Benedict's Dharma 2

Day 1 - Tuesday - April 29, 2003
Questions and Answers


SR. MEG: It says in the program, "discussion," but I asked Betty if she would let me facilitate dialogue, which is a more serious form of conversation.

Discussion, you know, comes from the root word of bang together, concussion. And dialogue comes from the root word of listening with heart, true listening to the one, so we want to move to dialogue.

I remember after the Gethsemani I Encounter, we were meeting in Bloomington in '99 with the Dalai Lama -- he was here for the Kalachakra -- and we invited him to Gethsemani II, which was just last April.

And he said, "Oh, yes, yes, dialogue, Level 1, Level 1. Level 2 maybe, Level 2." He was trying to push us to Level 2 dialogue, so I would like to move us to Level 2 dialogue.

Level 1 dialogue is learning more about Buddhism, learning more about the Rule, learning more about our differences and the way we dress, what we do, how we talk, you know, language, but it's still superficial.

___Level 2 dialogue is our own hearts and our process, our practice.___

Level 2 dialogue is our own hearts and our process, our practice. So, we are going to move to Level 1 dialogue first, which is in the group where we continue to clarify, Kusala might ask me, "Well, all right, Meg, do you live this Rule," or, "What's the Rule to you, really?" And I could ask him, "There are 227, and you've only not kept one?"

But we don't want too much intimacy, that's not the reason for which the Rule exists, and that's our own journey. So, that would be the first Level. I would encourage you to go to Level 2 dialogue, which can happen through diads. You know, in a group like this, I'm not going to tell Kusala anything that I don't want you to know or him to know, a one-to-one dialogue is the way in which it really happens, where you lay out your heart. And that's the beginning of spiritual direction.

My director says to me, "Meg, what's on your heart today?" And then I just lay out my heart at the time, and then she can see the afflictions that arise or whatever and help me through them, or keep me faithful to my practice, or give me a word from Scripture. So, this laying out our hearts to one another can really only be done one to one, this is the origin of confession, to confess where you are.

REV. KUSALA: Sister Meg, Jane just asked me a question about the robes I'm wearing, and if I may, I'd like to take a few moments now to answer.

I'm ordained in the Vietnamese Zen tradition. In that tradition we wear brown robes, and brown pajamas (shirt and pants). That's why I sometimes look like a UPS guy. This is called a rakusu (yellow bib like vestment) or what I call my traveling kesa (floor length outer robe). It's filled with symbolism.

There are little squares on each corner, and it's said on each one of those little squares is a Dharma protector, a Buddhist angel, that looks out for the welfare of the person wearing it. This is one of my vestments. I have a long robe too and it goes all the way to the floor, but the rakusu is a bit more comfortable to wear.

___To give you an idea of how Buddhist robes are color coded.___

To give you an idea of how Buddhist robes are color coded, if I were a monk in the Theravada tradition, the early Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, I'd wear a saffron robe. If I came from the Chinese tradition, I'd wear a lighter golden brown color robe. If I came from the Korean tradition, I would wear a gray robe. If I came from the Japanese tradition, I would wear a black robe. If I came from the Tibetan tradition, I'd wear a maroon robe with orange trim, by far the best fashion statement.

We still don't have an American Buddhist robe, because we don't have American Buddhism yet. But when we do have American Buddhism, I think our robes will be blue denim!


JO: Well, the dark blue doesn't show dirt as easily as other colors. It just sort of melts into the sky, and you find peasants all over the world wearing denim. I have a Chinese blue denim jacket, and I think I have a French one. It's rather universal. Denim started with the French from Nimes, France, you know. There are all varieties of it. Some is more expensive and some is thinner. Anyway, I like the idea. It's universal.

REV. KUSALA: Yes, and it's very '60s, most cool.

JO: It connects. We have to find those denominators.

In your monastic tradition,
___if someone breaks a rule, do they have to admit to it.___

REV. KUSALA: Sr. Meg I would like to start by asking you a question. In your monastic tradition, if someone breaks a rule, do they have to admit to it, or does the community bring it to their attention?

