Settling in at Stokes Valley
The following letter comes from Ajahn Viradhammo, who was asked to establish a forest monastery in New Zealand in 1984. He's been there with Venerable Thanavaro for three years; recently they were joined by Venerable Bodhinando. This Vassa has been their first in the monastery that they have been building in Stokes Valley, near Wellington.
Greetings good friends in the Dhamma,
It is the middle of June, and the weather for the past week, since my return from Thailand has been magnificent -- bright and sunny during the days with temperatures in the mid 50's, and nights that have been clear and cold with temperatures just above freezing. Venerable Thanavaro, Venerable Bodhinando and Anagarika Peter are working on our fourth kuti, about 200 metres up the hill from where I am presently sitting. About an hour ago, I almost knocked Anagarika Tony Bell (from Northumberland) off a ladder, as I opened the door to a room he is wallpapering. He is working in the main building, which is about 100 metres down the hill from where I am presently writing this article. Bodhinyanarama is all up or down, which gives us a strong incentive not to forget things here and there.
It has been over two years since Venerable Thanavaro and I left the UK for New Zealand, to help with the establishment of a forest monastery here in Stokes Valley. Much good work has been done during this time, both on the personal level of individual practice, and on the communal level of Sangha, laity and the monastery construction. All the facilities that are needed for training bhikkhus in Dhamma-Vinaya are now available, and this coming Vassa will be our first chance to set up a "Rains Retreat" schedule, similar to that of more established monasteries in the U.K. and Thailand. Both Venerable Thanavaro and I make regular visits to Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Wellington, to offer Dhamma instruction to Buddhist groups centred in those cities. Our original sponsoring committees in both Wellington and Auckland continue to be very generous and supportive, and as winter approaches (it never snows in Stokes Valley), our cloth cupboard has filled up with woolly socks. The diligent members of our association have organised a roster for our mid-day meals, so that the anagarikas need not do any cooking and can either participate fully in monastic retreats, or concentrate on the building work that is so vital to this new monastery.
0ur contact with the community at large is still very limited, but has been growing steadily. Stokes Valley is a quiet suburb, about 30 minutes drive from the City of Wellington. It has a population of about 11,000, among whom only 10% would attend one of the five churches in the valley. We are on the upper edge of this suburb and beyond our property, the valley continues to slope steeply upwards to a high ridge easily visible from the monastery. On three sides neighbouring our property one looks onto the lush green of native bush, interspersed with tall pine trees. On the fourth side, spread below the monastery, is the town of Stokes Valley where we go for our alms round. The people of this quiet suburb are proud of their valley, and there is a sense of community among them. For instance, I have heard it said that families wishing to sell their homes, because of changing personal needs, often choose to move within the valley rather than out of the valley. We have had a chance to enter into this sense of community through such groups as the Lions and Rotary Clubs who have invited us as guest speakers, and also through the Association of Christian Ministers who have very graciously invited us into the valley and wished us well. One of our lay friends, who lives locally, was saying last night that she has some claim to fame among her neighbours, because she goes to the monastery to meditate. People say to her, "you've been up there?!" in somewhat envious and amazed tones. Many people are curious, but most people are shy. It appears that in time, our monastery and the Buddhist relationship between the Sangha and laity will be accepted into the life of Stokes Valley, and that we in our turn should be able to make a wholesome contribution to the well-being of these friendly people.
|Thinking back over the events of the past years, one feels that much has been learned, and that the establishment of a branch monastery is in itself an art form. But it is not just a monastery that is being founded. Rather, it is a particular social structure that is taking root in this fresh soil. In a Buddhist country such as Thailand, one can take the cultural milieu for granted, because the establishment of a monastery is relatively straight forward. In Thailand, I have never been mistaken for Gandhi, Krishna or a skin-head, and most people understand how a bhikkhu functions in society. Any wrong views, concerning the monk and his connection with the laity, that have arisen over the ages because of superstition or corruption, can be corrected because the sincere and honest bhikkhu still has a lot of authority in the society. But outside of traditional Buddhist cultures, the bhikkhu and his position in society is unknown. It should be remembered that the bhikkhu is not a hermit, but because of his dependence on the laity for the basic requisites of life, he is very much a part of a larger social structure. It is this interdependent relationship between the monastic and lay communities that is being introduced into New Zealand.|
Broadening the Scope