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Embracing our dark sides: Always the Host

Embracing our dark sides

Always the Host

Our function in life is observation, according to Sister Bodhipala. To observe how our minds react to the changing circumstances around us, and to respond accordingly, not reactively.

The diminutive Cambodian-born nun has had 'great fun' over the past three months, during the annual Rainy Season Retreat, observing how her mind reacted as she did things which are not usually part of her daily routine (reading the newspaper, for example).

Sitting with her at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the English countryside, a month after the terrorist attacks on the US (for many years her home), her warning seemed pertinent. 'The receivers [of the attack] do not need to blame themselves-or anyone-but to try to work out what needs to be done now.' And she sees herself as part of this doing. As a nun, she helps create and run a refuge where anyone can come to gain peace and wisdom, to learn better how to live-first with themselves and then with others, as part of a community.

'Now' is another word that Bodhipala, as she calls herself, uses often. 'Right now, what the US needs is wisdom, not revenge.' There is no point in looking back, she says; we need to take care of the present, so that the future will be as good as it can be.

Bodhipala is absolutely with us for the time we are there. She has not prepared for our interview in the traditional sense (by making some notes on paper, perhaps), just as she no longer prepares before giving a speech. But, unlike most of us, she is totally present, and so her wisdom is unadulterated. If she made notes for a speech, she says, she would not be totally with her audience, but caught up in the notes instead.

Her training (three years as a novice, in white robes, followed by two years in brown, as above) has meant that she is able to trust her first thought about anything-her wisdom arrives instantaneously, not via hours of thought. If she goes over and over ideas in her mind, picking out the best option, they lose their purity, she says. This is another reason why she does not prepare for the speeches she is asked to give. Amaravati is inhabited by many young professionals (doctors, architects...) who have become enslaved by the type of intensely rational reasoning that Western society contantly promotes, and who are yearning for a more direct, more natural way of living.

Bodhipala believes that we need DIRECT EXPERIENCE before we gain wisdom. It is easy to talk about something, but how do you do it? One of those magical people whose age it is impossible to gauge by looking (she is a grandmother) she has had plenty of direct experience. Born to a Cambodian- French father and a Vietnamese mother, Renee (as she was then called) married in 1960. Fourteen years later, after a stint in the US, and after the birth of three children, her husband, Sothi, was appointed Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia. Less than a year later, he was a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge and Renee had fled back to the US. She has not heard from him since, and must assume that he is dead.

Renee brought up their three children on her own, alongside obtaining a master's degree in statistics and computer science, earning an income as an economic forecaster, helping other Southeast Asian refugees to settle in the US, and working for freedom and democracy in Vietnam. Finally, she became fed up. She yearned to help people, but didn't have the money that society required or the will to corrupt the government to achieve what she wanted. She compares her mind at the end of this time to a computer with too many bytes in its memory-it becomes slow and inefficient. Space is required before it can operate properly again. We need to engage in 'space management'!

In particular, her hatred of the Khmer Rouge was using up precious space in her mind. She 'determined' (another favourite word) to forgive them for what they had done to her family and to her country, and to ask their forgiveness for her thoughts. This decision did not come easily. During sleepless nights, Renee wrote, 'Khmer Rouge, I forgive you', on bits of paper, then screwed them up and threw them away. But, finally, it became clear to her that she was ready. When she spoke to Khmer Rouge members and forgave them-ten years after her husband had disappeared-she felt 'so calm, so light, like an angel came and picked me up'. Her heart was free from its heavy burden, and her mind able to think again. Now, whenever there is a conflict within herself, Bodhipala knows that she must face it right away, to let the prisoner (the hatred inside herself) out, and to escape the suffering it provokes.

In the monastery, Bodhipala values every moment of her time. She feels her life here is too precious to spend reading books about politics, for example, even though she was once an energetic political activist. Meditation enables us to transcend the emotions that clog our minds on a daily basis, she says. Through the practice (sometimes she will sit for hours at a time) she creates space that has enabled her to love her children more than ever. They are not constantly in her mind as they perhaps once were, but when she decides to bring them in, or to go to see them, she is totally with them. Through meditation and getting to know herself, she has come to know other people better, to really know that they are human too. She has greater compassion-not only for her own children, but for all of humanity. It is rare that people have the opportunity to live the kind of life she is living, at Amaravati, and she feels it is the best thing she can offer society now.

Often, she is asked what would happen if her husband were not in fact dead- if he came looking for her and found her in a monastery (where she is required to remain celibate). Bodhipala cannot answer this question, she says, because it is not the way things are now. But, if it happened, she would then know what to do.

During her recent retreat, she spent time contemplating a corpse, to help rid her of the fear of death. After 11 days of viewing and contemplating the degenerating body, her initial horror disappeared: 'This will be me'. Beneath our outer coverings, we are all skeletons, and when we realise this, we suffer less. 'Learn how to die', she says, for though life is uncertain, death is certain for us all. She takes refuge in this-and in the thought that through her life she is harming no one-rather than in the worldly refuges that so many of us are tempted to seek. Bodhipala has become disillusioned by politicians and others who lose the ability to satisfy themselves and so try to fill the gap in other ways-power, money.

Clearly, she is a determined person; clearly also, she gains greater determination through her faith. It doesn't matter what religion, she says, but to have faith is the most important thing. One of the most effective ways of reaching people is by caring for them, through our prayer and thoughts. 'Our caring travels through the air, to reach others.' However, prayers must come from your heart, to be effective; they are useless if they are coming from your head. She feels it is her ability to pray for others, from her heart, that makes her life in the monastery most effective in changing society.

For herself, she uses her own determinations as 'police'-without them, she would suffer greatly. They may be big (a determination not to criticise others) or small (not to drink coffee!) but they keep her healthy in mind and body. She sees herself as a constant host: 'The best home is the home within. Always go back to your home.' Guests come and go, but if we can remain hosts, we can enjoy the security of being ever present within ourselves.

Her message to us, above all? In this throwaway society, where we want results instantaneously, be patient. And practise the skill of observation.

Interview: Nicci Long

Last update: 2001-11-25 21:17:51 (EEST).
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