Friday, January 1, 2010

First day at the monastery

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia. 

It’s my first day at the monastery.  I arrived last night after an exhausting day of car-train-bus-plane travel, and was surprised at how at home I felt immediately.  The first time I came to here, a year ago, I felt completely alienated.  I didn’t know very much at all about Buddhism, and was particularly ignorant about how a monastery worked.

I had the general feeling that Buddhism wasn’t really into rules, but was a ‘free-and-easy’ kind of religion. My primary attraction to Buddhism meditation had come when I heard that the Buddha had said something along the lines of ‘here’s what I know to be true, but don’t trust me – work it out for yourself.’  ‘A religion that actually allows you to think for yourself?  I want a piece of that!’ I thought.

So, I was in for a surprise when I got to the monastery, which is located in acres of bushland a few hours out of Sydney. It's run in the tradition of Thai Theravadan forest monasteries - with an emphasis on solitary meditation, and living as the Buddha did. 

The Buddha set down rules, called 'precepts,' for his monks and nuns, which are followed to this day by monastics in the Theravadan tradition.  While I’m at the monastery I follow the 8 basic precepts which include refraining from: stealing, consciously lying, games, music, singing, and dancing.  (Yes, I’ve had to leave my ghetto-blaster and tap-shoes at the monastery gates).  One of the 8 precepts is to refrain from eating food between midday and dawn the next day, but because I’ve got a medical condition I’m exempt from this precept and can have an evening meal. 

Ordained Buddhist monastics have a code of discipline called the Patimoka, which is a list of the precepts.  The Patimoka lists 227 precepts for monks, and 311 for nuns.  It includes  precepts about how to eat, how to wash clothes, how to wash yourself, and how often to shave your head.  Here's a few:

  • Should any bhikkhu [monk] have a blanket made of a mixture containing silk, it is to be forfeited and confessed.
  • Should any bhikkhu knowingly deprive an animal of life, it is to be confessed.
  • Should any bhikkhu try to frighten another bhikkhu, it is to be confessed. 
The first time I came to this monastery, I was completely bowled over by all these precepts.  ‘This is worse than the Catholic Church,’ I thought, ‘This is like a prison!  What are these people doing here when they could be free!’  I was in full reaction mode, reeling from a kind of culture shock.  Didn’t the Buddha encourage people to think for themselves?  How could I make sense of this?

As time went on, I came to see that for the monastics, these rules somehow offered a greater, not lesser, degree of freedom.  Not being able to handle money, grow vegetables, or cook food, allowed them to experience dependence, and interdependence, on the world, and also, practically, gave them time to devote themselves to their meditation practice. The precepts also encouraged mindfulness in everyday life - not just when meditating.

I don’t pretend to have any  in depth understanding of how following the precepts works for the monastics; what I actually realised was that it wasn’t really any of my business.  It worked for them – and they weren’t asking me to follow hundreds of precepts, just some fairly basic ones – so why worry about it?  I saw that I was following my path, and they were following theirs, and to just get on with it.

So, here I am, at my third visit to Santi Forest Monastery.  Just getting on with it...

(Actually, what I’m doing is avoiding meditation practice by writing a blog post.  Naughty, naughty.)


  1. Hi Emma,

    Wow- a wonderful site, a wonderful idea, and I look forward to having a proper look - just had your message in. More later...


  2. thanks Joelle - I think I've had a few readers from your site over the past few days. Sorry you're closing down :(


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