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:


Faith in Awakening

During a weekend in September, over eighty men and women gathered together at Amaravati Buddhist monastery. The majority were monastics; Benedictines and Buddhists, Trappists, Hindus and Poor Clares. There were also meditation teachers, vicars, housewives, ecologists and writers.

It was 'The Year of Inter-Religious Understanding' - one hundred years since the World Parliament of Religions took place in Chicago in 1893. Recognising and responding to the need for greater understanding and communication, Amaravati became host to the 'Faith in Awakening' conference, bringing together monastics and contemplates of various traditions from over thirty communities in the United Kingdom. This unique gathering of beings was united by a mutual love and respect for monasticism and the way of meditation and prayer. The theme 'Faith in Awakening' implied both a belief in the possibility of transcendence and a united dedication to the spiritual path. Over the weekend the delegates explored together their common bond and aspiration towards the Truth, sharing experiences and discussing the various ways and means employed in realising and living the vision of their faith. The coming together of such a variety of individuals, each in their own way manifesting this faith in the world, became an inspiration for everyone involved.

The Role of Contemplative Communities in Contemporary Society
Monasteries are among the last surviving examples of communities which are ordered around their faith. However, our modern society generally does not recognise the aspiration of the human heart to surrender its selfishness, and so the role of the monastery is not always clear. Do monasteries still offer a place where people can contact that aspiration and discover truth and meaning in their daily lives? Are monasteries just for the 'pure' and 'holy', or are they places where people can open to their dark side, their own sense of emptiness and fear? How can contemplative communities most effectively share their wealth of experience with those who want to 'know'? The six delegates who addressed this theme on Saturday morning all looked at various aspects of the same question: what are we doing here?
The following four talks are the thoughts of:

Father Cyprian Smith (Ampleforth Abbey)
Sister Lucy Mary (Turvey Abbey)
Reverend Master Daishin Morgan (Throssel Hole Priory)
Sister Candasiri (Chithurst Buddhist Monastery).

Father Cyprian Smith

Sister Lucy Mary (Turvey Abbey)
Reverend Master Daishin Morgan (Throssel Hole Priory)
Sister Candasiri (Chithurst Buddhist Monastery).
It seems to me that at the heart of modern life in Europe and America there is a great hollowness. The general level of prosperity and affluence seems fairly high; through our science and technology we have reduced disease and managed to control our environment. And yet, many people seem to feel increasingly, at the core of themselves, a deep disquiet and insecurity - an emptiness, a sense of meaninglessness and futility which frightens them. In this innermost centre we sense a sort of vacuum, an aching void. The usual reaction to that is to try and cram it, to try to fill it up with frenetic activity, noise, drugs, sex, alcohol, possessions, pursuit of power, status and so on. However, the trouble with all these attempts to plug the hole is that, in the last analysis, they don't work. This hole we find at the heart of ourselves turns out in the end to be a black hole -the sort the astronomers talk about, which will swallow anything that you put into it. It is capable, if you let it, of swallowing up the whole universe.
     What we fail to realise is that this emptiness, this void at the heart of ourselves is not an enemy but a friend. It is not the negative and frightening thing it seems to be when we first encounter it. On the contrary, it is our greatest hope. If I were asked to give a snap definition of a contemplative I would say he is a person who doesn't run away from his own emptiness, who recognises that it is a positive and not a negative. A contemplative is a person who has found that the vacuum in our heart, if we confront it courageously, is not a pit of death: it is a well-spring of life and illumination. And a contemplative is one who has understood its secret - he has learned to plumb it and to draw strength from it.
     To be able to do that and to be able to guide other people to do that seems to me to be an immense service which the contemplative can render the modern world. It is the service that nobody else can render, because everybody else is in the process of running away as fast as they can from the emptiness which seems to them to be the greatest of all evils.
     It is not an easy task that we have taken on. It is not comfortable. It is not nice facing up to an aching void but it is there that our true hope lies - perhaps our only hope in the crisis of the modern world. So the contemplative is an explorer of inner space. It is our task to overcome the fear of our own emptiness and to uncover the treasure that lies within it - and there is a treasure there. I think the key to that discovery lies in what I said a minute ago, that the black hole can swallow up the entire universe. That is another way of saying that it has got infinite capacity - which means that only the infinite can satisfy it. It shows that we are meant for the infinite, we are meant for the universal. In the Christian tradition that was expressed very well by St. Augustine when he said of God, that He has made us for Himself and that we will never be satisfied with anything else. We would say that it is a hunger for God, a hunger for the infinite and the universal, which no finite thing can ever satisfy. It seems to me that all the great religions of the world understand this. There is a Buddhist text which runs roughly like this: There is an Unborn, an Unchanging, an Un-compounded, an Imperishable and if that were not so then there would be no escape from the born, the changing, the compounded and the perishable. That expresses to me that there is a goal that we are striving for which can't ultimately be expressed in any words or concepts. All the great religions are reaching out for that goal and the key to it all lies in the human heart, the very place we run away from all the time, cramming in everything that we can to block out that horrible feeling of inner silence and emptiness.
The only way to get freedom is to face the emptiness within ourselves, if we don't do that, we will always find ourselves enslaved by our unconscious desires...

