants or spiders that we fear, or cute kangaroos and echidnas that we like, have the wish to live in safety and happiness and, like me, fear being hurt and harmed. It was a very good lesson that I learned that day. From then on, harmlessness is no longer an ideal outside. It became a quality that I hold tenderly in the heart. That is the confidence that I have, confidence in the precepts, confidence in harmlessness.
I found monastic training to be an excellent ground for the cultivation of confidence in the spiritual warrior path. I remembered when we were working on drains and banks in the monastery, to minimise water erosion. Ajahn Vayama is a very good leader and abbot. Whenever we worked, she was always there to work with us. She always worked very hard. The work period was not just work. Ajahn Vayama always reminded us it was a great opportunity to make good merit. For me, it was also a great opportunity to learn, especially to learn Dhamma from the teacher. In this instance, whenever we picked up any rocks to be used for our drains or embankments, Ajahn always advised us to ask permission from the rock before we moved it away from its spot. We were also encouraged to check whether there were any beings living underneath the rock. If there were, we were encouraged to return the rock to where it belonged, so that we did not intentionally destroy or disturb their dwellings. These trainings are great to build harmlessness in our heart, and trigger this gentleness and lovingkindness. When I reflect on the training now, it also trained our mindfulness, paying attention to what we are doing when we are doing it. We also practise mindfulness and awareness by not just trying to finish the job as quickly as possible but to do it with our whole heart and be fully present. The training also taught me deeply about ‘not to take what is not given’, even the land, the rocks, the beautiful wildflowers that we wish to keep in our kutis or bring home. To me, that is the building of confidence, the confidence on the spiritual warrior path.
I am very grateful that I have the opportunity to practise and train under the guidance of very competent teachers, especially in monastic life. I take my training seriously and sincerely. I entered the monastic life in 2002 and ordained as a ten precept nun in 2004. Later in 2009, I received my full ordination as a bhikkhuni. It was six years after I entered monastic training before my first visit to my family in Malaysia in 2008. I thought I needed to have a firm foundation in monastic training and have the confidence of a nun, before I met up with my family members. Most of my family members are not Buddhist.
During my first visit to Malaysia and my only visit so far, my brother offered to take me and the family to a Japanese restaurant to have a family dinner. He said he could arrange and organise a private room, so that no one would see me eating in the afternoon and no one would know that I am eating in the afternoon. I laughed and said to him: ‘The earth knows, the universe knows, you know and most importantly, I know.’ We can trick and cheat the whole world around us, but we know, deep inside us, our heart knows what we are doing. This inner knowing, integrity, and clarity are important in the cultivation of the Confidence of a spiritual warrior. This integrity and honesty also gives us peace and ease and respect for ourselves. I found for myself that this is important if I want to take the teaching and practice all the way to the attainment of Nibbana.
I put in a lot of effort in keeping the precepts and in following the training of a spiritual warrior, especially the monastic training. The effort gave me great strength and awareness and freedom from remorse and inner conflict. The effort also trained me in confidence, the confidence of a spiritual warrior, the confidence of a nun, a bhikkhuni.
Recently, I had a few discussions with my friends from other Buddhist traditions especially on some of the precepts that I hold, such as: ‘Not handling money’, ‘Not driving’ and ‘Not eating after 12 noon’. I told my friends that keeping these precepts does not mean I am better or I am right. I voluntarily and willingly ordained as a bhikkhuni in a tradition that keeps the precepts in this particular way. I am trained by my teachers in this regard. The lay supporters expect me to keep the precepts in this way. I am confident that the training can lead me to liberation and freedom. I respect my friends who are trained and practise in another way that leads them to liberation and freedom. I am comfortable and at ease with that.
In the monastery, when I was training as a nun, during every Rains Retreat, -except for senior nuns over ten rains,- we were required to write no letters, make no phone calls and to have minimum social contact. This gave us the maximum opportunity to restrain our senses and to concentrate on meditation practice. Ajahn Vayama also suggested to us to undertake a special practice every rains retreat. This is a practice that I still undertake today. She would suggest practices such as metta meditation for the rains retreat, learning some specific chanting, or giving up eating our favourite food or sweets to train in restraining our senses and to challenge our habitual patterns. We would discuss our practices with Ajahn Vayama during our regular interviews, about twice a month. One year, I chose sitter’s practice. I read about the practice in Venerable Tenzin Palmo’s book, ‘Cave in the Snow’, and a Buddhist Text called Visudhimagga. Sitter’s practice is one of the Dhutanga, or ascetic practices. It basically means not lying down, in order to cultivate wakefulness and to challenge laziness. These practices are not compulsory, but are done for a specific length of time or purpose. At that time, I was young, bold and stubborn and I needed to cultivate wakefulness. In my mind, if others could do it, I could do it too! When I went to a regular interview with Ajahn Vayama and told her of my plan, she was silent. She was very skilful in dealing with a young, strong-headed and enthusiastic student. She seemed to know that it was not useful to discourage me but asked me the reasons why I wanted to do sitter’s practice. I told her I was experimenting to see what the Dhutanga practices would add to my understanding of the path for me and whether it would deepen my meditation practice. She suggested I make a determination not to discuss the practice with others except the teacher. This is a way to make sure that I wanted to do the practice to challenge my habitual patterns but not to show off to anyone else! I spent three months of the rains retreat not lying down and fell asleep in some weird and uncomfortable sitting postures. And, no, I did not get enlightened, and I had much suffering and had a bad back as result! I learned that strong-will does not get me very far in meditation! I also learned from my teacher, that practice and cultivation is for the confidence in our heart, for our own happiness, peace and liberation. We do not practise to show that we are better or special.
