Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1994

The Resolution of Conflict; Ajahn Jagaro
Child's Play; Ven Sunnato
Images of Sri Lanka; Sister Siripanya
Luang Por Chah's Relics; Ajahn Attapemo
Nourishing the Roots; Aj's Sucitto & Ajahn Amaro
Turning the Wheel in the West; Ajahn Amaro
Alone Together; Ajahn Sucitto


Nourishing the Roots:

Touching the Earth - Ajahn Sucitto
The Four-Fold Assembly - Ajahn Amaro

Finding the right balance between activity and rest is as much of a challenge in the monastery as in the outside world. In the following two articles, Ajahn Sucitto and Ajahn Amaro report on how the communities at Cittaviveka and Amaravati have responded to the changing nature of their situation.

Touching the Earth
Each Christmas Eve at Cittaviveka we try to have a Children's Party. This year, Sister Thanasanti hit upon the idea of using the occasion to gather young families together and involve them in making food offerings to the creatures - birds, badgers, rabbits and mice mainly - who live in the grounds around the main house. So after the offerings had been elaborately prepared into floral mandala patterns, and the stories had been told, and the sounds of the chanting died away, a whole group of monks, nuns, adults, and children made their way out by candlelight to the standing Buddha by the sima. There we offered food to the wildlife and incense to the Buddha. It was a gesture of paying something back.

Cittaviveka arose in 1979 from the wish of the Sangha to establish a forest monastery, and the donation of a forest that was sorely in need of care and attention. While the Sangha were under no obligation to undertake any forestry work, the very nature of the environment illicits a sense of empathy with the natural surroundings, and the wish to protect the habitat - even to give back to the earth some of the richness that humans have relentlessly stripped from it. Apart from the obvious steps of banning the killing of wildlife in the forest, we have chandelled whatever energy and resources are available, under the guidance of our Warden (Mike Holmes), into re-planting native trees and establishing wildlife habitat.

It has also become more apparent over the past few-years how helpful it is to establish a 'contemplative habitat' in the form of kutis in the woods for monks and nuns, not only from this monastery but also from Amaravati - which is only a couple of hours' drive away. This now is quite a priority, and we intend to build two more kutis this year. It helps people to get back to the earth, to reassess the fundaments and aspirations of their practice and to calm down - just by living with the unhurried and even rhythms of nature. With Nature, everything - birth, growth, degeneration and decay - is just as it is, and in that holistic sense, everything is all right.

When I returned to Chithurst in June of 1992, a few things struck me about the place. I'd been one of the original residents of Chithurst Forest Monastery (as it was then called) in 1979, and seen the community grow and pulse under the energy that gets aroused when there's a cause that requires a lot of easily-definable hard work to do. A lot of the work was simple manual labour which did not require much skill. Everyone could feel that they were offering something useful; so it was buoyant. We rode on that energy for a while; then Harnham began in a similar vein, and when Amaravati was born, some of us went off with Ajahn Sumedho to start the whole process again. However, as the tasks got more refined and cerebral, not everyone could fit them, and people got left out; others just got tired. At times like these, the sense of community tends to fade. So, on arriving here with the label 'abbot' planted on me, I wondered whether that sense of being able to make one's offerings could continue to give a community its 'body'. We needed to find a new growth point or approach to establish the sense of community. As is always the case, that point has to be established as much within one's own mind as in the world outside. So I have been trying to get a more accurate feeling for what my own offering is to the Sangha, rather than trying to make it all go 'my way', or dutifully working myself into the ground. I look at the 'earth-touching' Buddha on our main shrine and wonder: how do you touch this human earth responsively, without getting buried in it?

Constructing the stupa has become an example of how light but powerful the sense of purpose in the Holy Life can be.

It's not difficult to respond to Cittaviveka. The beauty of the natural environment is easy to care for. The house is a tribute to mindful attention and brings up a similar response. Then one notices the simple small sima, ridiculously sited in the open-air as if to defy those of little faith in English weather. Here, for twelve years now, Ajahn Sumedho has presided over the ceremony that gives men the bhikkhu ordination. In this monastery various Ajahns have given their time and their listening ears to newly-ordained monks. There are a lot of Sangha roots here. Venerable Ajahn Chah visited this place and gave it his blessing; Mahasi Sayadaw visited, as did Taung Pulu Sayadaw; Ven Anandamaitreyya established the sima: the list goes on -there's a lot to be grateful for. From that recognition comes the wish to put something back into the ground that the Sangha has arisen from.

