|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1991|
The Golden State
Part I: A Fertile Sea
It is said that in the past - before the Europeans came - the San Francisco Bay area was so thick with wild life that the sky would be darkened by flocks of birds as they rose 'with a sound like that of a hurricane'. Streams were filled with silver salmon; the hills covered with forests of oak and berries, fields of flowers and bunch-grass; seals, grizzly bears, foxes, bobcats and coyotes abounded. It was 'a land of inexpressible fertility'. In the last 150 years of 'civilization', much has changed. But by some strange alchemy the fertility of the area persists: transmogrified from the rich life of local tribes and that of soil and beast, into the inner life, the hearts and minds of the people who now live there.
The USA, a land of opportunity, grew out of a revolution against European values. It was to be a country of freedom and equality. This ideal still pervades American society and probably nowhere more so than on the West Coast, where the majority of 'free spirits' have gravitated. Here especially is a place of freedom of expression, where dreams of all kinds are pursued.
In May of 1990, Venerable Ajahn Sumedho, Sister Sundara, Sister Jotaka and myself were invited to the USA to lead some retreats, participate in a conference on monasticism, and to give Dhamma talks to a number of groups on the West Coast. The invitation came from two groups: Insight Meditation West (IMW), founded to promote Vipassana meditation, mostly in the form of silent retreats and local 'sitting' groups; and Sanghapala, whose aim is to help establish a monastery in California under the guidance of Ajahn Sumedho. These two groups represent, to a large extent, the main sources of interest in our presence in the USA.
The two aspects of our life which they embody - serious meditation practice and traditional monastic form - are in fact closely linked, although the latter is less widely appreciated. It was to help people in the Bay Area have a fuller understanding of monastic practice, its methods and its results, that Jack Kornfield, the principal meditation teacher with IMW, convened the conference 'The Joys of Monastic Life' which we attended.
Spiritual practice is shaped around formal sitting and walking meditation, and blended with a Western psychological vernacular to describe the inner world being investigated.
The practice which Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho have advocated involves taking Vinaya - the monastic code of discipline - as the basic life style, and from that foundation learning to appreciate whatever you are with. Putting this teaching into practice, we actually found ourselves able to feel at ease in a bewildering variety of environments: from the Esalen Institute to The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas; from the Zen Center AIDS hospice to a seminar with Huston Smith and a dozen academic philosophers; from a gathering in Chicago of all the Thai monks in the USA, to days of silence spent high in the hills of Northern California at the Bell Springs Hermitage.
The people we seemed to meet the most had been practising Vipassana meditation for a number of years - often through retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts or on the West Coast, with teachers such as Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzburg, and Christopher Titmuss. In many of the West Coast urban areas - notably Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Marin County, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver - fairly large groups of people meet regularly to meditate, listen to Dharma talks and discuss any problems in their spiritual life. These loosely-knit groups of people hold their focus around their teachers and meditation groups, and around Insight Meditation West. In addition to running retreats, IMW is in the process of establishing a sizeable meditation centre, Spirit Rock, in the countryside just north of San Francisco.
A prominent feature of this group's style of practice is the conscious movement away from traditionalist Theravada Buddhist forms. Spiritual practice is shaped around formal sitting and walking meditation, and blended with a Western psychological vernacular to describe the inner world being investigated. This has worked well - very many people have found inspiration and benefit from this approach - but it seems that for some we met, there are areas of spiritual practice left unaddressed ... or, at least, some potential in their hearts which has not had the opportunity to flower.
One area where this difficulty appears is in the basic premise which motivates the practice: i.e. what is assumed at the outset. By couching spiritual work in a psychological idiom - even though it is thereby more accessible - the practice can be construed in terms of "me and my problems, which I have got to get rid of. This is fair enough - "me without problems' is much more attractive than 'me with problems'. However, the longer this premise is followed blindly, the greater is the resulting anguish. According to conventional Buddhist understanding, the person doesn't have problems, the 'person' is the problem. It is because of conceiving everything in terms of 'me' and 'mine', in an absolute sense, that we continue to suffer and fret.
So, as Ajahn Sumedho pointed out over the weeks, we have to make a paradigm shift: from 'me and my problems', to 'the Buddha seeing the Dhamma'. Buddha wisdom is the ultimate subject - The One Who Knows'. And Dhamma - 'The Way Things Are', Nature - is the ultimate object, which can have no owner. As this shift is made, the heart is liberated. The world still is the way it is, but it's no longer a problem, and it's certainly not 'mine'.
