journal/book reviews/

books that left a significant imprint

insights from a forest monk

I like to read Buddhist books because it serves a radical narrative compared to the ones we’ve been served in mainstream society. It teaches us to understand the nature of our suffering, and tells us it is possible to liberate ourselves from that suffering. That even the Buddha said that it is important to investigate our experiences, not to believe him wholesale. In a largely materialist society, it is important to know that are alternatives to our mainstream way of living, which is to control, conquer, acquire, consume – almost always a more of everything. Buddhism teaches us that control is just an illusion, it is not by having things that we can gain true joy, but rather learning how to let go and accept the impermanence of life.

A while ago I picked up “I may be wrong” by Björn Natthiko Lindeblad at a book sale. These days we seem to only pick up books when it is “trending”, so it was a lovely experience to actually go to a physical book store, browse books on a shelf, and pick up a book because something about it called out to you. It could be the cover, the synopsis at the back. In this case I liked that it was a memoir of a former forest monk. I’ve read books written by Tibetan and Zen monks, but none from a forest monk yet. And a Swedish forest monk?! The forest monk tradition is considered quite obscure compared to Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.

Photo of book: "I may be wrong"

I thought I’ll note down some favourite bits and share it here. In the prologue, it opened with:

“What I value most from my seventeen years of full-time spiritual training is that I no longer believe my every thought. That’s my superpower.”

That we are not our thoughts is not new to people who are familiar with Buddhism, but seeing it explicitly called out like that by the author was still provocative to me. I have found more emotional freedom ever since I learnt to examine the reality of my emotions at a distance, so I deeply related to that statement.

He tells many stories about the wisdom he had learnt from his fellow forest monks. The title of the book came from a lecture by Ajahn Jayasaro:

“The next time you sense a conflict brewing, when you feel things are about to come to a head with someone, just repeat this mantra to yourself three times, sincerely and convincingly – in any language you want worries will evaporate, like dew from the grass on a and your summer morning. I may be wrong. I may be wrong. I may be wrong.”

We’re living in a world where everybody wants to be right, and it has led to divisive conflicts that has detrimentally impacted life for many people. We insist on being right, there is no room for differences, negotiation, accommodation, empathy. We start citing lines from books on why we are right, and we want to be right at the expense of people’s lives. The idea that anyone of us may be wrong at any given time could be life-saving in many situations.

The line that stuck most deeply with me was from Ajahn Anandabodhi, a forest nun, something she said to the author when he was tired and overworked:

“Natthiko. Don’t forget: responsibility – the ability to respond.”

I have never thought of “responsibility” as the ability to respond before. The word “responsibility” just sounds like something we must do or carry no matter what, regardless of who we are, how we feel or think. It is like a moral obligation that must be undertaken, something that doesn’t give the freedom of choice.

But thinking back on all those times people/I thought of me as irresponsible, and all those times when I felt other people were irresponsible – both causing much internal suffering in me – I realised most of the time, it is not that people choose to be irresponsible. It is simply because we don’t have the ability or capacity to respond. Life can be very overwhelming, and due to the inherently violent and traumatic nature of society people’s capacities can be very limited. How do we have room to carry more and heavier things when all our lives – since the moment we are aware we are conscious – we have been weighed down and scarred by so much? There is no nurturance, no gradual scaffolding. We can’t ask someone who has never run before to run a marathon. The capacity to respond like training for a marathon, has to be gradually developed.

Insights like these, they slowly free up space in my small, constricted heart. Instead of resentment I just feel sorry. For people, for myself. This sorriness makes it harder for me to resent. I still do, just less.

The other notable parts of the book I appreciated are about the lifestyles of forest monks. They eat only one meal, and they can’t eat after noon. They cannot handle money, so they rely on alms from the generosity of the public, which means they eat anything that people donate. Here I am, regularly feeling sorry for myself (again) when I intermittently fast and eat a “strict” diet. I can still choose whatever I want to eat within the boundaries of my chosen diet, and I can eat a large and varied meal if I choose to omad (one meal a day). Comparatively to the forest monks, it would seem like I am feasting. Of course life is not a suffering competition, but the whole point of these practices is not to teach them to suffer, but rather to practice how to respond when life is not within their control:

Monastic life was designed to frustrate the mechanisms we employ to exert control. That was one of the reasons we didn’t handle money, weren’t allowed to choose when or what we ate, who we lived with or which hut we slept in. Being forced to relinquish control was a deliberate part of the learning process. And the result was wonderful. It’s a gift to be able to rest in trust when life becomes uncertain, to be comfortable with not knowing.

This is something I want very much for myself. I don’t agree with everything he/Buddhism preaches. He uses the word “trust” a lot, like life is something to be trusted. I don’t share that faith, at all. I think life is ambivalent, it just is. But I do believe it is helpful to live life for what it actually is – that it is uncertain and impermanent. I think there is freedom that can arise from being fully aware and present to what life can gift and take away from us. A lot of suffering comes from the illusory belief that we can control our trajectory, and also from the avoidance of pain/death. When we are willing to meet things upfront, we save a lot of energy from all the time we spend trying to avoid it.

I am still struggling though. It scares me to think about people I love dying. But I think about it regularly, I try not to shy away from it. It will not lessen my grief, but at the very least I will not be surprised with a ton of regret when the times come.

How do I increase my own capacity to respond? I think it takes constant practice and meditation – maybe meditation is the practice. I don’t trust life inherently, but I do trust my capacity to change, because I know how much I’ve changed – or rather learnt to understand myself better so I can stop repeating unhealthy behaviour. I have so much gratitude towards books and the will of authors to write them. Without the generous sharing of their insights, who would I have become, or worse, who would I still be stuck in?

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