Forest SanghaNewsletterJanuary 1998

The Path to Peace; Ajahn Chah
A slice of life; Kathryn Guta
Remembering our Goal; An interview with Ajahn Pasanno
Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension; Ajahn Sucitto
Four Fold Assembly; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:
Trust News:


The Four-fold Assembly

Someone visiting one of the monasteries in Britain this winter may be puzzledas to why there seem to be less bhikkhus and siladharas 'at home' than insome previous years. It's not just that there is always a percentage whochoose to leave the robes and take their practice into the lay arena; it isalso becoming the case that there are always a number of bhikkhus andsiladhara travelling, in Britain and overseas, or on solitary retreat forlong stretches of time. From the point of view of samanas running monasteriesthis latter trend is disturbing, but it's hardly a loss of faith. Lookingback, back through the socialisation of Buddhism into a monastic form, backinto its roots, we find the exhortation to 'walk on tour for the welfare ofthe many folk' along with the advice to seek out 'roots of trees and lonelyplaces.' In terms of the Buddha's path, the current diaspora seems utterlyauthentic. When Ajahn Chah was asked about the possibilities andimpossibilities of establishing the Holy Life in the West, his reply was thatthere must be good people in the West; that being so, there must begenerosity and virtue, which are the foundations of the Dhamma; that being sothere must be the possibilities, and even the need, for samanas to uplift andfocus such people. Prior to this point, the foundations of the Western Sanghahad been through an arrangement whereby a trust, the English Sangha Trust,acted as the patron of the Sangha, guaranteeing a provision of the fourrequisites. This was understood to be a temporary measure until the societywould itself be the patron of the Sangha. This is the way it always has beenin Asian countries since the time of the Buddha. When a teaching inspires asociety, it moulds a culture and becomes a religion.

Then there are complexities: a lot more interest, more support, and aninterweaving of the spiritual and the social life. Within this nexus, theBuddhist Sangha has flourished - and floundered. Gains, respect and honourwould be the source of the Sangha's decline, warned the Buddha, and it isevident how weak minds and unsteady hearts can get corrupted by theseinfluences.

More subtly, the goal of the Holy Life can get diverted into one that issocial in its orientation: to dilute the Dhamma-Vinaya so that it fits ineasier, so that the samanas are more accessible and play more of an activerole in the society. This is the most honourable form of diversion, but adiversion none the less. This is why forest monasteries have developed: toaim for a more specialised position in the society. Patronage itself is aprecarious business, behind which stalks the phantom of control andinfluence: one of the reasons for the demise of the first English Sangha wasthat without the clear understanding of the proper relationship between thesamanas and their lay supporters, the bhikkhus were seen basically aslecturers on Buddhism for whom the Trust provided board and lodging.Eventually the last surviving bhikkhu headed off for the forests of Thailandand has only returned for a visit, briefly, once.
... the Four-fold Assembly of samanas and lay disciples gets established,within which the jewels of liberation are to be found. For the blossoming ofthe Holy Life, maturation has to occur throughout the Assembly.
However some 21 years ago, under the guidance of Ajahn Sumedho, a Sanghareturned, few in numbers but with a far stronger grounding in samanatraining. And it was backed up by the respect and authority that Ajahn Chah'sexample gave; an authority readily accepted by Thais, and increasinglyunderstood by Westerners. It was the authority of the Buddha's practice. Thecentral aim of this Sangha was not to spread Buddhism, let alone change it tofit Western values: it was to live under the Dhamma-Vinaya for the completecessation of all dukkha; to live the Holy Life in its spirit and letter.

But that's difficult without the lay community's understanding andinterest in the same many bhikkhus in the world are supported toeffect magical ritual, to manage estates or to act as the local villagecouncil? And how does that affect the nature of their efforts, and the natureof the message that they give back to the society? However, the Buddha taughtthat the Holy Life could last long for the welfare of a society, andrecommended interaction in terms of teaching and presence; but for thatprecious opportunity, the samana Sangha has to be held within the supportivestructure of lay disciples. Then the Four-fold Assembly (parisa) of samanasand lay disciples gets established, within which the jewels of liberation areto be found. For the blossoming of the Holy Life, maturation has to occurthroughout the Assembly. It seems that as they mature, and to induce greatermaturity, samanas can benefit from moving out of the daily monastic routine.Of course, the teacher has to know the time for the disciple to stay and thetime to go; restlessness and wanting to avoid the firm embrace of thetraining are natural enough defilements to come across. Yet long retreats, inBritain and overseas, give a depth to the practice, and the cultivation ofgreater insecurity - and faith - through wandering is also an inspiration forpeople who may not normally come within the sphere of influence of amonastery. The question which all this raises is how does the concept of'monastics' - a term associated with the Christian tradition of staying inone monastery for a lifetime - fit in with the ancient tradition of thesamanas, the wanderer who dwells in a training? One answer, I would suggest,is in the development of the lay community.

This stems from the fact that Buddhist monasteries were set up at thebehest of lay people, in proximity to a town or village, for the welfare ofthe Four-fold Assembly. A monastery provides a good supply of spiritual foodfor the laity and samanas alike: in terms of teachings - and also thelearning through relationship which opens mind and heart. When the roles andresponsibilities of the monastery can be worked on as Dhamma-practice, theypresent a model of transcendence - of that 'seeing through' which is not adenial of the world, but an illumination. And this comes about through a firmholding without attachment, in which the forms and energies of the worldbecome transparent and flowing. This is a real and present opportunity:because monasteries, in Buddhism at least, are an interface. But they willonly flourish and develop as the Assembly does. Financial and materialsupport is an obvious requirement -despite some very impressive properties,the daily requisites and maintenance of those properties has to come fromlocal ongoing donations. That however is only one aspect. There is a lot oflearning to be had in picking up the opportunities where the timeless truthsof the Buddha may find new expressions and new relevances. And in seeing theFour-fold Assembly become a living, and indigenous, reality. This is takingplace, at least as far as I can see, in the British monasteries. Retreats,workshops, and forums have been a regular feature of what one can expect atthese places for quite a while. At Amaravati, the structure of retreats isbeing reviewed by lay people: what teachings are most urgently required? Inmost places upasika groups are undertaking study, Dhamma-discussion andinstruction in Buddhist conventions, and thus a lay Vinaya is getting tunedup. At Harnham, the vision is to have a suitable residence for a laycommunity adjacent to Ratanagiri Vihara. Then there are the aspects ofskilful service. Administration is increasingly a blend of lay know-how withSangha vision. Kathina season saw these ceremonies being organised andmanaged by lay people, Westerners by and large.

Yes, the Buddha lived in and welcomed monasteries - for the welfare ofthe Four-fold Assembly. And without contradiction, in that very unsettlednessof the samana lifestyle is the chance for the strengthening and maturation ofthe Assembly as a whole.

Ajahn Sucitto



A Poem

With A Friend
At least we can share
our bitterness
My father cracked up
when I was 16
At least he didn't beat me
like yours did
& the monastery's safe
it'll hold us
It'll contain the opening
up into grief