Forest Sangha Newsletter July 2000

Bringing the Teachings Alive; Ajahn Viradhammo
Monastic Millennium: Growing up at Chithurst; Ajahn Sucitto
Farewell; Ajahn Attapemo
Obituary: Acharya Godwin Samararatne
The Holy Life; Ajahn Sucitto

Monastic Millennium: Growing up at Chithurst
Cittaviveka is 21 years old this year. Among the group of Ajahn Chah's monasteries that are currently in existence in Britain, this was the first to be established. It had the first ordination precinct (sima), the first ordinations, and is the only monastery that has a sizeable area of forest (120 acres) attached to it.
In 1979 it was the gift of the Hammer Wood that drew the Sangha here, and occasioned the purchase of the nearby Chithurst House (where the male community live) and subsequently Hammer Cottage (now Aloka Vihara for nuns). Ajahn Sucitto, the third and current abbot, reports on the state of affairs in year 2000.

It used to be referred to as Chithurst Work Camp in the early years when we were slogging away at making the House liveable. Then it was Chithurst Boot Camp when training conventions had to be laid down although we were not clear as to what would work. It's not always the case that everything goes right at first go, and with such a fledgling Sangha in a non-Buddhist culture, there was a shortage of role models. It has always been 'try this and see' with the requirement to learn from mistakes. When the precedents for monastic life were found in the remote provinces of Thailand, the know-how was bound to be slender and the need for faith, resilience and openness of mind high. Those three qualities established Cittaviveka, have kept it going and will I hope long continue to be its guiding lights. Even when, as now, things feel settled and the land is vibrant with life, it seems to be Chithurst Summer Camp.
With a larger community it would be difficult to maintain the kind of 'family' closeness that I find helpful to blend in the restraint and discipline that one newly Gone Forth has to take on.

There's a lot more silence now since major work on the House stopped: individual retreats for samanas happen all year round, and there are adequate facilities in the Wood for solitary practice. But as facilities develop, the work of maintaining them continues and entails understanding and the need to accord with local and national regulations. The balance between keeping it simple and making it work hinges on the question of who is going to sort out the fine details of forest management, plumbing systems, vehicle maintenance and databases. Those samanas who seek a forest dwelling are not always skilled or inclined in these areas, so a juggling between acquiring know-how, getting help from skilled lay people and accepting inefficiency is the order of the day. In the winter of 1993 the heating system collapsed; the replacement followed suit in winter 1999, and the nuns' boiler blew out in sympathy: so it was a case as always of personal initiative, endurance, good friends and a touch of the miraculous. After that it was the sewage system... So life still offers us its opportunities to access resilience, faith and an openness to respond to what comes up.
The living is comparatively easy now compared with 1979. Now it's not the rawness of the elements that we are protecting ourselves from, but the administrative complexities that can turn a home into an institution. Yes, the heating system is still a little rickety; the 'hot' tap is on the cold shower; the morning gruel is mercilessly plain; the nuns' cottage damp; and the forest kutis require a hole to be dug and for the occupant to obey the calls of nature au naturel; but basically Cittaviveka is a comfortable place for samanas and the guests who can handle the mix of communal endeavour and periods of solitude. And we are supported for no other reason than to do what the Buddha always wanted us to do: to live a life of purity. In this day and age, that is a staggering reflection.
The resident community has been pegged since its inception to comprise no more than thirty people, to hold no public retreats, lectures or seminars that might attract large numbers of people, and to hold no more than five large public events per year. These were the stipulations made by the local council, and since other monasteries have been established, and Amaravati taken on the responsibility of providing teaching and devotional facilities for lay people, this has not been difficult. Right now, about twenty-two residents seems a maximum to allow room for lay guests and also one or two samanas from other monasteries to avail themselves of an extended retreat. Actually with a larger community it would be difficult to maintain the kind of 'family' closeness that I find helpful to blend in the restraint and discipline that one newly Gone Forth has to take on. My own feel for guiding others is to be human and available (and fallible). It all helps to give the ideals of the Holy Life some mortal flesh that a person can relate to.

What new developments? All the forest kutis that we are allowed have been built; the House and Cottage are full. Currently there seem to be two main areas that merit long-term attention. The first is the requirements of the laity, who, despite council restrictions, still doggedly turn up for meditation, teaching and festivals. So the big project for this and the next few years is building a Dhamma Hall. As anyone who has been stuffed into the Shrine Room in the House will agree, adequate space is a pressing requirement. The Hall should seat at least 150 people, more with extensions. We ripped down the Coach House in 1998, and had foundations laid in 1999. This year funds have accumulated to the extent that we can hire builders to erect the walls, using the old stone from the Coach House. As a roofless meditation hall will tax the endurance of most people for ten months of the year, a small group of lay supporters is hoping, and even asking, for funds for the next stage, that of a roof with internal oak beams to support it. The generosity of response in terms of offering funds and work so far has been remarkable, but projects like this do tend to bring up agitation: people can feel pressurised into supporting it and miss out on the joy; or become impatient and not give themselves time to appreciate what goodness is manifesting; or get disheartened by how much things cost and feel that their small donation is of no use.
So the theme of support requires careful investigation. Basically the Hall can help to build everyone who feels that their good heart is enshrined in it. It can also help to build the sense of community. The more people feel connected to it by putting a little of what they have or know into the project, the broader the spiritual foundation gets. It seems so fitting for Cittaviveka that the bricks and mortar of the Dhamma should come from a mix of Asian alms-giving with English car-boot sales, sponsored knitting and musical benefits. Connection can be giving a couple of hours now and then to helping to organise an event. There is no deadline to complete the building, and small can indeed be beautiful.
Otherwise, the facilities for women need upgrading. Aloka was always understood to be a smallish residence with a maximum of six samanas located in and around the tiny Cottage, but still life gets quite bunched up. A few local female practitioners like to drop in now and then to talk with the nuns or join in their evening pujas. At the moment three becomes a crowd. The garage has been converted into a guest room, but the need for accommodation where a couple of lay guests at a time can stay in reasonable comfort is keenly felt. And it's good if the nuns can have their privacy too. Currently, the old pig-sty is caringly being rebuilt as a nun's kuti by two of the monks, but as the Nuns' Sangha grows, it would be good if we could find a little more land and build a kuti where a guest nun could do a long retreat. Such are the dreams of the present. It feels good to keep them in mind: like most of our monasteries, Cittaviveka only happened because people dared to dream.
The fact that I can have such dreams indicates that despite the efforts and even stress that being abbot of this place has entailed, I am getting on top of it rather than vice versa. I look back on the work of Ajahn Sumedho, Anando, Viradhammo, Munindo, Kittisaro and Vajiro with great gratitude. This monastery was the first to offer the Going Forth for women: the pioneering 'group of four' (Sisters Rocana, Sundara, Candasiri and Thanissara) who took that first huge step into the unknown, did so with the blessing of this community,
17 years ago. Then again, the fabric of the monastery reminds me of so much voluntary help: Jim Power (of 'Power's Showers'), Bruce Miles, Walter Stengl, 'Kip', Mike and Gillian Holmes... For me all this is immensely good kamma to be associated with. Gradually the leadership role has changed and there is a lot of mutual support in the monastery; even for the Abbot, the Sangha is a Refuge. It wasn't what I was looking for when I first went forth, but a benevolent network of samanas and lay friends is rare and invaluable thing in anyone's world. Like the monastery itself, I seem to be growing up.