In the March of 2017, during a conference trip to Nalanda in India (the old site of this long-lost seat of Buddhist learning is particularly dusty during this time of year), I came down with a terrible hacking cough. I remember my diaphragm aching with each breath I took, even as I felt the overwhelming itch to cough, despite the knowledge that my chest would hurt even more as a result. As luck would have it, the following month I had planned a trip to New Zealand, my first time in that beautiful, scenic country.
As I visited locales across the south island—the charmingly touristic Queenstown, Te Anau and glorious Milford Sound, and my favorites, the picturesque Wanaka and cozy Arrowtown—I noticed my hacking cough and aching chest healing, day by day, and by trip’s end I felt like a new man and ready to subsume myself in polluted Hong Kong air and the smog of New Delhi in future assignments.
I find the notion of spiritual renewal to be similar in feeling. Sometimes in our religious life, we feel we are going through a rough patch. We might sense ourselves stagnating, with little certainty about our direction or level of energy. We might simply be having that nagging feeling that we could somehow be doing better, and this feeling is enough to throw us off, perhaps leading us down a route of self-doubt and negativity.
Two things to remember: first, to demand perfection in one’s practice is to ask for the moon to be made of cheese. Imperfection itself is human nature. Figures throughout Buddhist history, from wild yogis to erudite masters to pious monarchs, have stressed this point over and over again. All the more tragic that so many of us fall for this deception today, just like how in the secular world we might pursue the “ideal” lifestyle, with the accompanying ideal home, car, or job. Second, it is precisely because of the first that we all need time off: not to indulge in extreme attachments (sorry), but to reorganize ourselves in joyful preparation for the continuous encounter with transcendent meaning.
The words of Ashoka the Great in his famous Minor Rock Edict 1 come to mind: “I have been a Buddhist layman for over two and a half years, but for a year I did not make much progress. More than a year has passed since I visited the monastery, and I have become more ardent.” (Coatsworth et. al. 2015, 117)
The wording of this inscription reveals the two issues I highlighted above: that to admit one’s imperfections in the religious life is not only inevitable, but necessary if we wish to see path with clear eyes. Furthermore, it is after a visit to a monastery that King Ashoka felt re-energized, more passionate in acting on his Buddhist faith. Acknowledging one’s shortcomings and allowing spiritual renewal into one’s life through diverse means (many of them accidental, unexpected, and serendipitous) are actually joined at the hip, inseparable from each other. In his first year of practice Ashoka felt unease with his stagnation, but after his monastery visit felt that same spiritual vigor that he possessed as a new convert.
We will inevitably pass through peaks and valleys, and the Buddhist message has always been to simply observe those highs and lows, mindful that the spiritual life is never about reaching “somewhere” or “something” in the conventional sense. Yet we will feel tired or restless from time to time, and it is in those times we need to acknowledge our human need for renewal, and take that chance to go back to the monastery.
Coatsworth, John et. al. 2015. Global Connections: Politics, Exchange, and Social Life in World History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.