Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1993

Gnosis and Non-Dualism, Ajahn Sucitto
Servant of the Buddha, Buddhadasa Bhikku
The Long Path to Peace - Cambodia
Turning the Wheel in the West; Ven. Sobhano interviews Aj. Amaro
Gone on Tudong; Monastic experiences
The Road and the Path; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:


Turning the Wheel in the West

In March 1993, about 30 distinguished Western-born Dharma teachers assembled in Dharamsala, India for a 4-day dialogue with H.H. the Dalai Lama. In the first of a three-part interview with Ven. Sobhano, Ajahn Amaro gives his impressions of the conference's aims and achievements.


Question: What were the aims of the Conference, and why was it held?
Answer: There were a variety of reasons. One was to bring together people from all the different Buddhist traditions who were involved in teaching Buddha-Dharma in the West, to learn from each other. The number of different issues raised was quite remarkable -particularly around the ethical conduct of people teaching Buddhism in the West. For many there was a need to establish clear ethical guidelines. There were also individuals' questions concerning problems that were unique to their own situation - such as being very isolated, or being set up as a teacher by other people and then being left to fend for themselves. Also, there were the problems entailed with shifting from one tradition to another.
    There were those who had benefited from psychotherapy and felt that vast areas of their lives did not seem to be addressed within traditional Buddha-Dhamma. They had found that psychotherapy, for example, did help address these areas. So they had questions.
    Another common theme was that of transposing the essence of the teaching from the East to the West into a form which is suitable for the Western psyche.

Most people were very self-effacing about their own traditions and there wasn't even a hint of 'My path is better than yours.'

Q: Did you find that all the teachers were experiencing similar problems in teaching in the West, and did this make the differences between them less obvious?
A: There was so much accord between us all that the differences were hardly remarked on. Discord or disparity was not created with regard to the traditional patterns in which the teachings are expressed, but more associated with the vehemence with which one believed in one's own particular pattern. The real differences were not to do with whether you were a Theravadin, Tibetan or Zen, but how prone you were to being self-righteous. The only polarity was to do with attachment to views.
    We had all come up through the same cultural milieu: we all went to the same movies and we all did the same things through the sixties and seventies. I was the youngest of the delegates there, at thirty-six. Most of the others had been practising for fifteen to thirty years or more. We were all very much practice-oriented rather than academics or 'Traditional Buddhists' - none of us had grown up in Buddhist cultures. Our practice centered around our own cultural conditioning - too much conceptualisation, too much self-obsession, too much drink and drugs, too much self-hatred. All of us have grown up and worked with this stuff. So whether you're dealing with it as Nirmanakaya-Sambhogakaya-Dharmakaya, or whether you're using a koan, or anicca-dukkha-anatta - the particular formulation seemed to be secondary.
    One area of distinction, however, was between those who were still living as monastics and those who weren't. Naturally, there are particular problems, questions and attributes shared in living as a monastic. I noticed that during meal times and free time together, often there would be a separate monastic cluster - a little group of shaven-headed ones would form itself. Most people were very self-effacing about their own traditions and there wasn't even a hint of 'My path is better than yours.'
    So it was remarkably free of the historical distinctions and stratifications that have been given to the Buddhist world. His Holiness helped with this and made it very clear that he regarded kindness and compassion as primary and Buddhism as secondary: that we had to base our understanding around ordinary human values and tangible human qualities, not around ideological principles.

Q: Can you talk about the perspectives on Sangha that were expressed there?
A: Most people had their own 'community' and 'congregation' which weren't necessarily monastic, so they too had a sense of Sangha. The teachers at this conference were like the nuclei of their own particular community or at least significant figures within them. In terms of Sangha, the lay people didn't view the monastics as separate from themselves - just as having a different way of doing the same thing. There was a universal recognition that 'spiritual community' is crucial and that there are many different ways of achieving that. So the monastics were viewed as having a more formalised rendition of that same quality of commitment to spiritual community which everyone agreed was essential. Conversation was more centered around what to do when that goes sour.

There seemed to be a variety of relationships between the monastics and the lay teachers. With some you could see that there was a sincere respect and admiration for the monastic life and its discipline. Others were obviously indifferent or, having been monastics, felt that they were now living more truly to the teachings outside of that form. And sometimes amongst the monastics there appeared to be a tacit assumption that if you're not a monk or a nun you don't really mean business, that having left the Sangha you somehow fell back in the training. However, if you hang on to those views then you find yourself taking on monasticism as an identity - which is precisely what it's not for. On the other hand, lay teachers can be friendly and polite but within themselves be dismissive of the monastic life, perhaps from a need to justify their decision to leave monasticism for lay life. Sometimes this can be coming from a bias to defend an individual's choice - which is okay; but it can colour the relationships between the monastics and the lay community. Because those attending had been selected in view of their common commitment towards Buddhist practice, I didn't experience this very strongly at the Conference. There was generally a wonderful mutual respect not born out of tradition but coming from a sincere, friendly attitude of, 'You choose to do it your way, I choose to do it mine.'
    His Holiness expressed support for all forms of practice, but what I interpreted from his words was that the Vinaya and monastic form is a sine qua non of the health of the dispensation of the Buddha's teaching; that the representation of the Teaching revolves around the presence of those committed to renunciation as exemplified by the Buddha himself. That's our reference point.
    Once when asked: 'How can you tell if the Buddha-Dharma is truly established in a country?' His initial response was: 'When there is the presence of the Four-Fold Assembly - monks, nuns, lay women and laymen'. Expanding on this he said that as the more essential teachings of compassion, dependent origination and emptiness were established this would lead to a greater understanding of the process of rebirth, and the more that you understand rebirth the more you see the possibility of the realisation of Nirvana and this, in turn, leads to an inclination towards the renunciant life of a monk or a nun. Q.E.D.
manor farm, saxmunden

The world is speechless
And a deep sorrow
Exquisite in its dying
Lies beneath the surface of things.
I wander over the face of the earth
Wondering why?

