Staying At Home
AS: The monastery has been running for four or five years now, and you have also been pretty busy teaching, and this year you felt it would be good to stay in the monastery more; so how has it been?
AA: It’s been very good. Certainly the effect of staying ‘in-house’ has had a very beneficial effect, both for myself and for the community. There is the quiet but powerful effect of keeping the rhythm of the community life, going up to my kuti after the meal time, spending the day there, coming back down for morning and evening chanting day after day; feeling the rhythm of regular monastic routine and then sharing the time with other members of the community. Much more of a genuine sense of community.
...the need for spiritual teachings that counterbalance materialism is fairly obvious.
AS: How many people do you have now? Has it been changing, people coming and going?
AA: The monastic community has changed a little, but it has been around six monks, one nun and one or two anagarikas or samaneras over the past year or so. We have a limit on the number of people that can be here that we have agreed with the local government. The development for the monastery is planned in four phases and each level, each phase, has an agreed limit on the number of people staying here. So that is set at thirteen, including guests, until we finish the first phase. It’s both a blessing and a curse. There have been a lot of people who have wanted to come out here and visit or live here, train here, but we have had to say ‘sorry, you can’t come.’ That has been a bit wrenching at times. There were people who wanted to be part of the community, but there was no space to take them on for training -- so that was unfortunate. But then the other side of it is that we actually have only had enough people here that the facilities can provide for. So against our better judgement, the limits actually make sense.
AS: And the lay visitors? A fairly steady interest of people wanting to come and stay for a few days?
AA: Yes, pretty much all through the year when we don’t have our winter retreat on, from the beginning of April through to the New Year, there is a constant trickle. Occasionally there are times when there aren’t any lay guests. We are quite far away from the main metropolitan areas -- one hundred and twenty miles from San Francisco -- so it takes a bit of effort to get up here. But also the other factor is that the monastery is very widely known. America is a big country but it is also a heavily connected country. There are tremendous long-distance communications of one kind or another, so we are very well known about, consequently we get a lot of enquiries from all over the place about people wanting to come and stay. Right now we have a few other prospective anagarikas -- one who is from Kansas, one from New Jersey, Philadelphia -- who found out about us through seeing our website or reading the newsletter and who have come over for some time. So a trickle of people; but it is a very big parish so that the interest in our community is very strong. Stronger than I had thought, there being very little historical presence of monasticism in the United States. California is full of meditation centres, Dhamma centres, retreat centres... You would think there wasn’t much left to soak up interest in monasticism, but you have obviously gained support and interest in what you’re offering.
AA: Absolutely, yes. When I first came here I was expecting I would have to deal with a huge range of interests and characters. But actually it is very self-selecting because there is a whole phone book of places where people can go that specifically cater to all the different shades of spiritual interest, from the academic to the New-Agey, to free-wheeling non-hierarchical, feminist -- you name it, there is everything. Every shade is there, so that the people we see are the ones who are really interested in meditation, Theravadan monastic-style practice. And who are not put off by the ritual side of things, by the form of the robe, the Vinaya and so forth. So that actually we are able to hold to a much more orthodox and specific style of teaching. So in some ways we find ourselves more conservative than other monasteries -- which have to cater for a broader spectrum of interest because they are the only spiritual thing happening for three or four counties around. So in terms of teaching Dhamma, what particular things do you home in on?
