|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1998|
Someone visiting one of the monasteries in Britain this winter may be puzzled as to why there seem to be less bhikkhus and siladharas 'at home' than in some previous years. It's not just that there is always a percentage who choose to leave the robes and take their practice into the lay arena; it is also becoming the case that there are always a number of bhikkhus and siladhara travelling, in Britain and overseas, or on solitary retreat for long stretches of time. From the point of view of samanas running monasteries this latter trend is disturbing, but it's hardly a loss of faith. Looking back, back through the socialisation of Buddhism into a monastic form, back into its roots, we find the exhortation to 'walk on tour for the welfare of the many folk' along with the advice to seek out 'roots of trees and lonely places.' In terms of the Buddha's path, the current diaspora seems utterly authentic. When Ajahn Chah was asked about the possibilities and impossibilities of establishing the Holy Life in the West, his reply was that there must be good people in the West; that being so, there must be generosity and virtue, which are the foundations of the Dhamma; that being so there must be the possibilities, and even the need, for samanas to uplift and focus such people. Prior to this point, the foundations of the Western Sangha had been through an arrangement whereby a trust, the English Sangha Trust, acted as the patron of the Sangha, guaranteeing a provision of the four requisites. This was understood to be a temporary measure until the society would itself be the patron of the Sangha. This is the way it always has been in Asian countries since the time of the Buddha. When a teaching inspires a society, it moulds a culture and becomes a religion.
Then there are complexities: a lot more interest, more support, and an interweaving of the spiritual and the social life. Within this nexus, the Buddhist Sangha has flourished - and floundered. Gains, respect and honour would be the source of the Sangha's decline, warned the Buddha, and it is evident how weak minds and unsteady hearts can get corrupted by these influences.
More subtly, the goal of the Holy Life can get diverted into one that is social in its orientation: to dilute the Dhamma-Vinaya so that it fits in easier, so that the samanas are more accessible and play more of an active role in the society. This is the most honourable form of diversion, but a diversion none the less. This is why forest monasteries have developed: to aim for a more specialised position in the society. Patronage itself is a precarious business, behind which stalks the phantom of control and influence: one of the reasons for the demise of the first English Sangha was that without the clear understanding of the proper relationship between the samanas and their lay supporters, the bhikkhus were seen basically as lecturers on Buddhism for whom the Trust provided board and lodging. Eventually the last surviving bhikkhu headed off for the forests of Thailand and 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 of the Holy Life, maturation has to occur throughout the Assembly.
However some 21 years ago, under the guidance of Ajahn Sumedho, a Sangha
returned, few in numbers but with a far stronger grounding in samana
training. And it was backed up by the respect and authority that Ajahn Chah's
example gave; an authority readily accepted by Thais, and increasingly
understood by Westerners. It was the authority of the Buddha's practice. The
central aim of this Sangha was not to spread Buddhism, let alone change it to
fit Western values: it was to live under the Dhamma-Vinaya for the complete
cessation of all dukkha; to live the Holy Life in its spirit and letter.
But that's difficult without the lay community's understanding and interest in the same goal...how many bhikkhus in the world are supported to effect magical ritual, to manage estates or to act as the local village council? And how does that affect the nature of their efforts, and the nature of the message that they give back to the society? However, the Buddha taught that the Holy Life could last long for the welfare of a society, and recommended interaction in terms of teaching and presence; but for that precious opportunity, the samana Sangha has to be held within the supportive structure of lay disciples. Then the Four-fold Assembly (parisa) of samanas and lay disciples gets established, within which the jewels of liberation are to be found. For the blossoming of the Holy Life, maturation has to occur throughout the Assembly. It seems that as they mature, and to induce greater maturity, 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 the time to go; restlessness and wanting to avoid the firm embrace of the training are natural enough defilements to come across. Yet long retreats, in Britain and overseas, give a depth to the practice, and the cultivation of greater insecurity - and faith - through wandering is also an inspiration for people who may not normally come within the sphere of influence of a monastery. The question which all this raises is how does the concept of 'monastics' - a term associated with the Christian tradition of staying in one monastery for a lifetime - fit in with the ancient tradition of the samanas, 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 the behest of lay people, in proximity to a town or village, for the welfare of the Four-fold Assembly. A monastery provides a good supply of spiritual food for the laity and samanas alike: in terms of teachings - and also the learning through relationship which opens mind and heart. When the roles and responsibilities of the monastery can be worked on as Dhamma-practice, they present a model of transcendence - of that 'seeing through' which is not a denial of the world, but an illumination. And this comes about through a firm holding without attachment, in which the forms and energies of the world become transparent and flowing. This is a real and present opportunity: because monasteries, in Buddhism at least, are an interface. But they will only flourish and develop as the Assembly does. Financial and material support is an obvious requirement -despite some very impressive properties, the daily requisites and maintenance of those properties has to come from local ongoing donations. That however is only one aspect. There is a lot of learning to be had in picking up the opportunities where the timeless truths of the Buddha may find new expressions and new relevances. And in seeing the Four-fold Assembly become a living, and indigenous, reality. This is taking place, 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 at these places for quite a while. At Amaravati, the structure of retreats is being reviewed by lay people: what teachings are most urgently required? In most places upasika groups are undertaking study, Dhamma-discussion and instruction in Buddhist conventions, and thus a lay Vinaya is getting tuned up. At Harnham, the vision is to have a suitable residence for a lay community adjacent to Ratanagiri Vihara. Then there are the aspects of skilful service. Administration is increasingly a blend of lay know-how with Sangha vision. Kathina season saw these ceremonies being organised and managed by lay people, Westerners by and large.
Yes, the Buddha lived in and welcomed monasteries - for the welfare of the Four-fold Assembly. And without contradiction, in that very unsettledness of the samana lifestyle is the chance for the strengthening and maturation of the Assembly as a whole.