|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1997|
Impressions from Bodhinyanarama
A.V. I think in general people don't really know what Buddhism's about. Nominally, it's an Anglican community, and there are some fundamentalists around but the majority in the censuses are 'No Religion'. Stokes Valley itself, where we live, is a place for first-time house- buyers, with a great variety of people in it. We live at the dead end of the main street, so we're very much a feature there. The people know us. They refer to us as "our monks" - even if they have nothing to do with the monastery, but I think they're still a bit in awe of us. Just the other day someone came who said, "I didn't know you could actually come in." Somebody else came to do the digging when our mains burst, with a chunky old mechanised digger on the back of a tractor; his wife came too and she just sat quietly in here for an hour while he was out there digging and she said, "Oh, I really like the quiet." So there's a mixture of responses. The most distressing sort of response was from someone who saw us on tudong - they made the sign of the cross with their fingers as if they were warding off the Devil. Another time I was walking along the road in Romat's, which is considered a red-neck area, and somebody shouted at me out of the window of their car. That happens everywhere you go so I didn't take much notice, but then the car came back and the passenger climbed out of the window and, sitting on the edge, he held on to the door and roof and yelled: "Go back to where you came!"... I thought, "Well, that's pretty Zen!"
A.S. Zenophobia!... Are there other Buddhist groups or people doing meditation?
A.V. Oh, yes. The person who's been here the longest, is Lama Samten up at Kokoppakoppa. He's been here for about twenty years. He says that New Zealand is very well endowed with teachers and centres - considering that the population is only three and a half million people. Then there is the Sphere group, which is related to Nanihal Rinpoche (formerly Venerable Anandabodhi, who instigated the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara and later Samye-Ling) and also many Christian centres, where groups have put up camp sites for their own retreats.
We could quite comfortably accommodate half a dozen more monks. We all live in kutis; it's a purpose-built monastery.
A.S. What kind of support is there for Bodhinyanarama itself?
A.V. As a Western monastery it's quite remarkable in that anagarikas are not absolutely necessary for it to function. The people who support the monastery assume that it's their responsibility to make sure that the bhikkhus are fed every day. So we have a roster and there are people nearly every day of the year who have arranged - sometimes a year in advance - to come and offer food; if there's any problem I just inform the committee, who's responsibility it is to look into things. It's a lovely situation. So on Monday it's the Burmese community; Tuesday the Pakehas*; Wednesday the Thais; Thursday the Sri Lankans (except for the fourth Thursday of the month, which is the Thai Embassy). Then on Fridays, there's a group of Malaysians, or Chinese, or Pakehas, or Asian people who've been here so long a time that they consider themselves part of the New Zealand scene. On Saturdays, it's Sri Lankans again, and Sundays it's always the Laos who come. New Zealand's been very generous in taking in refugees and so there are a lot of Cambodians, and they also come.
* New Zealanders of European, as opposed to Maori, descent.
A.S. Are there any other Buddhist monasteries in New Zealand - I mean Theravada places?
A.V. Yes, there's a Cambodian Temple quite near us which started at the same time as Bodhinyanarama with one Cambodian monk. Up in Auckland, there's a lot. There's the vihara which we use when staying there; a Lao vihara; two Cambodian viharas and a Thai temple. Then there's Sunnatarama, one of the former Ajahn Yantra forest monasteries, which is about ninety acres of very good bush with three young people living on it.
A.S. Do you miss the contact with the U.K.? Does the monastery feel a bit isolated at times?
A.V. Sometimes. That's why I don't worry too much about phone bills or getting connected to the e-mail or faxes. I feel that it's good to have contact. One of my closest contacts is with Tan Ariyesako, he's in Australia in a little hermitage. I don't have so much contact with the monastery in Perth, but if there's any sort of trouble we get into contact with each other, or if they want to come and visit - anything like that.
A.S. What, in terms of functions and routines is different here from how things are in the monasteries in Britain?
A.V. It's a smaller community, and the place has been very, very well established by Ajahn Viradhammo. Although there's not a lot of work that we have to do, there's sometimes a feeling of being stretched because it's actually quite big. We could quite comfortably accommodate half a dozen more monks. We all live in kutis; it's a purpose-built monastery. The kitchen is the only building here on the site that wasn't actually built for the monastery.
A.S. What about the daily routines? Do you have pujas and almsrounds?
A.V. To a certain extent. Very few people come for the evening meetings, so we're experimenting at the moment not having them except on Sunday, which is when there is an evening talk for the lay people. We've tried having retreats here but they didn't work out very well, so now I'd like to encourage people to invite us out to teach and to organise the retreats themselves. We've also been having Saturday afternoon workshops during a couple of months in the year. We have four a month from 4.00 to 5.30pm; that way people can do their shopping and also still go out in the evening! Maybe between 20 - 45 people would come here for those. They are pleasant to do.
