Bridging Gaps: What a month of monkhood taught me about laylife

Written by Ezra Tay
9 mins read
Published on Jan 31, 2024

TLDR: Learn from monastic life insights to navigate less-than-ideal conditions with acceptance, finding peace in life’s imperfections. 

Writer’s Note: Hi Everyone,

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. It contains some things that I have found to be helpful for the practice. I hope that they will be as helpful for you as they were for me. 🙏 You may find Part I here.

With Luang Por (Ajahn Anan)
(Photo used with permission)

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional

One of my first realisations was that monastics are, like laypeople, not exempt from pain and suffering (surprise, surprise!). 

As I was in Thailand during the hot season, the temperature was about 35 degrees Celsius in most afternoons.

My body became very inflamed (i.e. heaty) twice during that one month and resulted in large mouth ulcers. 

While I was lucky that the monastery had some herbal cooling pills which helped with recovery, it was necessary to find ways to manage the pain. I found that complete acceptance of the body’s condition and strengthening mindfulness by continuously attending to breathing helped to lighten the mind substantially and the result is that one feels much less pain.

Alms round and painful walking

Alms round was also a very educational experience. It was painful walking barefoot on the road and the ball of my right foot cracked and bled after switching from a shorter route to a longer route. 

There was a day when the pain became really intense. I knew I had to do something to continue as I was slowing down and my breathing was becoming very laboured. 

I told myself “every step I take, I walk closer to Nibbāna” and a wave of release instantly rushed over me and brought tears. 

These examples demonstrate that pain does not necessarily result in suffering if we make an effort to adjust our mind wisely. 

Suppose it was the time of autumn, when the rain was falling heavily, and a bubble on the water forms and pops right away. And a person with clear eyes would see it and contemplate it, examining it carefully. And it would appear to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a water bubble?

In the same way, a mendicant sees and contemplates any kind of feeling at all … examining it carefully. And it appears to them as completely void, hollow, and insubstantial. For what substance could there be in feeling?

SN 22.95

Why do we allow ourselves to be influenced by feelings when they are as transient and insubstantial as a bubble? 

Pain is caused by conditions, but suffering is caused by the mind. If we simply rush to pleasure to numb pain, we will continue to suffer and bounce back and forth between pain and pleasure.

Conditions are just conditions

A mother cat gave birth to a litter of cute kittens at the monastery. Unfortunately, one of the kittens died (I’m not sure of the cause) and I happened to see it one morning. 

When I saw it that morning near the eating hall, I took some time to observe it. Its body was still whole but its mouth was open with some blood vomited. 

At that time I did not feel much as my mind was quite equanimous. Whilst I thought that it was an unfortunate situation, I shared merits and moved on. 

The extent that we get caught up or blinded by worldly conditions is a matter of choice. While it does not mean that we cannot try to change our conditions, much is beyond our control, e.g. death. 

As practitioners, we cannot simply blame our circumstances or environment and do nothing else. We have to process and contemplate wisely. 

Whilst monastics usually have less distractions in life compared to laypeople and may have better conditions for the practice, it does not mean that laypeople are unable to practise as well as monastics. 

The Buddha himself notes his lay disciples Citta and Hatthaka as role models and they were said to have awakened to the extent of Anāgāmi (Non-Returner).

When things are less than ideal

One may find it helpful for there to be a difference between what we choose to believe in internally and what we strive for externally, especially if there is a need to accept something that is less than ideal. 

For example, “my job may not be ideal but it is good enough and I will continue until I find something else”. This technique helps to create acceptance and letting go.

Sometimes in life we just need to “suck it up” and accept conditions that are less than ideal in order to move on. 

Try to “look on the bright side” as it is always a meritorious learning opportunity when we accept and deal with challenging conditions. Human life and society is not and will never be perfect. 

While we can and may try to change certain conditions in life, not everything is within our control. We would be much happier if we develop patience and accept conditions that are beyond our control. 

What is within our control is the condition of our mind. Change that instead.

