The spiritual practice in a forest monastery is a process that pervades the entirety of the bodily, psychological and emotional aspects of a practitioner. It is meditation in a very full sense, including contemplation of relationship, of illness, of responsibility, and of sexuality – to name but a few. Basically anything that one might take a stand on as having or being (or not being) is up for examination and overhaul. This is because a mature practitioner seeks to liberate themselves from depending on, or identifying with, any aspect of body or mind. All modes and experiences are questioned in terms of their reliability, their satisfactoriness and their ownership. How long-lasting is the satisfaction obtained through getting one's own way or through being gratified by sensory input? Can these prevent us from loss, stress, misunderstanding, sickness, and death? And, if a thought, an emotion or a sensation is subject to change, and comes and goes – how can we say it belongs to us or constitutes our selfhood? Wise consideration of experience spurs the inquiry of a practitioner, enabling them to ‘let go,’ and without rejecting the human experience, broadens and deepens it with an awareness that is not attached, but liberated and Awake. In silence and in speech, in action and in stillness, this is the practice of a forest monastery.
Why a monastery? Well, a monastery can provide many supportive conditions. Firstly, it is an environment based on harmlessness, honesty, and moral strength: that makes it safe to let down some of the defences that we create around our personal stuff. Furthermore, it provides a situation where the people around one are going through the same process themselves, thus facilitating mutual understanding and sympathy. Then again it's a place where there's not a lot going on, particularly in terms of entertainment: you can't distract, or avoid, yourself so easily. Lastly it is a place removed from domestic concerns, so there's much less of your personal story in it. Because of this, and because it is shared and part of a tradition, it never follows any one individual's particular style or wishes. And in a ‘Going Forth’ situation, trying to firm life up as ‘me’ and ‘my way’ can't get very far. Accordingly personal choices and resistances; moments when we get stubborn or defensive, or feel awkward and hurt; occasions when we feel uncertain with others or alone, or restless when there's nothing much to do – all these patterns, that in normal life we develop strategies to screen off, get highlighted for ongoing contemplation.
At Cittaviveka, our 'holding on' – in a life process that essentially can't be held – is thrown into relief against a backdrop of green rolling hills, birdsong, and the generosity of people bringing offerings. 'Where is the suffering?' is the penetrative question. And – 'Where does that suffering cease?' The ‘answer’ is in letting go of self. But this answer occurs in a non-conceptual sense. It requires not just a philosophical stance, but a shift of centre, and it brings around release. This is the fruit of the training: the experience of ‘unsatisfactoriness’ (dukkha), its origin, its ceasing and the Path to that ceasing – the Four Noble Truths, the heart of the Buddha's teachings.
And as the Buddha said: if you have to suffer a hundred years in the process of discovering these truths, it's still well worth while; the realisation of release is one of joy like no other. This is why we practise – when we're meditating in silence, or working, or meeting; whether we're tired, or worried, or full of energy, or whatever. It's a Going Forth from our habits, assumptions and difficult places. It sounds like a big job, but actually it's only for a moment at a time – for a lifetime.