One of the ways that we have been continuing to put things back into the place is by planting more trees (about five hundred so far) around the main site. This should provide more habitat - for wildlife and meditators. As the meditation hall is quite small, the easiest solution to overcrowding is to leave it and sit outside: an attractive prospect on warm summer evenings. To establish another place for meditation, recollection and devotional pujas, we have also begun erecting a stupa in memory of Luang Por Chah within a grove of oak trees. Named the 'Bodhinyana Cetiya' after him, it is a replica of the stupa at Wat Pah Pong.

Using whatever volunteer labour that has been offered, the project has developed slowly. One of the junior monks has helped to co-ordinate a group of supporters to design a series of moulds, and have the form cast in re-constituted stone. A local builder has offered his services throughout the project. A Lay supporter has carved mouldings of gateways and images in the traditional style. An English naturalist has supervised the landscaping of the site, and the nuns have planted wild grass and heather around the grove. People have offered relics, Bodhi leaves, stones, and personal memorabilia to be enshrined in the stupa. The community has offered pujas on the Full and New moons, come rain and howling wind or (rarely) still moonlight. Now, we are thinking that it is feasible to begin the dedication of the stupa on Wesak day (24th May) and conclude by inserting some ashes from Luang Por Chah's cremation on 17th June (his birthday), to which all would be welcome (see Grapevine).

The main point in all this may be in providing an opportunity for a very wholesome energy: not one that entails working to deadlines, or proving that one is 'pulling one's weight'. Constructing the stupa has become an example of how light but powerful the sense of purpose in the Holy Life can be. It certainly doesn't always feel that light to me. The mind clutches at the future and makes it tense. As the abbot of a monastery, it is easy to feel over-burdened and subject to odd projection. Yet throughout this, I recognise how much I receive in terms of other people's trust and the opportunity to practice. What becomes evident is the need to trust oneself, and put aside the notions of getting it 'right' all the time! Touching lightly is surely the right touch, the natural touch in which praise, blame, crises, retreats, progress, delays, ordinations and disrobings are just 'as it is' and holistically 'all right'. To practise that touch is all this life in Dhamma really asks of us.

- o o o O o o o -

The Four-Fold Assembly
          Touching the Earth - Ajahn Sucitto
Over the course of the last few years, and during last year in particular, the subject has come up of providing a more formalised and supportive training system for committed lay Buddists. The Teaching has been well established in this country for quite some time now and many lay folk have been practising in a consistent way for ten or fifteen or more years - often considerably longer than the junior nuns and monks.

There is maturity in the community, together with great capability; however, many people have felt, because of being 'only a lay Buddhist', that they lack structures for living that match their commitment to the Path. Also, and perhaps more importantly, by not being a monastic, and thereby a 'professional', many have felt unqualified or unauthorised to guide others spiritually or take on any role of teaching about Buddhism - despite the fact that one might actually have a great deal to offer.
Another situation, somewhat different in nature but evolving in parallel, has been the increasingly obvious need for committed, hands-on help with the administration and running of Amaravati. Curiously enough, despite being the largest of the four monasteries of this community in Britain, it has never developed a circle of local 'helpers.' This has meant that all the duties of maintenance, care and administration have devolved to the resident community. This has been workable to a degree but it has placed a continual strain on the monastic community - thus consistently rendering Amaravati, in the eyes of many, as the least desirable monastery to live in.

It does not need to be this way. The most obvious way of making a difference was to find out who in our wider community would like to help, to organise those people into a well-structured group, and to define areas of work where their skills could best be employed. These two strands of need, when woven together, gave rise to the idea of including a 'lay-people's day' at Amaravati during the week of meetings around Magha Puja this year. After the idea was originally conceived in the summer, it evolved and grew in scope. As the months went by, it became more and more clear that these were not just ideas and matters concerning only a handful of people around Amaravati - this is a nationwide (if not world-wide) community, and these questions of the best methods of mutual support concern us all. It also became apparent that, since a large gathering had never yet been convened centering around the lay community, it was high time that one should happen.

By the time the event hatched, on 5th March, the original list of thirty-five participants had expanded to one hundred and eight. Owing to limitations of space (the Retreat Centre shrine-room), it was not possible to invite or accommodate all those who would have liked to have come. It was painful to not be able to include everyone - especially since many who weren't there would have had valuable contributions to make. However, it was made clear to those present that they should take it upon themselves to disseminate the substance of the meetings to their friends, and, secondly, that this was only the first of many such gatherings, and that all those interested would have the opportunity to participate in the future.

