|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 2000|
The Monastic Millennium
Whatever else will be happening on the planet over the next few months and years, life in the monasteries/nunneries continues with the cultivation of Dhamma. Some of the monasteries are still establishing their living structures, some developing new facilities, some, having completed their building, are focusing on the structures of contemplation. What follows is a round-up report from several of the monasteries in this large community. As there are quite a few now, the report will extend into the next issue.Abhayagiri (US) | Amaravati (UK) | Bodhinyana (Aus) | Bodhinyanarama (NZ) | Santacittarama (It)
Plans for the Fearless Mountain
Abhayagiri Monastery is situated on 250 acres of steep, rugged, forested land about 130 miles north of San Francisco, California. It was opened in June of 1996. Ajahn Pasanno & Ajahn Amaro are co-abbots there and at present there is a monastic community of ten: five bhikkhus, one siladhara, two samaneras and two anagarikas.
This report is being written as of late October, on our first day of rain since April and, to say the least, we are in the middle of major events. After obtaining our planning permission in May, we courageously began our infrastructure project on a budget which eventually expanded to a somewhat mind-boggling $240,000.
The project has been (1) to create a new entrance for the monastery property allowing easier and safer entry and exit, (2) to provide parking places alongside the driveway below the current Dhamma Hall, (3) to construct a 31 space parking area (of a total 80 spaces required by the County), and (4) to dig trenches for water, electricity and gas as well as septic. Involved in this massive earth-moving operation was also the construction of extensive retaining walls. Additionally we had hopes of at least beginning construction of the women's shower and bathroom facility as well as perhaps building one if not two of the 'abbots' kutis'.
The Best Laid Plans . . .
As is common with major construction projects, one does not fully know what one is getting into until the work is well in progress. Moreover, when one is dealing with a County agency (Building and Planning), 'surprises' are apt to occur. Such has been the case for us.The project has gone along beautifully in terms of what has been done so far. (Special mention goes to Bud Garman and his crew of earth-movers who have truly put their hearts into this work, as well as trying hard to keep down costs). Unfortunately, owing to an administrative oversight, we converted the garage into a Dhamma Hall without obtaining prior approval from the County. So we are now in the position of having to bring the building up to scratch, with the price for this part of the project alone perhaps as much as $60,000. Having thus been technically 'red tagged' we are obliged to begin this improvement process immediately.
We can easily say that the future is unknown, and equally easily that it will appear to grow out of conditions.
Because of this and a few other cost over-runs we have had to put a number of projects on hold, namely, the women's shower & toilet facilities and soakaway construction, and the building of the two abbots' kutis. Even though we are in great need of the above projects (as our facilities are overstrained), our priority is to show our good faith to the County in that we are trying to fulfill the conditions of the planning permission we were granted. This also means we now have to regularise all structures which do not meet the Code, which most significantly includes the five existing kutis which we also built during our first year. For some of these it might prove more economical to dismantle them and rebuild from scratch, rather than to try to bolster them up.We have to complete the roadway, parking lot and retaining wall projects before the serious rains begin this winter and we are well on the way to achieving this. However, this effort will take us to the limits of our budget and, although we are committed to bringing the Dhamma Hall up to Code, we are not yet sure where those extra funds will come from. Suffice to say, this is our first real financial crunch as a new monastery.
Projects for the Year 2000 & Beyond
Those readers who might have been to Abhayagiri will know how taxed and overcrowded our facilities can be. In addition to the left-over projects from this year (the women's bathhouse and the abbots' kutis) we would like to construct a small office building, with a nuns' day-room and quarters for a disabled person, near the current house, and a monks' utility building up in the forest (3/4 of a mile from the house) - comprising toilets, showers, sewing room, small workshop & common room - where the male monastic community will be centred. There is also a high priority to build another four to six standard kutis.
The biggest of these projects are the monks' utility building and the new office; when constructed they will limit the number of monastics needing to work around the small house, which currently serves all the functions of office, kitchen, book & tape library, bathing facilities and tea-room. Dividing these functions will help create more suitable space for those entering monastic training, and will help move the centre of gravity of the monastic community further into the forest.
When the above construction is completed we will think about beginning the first of the two great buildings, that is, the reception centre/storage/kitchen/lay people's utility building; this is proposed to be a 6,000 square foot structure. By the time of its completion it would serve well to provide for the needs of all our lay guests and visitors.
The other large building planned for the distant future is an octagonal meditation hall up in the forest - suitable for eighty people spaciously seated, or a hundred and twenty-five snugly for a festival day.