Venerable Sobhano

Q: How did the Dalai Lama reflect upon Western lay and ordained teachers who claim to have insight and yet are unwilling to practice by the Five Precepts, as we have seen of late in the West?
A: He pointed out that if there is a true realisation of emptiness, it has to include getting beyond afflictive emotions or kilesas. The two are intrinsically connected through understanding the relationship between desire and suffering - the realisation of emptiness and of causality has to affect your behaviour. For instance, realising that action born out of ignorance and desire leads to suffering; from this we see that the response to understanding emptiness can only be compassionate action, and well-ordered moral behaviour. His Holiness suggested that perhaps the insights of these people weren't as profound or complete as they thought, otherwise they would not be capable of acting in the way that they do - being alcoholic, or using the bodies of their disciples in a very gratuitous way.
    Many examples were raised of various characters from the Tibetan and Zen traditions that behaved in these ways whilst also apparently being great 'Maha Siddhas' or realised yogis who had made the final breakthrough. (People love these stories - they're far more spicy than stories about the virtuous monk who sits on a cushion all day meditating). His Holiness, however, pointed out that in the Tibetan tradition, anyone who had developed to the level where those were really valid activities would make a drastic display of psychic power. For instance, they would float up into the air and transform themselves into a cosmic Buddha as a sign to indicate that they were not just an old lecher but to point out, 'I am a master of the Path and I know what I'm doing.'
    He also commented on those who wish to practise a certain Tantric practice which entails engaging in sexual intercourse as a means of potentiating the mind for enlightenment. He said that the traditional way of finding out whether someone is ready for such a practice is to see if they can drink alcohol, eat human flesh, drink urine and eat faeces - and experience all the tastes as identical. If you can do that then you're ready! Later, when he was pressed on the point and asked if he knew anyone who was capable of Tantric practice at this level, he couldn't name a single person. That was a powerful moment in the Conference because although these things are often spoken about in a theoretical sense, the Dalai Lama - who knows some extraordinary yogis and meditators - didn't know anyone who can get beyond conventional morality. When he said this, the room went very quiet. As the conversation carried on he suggested that it is probably best to avoid the whole thing.

Q: With so many representatives of the different traditions in the West who are obviously having to adapt in their own way to the situations they find themselves in, did you find that the examples that you heard from the Dalai Lama's comments confirmed things that we had been experimenting with here in England, or did it seem as though we were going off on the wrong track?
A: Although it seems that we're very much an institution at Amaravati, there is obviously a high degree of openness and willingness to learn from other traditions and other ways. Even though the Thai Forest tradition is quite strong in our form, there is still a liberality of practice on the internal level, and people are encouraged to find out what really helps them and works for them. Many people at the Conference seemed to have a narrow view of what Vipassana meditation was. I talked with people about Ajahn Sumedho's usage of Vipassana, and how the practice is based on using the body as a reference point, rather than the avoidance of experience or feeling - that he emphasises developing the practice of feeling life completely. People were quite surprised at this almost psychological approach, but, in fact, it's all right there in the Satipatthana Sutta; this is the original thing the Buddha was describing - opening the mind.

Q: Perhaps less formalised?
A: Yes. To me the Satipatthana Sutta, particularly cittanupassana, is very much what Ajahn Sumedho teaches. Knowing the angry mind as angry, the expanded mind as expanded and the contracted mind as contracted. Just knowing what's happening and being open to it, rather than strictly controlling things. One feels that Vipassana has been misinterpreted, as people seemed quite surprised that we weren't just concentrating fiercely on a particular sensation, or 'noting' every thing.
    Much of the Conference dwelt on questions that didn't affect us very deeply. In a way the whole ethical question wasn't something that has been a problem for our community, for example having teachers who are alcoholic or profligate with their students. But with regard to the questions concerning adaptations of the teachings or translation, it was amazing to see how all the different people had developed in a similar pattern (apart from the Zen people who had not studied under Japanese teachers); the Tibetans and the Theravadins, for the most part, all had the same kind of experiences of trying to work with terms and meaning and translation.

Q: And with the adaptations of traditional forms that they used, were there also similar experiences in that field?
A: Yes. There were a number of adaptations by the Tibetans that were suggested or had been made, and other things that were proposed at the Conference that we had already either noticed or thought about. For instance, the whole issue of helping to bring the women of the community into a more egalitarian format with the men. Many of the same questions had come up concerning changes within a tradition. I think that we're closer to our Orthodoxy in some ways than the Tibetans, who are in a diaspora state without a massive national tradition still available for them to refer to. Many of the Tibetan Lamas are trying to sustain the old traditions and to keep the forms which they are accustomed to and know, but there's a sort of cultural terror of being wiped out, which obviously makes any kind of adaptation more resisted.

To be continued...