This article is the first of two outlining both the spiritual and practical aspects of the Priory and how best to benefit from your time here. The second article will cover ceremonial.
If we are to talk about the spirit of the Priory and how to use it, where can we say it starts and ends? When we put our foot across the threshold do we inhabit a different mind? Is the rest of our life separate to how we are in the temple? In what way does meditation flow in to all we do? These are just four questions of the many that can arise when considering this issue.
A good starting point would be to understand why the Priory exists. What is it’s purpose and how is that purpose fulfilled? Firstly it is a refuge for those who wish to or have undertaken a meditation practice and would like to take it deeper. The Priory helps in sustaining practice and point the way. Everything about the place helps us all to remember and keep true to the life of meditation and the precepts. So when we enter the building, the aspects of gratitude and respect are already active. As individuals this is what we offer to all beings, and it helps in allowing us to know our true life. Implicit in coming to a Buddhist temple is a wish for the teaching, in whatever form it comes. This humility helps bring out the harmony in the sangha, and this refuge taking in each other helps to mature our practice. Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are all present at one and the same time, and are active.
When we first come to practice we are shown how to meditate first. This is important, because it shows us that this is the important thing and everything flows from this. It’s not a matter of buiding up to it, but we are shown that each moment is complete in itself. Before that though even, as we enter a temple for the first time, we are probably shown to put our shoes straight. This is sometimes verbally but quite often through example. On the face of it a straightfroward act, and it may not always click with us the spiritual importance of such an act. For me it was and remains a vital aspect of religous life which constantly teaches. At one and the same time it is a basic teaching yet also shows us that we never get away from practicing the basics, and that they stop becoming basics, (in our minds), and are ever present truths. For myself putting the shoes straight is not always a self conscious act and yet I am aware that this is what I am doing. It is like breathing, I know when I am not doing it. When we learn the importance of doing this many other aspects of temple life fall in to place. Offering a candle, putting our sitting equipment away tidily or making the tea are just three examples. How to be in a temple is not formulaic. It is different for all of us, yet something is expressed which also speaks of a shared sincerity. This can also be seen in how different Priors express the teaching. Slightly varying approaches inevitably affect how a place functions, yet it will be in line with root of the teaching and show us that we don’t have to squeeze into a straight jacket to be able to be there. All of us have our particularities and these don’t need to be an obstacle even if we may feel sometimes to be out of step with the majority. Yet, if we come with an agenda and try to sway others to our point of view, I would say that is an example where there could be a potential issue that would need addressing. Even if pointed out it is still down to us to do something about our behaviour. To see and acknowledge in our hearts that the harmomy of the sangha is being disturbed.
Stepping forward is another expression of practice. To freely offer is a gift and received with gratitude. (I will cover this more fully in part two). However small it may seem it is noticed and appreciated. It is a joy to see somebody come forth and offer. This could be in making tea for everyone, lighting candles before meditation or a service or offering to be chaplain or precentor (both cermonial roles). Because we are deeply interconnected these acts make a significant difference and the merit of the offering resounds throughout the temple and beyond. Initially we may come to training to do something about ourselves, (which remains true), yet we all receive the merit of another’s offering. Our wholehearted effort is an encouragement to others and points up the potential in us all to awaken.
An important and maybe obvious area to look at is the role of the Prior and one’s relationship to that priest. The Prior’s role first and foremost is to sit still within the body of the temple and do his or her practice. Everything comes forth from there. The everything being keeping the doors open, (spirituall and physically),offering an expansive welcome to all who come, protecting and offering the dharma, and all that is inbetween. In conversation recently somebody told me not to forget that people come because there is a monk resident. Some people prefer to keep that monk at arms length and others wish for a more close association. My vow is to look with the eye of a buddha and see a buddha. Whether you have just walked through the door or have been coming for some time the essential buddha nature is there to be trusted. Nevertheless it is natural that if I get to know someone on more than a passing level the relationship will reflect that. In a way the Prior is a sponge who is able to soak up spillages and messes, gently and with no fuss and , vitally, not create one of their own. The teachers role here to is show harmony so that others may see its value. I believe it is important for us all to keep our antenna alert because the teaching can come in less obvious ways and to be open to receiving that dharma even when it shows something about ourselves which we would rather not acknowledge just now.
So to sum up, the Priory is here for you when you need it. Treat it with respect and gratitude, and what it has to offer will be available for you. Offer up yourselves, and by that I mean that hard, resisting and obstinate self which can want things in a certain way, and all beings will receive the merit of your actions.