In the footsteps of the Buddha

Stories are powerful - they speak to parts of ourselves that respond to symbols, patterns and truths about human life that are deeper and far beyond our rational existence. In April, we’re looking forward to a visit from Danayutta, who will be leading a retreat called In the Footsteps of the Buddha in which retreatants will inhabit stories of the Buddha's life. Here she is in conversation with Natalia about her practice, the retreat, and what it means to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha.

NK: So I was wondering if you could start by telling me a bit about yourself and your background as a Buddhist.


DY: I grew up in Malaysia in a Buddhist family, went to a Catholic school and ended up in London. In 2007 I found the London Buddhist Centre via their winter retreat and it was one of the most unusual and magical and challenging things I’d done. Then it took me a little bit of time to find my way at the LBC but eventually I became a Mitra and asked for ordination, started facilitating, forming the Young Person’s Group at the LBC. Then I got ordained and started doing more.


NK: How was it challenging on the winter retreat?


DY: I guess I lived a really sheltered existence in some ways. My parents were quite protective of me. I think it was challenging in the sense that it was asking me to do a lot of introspection which I’d never done in that way before. And also the people were just very varied. I met somebody who was an investment banker who had a similar-ish background to me. And I also met people who were artists, people who were formerly homeless. Someone introduced themselves to me and said they were a sex worker. Just different sorts of people that I’d never come across before.


NK: Was it very different from the sort of Buddhism that you’d experienced growing up?


DY: In some ways, quite different. In some ways, very, very similar. Although there are temples very close to where my parents live, we hardly ever went to worship with other people. I’d made offerings daily for most of my life, usually twice daily. But just to do it in front of people I didn’t know felt really different. Challenging, in its own way, like a public declaration of something that’s intensely private.


NK: What is your main inspiration for practice?


DY: I think my main inspiration is the archetype of discipleship. The sadhana [visualisation practice] that I received at ordination is Shakyamuni. I meditate on the historical Buddha. And in the ordination ceremony, one of the verses that really struck me was about becoming part of the Buddha’s family. Becoming a Buddha’s daughter. I just really love that idea. Because I grew up in a Mahayana tradition, somehow going back to the Buddha and his original disciples feels less complicated. More straightforward. So I just really like Pali Buddhism. I read the Pali Canon quite a bit. Not so much for the hundred million lists of different things, but more for the stories. I just really like reading about who the Buddha met, what he said to them, what they said to him, and what their lives were like.


NK: So that brings us onto the retreat that you’re going to be leading - “In the footsteps of the Buddha.” Can you say a bit about what that means?


DY: I feel like it’s really important as Buddhist practitioners to be well-steeped in the Buddha’s life, in his teachings. And I personally draw a lot of inspiration from his life, the kind of mythical, metaphorical aspects of his life. And because I think of myself as a disciple I’m also really interested in his original disciples and what they got up to. His really famous, chief disciples like Sariputta and Mogallana. And also some of the monks and nuns who were in some ways not very good disciples and what that was like and how the Buddha related to them.


NK: So how does that translate into our world, then? How do we bring that into our lives?


DY: I think just learning stories, and seeing that a lot of the things that we go through, his early disciples went through. One of the people in the Pali Canon I’m really interested in at the moment is this monk called Naludayi. And he’s said to be someone who’s got a beautiful, golden body and is very graceful. But not very smart, because he loses to novices in debates. And the Buddha basically tells Naludayi off quite a lot. So he seems to have been a monk that had the moves but was also not a very good monk. But the thing is, that the Buddha didn’t throw him out of the Sangha. As far as we know, he stayed a monk for the rest of his life. And his stories are recorded. So I’m quite interested in like… why did they record those stories? And maybe the conclusion that I’m drawing from researching the story of Naludayi and what the Buddha said to him is that there’s a place for everyone in the Sangha. Sometimes we ask ourselves – is there a place for me in the Sangha? And I just think a story like Naludayi tells us that “yeah, there is a place for everyone.”


NK: So what sort of things are you going to get up to on the retreat?


DY: We’ll meditate, we’ll look at the stories, we’ll have a chance to discuss them, ritual, periods of silence… Having a chance to establish Samadhi, see what the Buddha says about that, having a chance to reflect on some of his teachings about the heart of Buddhism. At the moment, one of the more insight-type reflections that I’ve been thinking about is this one little bit where the Buddha just says, “Nothing is worth clinging to.” It’s really categorical: nothing. And it’s such a good instruction in life and in meditation. So maybe we’ll be reflecting on something like that.


NK: I also wanted to ask you about your relationship with Taraloka. You were here for about six weeks earlier this year.


DY: I just really, really value Taraloka and what Taraloka stands for – a place for women to practice, a place for women to go deeper in their own practice and go deeper in the practice of Sangha. In early Buddhism you get these stories of nuns living together – the Bikkhunis living together and women ordaining women and in the Therigatha you get these songs where the Bikkhuni’s say, “… and I went to a wise woman.” And I feel like Taraloka is a place that makes that possible. A sense of knowing who is wise and being able to go to them.