The above plans describe our wishes and represent our best efforts to surmise how to proceed with the construction of the new monastery. Ultimately it is expected to house about 30 permanent residents (reckoned with kutis for eighteen monks, six nuns and six lay people) with some facilities for temporary guests.
The last year has seen many endings at Amaravati. The end of a prolonged phase of building repairs. The completion of the Temple and the opening ceremony. The 'moving-on', in different directions, of many of the group of senior monastics who have been resident in recent years. Perhaps less easy to see, a fading of the sense that 'there's things to be done'. Although the sense of a pioneering spirit, predominant in the early years, had gradually faded, it might well be that we look back on 1999 as the time when it truly felt that Amaravati had arrived, much as many might say the same of 1989 for Chithurst.
After the obviously busy period leading up to the Temple opening, the Vassa has been relatively quiet, and a welcome opportunity to allow more space for things to settle and finish.
What might this mean for the future of Amaravati in the new millennium? We can easily say that the future is unknown, and equally easily that it will appear to grow out of conditions. If we are at the start of a new chapter, or the next cycle, what might be it's characteristic signs?
It's easiest to consider the ways in which there might be some continuity. At its simplest, we imagine that the monastery will continue as a place intended for those people interested in the teaching and practice of Dhamma. As a physical environment, it's now essentially good enough, complete, given the work that has been done in the past few years. It's large enough to offer opportunities for many people. The four requisites - the material support - are well supplied, and there is more time and opportunity to develop formal practice both individually and as a group. There is a firm foundation within the traditions and forms of Theravada Buddhism, and still a strong connection with the Thai roots of Wat Pah Pong, Ajahn Chah's monastery. And, now that Ajahn Sumedho is 65 and has moved into the new Abbot's kuti, he hopes to see out his days here.
The place is well equipped to provide for all quarters of the four-fold Sangha.
As previously, it will be possible to connect at many different levels and in different ways, because many worlds intersect here. With the monastic Sangha as a focus, there is an assortment of orbiting universes. There are lay people who find support through the developing Upasika group. The retreat centre offers a consistently full programme. There are ex-monastics, people who have been anything from a few months to many years living in the monastic form, and are now in lay life. Another growing fraternity is of people who have lived for extended periods - as laymen and laywomen - in the monastery. Myriad other groups, friendships and associations have arisen in all sorts of ways - being on retreat together, meeting up at Sunday afternoon talks, the Saturday meditation class, the dana meal on Sundays, coming to Wesak or Kathina. There are regular and familiar faces from all the main countries where Theravada is common - Thais, Sri Lankans, Cambodians, Laos, and Brits too (or is that Europeans or Westerners?). For each group Amaravati both signifies something particular to a culture, and something grander and greater, more universal and inclusive.
The new chapter will hopefully see something of a 'rounding and deepening' from what has already developed. For some, characteristics of Amaravati have been its apparent size, seeming complexity, and relentless busy-ness. And yet the new chapter is likely to be much more relaxed. It seems quite possible to foresee sustained periods without too many things all happening at once.
If nothing more, there is a much more settled backdrop against which to see the ongoing chaos and complexity. And there is an opportunity to encourage greater balance by providing for complementary ways to practise - communal/solitary and engaged/withdrawn for example. So we are likely to develop the scope for more flexibility. This might include, for example, further support for the Upasika group, more shared responsibility, and finding ways to create some more secluded spaces here, including ultimately some kutis.
Looking at a much bigger picture, over the last couple of decades Buddhism has gradually become an influence in this Western culture, and equally - as found here - has been much adapted by it. Amaravati was born out of a deep faith, and continues as an expression of the faith, generosity and practice of a great diversity of people.
We hope, through our presence, example and participation, to be a positive force within this society, and a benefit to all beings.
|Bodhinyana Monastery, Western Australia:|
Australia is blessed with space, plenty of it. Thus in 1983 it was relatively easy to find 100 acres of forest on a hillside with views to the Indian Ocean, which was far enough away from the city to be secluded but near enough to be easy to get to. We are an easy one hour by car from the very centre of Perth.
Even so, the only lay activities we encourage here is the daily dana. All teaching and so on are performed on the weekend in our city centre, 5 km north of central Perth, and retreats are held elsewhere. By keeping all lay teaching outside the monastery, we have successfully preserved its atmosphere of seclusion.
We have attempted to make this monastery a place for monks, not for lay people. A place to realise Nibbana not to spread the Teachings. This is a totally monk-centred monastery. We do not even allow nuns to stay here for long periods, thus we are building a completely separate nuns' monastery on 583 acres of forest to the east of Perth.
