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forest sangha newsletter

 October     2006            2549            Number 77
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

How does the Sangha decide?


A brief history of the Elders’ Council & its meetings

When people come to visit a monastery, one of the things that they are immediately struck by is the quality of order in which varied aspects of life – such as standards of dress, and etiquette around the meal – have a precisely patterned feel to them.

The question thus arises: How and why do they choose to follow this particular form? And is this because of the Vinaya (the monastic rule), or Thai custom or did they decide on this for themselves? Furthermore, for those of the lay community who have a longer association with the monasteries, many people wonder: How do you decide who goes where? And how did you come to agree on making such and such a change… to start using those jackets… to construct that new building? Who decided, and how?

The monastic rule was established in the time of the Buddha and has been used as the fundamental guide for ordering the affairs of the Sangha ever since. Nevertheless, despite the great comprehensiveness of the Vinaya, new situations arise with new times and new countries, and decisions have to be made as to how to adapt, given local and current circumstances. In Sangha life, there are often two parallel and interpenetrating sources of authority: on the one hand that of the teacher of a community in terms of Dhamma-Vinaya (the teaching and training of the Buddha), and on the other, the equal voice given to all members of the monastic Sangha in terms of day-to-day management. The interrelation of these authorities has persisted as a characteristic of the Buddhasasana (the dispensation of the Buddha) over the ages.

For example, at his monastery, Wat Nong Pah Pong, Luang Por Chah was a unique figure as the revered teacher and mentor for everyone there, yet he actively cultivated a quality of equally-shared community, both in monastic training and in decision-making. Among the monasteries founded and guided by Luang Por Sumedho in the West the same kind of interrelation can be found; moreover, as this community has grown in the West, the responsibility for management has evolved in regard to communal matters. One central organ of responsibility that has evolved among the European monasteries is known as the ‘Elders’ Council.’ This article aims to give an overview of the Elders’ Council, its origins, its authority and how it functions.


Recently, Ajahn Amaro
undertook the monumental task of reviewing the entire historical record of meetings of the Sangha under Luang Por Sumedho. Here, on behalf of the Elders’ Council he provides an account of its
evolution and purpose.

At first, from the arrival of the community in England in 1977 until 1981, most of this monastic group lived in a single place – initially at the Hampstead Vihara, then at Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, which opened in 1979. The model that was used to decide matters in those days was that most common amongst forest monasteries in Thailand, i.e. “Whatever the Ajahn wants.” Luang Por Sumedho was the only thera in the group, he was the teacher and natural leader, so this mode of looking after the welfare of the community seemed appropriate. By 1981 though, the group had started to spread. In Northumberland people had gathered their resources and the Harnham Vihara was opened up; in Devon, supporters were actively seeking a place to start a branch down there. Within another two or three years Chithurst was full, and the first group of nuns had taken the Ten Precepts. In the Southern Hemisphere a monastery had opened up in Perth, Western Australia and a new place was mooted for Wellington, New Zealand.

This rapid expansion led to two key developments in the growth of the community of Luang Por Sumedho’s monastic disciples: firstly, the foundation of Amaravati in August of 1984, and secondly, the establishment of a process of Sangha meetings in February of 1985. At that initial gathering, in the chilly halls of the as-yet-uninsulated Amaravati, Luang Por opened the meeting by stating its purpose:

“The Sangha is now spread over a wide area geographically. The coming together as a group gives the occasion for communication between members. This brings about a feeling of trust and avoids misunderstanding.”

[Sangha Meeting, Feb. ‘85]

The Theras’ Council
In January of 1986 the whole of Luang Por Sumedho’s monastic community came together – there were twenty-two bhikkhus, eight siladhara, and thirty-three anagarikas, male and female, plus another ten lay people who were helping out with the winter retreat. It was a grand occasion but unwieldy when it came to discussions and decision-making. However, by the summer of that year there had emerged a core group of the senior monks, the elders at Amaravati and the heads of the various branches in the UK, and these formed the decision-making body that soon became known as ‘The Theras’ Council’. All of the bhikkhus of ten Rains or more were eligible to participate.