SR. MEG: Thank you for that question. The Rules of Saint Benedict are also augmented by the customs in my house, so there are several sets which probably are 271. And we do have a way of all the above.

The superior, the prioress can go to someone and let them know that they are breaking a rule, or the members in mutual obedience can go to anyone and say, this isn't helping us as a community when you do such and such.

And there is also a way when a person discovers herself that they have heard, they can go before either the prioress or the community and acknowledge their faults. And so there is a three-way thing: The individual, the lateral mutual, and the superior. And it's done at specific times, the chapter of faults or chapter meetings or house meetings, sometimes before meals, at our conferences with our prioress.

So, we have ways of doing that because without it, there is no way to change and get back on track, or there is no way to intervene somebody before they get so far away from the spirit of the Rule. I've seen over the years great benefit from it.

But two other parts to the answer are it has to be a balance of those three things. It can't just be a superior. When I was the superior, if somebody came to me and said, "Jane is doing something that irritates me," I would say, "Have you told Jane?" So, you know, just like the dynamics, I would never tell Jane that Betty thinks you're whatever.

But in Chapter 72 on good zeal, mutual obedience, it's right in the Rule to mutually help each other, the younger and the older. And that's it, too, that the younger can correct an older one in the light of the Rule. That's why we all have to know the Rule. And then we also have the chapters where we can set the broad directions of our community, and we can critique it. So, we do good group process and it's in the spirit of our Rule.

So, yes, and it goes on and on and on. And it's very humbling to live with 90-year-olds who come to you and say, "Sister, I'm sorry for..." And you just feel so honored that they want to even tell you; and you just hope that when you grow up, you want to be like them, you know; that they are so vigilant.

JO: The Harmonists have a very important rule: "Do not let the sun go down on your wrath," and I'm sure that's with the Buddhists, too, and they tried to practice that. If there was a bobble between them, "Work it out before the sun sets."

SR. MEG: And the Our Father that we say, it's supposed to be said in silence. The superior starts it, and then we say the rest of it in silence. And during that silence, you are supposed to make sure that you are reflecting on if there is anybody that you should go to before you go to bed and ask for forgiveness.

You know, there is a counterbalance to that, though. You are never to give a hollow greeting of peace; so, until you are at peace in your heart, you can't go to someone. So, there is another tradition -- this is more than you want to know, Kusala -- called the senpectae, somebody who is an elder. You can go to somebody and say, "Would you tell that person I'm sorry, because I can't tell them yet," so, you ask somebody else to do it for you.

Or the superior might say, I don't want to come down hard on so and so, would you go and try to get them to conform a little bit. So, we use each other for the good, but again it's an admonition in the Rule. So, thanks for that question.


SR. MEG: I have one for you.


SR. MEG: You live in a formless way at the IBMC. I've been there.

REV. KUSALA: Yes, that's true.

SR. MEG: Tell the group about your formlessness rule.

REV. KUSALA: Think of IBMC (International Buddhist Meditation Center) as a center parish in a busy downtown setting. Everyday we hear gunshots, helicopters, and sirens, there are lots of graffiti and trash. It's not what you think of, when you think of monastery. But, that's just where a Buddhist center needs to be, it's where a lot of people suffer.

Our center was founded on the idea of being a nondenominational Buddhist center. In the past we've had teachers from many Buddhist traditions live and teach at IBMC, and because of that, our practice schedule is varied and sporadic.

Now, contrast that to a more traditional Zen center, you are up at a certain time, you dress a certain way, and you sit a certain way.

LDB: Tight ship.

REV. KUSALA: Yes, in those more traditional centers everything is structured, the rules, the time, and the form. It might be possible in that kind of environment to hide in form; to simply take on the form of the center and look mindful and tranquil.

It becomes obvious
___within a matter of weeks where your practice is coming from.___

Well, the IBMC lacks that kind of form, it becomes obvious within a matter of weeks where your practice is coming from.