This is a training centre for monks with a strong emphasis on the Vinaya and the study of Suttas. Also the Pali language is taught to those monks interested. But it is the practice of meditation, using samatha and vipassana together, which is the core practice of this monastery.
Thus, each monk has their own kuti (hut) in the forest, separated enough so the monks can neither see nor hear each other. There are now 20 such kutis in this monastery. Many have covered walking meditation paths attached to the kutis to encourage cankama meditation. There is also a 3-room visitors' block for men and a 3-room visitors' block for women. Soon there will be a 4-roomed anagarikas' block for those in training to be monks. That will be our last accommodation building here. A community of 30, including 6 visitors, is sufficient.
Our Dhamma Hall, separate kitchen-dining room building, toilets, etc. are also sufficient. So we are very close to the end of all major building work here. All that is left is building up the practice.
There were 15 bhikkhus and 1 novice here for the Vassa, which is close to capacity. As the numbers increase, I hope to establish hermitages for 2 or 3 majjhima monks much further from Perth for even greater seclusion. Such hermitages will be small, extremely frugal and only for healthy monks with a solid foundation in samatha who want to further such practice. I expect these to go to such hermitages for, say, 3 months at a time, coming back to Bodhinyana to help the Sangha for the rest of the year. Such hermitages will be cheap and easy to find say, 4-5 hours from Perth, deep in the empty Australian bush.
Our aim is to produce experienced meditators, ariyas even, capable of realising the Dhamma for themselves in a protected environment, before taking it out to a world hungry for experienced teachers.
Bodhinyanarama Monastery, New Zealand:
This has been a time of consolidation and expansion at Bodhinyanarama. Last year the Trust purchased a 34 hectare block of land out the back of the existing monastery property. This now makes the total size of the monastery 51 hectares or 126 acres. A retreat kuti or hut was flown in by helicopter to a remote site on the new land and Ajahn Viradhammo is enjoying being the first person to use it for his 6 month solitary retreat. We have enjoyed offering longish solitary retreats to Sangha members from overseas and so far Ajahn Sucitto and Ajahn Medhanandi have enjoyed the seclusion and tranquillity of the Stokes Valley bush. Having Sangha members here on retreat and out of the normal routine and dynamics of the rest of the community is a helpful reminder to us all of the direction of the practice and a lovely situation to offer to those in need of the solace of solitude. We also enjoy the visits and presence of Sangha members from overseas from time to time as it is easy to feel isolated from the larger Buddhist family living in the South Pacific as we do. This year we have had the pleasure of visits from Ajahn Munindo, Ajahn Pasanno, Ajahn Karuniko, Ajahn Medhanandi, Venerable Sujivo and Ajahn Boonme from Thailand.
There are now 9 individual kutis for the resident Sangha to live in complete with small gas heaters and wooden walking meditation tracks. It is a delight to live in the forest in solitary surroundings and in close touch with the rhythms of Nature. It offers a respite and a balance to the intensity and demands of the group activities of the community. Finding that balance between being solitary and living in community and having the skill and the agility to move between the two is something we've been trying to develop here. We have also been exploring more communal decision-making processes and a less hierarchical way of living together. Sangha life evolves and is a dynamic expression of the Tradition we belong to, the individuals who have made a commitment to it, and the culture and the needs of the society who support it. The monastery has been in
New Zealand for thirteen years now and we continue to gain skill and understanding in how to make this venerable monastic tradition thrive in the West?
The past year has also seen the construction and consecration of the beautiful Mahabodhi Stpa. Perched on a hillside overlooking the monastery and the valley below, it is a lovely reminder of the Buddha and his teachings. It stands 8 meters tall and is a replica of the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, Burma.
Most of the money was raised in New Zealand and the work was carried out by local contractors and a team of artisans from Burma. They spent 5 months doing the intricate and detailed finishing work using traditional methods that have been passed down through their families for centuries. The result is a beautiful monument worthy to be venerated and a lovely offering from the Buddhist community to the people of New Zealand for a peaceful and harmonious new millennium.
The ordained community has hovered around the 6-8 people size for the past couple of years. We've had 3 senior monks living here for the past year and that creates a rich sense of experience and diversity. We have just recently had a pabbajja 'going forth' ceremony for a Kiwi samanera and an upasampada or bhikkhu ordination. The latter was the 4th ever bhikkhu ordination to occur in New Zealand and the first in about 8 years.