A second area of hazy misunderstanding was devotional practice. As with all our retreats, at the ten days organized by IMW at Santa Rosa we had a period of chanting and bowing before the shrine at the start of each morning and evening meditation. We made it clear that joining in was not compulsory, and it took a good few days for many people to get a feel for the role of puja in relationship to meditation and self-knowledge. However, by the fourth or fifth day we noticed more and more vigour coming into the pujas. Ritual and devotion can be a way of reasserting, on the emotional plane, the aspiration to enlightenment - a way of engaging the faculties of the heart, along with those of the head, in empowering the practice of the Path. Likewise, the Sangha embodies an archetypal principle, which can help unite one with the lineage of all who have ever practised as disciples of the Buddha.
The pujas were done in English, to lend a little more to their relevance, and they became a key-note in the practice for many people. They made such an impact, in fact, that by the end of the retreat some of the sceptics professed themselves to have been thoroughly sold'. Several Buddhist groups that we subsequently visited particularly requested that we do some chanting, or that I speak on the subject. There is a natural need in us to honour that which is good, higher, more noble, and it seems that people realized that making appropriate gestures of respect on the material level can be something beautiful. In our hearts we are bowing to wisdom, truth and virtue, to purity, radiance and peacefulness, not to a golden idol.
Balancing the intellectual and emotional elements in harmonious measure is also developed outside the shrine room through the work of serving others. In the Bay Area, service is found particularly in the area of hospice care. The growth of Buddhist involvement in care for the dying has been seeded from the long-standing efforts of such people as Steven Levine and Ram Dass. In the last few years, however, it has taken shape as a full-blown hospice programme in three locations under the auspices of the San Francisco Zen Center. The two doctors looking after the hospice ward in a local hospital are Zen Center students and much of the daily care and counselling, assistance to the nurses, etc, is given by a team of some forty volunteers, most of whom are with the Zen Center or IMW.
The joint involvement of Zen and Vipassana students is something that has actively been encouraged by the groups. Not only is the burden of work shared, but meditators are also able to engage their talents in helpful service. Formal meditation and silent retreats can lend a somewhat introverted tone to spiritual life. Generosity and service impel our attention outwards and, to our surprise, we often find that simply by not thinking about ourselves so much many of our mental terrors vanish. Not only do others gain but we do also - the wondrous arising of the 'win / win situation'.
The last week that Venerable Sumedho and the nuns were in the USA was spent visiting Seattle. It is quite a cosmopolitan city and very reminiscent of San Francisco. Liberal and environmentally conscious in atmosphere, it too was a place to which people interested in Buddhist meditation had gravitated. The public talk which had been arranged attracted quite a large number, about half of whom had come down from Vancouver for the occasion.
Our hosts, aware of our full schedule in San Francisco, were keen not to exhaust us with too many 'events'. Thus most of the days were spent quietly, talking informally with the local Buddhists or travelling around the area.
When not obscured by cloud, Mt. Ranier is a vast volcanic snowy bulk which dominates the city. On the day we went to visit it, the dense cover broke just long enough for us to glimpse the peak. All around, and across thousands of acres of Washington countryside, evergreens carpet the land. In sharp contrast to California, the 'Golden State' (don't say 'brown' when looking at its meadows in the dry season), Seattle is aptly named 'The Emerald City'. Bearing the brunt of a huge rainfall off the northern Pacific Ocean, it is thus blessed with a dripping lushness all the year round.
The others bade farewell and took off for England. After a brief but very fine visit to Portland, I returned to San Francisco.
The people we visited in the Pacific North-west, as well as those we met around the San Francisco Bay, live far from the 'shop-til-ya-drop' mentality of materialistic America. If America does have any spiritual hope, one feels it will be through the likes of these people. America is a young country, and just as youth can be obsessed with intense sensuality and materialism, it can also have an intense spirituality, openness of mind, eagerness to learn and readiness to change.
This maturing of values resonated through all the established groups we visited, and also amongst those who came along to the regular talks and retreats that I was invited to give around the Bay Area in July: twice-weekly evening talks, and three evenly-spaced week-end retreats. During this time I was based in San Francisco, in a small apartment just around the corner from 10 Arbor Street where the meetings were held. The aim was to have something of a 'temporary monastery', where those who were interested could come and talk with the monk, meditate, or just step out of the momentum-driven world for a spell. Being in residence, I was also able to receive people who wished to offer alms, accept invitations to eat at people's houses and conduct blessing ceremonies for babies, houses and rhe newly-opened Bell Springs Hermitage.
