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For the Venerables in the forum: What is the wisest way to spend the nissaya period?

nissaya
monastic
newly-ordained
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#1

Recently I’ve received full acceptance into the Bhikkhu Saṅgha. I’m reaching out for advice that the elder monastics have to offer in regards to the dependence period. @sujato @brahmali

Any anecdotes and responses are greatly appreciated!

Edit: I, of course, have my own preceptor who I can go to guidance for - this post is not about being dissatisfied with my current teacher. Instead, this post was made to reach out to other monastics in the SC community who I may never have the opportunity to meet with and get guidance from. There was also no similar posts, which concerned the nissaya period in the forum that other early monastics may want to use as a resource. It can be beneficial to reach out to seniors who, speaking from experience, can shed light on the early years.


#2

Hi Venerable,

Congratulations on your ordination. I wish you a long and happy life as a Buddhist monk.

The nissaya period, which I prefer to translate as the “support period” (it has a more positive ring, I think), is the time to lay down the foundations that are supposed to sustain your entire monastic life. Get it right, and you are likely to thrive as a monk. Get it wrong, and your monastic life will most likely be short.

I once asked a similar question of a visiting senior monk. He told me to read the suttas. And so I did. In fact I had already done so for a long time. I have to say this has been absolutely critical to my spiritual development. So read the suttas, over and over, and ideally learn Pali if you have the aptitude.

One of the implications of following the noble eightfold path is giving great importance to right view. It stands at the beginning and forms the basis for the development of all the other factors. It is easy to forget that the eightfold path is a conditioned series, where each factor depends on the previous one for its existence and development. Thus the crucial part played by right view.

The suttas are essentially so many thousands of pages of precisely right view. The Buddha is “the eye of the world” and here he is imparting his insight to all of us. The more you align your own vision with that of the Buddha, the more powerful your practice will be. So read it, reflect on it carefully, and discuss it with knowledgeable people who are practicing well. Have an open mind, but don’t be credulous. It takes skill to navigate the suttas wisely, but believe in your ability to do so, just be humble and careful as you go about it.

Focus on the basics. It is too easy to get sidetracked by endless discussions on the meaning of dependent origination or the nature of extinguishment (nibbāna). Yes, these are important ideas, but a full understanding will take time. Allow it to mature slowly. In the meantime focus on more basic aspects of right view. In what sense is the five-sense world we are immersed in so unsatisfactory? Why is the spiritual path and meditation a true refuge? Can you see that the goal of Buddhism is the answer to the very question of the meaning of life? If you get these things right, you will never turn your back on the spiritual path. So read the suttas.

Then there is the practice. There are lots of inspiring and beautiful suttas on this too. The fundamental significance of the kalyānamitta, the good spiritual friend. The importance of virtue, both avoiding the bad and actively doing good. The importance of generosity, even for monastics. How to develop the mind to think in constructive way. Detailed instructions on meditation, especially ānāpānassati. If you get these simple things right, you are going to go a long way. There is no substitute for a solid foundation. I do not wish to say too much about specific suttas - they are all important - but a great place to focus your attention is the gradual training, for instance, The shorter simile of the elephant’s footprint, MN 27.

A great things about the early years in monastic life is that you are likely not to have too many responsibilities. This means it is a good time to practice meditation. If you enjoy your meditation and you get reasonable results, then put a lot of emphasis on this. The depth of your practice will go nicely hand-in-hand with your study of the suttas. The two will inform each other. The first five years of monastic life are often the best for getting a solid grounding in meditation. You will then be able to take this with you even as you get busier later on in your monastic life.

At the same time, meditation is not everything. Not everyone benefits from long hours of meditation practice, and that’s ok. More important than meditation are the first six factors of the noble eightfold path. These are the factors that enable meditation practice and that strengthen it as you move on. So put you main emphasis there. It is especially the training in thinking wisely that is important. Thinking friendly, compassionate, and renunciate thoughts is mostly a matter of reflecting wisely, the patisaṅkhānabala, “the power of reflection”, as it is called in the Aṅguttara. As you get these things right, you can be certain that your meditation will gradually improve, until the long hours of sitting happen more or less by default.

The Buddhist monastic life is the most meaningful thing anyone can do. And having true meaning in life is an unparalleled blessing. You are aspiring to the highest human potential, and in the process discovering the very meaning of life. Once you get this, what else are you going to do?

I wish you all the best for your monastics life!


#3

May I also congratulate you, and second the wise advice of Ven Brahmali.

