|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1991|
Visiting the City of 10,000 Buddhas
In recent years, our Sangha in England and the Sangha of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas have developed a very cordial relationship. It began when Luang Por Sumedho was invited to meet the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua while visiting California several years ago, and has since continued through the exchange of visits by various members of our communities.
It has been surprising and delightful to discover that there is so much common ground. The apparent differences fade in significance when one considers that both our sanghas place great emphasis upon strict adherence to Vinaya, and practise Dhamma within traditional (Thai or Chinese) monastic conventions. We also both stress a high degree of commitment to community life - which requires the relinquishment of personal freedoms and viewpoints. The similarities of aspiration, of trials undergone, of lessons ground home, of insights discovered, all serve to create an empathy of spirit. One can readily understand how Chinese pilgrims, travelling in India in the centuries after the Buddha's parinibbana, could report that monks of differing Buddhist schools, adhering to widely differing interpretations of the teachings, could often be found living in harmony together in the same monasteries.
In 1989, a dozen of our bhikkhus - along with Theravada and Mahayana monks from various parts of the world - were invited to participate in a large-scale ordination ceremony at the City, it being Master Hua's intention to stimulate auspicious occasions when the two traditions would work together. Last year, the Venerable Master led a delegation of monks, nuns and lay people to Europe, which visited Amaravati and Chithurst. During this visit the Master again expressed his view that it was high time that the Northern and Southern traditions took more opportunities to work together amicably as disciples of the Buddha, rather than feeling separated by their differences. In the light of this developing spirit of co-operation, I looked forward with special interest to our visit.
One of the most surprising first impressions we had upon arriving at San Francisco is the fact that it's cool and foggy! So much for the eternal sunshine images of California. In fact, San Francisco has a climate all of its own. During the summer months sea fog is drawn through the gap in the coastal mountain range (which forms the Bay Area) by the warm air inland, and then recedes a few days later when the land cools again, allowing the sun to reappear. On the night we landed, the Golden Gate Bridge was shrouded in mist, and people strolling across it were bundled up in down jackets and ponchos. Yet Venerable Heng Jau, who met us at the airport, warned us that, although it might be cool down here, 120 miles north at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas they had been having a heat wave, with temperatures as high as 117 degrees F.
The monks live in what was the area for the criminally insane, and since they have not had time to renovate their own quarters there is a certain oppressiveness to the atmosphere, which their presence only barely softens.
Our first couple of days at the City were spent resting and getting used to our new surroundings. We arrived just at the end of a two-week retreat being given by Ajahn Sumedho, assisted by Ajahn Amaro and Sisters Thanissara and Abhassara. The retreat had gone well - about forty people had attended, with another ten or so residents from the City sitting in (and reportedly appreciating the opportunity very much).
The atmosphere at the City is very surprising. Down at one end of the main street of an ordinary little North Californian town there is an enormous yellow Chinese temple gate. It is as if beyond this point one has entered China: besides the largely Chinese monastic population of a hundred or so monks and nuns, there is also a large number of Chinese lay people living on the campus. Hence English is more of a second language here.
The feeling of the place is not unlike that of Amaravati. At first it is easy to get lost! There are over seventy buildings set in nearly 500 acres, and, as the site was once the State Mental Hospital, many of the buildings have a strongly institutional feeling about them. In fact, the monks live in what was the area for the criminally insane, and since they have not had time to renovate their own quarters there is a certain oppressiveness to the atmosphere, which their presence only barely softens.
Elsewhere, much has been done. The main Buddha Hall, where most of the ceremonies take place, is very impressive. The central figure is a huge statue with a thousand hands and eyes - the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara - flanked by statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other deities. The hall is also lined with, literally, ten thousand Buddha images. After the comparative simplicity of the shrines in our monasteries, this can at first be rather overwhelming.
The atmosphere of devotion that pervades the City is palpable. Devotional practice points the mind and heart in a tremendously positive direction - and strongly counteracts feelings of self-doubt and negativity that can arise at certain times in one's spiritual life. I felt uplifted and energised by many of the ceremonies. The chanting is ethereal - one hundred or so voices tunefully chanting together to the accompaniment of many varieties of bells and drums.
