Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1988

Mind Conditions the World; Ajahn Sumedho
Amaravati Exhibition; Lay People's Practice
View from Switzerland; Tiradhammo Bhikkhu
Emerald Buddhas; Amaro Bhikkhu
The State of America Out West; Ajahn Anando
Old Insights in New England; Sucitto Bhikkhu




The State of America Out West

In March of this year, Ajahn Anando accompanied Ajahn Sumedho to California to teach a retreat and meet people involved with the prospective Dhamma centre, Insight Meditation West. IMW is inspired by and loosely affiliated to the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, and there has been talk about establishing a monastic community in part of the 400-acre site of IMW. The freewheeling views of Californian society have produced some debate around such an orthodox establishment, as these comments from Ajahn Anando point out.
Seattle, Washington, apart from being Ajahn Sumedho's home town is the base of another group, the Heartsong Sangha, who have expressed a similar interest in a vihara, on a similar scale.

The Angela Center in Santa Rosa is an Anglican retreat centre that many of the vipassana teachers who teach on the West Coast Use: Jack Kornfield, Jamie Baraz, Christopher Titmuss, Vimalo - all of them have taught there. Many of those who teach at IMS also teach at the Angela Center, so the nuns at the Center were quite used to seeing people walking around in a rather unusual way. The surrounding landscape, which was grazing land on the side of a hill behind, lent itself to meditation practice - there were many walking paths. So, our retreat was set up by the vipassana teachers and it was slotted in during a break in the retreat schedule that they have. And there were people who are very, very devoted to Buddhism and Buddhist monasticism, and, on the other side, people who were very sceptical, not at all sure about monastics and who think that perhaps our role and some of the things we do are questionable.

One comment that a woman made to Ajahn Sumedho at the end of the retreat I found very inspiring, and I think to some extent expressed the feelings of many who were on the retreat in California, The woman said to Ajahn Sumedho that she came as a Vipassanini (Ajahn Sumedho had used that word): "I came as a Vipassanini, but I'm leaving as a Buddhist." And she found that that which had been lacking in her practice was discovered; and it had more to do with the ritual, the traditional forms, the practices such as chanting - which the people there were quite willing to participate in (once we got the sheets printed and the way of chanting was explained to them). The enthusiasm that many Americans can have was something quite unusual.

You know, they were just standing by the sidelines making some suggestions. So, personally, I didn't feel the need to take a lot that was said as being terribly important.

We saw Jack Kornfield after the retreat. On the way back down to San Francisco we stopped to visit Jack at his home and he interviewed Ajahn Sumedho and me. He began the interview by reading a letter to us by a woman who wrote and said that with regards to the development of IMW, she felt that having Theravadin monks come and live there and be supported by the people who would be supporting IMW would not be really an appropriate use of funds, because we would be bringing into the country of America a sexist, Asian religious aberration that was not needed, not wanted in America. So that kind of set the tone for the interview, and Jack was playing the devil's advocate, because he's actually quite com- mitted to supporting a monastic community in America, along with Joseph and Sharon Salzberg. But he, I think, felt -he needed to ask all the difficult questions - and he was very good at it. The questions were questions such as: couldn't we just have women taking ordination - have a precept ceremony - that had the same number of rules as the bhikkhus? What was pointed out was: well, one could do that - but it wouldn't be in the Theravadin tradition. And I mentioned that there were such groups like Kennett Roshi's, who did follow that particular way of training, but in the Theravadin tradition of course there was a lineage and a tradition. I felt personally, after the interview that it was, a little bit like - here a model came to mind - that here we had a vehicle which we knew from personal experience was quite dependable, it had been going for 2500 years plus and no one was saying that it was the fastest, the sleekest, the most comfortable - but it was dependable, it seemed to be suitable. And then someone comes along who starts suggesting modifications - you know - why don't you get a bigger engine, a different ratio in the transmission something like that. Maybe their suggestions might be quite right (they might be), but there didn't seem to be any reason for actually taking their advice because the vehicle was already suitable - and one wasn't quite sure that their suggestions would really work. And also one didn't know whether or not they were going to get on the vehicle anyway! You know, they were just standing by the sidelines making some suggestions. So, personally, I didn't feel the need to take a lot that was said as being terribly important. I commented that over the years there have been adaptations made, and there will probably be further adaptations made, from within the monastic community - but they've come from those who are living the life; and when the monks and nuns see for themselves that things need to be changed, and it's appropriate, it's timely, then it happens - a natural growing. So personally I didn't feel a need to be terribly concerned about what some of the people were saying. Ajahn Sumedho finished the interview by saying that he felt that it would be truly uncompassionate to give in to the women's demands; that that's not what they need. And Jack's comment to that was: "This is going to be a very interesting dance!"
There was a woman there who Ajahn Sumedho respects as a mature person, who's been practising Buddhadhamma for a long time, and he asked her about the feminist retreats - what are they like. And she said that they have women who are mostly lesbians who, just by that kammic propensity, have a certain bias and a dislike, and sometimes a real hatred, of men; and it doesn't take too much imagination to see that monks are a real threat for them. Authority figures ... all of that ... And she said - herself she didn't find that the feminist movement ,had much to offer, and from her perspective what she felt was truly needed were wise virtuous people. She mentions later when we went for coffee, she was walking with her husband and she said to him: "It's so nice being around mindful people - why do we associate with any other type of person?" Very up-front, shall we say.

There's more committed, really grounded interest in Seattle. The group that we met, who supported us and extended hospitality to us were in all ways delightful and seemed to appreciate very sincerely what Ajahn Sumedho was teaching. There seemed to be a real hunger for Dhamma and with that a sincerity and an attentiveness - to the point where, by the time we got back, we were both exhausted. Every waking moment there was someone to see, someone to be with, someone to talk to, some place to go, something to do. The only time we were in our rooms was to go to sleep.

It was extraordinary - we were in Seattle about two or three days and of course we knew that some people from Vancouver were coming down and we heard that they would probably be coming down by coach. Well, a coach can be a minibus, or a tour coach, and it turned out to be a 56-seater tour coach which came creeping very carefully down a fairly narrow residential road. And out of the coach filed ... There must have been 47-odd people who came - including some children -- and filled the house. I couldn't imagine what the neighbours thought when suddenly all these people piled out of the coach into the house, stayed for about three hours, and then got back into the coach and disappeared. And I noted some of the people looked very surprised to see Ajahn Sumedho and me sitting on the couch. They came into the room not knowing quite what to expect. The room was actually packed out, people sitting very close to each other. After Nan (the organiser of the excursion) talking with Ajahn Sumedho, breaking the ice a bit. I asked people - was this a little bit like a magical mystery tour? Did you actually know you were going to meet Buddhist monks? There was general laughter and someone said: "Well we thought that that might happen but we weren't quite sure." Nan had said something like - if you're in such a place at such a time a coach will come and pick you up and we'll go and meet some very interesting people. And she's so well-loved out there that people just came along. And four or five days later when Ajahn Sumedho gave a public talk in Seattle about a dozen people drove the three hours down from Vancouver for the talk.