Forest Sangha Newsletter
Making One's Own Choice
Ajahn Sucitto: You've both done some culture hopping. A German and a Swiss, you both did your early (navaka) training in Britain, then spent a few years in Thailand and Burma, and now as senior bhikkhus you are living at Dhammapala in Switzerland. What shifts in yourselves as bhikkhus have these changes brought about?
I have deep respect for both parts, the communal and the individual, and refuse to see them as contradictory ways of cultivation.
| Ajahn Sucitto (addressing Ajahn Akincano): You were much more involved in one particular Thai situation than Ajahn Khemasiri. |
Ajahn Akincano: My going to Thailand was because I felt I had to leave the situation I had grown up in and do some more growing up elsewhere. It was partly to find my own feet, and partly to appraise and acknowledge what I had actually found back here in the UK and its monasteries. And I had two specific aims: to give time to structured study of Pali and the Suttas, and to experience a living Buddhist culture. It was time to widen my horizon, pull up roots in the West and find out more about monastic life in Asia. At first, after being given a great introduction to Thailand by Ajahn Sumedho, I did not associate with Ajahn Chah's monasteries at all. Instead I found my own privileged little niche with Tan Jow Khun Dhammapitaka where I had my studies and practice more or less sketched out. I lived for months on end, often quite alone, on a tiny little hill half way between Bangkok and the Cambodian border in his hermitage. Later, after about a year, I made my first longer visit to the forest monasteries up in the North-East and spent some time with the Western communities at Nanachat and Pu Jorm Kom. For much of my next four years in Thailand I went back and forth between a forest monk's life and my studies.
The sense of helplessness and unfamiliarity that came for me being in the Thai culture highlighted many of the habits and attitudes that I had developed as an adult in Western Europe. Simply being in Thailand was both bewildering and freeing. I felt strangely useless yet very light and almost grotesquely happy. Initially, I couldn't read even a street sign in Thai. But within two years things changed. I had some language, connections and my cultural bearings - and with that, my old personality came back. While I began to 'function' better I found myself suddenly less happy. That was very revealing; in a good few parts amusing but also laced with pain - either way it proved insightful. I could see very clearly how the sankhara around speech, thought and interaction tend to recreate one's personality, and this personality in turn constellates the world it then inhabits. I had changed just about everything in my life, and the new world I found myself in began to resemble the one I had left behind.
On coming back to Europe I found the communities in England had changed. As far as Switzerland was concerned I did not know what to expect. That was three years ago. After a moment of taking stock I felt that my new situation in Switzerland was both nourishing and challenging and that I could relate to the change of role my settling there meant. It makes all the difference to say 'yes' rather than just having stayed on and grown into something. I made a choice to go away and reassess what I had grown up with. This led to finding a wealth of teaching in Thailand, enriching and different from what I was familiar with. Then on coming back, there was a re-appraisal of what my origins were and at some point a clear 'yes' to this new situation - a Western context, a small community, my country of origin - and to the challenges that occur in it.
| Ajahn Sucitto: What would you say the challenges have been, in living at Dhammapala? |
Ajahn Akincano: It is interesting to be back in a culture that I grew up in. I left Switzerland for a period of 16 years; my whole monastic training happened here in England, so I had inculturated myself in England, then also in Thailand. In both places some areas of my con-ditioning remained untouched. For example, I always felt awkward in situations where I was addressing people whose background and cultural experience I didn't really know first hand, say speaking to Thai school kids when I've never been to a Thai school myself. Returning to one's native land reverses the situation. It was like falling back into an earlier layer of life and identity. One is confronted by one's early conditioning: there is the comfort of an immense familiarity with what's going on, but as well as a few pet delights there are also some of the old pet grievances.
Ajahn Khemasiri: For me, of course, it's similar, but I think of it in terms of three main areas where challenges occur. The first one concerns individual practice. When I was in Thailand and Burma I was most of the time in an individual practice mode where I wasn't in relationship with other people. This was consciously chosen and only occasionally, when in need of meaningful contact, would I visit the community of Western monks. But it never developed to the kind of level which you find in a close-knit community like Dhammapala. There was an acknowledged sense of freedom within that fairly loose way of relating, even though for me periods of 'checking in' with the monks from my own cultural background have always been an important resource.
| I was very conscious when I came back to Europe, that I couldn't and didn't want to attempt to continue this predominantly solitary lifestyle; it had been my conscious choice to come back to the West, back to the places where I had strong cultural roots and personal connections. In the beginning I felt again somewhat uncertain about my decision to return, about how long this would hold and if it was the right decision at all. So it needed some time to find out, and fortunately that's one of the luxuries which a monk's life provides: plenty of time and space to digest whatever experiences needed to be digested and to find a new footing in what used to be an almost too familiar environment. |
The second challenge was in community life itself, in living so close together. But amongst the monks at Dhammapala I came across an excellent sense of community, and I found myself being very willing to be a committed member within it. Also, the lay guests who visit Dhammapala have a much closer relationship with the monastic Sangha, this is in part due to our physical proximity, but also because there is no training of junior monks to be done so more energy is available for the lay community. I experienced myself in a new way after coming back, also partly because some restructuring of the community had to happen during that first year as the senior monk (Ajahn Tiradhammo) had gone on a one-year sabbatical. I was actively involved in creating that structure which was based on the principle of shared leadership. That of course meant in practice a lot more interacting and negotiating than you would have in a structure where one person makes all the major decisions. With this we got to know each other very well as sharing the responsibilities is not limited to the managerial side alone but also includes the human side with all its misunderstandings, joys, sorrows, uplifts and crises.
