Leadership lessons I have learnt from Ayya Upeka at Newbury Buddhist Monastery

I met Ayya Upeka about 1 week into my stay in Newbury Buddhist Monastery. My work master and the only monk who was there at the time had given me a few tips on how to make friends with her.

  • She is very organised and has a structure and process in managing Kitchen, Pantry, and Food areas. Don’t mess there, just watch and learn.
  • She is very strict with monastic rules, so make sure you respect those when you meet her.
  • She runs chanting in the morning for nuns, monks don’t have to go for it, it’s optional for you to take part or not

These were way more information than I have ever received in any induction to any organisation, and I was like

All my life I was surrounded by females who operated exactly like this. I’ve definitely got this.

Respecting young monks and understanding their needs

We had a “naughty monk” (definitely not as naughty as me), yet another direct import from Sri Lanka, a former medical doctor, who’s weakness was FOOD. He more often than not casually mentions what sort of food he likes, to his followers. Monks are not supposed to request things from followers, mostly because most Buddhist followers go out of the way to give to monks, and if a request is made, they will never be able to say “No”. So I understand the rule. However, since I was deemed a monk in training and also to do the right thing Ayya spoke to me:

Nim, Bhanthe is very young. He is also comes from a rich family, and he is used to having good food. He also gives very good talks, and his followers love him. Alteady, as a young monk, he is doing a lot of hard work with his young hormones. So it’s ok that he does this. Followers also already know he likes food.

A leader is also a doer

Once we had to attend to some downpipe blockage issue in monks block. Root cause was identified as tree leaves on the roof. Unfortunately, all monks were not available, and the nuns and me were the ones who had to attend to this. We use ladders to stand on to clean the roof. But there was a limit to how much we could reach.

Ayya asked me if I could get on top of the roof. Nim, who usually says “Yes Ayya” to any of her requests, went “Ayya I’m terrified of hieghts, already I’m outside my comfort zone, I’m scared”

Ayya went:

Don’t worry. Ayya Upeka will be there to rescue. This old Ayya’s body maybe weak, but I am not scared. I will do it.

This lady is 2 years elder to my mother. She was definiltey fit for her age. In Buddhist traditions, seniority is measured with the number of “Rains Spent”, she had somethink like 19 years “Rains Spent”. She was the most senior monastic technically, but of course the buddist traditions were still a little male dominant, so it was not as much recognized. I was super impressed, how she took the weight off my shoulders, and did this job. I had given so many new things a go in the monastery. I was never a handy man, but all i did was handy work, and I was pretty good actually … LOL (Probably wanted to impress both the hot trady boys and the monks, so it was easy)

Being kind, Respecting the structure in place, and respecting the doners

In 2017, I wrote something using pretty bad language and calling myself as “Buddha”. I had promised myself I’d go to NBM, but I had “partied” a bit too much, so didn’t want to drive. On my way to the monastary I wrot this article. The first person I showed it to was Ayya Upeka. https://nimeshe.blog/2018/01/29/lets-test-this-magic-shit/

I also for the first time spoke to her my truth, how much I love this guy, Lukas from Switzerland, and how I want nothing in the world for myself, more than a chance to see if we could spend the rest of our life together.

She listened to me with the same intent and interest a mother would listen to when a child describes a story. When I explained to her I’ve picked 4 people to hekp me, she said she trusts me, although she doesn’t know them. She said nothing negative about it. I was super impressed. For the first time, I told a buddhist monk, that I feel like I’m here to do the job, half fearing to be judged, or worse, ask me to be a monk! (1 week into the monastery I knew I couldn’t do what they do… I just couldn’t tell them, and I liked all other things I had there and learnt). This emotional and psychological safety I recieved, when I know what I had done lead up to meeting her, and knowing I had used terrible language, was such a boost of motivation for me.

Another time, same year, I had lost my work, and I was struggling to find a place to live, and Ayya had always told me, I have a place to stay in the monastery, and I already knew the conditions of stay. It was well known, and we had to agree to the terms, when requesting accomodation.

What do I do? I say, I don’t want to give up cigarettes, half joking. What does Ayya do

Do not come anywhere close to the boundary of the monastary if you want to smoke, you have to go out of the monastery to smoke. (Also jokingly)

Then she explained, how she can’t priorotize my needs, as the community supports them (technically pays their way), and they are here to serve the community.

I obviously already knew this. But since everyone was banging on my door about my bad behaviour, I wanted to throw it at her as well.

It my view, if I’m to give points for the best answer. 100% points scored by her, best answer ever!!! I never challendged her for it.

Being a Trusted Friend – A spiritual relative

My relationship with Ayya had had it’s ups and downs, but these changes were quite insignificant. I’m sure we both saw each other’s passion, and honesty. I saw her boundary, and respect for community, she probably saw my radical anti-everything thats said before behaviour as “passion”. Either way, she always clearly communicated what she can and cannot do. Even when I have sent her emails saying things like how I don’t agree with the concept of the monastery (which I later decided I was wrong, and still think I was wrong, I was asking these poor monks to solve world hunger!!!), she always have given me her perspective, and kind words.

Most importatntly, I have gone to her for:

  • Advise for a leadership issues – I had gone to her about a team issue, and the natural leadership role I played, whether given a title or not. She gave me yet another best answer, and reminded me how she is unable to see if my strategy and path would work, but the only way to learn is giving it a go. She also made sure, she had another monk with her (A Sri Lankan monk I had not met before) by asking me permission. She also asked the monk for his opinion. I came home, that day having some comfort about having such people that I could get advise. (It wasn’t that I didn’t have them at work, but at the time, I was afraid to communicate this clearly at work, i had split personality)
  • Ask for Buddhist references when I forget – Even when I haven’t spoken with her for months, I know I can send an email asking for some spiritual education help, and she would respond. Knowing, I have both my Aunt (New Zealand), Ayya Upeka, and my mother, at the time (Now I probabaly have a lot mroe), was a great comfort.

– Nim –

Dear Ayya,

No matter where you and I end up taking outselves, and the world, I will always remember, without the one before, the next in line cannot get anywhere. So, if i have come some distance, the distance you had come, already helped me.

You were one of my greatest teachers. I have taken so much lessons from you. I am so happy, that it was indeed a Nun, that I ended up fully subscribing to, out of all monastics that I met and enjoyed the company of in NBM. As females didn’t really have a place in Buddhist cultures. Ajahn Brahm trusted you to give your best to do something about equal rights in Buddhsit Traditions.

I saw your decipline, and focus first hand, whilst maintaininig your kindness to everyone that tried. Thank you for always reminding me to be kind to my mother, even when she may not understand. These are gifts of love.

You will always be my teacher, no matter, what. Nothing can change that.

Lots of love

Nim

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