“It seems to me that vulnerability is an important component of a monk’s training,” Ajahn declared the other morning during alms round. “Monks depend on the laity, they renounce safety, certainty, autonomy, and the thousand comforts of a home.” He went on to say that the alms round is a powerful symbol of this. “Monks don’t choose the food they will be given, or even whether they will be given anything at all. For 2,500 years, they have walked barefoot through countrysides, exposing themselves to the elements, to thieves, to dogs and other animals, and nowadays to speeding vehicles, and there have been many casualties, some fatal. It is training in faith, letting go, openness, humility, and accepting the fundamental insecurity of life,” he said softly.
The infamous Ajahn Chah was notorious for pushing his monks past their comfort zones. He would deliberately deny his disciples’ preferences, in order to train them to develop peace in all circumstances. We can adapt to pretty much anything, and discomfort always comes from our reaction to circumstances, not from the circumstances themselves. Says my Ajahn: “Vulnerability breaks the mind’s attachment to its preferences and teaches it to let go and have faith that things are just fine even if we don’t get our way. In fact, things will likely be even better because the fear-based need to control events and to impose personal preferences on reality are absent, which means more peace.”
If you have to travel to another country by yourself, but you are not allowed to use money or to ask for anything from others, there is a real chance you will go hungry or get stuck somewhere. And yet, in his 23 years as a monk, Ajahn has never had to fast. Even in countries with no Buddhism and no mendicant tradition, he still went out with his bowl. In the Czech Republic, in Slovenia, in England, in France. He would stand on sidewalks and meditate with eyes open, with a note in the local language explaining what he was doing. And people always gave him something.
He attributes this to his willingness to be vulnerable. “On these European streets, I wasn’t begging or approaching people. I just stood there, and I knew that I might have to fast that day. This is what attracted people. I let go of expectations and control, and let things happen. These European experiences gave me a better appreciation of the value of faith, much more than in Thailand, where a monk would never go hungry. It taught me to let go and to trust the practice.”
We don’t have to be monks to benefit from training in vulnerability. “It is an antidote for the fear and stress that accompany the desire to control life. We instinctively crave security because we are afraid of death. We think that control will give us security, a defence against the uncertain nature of life. But control only brings more stress and fear, and does little to shelter us from insecurity. Most of us don’t like to think about death, and yet this is one of the few certainties in life. Why wait until we are on our deathbeds to open to the vulnerability of life? Learning to let go of control is relaxing and peaceful, and if you can live this way, you will also die this way,” he said calmly.