Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1994

Ajahn Chah remembered; Jack Kornfield
Heart of a Legacy; Luang Por Chah
Freedom in Restraint; Sister Sundara
Turning the Western Wheel; Ven. Sobhano interviews Aj. Amaro
Faith in Awakening; Many Monastics Reflect
Seize the Time; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:


Seize the Time

Buddhism is a set of skilful means to be applied in order to realise a timeless truth. You could go further and say that being Awake is to know that the Way is not tied to the providence of an imagined god, or the mechanics of a technique, but unfolds through wise attention to what is immediately present. Instead of looking for the right opportunity or situation in which to practise, this awake attention makes it possible to develop the right practice to fit the situation that is being presented. This is what keeps things fresh. Feeling intimidated by others? It could be the time to go towards them steadily. Feeling fed-up and sorry for yourself? Remembering and enacting one's helpfulness to others may be the right step. Everything is urgent and desperately important? Now is the time to breathe in and out slowly.

Our minds incline towards habits - the pathways that require the least psychological effort - arid they protect these habits with emotional attachments to security, to being certain of what we will arrive at, or to having our 'own way'. Because of this, a great source of skilful means (if one is willing to develop them!) or 'field of merit' is the community life of the Sangha in which such investments pay no dividends. The structure of the Sangha can be described as a clearly defined and systematic approach to variance and uncertainty. In no way does it ever rule those out. Suppress uncertainty for a while with structures and techniques, and it will pop up again: the very means used to avoid uncertainty sets up a ripple of stress that questions one's aspiration to live in a peaceful and compassionate way. Systems of Awakening are not intended to impose order, but to help us understand and live in harmony with uncertainty. Any other aim misuses them.

The main point went beyond the faith and the religious forms to which all the participants had dedicated themselves; it found a unity which could be defined as Love or Truth - or be left undefined.
With faithful lay people supporting the Sangha, it's not so much the material requisites that are uncertain these days; it is the flux of personalities (inner and outer), the mood swings and convictions about what is possible and what is really necessary in monastic life, and the variety of opinions about meditation that can leave one longing for the unity of innocence. Fifteen years ago, when our Sangha was very new in Britain, it was rough but simple; now we all know too much to trust unquestioningly. Even when a stasis is achieved, some vital ingredient of the harmonious blend gets forgotten, somebody's perception of a style or form differs, or someone leaves - and the whole thing teeters back and forth again. But there's no going back: the way it goes is the process that we have to learn within, and that process is one of change.

Clear truths have a way of appearing when one is not expecting them. The interfaith 'monastic' conference at Amaravati in September - which was not entirely monastic, and as much a way of defining and appreciating silence as a 'conference' - turned out to be hardly 'interfaith' either. The main point went beyond the faith and the religious forms to which all the participants had dedicated themselves; it found a unity which could be defined as Love or Truth - or be left undefined. Yet the experience enriched rather than belittled the variety of skilful means that various spiritualities presented. One vital lesson for everyone was that harmony resulted from the willingness to present one's views merely to explain rather than to convince, and from the willingness to listen and respect one another's commitment. There's a simple logic there: because people acted in loving and truthful ways, whatever the words or style, the result was bound to be Love and Truth.

A few months later, the various monasteries of our family exchanged written reports of their activities during the Vassa. There was quite a range: some viharas established only a few opportunities for private retreats, in others, almost the entire community were undertaking solitary practice. In one place, there were many community meetings to discuss Dhamma and Sangha life; in another, people met infrequently. However, the well-being of the monasteries and their residents depended on one common and unspoken factor: that the well-being of the Sangha was understood to be the primary intention. 'Sangha' is our field of practice. If we respect and work with that aspect of the Refuge, the skilful means can be adapted to fit the situation. The systems and structures can't be a Refuge in themselves because they have the nature to vary. If we expect them not to, we miss out on the underlying stability of the Sangha as Refuge. The extent to which our life becomes our path is not dependent on how perfectly organised and manageable we can make it, but how well we can use the way it is to cultivate skilful means. It is the willingness to cultivate skilful means that makes the assembly of those who practise grow strong.

So maybe our New Year's resolution can form itself out of what this year and every year has been showing all along. Keep truthful to the immediacy of what you experience and listen with an open heart. On the spiritual path, there's nothing that's solid - except the path factors themselves. The test is not worth fighting or grieving over; even uncertainty is uncertain.

Ajahn Sucitto




Sunlight, it's so hard to believe in.
Have you smelled the myrtle
where it grows wild enough
to stop you?

Each day you lie stranded
at the water's edge
while those tiny waves push
straight ahead.

The loose breeze
could be some kind of blessing;
only it leaves you cold
shifting for comfort on the damp shore.

As your head falls back
try drinking the sun.

Jos Razzell