Ajahn Amaro updates the Scene in California.
A letter to Luang Por Sumedho from Ajahn Amaro, updating The Sangha on events during his visit in California.
Dear Luang Por Sumedho and fellow samanas,
Well, it has been six weeks already since we left England so I thought that I would try and bring you up to date a little: Firstly, as I sit here, we are being drenched in our fourth day of continuous rain. It has been like this since early November so the whole Bay Area has turned a very uncharacteristic green. There are days also of dazzling clarity when the storms have blown through so we are enjoying a very 'English' mood in the unpredictability and contrasts of weather.
The place that they found for us to live in has been ideal so far. We are in that area due north of the Bay which consists of broad salt-marshes and a few small wooded hills. The countryside around us is very quiet and there is a lot of wildlife nearby: birds, deer, raccoons, etc. The house we are in has an acre of garden and around us there are a few other homes, plus a couple of large riding stables. We have bumped into a few locals on almsround and have begun to receive a small daily flow of people for the morning and evening sittings. Even though it's very rural where we are it's only fourty minutes drive from Berkeley or San Francisco to get here and people seem happy to make the effort necessary.
One new undertaking, due to popular request, is that we hold Dhamma discussions every other Sunday afternoon, going over the main Theravada suttas. There is a phenomenal lack of reference to, let alone instruction in the basic teachings, whilst Vipassana and psychotherapy continue to be exalted in most circles. It's another 'thing' to be doing, but, with less outside engagements, dana, etc., there is plenty of time and it seems to be appreciated.
Venerable Khemasiri and Anagarika Tim seem to be content with their lives here; there is plenty of time to do formal practice and the schedule of events is much lighter than in previous years. We have also made a point of regularly going out on walks, into Point Reyes and to the ocean, and of going off to be alone occasionally in the many public parks and reserves around here. Being out of the city and having three of us here (four with Sr. Candasiri when she was around) has made a big difference to the daily dynamics. Being less accessible, however, has not reduced the dana offerings and one of our on-going problems is what to do with all the excess food we get given.
The retreat that we held at Santa Rosa was, apparently, a great success with some interesting feed-back. It is quite amazing how what you have been teaching us for the last fifteen years has been avoided by a lot of the Vipassana teachers. Many of them never come near our monasteries, let alone ask you to teach, and yet on looking they find the same teaching has been here in the Theravada tradition all along.
Sanghapala chugs along and is holding together as a group reasonably well although, as with all human groups, there have been some personality interactions and a few changes in the line-up. All in all there is a very good energy to the enterprise and a comforting pragmatism, rather than too much ideology.
Both the folks here who come to the Vihara and the Spirit Rock/ Berkeley crowd are greatly looking forward to your visit in May and June. We have organised a public talk for you in Berkeley, at one of the halls in the University, a visit to James Baraz meditation group there, and also a talk and a day-long retreat at Spirit Rock. The ten day retreat at Cloud Mountain was booked up very quickly and I hear that they are very honoured to be able to host you for the main West Coast 'event'.
People are also very glad to have the opportunity to meet with Ajahn Sucitto, when he visits here in March, and Ajahn Passano visiting in June. It just so happens that Ajahn Jumnien will also be here, as well as Ajahn Toon Kittipao; so it seems there will be quite a feast of forest monasticism for the West Coast palate.
Over the last few years that I have been coming here it has grown more obvious to me that people in this area do not need another teaching centre or just another local meditation group; what the area lacks is a place, off in the country, where they can join in with the lifestyle of contemplative community and train in traditional Buddhist monastic practice. If a permanent monastery is ever established here it would ideally be set it up in such a way that it provides an environment of this sort. And if the place is a bit far off the beaten track. and not so convenient for the city-dwellers to visit, I dont think that this will necessarily be a bad thing.
Another interesting perception I have encountered is the division of Buddhism into teachers and students and the idea that the role of monks and nuns is to simply to become teachers of meditation.Because of this I feel it is important to offer the principle of monasticism as an process in itself, and emphasize that teaching is a by-product, not vice versa.
In closing I would just like to say that it continues to be an enormous delight to live the bhikkhu life and to let its light warm the lives of others. I also feel inexpressibly grateful to my teachers for their immutable commitment to the Path and the guidance that has been offered over the years.
Yours in Dhamma,
Recent Developments at Cittaviveka
The least-welcome sign of change at Cittaviveka recently has been the retirement of Mike Holmes from the position of Warden of Hammer Woods. Mike, who just turned 66 last year, attributes it to the great devadhuta of age chasing around the hilly land that the Sangha were given 16 years ago, and which thanks to him has been substantially re-afforested, was getting a bit much.
