Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1991

The Real World; Ajahn Sumedho
Beginners' Minds: From newly-robed bhikkhus
Guidelines for Cultivation; Master Hsuan Hua
The Golden State; Amaro Bhikkhu
Sanghapala: an introduction; Marc Lieberman



Sanghapala: an Introduction

Marc F. Lieberman, one of the founder members of Sanghapala, presents this account of the initial steps being taken to establish a branch monastery in the USA.

Sanghapala is the name of a very hopeful and dedicated group of Buddhists in the United States who are working towards establishing a permanent monastic presence here: specifically, a branch monastery of the Sangha centers established by Ajahn Sumedho in the United Kingdom and elsewhere these past ten years. Inspired by the initial scale of Lord Buddha's successful discourse of the Turning of the Wheel to only five ascetics in an ancient Indian deer park, we hope our own modest numbers will eventually translate into widespread support for a facility that preserves and teaches the Dhamma to as many as possible.

Ajahn Sumedho chose the name Sanghapala - Pali for 'Guardians of the Sangha' - when he met with a few of us in Northern California after a retreat in 1989. Some of us had heard of Chithurst or Amaravati on the 'international Dharma circuit', had visited England, and returned to America intent on helping establish a monastic enterprise here. Others had first encountered bhikkhus while sitting on meditation retreats that they had led in the U.S., or had met the monks and nuns for the first time only during their comings and goings. For all of us, the aspiration is to provide opportunities in this country for this precious tradition to flourish.

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The specific background leading up to our first event this year contains too the broader story of how we think Sanghapala fits into the fabric of Buddhism today in America. Our first task formally began with an invitation to Ajahn Amaro to remain as our guest in the San Francisco area for eight weeks, from mid-June through early August, 1990. He had come with the party of Ajahn Sumedho and Sisters Sundara and Jotaka; all had been invited by Jack Kornfield, James Baraz and their group, The Dharma Foundation (also known as Insight Meditation West, or Spirit Rock), both to jointly conduct a 10-day meditation retreat and to attend a weekend Conference on Monastic Life. The perceptions that led to the organization of the conference bring into focus the issues that we see Sanghapala addressing.

They strove to present the essence of the Buddha's teachings on meditation and the Path in as 'culture-free' a fashion as possible, intended for lay persons to practice themselves.

Ostensibly, the Conference was designed to expose the American Vipassana Community to monastics from both the Buddhist and Christian traditions - specifically to introduce and educate the lay students of Vipassana about the world-view and experience of monks and nuns. Though the term 'Vipassana Community' may strike some non-American ears as odd, here in the Dharma circles of the United States it has a distinctive sociological connotation. It specifically refers to a wide and vast group - probably more than 100,000 over the past ten years - of lay persons who have at one time or another been taught and practiced Vipassana meditation. These teachings of meditation, however, have rarely been imparted by Theravadin monastics. Ordained monks in the United States have been for the most part confined in their following and influences to specific ethnic communities.

Instead, the meditation and Dhamma teachings were taught by lay Americans - e.g. Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzburg, Sujata, Jack Kornfield - who had been trained in the monasteries of Burma, Thailand or Sri Lanka in the 1970s. Inspired by Theravadin teachings and steeped in particular meditation techniques, these teachers usually taught in ways that emphasized experience, rather than faith or logic or inspiration. They strove to present the essence of the Buddha's teachings on meditation and the Path in as 'culture-free' a fashion as possible, intended for lay persons to practice themselves.

This approach deeply resonated with a generalized antipathy towards traditional religious forms and customs among many spiritually hungry - but religiously alienated - Americans. These meditation courses and retreats became (and continue to be) enormously popular. For many, this was a first exposure to calm and clarity, affording the opportunity for at least a glimpse of the true nature of things. People didn't attend because they wanted Buddhism as a new religion - they simply wanted the Buddha's experiences.

The extraordinary accessibility and success of this meditation practice ,was because the Dhamma was presented in as generic a fashion possible. Classic Asian manifestations of the teachings in general - and devotional forms in particular -- were sometimes viewed with scepticism or even condescension, as being culture-bound historical accretions extraneous to the Buddha's teachings on Liberation. Lacking the charismatic Buddhist authorities found in Tibetan and Zen practice, Vipassana meditators informally aggregated into a democratic and egalitarian community of lay teachers and practitioners, intent on integrating the householder's life with the Path of Insight. Without exposure to traditional practicing Sangha communities - who seek to ground their spiritual experience in the traditional discipline of the Vinaya - the practical value and role of committed monastics largely remained outside the purview of the American Vipassana community.

In America in general (and California especially) the idea of a life of voluntary renunciation and celibacy is fairly alien. At worst, it resonates with a negative implication of repression and blind submission to authority. Unlike England or Europe, where the medieval traditions of Catholic monasteries, nunneries and hermitages persist in the mental landscape as viable adjuncts to lay communal life, there are no such architectural or intellectual associations for the American mind. In fact, when the idea was raised several years ago that perhaps Ajahn Sumedho's Sangha could be offered land to establish a monastery north of San Francisco, there was strong resistance and reservation expressed by the laity.

Some of this apprehension was rooted in a widely-shared feminist perspective that is suspicious of traditional Asian monastic forms, which historically have favored the male in perpetuation of religious power structure and access to spiritual training. Traditional hierarchies were felt to be inherently anachronistic and sexist. In contrast to this substantial theoretical objection, there were others who had actually known first-hand of the qualities that the renunciant life can uniquely foster. For these people too, it was imperative that spiritual opportunities be gender-blind. But it need not mean that the ancient form of Sangha monasticism, rooted in the very Suttas themselves, be abandoned. In an attempt to air these two important perceptions, Jack Kornfield arranged for the Conference to be a symposium, allowing monks and nuns from several traditions to speak for themselves and with the interested laity.

