|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1991|
Harnham Monastery Anniversary
Richard Hopkins lives in Newcastle, and was one of the original supporters of the monastery. He is the chairman of Magga Bhavaka, the charitable trust which looks after Ratanagiri.
Ten years ago the first bhikkhu came to live at Harnham, and brought the teachings of the Buddha to Northumberland.It all started with a small group of about five people who used to meet weekly for yoga and meditation. Two of the group went to a retreat being held by Ajahn Sumedho at Oakenholt near Oxford in the spring of '78 and decided to invite him to lead a retreat in the North. From this contact with the Sangha, the group gained a unity of direction, and an appreciation of a lifestyle based on Dhamma practice. But most of all it gained an appreciation of the need for a teacher.
My time has passed as now you see
Two weeks later, Venerable Sucitto was passing through Newcastle, and was invited to give his opinion on the prospective site. He pointed out the obvious; 'It's perfect; I don't know what you're waiting for!'
Ratanagiri ... has developed from a simple vihara into a monastery, becoming the centre of a strong spiritual force in the Worth.
For most of the following year, the little group met at Harnham on weekends to try to bring the cottage up to the required minimum living standard: laying a proper floor in the kitchen over the previous dirt floor, installing a toilet and sink with drains, repointing the stone walls and carrying out basic repairs to the roof. The most difficult thing was the uncertainty - not knowing whether a bhikkhu would indeed come, whether the group would get enough support, or even if they would be able to negotiate terms of rent and be able to stay on the hill at all! Slowly they gave up worrying about it and decided that it didn't matter. It was a lovely place to meet each weekend and they could use it for retreats for themselves.
Of course, just as the sense of acceptance came, there was a phone call from Chithurst to say that a bhikkhu and an anagarika were on their way. As fate would have it, it was Venerable Sucitto, to be the first to test his own judgement. It was far from perfect! But his stoical patience and great sense of humour helped him to endure the austere conditions. Through the Sangha working with the supporters and providing guidance, they gradually learned how to work and live peacefully with insecurity. Harnham Vihara was formally opened by Ajahn Sumedho on 23rd June 1981, although two important secular formalities were still to be completed. Firstly there was the need to obtain a proper lease on the property. This finally happened in May 1982 with signing of a fifty-year lease. Secondly there was the need to form a charitable trust as a framework for the administration of the Vihara. The trust deed, appointing eight lay trustees with Ajahn Sumedho as spiritual director, was signed in August 1984.
Since then there have been many changes. Most important has been the change from being a vihara towards becoming a proper monastery. As a vihara, Harnham provided a place for one or two bhikkhus to live and serve the increasing interest in the teachings of Theravada Buddhism in the North of Britain. Bhikkhus from Harnham have been invited to teach at many meditation retreats in Yorkshire, Cumbria, Northumberland, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and there are now many well-established lay groups in these areas which are associated with Harnham. An important development at Harnham for these distant groups was the renting of the cottage next door to the vihara itself, to provide accommodation for lay visitors, and also to allow lay retreats to be held at the vihara.
Over recent years, Ajahn Sumedho has emphasised Harnham's suitability as a location for a 'monastery', that is, a place for the training of monks. Taking on that role, whilst continuing to provide a source of teaching for lay groups and a place where lay people could stay, would be dependent upon substantial physical expansion. It would be necessary for Harnham to house a larger monastic community, of both junior bhikkhus in training and more senior bhikkhus, to undertake the teaching commitments. It would also be necessary to have a separation between public and private areas of the monastery.
The movement in this direction started about five years ago. There was clearly sufficient support to sustain a larger monastic community, and the 'Sanghamitta Project' was instigated to raise funds for the required developments. The generosity of supporters in donating funds, and of Farmer Wake in offering properties at bargain basement prices, enabled the purchase of three properties on the hill. One of these is the 'byre' which was being used as workroom/coalshed and has now been converted to provide the main accommodation for the resident Sangha. Next to this is the long barn and the land behind, on which the new Dhamma Hall has been built. Finally, further down the hill is a row of completely derelict buildings, one of which was the birth- place of Farmer Wake.
Now, there is sufficient accommodation for five bhikkhus and two anagarikas and the Dhamma Hall is almost completed. With this, the inspiration of the Sanghamitta Project is well on its way towards becoming a reality - much to the amazement of those who had doubts about support being forthcoming to sustain two residents in a £10-a-week semi-derelict cottage!
This rapid growth and establishment could never have happened without the great generosity and devotion of people from traditional Theravada cultures, who are now living in Britain. These people, mostly Thai and Sri Lankan, have also helped the British supporters understand that they too are part of a living and continuing spiritual tradition of more than 2,500 years. We come together each year in November to celebrate our diverse unity with a Multi-Cultural Fair, which also raises funds for the monastery.
