By Annabel Laity
In Plum Village, we practice a ceremony called, "Beginning Anew," which goes all the way back to the Buddha. Families in great difficulties have been saved by this ceremony, and lay and monastic communities have reestablished their harmony, thanks to it. I feel grateful for this simple ceremony every time I see the effect of this practice.
In India in the six century B.C.E., the monks and nuns practiced the Pavarana Full Moon ceremony at the end of the rainy retreat and also in conjunction with the uposatha days when the precepts were recited. Pavarana is sometimes translated as "invitation," as it is a time when monks and nuns invite one another to tell them of their shortcomings. Monks and nuns have continued to the present day doing very much the same ceremony before the twice-monthly precept recitation ceremony.
The head of the community begins the ceremony by revealing his own shortcomings, and then he is followed by other members of the community, according to their status. After that, one monk kneels before another and invites him to reveal the first monk's shortcomings. The monk who is requested to do this often does not want to, but he does because the monk kneeling before him requests three times. If he is skillful, he will reveal the faults in a non-recriminating way and maybe will also give the monk some encouragement.
The effectiveness depends on our depth of commitment to listening and speaking with our whole heart. If we do not practice deep listening and wholehearted speaking, the ceremony can be superficial. For example, someone can reveal faults without feeling any remorse or in such a way as to recriminate another member of the community. I have known this to happen.
A religious community is a big family in which we are not afraid to be guided by those who are older than us, if we know they are guiding us out of love and a concern for our own well-being and the well-being of the community. We listen carefully when we are corrected and think very carefully before reacting. Certainly we never answer back immediately. We say silently or aloud, "Thank you for your advice. I shall consider it very carefully." Then joining our palms, we bow our head.
Traditionally, there is no Pavarana ceremony for lay families. But why should laymen and women not enjoy all the benefits which monks and nuns enjoy, even if it means modifying the ceremony in certain respects? The modifications may even make the ceremony more effective for monks and nuns. The monks and nuns in Plum Village practice very much in the way that lay families practice. We have translated Pavarana as "Beginning Anew."
Actually, 1,500 years ago, the Chinese also used that translation. To disclose or uncover our regrets, our hurts, and our shortcomings is wholesome because it helps us to begin again. So once a week, if we possibly can, the whole family comes together. A good day is when people do not feel too much pressure from homework assignments or preparing for the next day's work. When I worked as a school teacher of difficult children and arrived home too tired to do anything useful, I used to lie down on the floor, follow my breathing, and let everything that had happened during the day fall away. This total relaxation and release helped. In families, such a lying-down practice, either listening to soothing music or in silence, could be very useful as a prelude to Beginning Anew.
Arrange a fresh flower in a vase and put it in the middle of the circle. Do your best to have everyone who lives with you be there. Enjoy your breathing and your concentration as you wait for someone—usually the eldest or one of the senior members—to begin the ceremony. We recently discovered a good way for family practitioners to begin. It is called "flower-watering" and it means acknowledging the wholesome qualities of the other members present. Always speak the truth. This is not a time for flattery. Everyone has strong points which can be seen with awareness. Later on in the ceremony, it may be more difficult to acknowledge the wholesome qualities of others, so it is good to begin by doing that.
The ceremony can be in three stages: encouraging the wonderful things we observe in each other, expressing our regrets for our own shortcomings, and expressing our hurts and difficulties. When you are ready to speak, join your palms to indicate that you are ready. The others who are present will join their palms to show their assent. Then you rise from your seat and approach the flower which is in the middle of the circle, you take it in your hands, and return to your seat. Then you can begin to speak, your words reflecting the freshness and beauty of the flower you hold in your hands. "This week I felt so fortunate to have a brother who waited for me so patiently when I was late for our appointment."
