|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1999|
I feel sometimes just amazed at how well this temple has appeared - just out of nothing. My whole mind state doesn't tend to be particularly interested in building things, and in the beginning just the fact that the predictions were that it would cost a million pounds was a bit daunting - mind boggling - to me; it seemed like an enormous amount of money. But there were several people who encouraged this and seemed to be willing to back it up; so I didn't go into it as a total act of blind faith, I did feel confident that it might be possible. Then we had to go through many obstacles in regard to planning permission which was refused at first, so we had the appeal. Then there were criticisms and a lot of acrimony around the project, but gradually it took form and in fact the donations were no problem at all - that was the least amount of trouble! It seemed that there were many people, especially from Thailand, eager to contribute to the temple building so that of all the difficulties that we encountered, the least of them was the fundraising - that all seemed to happen, even without any kind of fundraising event.
The actual opening of the temple, the ceremony on July 4th, was another unknown factor: having to prepare, and invite the venerable monks from Thailand, plus the Princess Galyani Wattana from the Thai royal family. There were many different aspects of etiquette and culture to be taken into account with the Sri Lankan community, the Thai community, the royal family, the mahå theras and the many monks and nuns from different places. So I did really appreciate the way it was organised. For the past two years Ajahn Attapemo, Ajahn Jutindharo, Sister Thånasanti and all the others who worked with them, people like Shirley and Nancy and Venerable Saccako really planned it so well. They were very good at estimating and taking into account the little details, so it wasn't just roughly planned but was rather refined in the way it happened; the thoughtfulness that went behind it was impressive. I really felt a lot of confidence in those people - that they were doing what they could, according to the knowledge they had, to make it a smooth running and good event for everybody - and they were very successful.
Luang Por Sumedho
There is a strange blend of humility, grandeur and the absurd that is close to the heart of both the English and the Buddhist way.
Though on a rational level, as a novice, I had no grand map or overview for understanding the situation, on an intuitive level the work was clear. Each gesture of
trimming, cleaning, fixing
planting, building, moving
sorting, uprooting, discarding
could be an expression of devotion (heart open), or a meaningless task (heart contracted).
One sunny morning, gravel crunching under my sandals as I pushed a load of sleeping bags to be aired. I met a fellow novice pushing a wheelbarrow of topsoil. The image arose: ants shifting grains of dirt to be transformed into the cells and arches of the anthill. At the same time came a sense of joy and personal responsibility - it is true that ants simply know how to build, yet part of that knowing must be the need for division of labour.
The events themselves? The same stillness, manifesting in the splendour and chaos of the days of celebration. Reminders: don't forget the Dhamma-root, dana-root of these shimmering things, this vast nomad camp in the field, these pilgrims. Parts came together, long-expected names become tangible presence; each meal, each meeting, each act of attention is a consecration. I remember the slow forceful cadence of Thai forest teaching, the valiance (more wheelbarrows) of lay women bringing food to offer in the marquees; the inter-relatedness of sustained, wholehearted effort and effortless ease.
The open Day|
A Saturday afternoon, somewhere in southern England...
'My Lord Robin, Bishop of Hertford!' exclaimed the broadly smiling man in the dark blue suit - bedecked with mayoral chain of office and the escutcheon of Berkhamsted town - 'I've been longing for a chance to use your proper title.' The two men shook hands and greeted each other warmly.
It was indeed a day when banners were out and the English way of life was able to display itself in glory: bishop in full purples, tea and cucumber sandwiches on the lawn with local dignitaries, the garden party buzz of several dozen animated and inter-flowing conversations. Where could we be? Somewhere near Henley? Beaulieu perhaps? A church fête in the Chalfonts?
Spotlessly white-clad servers graciously offered glasses of fruit juice to the assembly and it was only the shaven-headed nature of these women and men - plus the preponderance of brown-robed and equally shaven monastics mingling with the dog collars, floral dresses, blazers and pastels of the crowd - that gave the clue that we were actually in a Buddhist monastery. That and the golden, pyramidal spire of the Amaravati Temple beyond the garden wall that winked and flashed in the brilliant July sun.
The Open Day at Amaravati, on the Saturday afternoon preceding the consecration ceremonies, glistened and gleamed in its own right as a small jewel in the glorious diadem which was the week-long Temple Opening session. It had been arranged to be a 'totally English' event and was an occasion for the monastery not only to invite the great and the good of the local area, but also the members of staff and friends from all the shops, surgeries, offices and local agencies who had served Amaravati over the years. True to the Englishness of the day many confessed that they had been longing to visit for years but had not wanted to intrude.
Everyone felt very much at home. There is a strange blend of humility, grandeur and the absurd that is close to the heart of both the English and the Buddhist way: besandalled Bishop Robin's hearty approval of the deliberate barn-like mixture of beams and bare brick in the Temple; Nick Halsey's insistence, even though his family have been squires of the manor of Great Gaddesden since the 15th Century, that he be introduced simply as 'a representative of the local community' when invited to give his speech; Lord Young of Dartington's metaphor of the increasing comfort of a sofa as a synonym for the process of liberation; and the recollections by Mother Rosemary of Fairacres (wimple ever-so-slightly askew) of a profound and beautiful insight gained whilst rinsing her laundry.
The denouement of the guided tour that guests were given before the formal speeches began was the explanation about the luk nimit - the large gold-covered orb, at that time perched on its ramp, holding the central place in heart of the temple - and the velvet-clad chamber in the floor poised to receive it. As it was explained that 2,500 people were gathering from five continents in order to witness the Princess Royal of Thailand cut the ribbon and thus commit the 'symbolic seed' to rest at the Temple's core, and that no-one quite knew when the tradition began, and that it wasn't exactly a part of Buddhist monastic form but that no temple could possibly be considered complete without it, every head nodded in complete empathetic accord.