Every civilisation and culture has needed men and women who are prepared to set themselves apart from the normal life of human beings, to renounce many of the ordinary comforts and securities of life. They do this in order to lay themselves open to this thing we can call the Divine, the infinite, the universal. Perhaps the very continued existence of civilisations and cultures depends on there being people who are continually prepared to do this. If that is so, then no-one can seriously doubt the relevance of contemplatives in any period in human history.
     The modem world hates silence because in silence its inner hollowness and futility are revealed. The contemplative loves silence because it allows the deep levels of the human heart to break through into consciousness, bringing healing and life, as well as initial trouble. You ride the trouble, float on it until you get into calmer water. The modern world hates stillness because it equates life with frenetic activity and thinks anything else is dead. But the contemplative loves stillness because it brings us to the centre, it brings us to the heart of ourselves and the whole world. The modern world hates poverty because it thinks that to possess means to be. And to be stripped of possessions is to un-be, to begin to slip into non-being, into death. The contemplative loves poverty because it leads us away from false reliance on outward things and teaches us to find an unfailing source of strength inside ourselves.
     Perhaps most important of all, the modem world craves for freedom and talks incessantly about it. But it will never get it because the only way to get freedom is to face the emptiness within ourselves, if we don't do that, we will always find ourselves enslaved by our unconscious desires, our selfish passions, by all sorts of external conditioning factors from outside ourselves. What we think is our action is in fact not real action at all, it is reaction. We are not free autonomous human beings at all. True freedom is only found at the centre. And the centre is the whole of the contemplative path. There is little hope for the modern world, I think, until more and more people find that centre; that is our task. If there aren't any contemplatives to do these things, who else is going to do them?

Sister Lucy Mary Brydon

Father Cyprian Smith (Ampleforth Abbey)
Reverend Master Daishin Morgan (Throssel Hole Priory)
Sister Candasiri (Chithurst Buddhist Monastery).
In our Turvey communities, we are a double community of men and women. In this era, this is not very common in the Roman Catholic church, although it was very common in previous centuries. I think the sense of unity that comes from living in close connection - men and women working, praying, sharing together - is a very beautiful witness to the world outside the monastery of what love can be. That is just one small thing.
     We are all very much aware in our communities that there is a oneness in ourselves and the whole of creation. We try to foster relations with other churches, other faiths. Our founder was an architect and very artistic in himself; one of the things he realised was the unifying power of beauty. Sometimes when people come to monasteries they expect to find grimness, horrible discomfort and ugliness made into virtue. Our founder believed that simplicity and beauty are at the root of things, that they are unifying and can bring people together in a way that other things can't. And so in our communities we have a strong tradition of cultivating beauty to give glory to God in our lives. We do this through our worship, in the use we make of light and colour in our buildings and also in the monastic customs that we all take for granted. When guests come, they say "Why are you always bowing?" The bowing is an act of reverence for the God within the other person. People are bowled over by this recognition that we are all part of divine nature and that we acknowledge it in each other. So that kind of image of unity is also a very powerful thing.

What we are trying to communicate to people who come for retreats and come to stay is that to be contemplative does not necessarily mean living in a monastery. You can live in a monastery and not be a contemplative. You can be a contemplative and not be in a monastery. This union of spirit that we have is God calling to all of us to be contemplatives in whatever way of life we are called to. That is something we can try and get across to people. They come into the monastery and see people wearing funny clothes and doing funny chanting and funny singing and prayers and so on and it can have the danger of making it all seem a little bit precious. Whereas God is in the midst of His people and in the midst of each person and our task I suppose - this is how I see it - is to make people open their eyes. It is not that we have come to Turvey to find God who is not in our life. It is to open our eyes to see that the God here is God.
     Do you know the lovely story about the fish in the ocean? The little fish saying to the old, experienced fish, "I have heard so much about the ocean. Where is it?" And the old fish says, "This is it, you are in it." And the little fish says, "No, this is just water." Our role is to try and open people's eyes to the fact that we are all in the ocean and it is in us. It is to help people to see that what is in our monasteries, the love that we have in community, the unity that we experience together, the wholeness of the life, the work we do with our hands, is a very ordinary life. And that God is in the midst of it.

Participants of the 'Faith in Awakening' gathering of 1993.
Reverend Master Daishin Morgan
Father Cyprian Smith (Ampleforth Abbey)
Sister Lucy Mary (Turvey Abbey)
Reverend Master Daishin Morgan (Throssel Hole Priory)
Sister Candasiri (Chithurst Buddhist Monastery).
I'll pick up on something that Father Cyprian mentioned. "There is an Unborn, an Undying, an Unchanging, an Uncreated." There is within the heart of all beings what we call the Buddha nature: the true refuge lies within and that refuge embraces not only ourselves but all of existence. Through the contemplative life we come to know that refuge. And the great joy of it is that that refuge moves, it lives. In Buddhism we talk about meditation samadhi. Samadhi is stillness and it is also movement. The life of Buddha is there, the blood of Buddha, and it is that blood which flows through us.
     The contribution of the contemplative is compassion. In the contemplative life the contribution we make is not as a psychotherapist, a counsellor, an expert. It is not to have knowledge. It is to have 'all-acceptance', to have compassion. Dogen speaks of this very graphically; he says the kind of faith we need is that of a little girl who leaps into the arms of her father with never a thought that he may drop her.

