|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1988|
State of America
The Way to Providence
|Although originally inspired by Master Soen Sahn of the Providence Zen Centre, Tom currently associated with Ven Maha Ghosananda, a Cambodian bhikkhu who had a small temple that catered for the Cambodian refugees of Providence. Although Ven Maha Ghosananada's English was patchy, his delightful presence, and the plight of the refugees, had motivated Tom to get involved with the Wat Khmer. And when I gave my talk to the group, Ven Maha Ghosananda was there beaming with delight, as was normal for him. The district of Providence in which the Universalist Unitarian Meeting House was situated was the old town; and Americans being quite proud of their history, the city had taken some efforts to maintain it much as it must have looked two or three hundred years ago. The buildings are all wooden, the streets are rather narrow with pleasant gardens and they even made the electric, lights look rather like old-fashioned gas lamps.|
The problem, particularly for lay people, is not a lack of technique, but difficulty in finding a supportive environment. And people don't always know what to look for.
|After the talk, Tom and his wife drove us over to the Wat Khmer on the "other" side of town where we were to spend the night. It was the rough side of Providence-broken-down streets, boarded up houses-and as we got out of the car Tom suggested that perhaps it wasn't such a wise idea to go pindabaht the next morning.|
In the Wat itself, which was just a simple tenement house, there were posters giving notification of the plans to purchase a centre which would be a place for meditation and Dhamma teaching, for medicine, for education and for Khmer culture - it was quite a visionary complex. Ajahn Maha had found a suitable area of land outside Providence and was asking people to make donations to the tune of half million dollars - which, from the impoverished state of the Wat, seemed way out of reach.
|But Maha Ghosananda beaming with confidence was another story. Early next day he breezily suggested we go out on almsround, and despite Tom's initial apprehension, the matter was clinched when a local Cambodian man came in, lit up with glee and ran out to tell the nearby families that bhikkhus were coming. We put our bowls over our shoulders and walked out to the street - and things started to happen. People came tumbling out of their houses, rushing backwards and forwards bearing bowls of rice, loaves of bread, and fruit, and eagerly wedging them into our alms-bowls. Some people were putting envelopes with money in into our bowls, Tom was diligently collecting the money, the loaves of bread, and the things that wouldn't fit in or weren't suitable for monks to carry - and we chanted blessings and they chanted sharing of merit with the dead and we chanted some more, and all along this street in Providence, there occurred this Wonderful enactment of devotion to the Triple Gem. And for those few moments that back street in the rough side of Providence turned into something more like the Devaloka. Providence (the bounty of the divine) never seemed so rightly named as at that time. The refugees certainly weren't developing any great degree of tranquillity, there didn't seem to be much concern about practice, yet their lives had a foundation of faith in the Triple Gem that gave them a real strength. And one saw how it was going to be possible for them to get their half million dollars and establish their centre. I felt that if we, in our hearts, could learn from those people the transforming power of faith, it would have repaid the West ten times over all the foreign aid that has ever been given; because if we don't learn that, we will surely just wither away through lack of joy.|
|One thing it made clear in my own mind was that my basic offering as a bhikkhu was to go out on pindabaht every day in these barren cities of the West. The least you can do is to present a reminder of the spiritual life.|
The Jungles of Massachusetts
Our hosts in Cambridge, Hob and Olivia, gave us a characteristically American welcome: make yourself at home! And they meant it. The entire top floor of their house was ours; only too pleased to offer food, rest, showers, whatever we needed -and glad to have us to talk with.
|Over the next few days we had some good conversations with Hob and the people who came round. Hob raised some points that were worth talking about. Like many Americans, he had an uncertainty about traditional forms, particularly monasticism, and how that works with the freedom of the spirit. He also pointed to a conflict in his life between a refined meditation technique and a need to integrate Dhamma into a way of living. It had been much the same with me until I made a real commitment to Sangha and the training entailed in that. But when circumstances and behaviour were no longer subject to my personal motivation it allowed me the freedom to respond to life with mindfulness rather than habit. So it had become simple (not easy); in fact simpler to do it than to talk about it. The problem, particularly for lay people, is not a lack of technique, but difficulty in finding a supportive environment. And people don't always know what to look for.|
Life is kinder to the choiceless: an chance invitation Venerable Karuniko and I found ourselves invited to the Wat Khmer in Lowell, and that presented a good perspective on our dialogue.