A web site for the monastery has been set up at http://yourname.co.nz/wwebz/bodhinet.htm. Anyone who'd like to know more about the monastery and its activities or have a visual look at where we are, could get it from there. Or better yet, come visit. It's well worth the trip.
Ajahn SugatoSantacittarama, Italy:
'They didn't make Rome in a day' is a helpful reflection to bear in mind here at Santacittarama, 50 kilometres from Italy's bustling capital city. In the two years since we moved to the present address much has already been achieved towards developing a modest-sized forest monastery. Its full potential, however, has yet to be realised. Fortunately, the relocating from the old monastery went quite smoothly - the buildings were already in fair condition - and since those hectic early days we have been attempting to maintain a healthy balance between formal practice, work and teaching.
Work that has been done include a large amount of land-clearing, road-repairing, opening up woodland paths and gardening. The first Christmas here was spent relaying 70 metres of sewage pipe. New monasteries often have problems with their sewage systems - I have some previous experience from my time at Amaravati. We now have three simple wooden kutis, two of them in delightful locations in the woodland overlooking the stream. A heating system has been installed in the guest house, and upgraded in the main building. Visitors and guests can now take advantage of a quiet meditation room that used to be the workshop - which has been moved to the more spacious garage.
Plans for the future include acquiring more land. There is now the possibility of buying an adjoining 13 acres, with woods and meadow, that would double the size of the property, extending it right to the edge of the abandoned cemetery of a medieval town called Poggio Nativo. We need to research how best to conserve and develop this land, in a way that will also benefit the various forms of wildlife that have been seen on it, such as fox, badger, hare, porcupine, squirrel, dormouse, weasel, beech marten, tortoise and several species of lizard, snake and birds. It would also offer further suitable sites for kutis, sponsorship having already been offered for three of them. Accommodation for guests could be extended by converting an outbuilding that served in the past as a stable. Finally, although we're not in too much of a hurry, it would be nice to replace the large and draughty tent with a proper temple/meditation hall some time during the new millennium.
A monastery, of course, is not just about buildings and building projects but, more importantly, about people. The resident community, as elsewhere, is not fixed but in a state of flux, of comings and goings of monks, novices, anagarikas and laity, at any one time numbering around 5-8 people. Although the daily routine is usually quite structured, with morning and evening chanting and meditation and a morning work period, the afternoon is free for private study and practice. Opportunities are also offered for individual retreats in the kutis. This summer our Thai monk, Ajahn Jutindharo, who has been here for more than six years, was able to spend the whole of the three-month Vassa period on solitary retreat.
Having a mixed Sangha of Thai and European nationalities is enriching and at times challenging - often we lack even a common language - and allows us to better serve the needs of both the Thai and Italian lay communities. As is usually the case with other monasteries in the West, the Thais tend to come mostly to make offerings and participate in ceremonies, while the Italians come to meditate and to learn about the Buddha's teachings. Gratifyingly, however, we have recently been witnessing more and more Thai people coming to ask questions about Dhamma and to spend a few days participating in the daily meditative life of the monastery. Some Italians, on the other hand, are also coming to request the refuges and precepts, to make offerings and help out. A young man recently drove 850 kilometres from Sicily to offer his jeep!
With the monastery now well established we have felt more free to respond to teaching invitations, after having kept a low profile for a couple of years. The Mindfulness Meditation Association of Rome, just a few minutes walk from the Vatican, hosts us regularly for meditation classes and retreats. They are very skilfully guided by Professor Corrado Pensa and the level of interest shown is always very encouraging. A Theravada retreat centre near Piacenza that used to be a hotel, until it was inherited by an Italian meditator, is another venue to which we are regularly invited. Other invitations have come from such places as Bari and Naples in the south, Arezzo and Lucca in the north. This year I had a very fruitful trip to Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia that has a common border with Italy, for a public talk in Llubljiana followed by a weekend retreat in the unspoilt beauty of the Julian Alps. Mostly, however, we stay in the monastery, which is also very much appreciated for its lovely tranquil setting, where we hold occasional beginners' meditation classes and day-long study and practice retreats.
With the coming of the new millennium, and all the preparations underway to cater for millions of extra tourists expected at this time, Rome is even more chaotic than usual. One of the jubilee events that will be of special interest to us is an interfaith gathering in St. Peter's Square, with the Pope, Dalai Lama and other religious leaders, in the spirit of collaboration between the various religions on the threshold of the new millennium. Better late than never!
'All roads lead to Rome', as the saying goes, and one of them goes right past our monastery, so if you happen to be down this way, do call in for a visit.