Today's a great day to turn over a new leaf
Today is Wan Awk Phansa,the official end of Phansa (Buddhist Lent). It falls on the full moon day of the 11th month in the traditional lunar calendar and marks the conclusion of a three-month annual retreat during which Theravada monks are obliged to stay in their monasteries and engage in intensive meditation and reflection.
Similar to other important Buddhist holy days, devout laypeople will celebrate the occasion by visiting their favourite temple to make merit, listen to sermons and practice dhamma.
Other celebratory activities include the tradition of Tak Bat Devo, which could be translated as "fill the bowls of gods". This ritual is held the day after Awk Phansa to welcome the Buddha on his return to this world after he had spent three months in heaven, where followers believed he went to visit his mother and preach.
Awk Phansa also marks the beginning of a 30-day period of merit-making that provides lay-Buddhists with the opportunity to present new saffron robes and other necessities to monks in their local temple during a time-honoured ceremony called thod kathin (robe-offering).
If not preparing to take part in a thod kathin procession themselves, many Buddhists like myself will, at the very least, engage in a practice called song kathin, filling white envelopes given to us by friends, relatives or co-workers with a cash donation which is used to defray the costs of a thod kathin ceremony which that person is helping to sponsor.
I must confess, though, that I haven't got all excited about the arrival of Awk Phansa this year. It's not a public holiday and because I seem to have a lot of work on my plate at the moment I won't be able to take part in any of the fun-filled activities organised for this important day.
However, one aspect of Awk Phansa that I greatly appreciate is an ancient tradition still observed by many monastic communities on this day and one which I wish more lay-Buddhists would pay attention to.
I don't know how many of us remember that Buddhist Lent traditionally concludes with a ceremony called pavarana. Literally meaning "inviting admonition" (or inviting other people to give advice to you), it is a practice whereby members of the clergy, irrespective of rank or seniority, are free to criticise or reprimand one other. That's why today is also known as Pavarana Day in some quarters.
Buddha laid down this rule for the betterment of the Sangha, the Buddhist monkhood, and it gives all monks an opportunity to atone for any offences they might have committed during the three months they have been living together in close confinement in the monastery. The only precondition is that any reprimand must be motivated by kindness and that the originator of the criticism must have compassion for the recipient in terms of mind, speech and body. Thus, both sides should act in a kindly manner towards each other and try to keep an open mind while they air their views.
In my view, this is an ideal practice that is of great potential benefit not only to those who lead a monastic life, but to all the rest of us who live in this secular world of ours. In reality, though, I have yet to see any community or workplace willing to adopt the practice of pavarana, despite all the unresolved conflicts between individuals that cause tension day in and day out.
This is probably because it's against basic human nature to welcome blame, for us to invite others to detail our flaws without our feeling upset or losing face. And it's never easy for people to be honest enough to admit their own faults and make a determined effort to right a perceived wrong. Strange but true: we're more inclined to pay attention to the imperfections of others than we are to own up to imperfections of our own. We tend to believe that our character flaws (if we even admit to having such things!) are not half as ugly as other people's defects, and that if someone is to blame for something, the finger can never be pointed at us.
Two years ago, I tried to convince
a friend of mine to ponder her own flaws after she had expressed negative feelings towards a colleague of hers who said she could no longer stand my friend's unpleasant behaviour and that she wanted to keep a distance from her from then on.
My friend was apparently unhappy with my advice. She asked why she should correct her behaviour if that colleague of hers wasn't expected to make a similar effort.
I explained to her that I had been in a similar situation before and that I had found it was a waste of time to expect others to change themselves; an approach like that does not bring one any nearer to self-development.
I think our biggest enemy in this scenario, the one that prevents us from realising our own faults, is the ego we have unwittingly been grooming for all these years. Big or small, ego is the basis of that feeling of self-importance or superiority that makes us keep our guard up against practically every negative comment directed at us.
From a Buddhist viewpoint, ego is merely a fabrication of the mind. It's the sense of self (atta is the Buddhist term), the sense of "I" or "me" that we believe in and cling to. And this is often the source of most of our problems.
Trying to understand the true nature of "self", and then learning how to let go of it, is one of the hardest of Buddha's teachings to put into practice. But Buddha pointed out that this goal can be achieved through an arduous observation of one's own mind, through the practice of what is known as "mindfulness".
Well, I'm not in a position to expect everyone (or anyone) to succeed in this mission. I just think that being able to detect our own ego at work, before it can take hold of us and drive us to do things that might make headaches for the people around us, is already a blessing.
I do sincerely believe, however, that once we can see clearly that the bigger our ego is, the uglier we are, we will be strongly motivated to do something to improve ourselves. And I think today, being the auspicious day that it is, is a good time for all of us, whether Buddhist or not, to take up this challenge.
Patcharawalai Sanyanusin is a writer for the Bangkok Post's Life section.
Patcharawalai Sanyanusin is a writer for Life section of the Bangkok Post.