This group then began to meet, on average, four or five times a year and, from late 1986 until the end of 1992 all of the major matters of community concern were processed through this body. These included a broad range of subjects: from those concerning the details of the nuns’ training; what should and should not be considered as allowable ‘medicines and tonics’; appropriate clothing for the anagarikas; the relationship of the Theras’ Council to the English Sangha Trust (EST) and other steward bodies; the ‘allowableness’ (or not) of reciting the monastic rule in English; who was being suggested for ordination or to travel to different monasteries, and many, many more.

The Abbots’ Meeting
However, by late 1992 the Theras’ Council’s meetings had become unwieldy – there were several visiting elders who were resident but not involved in community organisation and others without leadership roles – and it was clear that a change was needed. A natural opportunity to create such a shift came with the first gathering of the heads of all the branch monasteries from around the globe, at Wat Pah Nanachat, on the occasion of the funeral of Luang Por Chah, in January of 1993. This, effectively the first of what were later to be called ‘World Abbots’ Meetings’ (WAM for short), catalysed the formation of a smaller group, the ‘Abbots’ Meeting’, which comprised the abbots from Luang Por Sumedho’s monasteries in Europe. The group was to meet more frequently, roughly every two months, and also included any invited theras or theris who were not abbots (usually the second most senior monk or nun in a given community) in order to give a continuity to the group when they came to take on further responsibility. By 1995, those attending the meeting would include the abbot of each monastery and, for those with four or more monks or nuns, another representative elected by their communities who had trained as a bhikkhu or siladhara for more than ten vassas. This was later amended to eight vassas, because in some of the smaller monasteries, with only one thera, a more junior member might be carrying a major responsibility for the monastery as a whole.

During these years, there was also a shift in the role of the EST and the other trusts associated with the different monasteries. This change can best be described as a movement out of the role of ‘patron’ to that of ‘steward’. One factor this movement entailed was an increased responsibility for the role of Sangha members in guiding the activity of the trust bodies. Many of the discussion items at Theras’ and Abbots’ meetings involved the nuances of this monastic community/steward relationship; it has been looked at and adjusted numerous times over the years:

Currently three bhikkhus speak on behalf of the Thera Council on the board of the English Sangha Trust. The Thera Council has a duty to learn to act as an advisory body, to find a way of working with the lay directors, and look to lay people as advisors. There is a shift in emphasis from Sumedho Bhikkhu to the Council.
[Theras' Meeting, Oct. ’87]

The matter was discussed of involving people in decision-making so that they will feel supportive of the process. An example given of this was the consultation with the community about design issues regarding the [Cittaviveka] Dhamma Hall. Lines of communication need to be clarified so that people in the community know whom to consult, so that their input will be considered at the appropriate level. Rather than informing people after the event, to seek out ideas and consensus before the decision is made. This may be conducive to greater harmony and a maturing of Sangha members... So the Abbots (or their equivalents) would go to a meeting with an outline of the feelings of the community on matters to be discussed. This proposal ties in with the admission of nuns to the ‘Abbots Meeting’.
[Abbots Meeting, Aug. ’95]

The Elders’ Council
By this time, in the mid-nineties, there were now several participants in the meeting who were not abbots and, as the general numbers of theras and theris was growing steadily, the ‘Elders’ Council’ was officially formed in March 1996 and had its first meeting in the April of that year. The structure which was established then is still largely the one employed today:

(i) Who is automatically entitled to attend this meeting?
Sumedho Bhikkhu, the abbots and vice abbots of the seven monasteries in Europe and the USA, two elder nuns and invited guests.
[This soon became the abbot or senior nun, plus another representative of eight or more vassas elected by each community of at least four in robes — ed.]

(ii) What constitutes a quorum?
...At present... the general principle of consensus applies, so that if some members of the council are absent when an important decision is made, the implementation of that decision is deferred until all Elders have been consulted and have agreed.

[Elders’ Council Meeting (ECM), Jul. ‘96]

A parallel set of meetings was launched for the complete group of elder bhikkhus – the Theras’ Meetings – and also for the entire siladhara community.