The only thing I would add to this is not from the suttas or the Vinaya, but just my own observation.

If you want to persevere and grow in the monastic life, find yourself something to do. It’s easy to dismiss any form of activity as a mere distraction from the holy life, to criticize monks who do things, and to imagine that doing nothing and being alone is the be all and end all. Obviously seclusion and time for meditation and super-important. But the human animal is complex, and there are few if any people who really end up just meditating all the time. The monks who are very dismissive of doing things tend to end up with a sour and negative aspect, and after many years one wonders if there has been any real spiritual growth. But the monks and nuns I have known who are generous-hearted, eager to help and to serve, excited to do things for others, they are the ones who grow and flourish.

For some, doing something may be fixing the monastery car, or building kutis. It might be teaching or counselling, or supporting the senior monk, or helping the juniors learn the ropes. We all have our thing, and no-one can really tell you what yours will be. But find something you enjoy doing, that contributes to the Dhamma, and that can make your and others happy. Not every day will be a great day for meditation, but at least we can do something!


#4

I’m not a monk. But, I’d like to extend my congratulations! I hope you find more peace than you ever expected. If you need donations of supplies or something, I might be able to help.


#5

This here is one of the greatest posts of the Venerable @brahmali! Sadhu!

To understand anything is to learn what is its purpose, what is it for. And ours is like any other situation of “mentoring”: the ultimate purpose of the nissaya or “dependence”, is to learn how to become precisely independent. Or if we were to adopt Venerable Brahmali’s rendering, then how to become self-sufficient in terms of external circumstantial and inward psychological “support”. A successful period of nissaya leads precisely to the situation where no more nissaya is needed!

Of course after that we will always continue to learn from others, and the end of nissaya doesn’t mean the end of learning. But the difference is that, as is the case in any period of mentoring, one at first may need to take certain things on faith, or apply himself to what the mentor prescribes whether or not it makes sense at first, and so on. So long the practitioner sees progress in the course of time, and discerns the development of a higher level of understanding and knowledge, and confidence in himself; this means that one is in the company of a good mentor, be it another humanbeing, or ancient words written in a text as venerable Brahmali suggests. It is for this reason that, in its description of nissaya rules and procedures, the Vinaya places so much more emphasis on the required qualities of the mentor or provider, than the duties of the dependent!

Thus a good nissaya is one which results in a practitioner who is more readily capable of independently scrutinising and evaluating the word of the Buddha, and the interpretations of such by others, and the advices that he receives from others, including the advices of other venerable and respected monks concerning "nissaya" itself! And he does no longer accept anything on faith or trust alone, or without independent judgement and discernment.

People in general differ in their capacities to develop such independence, and some –many- live their entire lives in need for support and dependence, and they do falter and go astray the moment they lose it. It is a curious question to me, whether a practitioner could ever really make any substantial progress in this transcendental path of deliverance, without such independence and self-sufficiency of mind?!


#6

Thank you Bhante. When we met at Peradeniya University last year (while I was still in white) you gave similar advice and I’ve done my best not to forget.


#7

If you can’t find something to do give a call to Bhante @sujato.
He will keep you busy.
:smile:


#8

Of course you should balance that advice against Ajahn’s other advice:

:wink:


#9

Greetings dear Pāla,
much good perspectives so far. I can especially relate to ven. Sujato’s advice. If it weren’t for the study (my bent) I don’t know if I would be in robes still. Doesn’t mean that I don’t lay much emphasis on meditation, quite the contrary, but it was more a matter of wisely maneuvering different phases. Service an invaluable tool as well …

I would like to offer some perspectives in addition too. I found knowing what is allowable within the limits of nissaya very helpful. One can change the monastery and also learn from different teachers, things which are sometimes rather discouraged implementing. A certain amount of travel is fine too for example. Also: No teacher can ultimately force you to adopt a certain lifestyle if it is based on sound reason and textual backup.

There are many ways to suit the temperament of the individual from a textual perspective. To know them and the source texts in general will help greatly in calibrating one’s approach to the better.

Anyway you are very blessed with ven. Ariyadhammika as teacher, I think, who is flexible with a good underpinning of dhamma-vinaya knowledge, as well as with your bent on study too, wishing to cover the tipitaka.

So the conditions are set quite favorably for a successful bhikkhu life, as I see it.

Mettā and may you attain nibbāna in this life!!

Hope it is fine with you if I share this pic. Let me know if not and I remove it.