On the day over ninety-five lay people and a dozen monastics, representing different branch monasteries and regional groups, met to explore these and other dimensions of lay practice and the relationship between ordained and lay Sangha - the 'Four-fold Assembly'. The day began with the taking of refuges and precepts, followed by the welcoming and introductory remarks of Sister Sundara, Medhina Fright and myself. After dividing into small groups of eight or nine, the participants spent the next hour-and-a-half examining the joys and difficulties of practice in lay life. Guided by a facilitator, each group exchanged thoughts and experiences on some suggested topics:
Sila: Are the standards clear? How should they be applied? How far is renunciation appropriate in lay life? Is there a case for another level of training/self-discipline?
Meditation: How formal or informal? What is the relationship between and value of practising styles of meditation from different traditions? What are the values of a daily routine and how do we deal with limited time?
Action: How do we bring Dhamma into the sphere of action? What provision is there for Dhamma-based social facilities, such as education and care of the elderly? Are simplicity and creativity opposed to each other?
Study: Do we ignore the suttas at our peril? How well should we know other faiths and traditions?
Spiritual Friendship: What are the functions of a local Buddhist group? How can we help and learn from each other? Ways of getting in touch. How do we practise Dhamma in relationships, the family, at work and in the wider community? What difficulties arise in relationships with 'non-Buddhists'?

The steady hum of voices flowed from the small group sessions on into the Retreat Centre dining-room as ideas continued to be shared along with a pleasant potluck meal. The focus of the afternoon was introduced by Cohn Ash before the small groups, joined by either a monk or nun, dispersed to ponder the relationship between lay and monastic Sangha. The suggested topics for this session were:

  • Why is the Sangha important to us - and vice versa? What form does our relationship with the Sangha now take? Is our focus on Dhamma-Vinaya or on individual monks and nuns? What are the benefits and dangers of relating to an individual member of the Sangha as our teacher? Are monastic rules, conventions and ceremonies a help or a hindrance to the lay-Sangha relationship? How far should the Sangha adapt to Western culture and traditions?
  • Is commitment to the Triple Gem primary, and lifestyle - as a lay-person or monastic - secondary? To what extent are lay and monastic forms of practice really different?
  • What more might lay people and the Sangha do to support each other? Might lay-people take on more of the day-to-day work at the monasteries? Could there be more of a teaching role for lay-people? Should the Sangha offer more pastoral care? More teaching - or less?
  • What expectations do we have of the Sangha, and what expectations does the Sangha have of us?
  • Would you welcome the possibility of a closer, more committed and structured connection with the Sangha, as is found in other Buddhist and Christian traditions?

    Key points were again collected on poster paper by each group and then mounted on the wall of the shrine room for the plenary session. As could be expected, many fine ideas emerged that were both varied and echoing of each other. These ideas are being collated, and it is hoped that a summary will appear in the next Newsletter, along with some other possibilities for future meetings of a similar kind. There was much agreement on the value of spending a day considering these questions as well as appreciation of the richness provided by contact with like-minded people. It felt true indeed that '... seeking companionship with the wise... this is the greatest blessing.'

    Other immediate and practical outcomes of the gathering were that, firstly, about thirty people from all round the country expressed interest in being part of discussions about the formation of a more formalised and committed training structure for lay Buddhists of this tradition; secondly, some twenty people put their names forward as being interested in forming a 'support group' for Amaravati.

    Meetings have been arranged at all of the branch monasteries over the next two months to discuss the first of these questions. A circular letter was sent out to all those interested containing a possible outline for the structure of such a form. It was stressed, however, that the suggestion was simply offered as a pattern that would seem suitable from the monastic point of view. The formation of such a system will need to be a communal effort of both the lay and monastic communities and it is to be hoped that we will have many fruitful meetings over the coming year.

    We should like to suggest:

  • The name of the form could be 'The Upasaka Training.'
  • There could be a formal ceremony of commitment to the training.
  • There could be a member of the Sangha at each monastery with responsibility for all of those in the vicinity committed to the training. They would be available for counselling/instructing/liaising and co-ordinating events specifically for the Upasakas.

    Those who have committed themselves to the training could:

  • Undertake to live by the Five Precepts, attending regular gatherings with other Upasakas, either at the Vihara or in their own homes.
  • Visit the Vihara and formally take the Precepts at least quarterly.
  • Observe the Uposatha days of the full and new moons in some fashion appropriate to ther living situation.
  • Practise meditation daily.
  • Find some time each year to go on retreat.
  • Attend at least one festival day or communal gathering at the monastery each year.
  • Keep to the training for at least one year after having made the formal commitmemt.

    Anyone who would like to contribute to these discussions or offer any feedback on these proposals should contact me here at Amaravati or contact their local monastery - the first meetings are being held on the following days:

  • Devon - 27th March
  • Amaravati - 30th April
  • Harnham - 7th May
  • Cittaviveka - 22nd May
  • Those who are interested in offering their skills and time to help out with Amaravati's needs, Please contact: Ajahn Attapemo at Amaravati.