Namo shurangama assembly of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The wonderfully deep dharani, the unmoving honoured one, the foremost shurangama king is seldom found in the world. It melts away my deluded thoughts gathered in a million kalpas, so I won't need to endure countless aeons in order to attain the Dharma Body. I wish now to achieve the result and become an honoured king, who then returns to save as many beings as there are sand grains in the Ganges. I offer this deep thought to the Buddhalands which are countless like motes of dust, to repay the kindness shown me by the Buddha. I pray that the World-Honoured One will not witness as I vow to enter the five turbid realms. As long as a single being hasn't become a Buddha, at death I won't seek the leisure of Nirvana. May the exalted hero's awesome strength, his kindness and compassion, search out and dispel even the most subtle of my doubts, causing me quickly to attain the Supreme Enlightenment and sit in the Bodhimanda of the ten directions. Should even the shunyata nature entirely melt away, this perpetual vow will never wane. . . .
Thus begins the morning chanting!
The ordination proceedings were somewhat different from what we are used to in the Theravada, but there are many similarities also. Acceptance into the Bhikshu or Bhikshuni order is preceded by a two- or three-year novitiate period. As the date of the ordinations draws near, the candidates enter a 108-day preliminary formal training period during which their suitability is assessed. The beginning of the ceremonial proceedings is then marked with a formal announcement of the names of the candidates who have been selected: this year, 7 men and 45 women - all Orientals except one, a middle-aged American man. (Some of the candidates had come more recently from the Far East and will return to their home temples after a period of post-ordination training).
The proceedings span several days and have three main sections (this is referred to as the 'Triple Platform'). These are, firstly, the examination by the Karma Acariyas (teachers who examine the candidate to ensure that he or she is suitable), then the Upasampada (acceptance into the Order), and finally the bestowal of the Bodhisattva precepts. At each stage there is a formal request for the Masters to instruct or bestow the precepts, a ceremony of repentance for past offences, then the requesting of the Sages, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Ten Directions to come and bestow blessings and to bear witness, and finally the enactment of the procedure by the officiating Acariya.
is the way to go
in the light
is the way
in the light
to weak, or
the way to go
in the light of dark
About twenty-five monks acted as Precept Masters: eight from our sangha (including Ajahn Sumedho), Ajahn Pasanno from Wat Pah Nanachat, some Vietnamese elders, some Chinese elders, Ajahn Khantipalo from Wat Buddha-Dhamma in Australia, some monks from Wat Dhammakaya in Thailand, and our old friend, the 103-year-old Bhante Dhammavaro - as well as the monks from the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The Venerable Master Hsuan Hua was too ill due to a kidney disorder to officiate at most of the proceedings and only appeared briefly; he requested Ajahn Sumedho to stand in for him as Upajjhaya (preceptor), which must have come as rather a surprise to Luang Por! And, no doubt, as a great honour.
The Precept Hall (sima boundary) is a carpeted platform, bounded by mirrors, around which the Precept Masters sit. The assembly circumambulated the hall three times, chanting the Great Compassion Mantra to purify the place before the ordination could be carried out. The candidates had to make their requests in Chinese, English and Pali. At one point they were asked: 'Are you a great hero?' - to which they replied with gusto, 'Yes, I am a great hero!' Apparently this is the high-point of the ordination ceremony - a demonstration of the heroic nature of the Bodhi resolve.
