The Buddha taught the principals of emptiness and interdependence as a way to free ourselves from suffering. On the spiritual path and especially in a monastery it helps to have a basic understanding of these two principals. Emptiness is not the absence of things…it is an understanding that nothing exists outside of a context. We exist because we have a context: gender, age, family of origin, a job, an education, a set of beliefs about the world and how it works, and an environment in which we live, i.e. a town, a country, a geographical location. All these things are the context in which we function. Because we are not independent of existence outside of a context we are empty and interdependent upon that context.
In our context, our story of life, we have the ability to act and react, judge and respond, ignore what makes us uncomfortable and strive for those things that are pleasing, to avoid danger and create safety. This is what we are doing every moment of every day…acting and reacting to the circumstances of our lives both inwardly and outwardly. We become dependent upon controlling our outer or inner experiences so they will be what we need and want them to be. In this pattern we forget that we have a choice about how to think.
Another challenge that gets in the way of community living is when we feel responsible for the emotions of others and need to placate distraught individuals in order to be safe- but disaster is usually the result of this emotional enslavement. Living the monastic life means that we will have ample opportunity to experience our gloomy, addictive emotions because we will be living with people who are likely to trigger our childhood memories and responses. If we learn to accept what we feel- knowing it is only a feeling– not a truth- we can begin to free ourselves from suffering. When we are not blaming those around us for adverse emotional experiences we can free ourselves from suffering. This is a difficult journey. It’s difficult because we are already addicted to our favorite childhood strategy and reach for it without thought. But on the passage to enlightenment we discover that it’s our clinging and attachment to these tactics that cause our suffering- not the people around us.
To climb a mountain we must be prepared for reaching the top. If we are climbing Mt. Rainier or Mt. Everest we can follow the pre-existing trails and reach the top with determination and planning. But if we are climbing in unknown territory we must forge our own trail. When we go trekking into unexplored country we have to assess what resources will be required- mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. As we begin this journey toward our compassionate heart we will need to assess our beliefs, values, survival strategies, karmic patterns, and unconscious desires.
Every day, every individual has to engage in activities during which he is determining what he thinks, feels, and wishes to do about a situation or relationship. Every action we take, every decision we make, and every thought we think consciously or unconsciously is based on our ideals, values, and beliefs. We create our life story by these methods, solve our problems through these measurements, choose our friends and enemies by these ideals, and construct our karmic future with each decision we implement. It’s essential that we are moving toward something, not creating another way to feel less-than, guilty about, ashamed of, or create new fodder for inner self-hate dialogues. Let’s remember that karma is a core value- something we have identified as essential to our well-being.
Karma cannot bind us if we change our mind. We learn to change our mind by examining our habituated feelings and our interpretation of what those feelings mean. We may always have the same feelings when we are hurt, frightened, angry, upset, or stressed…but we can choose to interpret them in a new way. We can discover what need is not being met and what values are not being expressed by ourselves so we feel that we have to react to outer circumstances. Instead of repeating old habits that lead to suffering we can give ourselves permission to acknowledge our values and find ways to express those values even in difficult situations. We may also discover that in attempting to seek out a special someone or place that seems to contribute, grant, or provide us with pleasant emotions will become unnecessary because we can allow ourselves to provide what we require in order to thrive.
Once we understand the responsibility we have for creating our emotional context we will have more energy, ability, and motivation to experience the reason we are in the monastery in the first place. Remember we chose to enter a monastery to create a life of Prayer, Pohwas, and Peace for the benefit of all beings. We understood that we wished to be the face of Great Mother, Great Father, or Great Weaver within the world. We wanted to learn to respond as a Great Being would respond.