We should have expected it, but Mike's terrific energy which left men twenty years younger standing belied his age. Not to mention his enthusiasm. We have little cause to begrudge him some leisure: he freely gave nine years of service, personally planted, or supervised the planting of, thousands of trees, arranged for conservation volunteers to work in the woods, organised logging contractors to cut the chestnut coppice that gave Cittaviveka (and for a while, Amaravati) its supplies of free fuel, erected three kilometers of rabbit-proof fencing with one helper, and in many ways tended to the gradual re-establishment of wildlife habitat.
With Mike it was all an act of love, the enthusiasm of which was often more communicable to us 'townies' ( to whom wildlife was something we'd seen on television) than the ecological principles involved. But he gradualy educated us with slide shows and talks and guided walks around the forest - not to mention the occaisional peppery admonishment! I remember looking rarther bemusedly at a nondescript mire of mud and sludge that Mike had cleared of derelict trees and which he pointed out to me with glowing eyes as a 'major success'. But visiting the site a few months later, and seeing it transformed into a carnival of native wildflowers and electric-blue dragon flies, and dancing butterflies, brought his words home. He understood the source of natural vigour and beauty in the unglamorous work of clearing an overgrown bog - I always thought it was such a good metaphor for Dhamma practice!
Another good one, was his often repeated advice, "Planting trees is only the beginning. That's the bit that people get excited over. What really counts is the years of after-care. Sheltering them from wind and rabbits, weeding around them so that they don't get choked. Even then, you're bound to lose some to drought and disease". Transferred to a statement about those who Go Forth, that certainly is the way it is.
Being the way he is, Mike left a copious and detailed management plan, the assurance that he will pull out gradually, and advice on finding his successor. I think in the latter point he's got it wrong. Mike had such a rare combination of experience, love for wildlife and the Sangha, and energy - as well as living within 100 metres of the monastery - that there can't be an adequate replacement. We'll see how the various areas of his management can be administered in the future; personally I think it will take at least three people .
Meanwhile, we will also be losing the good companionship of Ajahn Pasanno, who normally resides at Wat Pah Nanachat but who has spent the last nine months on retreat in the Hammer Woods. Even the example of a samana living contentedly in solitude would be a useful source of reflection for us all, but Ajahn Pasanno has also made himself available to give Dhamma talks from time to time, to add his understanding to our Sutta study sessions, and offer a lot of informal advice and well-being. It reminds us that experienced forest monks are one of the most precious forms of wildlife to encourage and provide habitat for!
The good news is that Nick Scott, a long-term supporter and founder-trustee of Ratanagiri Monastery, has offered his services as building manager at Cittaviveka. This is extremely opportune, as the monastery is embarking on a series of developments that are intended to provide it with an adequate workshop and garage, an ablutions block, an Abbot's kuti and reception room and a new Dhamma Hall. The current meditation room was already too small when it was completed in 1981, but the need to reconstruct the derelict Coach House into a hall that would accommodate the resident Sangha and visitors was overshadowed by the need to create an entirely new centre where retreats and events for families could be held. That centre was, of course, Amaravati, which has required a lot of energy and attention, and after ten years is just embarking on its first major building project in the shape of the temple building there.
Cittaviveka, finding its own function in relationship to Amaravati, has been the site for ordinations and the initial training in the Holy Life. More recently we have turned back to Hammer Woods to actualise the possibilities of a forest-dwelling life by providing more forest kutis (eight so far, and three more in the pipeline) and restructuring some of the monastic routines. It has generally been the case that a bhikkhu would spend his fifth Vassa on retreat in the woods; that usage has extended with residents and visiting samanas taking shorter retreats all year round. It also becomes possible for bhikkhus and siladhara to spend greater periods of each day in solitude in the forest, just coming into the main house for the meal and an afternoon's work on work days. The generally successful alms-round in Midhurst rules out the requirement to go to the house for food from time to time. This winter retreat we had four samanas on long retreat in the forest, with another eight having shorter sojourns in that abiding so recomended by the Buddha and Luang Por Chah.
All this only becomes possible through the freely-offered services of many people - our teachers, and supporters and people like Mike and Nick who can undertake the precarious task of trying to mesh the uncertain practicalities of Sangha life with the requirements of civil regulations and the material world. Despite all the changes, marvelously, miraculously it seems at times, that field of blessings remains as rich as ever.