|Forest SanghaNewsletter||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 amixture of reverence and merriment. The two are certainly not polar oppositesin Thailand. This is Songkran (from the Sanskrit word sankranti, meaning theshift of the sun from one zodiac sign to the other) and that gives people theopportunity to splash water everywhere reverentially, over the Buddha imagesand the bhikkhus and, with gales of laughter, over each other. Even in Italy,such things hold true. This year, although at Santacittarama we were sparedthe full bath, even there the ceremony concluded with some seventy Thai womenfiling past the seated Bhikkhu Sangha pouring water over our hands.
Water symbolises fertility and the factor of flowing together; bothof these seem very appropriate signs for what occurs around the Sangha'spresence in the West. Of course, cross fertilisation is generally the case interms of the spread of the Dhamma in the West, but the Sangha stimulates acultural as well as an intellectual blending. You wouldn't get seventy Thaiwomen travelling by bus through the night from Milan and Naples to SezzeRomano to go to an interfaith conference, but the Sangha's presence pullsAsian Buddhists into experiencing their religion from a new angle and a fewbemused Italian husbands also get some reflection.
The presence of monks creates a rapport and resonance with Italiansociety 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 aBenedictine monastery situated in a charming place on top of a hill, about anhour or so north east of Rome. The Mother Superior came round to welcome uspersonally, and bid myself and Venerable Dhammiko goodbye six days later.Throughout our stay, gentle Madonnas hovered in shrines in the courtyards orgazed soulfully from the walls; but nobody seemed at all put out by us payinghomage twice daily to a jaunty Sri Lankan Buddha that beamed from the shrinein our meditation room. Italian meditators many of whom had been disaffectedby weaknesses in the Church were learning again to express devotion, to allowimages to mirror their non verbal aspirations, and to experience the wonderof Refuge. At last, after all these murderous centuries, sacred play may yetbe becoming possible in the West. At times the play seems deliberatelyimpish: but it wasn't until after naming our vihara in Sezze that it becameapparent how close 'Santacittarama' (Peaceful Heart Park) is to the Italianfor 'the Holy City of Rome.'
It's all part of the mingling and overflowing of boundaries thatcharacterises the Sangha's presence in the West.
|Meanwhile the Vatican's acceptance of Buddhism still remains reserved. Notthat the Sangha represents much of a threat: Santacittarama is a low keyoperation, with a resident community of Ajahn Chandapalo, VenerablesJutindharo and Dhammiko and Maechee Amara: one Englishman, two Thais (thoughMaechee Amara is currently in hospital, having a back operation) and oneItalian. And Ajahn Chandapalo is content to spend much of his time in themonastery anyway, giving the small community a sense of stability after thedisrobing 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 fromNaples who, by some amazing coincidence, happened to have met one of theother guests at the vihara twenty years ago working on an engineering projectin Kanchanaburi, Thailand. For those of us who are used to living in viharas,multilingual conversation over tea and chance (or kammic) link ups are takenfor granted. It's all part of the mingling and overflowing of boundaries thatcharacterises the Sangha's presence in the West.|
Along with the silence and the ordinariness, there is a sense ofpromise out of which things are growing naturally. The current monasticresidence is becoming too small for the flow of the life it encases, and overthe past year supporters have been looking around for new premises. Straightafter the retreat, a few of us went to cast an eye over what seems to be alikely purchase a large farmhouse with 22 rooms and 5 acres of land on a hillin a rural area about 50 miles to the north east of Rome. The Italian womenwho took us there had no doubt: 'We must have this place!' Seven days laterat the Alms Giving Ceremony that accompanied Songkran, the Thais were morethan delighted that their financial offerings should be put towards such aventure. New Year, old customs; new possibilities, old aspirations: quite amingling.