We don't discourage or encourage you as much as offer you a place to practice, and instruction if needed. There is a certain freedom in that; our center allows you to practice without too many strings attached. But, that kind of freedom isn't for everyone. Sometimes to much freedom turns practice into chaos.

Right now, we have three monks from Sri Lanka, two Tibetan Buddhist nuns and one Tibetan monk living at the IBMC. The abbess of the center is ordained in the Vietnamese Zen tradition, as am I.

We have this convergence, if you will, of different traditions living together, practicing together, and accepting one another, for the most part.

SR. MEG: So the form has to be interior.

REV. KUSALA: Yes, at our center your form needs to come from the inside. There just isn't a lot of exterior form.

When I go to Shasta Abbey, which is one of my favorite Buddhist monasteries, located in northern California, I see a lot of form. They allow me to be a part of their form when I visit, what a pleasant change of pace, to have that much form after having so little.

But I see form also prevents me from diverting from it. With all the community service work I do, I need the flexibility of 'no form' to be an effective Buddhist volunteer in Los Angeles and Orange County.

SR. MEG: So, your life is closer to theirs than it is to mine?

REV. KUSALA: Yes, in some ways it is, but I can't get married, and I have precepts to practice. I live in an economy of generosity, it gives me a certain freedom that nine to fivers don't have. Then again, I'm never quite sure if anybody is going to be kind and generous with me, but somehow it all works out. The universe meets all my needs, but it doesn't meet all my wants.

KM: Sister Meg, can I ask a question of you that's a follow-up? This is kind of embarrassing. Does it feel bad when somebody corrects you? I mean, do you feel like you're getting in trouble, or do you, when you are calling somebody on the carpet, is that awkward? Is it uncomfortable? Are there lingering problems? Do you get used to it?

SR. MEG: Well, it's very difficult. There's probably nothing more difficult than to either call somebody to accountability or to be called to accountability. It just is that it's necessary to live in form because the form would just dissipate without it. And it's obedience. It's the way to listen, and it's the way to remove the ego, to remove the self-centeredness, and to lay us down like Jesus on the cross.

___I come from a house, we are 85 women, and there are 37 younger than I am.___

Now, is it easy? No. And does it always work? No. I come from a house, we are 85 women, and there are 37 younger than I am. And most of these women come from a very liberal culture, and they don't want to be called to accountability. And women, you know, they want -- diversity seems to be creativity, which would be my way or the highway.

And, so, dialogue again is the middle way. It's to establish a relationship of trust so that when there is something, you can say it to them, or you can pray for them. So that's the goal, but it's not easy.

But we tend not to be confrontational because nobody is unkind, either, and we tend to wait until it's appropriate to say something. But we give ourselves times that are open.

We just finished our chapter of faults for Good Friday, and we spent the morning going to each person -- there were 70 nuns in the room -- and looking each other in the eye and saying, "Have I offended you in any way this year?" And they would say, "Well, yes, you did," or, "No, you didn't." Or you go to the next one, "Do we have any matter?" And I'd have to say, "Yes, there is this." And the other person would say, "Well, there is this." So, it took us a long period in the morning.

KM: Do you feel at the end of that a healing between the two of you?

SR. MEG: Oh, enormous, and gratitude, and so much love, and start over. The air is clean and fresh. Easter, you should have heard the voices on Easter Sunday morning, the purity of that sound, because there was no matter between us.

Now, I don't know if it lasted until Vespers, but the purity.

OO: Sister, I was thinking when you first started to answer the question, it sounded like tattle tailing a little bit from school; but then my thoughts went on again to what Thomas Merton said -- we've got it on the shrine -- about how saints can't even live in community.

SR. MEG: Well, there are people out of relationships, and we bring them back. They don't even show up for some of those things, but we have a huge embrace. I'm on my 42nd year, so it doesn't matter if somebody is gone a year or two; they come back. We're not fussy.

RJH: Kusala, I guess my first response to your speaking was that in some ways you aren't really a serious monastic. But as I listened, this wonderful thing about practice and no form, again it made me think of my own situation because I came to the Rule looking for a trellis for my ministry.