The proceedings took up most of the day, and after the final formalities had been completed, we were asked to walk in single file back to the Buddha Hall for a group photograph. As we left the Precept Hall, I noticed what at first I took to be large bundles of yellow cloth piled up on either side of the path every ten feet or so. I suddenly realised that these were the new monks and nuns in full prostration, reciting 'Na mwo ben shr shr jya mu ni fwo' (Homage to Fundamental Teacher Shakyamuni Buddha). Forming a corridor lining the route all the way to the Hall were prostrating chanting figures - monks, nuns and hundreds of black-robed lay people - all prostrating and chanting. The whole thing was breathtakingly beautiful. Further inspiring occasions followed. That evening the monks reconvened for a 'Triple-Recitation' Patimokkha, a recitation in Pali (by Ajahn Amaro), in Chinese, and in English of the code of discipline that is more or less identical in the two traditions. Such 'Concord Observances' have traditionally been used as a symbol of harmony when fraternities within the Sangha have branched off into different ways of practice. So, in terms of our monastic frame of reference, that was a very moving event. The following day the newly-ordained monks and nuns received the Bodhisattva precepts in a long and solemn ceremony that enshrines the Mahayana aspiration. The ceremonies concluded with the transmission of the lay Bodhisattva precepts to a large number of lay people.
Besides the inspirational qualities of the occasion, and the moving atmosphere of devotion in which the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is bathed, I found that one of the most impressive aspects of the whole situation is the level of commitment of the monks and nuns to their monastic life. The day after it was all over, the four hundred Taiwanese visitors and most of the visiting precept masters had left; the bhikshunis had changed from their ceremonial canary yellow robes into workaday grey and brown, and the City had the familiar atmosphere of Amaravati after Magha Puja, when Ajahn Sumedho has flown off to Australia and our visiting monks and nuns have all left.
There's a certain feeling of coming back to earth, back to the ordinariness of daily life. When things are unspectacular, one has to go beyond reliance on inspiration and get down to the steady re-application of effort, patience and dedication. This is where true cultivation occurs.
Venerable Master Hsuan Hua offers some reflections.
This meeting between the Theravada and the Mahayana traditions deserves celebration and commemoration. What is important is that beginning from today, the Southern and Northern traditions will no longer have to be separated into different schools. We are neither in competition with each other, nor will we be distinguishable one from the other.
My policy is that not only should Buddhists heal the divisions in our family, but we should also unite with other religions in the world. I don't reject any one; I want to be unified with them all.
In the past, Asian Buddhists clung to their separate, tiny states, not recognising the importance of co-operation. The various ethnic groups and cultures knew only their small scope, and usually paid no attention to other schools or traditions - content to spin inside their own little sphere.
Now that Westerners are beginning to take part, a new spirit of co-operation is possible. With this meeting, Buddhism has reached its proper international standard. We have different cultures and races joining together, and finally, we can make the meaning of 'Sangha' a reality. As you know, 'Sangha' means 'the harmoniously united Assembly'. This is a true Sangha gathering.
Moreover, our gatherings are free of contention and strife, and also there is mutual esteem and cherishing. This is just the way the original spirit of Buddhism should be. We should sustain our energy of co-operation at this level.
Now I know the measure of my mind has its limits, but if your generation of disciples from the Northern and Southern traditions can unite in a single body, then we can realise our promise of making Buddhism expand and grow great.
If someone wanted to return to lay life, what would you say to them? With me everything's OK, no problem. If you want to advance, you may; if you want to retreat, it's up to you. I only speak the teachings - whether or not you listen is your choice. Living people can die, and the dead can return to life. Who tells you to be that way? Who's in charge of this process? Who tells you to return to lay life?
In cultivation, there are two major obstacles for left-home people - two things that make us upside- down, and unable to stand firm: money and sex. If any one of us can see through these two things and put them down, then that person will be a successful cultivator. In the Theravada style, not holding money is a very wholesome Sangha practice, a good dharma. And as for sexual desire, it is just a residual habit. If, when that energy arises, one can remain unattached to it and not follow it, it will disappear, and that is true liberation. Money and sex bind us so tightly that it is really hard to get free. That is all you need to know in a nutshell.
I don't give gifts on the occasions of good-byes, nor do I want to receive anything. However when people want to give me something, I tell them to leave behind their afflictions. I'm not greedy for them, but the more the better! People would be much better off without them. That's one thing I want you to leave with me; I will receive that gift willingly.