When you have finished, stand up slowly and return the flower to its vase. While one person holds the flower, no other person has the right to speak. No one can interrupt you. We allow people as much time as they need to speak encouragingly to each other. Then we can begin to express our regrets for what we have done to hurt others. It does not take more than one thoughtless sentence to hurt someone, and having said something damaging, we often rush off without sitting down to put right our ill-considered words. The "Beginning Anew" ceremony is the opportunity for us to recall that moment earlier in the week and to undo the regret it caused us, "I'm so sorry for ignoring you when I knew that you wanted to speak to me. I was being selfish and I have felt bad about it ever since." Later on if you feel ready, you take the flower and say something to invite others to let you know of your own shortcomings of which you have been unaware. "I know I have faults of which I am not aware. Please help me brothers and sisters by revealing them to me." Sometimes people are too worried about hurting our feelings, so we need to insist firmly that we want to hear our shortcomings. That is why traditionally one repeats one's request three times.
A fellow practitioner once took me aside and said, "The other day during a meeting you handed me a tray of biscuits and did not even look at me. That sort of behavior hurts me very much. To hand a tray of biscuits to someone is a wonderful opportunity for looking directly at that person, smile to them, and bring them happiness. And yet, you did not take the trouble to do that" While the person was speaking, I saw myself as if I was looking in a mirror. I saw my facial expression, and I also felt how I was inside at that time. When she said that, I was very grateful, because I learned how not to hurt her again, and maybe not to hurt other people. I knew it he had taken courage to say that to me.
Listening meditation is the way to enlightenment followed by the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. We listen without expecting to reply, but we listen so deeply and attentively that the speaker's suffering can be transformed by our listening. To sit in a circle of people who are all practicing listening is truly to experience meditation. That meditation does not belong to any individual but to the whole circle of people. The speaker is helped by the meditation. Everyone is one of the thousand arms of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is made up of us all.
Sometimes a group of two or three families will meet together to celebrate Beginning Anew, and none of the people except the facilitator has been present at such a ceremony before. It is then that the basic practice of enjoying the breathing is so important. The periods of silence are just as important as the times when someone speaks. The facilitator can serve an example by first offering heartfelt words of encouragement and later on revealing her own faults in a way which the children and the adults will easily understand. Then the children will often take the imitative in recounting something they regret having done and the parents will follow suit. However, in families where the suffering is very great and of long duration, the first Beginning Anew ceremony can be difficult. It may only scratch at the surface of years of pain. One of the big dangers with the first time is that practitioners have the tendency to blame or to feel they are being blamed. It is not until the words of recrimination have left the speaker's lips that he realizes that he is blaming. He thinks that because he suffers so much there must be someone who is responsible for that suffering. But when he has blamed someone, he feels rather shy and tries to put it right with some kind words. If someone blames you like that, do not try to reply or deny. Just listen with all your heart. It is not a reply that is needed. It is listening which is needed.
The way of closing the ceremony should be warm—with a song, or holding hands and breathing for a minute, or in hugging meditation. We feel light and relieved even if we have only taken a preliminary step towards healing because we have confidence that having begun, we can continue.
Annabel Laity, whose Buddhist name is True Virtue, is the Head of Practice at Plum Village in France. Eveline Beumkes is a greeting card designer and a member of the Order of lnterbeing.
The "Beginning Anew" ceremony which Thay has given us is a real jewel. During one Beginning Anew Ceremony, a senior student spoke very openly and even lightly about things she had done or said in an unskillful way. Her acceptance of herself gave me a feeling of spaciousness. We all make mistakes. Speaking out about our mistakes has the effect of stripping them of a heaviness they are charged with if they have not been brought into the open.
In the beginning, I felt a little nervous, wondering what would come up for me. I knew I might need to gather courage to speak out, and I pondered how to do it in the best way. I have been amazed to feel how scary it can be to speak out openly about either regret or feeling hurt The last is the most difficult to me. But as the meeting proceeded, I could feel the air clear up, To see so many open their hearts like flowers, being so sincere, authentic, loving, honest, touched me deeply.
Each time I've been in a Beginning Anew session, the meeting has ended with vibrations of warmth from all of our hearts. There is much more happening than the air clearing up. We are woven together much more than before, I would say this meeting is the backbone of the sangha. It is the best example of using "garbage" to transform it into a flower.