There have now been five senior bhikkhus guiding the growth of Hamham, and inspiring the lay supporters each with their own individual perspective or emphasis on how the Buddha's teachings can be used to enrich our lives. From Venerable Sucitto - patient endurance and faith; Venerable Viradhammo - loving-kindness to ourselves as well as others; Venerable Anando - awareness of the karmic effects of our actions; Venerable Tiradhammo - greater intellectual understanding; Venerable Pahhakaro - appreciation of the form in Theravada practice. It seems as if each teacher has come at the time we needed their particular message.
From its small and humble beginning, Harnham - or 'Ratanagiri', as Ajahn Sumedho now calls it - has developed from a simple vihara into a monastery, becoming the centre of a strong spiritual force in the Worth. The little group who first met on this hill has grown to such a number as have come together today in celebration of the first decade. There is a strong sense of history in the making, and of gratitude for the opportunity to participate.
Venerable Nyanaviro spent six months at Harnham as an anagarika (1982-1983), and three years there as a junior monk (1987-1990).
Returning the following year to stay as an anagarika, the experience continued to develop. It's a very elemental place. The ruggedness of Nature feels unspoilt, and this feeling calls you back to your heart, to the source. Ajahn Anando, shortly after his arrival as the new abbot, remarked that if you made an effort you could hear the sound of silence during the course of the day, just being there and going about one's duties. One was always close to the edge of that silence.
To be honest, when I was an anagarika there I sometimes felt like I was doomed, that it was all too much. Once during a 10-day retreat, I had a glimpse into the emptiness of things. But rather than being an inspiring insight, it was like the bottom had dropped out of my world - I was nobody, my life was nothing, and this truth hit me so hard it was undeniable. For a while after that, getting up every day and going through the anagarika's duties was a weighty experience, like having a death sentence. Only after a long time did the understanding dawn that it was just a reaction thrown up by my ego, which could not bear to gaze into the depths of the open mind - that signless expanse was too frightening. But I had been shown - and there would always remain the dark remembrance - that all the creations of my mind and belief about myself were based on nothing.
And yet the nothingness, the spaciousness which Harnham's environment seems to reflect is not cold or harsh. It doesn't punish us. Rather it turns one back to the source, the rhythms of nature. The light and dark are very noticeable at Harnham, much more extreme than in the south of England. The sharp chill of the winter, the busting out of the spring, the length of the summer days when you are going to bed in the light and getting up in the light.
If you live on the hill for any length of time, you can't maintain the feeling that you are somehow separate. You're standing on the Earth and that energy flows up and moves through your body and mind, impelling thoughts and moods which are aligned with Nature; you become part of the landscape. Awareness can open to this, and there is nowhere I have found which is more conducive to that than at Harnham. The thick walls of the cottage can absorb everything, all of your pain, all of your loneliness, all of the petty struggles - they are nothing compared to the age and strength of the stone. It just takes everything and muffles it all in quietude. And that's a support, it becomes a friend.
I think over the years the monastery has softened. It's like the presence of the monks has humanised those stones, that landscape, because of their willingness to be human, which is what the practice asks. The monks and anagarikas who have lived there over a ten-year period, along with the efforts of many sincere lay- supporters, have made this offering of human heart-energy, which is what has bestowed a sense of sacredness on the Vihara as a physical environment.
Sacredness comes from sacrifice, and many people have sacrificed time and energy in responding to the physical work that has had to be done, and the work of giving up; giving up of the anger, sadness and passion of our individuality. Just offering it all to that lonely little place on a hill in Northumberland.
Ajahn Sucitto was Harnham's first senior incumbent.
Ajahn Anando was abbot during most of 1983 and 1984.
We don't have to do anything. I just want you to take it easy and settle in.' I was grateful to Ajahn Viradhammo for being so considerate. I was feeling very tired, from the long drive up to Harnham and as a result of the many things I had to finish before leaving Chithurst.
Ajahn Munindo took over the duties of senior monk in the spring of this year.
Ten years of hard work by a good many people is showing how daily life practice is possible; it is worth the effort to see everything in terms of Dhamma. When this kind of effort is made, things flow smoothly. Even the mundane details of running this place are further aspects of practice. These days, the Trustees oversee the developments from the perspective of experience, and a 'Monastery Committee' attends to the day-to-day details. The committee .- three monks and three lay people - meets every two weeks to talk over matters ranging from how to get the council to replace the 'Harnham' road-sign (missing for five months) to the moral implications of our contract with the Electricity Department.
Ajahn Tiradhammo was Harnham's abbot from autumn 1984 to spring 1987.
I remember Harnham as an exceptionally peaceful and spacious place. Its isolation
and wide-open vistas provide an ideal contemplative environment. However,
my time there was also very challenging for me - both I and the Vihara
were going through a sort of spiritual adolescence: I was 'growing up'
into the role of the senior monk of a Vihara, while the Vihara was 'growing
up' as the centre for a Buddhist community stretching from Yorkshire to
Scotland to Northern Ireland.