See also  3 Things I Wished I Knew Before Starting Meditation

Obligatory post-ordination photo

How to practise better?

In order to suffer less, we need to uproot and release the causes of our suffering. 

Firstly, it is crucial to reflect and understand ourselves better. We should contemplate and identify what are our main stressors in life. 

It is beneficial to reflect honestly and sincerely on which of the five hindrances occur most prominently in our daily life. 

The stronger any hindrance plays (or preys) upon the mind, the more suffering will occur whether or not one realises it. 

Conversely, the more one acts skilfully to eradicate one’s hindrances and defilements, the less one suffers. I’ve suggested some tips at the end of this article which may be helpful.

It is beneficial to review why we want or think we need certain things, as well as the views we hold onto. A skilful practitioner will constantly investigate his/her desires and attachments and whether it is really necessary to have them

One change I made was to stop judging whether I’ve had enough sleep based on the number of hours spent in bed and to make that determination based on how I feel instead. 

That is because it became clear to me that one can sleep little and yet be full of energy if our mind is light and unencumbered, whereas one may not be refreshed even after spending many hours in bed if our mind is caught up or encumbered. 

Peace and serenity come from our own minds. No one can give them to us.

Ajahn Stuart
(Photo used with permission)

More mindfulness helps

The next step to self-improvement is to develop and maintain mindfulness as much as possible throughout our daily life. 

Monastic life highlights the dangers of not being mindful. I’ve dropped my alms bowl (while waiting to get food), tripped on my toe a few times during alms round, forgot to wear my slippers, and forgot to take my stuff (e.g. bowl, lower robe, sitting cloth). 

These situations occur in lay life as well but we tend to see them as normal and acceptable as we prioritise and value being caught up in our labours. 

The truth is that when we are not mindful, we are much less effective and the likelihood of saying or doing something unwholesome is much higher. 

If we reflect on incidents or choices we regret in life and consider how we could have acted more skilfully, with some mindfulness we are likely to behave in a much more wholesome manner the next time similar situations occur.

One of the best ways to develop mindfulness is to place some attention on our breathing whenever we can even while attending to daily tasks. The more often we do this, the freer our mind becomes!  

Change our habits by skilful means

I was told off by another monk for stepping on the wet floor after it was mopped as well as not mopping the way he asked me to. While I recognised that I could have been more mindful, his attitude did cause some painful feelings to the extent that it required some contemplation to resolve. 

I told myself that I should have patience and develop compassion for him. I also reminded myself that while living the holy life, my conduct has to be impeccable.

It helped that I had the advice of a senior monk who agreed with my approach and I was able to continue helping with chores without reacting. 

After some time spent working with that monk, I realised that he was particular because he was trying to do the best for the monastery. That realisation helped me to see him in a different light and I was pleased that I did not allow myself to react negatively. 

In my second week, I maintained noble silence for 5 days. I realised that noble silence has to include not talking to yourself as inner speech is also distracting. That being said, it is skillful to talk to ourselves wisely in order to encourage ourselves in the practice. 

Identify phrases and teachings that inspire you and use them often, e.g. say “well done” / “sadhu” to yourself when you do a wholesome deed or refrain from doing something unwholesome. 

Every time you sit to meditate, say “this is freedom from suffering” and/or “this is what the Buddha did” (credit to Bhikkhu Anālayo). If we often speak unwisely, transform the inner speech first and the outer speech will also be changed for the better.

“Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect.

AN 6.63

It is important to investigate what aspects and habits of our daily lives are actually dissatisfactory or stressful. Do your acts and thoughts create more happiness or unhappiness for yourself as well as for others? 

Break unskilful and unwholesome habits by intentionally replacing them with skilful and wholesome habits. Most of us start our day by immediately jumping into our mundane work. 

However, it is actually more beneficial to start the day with meditation and being mindful as it makes us more equanimous and develops a more balanced mind (credit to Ajahn Achalo for this recommendation). 

I have also found it helpful to make vows that improve the standard of our practice (e.g. I vow to meditate daily), but vows that are about results may not be as helpful (e.g. I vow to have jhāna) as we do not have control over the results of our practice. 