There is a difference between the confidence of a spiritual warrior and confidence in the secular world. In the secular world, we build confidence from the approval from outside, from other people, from material gains, from getting the highest paid job. For example, in order to be a number one tennis player, you need to win tournament upon tournament. The confidence of a spiritual warrior does not build on “ego”, “me”, or “I am better”, and it does not depend on wearing badges of success and seeking validation from others. It definitely does not depend on whether your AFL football club win the grand final. This Confidence of the spiritual warrior is free from being disturbed by the eight worldly winds of praise and blame, gain and loss, honour and dishonour, happiness and misery. The confidence of a spiritual warrior is not shaken by worldly circumstance. It is one of the highest blessings, as it says in the Maha Mangala Sutta.
From the experience of the practice, I found that even though I have plenty of determination, I also needed much gentleness and kindness to myself and in my practice. After that sitter’s practice, Ajahn Vayama suggested I spent three months practising metta as my main object of meditation during the following rains retreat.
I found gentleness and kindness to ourselves are very important qualities to practise in the cultivation of the confidence of a spiritual warrior. Do you remember how you talked to yourself during the meditation earlier? Did you say to yourself: “I can’t do this!”, “I am hopeless”, “Stop thinking!” or “Shut up”? Or did you just gently bring your awareness back to your meditation object, when you started thinking. Being aware and mindful of how we talk to ourselves in the quiet moments, allows us to be aware of our state of mind at that moment, whether, sad, angry, or at peace and at ease.
The aim of meditation is not just to stop thinking, and become peaceful and calm and happy. When the meditation becomes peaceful and calm we enjoy it. When the meditation is full of restlessness and agitation, we practise gentleness and kindness towards it! Meditation can give us this opportunity to cultivate the confidence of being kind and gentle to ourselves in whatever happens in meditation itself, as well as in our life off the cushion. This cultivation can bring us the confidence to face whatever arises in our life, even if we are not feeling peaceful and joyful because of what we are facing.
I love the formal entry into the rains ceremony for the monastic. The ceremony starts with a forgiveness ceremony, and then taking dependence on the teacher, who is Ayya Vayama in my case. We then take turns to make the determination in front of the Buddha of the main shrine, to stay and practise in the Hermitage for the coming three months. When I bowed down, I reflected that the same ceremony and determination had been made during the Buddha’s time all the way until today for over 2500 years. This includes all the countless monks and nuns in the lineage of the Buddha. I felt very inspired and connected with the lineage of the Buddha; the feeling of being honoured to be walking the same path as all well-practised Sangha. It gave me the confidence, strength and courage to continue with the practice to see for myself the footprint of the Buddha.
Death is certain for all of us, none of us can escape death. But the time of death is uncertain. The cultivation of the confidence of a spiritual warrior not only leads us to happiness, peace and ease here and now. It also leads us to liberation and freedom. This is a simile by Buddha: A tree has been slanting, sloping and inclining towards the east. If the tree was cut down at its root, the tree would fall in whatever direction it was slanting, sloping and inclining. If we cultivate the confidence of a spiritual warrior that leads us to happiness, peace and ease in our life, we will slant, slope and incline towards happiness, peace and ease, here and now, and at the time of our death. Especially, if we continue to cultivate the path, it can lead us to firm confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
My Confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha continued to grow from the day I first took the three refuges. I am willing to push myself away from the side of the pool to tread water in the deeper pool. Whether the heart is peaceful and calm or full of agitation and restlessness, I continue to tread the water, following the instructions of the Buddha. Sometimes, I do a good job but sometimes it is difficult and it is a mess. But, I continue the cultivation on the spiritual warrior path.
This is my 10th rains since I went forth in this hall as a nun. I have shared with you whatever confidence I have been cultivating on the spiritual warrior path, the Eightfold path. I wish you to continue to cultivate the confidence of the spiritual warrior. May the sharing of this reflection tonight be of benefit to us all and may the merit of sharing of tonight’s teaching help us in the practice for liberation and freedom, for Nibbana. Thank you.