I'm a parish priest,
___and the parish is a place of mostly no form, at least my parish is.___

I'm a parish priest, and the parish is a place of mostly no form, at least my parish is. So, I began to think differently about you. That's interesting because I begin to sympathize with that place of no form because that's what I struggle with; and that's what I look for in the Rule is that trellis, that place of form. So, I guess my question to you is: If you live in a place of no form or perhaps just a little form, where do you put the big form? Where does it live in you? Where does it come from? What do you do with it?

REV. KUSALA: Well, it requires self limitation. The big form arises out of my taking the precepts of a monk, and finding refuge in the Buddha and his teachings. My practice is fine tuned through self-awareness, guidance from others, and living in community. Even though the IBMC doesn't have as much form as Sr. Meg's convent, I find people are always willing to tell me how uncomfortable I make them feel. A wake up call, not a Buddha yet.

Form can come out of an urgency to practice, as well. I am 54, and realize that death is closer than it's ever been before. A wise person once said, "Good health is simply the slowest way a human being can die."

My commitment to working as a community volunteer is something I learned from my teacher Dr. Ratanasara. He understood how improtant community service was. I find being of service to commuity allows me to have more form, not less; that service adds structure to my practice.

Heart and mind offer a kind of form as well. In my mind are all the things I've talked about today, and in my heart is all the suffering I see and feel. "The world is on fire," the Buddha said. Heart gives my practice intention, and mind turns that intention into speech and action.

I don't recommend a formless practice, it's very easy to lose your way. In my community some people are eager to point at me and say, "You lost it. Then other people are eager to help me find it. Community is a blessing and a curse, but really necessary.

MML: When you talked about the bookends, the meditation practice, to me that suggested form. I think of books falling down; but if you have your bookends, you have some form, and you do use that.

REV. KUSALA: Yes, at the IBMC we have a weekly schedule rather than a daily one, some days I find myself meditating with others, and some days meditating by myself. That form, that -- just a quick story to go with that.

When I first started practicing, when I first became involved with Buddhism, I really wanted to commit myself to it; I said to myself I'm going to meditate ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening. Then I went to fifteen minutes in the morning and fifteen minutes in the evening, and I realized my practice was a whole half hour long every day, and my life filled the other 23 1/2 hours.

When I did my first retreat, and immersed myself in Buddhist practice, for a whole weekend I had no life, just a very long and focused practice. I came to realize, as my practice deepened, I had less and less life and more and more practice.

___Everything I do seems to be practice.___

I have come to the point in my practice where I have almost no life at all; everything seems to be practice.

JO: By life, you mean personal wants, needs when you say you have less life?


JO: What do you mean by less life?

REV. KUSALA: Well, I don't try and have a life anymore. In the same way, I don't try to have fun. Fun just seems to happen, like life. It's weird.. When I stopped trying to have a life, it just started to happen all by itself. Life just happens when I do stuff.

I have a couple of web sites I work on every day, and I like my Macintosh computer. In fact, I'm rather attached to it. But I've found joy and happiness occur because of what I do, not what I have. On the other hand, joy and happiness always bring sadness and suffering; if you have one, you're going to have the other, sooner or later. I have a very full life, but it's mostly filled with practice. I have less life, because I have more practice. I have more doing and less being.

JO: Trade-off.

REV. KUSALA: Yes, in a way. I was talking to some teenagers confined in the UCLA Medical Center Psychiatric ward. There was this one girl in for drug treatment, who said, "You know, the best part about life are the highs and lows. I love the roller-coaster ride."

KS: When you work in community, how do you separate failure from sorrow when you try to accomplish something and you can't get the other party to agree with you on the rules?

REV. KUSALA: Good question. I never really accomplish much I set out to do. It's a sad commentary, but does anyone ever reach the goal. Or, is the goal simply and Illusion of the path?

The Buddha said: "We are always in a constant state of becoming;" We are always becoming something, but never attaining it." It's more about process, than event. For me it's not about reaching a goal, no matter how good the goal is, it's all about investing myself in the process.


_Day 1_

Sister Meg | Rev. Kusala | Q & A