AA: Well, it is quite a range really. Certainly renunciation is a big piece, and the Precepts another huge piece that are left out consciously or unconsciously from other people’s teachings. The role of the form, the spiritual symbolism of the ritual side -- each one of those one could talk about for quite some time. One of the most prominent features here in California is the rampant materialism, even more so than normal because of the explosion in the information technology industry. Everyone’s lives are affected by it and there are huge amounts of money sloshing around. Teachings which go against the materialistic ethic are completely pooh-poohed. Every month I give a talk in the Bay area, in Berkeley, and this year I had noticed large billboards cropping up, particularly on the road between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which is just to the south of the city. They say things like ‘Root of all evil, won’t buy you happiness, blah blah blah...’, and then down in the corner ‘E-Trade’, the name of the company that was advertising. Or, ‘High octane capitalism served up daily.’ They come across as saying that everything you ever heard about modesty, about frugality, about money not being able to provide you with happiness is nonsense, you were lied to. There was one I saw, an advertisement, it was a kind of film noir picture, very blue and black which was of the profile of a man, and the man’s face was pressed against the pavement with a boot print across the side of his head and his glasses broken. The caption said, ‘Our regrets to the meek and the earth they will not inherit. In this world of information technology it is kill or be killed.’ And this is an advert! So the need for spiritual teachings that counterbalance materialism is fairly obvious. So there is also the stress we make on sila, which doesn’t really get touched on by many spiritual groups. The power of sila to really provide the basis of happiness, the basis of peace and, in a way, a clear understanding of moral sensitivity, of hiri-ottappa. And how to not begin thinking when hiri-ottappa arises that it is some kind of neurotic problem that you feel bad about. Some harm that you just did, some harm that you just inflicted on another -- the fact that you feel bad about it is not a neurotic problem. It is actually good that you feel bad about it. This sense of conscience and regret is what the Buddha referred to as the guardian of the world. So the monastery, the fact that one can stay here with no charge must be....
AA: Radical! Cutting edge.... This is right on the edge. Despite the fact that this has been around for two and a half thousand years, it is very cutting edge. Celibacy, that is also pretty wild. But we are very well supported. It is also very encouraging that this support comes not just as large donations from small numbers of people but from all over the country. You know, again, one of the advantages of the information technology, is that people do hear about us and do feel connected to us. They are -- even if they are living in Maine, Mississippi or Minneapolis. The idea that you can come and stay here and there is no charge -- nothing is expected at all, it is not even mentioned or even thought of -- is remarkable, and very attractive. And people support that even if they can’t physically get here. I notice that you have also been invited to be on the board or part of the teachers’ group at Spirit Rock. So in some way there is a recognition that the monastic has a part to play in the general flow of Dhamma in California. Can you comment on that?
AA: Yes. I was invited two or three years ago to join the teachers’ council there. Actually probably three or four years ago now. And, at first, I was certainly more on the edge of things. I knew Jack Kornfield and James Baraz quite well but many of the other people I didn’t know at all. So there was a certain tentativeness in my joining the group. I certainly tried to hold back a little bit and not pontificate or project a sense of wanting to be treated specially. What I have found is a deepening friendship and respect. I also began to understand a bit more of how they work and what they are about and where their priorities lie, so it has developed into quite a co-operative relationship. I was on the board of directors for a couple of years because they felt a ‘lack of ballast’ on the Dhamma level in the administrative body that runs the centre. And so I said I would do it for a couple of years and lend my effort to that. That finished just a week or so ago actually, and so I signed off. My priority is here really with the monastery and trying to be available to help training those who have taken ordination as well as the people who are particularly interested in participating in and supporting this life. It seemed clear it would be wrong to diversify my energy much more, for a longer period of time. I thought ‘I lent my support as I could and now it is time to bow out.’ I am still part of the teachers’ circle and participate in that way. But going to board meetings -- I won’t be playing that role any more. Certainly I think, that trust and friendship having been developed, there is a growing openness to the traditional side of things. In years gone by there was a deliberate pushing away of a lot of the form -- shrines and bowing and chanting and ritual and ceremony and so forth. In particular of the hierarchical nature of lay and monastic divisions. But I think that over the years there has been a sense of ‘this isn’t just us.’ You know, there are generations that will come after. Then where you inherited the teachings from becomes more and more apparent. I think in that respect the whole role of lineage and continuity is more and more clear. So more energy has gone into the young people’s programme, the teen programme and the family programme. Jack himself has quite publicly begun to go against using the word vipassana as a generic term to refer to their community and what they do. In fact it is, and always has been, much broader than just vipassana meditation. It is like ‘zen’ -- it refers to a particular aspect of meditation, but it also refers to a whole cultural milieu. So he has started quite consciously using the term ‘The Way of the Elders’ rather than vipassana as a way of referring to who they are and what they do. Which is, I think, quite a powerful gesture; a name is an important thing and has a significant effect. I heard you have been looking at the possibility of having some of the lay people help out in an associative role with the monastery. I think you called the programme ‘ALMS’ -- Abhayagiri Lay Ministry. Could you say more about what you had in mind?
