|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1997|
Sunday April 13th: New Year's Day as celebrated throughout S.E. Asia. Moreover, as every Thai will know, such a holy day must be celebrated with a mixture of reverence and merriment. The two are certainly not polar opposites in Thailand. This is Songkran (from the Sanskrit word sankranti, meaning the shift of the sun from one zodiac sign to the other) and that gives people the opportunity to splash water everywhere reverentially, over the Buddha images and the bhikkhus and, with gales of laughter, over each other. Even in Italy, such things hold true. This year, although at Santacittarama we were spared the full bath, even there the ceremony concluded with some seventy Thai women filing past the seated Bhikkhu Sangha pouring water over our hands.
Water symbolises fertility and the factor of flowing together; both of these seem very appropriate signs for what occurs around the Sangha's presence in the West. Of course, cross fertilisation is generally the case in terms of the spread of the Dhamma in the West, but the Sangha stimulates a cultural as well as an intellectual blending. You wouldn't get seventy Thai women travelling by bus through the night from Milan and Naples to Sezze Romano to go to an interfaith conference, but the Sangha's presence pulls Asian Buddhists into experiencing their religion from a new angle and a few bemused Italian husbands also get some reflection.
The presence of monks creates a rapport and resonance with Italian society that is fuller in some ways than that with a lay meditation teacher. The retreat I had just taught had been, like Ajahn Sumedho's last year, in a Benedictine monastery situated in a charming place on top of a hill, about an hour or so north east of Rome. The Mother Superior came round to welcome us personally, and bid myself and Venerable Dhammiko goodbye six days later. Throughout our stay, gentle Madonnas hovered in shrines in the courtyards or gazed soulfully from the walls; but nobody seemed at all put out by us paying homage twice daily to a jaunty Sri Lankan Buddha that beamed from the shrine in our meditation room. Italian meditators many of whom had been disaffected by weaknesses in the Church were learning again to express devotion, to allow images to mirror their non verbal aspirations, and to experience the wonder of Refuge. At last, after all these murderous centuries, sacred play may yet be becoming possible in the West. At times the play seems deliberately impish: but it wasn't until after naming our vihara in Sezze that it became apparent how close 'Santacittarama' (Peaceful Heart Park) is to the Italian for 'the Holy City of Rome.'
It's all part of the mingling and overflowing of boundaries that characterises the Sangha's presence in the West.
Meanwhile the Vatican's acceptance of Buddhism still remains reserved. Not
that the Sangha represents much of a threat: Santacittarama is a low key
operation, with a resident community of Ajahn Chandapalo, Venerables
Jutindharo and Dhammiko and Maechee Amara: one Englishman, two Thais (though
Maechee Amara is currently in hospital, having a back operation) and one
Italian. And Ajahn Chandapalo is content to spend much of his time in the
monastery anyway, giving the small community a sense of stability after the
disrobing of Ajahn Thanavaro. The monastery gets on with its practice: pujas,
meditation, a few chores, and some guests. The teaching is largely informal.
The guests are mostly Italian, but currently there is one Thai man from
Naples who, by some amazing coincidence, happened to have met one of the
other guests at the vihara twenty years ago working on an engineering project
in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. For those of us who are used to living in viharas,
multilingual conversation over tea and chance (or kammic) link ups are taken
for granted. It's all part of the mingling and overflowing of boundaries that
characterises the Sangha's presence in the West.
Along with the silence and the ordinariness, there is a sense of promise out of which things are growing naturally. The current monastic residence is becoming too small for the flow of the life it encases, and over the past year supporters have been looking around for new premises. Straight after the retreat, a few of us went to cast an eye over what seems to be a likely purchase a large farmhouse with 22 rooms and 5 acres of land on a hill in a rural area about 50 miles to the north east of Rome. The Italian women who took us there had no doubt: 'We must have this place!' Seven days later at the Alms Giving Ceremony that accompanied Songkran, the Thais were more than delighted that their financial offerings should be put towards such a venture. New Year, old customs; new possibilities, old aspirations: quite a mingling.