We are all confronted by suffering, the suffering that walks in through the gate of the contemplative monastery, the suffering that we find in our own hearts. It is tempting for the contemplative to try to meet that suffering with expertise and that is how we lose our direction as contemplatives. The contemplative meets that suffering with all-acceptance, with faith in the true refuge. In the heart of that stillness we find life, movement and the way to go. When we are confronted with suffering we have to confront it having nothing. Then the possibility of knowing the Unborn, the Undying, the Unchanging becomes manifest, becomes real - wanting nothing and knowing nothing. That is the particular contribution of the contemplative.
     There is a story that my teacher tells of how, when Dr. Suzuki was here in the '50s, at one point he was giving a talk and he said, "All is one and all is different." Someone corrected him and said, "Your English is wrong, it should be: 'All is one but all is different.' And he said, "No, your Zen is wrong, it is: 'All is one and all is different.'
     The apparent differences that exist between faiths is something we have to bring together. We have to bring ourselves together with those we live with, and most of all - and this is the key - we have to bring ourselves together with the Unborn, the Undying, the Unchanging. The dew drop becomes one with the shining sea; the great ocean embraces the whole and yet the dew drop is still the dew drop.
     Dogen speaks of how a painting of a rice cake will never satisfy hunger. Then he takes it further. If we see the painting of the rice cake as the world of delusion, and the true meal as the world of enlightenment within us, then actually we are still caught in duality. But for the self to merge with the shining sea, we have to know that the painting of the rice cake also satisfies hunger, that the world we live in is the world of enlightenment. We work hard to let go of all that divides, all that separates, all that makes one different from another - and we recognise that all is different. The resolution in Soto Zen of 'the all is one' and 'the all is different' is enlightenment.

Sister Candasiri

Father Cyprian Smith (Ampleforth Abbey)
Sister Lucy Mary (Turvey Abbey)
Reverend Master Daishin Morgan (Throssel Hole Priory)

Sister Lucy has already touched on the value of having a community as a place for people to go to. Certainly for myself, I was incredibly grateful when, as a laywoman looking for a way of life to give myself to whole-heartedly, I met Ajahn Sumedho and the other monks and realised that this was going to be a possibility. A contemplative community makes it possible for a fairly ordinary sort of human being to have a chance to live this sort of life.
     Another aspect that we haven't mentioned yet is to see the value of people living according to a teaching that was presented centuries, millennia ago in some cases: a contemplative community is a community that keeps the teaching alive. In a sense, our duty as monastics, as contemplatives, is to consider the teachings that have been passed down to us and to make it real in our own lives. To actually live the teaching. Society is pretty lost in many ways. While there may be individuals in the world who are a source of inspiration, there is a tremendous power in a community who are living according to a tradition. It is like an enormous vehicle, a double decker bus that lots of people can climb on. So this is another value I see.
     It is interesting to consider actually how we do keep the teachings alive. Many of the teachings are very inspiring, very lofty - they sound wonderful, but they are not so easy to practice.
     In Buddhism, our main practice is to look at what separates us from the Divine. To look at the things that hold us back, that prevent us from feeling unity with all beings. We talk about love, we talk about unselfishness, we talk about peace, but I think for many of us our main work is actually looking very closely at what is unpeaceful, what is unbeautiful, what is selfish, what is violent. Certainly for me, this is mostly what I do. It might sound very negative, but this is something I see that can really give people hope.
     Some time ago someone came to the monastery and said that, "Of course the monks and nuns don't have any thoughts when they sit and meditate." That we just sit quietly and peacefully. So I said, "Well, you really don't know." People may come because they are distressed with thoughts of negativity or aggression arising. They are absolutely amazed when I tell them that I know exactly what they are talking about and that I have such thoughts all the time. Then they just relax when they realise that it is not just them. It is not that they are bad, that they are evil.
     What one can offer is a sense of reassurance that this is just actually part of the human predicament. That we are all human beings, we all want to be good. We all want to be loving, we all want to be kind, we all want to be generous. We have these ideals. Really it is up to us to show people how to realise them. We can go through a lot of despair if we haven't learnt that negativity is OK, and that it is just part of being human. That it is not anything to worry about. That the Divine is still there. All we have to do is relax. So we live this life with those who can offer us encouragement, who can love us in spite of our weakness, in spite of our foolishness, who can help us through the difficult times.
     People ask what we are doing for the world. What we are doing for the world is understanding the hatred and the violence in the world. That is what we are doing. We are learning not to react to it, how to make peace with it. We have to try and find the way through love. And the only place we can discover that, the only place we can really accept and make peace with things is in our own hearts. Otherwise it is just a nice idea.