A small amount of publicity had quietly filtered through local Theravada Buddhist circles. At first the numbers of folk coming were low, but it was encouraging to see how, in just a short span of time, the level of interest reached 3 or 4 a day and, by the time I left for England in early August, the shrine room at Arbor Street was getting to be too small to contain everyone.
The Bay Area is truly a hot-house of spiritual seekers, yet the people we met did not seem to be those searching for the quick, hassle-free solution to all life's problems. (Local advert: 'Free credit - pay nothing 'til April!') Many had been steeped in one kind of spiritual medium or another - from psychedelia to therapy and meditation - since the late Sixties. These approaches had all promised freedom; many had helped but not quite succeeded in bringing the carefree fulfillment longed for.
While it is true that people will always come and check out a new product on the market, the interest directed towards us seemed to be more than just skin-deep. Buddha-Dhamma is not a cosmetic teaching. It was apparent that the example of the renunciant life, the surrender that comes from participation in a traditional form and the power and directness of the teachings, provided people with something that made a difference.
In this respect, the time I spent at the Esalen Institute is of interest. I was invited to spend a few days there, about 150 miles south of San Francisco, on the Big Sur coast - one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Esalen has been the birthplace of much Californian spirituality - in particular, most of the novel approaches to psychotherapy were hatched there.
The spiritual and terrestrial influences mingle at the institute very much like their statue of the Buddha, almost hidden amidst a swarm of flowers, sitting serenely at the heart of the garden. Quite by chance my visit coincided with a concerted move by the staff to establish more of a daily meditation practice for themselves. They were keen to invite monks and other meditation teachers to come and give them more consistent guidance. Like so many other spiritual communities, they had been through struggles and conflicts, and now felt the need to establish more clarity and cohesion. The Director and other staff expressed their hope to me that, should a monastery be established in the area, we would come and teach there periodically. Therapy is not enough any more!
American culture, for the most part, dispenses with the old, and renews/reforms/progresses. This theme carries on as strong as ever, but it is significant that the current problems of ill-health pollution and waste-disposal are reaching impossible proportions and people are waking up to the need to readjust their values. The adjustments have an American flavour, of course, which was evident in the large billboard advertising a bio-degradable throw-away camera, or the poster for a new low-fat yoghurt-based ice-cream substitute proudly promising 'All of the pleasure, none of the guilt'.
The few weeks we spent in the USA brought home the realization that the rising sensitivity to nature, and respect for the origin, substance and fate of the things we use, was reflected in a true change of attitude in the American Buddhist world. For, rather than just trashing the traditional ways of doing things - leaving classical monasticism and devotional practices entirely behind for the sake of a new, rational and hierarchy-free Buddhism - some people are finding it worthwhile to recycle the old. After all, like other things we try and dump, the old doesn't just go away - it has an annoying habit of hanging around for a long time before it decomposes. What if it turns out that there is a lot there that's still of use? - Such a waste just to sling it out.
People seem to be looking at traditional monastic practice with a fresh eye; its relegation as a culturally antiquated, worn-out form is being revised. At the end of the 'Joys of Monastic Life' conference, when Jack Kornfield asked 'How many of you would consider entering a monastery, say for a period of at least a year?', 70-80% of the assembly raised their hands.
Certainly, some aspects of Buddhist custom are redundant and inapplicable to Western society. But, as our experience in Europe has shown, these elements are not related intrinsically to the Dhamma-Vinaya as described by the Buddha. And, as many eminent teachers in Asia point out, it might be good if such aspects of Buddhist custom were discarded in Asia as well.
This visit to the West Coast was arranged in order to provide access to the Sangha and to see if the traditional unit of monastery and lay-supporters had a useful place in American society. The impression that has lingered is not one of friction with people, or of materialistic and violent horrors - even though these perceptions were plentiful enough. These impressions fade, and what fills the heart is a quiet delight, echoing with endless highways of space and light, thick with oleanders. . . or islands rising in the early morning, out of miles of opal fog.
This is a rich land, there is goodness here - goodness in the land and in the hearts of the people - and it has been a joy to help the sincere find that which is truly golden.