Ajahn Sucitto: So you can see that there is benefit for you in exploring the way that one feels or senses other people's presence. Yet I would imagine that some people assume that ideally a monk would be isolated.
Ajahn Khemasiri: I see these two aspects as not completely separate. In my experience they can, if used skilfully, very much enrich each other. If one is only focused on community, relationships and being close to others, very often this can come from a place of neediness in oneself rather than from a genuine need for communication and communion with other practitioners. So it's a helpful contrast and inwardly strengthening experience to live quietly by oneself, being able to take whatever that brings up, be it loneliness, abandonment, despair whatever.... It was helpful for me to hold things for investigation for an extended period of time, to live with them, accept and understand them through deeper contemplation; rather than forever bypassing the real issues by moving on to the next situation, or getting entertained or comforted by some external source.
The third area of challenge is: 'How do I communicate that which I know through my own experience to others?' After coming back, I was unsure of myself because I hadn't done any formal teaching for four years. At Dhammapala I have found there's a lot of personal conversation and interaction, and a lot of the visitors are regulars who appreciate that. I didn't have a set of fixed teachings that I wanted to present, instead I felt that I should call on my own experience. I had to pass through a phase of uncertainty and gradually find out what aspects of my understanding would fit the lives of meditators in this part of the world. Community life is helpful for developing this understanding. Eventually I found myself a little surprised to see that I could relax a lot more with people, whereas before my stay in Asia I had always felt very far away from the people I spoke to, I'd be taken in by an exaggerated sense of self-consciousness. Nowadays I seem to be much more 'here.'
Ajahn Sucitto: What sense do you have of relating your Dhamma practice to people in your own culture?
Ajahn Akincano: I experience great similarities with what Khemasiri described. For me, one of the points that is also important, is that I have recognised that I am a European. After living with Thais in practice-monasteries and in my study place I realised that a whole range of topics never got addressed in my life there. Thais give you a lot of space, which can feel very comfortable. I guess they often think: 'Well, he's a foreign monk - they are a bit funny, that's normal'. So there are loose ends interpersonally you're not asked to account for. At times, I felt uneasy about this apparent tolerance because I realised that if you're living in community the way that we relate to each other has to become part of what's called 'practice.'
I find it downright immoral to be living in a community and at the same time exclude this fact from my notion of practice by pretending it's not there. Living together in a community, I feel we have to consider, 'Well, there is a relationship, we are sharing the monastery, duties, responsibilities, and offerings.' While living in and depending on a community you can't then pretend that it is only a side-effect: 'Basically, I'm alone here. If only these people stopped being a problem round here, my practice would be fine.' I think we have to be accountable on this one. The notion that our real practice is individualised doesn't hold true for me. To attempt to live an individual life and consider practice solely an individual affair while staying in a community is a painful clash of mythologies. It means either that I continually appear to fail in my individual practice - because there are all these people walking around in my life (at Dhammapala this means they walk up and down the corridor in front of my door). Or, if practice really is such an individual thing, then I am not actually practising since I tolerate a condition that completely counters cultivation of mind. Living in community and insisting to see practice as an exclusively individual task is not just painful, it is also wasteful. It refuses to make use of the interpersonal realm to gain insight into the workings of our own personality and thus our suffering. As far as my own monastic life goes I have to acknowledge community life as the actual strength - irrespective of how good or bad it may have felt - of the monasteries. Community is a specific context; and there are other very legitimate contexts. But if one finds oneself continually in community, then community life has to become a practice.
Like most of us I envisage neither a totally communal life, nor one completely on my own. I envisage something of both - so that we can be hermits for one month, three months, half a year at a time. I would wish that monastic folk have the opportunity to experience both a committed individual mode of living and an equally committed communal one.
In these last years I think the communities in the West have gained an understanding of their strengths as communities; irrespective of whatever individuals have gained from their individual enquiry. I have deep respect for both parts of that work, the communal and the individual one and refuse to see them as contradictory ways of cultivation. Both aspects validate and enhance each other.
Ajahn Sucitto: I'm wondering about the structure in the monastery between the monks, how are you developing that sense of community in your particular context?