See also  ‘It’s just like this’: 3 Takeaways from my forest retreat

A skilful practitioner would also evaluate the company they keep and actively choose to spend more time in the company of the wise. The Buddha said that spiritual friendship is the “whole of the spiritual life”. 

This can help us to develop wisdom and slowly change the unskilful parts of our character into more skilful ones. I’ve found it very beneficial to join practice-focused organisations such as the Dhamma Assembly For Young Working Adults (DAYWA). Having wise spiritual friends to support one another can help us resolve issues faced in our lives, especially when we feel safe enough to be open about them.

Many of us practise hoping for a good rebirth. There’s nothing wrong with that, but actually our practice also makes life better right now, not just in the next life. Why? Because our desires, attachments, and suffering will reduce when our practice improves. 

Balance is key

“But when your harp’s strings were tuned neither too tight nor too slack, but fixed at an even tension, was it resonant and playable?” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“In the same way, Soṇa, when energy is too forceful it leads to restlessness. When energy is too slack it leads to laziness. So, Soṇa, you should apply yourself to energy and serenity, find a balance of the faculties, and learn the pattern of this situation.”

AN 6.55

In order to practise well, we need to know and understand ourselves well so that we can skilfully adjust the string of our practice into one that is neither too tight nor too loose.

The Buddha’s first teaching, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
(Illustration by Junaidi Lim, used with artist’s permission)

Explore more of the Buddha’s teachings

Every Buddhist tradition helps us to see the goodness that we all have within us. The historical Shakyamuni Buddha is part of every Buddhist tradition and he left an incredible wealth of wisdom for us. 

Not to do any evil; to embrace the good; to purify one’s mind: this is the instruction of the Buddhas. 

Patient acceptance is the ultimate fervor. Extinguishment is the ultimate, say the Buddhas.

Dhp 179-196

Consider subscribing to which emails you a new sutta every day. If suttas are not your thing, Ajahn Jayasaro provides wise and relatable Dhamma teachings in English, Chinese and Thai. 

For a more structured course on the Buddha’s teachings, consider attending the Dhamma Foundation Course at Buddhist Fellowship (held yearly, starting early 2024).

May we all continue to practise well.

Here are some simple techniques that may be helpful to address the hindrances:

  1. When being overcome by sense desire, reflect and visualise the true nature of whatever that is the source of your craving e.g. body is a carbon construct that ages and rots, food is just unprocessed excrement, luxury items are just marketing and are not actually worth their (mental) cost. It’s ok to have some enjoyment from time to time but it is not ok to overindulge as excessive greed harms yourself as well as others.
  1. When having ill will, reflect that whoever you dislike is just a construct of their choices and karma, they are just illusions (like yourself) and there is actually no real person to like or dislike (teaching by Ajahn Anan). If that does not work, tell yourself that you are the only one suffering by allowing your aversion to continue existing in your mind, and that everyone is subject to their own karma. Try to develop compassion for yourself as well as others as we are all suffering in samsara together.
  1. When feeling lazy, tell yourself that you might actually die today from a bad fall, an unknown physical condition or a traffic accident, or that you are heedlessly wasting the limited time that you have left in this world.
  1. When feeling anxious and when the mind is unable to stop thinking, have a warm shower or bath and listen to soothing music to calm down. Try to meditate and see that your continuous thinking and worry is pointless and tiring as people and conditions are just things that are beyond our control. 
  2. When feeling doubtful of the teachings, consider the fact that no matter what you think or believe, you are still suffering. But there is a way out of suffering and we should try to keep an open mind and perhaps clarify with teachers that we respect. If you do not already have a teacher you respect, Ajahn Anan is one of the most well-practised monastics and would likely be able to address your doubts.

Author: Ezra Tay

Ezra has sought “freedom” his entire life but did not understand it, until he practised the Buddha’s teachings. Given the name Varañāṇo (one with excellent knowledge and insight) by Ajahn Anan, he seeks freedom from suffering for himself and others.

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