AA: Well it is an idea that has been formulating for a little while, fundamentally coming out of the upasika programme that began it must be nearly ten years ago in England. I was quite involved in helping to pull that together and develop it and, it is a programme that was developed to help provide a more consistent support for lay practitioners. When I came to the States four and a half years ago, interest was expressed in having a similar programme here. In previous years, I had had study sessions of a similar kind to those we would have on upasika days and there was a lot of interest around that. So we launched an upasika programme here from the very beginning, the first few months after we arrived. Then the lay ministry developed in my mind -- because the main emphasis here at Abhayagiri is on training the monastics. Also this is a large country and there are few people, who are familiar with the traditional Theravada practice. Yet alongside this we get a lot of invitations and there is a lot of interest in this style of practice. So the thought occurred to take some of the people who have already been involved in the upasika programme for a long time and to develop a further form of training to help them better in what they were trying to do in terms of running a local group and so on. So what kind of help do you think lay people need with running a local meditation group? I mean, what do you think they can learn from the monastery that they would not know by themselves?
AA: A certain amount of training in the ceremonies; a certain amount of training in sutta studies -- there is a great hungering for a knowledge base in terms of how to find your way around the Pali Canon -- what to read, what not to read; guidance in how to teach meditation -- if you are in a position of leadership what to do about people’s projections upon you as a leader, how to run a group without feeling you have got to be calling all the shots and telling everyone what to do -- how to establish presence such that you can be a stable and helpful person who is holding a space, creating an environment for practice. Then there are particular things, like performing weddings, that the monastics can’t do. So from way back there was a feeling of ‘well, wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of the lay people could be trained up as, or got permission to be, those who can perform weddings.’ In Britain it is a very complicated and lengthy process to get such authorisation; here it is a lot easier. The legalities around becoming an official minister of religion are much more relaxed. I believe there are one or two people (I know of at least one in Britain) who have that permission to perform weddings. Just as in other places, we get invited to do wedding blessings very regularly and so one of the functions a lay minister could perform would be that kind of thing. And then also training in prison visiting; if you are officially a minister that makes getting into the prison system much easier.... So the lay ministry idea is two things really. The main part of it is both supporting lay people in the work that they are already doing -- giving them a greater basis of meditation and scriptural knowledge, a greater connection with the monastery, a greater sense of support from us; and alongside that trying to provide some way, just as in Britain a number of years ago, of supporting the monastic community insofar as lay supporters being able to pick up various teaching engagements -- like to schools and local groups -- and being able to fill in where monastics would normally be invited to teach. People who become monks and nuns, as you are very much aware, are usually not doing it in order to develop a career as a teacher. We are not a missionary order. For a lot of people who are drawn to this way of life a lot of the attraction is of seclusion. That is why we set up Abhayagiri very explicitly as a forest monastery, with people living in their own kutis in the forest; trying to set up a life which maximises the conditions for seclusion and being able to be alone in the forest. Therefore, with it being a big country and there being a lot of people out there, having a group of people who can then pick up a lot of the invitations to universities and local groups and other things helps to diversify the duties so that we can respond to interest. Then the Theravada tradition can be represented in California or around the country without me having to bounce around all over the map.