#10

Well, yeah, do stuff, but don’t escape from the deep suffering of restlessness and boredom either - at least don’t escape for ever! This suffering, too, can and should be transcended, that is, unconditionally, and not by ‘doing something’!


#11

Not sure what you’re referring to. The Elders seemed to have a duty in which they devoted their time to. Upāli - Vinaya matters, Sāriputta and Moggallana taught, Ānanda was tasked with memorizing the teachings. I’m certain their are more example.


#12

Renunciation, is what I’m referring to, and bhavanirodha also. And you will agree, venerable, that these Elders have devoted themselves to all these things only after having already delivered themselves, for eternity, from the yoke of conditioned existence. Before that, i frankly don’t see them concerning themselves, just for example, with ridding the globe from its warming, or whatever similar popular doomsday myth they had in the time!!


#13

Ānanda didn’t even become an arahant until a few months after the Buddha’s death. They also had the benefit of living during the time of a Buddha. However, yes I will agree with you, renunciation and meditation are the primary tasks. Not sure where you’re getting Buddhist global warming activism from. The ‘do something’ that Venerable Sujato is referring to is a task that can be performed that will enhance the Community and the spread of Dhamma.


#14

Hahaha! Thanks so much for making me laugh! And your eyes shall see …


#15

I’ve really enjoyed this thread, and the advice from Vens. Brahmali and Sujato is so excellent and heartfelt. When I read Ajahn Brahmali’s piece, I felt that if every monastic was given this essay at the time of ordination, many more would still be in robes. The same is true of Bhante Sujato’s piece; my take on it was the importance of purpose in life.

I enjoy listening on youtube to talks from social scientists and psychologists on the importance of having a purposeful life, a meaningful life. Being told to meditate and study, and to chant, and eat at noon, may not be enough for some monastics. So many of the monastics from the BSWA and who trained there have such strong resumes; many of these men and women in robes in Australia would have made excellent academics, businesspeople, scientists, lawyers, doctors, etc. And so, there is this amazing talent pool in robes, with a capacity to express their talents in so many ways while in robes. And, this purposeful life brings a sense of true actualization and happiness:

A meaningful life connects people to a larger sense of purpose and value , making positive contributions, not only to our personal and spiritual growth, but also to society and the human civilization as a whole. As a result, a meaningful life is one that guides wise actions, giving a sense of constructive direction. Credit: Moshe Ratson, Licensed Marriage Family and Couple Therapist.

And so, I see Vens. Brahmali, Sujato and Brahm as great exemplars of this attitude. I see Bhikkhu Bodhi running BGR, and am amazed at his example of engaged practice in the field of education and food security. I think of the ways that monastics in robes might find themselves pathways as academics in universities or high schools, as clinical pastoral counselors, even as directors of NGOs or other organizations dedicated to “contributing to the Dhamma and making one’s own life and that of others happy.” Or, just as happy and purposeful monastics that make their own wat a better and happier place for themselves and others.

It seems to me that this kind of engagement not only helps keep young men and women that ordain in robes; it keeps them happy and feeling purposeful. And for the rest of the world, the world sees these outstanding men and women in the Forest tradition contributign to their communities in positive ways. It seems to me this might be one way forward, and we are lucky that our ajahns here have established this positive standard and example.


#16

No!

There ‘is’ something problematic in engaging in too much social activities as a renunciate practitioner. What is it? Such engagement results in nothing other than the reinforcement of precisely the kind of mental habits or kamma from which the practitioner himself seeks, or should seek, to become delivered. If the practitioner is aware of this, and recognises his social engagements and participation as a means to sedate the negative impact of restlessness and boredom, so that they don’t become overwhelming and crushing, then he is doing it with self-awareness and wisdom, and for reasons which reinforce psychological development along the path. As such he will see his social impulses diminishing in the course of time, and he wants them to diminish. This means that he does not, does not, does not substantiate social phenomena or activities, as if they have any inherent value or meaning. Because everything is headed toward an inescapable dissolution and death. Nothing will remain.

It is true, everything follows from chanda or a sense of purpose. But, and with all due respect to friend @UpasakaMichael , nothing is more afflictive than having conflicting motivations, and nothing is more opposed to the Buddhist path than neglecting the ultimate purpose of giving-up, relinquishment, and renunciation, or neglecting the practice of precisely singleness of purpose, or worse, prioritising other purposes on the expense of the ultimate one. Sadhu!

