|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1994|
Heart of a Legacy
For a number of years I've practised Buddhist meditation with Soten Gempo Sensei, the Zen teacher who has occasionally held retreats at the Amaravati Retreat Centre. Such retreats are an opportunity for concentrated focus on personal practice, with very little time for anything else. However even on my first visit to Amaravati I remember catching glimpses of the resident community - slow figures in white or brown robes crossing the courtyard, ringing the bell - silent shapes in the field behind the retreat centre, absorbed in walking. I remember feeling surprised that such fleeting contacts made such an impression - who were those people? Why were they there and what were they doing? I started making short detours through the Amaravati office while on my way to and from my retreats. I discovered the Forest Sangha Newsletter... and books; books for free distribution! Keeping my eyes and ears open, I started to piece together a picture: the Theravadin tradition; Thailand; again and again the name of Ajahn Chah ... I remember Ajahn Chah's face smiling out of a calendar that hung above a door in the mens' dormitory, and a photograph of two monks in the mens' lounge, one sheltering the other with a parasol, with more impossibly smiling faces, almost laughing. During a retreat, Amaravati held an exhibition on Buddhist lay life; when I thought no-one was about I sneaked in for a look.
Once, angry and agitated, I marched from my retreat across to the Amaravati office and told the first person in brown I met that I needed to talk to someone. There was no fuss or protest; I was introduced to a quietly spoken monk who listened with silent attention to my questions. "Where is the beginning of the Buddha Way?" I demanded, (suddenly recognising the monk as one of those in the photograph - the one with the parasol). "This is a good question," came the untroubled reply ... The talking went on for about an hour.
It's collaboration, isn't it ... the monks' life .. the holy life. A collaboration between the monks and the lay people. That's how it's possible.
|Afterwards, the monk suggested I might like to stay and listen to the evening chanting. It was unintelligible, but it left me with a sense of deep calm. I went back to the retreat centre and finished my retreat. One day, about two years later, I was in Exeter visiting other students of Soten Gempo Sensei when someone suggested visiting the Devon Vihara for the Sunday evening talk. It was given by the same quiet spoken monk I'd met before, the monk with the parasol. Afterwards, we had a chance to speak over a cup of tea ... to my surprise, he remembered me! Just before we left, he gave me the phone number of a lay Theravadin group who met close to my home in Cornwall. He suggested that they and the Zen group I belong to might like to sit together sometimes. When I eventually got around to ringing some months later, it turned out that a monk, a 'bhikkhu', was staying with the group's organiser.|
My wife and I, together with our two young daughters, went to visit the bhikkhu. Of course, we were all on our best behaviour; so many rules, so many precepts - wouldn't it be terrible to offend! The bhikkhu we met had the same patience, the same calm, and when one of the children asked, "Why did you become a monk?"... the same smile! I remember when, half way through a conversation several weeks later, some of the pieces I'd been struggling with suddenly fell into place. "It's collaboration, isn't it ... the monks' life .. the holy life. A collaboration between the monks and the lay people. That's how it's possible." I remember the delight on the bhikkhu's face. Suddenly, as if I'd taken a step back from a pointillist canvas, a picture started to take shape. Having realised what an opportunity the bhikkhu's visit represented, it only seemed natural to help out. For a few weeks, offering dana became a regular part of our weekend routine. By now, I was getting used to surprises, so it came as only half a surprise when I realised how much we were getting from the giving.
|The sitting went on all night, from seven-thirty in the evening until seven-thirty the following morning, with two short breaks for tea. In the shrine room, flowers and elegant candles framed a picture of Ajahn Chah. More candles surrounded and illuminated an eclectic collection of Buddha images that served as a focus for the room. The light was dim, but warm; there was no sense of gloom. The atmosphere was one of quiet absorption - just the quality I remembered from the solitary walking figures in the field at Amaravati.|
The sitting was very strong. The senior bhikkhu spoke with simplicity and great feeling about Ajahn Chah, about how the wheel of Dhamma is turned from generation to generation, about how that movement can be traced back through successive teachers to the point when the Buddha first set it in motion, about how all Dhamma is an expression of that sublime awakening. The talking continued - other people speaking with the same depth of feeling about simple events - Ajahn Chah laughing, Ajahn Chah washing, Ajahn Chah eating, Ajahn Chah cleaning his teeth. And quite suddenly the pieces all fell into place. For a few seconds, the picture was entirely clear: the calm; the silent attention; the smile; a solitary individual ringing the bell in the courtyard at Amaravati; the unintelligible, impossibly serene chanting; the figures walking in the field behind the retreat centre; the patient answers to my questions and behind it all the wheel turning - Ajahn Chah, his teachers, his teachers' teachers, all the way back.
Walking to Rest
In no thing wakes this within-me nourishing
Heart. Its love is light, poised in abandonment,
holding no-one into the mass of birth.
Even the plausible urge for atonement
is too weighty, too selfish an act for truth.
Only say softly that life plays the moment
wrapped in the warmth of its own body-breath:
all our worlds rest when we are the cherishing.
|I remember feeling tremendous gratitude, both to Ajahn Chah, to the Amaravati community, and to the bhikkhus I'd met. Most of all, I felt gratitude for the opportunity to be at the vihara and say 'thank you'. Sitting quietly in the midst of these reflections, I felt the small beginnings of a sense of responsibility for what happens next. There is a short Zen verse which is usually chanted just before a Dharma talk is given.|
Although I've known this verse by heart for several years, I'd never understood its challenge. Ajahn Chah received and maintained the Dhamma, helping to keep the wheel turning for many years. How will the Dhamma be received and maintained in the years to come? Who will put a hand to the wheel? If not us - then who?