In a country where the highest form of knighthood is The Most Noble Order of the Garter (instituted either by Sir Gawaine, the Green Knight and King Arthur or King Edward III, depending on which history you choose), and where someone with the title of Lion King at Arms is actually only the fellow who looks after the heraldic records office, such significant pointlessness is perfectly understood, honoured and cherished.
That day in the heart of the country - a few stone's throws from the castle of the Black Prince and where William the Conqueror received the keys to the kingdom - it seemed that the way of the Buddha and the way of the English were fully at one.
A Personal View|
An hour or so before dawn and the first stirrings of the monastery, I lay listening to the world service of the BBC, to a voice set at so low a level it sounded thin and squeaky like a wheezing lung. But on hearing mention of the words 'Northern Ireland' I turned it off. The light that had begun to smear the walls of the room looked dingy: not at all the kind of pre-sunrise light one hoped for on the day of the Grand Opening. I turned the radio on once more to listen to the weather forecast. It boded uncertain for the weekend.
Not being one for ceremonies and uneasy in crowds, I was not particularly looking forward to the coming two days. Not that I had much of a part to play in it, save looking after a group of VIPs, wear a suit and tie and affect a little gravitas for a change.
Early in the temple (sans suit) I was struck by the presence of the luk nimit, the large marble sphere poised on its runway in the way that boats are set to be launched, held in place by ribbon and positioned in the exact centre of the Temple awaiting HRH Princess Galyani Wattana to release it and send it to fall into a cubic pit designed to receive it. It had the aura of portent about it, a sense of something impending: a certain finality.
In the grounds, everywhere had the look of being finished. Lawns replaced piles of earth and building materials, flower beds glowed with colour, even the Zen-like dish of apparently still water flowing: Ajahn Chah's simile for the living Pure Mind. I liked it very much. In fact I liked it all: the impressive simplicity of Tom Hancock's overall design, the choice of materials and economy of detail. Piti lifted my unease.
It had been over a year since, unplanned, I joined the community at last after all these years - not fully, but tentatively, finding a place like grit in a crevice. A loner tends to feel even more alone in a crowd, but it did not happen that day. The joy was too infectious and, curiously, even though Amaravati was to receive over three and a half thousand guests (six times more than it had contained before), there was lots of space to stroll in. And the field with its new Borobudur stpa, the great marquee and collection of tents was festive and English like a gymkhana, aromatic with the scent of delicious Thai food. What a pleasure to see so many saffron robes, meet friends not seen for years, chat with monks, former monks, nuns and former nuns: Pabhakaro, Sister Jotaka, Kittisaro, adicco, Peter Da Costa: faces from the past, feeling love and gratitude to them, memories of times together, compiling all their news with the casual freedom of the scrap book.
For Luang Por Sumedho, I reflected, all this was the culmination of twenty years of sustained commitment and endurance, and the realisation of a vision. Yet soon, the moment will have passed, it will be as memories of a dream, 'an insubstantial pageant faded' and, like the gilded orb of the luk nimit, together with the collection of memorabilia which would be sealed with it in the floor of the sima, it would be gone.
It didn't rain. Well just a sprinkle to coincide with the arrival of Princess Galyani; explained, as one gallant put it, as tears of piti from the devas. Godlings must have been jostling for their place on the tips of many needles that day. Rural England was bang-up-to-date with its own proper Buddhist temple with traditional English monastic cloisters and international Sangha, and the sister of the King of Thailand was about to fix the moment in time in perpetuity. A snip of scissors, the golden orb rolled down its ramp and fell into its hole with scarcely a thump.
I expected cheers, whoops and whistles even, but not even one hastily-stifled cheer broke the solemnity of the moment. Perhaps the devas were doing it for us - they are more used to being happy than we are.
So, for all intents and purposes, it was all over, and, twenty two years after Luang Por Chah's arrival at Hampstead accompanied by four western monks, the Sangha has grown, flourished and taken root in the foreign land. And I for one am very happy about that.
As I think back to July 4th I can't help but feel tears well up, such was the beauty and meaning of this special event. For many of us there was a strong sense of consolidation of the last twenty five years of grounding Dhamma in this particular form of the 'Forest Sangha' in the West. All of us, in so many different ways, have been a part of that process, but of course in particular one felt profound appreciation for the incalculable contribution of Luang Por Sumedho.
Although all have their own individual stories, there was a great sense of being lifted from everyday inter-personal dynamics and concerns into the transcendent. This communal gathering generated a very high and potentized energy which was deeply felt by many as healing, uplifting and unifying with a recognition of many strands being connected together. The mutual respect between Western and Asian Buddhists was tangible as we all savoured the positive Kamma that has been contributed by each community over the years. For many of the Vipassana teachers who had founded lay centres, and ex-monastics, there was a sense of reconnection with lineage and family. For others it was a time to see old friends, fellow practitioners and acquaintances and to just delight in the auspicious and historic nature of the occasion.
One of the small but meaningful gestures which delighted me was the offering made by the Princess Galyani to Ajahn Sundara and Ajahn Candasiri. That the nuns' community has developed in England on a par with the monks is the outcome of many years of delicate, considered and quite difficult processes. That the fruits of this work were acknowledged by such a high ranking member of the Thai Royal Family seemed wonderful to me!
One cannot finish without appreciating the enormous service and the substantial offerings that supported the occasion; in particular by those living at Amaravati, who have shed blood, sweat and tears to bring this remarkable happening together!
Sadhu Bhante, sadhu Sisters!
May the Dhamma long flourish upon these blessed shores!