Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1991
THIS ISSUE Cover:
Articles:


Sense Contact; The Fount of Wisdom; Ajahn Chah
Another Going Forth; Joseph Kappel
Why I Became a Nun, Pt. II; Sister Sundara
Harnham Monastery Anniversary; various impressions
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Harnham Monastery Anniversary

Ten Years on the Hill: An Anniversary for Harnham Buddhist Monastery
'Ratanagiri', the monastery at Harnham in Northumberland, was established in June 1981. Here are a few impressions of that first decade.


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to
  Richard Hopkins
  Nyanaviro Bhikkhu
  Ajahn Sucitto
  Ajahn Munindo
  Ajahn Tiradhammo

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.
     They talked with Ajahn Sumedho, and made a formal request to be allowed to support a small branch monastery in the North-East. He gave his consent in principle, saying that the type and condition of the building was unimportant, the only essentials being adequate shelter, a water supply, and sufficient lay sup- port to provide the other requisites of the simple monastic life.
     After six weeks of fruitless searching for the 'perfect place', an advert was placed in the local paper: 'Retreat house wanted, will accept repair lease.' There was only one positive reply, from John Wake of Harnham, with the offer of a semi-derelict cottage. When it was viewed on a wet May Saturday, the prospect of the cottage seemed dismal and disheartening
     But the unique character of the hill was impressive. As a fortified hill farm, people have lived at Harnham since the twelfth century or earlier. In its atmosphere, time seemed to stand still, bringing both an awareness of the present moment and a strong feeling of the history of the hill. There was even a tomb inscribed with a particularly Buddhist message:

My time has passed as now you see
I viewed the dead as you do me
'Or long you'll lie as low as I
And some will look on thee.

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.


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to
  Richard Hopkins
  Nyanaviro Bhikkhu
  Ajahn Sucitto
  Ajahn Munindo
  Ajahn Tiradhammo

Venerable Nyanaviro spent six months at Harnham as an anagarika (1982-1983), and three years there as a junior monk (1987-1990).
     It's very enjoyable to call up images of Harnham in my mind. A warmth accompanies that memory, which goes beyond mere affection or longing.
     The first time I visited the Vihara was as a layman for the opening ceremony -June 1981. A friend offered to drive, and when we got to the other side of Newcastle and the view of Northumberland opened out before us, I thought: 'Wow, this place is really out in the sticks, in the absolute middle of nowhere!'
     When we finally got to the monastery it was almost like we had made a pilgrimage; the sense of arriving was quite strong, having got all the way to the top of this hill and finding the tiny cottage. In those days it was extremely simple, with no real decorations, just the original structure or a shepherd's dwelling - thick stone walls, rather dusty, a bit dingy because the windows were small, and hard floors.
     But on entering I knew that this was no ordinary cottage. My contact with the Sangha had been minimal, yet on coming into the hastily-made shrine-room I was struck by the presence of the monks, the colour of their robes contrasting with the dark grey stone walls. With these orange-brown robes, the sense of calm and peace was immediately obvious. There was also a perceptible desolation to the place, a wildness, an almost other- worldly quality, which I found not a little disturbing at the time. It was not something that I knew how to be at ease with, and it reflected back to me that unknown side of myself.
     Harnham was the first monastery that I visited regularly, and it eased me into the Buddhist way of life. One had to get used to being simple, and relinquishing one's comforts. It was rather cold. Everything was basic: a naked light bulb hanging from a ceiling, a toilet, wash basin, the food, the smell of the place, the barrenness of the shrine-room and the almost ghastly simplicity of the monks. Long periods of meditation, sounds from an occasional tractor outside, or Farmer John Wake walking by in his wellington boots. The dry stone walls, the greenness of the grass and always, always, the long view that dropped away from the hill stretching off to the horizon. It was an environment which did not encourage complexity. And all these became wonderful constituents for the beginning of my Dhamma-practice.

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.

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to
  Richard Hopkins
  Nyanaviro Bhikkhu
  Ajahn Sucitto
  Ajahn Anando
  Ajahn Munindo
  Ajahn Tiradhammo

Ajahn Sucitto was Harnham's first senior incumbent.
     Wind blowing through the stone walls and driving snow into the house under the decayed front door; one cold water tap; snow on the toilet seat: some memories of the old days at Harnham a decade ago. We three incumbents felt like castaways, occasionally visited by Virginia with food and building materials during her lunch hour.
     I drilled 700 14-inch-deep holes in those granite walls to provide a damp course. My stomach vibrated into the evening sittings from pushing on the drill. Those holes are the only remaining visible signs of the toil of that first incumbency. I point them out (with pride) as the signs of the humble hard work at the foundation of what is now a beautiful maturity.
     The bleak looks have also disappeared off the faces of the Sangha and the Trustees during that decade, to be replaced by something more welcoming. A place of Dhamma is such a clear mirror!