So from April of 1996 until the present, April 2006, Elders’ Council Meetings and their parallel Theras’ Meetings, which are non-decision-making, have, with the occasional lapse, continued to take place. The ECMs currently occur twice a year. Alongside these, in the sphere of the greater community of Luang Por Chah’s monastic disciples, there are meetings of the abbots of all the branch monasteries in Thailand – plus any of the foreign ones that can attend – at Wat Nong Pah Pong on Luang Por Chah’s birth and death anniversaries in June and January of each year. In addition, two other World Abbots’ Meetings have been held – in October, 2001, at Amaravati, and in January of 2006, at Wat Pah Nanachat – and, despite being more for discussion rather than decision-making, have been occasions for extensive community building and the reiteration of mutually respected standards.

Although the framework of the ECM has been established for the last ten years, it should not be assumed that it has sustained a static form – far from it. Among the most common discussion items in the archive of minutes are such topics as:

• Elders’ Council Procedure of Discussion and Decisions.
• What is the Elders’ Council for? (Areas included issues of remit, training, consultation, feedback, support, etc.)
• Who is on the Elders’ Council?
• What are the parameters of the community it serves?
• How do we recognise and support the channels feeding into and out of the Elders’ Council?
• Where does the authority of the Elders’ Council come from and how is it exercised?
• What assumptions are there regarding the Elders’ Council in all these areas, both from within and from without?
• How do we manage the human side of our business meet ings?
• How do Elders receive advice, feedback, support and other resources from a peer body?

In short, there is a high degree of self-examination and reflection upon how the group operates and a concern that it is functioning in a maximal state of health.

The guiding spirit has been to establish decision-making procedures that support the whole monastic, and thereby the lay community, e.g:

Procedure for changes in convention

The Sangha should abide by decisions made at meetings such as this one, at least until a subsequent Sangha meeting can give room for ‘feed-back’.
[Sangha Meeting, Jul. ’86]

Decision-making and Discussion
Suggested: The emphasis should be on full and open discussion, and we should aim to recognise and avoid being pressured into decision-making. Better decisions usually emerge after there has been time for gestation.

Noted: Unspoken or underlying issues can hamper both discussion and decision-making on the given topic. If the meeting can recognise that this is happening then the underlying tension needs to be addressed. This can require skill from the Chairperson to “switch gears.”
Generally, the right balance of sensitive and decisive chairing is enormously helpful. However, there is also a collective responsibility for the facilitation of the meeting.

Suggested: Needs more than consent by silence if silence is ambiguous – an active “yes” would be better.

Noted: Absent members of the meeting may have an important contribution to make on some topics. When it is felt that their views have not been adequately canvassed or represented then any decisions should be tentative or conditional.

Suggested: That part of any summary of a topic include issues such as who else to inform, etc.

Discussed: That if those present are not courageous enough to express their views honestly, then the meeting will not work well. We can all pay attention and reflect on how we affect and are affected by each other. For example, it is not helpful to be in fear or awe of Luang Por [Sumedho].

Agreed: A clear statement of the proposal should be made, so that the meeting knows that it is making a decision.

Agreed: Decision-making should be by consensus, understood as, “everyone is willing to go along actively with the decision” or a “full, willing consensus.” Consensus implies a willingness to compromise, because unanimity is rarely possible.

Agreed: Decisions should be clearly shown in the minutes.

Agreed: Action points should include who, what, when, etc.
[Abbots’ Meeting, Dec. ’95]

Eventually, specifically informed and inspired by the book ‘Beyond Majority Rule—Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends’ by Michael J. Sheeran, the Elders’ Council adopted the following pattern for coming to agreements, once a full discussion had occurred:

The meeting formally AGREED that agreements should be reached by the Chair using the threefold structure outlined in May’s meeting: “Are there any objections to this proposal?” “Does anyone not support this proposal?” and “So can we take it that the meeting agrees to this proposal?” If these three questions are followed by silence then the proposal can be taken to be agreed.
[ECM, Oct. ’03]

From early on an archive of past minutes was maintained, in order to be a reference for all future generations of Sangha members. By 1996, this had shaped up as:

The minutes of the Elders’ Council Meeting should note only the salient points of the discussion and any agreement come to by the Elders. The Minute-taker and the Chairperson should sit next to each other in meetings, and the Chairperson should summarise at the end of each discussion topic what agreement the minute taker should record.
[ECM, Nov. ’96]

Moreover, a process was developed whereby the minutes were checked through various revisions up to three times and agreed upon by one and all as a fair and accurate record.

