On further reflection I believe my visit to Ely last weekend, was reconnecting me, imaginatively at least, with a source of sraddha ie. beauty - the beauty of cathedral architecture - the beauty of an ideal - the beauty of human beings embodying that ideal - the beauty of an ideal being put into active practice. There was precious little in Ely, and even less in Norwich, that had a sense of spiritual vitality or a devotion that was alive and kicking, nothing I felt a conscious connection with at least. But my heart was finding something in the ambiance or ether to rekindle the flickering flame of my own devotion - what I place my heart upon.
Though I have no current desire to become a monk, I still have a compelling and long lasting interest in monasticism, in all its forms - Christian or Buddhist. Whether I could cut it in a monastic situation, is an open question. Though there were strong aspects of it present in my four month Ordination Course, which I really loved, and on some level still miss - the regular structured practice, the programme you surrendered yourself to, a sense of brotherhood and shared spiritual endeavour. My reading and studying of monasticism has given me a strong sense for what the draw backs are - a tendency to rely on rules and rituals, settling into formalism, spiritual conformity, lack of challenge, and losing the cutting edge of practice. In fact, not dissimilar to the issues a lay practitioner deals with. Either way its about balancing 'a life of activity' with 'a life of calm'. Though the emphasis appears to change depending on whether you're in a lay or a monastic situation. Within 'a life of activity' its finding time to cultivate 'a life of calm'. In 'a life of calm' its keeping in touch with 'a life of activity'. All practice needs testing in the fires of experience. to establish what has been permanently been attained, and what is merely conditional on circumstances for its existence. You need both to retreat from the world and to engage with it positively, and not to see the world as a threat to your hard won 'calmness'. The life of a monk, to me, is an archetype, and represents Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels on some mythical mysterious level. It may be a mistake then for me to take this literally as an unfulfilled desire to become a monk, (though I have to hold that possibility in reserve) Monasticism, I believe, represents my sraddha's aspiration to take the current level of my practice deeper.
We live a very domesticated lay lifestyle do David & I. 'A life of activity', in and of the world, whilst neither of us crave that much materially from it. We each have our interests we pursue, to the extent we have money or space for them. We both earn well below the national average wage, but are not unhappy, feel deprived, or struggle with that. It is our choice to live as practicing Buddhists in this way, in a loving relationship, which neither excludes our interests, friends, or spiritual practice. The only limitation on the latter are the physical circumstances of our current flat, which lacks a separate space in which to find 'a life of calm' - a room in which to meditate. That said, we do what we can within this constraint, without it becoming a focus for discontent. Which is not to say we don't experience dissatisfaction or unhappiness, because from time to time we both do. We are human after all. Those of you who regularly read this blog will know all too well, how much I struggle with the perceived imperfect nature of my life. Small things which are not quite right, easily become overblown intense sources of frustration - 'If only this thing wasn't here I would be happy and content.' These sources for discontentment come and go, one seemingly replaced instantly by another. The constant bug bear is 'I'm not doing what I need to in order to be happy, content and fulfilled.' But there has never been enough time to do all I want, so someone is being unrealistic here, something has to go, some toughened carapace has to be shed. It occurs to me more and more, that limiting choice and aspiration, asking less of life, not more, is perhaps a better approach if I really want contentment. It would certainly create less causes for frustration. A place for calm within the activity.