Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1988

Monastic Winter Retreat; Reflections
Magha Puja; Post Retreat Stats
Life in the Sangha's Forest; Ayya Thanissara
Mask of The Great Unknown; Ajahn Sucitto


Magha Puja
Extracts from the minutes of a gathering of the ordained community of all four U.K. viharas,
plus Ajahn Brahmavamso on a visit from Western Australia.

After the first month of the Amaravati and Chithurst monastic retreats (and the end of the Devon and Harnham retreat) came a Sangha gathering of the ordained community of all four viharas, plus Ajahn Brahmavamso on a visit from Western Australia. The gathering of some 80 samanas and 20 lay people centred on Magha Puja, the traditional "Sangha Day" which commemorates the Buddha giving the Exhortation on Discipline (Ovada Patimokkha) to a spontaneously assembled gathering of 1250 arahants, Magha Puja itself was quite an event, with monks and nuns being invited to give talks on Dhamma throughout the all-night vigil. On the day afterwards, the Sangha met to discuss any matters concerning the training or the conventions of the Holy Life. It is from this meeting that the following minutes are taken:

Ajahn Sumedho opened the formal Sangha meeting on 2nd February with an hour of meditation - after which, as was to be expected, nobody had anything to say. However the Ajahns of the four monasteries were prompted into giving some account of the current state of affairs, and any future plans.
Ajahn Sumedho stressed the traditional form of Theravada Buddhism and a loyalty to the clear and practical approach of Luong Por Chah.

Ajahn Anando mentioned the growing participation of lay people in the daily life at Chithurst. As at Amaravati, the present monastic retreat was made possible through the support of lay people in preparing the food and staffing the office. Mike Holmes has just taken up his post as Warden of Hammer Wood; there the most immediate project is the clearing of the trees damaged by last October's hurricane. This and the removal of 500 tons of logs for firewood should be done before the spring, otherwise the growth of the newly planted trees might get damaged by the work parties.

There are plans to convert the monastery walled garden into a meditation area with a cloister and seats; to afforest one of the paddocks; and to build more kutis in the wood and around the House. The project requiring the most planning, organisation and support is the reconstruction of the Coach House, which will serve as a main Dhamma Hall and residence block when it is completed. Plans are still being drawn up for this.
Ajahn Pabhakaro summarised development at Harnham as the growth from a residence, towards becoming a fully operating monastery which can have teaching functions on site and offer substantial accommodation for lay people. This involves a prolonged building project which has only recently left planning stages, and a lot of patience and sacrifice on all sides. The teaching tours of the North were being somewhat curtailed in order to spend more time on developing Harnham, but would still include visits to the groups in Durham, Sheffield, Doncaster, Middlesbrough and Leeds in the North of England, and Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. The work on increasing Sangha accommodation at Harnham was proceeding well, and the next stage would be to convert and extend the barn into a Dhamma Hall.

A project Of such a scale certainly needs a lay building manager to allow the teacher-builder-abbot the space to fulfill his more contemplative functions. As it is, the building project offers useful reflections on the patient efforts of bygone generations who had carved and fitted the huge stone slabs on the roof, and the four previous Sangha incumbents who had all put their energies into restoring the building. It all encourages a more humble view and a respect for the past, which mellows personal enthusiasm into a willingness to learn and adapt to the traditional ways. Ajahn Pabhakaro felt that he was just now becoming familiar with the situation; and could even understand the many dialects in his widespread parish. But new or old, and whichever side of the Border, what the Ajahn felt to be the most important foundation for the laity was the undertaking of the Refuges and Precepts.
Ajahn Kittisaro presented his view of the Devon Vihara next. There were no work projects other than a monthly clearing of a small woodland which had been given to the Sangha to use, and the gathering of rocks from fields and packing the road with them to make it more serviceable. Venerable Subbato's building skills had so far only been employed to fix a light switch. The vihara was active though, but mostly as a haven for people to Visit for a few hours. Apart from his service as a teacher at the vihara, there were also regular teaching engagements with groups in Bath, Plymouth, Totnes; long retreats at near-by Golden Square-, and weekends at Sharpham near Totnes. Future dates worthy of note were a proposed visit of Ajahn Sumedho in April, Wesak on 22nd May and the first Alms- Giving Ceremony in Devon on November 20th.