This "hierarchy of goals" must be maintained, and everyone must be on the same page as to what is it that the Buddha expects, exactly, from his followers. And not because of any inherent value in such preservation of knowledge, but because a day might come when a revival of the ancient ways of life, and of practice, and of precisely purpose, might come, where this knowledge will be needed. This is already the prevailing situation in the east: few, very few apply themselves to practice and nothing else. And no one is against social or academic work being done by monastics, but those monastics themselves know better than to declare their work to be equal in worth and value to that done by a renunciate practitioner, whose work impacts nothing and no one else aside from strictly his own heart.

An advice you give to a newly ordained monk must be in line with the advice given by the Buddha. Whatever you end up doing, see to it that it is leading to the diminishing of delusion, habits, attachment, passion, and increasing the exact opposite: nibbida, nibbida, nibbida! Only in this context can a sound and wise evaluation of "doing things" be undertaken.

Thus is the way. And it is of course, a totally different matter, if the person is openly no longer interested in deliverance as we understand it in the Theravada tradition or according to the, E, B, T! Precisely, as such he has abandoned deliverance as a purpose. And in this case, he can, indeed, do whatever else that suits whatever other purpose he’s got!


#17

Maybe some don’t know the deeper the progress, the inclination to renounce being embroiled in the world is equally greater and that having bliss isn’t necessarily about renunciation.


#18

Thanks for this response, Ven. @Dhammarakkhita. I read your response carefully, and certainly see from where you’re coming. I agree with a lot of what you said, and certainly agree that at the heart of monastic life is the training and the meditative path that the Buddha taught. I spent only a blink of an eye in robes, and so I don’t really have standing, perhaps, to comment much on how monastic life might be. But for me, along with the great days spent in solitude, or days spent studying Suttas or Pali chanting, when I was assigned to teach English to Hill Tribe adults working at the Hot Springs, I was elated. It felt really good teaching and helping these lovely people with skills that helped them with their jobs. For me, my days meditating seemed to be benefited by the previous day’s teaching.

If I ever end up in robes again, I’d likely need to be teaching again, or doing some task with lay people with counseling, Hill Tribe food security, or the like. That’s just me, and recognition my own deficiencies as a meditator, perhaps. So, I have this sensibility that to feel purposeful, I really need to be helping others, or teaching, or doing something that is engaged with community. My previous post was perhaps just a projection of my own sensibilities about this.

But, I do want to see young men and women that ordain in the Forest tradition to thrive. I’d like there to be various ways for these talented people to express themselves and benefit their communities. I feel that the more there are these outlets, the more vibrancy there might be on their paths. But, as you well point out, there might also be a contradiction in this approach.

So, Bhante, thanks for your thoughtful response and it got me thinking all of this afternoon.


#19

A flutist’s fingers and a gecko’s tail!

From the world of literature, there is a very nice Egyptian proverb which says: “Death befalls the flutist, but not his jiggling fingers!”, that is, even death won’t stop them. And from the world of biology, there is the tail of a gecko which, having been severed from the rest of its body and thus become a lifeless object, continues to wiggle for a surprisingly long time afterwards. Right there is the manifestation of kamma as a psychological phenomenon; the generation and reinforcement of a behavioural or physiological habit so deeply to the extent that nothing can stop its recurrence, perhaps eternally!

In our case we are talking about habits that are also emotional and cognitive: the skills acquired throughout one’s life before going-forth, are not worthwhile or worthless because of any inherent features of them; but only in so far as they correspond appropriately to a certain goal. The very reason we highly regard many of the occupations and skills which you’ve mentioned in your previous post, is that they are useful in mundane settings, not in absolute terms. Not only do they not necessarily correspond to the goal of transcendence, but they may possibly be even contradictory with it. For example, by a very modest estimation, I may have spent about 15000 hours of my life studying music and exercising my effort in mastering the piano. Now having become a monk, it is an offence even to listen to music! There is no way to reconcile whatever skill I have mastered in playing the piano, with being a monk; that skill is something that is to be forgotten and abandoned, even as my fingers continue to jiggle spontaneously and habitually, and frequently, with such most articulate and dexterous movement that will probably never stop in this lifetime, and which may be all that another mundane person wishes to cultivate and acquire at the same time as I abandon and relinquish them. Now please recognise that, also, I may had spent much more time, over a decade of my mundane life, working in the field of precisely social development, in such severe social conditions as characterised by an extent of suffering that is generally hard even to imagine, and that the professional experience and skill and knowledge that I have acquired in this field is in fact sought and called for by many others, and that I could confidently say that I know enough about not only the rewards, but also crushing frustrations, of devoting one’s life to “helping others” and the like.