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to
  Richard Hopkins
  Nyanaviro Bhikkhu
  Ajahn Sucitto
  Ajahn Anando
  Ajahn Munindo
  Ajahn Tiradhammo

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.
     We were planning a leisurely walk, when the telephone interrupted. Ajahn Viradhammo came back looking a little embarrassed and concerned. 'That was Pete. He has a week between jobs, so he will be coming tomorrow to start plastering the meditation hall.' So, the next week we spent stripped to the waist working like Trojans trying to keep up with this giant-of-a-guy-Pete while he trans- formed the hall with rapid and expert strokes of his trowel. Ajahn Viradhammo had to leave during our plastering experience, which added to his discomfort at the way things had unfolded. Thus started my stay at Harnham.
     Compared to Chithurst, Harnham is small - which has a wonderful effect on certain types of people. Interestingly, those people weren't always part of the community there, which naturally added to the richness of my experience, the first rime I was ever in charge of a monastery. But by far the most cogent and poignant memories are of the many, many times people helped and encouraged us through their gifts and acts of generous support.


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to
  Richard Hopkins
  Nyanaviro Bhikkhu
  Ajahn Sucitto
  Ajahn Anando
  Ajahn Munindo
  Ajahn Tiradhammo

Ajahn Munindo took over the duties of senior monk in the spring of this year.
     Settling in at Harnham in its tenth year feels something like moving into a house with an already established garden: the soil is well dug, the stones have been removed and a good variety of things have been planted. All sorts of fresh food is available. Some of what is appearing is familiar and some is not. Some plants are large, strong and healthy, and some so small that one can't quite tell what they will turn out to be. Occasional weeds are easily pulled or dug back in, and with pleasant anticipation one waits to see what will come up next.
     Monasteries, like gardens, change with the seasons and at Harnham I would say we are going through spring - there is quite a lot happening. It seems these days that the psychological distance between here and the rest of the U.K. has lessened. Although we are regularly at least seven rest- dents, we are usually more. Friends from other parts, Sangha and laity, often come to visit. As senior monk I try to be here as much as possible whilst Venerables Vipassi and Khemasiri conduct the meetings at groups in Leeds, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Also the visits to the prisons continue. In any traditional Buddhist culture monks at their age would be testing their samadhi by wandering in tiger-infested forests and mountains. Here in the North-East of Great Britain it's the frustrations of British Rail and city thugs that serve as their teachers.
     One clear source of recent enthusiasm has been the opening of what is variously referred to as 'The Newcastle Buddhist Centre', 'The City Centre', or 'Pink Lane Group'. A weekly Wednesday gathering takes place in a large room above the Loy Krarhong Thai Restaurant in central Newcastle (Pink Lane, opposite Central Railway Station). The meeting begins with chanting and meditation, then offers time for group discussion on how to apply the teachings in daily life. Along with the yoga classes on Mon- day and Friday nights, there are stronger links forming between the complex 'worlds' of the city and what is happening here on 'the Hill'. For some, the differences are disappearing
     As we have often been told by our teachers, when we are awake we see things as they are, when we are asleep we dream up all kinds of problems. Consciously sharing a recognition of the predicament of unawakened beings can be a major step on the path to making that Right Effort which brings about awakening. The Dhamma discussion groups and the pujas at the monastery are circumstances where this kind of acknowledgement is taking place.

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.
     So, going back to gardening, anyone who has kept one knows that as it matures the gardener need no longer be so concerned with what to plant or whether things will actually grow. In this garden one feels the roots are well taken, the fruits are plentiful and those eating from it are well nourished.


go
to
  Richard Hopkins
  Nyanaviro Bhikkhu
  Ajahn Sucitto
  Ajahn Anando
  Ajahn Munindo
  Ajahn Tiradhammo

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.
     Due to the labours of my predecessors, I had inherited a very well-renovated and comfortable residence. Most of the 'building work' was building up a support group of interested people throughout the North. Teaching engagements increased considerably, and, as Harnham became appreciated by more and more people, an organised effort - the Sanghamitta Project - gathered momentum to develop the facilities on Harnham Hill.
     However, any kind of growth has its highs and lows. One can ride high on the enthusiasm of dedicated people, and then the practical matters of organisation and planning quickly bring one back to earth!
     I look back to this time with genial and lively memories, thanks to the sup- port and encouragement of the many Sangha members and dedicated lay people with whom I shared the friendly, open spaces of Harnham.