|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1989|
Out on a Limb
Having spent several months at Amaravati, one of the questions I find that I am often asked is: "What is it like to live in a small vihara?" So having spent 18 months in the Devon Vihara, I thought I would try to jot down a few points.
Firstly, for the time that I was there, the senior monk was Ajahn Kittisaro. As the focal point he gave his imprint to the routine and the feeling of the vihara, and so, not surprisingly, many people who were attracted by his teaching were supporters of Ajahn Kittisaro, rather than Buddhism or the Devon Vihara. However, as with many teachers, the greatest teaching occurs when they move on and one discovers whether one has absorbed the point of their teaching or not.
Secondly, being a small vihara - three monks and two anagarikas - and because of limited space, relationships with people get quite personal. Some have described it as like being in a pressure cooker. Other people seemed to like it, including myself - but then, not having much energy, maybe I needed that pressure to heat up to normal. At Amaravati there is the space both for the monastic community and for lay visitors - to disappear, to be one of the crowd; at Devon there isn't. There is a lot of opportunity for meeting - gruel time and tea time being group events where the lag people are about ten feet away, at the most. In Amaravati it sometimes seems that you need a telescope or loudspeaker to make contact with people; at Devon you would have to make a special effort not to!
People can easily fall in and out of love with the vihara or the monks; but in staying with the love and hate, a lot can be learnt.
|It can be quite demanding being in a small vihara because, although there's not so much work, there are fewer of you to do it and a lot of the day is spent in talking to people; this can be inspiring or bread war, baked by that person; you had seen them put it in your bowl when you went on almsround; and you know who pays your bills. This is perhaps one of the unique flavours of the Devon Vihara. Due to its position on Hartridge there are five or six villages within easy walking distance for almsround. Of the many almsrounds, quite a few are to people who aren't Buddhist, don't meditate and rarely come to the vihara; but they invite the monks to come and have a cup of tea and a chat, and like to support "the monks up on the hill*. I remember one conversation with an elderly lady, which started on the topic of why we don't work for a living or grow our own food: "You know we couldn't live like that - being waited on by other people, mildly telling us off. "Now you must have some more cake and tea, and remind me to give you some bread that I've made for you, before you go!"|
The concern is not only for our physical welfare, but also they let us know how something we are doing or thinking of doing would be viewed in the area. Even though one might not notice, people watch us: "You stay up late, don't you", said one chap who had been watching us through his telescope. Or once when we went out for the first time, after having been busy for a couple of weeks, two or three people whom we would only occasionally speak to said, "What have you been doing? Haven't seen you around lately"
|I think Devon Vihara is more like a big family, where most of the lay people are part of that family with a few distant cousins; whereas Amaravati is a big family - mainly monastic - where most lay people, excepting a few well-loved uncles and aunties, are like distant cousins. In Devon, because of that close relationship, people can easily fall in and out of love with the vihara or the monks; but in staying with the love and hate, a lot can be learnt. It provides a place for people of like mind to come together and chart, meditate and discuss the Dhamma. And soone sees that the whole thing is an opportunity for the cultivation of dana, generosity, sila, virtue, and bhavana, the development of meditation.|
Although it may seem that, as a monk, you are already a good way on the path, it is very much a two-way process. It's not just that the lay people provide the material food and the monks the spiritual food; its actually much deeper. Let me try to explain.
As a junior monk you are still struggling, trying to learn how to use the Buddhist tools, and although geographically one may be at the centre of the Devon Vihara, mentally one can be wayout on the edge. And, just as the sight of a monk or hearing a talk on Dhamma may help a lay person to remember the way, so also the kindness and practice of lay people would often be the reminder and encouragement for me to remember and continue on that way.
In the eighteen months that I spent there, there were a lot of comings and goings and ups and downs, but one also saw the transforming effect it had on people's lives. Certainly it affected me. Before I went to Devon I was a bit wobbly as a monk doubting whether I could do it, whether it was ruining my health, whether it really produced good results. However, nearly two years later, when one of the monks recently disrobed I felt so sad. Maybe I'm wrong, but having seen the benefits of this form - both for oneself and other people - it seemed to me that he was opting for a second best.
|Also, it is more important to be at the various events. At Amaravati, if you don't go to tea or miss a meeting it is hardly noticed, but at Devon it stands out. And you realize fairly directly that, just as your absence is noted, so your presence is appreciated and a help to the rest of the community.|
The third point concerns the interdependence between the monks and the lay people. This may sound funny, because all the monasteries are run on the same system, but somehow at Devon it is more obvious. In Amaravati food arrives in your bowl every day, the bills are paid and the requisites are plentiful, but you don't really know where it all comes from except that it is the "generosiy" of the "lay people". In Devon you know these carrots come from this person, these apples from that person and this Dhamma may help a lay person to remember the Way, So also the kindness and practice of lay people would often be the reminder and encouragement for me to remember and continue on that Way.