Western Australia:
Ajahn Sumedho then asked Ajahn Brahmavamsu to give the community an idea of the situation in Western Australia. Ajahn Brahmavamso gave a sketched account of the two centres which he and Ajahn Jagaro are involved with - namely the Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre in Nollamara, a few minutes' drive from central Perth, and Bodhinyana Monastery in the bush about an hour's drive out of town. In the past five years there had been a lot of effort put into the groundwork of establishing a sangha. This had born fruit in a well-fitted monastary complete with meditation hall, kitchen, guest house, ablutions block and twelve kutis; a sangha currently numbering seven bhikkhus, one Samanera and an eight-precept nun-, and the establishment of a proper sima for ordinations. The effect of the ample presentation of the Dhamma at the city centre had given the sangha a lot of support in a region which had equated Buddhism with some of the more licentious Cults which bear a superficial resemblance to it. It was quite an auspicious sign that the Queen's representative, His Excellency the Governor of Western Australia, had presided over the inauguration of Dhammaloka last November.

The apparent isolation that one experienced in Western Australia could be seen in wider perspective within the Sangha, Venerable Brahmavamso commented. Having spent some time in Thailand, and in some of the monasteries in Britain, the harmony of the Sangha was clear. Guarded by its respect for Dhamma- Vinaya, the Sangha Refuge presented a place of unity where apparent separateness fell away.

The meeting then reviewed some aspects of Amaravati. Ajahn Santacitto expressed his thanks for the skills of Sylva Simsova in helping to establish a library of some 7000-8000 volumes with a cataloguing system that will enable it to link with other libraries and provide a support to monastic and lay practice of Dhamma. Some new developments were the appointment of Anne Pryor as Librarian, and the completion of the Lay Peoples' Practice Questionnaire, which is the first stage of an exhibition on Lay Practice. This survey, conducted by Barbara Jackson, is aimed at providing a resource of ideas, skillful means, and a pointer at common difficulties or shortcomings as experienced by lay Buddhists. A Sense of community was thereby offered to those who otherwise might feel that they were "going it alone".

Ajahn Sucitto summarised the status of Amaravati Publications as being very much at the beginning. Most Of the work in the past year has been in establishing an editorial panel and finally in appointing a Manager, David Babski, to oversee productions. Regular production only involves newsletters, Rainbows and Looking Ahead; there is also an ongoing project to issue a Dhamma magazine - Forest Sangha Review - from time to time. The production of books was limited. The non-commercial nature of Amaravati Publications meant that one could only proceed in accordance with donations, which had mostly been through the generosity of Khun Vanee Lamsam and friends in Thailand. There was a lot of material available but the future of such publications depended largely on the interest and support of lay people, as the Sangha accepted only the responsibility to teach and edit its teachings. Meanwhile, Mindfulness: The Path to the Deathless and Cittaviveka had both been reprinted, an Introduction to Insight Meditation was ready for publication and he was gathering material for a couple of books by Ajahn Sumedho which Wisdom Publications were interested in. The use of a commercialpublisher (albeit a Buddhist charity) was to make the Dhamma available through a wider global network than the monasteries could provide; the Sarigha was not interested in any commercial gain.

Ajahn Sumedho:
Ajahn Sumedho briefly mentioned the likelihood of opening viharas in Switzerland and America, and then responded to questions. There were some comments on experimenting with a Puja in English on an occasional basis, but, in general, Ajahn Sumedho stressed the traditional form of Theravada Buddhism and a loyalty to the clear and practical approach of Luong Por Chah. This was not to deny the validity of other teachings, but to encourage the full use of a teaching by giving oneself to it rather than endlessly comparing and doubting. This tendency to look elsewhere was an escapism of sorts. The direct approach that he appreciated in Ajahn Chah -was a very suitable one in a world where the options were running out. The world now had no unexplored paradises left, and humanity had to realise that there was no escape from being responsible and mature by "getting away from it all": cloudy idealism was no substitute for a thoroughgoing training in what was universally moral, wise and benevolent.

Towards supporting the Sangha as a foundation in this practice, Tan Ajahn had determined to spend most of this year in Britain rather than travelling. There was a possibility of furthering the wandering "tudong practice but this was not a matter of privilege. Actually privileges, personal rights and status were nothing to do with the spirit of the Holy Life, Even such conventional status as being an abbot was of no advantage in realising Nibbana - the only true goal for a monk or nun.

- o o o O o o o -

With such remarks everything that needed to be said was felt to have been said, at least at this time. . . The meeting loosened up a little with tea and informal conversation - during which we were joined by Ajahn Khemadhammo and Venerable Vicayo from the Forest Hermitage near Warwick. These bhikkhus, associates from the Wat Pah Pong tradition, have a small vihara which acts as the residence of Ajahn Khemadhammo and the shrine/meeting place for local supporters. It was a very pleasant surprise and one that echoed the Buddha's words: -

So long, 0 bhikkhus, as you will assemble frequently together and assemble in large numbers you will meet in concord, disperse in concord, and tend to the affairs of the Sangha in concord, so long bhikkhus may be expected to prosper, not to decline. (Dialogues: Sutta 16)