Forest SanghaNewsletterOctober 1991

Working with Love; Three reflections
The Life of a Forest Monk; Luang Por Jun
Visiting the City of 10,000 Buddhas; Ven Vipassi
Amaravati's Child; Sandy Chubb
UK Buddhist Education: a Dhammic Perspective
Samatha Meditation; Aj Brahmavamso
California Dreaming; Ven Amaro


Another Normal Day

Assessing the contents of any recent Newsletter, a reader might assume that the greater part of monastic life is spent wandering on foot in this country or overseas, or that it is a sequence of grand occasions liberally bathed with heart-to-heart debate. Far from it. Mostly it is a matter of routine. It is difficult to savour in words the bread and (little) butter of monastic life. A description of a normal day would sound arid: no entertainment, and a full commitment to the duties of the monastery, in which personal relationships are a secondary concern. To say the monastic life consists of morning pujas, chores, alms rounds, a meal, work, tea and evening pujas often without Dhamma talks would have some truth in it. But it would miss out the heart of the experience: the ever-shifting blend of kamma within each person, of inspiration and struggle and much subtler movements, let alone the patterns and vortices of mind stuff that result from a group of ten to fifty individuals 'going forth' with varying degrees of faith and energy. Being in the presence of such an intermeshing presents plenty of grist for the mill. Communally as well as individually we can be touched by the turning of our personal worlds and deepen in accordance.

Monastic life is not fixed in form, nor is it formless. When clearly defined principles of behaviour and intention are set in a situation that is unstable, the effect is kaleidoscopic: fragments of mind/body stuff get tumbled into seemingly random patterns. Any Buddhist monastery exists in a relationship with an indeterminate and fluctuating community of lay people - and that openness stimulates an aspiration to respond to whatever the next moment may bring up. That can be varied. A place like Amaravati, established to accommodate large numbers of visitors for a variety of occasions, registers and responds to the flow of input hour by hour. This is the way it's supposed to be: instability presents a great opportunity to be flexible and give up self-seeking. But it means that if we wish to respond to the flux of life, a lot of personal drives and moods have to be abandoned. Too much engagement on the personal level clogs the flow of compassion; hence the coolness of manner and the group silences. A sacrifice of personality is freely made in order to attune more fully to life.

In unstable circumstances, uncertainty gets plotted against faith and effort until a mindful line appears.
Moreover, humdrum routines can serve as accommodating frames for some poignant configurations of human behaviour. One day a young woman presents a special food offering on behalf of her mother who committed suicide more than a decade ago; local townspeople touch into their unplumbed depths in the meditation classes; the Vinaya teachers describe the finer points of handling an alms bowl; and meanwhile someone is still taking the bucket of left-overs down to the local farm, and yes, every few days people carry buckets of water out to the newly-planted trees while they settle in. Normal events in a normal week; all rather wonderful gestures of care and sensitivity that would find difficulty in arising, or in being noticed, in a more stimulated situation.

When I returned to Amaravati from India, the community was different from the one I had left six months previously: new arrivals, disrobings, so-and-so off to Italy, etc. It has continued to fluctuate with new arrivals and departures by the week: during June and July the total number of bhikkhus and nuns was effectively halved by engagements outside the monastery, with most of the remaining senior bhikkhus being relative newcomers to Amaravati. Another significant development is that Luang Por Sumedho has redefined his role at Amaravati as being less connected with the day-to-day activity, to empower the rest of the community with a fuller sense of responsibility. It also allows him to be available in a broader sense to the whole Sangha for spiritual direction. Meanwhile, the nuns community is also undergoing a realignment, having been encouraged by Luang Por to function more autonomously. What these changes of emphasis actually amount to - apart from adding another degree of torque to the kaleidoscope - can't be predicted or defined. In unstable circumstances, uncertainty gets plotted against faith and effort until a mindful line appears.

In its power to avoid dogma, the holy life has always been a beautiful reflection of a Truth that is difficult to define in conceptual terms. Comings, goings, fragmentation and concord, strong, gentle, and even deluded individuals - variability has kept spiritual initiative and spontaneous response alive through the long history of the Sangha. In what it responds to and in what it is, Sangha is an unfolding record of the stuff that gets born in people with their passions, habits and aspirations when they aim to touch Ultimate Truth. It is a reassuringly cool channel - at least in its conventions - for a startling and vibrant experience. That experience, that true life, has its own order; an order that is reminiscent of the wonderful patterns that have been plotted by computing the rhythm of a dripping tap or such apparent chaos as the weather. The same motif recurs the deeper you go into any element of the pattern, though the pattern is ever-changing. What appeared at first to be random is actually operating according to laws that are beyond our conceiving.

And that's the way it is in this human realm. The moment is unique, yet the law is immutable: wherever you go and wherever you're coming from, all conditions are variable and all things are beyond self.

That humbles a few drives and ambitions. But for those who wish to awaken, it means that right here we can insightfully know the qualities of the human world: reflected around a mug of gruel, a silent sitting, or a washing-up session.

Ajahn Sucitto