Thoughts in the Redwoods

June 22, 2012

Ajahn Jotipalo

I had the opportunity to stay at a Buddhist monastery this week. Although it wasn’t my first time at one in the Theravada forest tradition, there were marked differences between it and my experience in New Zealand. As the caretaker, I was a fully integrated member of the community at Vimutti, one of only a handful of people to live on the grounds full time. We had our share of visitors, but crowds rarely exceeded twenty people. In addition, I felt as though I were trying to recapture my experiences in New Zealand instead of merely being mindful of the present and enjoying what Abhayagiri had to offer. I had much more time to practice sitting meditation and reflect on aspects of Buddhism I find appealing and those I personally wouldn’t follow.

The goal in every Buddhist tradition is to be mindful, whether one is meditating, walking down the street, or eating a snack (no one can be mindful watching TV). I support this practice, but the ritual surrounding it seems unnecessary in my eyes: bowing, chanting. Paying respect to those with seniority (the Buddha being the enlightened one and all) makes sense, but is it required to bow three times, at certain ceremonies? I read a Dhamma (practice) book on the subject in which one prominent monastic considered this argument, as “true but not right, right but not true.” The ritual practice is meant to lead those unenlightened down a virtuous path leading to mindfulness. Still, I hesitate at bowing to an idol, and chanting with hands closed reminds me of mindless prayer.


I came to Abhayagiri with one pressing question. I’ve become so used to being romantic involved with only women who want nothing more than someone with whom to enjoy the adventure abroad, making friends who know there’s a time limit to our time together, and meeting family on the holidays. I appreciated the loss of my grandfather a few years ago, but I didn’t mourn him; he was 92, and had been in poor health for a few years. These connections were temporary, reasonable, and were screaming non-attachment… but what if I wanted something more? What is Buddhism’s stance on non-attachment concerning relationships with friends, family, lovers…? As a whole, the philosophy seems to advocate non-attachment for all things. The ajahn (teacher) told me these relationships could be maintained on many different levels: e.g. responsibility of a parent to a child; looking out for the welfare of a friend. All of which, seemingly, do not require an attachment that one can’t live without. I agree with this principle for friends and relatives… but love?

Heart in the grass

True love, in my mind, and I’m not talking about infatuation, requires dependency and attachment. How could it be love if one could find himself imagining life without another? Maybe I’m just naive, or very young, or just too much of a romantic to be a Buddhist. Maybe I will have to forsake these ideals if I’m ever going to meet someone with whom to share my life. But, as it now stands, I believe love is attachment. I guess I can’t fall in love with a true Buddhist.

All in all, my week at the monastery was a nice getaway, but it reminded me by way of a nagging feeling, that I’ve already experienced that part of my life. Just like the expression “you can’t go home again” and the sense every traveler experiences upon returning to a country in which he once lived, so too did I realize I’m not exactly the person I was in 2009, nor am I really a Buddhist. I’m sure I’ll still find time to study the Sutras, but living in a Buddhist community didn’t do anything for me, just helped me become slightly more aware my place was not there. I wonder if the same feeling will arise should I return to Japan. I love Japanese food, culture, people, adventures… but maybe I’m grasping for a handle on a part of my life best left finished.

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2 Responses to Thoughts in the Redwoods

  1. Alex on June 22, 2012 at 10:45 am

    The way I’ve always understood Buddhism’s take on non-attachment and relationships is the understanding that all relationships are temporary because our time on earth is limited. THAT’S the non-attachment piece. That doesn’t mean holding people in your life at arms length. We need to do our best to be truly present and accountable in all our relationships because they won’t last forever. I can’t think of a better way to approach it, quite honestly.

  2. Andrea on June 23, 2012 at 2:38 am

    I have studied Buddhism in the past and, for me, it is the closest internalized belief system that will ever come close to a religion for me. But I do not consider myself a Buddhist, I just feel very strongly that its teachings are an essential tool for me in getting through this life. The non-attachment issue when it comes to love is something I’ve always struggled with. I’m married and I think about it in relation to my husband as well as any children we may have – how could you not become attached to your child and still be a good parent? I hope you will post again if you have any more thoughts about the subject!

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