Letter from Bodhgaya
Your correspondent has been in back-to-the-land mode for the past two months. I have recognized that I’m still not qualified and capable enough to properly engage in those most sublime of monastic pastimes – study, prayer, meditation, and preaching. And there is simply “no livable future for the competitive, self-regarding, high-consumption, middle-class way of life which we’ve been taught to regard as the culmination of industrial progress,” (quoting Theodore Roszak: Sixties wallahs may remember this name, perhaps).
So I’ve decided that cultivating a little patch round my little home at Maitreya Project land in Bodhgaya is time well-spent. I’m amazed at the response from the soil and the seeds, given a little care and a lot of help from Sister Rain. My peregrinations in village India, as well as concern for the state of the local people and their wasted soils, have convinced me that if there is a monastery here in Bodhgaya as Lama Zopa Rinpoche wishes, then it must engage people’s land and livelihoods as well as their minds. As responsible stewards we owe it to humans and the land we so depend on.
Here, in Bihar, to accentuate the inner while neglecting the outer, is in effect saying to people, “I really want to help you by guiding you to the realization that your mind is the key to happiness and suffering, but meanwhile your land, your food, your livelihood, whether you’ve satisfying work and enough food in your belly is not my concern.” Given the widespread deprivation, as well as the breakdown of local communities, health, and education networks, any initiative that’s really going to help people in this part of India has to be a well-integrated one, combining tools for salvaging inner and outer worlds back from their present distorted and crippled state.
So, what can we learn from the monastic wisdom and efforts of the past? A great deal, I venture to say. It’s a tragedy that industrial society has always set the practical against the spiritual, the cult of the individual against the idea of convivial community. The intellectual orthodoxy blots out the fact that there are and have been vital alternatives that have married individual and society, spiritual and practical, in a supportive relationship. The example of the Middle Ages in Europe shows us an extraordinary and fruitful process of organic development from the unworldly, cell-bound monastic to the mushrooming of small, domestic economies that were “the most stable, orderly and productive in their society, with more than enough surplus to provide charitable care for the needy and the aged .”
What’s more, these monastic establishments produced some of the best farmers and craftspeople of their age, the inventors of new and appropriate technologies as well as prime and inspiring examples of the principle of manual labor as spiritual discipline – freedom not from dreary work but freedom within work.
The medieval monastics were not shirking their prayers either. They show us clearly that their work for others grew out of their contemplative lifestyle and their feeling of responsibility for others, that there’s an inside to these economics, revealing that a healthy community, society, economics, and so forth cannot possibly develop without a proper culture of the person.
In the context of our proposed monastery here in the Place of Awakening, I think we’ve a big responsibility to show others that the life of the well-cultivated mind and heart can and does lead to a flowering in many avenues of life – educational, medical, agricultural. Liberation, in the Mahayana tradition, is said to have the potential to enter through many doors. We have to explore these various doors and make sure we have the expertise and will to keep them all open. That way, we help and engage more people. What’s at stake is probably the future of Indian civilization, Tibetan civilization.
What we do in Bodhgaya has the potential to serve as an uplifting example to others who have not yet given in to the prevailing quiet desperation and selfish grabbing at material riches.
Ven. Kabir Saxena (Losang Tenpa) works for the Maitreya Project School in India.