|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1989|
What is the Devon Vihara?
When one leaves the city or large town and moves to the country to be "near the vihara", one tends to take for granted that one just slips into being part of the "vihara and its people". But what is the Devon Vihara, and who are its people?
Starting from the humblest of beginnings in 1983, one monk and an anagarika bravely took up residence in an appallingly run - down, dilapidated "chalet-bungalow" at Raymonds Hill, near Axminster. The "building" was hardly inspiring - but the Sangha presence and the response to it certainly was. Some two and a half years later, the Devon Vihara moved to the still unpretentious but comfortably solid and homely Odle Cottage, near Upottery. But the vihara is not so much a place as a spiritual focus - not dependent on the building or its surroundings - the outstandingly beasutfiful countryside, winding narrow lanes abounding in wild life, and the little forest nearby but naturally interwoven with them.
There is a feeling of belonging, a sense of being part of something very important, where one can give according to one's means, talents, time and energy.
|Of course the vihara is essentially where the monks and anagarikas live and practise, and where by their teaching, reflection and example, they interact with lay people - whether they be followers or interested enquirers, local villagers or passers-by. It is not dependent on any individual monk or monks, though it naturally reflects very much the ideas and personal preferences of the senior monk. There's something very reassuring about the compactness and familiarity of the small vihara; one has a sense of "home from home", and takes a special interest in all that is going on. We learn to accept the many changes that have to take place. At first we may feel a sense of loss or disappointment as monks and angarikas are exchanged, but in fact this helps link us with the larger Sangha family, when we visit the other monasteries and meet up again with those who have spent time with us here. There's a special feeling too, as we see anagarikas go forward for acceptance as bhikkhus, and remeber them as Devon's Brent, David, Jakob, Bill....|
Some half dozen Buddhist groups spread over four counties meet regularly and maintain close connections with the vihara, receiving teaching from the Sangha. Several retreats are held each year - at nearby Golden Square, at Sharpham House near Totnes, and Resugga Farm in Cornwall. All this in addition to prison visits, baby blessings, house blessings and wedding blessings and the many personal visits and interviews in the normal course of events.
All kinds of people come and go at the vihara - we see travellers from many parts of the world who call in "in passing" (how do they find it?). Sometimes they stay for a few days, in one of the two caravans on the "stupa" lawn. They seem amazed and touched to find a real live working monastery, faithfully following the ancient Theravadin traditions, tucked away in the heart of the English countryside, drawing to it love and support from ordinary people all over the South-West and beyond.
|What is it like to be a lay supporter, part of the support group of a small vihara? The term "support group" is often misunderstood, for it's not anything one joins in a formal way; it really comprises all supporters - everyone who consciously makes effort to help the Sangha, the vihara and each other. There is a feeling of belonging, a sense of being part of something very important, where one can give according to one's means, talents, time and energy. With this participation comes an open circle of friends: people who - because they are practising on the same path - are willing to allow one to be oneself, willing to forgive and forget any misunderstandings, seeing them all as the empty sankharas that they are. It's a group that one can always come back to - no matter what happens - because even when there are difficulties, we can use them, welcoming them as opportunities for learning and growth. Knowing that the monks and anagarikas have to work with just the same things, we can take heart as well as guidance from their example.|
During the Ajahn's absences the vihara assumes a rather lower key, but the practice and helpful teaching continues, the slight shift in emphasis seemingly comfortably accommodated. But there is, naturally, a sense of loss when all the Sangha are absent together. True, many of the lay supporters know each other well; however - perhaps because of the smallness of the cottage reception room - there is seldom much opportunity for Dhamma discussion among lay people such as at Chithurst or in the sala at Amaravati, so then the focus is more on practical work and gathering for meditation.
When the Sangha is absent on tudong, there's a real involvement in that for lay supporters, and everyone takes a keen interest in their progress - how they're faring with the weather, are they keeping well, getting enough to - eat, finding places to stay, and so on. Suddenly the awareness of one's responsibility to support becomes sharper and the phone rings non - stop at the homes of the coordinators! There's great excitement for those who go out in search of the bhikkhus, with a car - boot full of food to offer at some hopefully recognizable rendezvous spot. It always feels a special privilege to join the monks and anagarikas away from home, and to sit with them as they recount their adventures so far.
|Celebration days at the Devon Vihara are usually very well attended -an expression of faith and of spiritual togetherness, a sense of "big things" beginning to happen here. One's practice and energy receive a great lift; but we are very content too with the ordinary quiet times for, as is the nature of such celebratory events, they pass into the memory just the same as any other day!|
So the Devon Vihara is many things to many people in many places. The few lay Buddhists whose vision, commitment and dedicated hard work first helped bring it into being are still very much at the heart of its life and administration. That heart - the spirit of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha - is really how the vihara and its people came to be.