Forest SanghaNewsletter
July 1994

Is Buddhism A Religion?; Ajahn Sumedho
Images of Sri Lanka; Sister Siripanya
The Dhamma School: The Wheel Comes Full Circle
Tudong Letter From Macedonia; Venerable Sobhano
Obituary: Greg Klein (Ajahn Anando)
More an agreement than an Order; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:



Leaving New Zealand
Ajahn Viradhammo shares a few reflections on leaving Bodhinyanarama, New Zealand, the monastery that he founded, built, and has been abbot of since 1985. He will be taking up residence at Amaravati.

We've had some fierce storms these past two days. Autumn has arrived with the magnificent gales that give Wellington it's infamous reputation of Windy Welly. After nine rewarding years, I am leaving this lovely valley and returning to England. My thoughts and feelings are a mixture of sadness in leaving behind many friendships, and curiosity about what lies ahead. Underlying it all however, is gratitude; to the monks, anagarikas and lay folk who I've shared time with, and to our lineage of teachers from the Buddha to Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho. I'm particularly indebted to Ajahn Sumedho for he has moulded my practice and trusted me in areas where I lacked confidence. It seems appropriate now to return to England and soak up a bit of his Dhamma before one of us kicks the bucket.

Thinking back to the early days in N.Z. when we had no buildings, I often chuckle at the mad enthusiasm we managed to muster to get this thing rolling. I couldn't do it now but at the time it was appropriate. At the beginning of 1986, Ven. Thanavaro, Ven. Subbato, Gary and I used to commute every morning from a flat in Wellington to Stokes Valley. After a forty minute drive from the city we would tumble out of the mini at Aunty's place and then get on to the property for a full day's work. Bowls, robes, saws, hammers, wellies, bits of building material, monks and Gary, would magically emerge from the impossibly small space of our old mini. Now, a few years down the line and Bodhinyanarama is a comfortable monastery fully equipped with all the mod-cons these places tend to acquire. It's a great space for contemplating the BuddhaDhamma.

The heart of the monastery is the sala and the heart of the sala is space/silence/stillness. But this of course is the heart of all monasteries, so when you close your eyes you could be in Chithurst, Amaravati, Perth, or Switzerland. Open your eyes however, and you'll see lots of golden wood. It's a very special sala, and in fact, Hugh Tennant, our architect, has just won a prestigious architectural award for the building. The process of creating an uplifting and contemplative space has taught me a lot about the use of architecture and good craftsmanship as skilful means in the religious life. I fully understand why Ajahn Sumedho is so keen to build something inspiring amidst the military architecture of Amaravati.

One of the joys of creating a monastery in this country of abundant land and low population is that we have been able to start from scratch. We've not had to compromise our plans by needing to work around existing buildings. Each of the monks and lay guests have their own kuti. We have tried to make very good paths for walking meditation and several kutis have wooden board walks for this purpose. I've always felt that an inviting walking path encourages the gentle practice of silently walking to and fro.

The surrounding bush in the monastery grounds is quite dense and ever-green. Wellington has a mild climate. We get a bit of frost only once or twice a year so the native trees stay green all year. The smells of the bush are wonderful. Whenever I've returned to the monastery from the city. my nose goes into over-drive as it sniffs the fraerance of the Kamahi and Pine trees; the smell of the stream as it gurgles by the sala or even the occasional drift of salt air blown in from Cook Strait on a fierce nor' Wester.

On a clear night it's the sky that grabs me. The air is so clean that the stars reach down to touch the horizon and I realise that I'm floating through space on Planet Earth. In the late afternoon when the sun descends over the Western wall of the valley a soft light paints the bush a golden yellow. The bush itself is green on green; varieties of green that dance with the wind that blows much of the year. Normally. as I look down the valley from the deck of my kuti, I can see the houses of Stokes Valley below. During the winter a fog will sometimes settle lower down the valley, and in the morning my kuti may be bathed in sunlight while the houses below are lost in the mist - like living in some exquisite Japanese landscape.

It's time to leave this behind and see if I've taken refuge in Stokes Valley or in the Buddha-Dhamma. Ajahn Vajiro has arrived, and his talents are just what the place needs to consolidate what has been created so far. Ajahn Nyanaviro has been here for over a year and his heart-practice is much appreciated by many. The other members of the Sangha, some newly arrived from Thailand, are all mature so I feel at ease with the continuity of the Sangha's presence.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my nine years here is the building of community. I suppose it reflects on my refugee kamma*. My mother would often lament the loss of her extended family due to the disintegration of Latvian society in the years of the Second World War. Here I am now with a family that extends throughout New Zealand and beyond.
  *Ajahn Viradhammo was born in Germany of Latvian parents who had fled Latvia when the Soviet Union took over. While he was still very young the family moved to Canada where he was raised.
This doesn't fit the early models of monastic life that I imbibed from North-East Thailand. I thought that I would live out my days in some remote cave developing refined states of samadhi and eschewing all worldly complexities. And yet, Ajahn Chah asked me to stay in London and Ajahn Sumedho gently nudged me into teaching and other responsibilities.

From all this I realised that my practice is complexity, people and responsibility. What a perfect way to watch self-consciousness and abandon the strategies of ego suffering. Perhaps I shall have some time for solitary practice in the future but in the meantime this way of developing the Path works fine. I'm curious to see if I change my tune with the increased complexity of a far bigger scene.

In 1985, when I was about to depart for N.Z. I asked Ajahn Sumedho what I should do when I got to Wellington. "Get out of the way," was his reply. Getting out of the way within the demands of responsibility seems to be my sadhana this lifetime. I suspect this practice will be fruitful for a few more years at Amaravati.

News from Harnham
The winter period has been fairly quiet here at Harnham.
    Ajahn Munindo was away in Thailand at Wat Pah Nanachat, and several of the other resident monks were over-seas visiting their families. The coming of spring, however, has seen a marked increase in the level of activity, and once everyone returned we started another phase of our building work.

The new Dhamma Hall has so far been concealed behind the two hundred year old barn onto which it was built but, over the last year or so, work has moved on to the barn itself and this has undergone quite a transformation. Handsome new doors now grace the main entrance, fronted by a beautiful and elaborately carved slate, stone and bronze threshold. This gives a very different character to the front of the monastery, which for a long time has been masquerading as an old Northumbrian farm cottage.

During the last month Ajahn Subbato has been assisting with the final section of the Barn re-roofing and the vestibule area of the Dhamma Hall has been nearing completion. After the work month is over the community will be finding more time and space for exploring other aspects of contemplative life; building work will be put on the back burner for a few months until we have another work project in the Autumn.

Inside the Hall, Pang Chinasai has been putting the finishing touches to the traditional Thai-style mural depicting the Buddha conquering Mara. Pang has been with us since the end of February, and was expecting to complete the picture in six weeks, however the addition of delicate and refined detail is taking much longer; whenever he is asked when he'll finish he always seems to say another six weeks!" During the visit of Ajahn Sumedho in August, however, we hope to be able to have a ceremony of dedication, at which the Thai ambassador is being asked to officiate.

Many people have been following with interest the progress of our legal difficulties; a settlement has been agreed upon in principle, but has yet to be ratified and signed. Until this happens, the Magga Bhavaka Trust feels that it would be premature to launch an appeal to raise funds to cover the outstanding legal costs, but it is hoped that the Trust will be in a position to do this in the near future.

We will be holding another eight-day retreat during the first week of August for which there are still a few places left. Those who might be interested to attend should telephone Caroline Leinster on 092-657-829.