Upāsaka (masculine) or Upāsikā (feminine) are from the Sanskrit and Pāli words for “attendant”. This is the title of followers of Buddhism (or, historically, of Gautama Buddha) who are not monks, nuns, or novice monastics in a Buddhist order, and who undertake certain vows. In modern times they have a connotation of dedicated piety that is best suggested by terms such as “lay devotee” or “devout lay follower.” The literal translation means “sits with monks”.
I was honored to have a fellow sangha member from the Blue Lotus Buddhist Temple, who is also in the process of becoming a monk, to sit with me for an intimate question and answer session.
Known to most of us as Remy, his given Buddhist (Pali) name is currently Upasaka Subhavita.
Q. What lead you to the Buddhist path, and what is your religious background?
A. I have always been on the path that I am today. I have taken a lot of detours, but always end up back on the path that I am on today. As I have gotten older, I have gotten less structured in many ways, and more structured in others. I was brought up Catholic, but always found Catholicism too rigid whereas Buddhism is much more open-minded. I am really a spiritual person living a human existence.
Buddhism has always been around me in the form of Temples near the places I lived, but I never attended them. It seems as though they were a beacon.
Finally, one day I Googled Buddhist Temples in McHenry County, and Blue Lotus popped up with a picture of Bhante Sujatha. He was holding a Loving Kindness workshop nearby, and I signed-up. With no expectations, I went to it. And I remember at the end, while I was laying there doing loving-kindness, him coming by and holding my hand. And there was something about that moment that kept me coming back.
Q. Do you think there are stigmas associated with being called a Buddhist, and if so, how do you handle that?
A. You know, there are a lot of stigmas. Where I work, there are a lot of religious people. And I always encourage people to follow their own spiritual path. It’s like the part of the 12 step program that teaches attraction and not promotion. My state of being is about me, but that does not give me the right to try to affect anyone else’s beliefs. I think it’s about being socially sensitive to all people.
Q. What is your motivation for becoming a Monk?
A. I want to know me. I grew up in an extremely abusive Family situation, where I was even afraid to come home for fear of physical violence. Then, when I was 17, I found my Father dead after committing suicide in our garage. I used to have a lot of anger and hatred for him. But one day someone asked me how I could hate my Father when he only did the best he could with the skills that his Family had given him. And now today I have a lot of compassion for him. I can’t hate him for not knowing any better.
I am a service junky. I love being of service to people. But I am usually an observer first. And being a monk gives me the opportunity to do that, to be of service. Being a monk is just what feels right to me. There are a lot of services that I can offer others, and I don’t need to be paid for those.
Q. What do you feel will be gained or lost by taking on the robes?
A. Gained.. everything. Lost… everything. You give up on intimate relationships on a personal relations, but you gain them on a spiritual level. You have to let everything go to gain it back.
Q. How are you preparing for your ordination?
A. Lots of reading, studying, chanting and mediation. Lots of encouragement and “kicks in the pants” from Bhante Sujatha. Most of my bills are paid. I am just preparing to unplug.
Q. How would like to use your background in psychology and counseling as a monastic?
A. I would like to open counseling centers, half way houses, working with HIV patients, doing meditation practice for so many different groups. The social worker in me wants to reach out to the community.
Q. Which sutta has been the most powerful or influential to you?
A. I think it would be the Aghatavinaya Sutta. Because it talks about dealing with people in loving kindness, and I use it at work quite often as well. It just really relates well to everyday life.
Q. What advice would you offer to someone who struggles between Buddhism and the religion that they come from?
A. Don’t choose. Don’t choose one or the other. Just meditate, just sit and don’t worry about the teachings. You will figure out what makes you happy. For me personally, I never felt I had a moment that I had to choose.
Q. How do you view the Three Marks of Existence (Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta)?
A. Well, I understand impermanence because it is in everything. It’s just one of the things to understand with relationships, with life, with practice, with everything. I like the idea that death is coming, it’s kind of nice. And I love Dukkha. I like suffering because I understand suffering is not suffering, but growth. My context of suffering has changed greatly over time. From the time you are born until the time you die, you are suffering, Your body is changing, watching the leaves turn colors, all life is changing, it’s all suffering. But it will come back.
As for Anatta, I still have to get there. It’s like understanding what enlightenment is, I won’t know until I get there.
Q. Do you see a difference between compassion and empathy?
A. Empathy, for me, I have empathy for life in general. I can show the kids I work with empathy because I know what they’ve been through. I have empathy for a lot of people, for a lot of situations. Compassion is more about the action. Empathy is coming inward, compassion is what I put outward. I am really a very loving and compassionate person and I’m also a bit of a smart-ass sometimes. Bhante Sujatha tells me that my facial expression can sometimes looks kind of mean. But I told him that if I sit with a big smile on my face all the time, people will just think I have gas!
In closing, I wish to deeply thank Remy for his time, love and the generosity of sharing himself so candidly. Whether or not he becomes a Buddhist Monk, I feel so very blessed to know him a little better now, and to call him friend. His compassion for all people shined through like a beacon when he spoke, and his warmth generated a tremendous loving-kindness and friendliness. I felt very drawn to him and inspired by what he said. And I think our community, our sangha, is very fortunate to have this upasaka as a part of it.
May you be well, happy and peaceful.