Ajahn Akincano: We are all theras at Dhammapala and we have agreed to share duties, teaching, and decision-making by negotiating amongst ourselves. It's what you could call a 'flat hierarchy.' It seems to work - though it implies a culture of discussion, trust and some willingness on all sides to take the task of creating consensus seriously. There were areas where negotiation was called for - there remain areas where negotiation is needed. It isn't always easy. Sometimes it isn't even satisfactory, but it seems far more satisfactory than any other model could be. I think for this model to work it takes the explicit wish from everyone to live in that way, and an acknowledgement that, though rewarding, it may neither be an easy way nor the way that we had grown up in. We have to look at values such as responsibility, commitment, power and authority close-up. I am optimistic. People are committed to this process and keen on pursuing it.
Ajahn Khemasiri: One of the specific things about the situation at Dhammapala is that we are a community of only senior monks. So it seems quite a natural consequence that we incorporate that fact into the structure of our lives. I feel we have to go through a process of more communal transparency - of informing our fellow monastics what our intentions and plans are and so forth, rather than holding on to an idea of total autonomy within a group context. One important question is: Where is the place of power in a group of people who consider themselves equal? Instead of coming from an idealistic point of view - there should be 'no power for anybody' - we went through the process of investigating who is holding power and how it is used. This kind of open investigation can touch on delicate places within individuals. But carefully and respectfully reviewing power issues in communal life regularly can certainly lead to a greater trust amongst the individuals involved. In Dhammapala there has been one person holding the position of 'Abbot' ever since it started in 1988. He represents continuity, steadiness and reliability. These are important qualities to be taken into account if one talks about power in the sense of how much weight a person's say has in a communal set-up. He has carried something all this time and he is still carrying something and even though the two of us have made very strong gestures of commitment, we're not carrying aspects of Dhammapala in the same way. The two of us feel a stronger cultural connection with most of the people coming here - quite naturally as a Swiss and a German - and so we seem to be holding most of the contacts and activities in relation to the German-speaking world. Of course we want the senior monk to stay here, not because we want him to carry burdens and responsibilities for us, but rather in full recognition of our individual roles here, so that we can assist each other to carry things more consciously and more lightly.
Another special aspect of life at Dhammapala is that the people who are at times in a teaching position are at other times in a serving position. One month you'll be giving talks and retreats and the next month you are actively supporting someone else in the teaching role. There is a flexibility in that which helps me to not get caught up in the identity of 'The Teacher' too much, or vice versa in the identity of 'The one doing the donkey's work'. This way of operating means that a lot of people perceive us as 'Sangha.' Very often we get letters addressed to 'Dear Sangha', rather than to anyone in particular. I like that. Not that I don't wish to be acknowledged as a person, I appreciate that too, but to be reminded that one is part of a real flesh and blood Sangha refuge for people holds special value for me.
Ajahn Sucitto: So you're able to disconnect the teaching function from the person?
Ajahn Khemasiri: Yes, I find this important because I have observed, both in myself and in people who have been in a teaching role almost non-stop for years, that one gets to take on a persona, an image of oneself, which is limited to that role, and from which one tends to relate to the world at all times. And of course the world relates back to you as someone within that particular identity, which even further deepens that belief. I find it important to maintain a certain flexibility, to not get stuck in a particular role image of myself; more going in and out of roles, like changing hats, and checking where one wants to linger and invest into unreal and unreliable identities. When a monastery reaches a certain size people seem to get more defined according to their roles, simply because otherwise there would have to be a lot more negotiation necessary about who's doing what. It's often felt to be just too time- and energy-consuming; whereas when there's only four or five of you it's easier to be more flowing and flexible with it all.
Ajahn Akincano: Our model of stewarding the monastery as a 'flat hierarchy' tends to challenge a model of decision-making and authority that has come from Thailand. But it must be said that our model is perfectly valid in terms of the early Buddhist teachings. It says in the Vinaya that communal concord and direct democracy are to be held in balance with respect for elders. Interestingly enough, there's no term for 'abbot' in the early Pali texts. I think that as a group of monasteries associated with Ajahn Chah we have inherited particular features that have a lot more to do with Thailand than with the Buddha's India. Some of those features may go back a long time in Thailand and have proven themselves to be useful. And for some things we may need to look past Thailand, further back to India to understand our tradition better.
I have had the privilege of living in an Asian monastic context. But I cannot pretend to be a village lad from North-East Thailand. My psyche works differently; I have a few more kinks. I come from an urban Western European background so some things are not in place with me that are in place with someone who grows up in a reasonably OK extended family. My conditioning is very different. I think as a community of Westerners we have to find out what that does to us. I'm interested in making monastic life grow in Europe rather than trying to import a Forest model, however well-adapted to another cultural context. I think one tends to believe in the model one is familiar with. Monks and monasteries are no exception in this. In Thailand much of the thinking is still basically that, if there isn't a strong 'top dog' nothing works. Personally, that's not how I've grown up. Switzerland has a society that does not work in terms of 'strong top dogs'; it actually mistrusts them. It is interesting for me to see the advantages and disadvantages of these models and how they inform our understanding of monastic living.