|There are thousands of Asian refugee families in Lowell because its an industrial town and there are jobs to go around. In one of its homely suburbs stands the Wat Khmer, a large refurbished hall of little charm. Apart from samanera Dhammagutto, who had invited us and who is American, there were five bhikkhus resident there of various Asian nationalities. The abbot - Ajahn Khan Sao -and another monk were Cambodian forest bhikkhus. Dhammagutto gave us some accounts of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge days (the second monk hadn't recovered get) but the monks themselves weren't talking about the past or the future, they were building the temple. Ajahn Khan Sao felt that his main practice was in helping the Cambodians to begin again. They would come to him with their problems, and sorrows and quarrels, and he would tell them to stop, forget and begin again -a very direct teaching. Dhammagutto talked about times when people would come for chanting on behalf of their dead relatives: the monks would start chanting at 6.00 in the evening and finish at 3.00 in the morning. It put some balm an the wounds.|
Of course a lot of responsibility devolved to Dhammagutto, being the only resident American there and an expert in mechanics, Chinese medicine and acupuncture as well. Apart from undertaking all manner of manual work in the temple, Dhammagutto had decided to be the night watchman. He walked around the Wat at night with a big stick and through his wits and his quick tongue bluffed and challenged the people who threw rocks at the windows or tried to break in.
So the place, like Dhammagutto himself, was battered and not very tranquil, but had the features of a good environment for practice: commitment, morality, plently of opportunities for giving and patience, and not much chance to think about yourself. You felt a glow in the heart at being there.
So on the next day when Hob took us to Logan Airport to fly to New York, I talked to him about the Cambodian temple, because it seemed to offer an excellent opportunity for the Cambridge folk to develop their Dhamma practice and help the refugees as well. He was certainly open to the idea, but the Khmer connection was not an obvious one to make; it only seemed obvious to me because I saw the Buddhist tradition as being a place for practice -and that's a rare view in America. Westerners can feel estranged from Asian conventions and the formalism of the Bhikkhu Sangha; and they can even look down on them as products of blind ritualism. How easy it is to dismiss it all as old tradition: we want the new, the improved; we don't want any of the old stuff. But the Asian tradition has preserved the teaching and practice of Buddhism for centuries, and one feels: isn't it time that we in the West repaid the nurses' fees for 2,500 years of custodianship? And isn't the concrete jungle a suitable forest for people to practise letting go in?
|The Juice of the Apple|
New York is the city that historically has absorbed the refugees and the emigres and reconstituted their national traits into a polyglot city state. There's plenty of juice in the big Apples earnestly materialistic, its mercantile energy seems to propel every building up to the sky and whittle its many nationalities into a shape that will fit. Or it dumps them on the street. Visiting Thai people in, and around New York gave some insights into the process: a few were trying to keep Dhamma practice going, but weren't optimistic about the community in general; many had only a cultural relationship to Buddhism (though still pleased to support bhikkhus); and the children were little New Yorkers, lacking the composure that I was used to seeing in Thai children. These are the emigres who have succeeded in fitting in. Ironically, the materialist conventions provide a more accessible common ground than the Buddhist ones. Asians tend to cling to Buddhist conventions as if they are Dhamma, Americans reject them as if they are obstacles to correct practice. The timelessness and restraint of a tradition would be wonderful if blended with American initiative, but right now that meeting can only occur around a monastic Sangha that relates to the old and the New World. Such a Sangha can create an interface for mutual reflection but in America at this time there isn't much sign of one.
|One such pilgrim was Ward, who had been on the Barre retreat. He invited us to a meal at his home in Manhattan, which was three storeys up in a warehouse building in the shadow of the World Trade Towers. Their blank and mountainous aspect added an eremitic touch to his environment - surrounded by concrete and glass, not a human being in sight. The staples of Ward's existence were: early morning and evening meditation; a small and specialised craft; and getting out into the country on the weekends. It kept him steady and clear -but he was asking himself: "Where do I go from here?" |
Looking for a place to grow together in Truth, the Pilgrim Fathers left home behind over two hundred years ago: their only mistake was not going far or deep enough. America's still big on aspiration and energy, but today's aspirants live in a world that has few places to start anew. They have to voyage beyond personal viewpoints, and in a country that promises you the freedom to choose, that's not easy. It only gets easier when you realise there's nowhere else to go.