This is a simple, but vivid picture of renunciation. And the gradual abandonment of the mental habits associated with one’s professional life, or even natural skills, is actually the more easy part of the practice, at least when compared to the abandonment of such fundamental evolutionary habits of what constitutes life itself, such as lust, fear, craving, aversion, and self-obsession. To embark on a quest like this without having what it takes to put up with its requirements, in terms of appropriate motivation and skills, is an act of folly, similar to that of venturing the highest uncharted peaks without ropes, winter clothes, and other essential provisions.

Now I too eye the success of young practitioners on the path, but I hope for their success on the renunciate path and not on another! That the task is not readily doable or easy, does not mean that we should then change its nature or substitute it with another task the achievement of which will be easier; for in this case, those practitioners will have become successful in something other than what they are supposed to be practising! It is just as when someone fails in physics, for example: he does not shift to another field of study that he can more easily master, while continuing to regard himself as a physicist! And the great thing about our path of practice is that you do not even need to go all the way into the practice of renunciation in order to be a sincere Buddhist practitioner, but you can practice it sufficiently, and with substantial results, within the margin of your capacity and not beyond that; just as the failed physicist can continue to interest himself in physics and learn a great deal about it, without having to continue his desire to become a master of the field and a scientific authority in it.

This brings us back right to the main topic: why become a monk? Why ordain? Why renounce? Especially when you already know that you can’t do it, unlike many monks, who lived as renunciate monastics since the age of 6 and never had a choice! You know, I do not blame those, or anyone for that matter, for turning away from practice and pursuing (“doing”) other things; they are amongst my best friends, and so you too, friend @UpasakaMichael may well be when you ordain and pursue a “socially-engaged Buddhism”. Though I will still probably jump down the throat of any such friend the moment they equalise theirs with a more fully renunciate path, which has never happened before. But I will still say that it’s much more understandable with one whose parents sent him forth at childhood than it is with you, or with those dissatisfied western practitioners of the forest tradition to whom you refer, and who have freely chosen that path with full awareness, if not even inspiration, and who, besides that, already have other options of life from which they have chosen to depart, and to which they can easily return as they please! And this is so because, indeed, the difficulties which we encounter across the path of practice can be handled and managed, not by “doing something”, but by “doing certain things”, things which are themselves practice and which conduce to the transcendence of those very difficulties rather than their perpetuation, if not even intensification; things which lead to the transcendence of the very fundamental kamma which makes us need about anything in the first place. Social involvement and engagement is not one of those things that we should do, simply because social impulses, and the very social self, is one of the things that we must train to transcend, whole and complete, without remainder. Sadhu!

That we are not yet able to do this practically doesn’t mean that we should neglect such renunciate cognitive stance and understanding; because it is precisely such renunciate cognitive foundation; faith, that supports the very possibility of an actual experience of transcendence, sometime, in the future, and without which not even hope for progress is possible. That’s why it is important; there is a reason, because it is necessary!

And this is the real deal, to which friend @Mat refers. The basic reason for failure is not circumstantial, but psychological: The inability to understand and relish in the solace and bliss of renunciation. Instead of seeking it with all one’s might, practitioners want to escape from it; they fear it. Why? Not because the path is difficult, but because it is lost, and because the right practice and exercise of motivation and effort has become obscured, and because the immediate freedom and bliss of this path of practice, and which is originally an inherent feature of it, has become rare to find and extremely difficult to learn and acquire. What serious and sincere practitioners suffer from and seek to avoid is not the Buddhist renunciate path, but something that so desperately attempts to resemble it!

This does not make such path an easy thing that is suitable for everyone, and even with Buddha as the living teacher, there were those who failed in finding solace and comfort in it. But our task and duty as the Buddha’s sincere and purposeful followers is to recreate the reality and vitality of this path, which is not an easy task. But if we can’t do it, then at the very least we must not promote an alternative path as if it was of equal worth, value, meaning, effect, or purpose, or fail in warning that such alternative path comes at a cost, and may even be contradictory with what the original path requires. That’s precisely what I will always be actively opposed to, and for a very good reason: I do believe that the path will not die out or disappear, and that at a certain point in the future it will rather be revived in its fullest reality and vibrancy. It MUST.


Friend @UpasakaMichael, I’m satisfied to learn that I am able to stimulate a thoughtful conversation through my contribution here, which is what this forum is really all about. Sadhu.


#20

Is it possible to force oneself to take on a renunciate attitude?