A.S. And so there must be quite a bit of spare time for the monks. Do they have study sessions, or retreats for themselves or tudongs?
A.V. Well, there are sutta study sessions and discussions; we're going to continue with that. There is a lot of time, and privacy. You can't see another kuti from the one you're in, so you don't need to see anybody from after the meal until the following morning. Personally, I tend to be around more, but generally there's a lot of space. Then we have tudongs and also more casual walk-abouts. There are many invitations to go to different Buddhist groups. You fly there (everybody flies everywhere in this country) - to New Plymouth, or to Gisborne, or down to Dunedin; sometimes we'd do that, and incorporate it with a walk-about in the country. Also we go to Auckland and Hamilton about once a month, and to Palmerston North every two months or so - that's about a couple of hours away from Stokes Valley. Then we might do some walking, or some trips around. But in terms of tudong, real tudong, generally, there's not a lot. I have a project to walk from one end of North Island to the other, as a way of connecting, with myself, with the country, and the different Buddhists here. Each year, if it works out, I'll go on and start from where I stopped. And that's fun. I usually travel with somebody who can carry food. Sometimes I don't know where I'm going to stop, but I usually have a destination a couple of days away, because part of it is to connect with Buddhists and people who are interested. It's actually quite demanding, because walking is physically hard, and then you're arriving somewhere and having to talk.
A.S. What about guests or people who are interested in becoming anagarikas or nuns?
A.V. We've got accommodation for guests - the accommodation for women is incredibly good. We try to have no more guests than community members; that, we feel, is a reasonable ratio to keep. We've had a few people wanting to be anagarikas, but none of them stuck it out. A couple became samaneras in Thailand but no one has actually made it past that whilst I've been here. We're still a bit peculiar here because the community is not large enough to actually show people how it works.
A.S. How many monks do you have at the moment?
A.V. Three monks and one samanera, which is about average since I've been here. When I first came there were five or six but most of them were on the point of going elsewhere.
A.S. Being out of the circuit as it were it must be difficult to get new people coming ? It is a bit isolated.
A.V. Right. Also it's a place where I encourage renunciation in terms of generosity, in terms of basic morality, and in terms of meditation. We are renunciants and this is a place where people can devote their lives to that - that's what I wish to do. I'm not into all sorts of therapies and meditation techniques; there are plenty of New Age places in this country where people can do those things. 'Renunciation' can sound very 'hard-line' but it can also be seen as that which encourages freedom: freedom from greed, from remorse and from harmful states of mind. It's just a different way of putting the same thing.
A.S. So you're coming up for your 17th Vassa as a bhikkhu, and your 3rd year as the abbot here. How's it going? Is it a learning experience as they say?
A.V. Yes, as they say. But I wouldn't wish it on anybody. I wouldn't recommend anybody to have that aspiration. I don't think that being an abbot is easy, and I'm not yet convinced about how useful it is. But if one does it in the spirit of it being a service that one offers, then it does bring up qualities that wouldn't arise if you could just keep passing the buck. Being the abbot, you can't do that, you are really responsible; it's up to me what happens. It's strange how that power works. It's like a great machine: this monastery, and the faith and goodness that have made it happen and supported it over the years; Ajahn Viradhammo and Ajahn Thanavaro, and all the people who have come through here and put such a lot of energy into it... Then they put someone like me as a figure-head, and whatever this little thing does affects the whole network. If the whole thing shakes then that affects me; and it's interesting to see that, if I can return to that stillness. It's nice here that there's a sense of spaciousness, that it's not that busy, so what I do is not going to be too disastrous!
A.S. Do you think that by the process of being here and learning you are getting any ideas as to the general direction for the future, for yourself, or for the monastery?
A.V. Well this monastery is a wonderful place as a resource for all the monasteries through the world that we're associated with. It's a place where someone like you, Ajahn Sucitto, can have a long solitary retreat; it's good as a place where senior monks and nuns can come and spend time on retreat. You can be more away from things. You can drop things, in a way you can't do if you're more accessible. Personally, I'll need space myself too - times when I'm not here - I don't know for how long. I don't see myself as abbot for ever here, at all. But at the moment, I'm applying for permanent residency which is a way of being able to stay in the country indefinitely. I might even think of citizenship. When I first came here I said I'd be here for anything between 3 and 20 years... and I've nearly completed three.
A.S. Well, I wish you good luck.