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Sister Candasiri and Sister Medhanandi, Buddhist nuns of the British Forest Sangha (Ajahn Chah's tradition) spent three days with the Sisters of the Love of God - one of the few Anglican contemplative Orders - at Fairacres,The Convent of the Incarnation, on the outskirts of Oxford. Sister Candasiri presents some impressions of their experience.
Some years ago, Sr. Rosemary SLG (Sister of the Love of God) came to spend two months at Amaravati to pursue an interest in meditation, stimulated through reading the teachings of Ajahn Sumedho. After discovering - in addition to a deep sense of kalyanamitta - that we had been at school together almost thirty years before, we kept in contact. I was delighted when an opportunity came to pay her a visit.
From the moment we stepped off the coach in Oxford to be met by Sr. Rosemary - plus bicycle - we were made to feel at ease. As three brown-robed figures conversing animatedly as we walked through the streets, we attracted a certain interest; her elaborate head dress and gold crucifix, our shaven heads - all of us wearing sandals. We made our way to the convent, which is situated in a quiet suburban road. It comprises several buildings built over a time span of about 100 years, and is set in 5 acres of enclosed gardens where fruit and vegetables are grown and formal gardens merge with less cultivated areas.
As we entered the cool silence of the enclosure, our voices naturally dropped to a whisper and then to silence, in accordance with the rule followed by the community. This simple observance brings an aura of quiet collectedness as the sisters move about in the cloisters; most communication happens by notes (each sister has a note clip in the main hallway), or by gesture. When meeting the superior, Mother Anne, I noticed a slight awkwardness to find suitable gestures of respect and greeting - but we knew we were welcome.
It was our intention to merge as far as possible into the daily life of the community. However, Sr. Rosemary, although appreciative of our intention to be as discreet a presence as possible, had other ideas. I was surprised to see, on the daily schedule thoughtfully prepared for us in our cells, `morning puja' and `evening puja', `group discussion', and `meditation workshop' on Saturday afternoon. These were to take place in the Chapter House, which had been set aside for us to use during our stay. We also attended their Offices in the chapel (including the Night Office, from 2:00 to 3:00 am), helped with simple domestic duties - washing up, sewing curtains, taking care of the refectory - and, at suitable times in suitable places, we did a fair bit of talking. So our days were well-filled, and yet somehow there was a sense of spaciousness. Each moment felt precious as we drank from the well of goodness that we found there.
As we entered the chapel, it was natural to bow - a deep bow from the waist - and we were seated among the professed sisters. For some of them it must have felt very strange to have us there, and included to such a degree. For our part, we felt deeply touched. I looked at the faces of the sisters opposite, many of them getting older now; some of them very old. From some, one could sense the struggle of the life, from others there seemed to emanate a radiance - the beauty of one who is whole, at one with existence. For each, I felt deep respect and gratitude.
We ate with the community and the other female and male guests at long wooden tables in the refectory. The mid-day meal, which was eaten from a single wooden bowl, was accompanied each day with a reading on aspects of spiritual life. During our stay, the theme was celibacy in religious community and the integration of the active and contemplative aspects of our life. It seemed strikingly pertinent.
The sisters, concerned that it might not interest us, were somewhat hesitant about inviting us to their "choir practice". Each week an elderly monk from another Order nearby visits, "to try to teach us to sing" as one of the sisters explained. But it was a delight to experience their interaction with him and to hear their Eastertide Alleluias soar to the highest heavens. One felt they were simply brother and sisters in the Holy Life. In contrast, we noticed, at the communion service we attended on the first morning of our visit, the immediate sense of polarity which arose with the entry of the priest. Until that time we had all simply been religious people; suddenly, in relation to him, we became `women'.
We met at 7:30 each morning and evening in the Chapter House with those of the community who wished to attend our puja and meditation. Although the sisters do not receive training in formal meditation, as we sat together, the quality of silence and still attention was quite remarkable. One sensed that this presence of mind was the result of years of silent prayerfulness and recitation of the Office - an austere and impressive practice.
Our discussions were lively. Although they keep silence for much of the time, the recreation periods two or three times a week encourage discussion, and stimulate a keen interest and reflection on many aspects of life. One thing that interested them very much was the Buddhist approach to working with the mind. It was a revelation to them that significant changes in the mind and mental states could be effected simply through patiently bearing with them; that there was no need to struggle, or to feel guilty or burdened by the negativity, doubt or confusion that affect us all. Also interesting to them was the practice of walking meditation, and of just sitting consciously, as ways of attuning to the physical body.
We talked together of many things, aware that what we shared was vastly greater than our differences. It was clear that we could learn from and support one another without in any way compromising our commitment to our respective traditions. What was also touching was to realise that we experienced the same personal doubts and sense of inadequacy, and that each felt the other to be stronger or more impressive. I sensed the fragility and subtlety of the renunciant life, demanding as it does a surrender of personal power and control; the need to give of oneself totally and, as one sister put it, simply to "trust the process".
Another meeting I had was with Sister Helen Mary. She is eighty four now and, having lived alone for twenty-five years on Bardsey Island, has the appearance of one well worn by the elements of nature. She spoke gently and quietly, but with great enthusiasm, about the wonder of living "immersed in the spirit". I knew what she meant, although I would have used different words. Again I felt a shyness, a hesitation: should we bow, shake hands, or what? - but that seemed to be a very minor matter!
On the last morning of our stay, we met with Mother Anne. I was curious to know how she regarded our visit and Sr. Rosemary's great interest in our Buddhist tradition. She told us that she had had no doubts about receiving us, and that she felt that nowadays it is essential to recognise God beyond the limitations of any particular religious convention. This was clearly conveyed when we finally took our leave, as she enveloped each of us in turn with the most whole-hearted embrace that I have ever experienced! There was no doubt about the love of God we shared at that moment.
At the last Office, with the afternoon sunlight filtering through the lofty windows of the chapel, I was struck by the awesome purity of the life: its simplicity and renunciation, its total dedication to what is wholly good. Beside it, the outside world we were about to enter seemed overwhelmingly confused and complicated - so little there to encourage people to live carefully, so much to stimulate greed and selfishness. Later on, I realised that perhaps visitors experience our monastic life in much the same way, even though, from the inside, it can often seem quite ordinary and full of flaws.
As we waited with Sister Rosemary for our bus back to London, continuing our talk about meditation and mindfulness, the bus we were due to catch sailed by. Oh well, we thought, so much for our practice of mindfulness! Not long after, another came and, more attentive this time, we managed to make it stop for us. We parted -- our hearts full, and deeply grateful.
From: Forest Sangha Newsletter, http://www-ipg.umds.ac.uk/~crr/newsletter/