Venerable Ananda tells the Buddha of the passing away of Venerable Sariputta:

'Indeed, Lord, when I heard this, I felt as though my body were quite rigid; I could not see straight, and all my ideas were unclear.'

'Why Ananda, do you think that by finally attaining nibbana he has taken away the code of virtue or the code of concentration or the code of under- standing or the code of deliverance or the code of knowledge and vision of deliverance?'

'Not that, Lord. But I think how helpful he was to his fellows in the Holy Life, advising, informing, instructing, urging, rousing and encouraging them; how tireless he was in teaching them the Law. We remember how the Venerable Sariputta fed us and enriched us and helped us with the Law.'

'Ananda, have I not already told you that there is separation and parting and division from all that is dear and beloved? How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed, and subject to fall, should not fall? That is not possible. It is as if a main branch of a great tree standing firm and solid had fallen; so too, Sariputta has finally attained nibbana in a great community that stands firm and solid. How could it be that what is born, come into being, formed, and bound to fall, should not fall? That is not possible. Therefore, Ananda, each of you should make himself his island, himself and no other his refuge; each of you should make the Law his island, the Law and no other his refuge.'(Kindred Sayings XLVII, 13; from The Life of The Buddha by Nyanamoli Thera, Buddhist Publication Society)

Those of us who comprise Sanghapala quite obviously have been profoundly moved and inspired by those who strive to impeccably cultivate the Path in the steps of the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. We welcomed the coming to America of Ajahn Sumedho's party as an opportunity for this Sangha's mature members to be widely seen and heard. Having the indefatigable Ajahn Amaro stay on for two months allowed the shy, the curious and the inspired to come and share in the rhythms of a monk's life.

After the Conference's successful conclusion and the departure of Ajahn Sumedho and the nuns, Ajahn Amaro returned from visits outside California and dove into a full and energetic schedule. With the help of a resident layman, he lived in a rented flat in San Francisco, easily accessible to highway and public transport. This was but three blocks from the temporary home of Sanghapala, a private house with a large room dedicated as a meditation hail, complete with a large Buddha rupa and altar. Every morning there was 6 a.m. chanting and meditation; every Wednesday and Friday nights there was a 7.30 - 9 p.m. chanting, sitting and Dhamma talk. Five or six stalwarts actively volunteered to coordinate the provision of the daily meals, which were offered by people for whom meeting and offering almsfood to a monk was a novel experience.

Augmenting this weekly schedule, upon which people came to depend, were many other arrangements. Sittings were arranged at various Vipassana meditation groups across Northern California. Visits were made to Theravadin and Mahayana Temples, as well as to a hospital chaplaincy program and a Zen AIDS hospice. Every other weekend during Ajahn Amaro's stay, facilities were rented (at Stan- ford University to the south and a Dominican College to the north of San Francisco) and two-day, non-residential meditation retreats were conducted.

The common theme of all these many activities was the exposure of hundreds of lay people to an articulate, generous-hearted and accessible Western-born bhikkhu. By conversation, sharing meals and learning to observe the etiquette of the Discipline, many people who never before had any experience of the monastic life now at least had met with a happy and non-intimidating monk for themselves.

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Sanghapala's purpose, then, really has two aspects. First is the laying of the groundwork and support base to be able to invite and sustain a monastic presence in the United States. For now this is done by simply arranging for as many monks and nuns to come to the States for as long as they can: the inspiration and support spontaneously arises. Thus it was with the extended visit of Ajahn Amaro in 1990. And such is the intention for next year's plans as well.

We have invited two monks (including Ajahn Sumedho) and two nuns to come as Sanghapala's guests for three weeks next spring. By the gracious hospitality of the Sagely City of 10,000 Buddhas in Ukiah, California (2 hours' drive north of San Francisco), facilities have been offered to provide for a two-week 'Amaravati Retreat'. Rather than exclusively emphasizing focused concentration on sitting and walking, as found on many Vipassana retreats, this retreat will simulate the daily life of a monastery, with mindful interaction among the laity and the Sangha. It remains to be determined whether the format will be based on the schedule used for monastic meditation/contemplation retreats, or on the typical daily-life/work schedule of the British monasteries. Tentative dates are from June 21 through July 5,1991. After that, Ajahn Amaro will again stay on for an extended visit, allowing the nascent group of Sangha supporters here to grow and nurture these important symbiotic habits of the heart.

Which brings us to the second aspect of Sanghapala's purpose. It is simply to make available a holistic vision of Buddhist practice: embracing not only meditation, but devotional practices and the eventual establishment of a Buddhist community, capable of sustaining itself and a formal Sangha. Such a community is seen as enriching and complementing the larger and less formal Vipassana community. By facilitating the support of women and men who have chosen to live their lives in accordance with the Buddha's dispensation, and who realize in their demeanor and being the cultivation of the fruits of the Path, all beings can be inspired and enhanced in their own perfection of the Way.

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For more information regarding the 'Amaravati Retreat', please write to Sanghapala, 10 Arbor Street, San Francisco, California 94131. (Telephone: 415-334-4921).

Of particular value will be people experienced in organizing and sustaining a retreat community There will be minimal distinctions between staff and retreatants, with ample opportunity for all to practice together.