This kind of thoroughness might seem to imply that all Sangha discussions resolve into neat and tidy resolutions. However, the decidability of an issue is usually inversely proportional to its importance, i.e. simple issues get firm decisions, whereas emotionally loaded, major issues are often minuted surrounded by conditionals, are revisited apparently fruitlessly for a few meetings before they reach resolution, or get deferred and simply hover uncomfortably in the wings; or, occasionally, are decided by default outside the face-to-face rationality of a formal meeting.

For example, after some four years of the nuns attending the ECMs:

The question of whether a nun would be a suitable Chairperson was discussed. One elder objected to a nun chairing the meeting; this view was questioned, and concerns about Vinaya, leadership and power were expressed. These were neither validated nor dismissed. Others pointed to the fact that nuns chair mixed meetings in mixed communities; that a junior elder would have to, and did comply to, the same requirement for respectful speech that would be binding on a nun as Chair. There was a suggestion that the bhikkhus-only format be refreshed for topics that are bhikkhus-only concerns.
[ECM, Nov. ’99]

This is the entire minute. Does it mean yes?... No? Maybe...? Perhaps things had to shift in silent ways, but by May 2002 a nun was chairing an ECM and the issue does not seem to have arisen at an EC meeting in between times.

This is not to say that the meetings are dysfunctional or ineffective; it is merely pointing out that there are natural limitations on the ease with which difficult matters can be encompassed in such formal and structured circumstances. At the very least, the meeting provides the opportunity for the area to be explored by the group and sometimes, despite appearances, it is just this repeated group chewing-over of a knotty problem that is the resolving agent – it needs to be unresolved for a few sessions so that the whole group can find a way to make room for each other’s points of view. The value of harmony in the Sangha is so great that major differences of opinion are naturally handled with intense care, thus the aura of great caution when a significant issue arises. And some matters are recognised as being plain undecidable – intensely important but fundamentally resistant to order.

One last consideration with this issue is to bear in mind that this is not only a modern problem: the Buddha prescribed a series of seven adhikarana-samatha dhamma – ways of settling legal processes. These include, as the final option, “Covering over as with grass” (tina-vattharako), that is to say, just letting certain insoluble issues be laid aside for the sake of communal harmony.

One final point to outline is that, since 1987 (at least), Luang Por Sumedho has insisted that the Council, and not he should be the decision-making element in community life. However, perhaps naturally, people still often wish to see him as someone who says what goes and what doesn’t. This can cause confusion and difficulties, so from time to time, there has been the need to clarify these roles:

Although Sumedho Bhikkhu has on various occasions let it be known that he does not wish to be seen as one who can make major decisions without consulting the EC, there has been no formalised minuted statement of this. Without such clarity there are sometimes misunderstandings about where true authority lies, especially in the light of the fact that in some cases trust deeds specifically state that the trustees are to look to Ajahn Sumedho for guidance and as a spiritual director....
Sumedho Bhikkhu therefore stated that he sees the EC as the decision-making body for the sangha here in the UK. He himself should be regarded as a member, but the EC itself has the authority to make decisions rather than him as an individual. If requests come for him to make decisions, he in turn will refer to the EC decision-making body. He wished for this to be minuted.

[ECM, Oct. 2000]

The intent, therefore, is to place the egalitarian spirit of shared responsibility clearly at the centre, and for that to be the fundamental source of the decision-making process. Nevertheless, the tradition as it has come down to us preserves a hierarchy of respect: although all bhikkhus have an equal voice in sangha-kamma (formal acts of the community of monks), whether ordained for one day or a hundred years, there is always deference to seniors. So there is equality and there is a hierarchy. The archetype of love, respect and deference toward the spiritual parent, the teacher, cannot be ignored or militated against, but rather it needs to be accommodated within the egalitarian framework. The spirit of the Elders’ Council is an emulation of these same values – the voices of all the Council members are given equal weight and form the substance of the community decisions, whilst the natural, monastic and social hierarchies are respected.



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