Back in June, I called attention to the story of Prasannamati Mataji, a Jain nun who “had given up all her worldly wealth . . . had given up her family, and was wandering the Earth, treading as lightly as possible.” The Jains practice an extreme asceticism. For instance, while Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads, Jains pluck their hair out one by one. Jains cannot even beg for their meals. They can signal their hunger, but never ask for food.
Prasannamati Mataji’s commitment to this severe ascetic life was inspirational. Then what became a very moving story turned into an unsettling one. Prasannamati Mataji had formed a deep attachment to her companion, a fellow nun. Falling ill, her friend decided to end her life by practicing sallekhana, the very slow ritual denial of food. When she died, Prasannamati Mataji came undone, and eventually she decided to join her friend by practicing sallekhana herself.
Prasannamati Mataji denied that was suicide. Suicide is a sin, she said, the result of despair. Yet, by the end of the story, her deep depression over the loss of her friend was all too apparent.
I’m not certain when the piece was written, it’s just one chapter in William Dalrymple’s book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Assuming that it took several years for the book to be written and published, and considering that Prasannamati Mataji’s sallekhana would take two or three years to accomplish, I wonder what her current situation is, or if she even has one. I haven’t found any recent information on the web.
I also can’t help but think the ending her like in such a way is a waste. For this woman has acquired so much wisdom and seems to have so much to give to others, if only by example. Prasannamati Mataji’s story, beautiful and haunting, has stayed with me all these months.
The cause of Prasannamati Mataji’s suffering was her attachment, her love for her friend. The author of the story wrote, “to be truly detached, you can’t love.”
Her aim is to achieve spiritual freedom. But is she free? Or is her spirituality a sort of prison?
Buddhism has a different path: The Middle Way. We want to sever unhealthy attachments, the extreme forms of clinging, but we do not want to become so detached from life and the world that our love is restricted to only universal love.
A well-known Buddhist saying goes, “Life is precious. A single human life is more valuable that all the treasures of the universe.”
But we know that life is not simply a matter of being alive, just living. To live fully requires knowledge of know how to live meaningfully.
When our minds are open, we see that life is limitless. It has no bars, no fences. The only limit to life is the limit of our capacity to live it deeply, to the fullest. While at times we may be encumbered by physical limits, our capacity for living fully is for the most part determined by our thoughts.
So Buddhism teaches that our quality of life is equal to the quality of our mind. That’s why we are advised to cultivate positive, loving and creative thoughts. Buddhism teaches us how to train our mind and then how to use it.
This is perhaps the most valuable thing we can ever learn. It’s a different kind of education than the one we received in school, and even all our worldly experience cannot give us the same kind of lessons in living.
In one way, it’s learning how to be still and listen. We train ourselves to be still so we can hear the stillness that is deep within the mind. We learn to let this inner peace permeate our being, and then we learn how to let it permeate our environment. Our inner peace helps us make peace with the outer world.
Once we have achieved a state of harmony, we want to be able to maintain it. We learn how to skilfully manage the entanglements of life. We learn how to walk the tightrope of having things and not having unhealthy attachments to them. We learn how to give love but not seize love or cling to love.
Really, the greatest treasure might actually be found in simply acquiring these abilities.
We can choose how to think and how to live. Remember the old saying, master your mind, don’t let it master you.
In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.
– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind