October 2006 2549 Number 77
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah
On Strong Roots
Luang Por Sumedho Reflects upon his Evolving Role within the Sangha he Founded
This summer marked my fortieth vassa as a bhikkhu, and my thirtieth year living in England. When I came to Britain in 1977 the idea was to establish a Theravadan Sangha following the tradition from which Id come, the Thai forest tradition as I'd experienced it under my teacher, Luang Por Chah at his monastery, Wat Pah Nong Pah Pong in Ubon, Thailand. At that time I had only ten vassas; I wasn't that experienced or senior but I was more senior than the other Westerners. That put me in a position of being the head of the Sangha here, as well as the teacher, and I also became President of the English Sangha Trust. In every capacity I was looked to for guidance and leadership, and that lasted for about the first ten years.
Yet as the Sangha grew and we established branch monasteries it became apparent that that structure would not always work, and we started having meetings between the abbots and senior monks from the different branches. Early on I was still regarded as the main decision-maker one monk used to refer to me as the Supreme Commander. Then over the years, because of the seniority and ability of many more monks and nuns, that role was no longer appropriate. I began to step back, and eventually we established the Elders' Council, which is a body set up by the senior monks and nuns to make decisions and consider the various issues and difficulties encountered as we live the monastic life in the West.
"Im really pleased with how things have evolved. I can sit back in my rocking chair for the rest of my days and be confident the monastic community is well-practised in handling its affairs. If I dropped dead tomorrow I know the Sangha will continue on as it is doing already, able to handle whatever comes our way..."
This structure has been operating now for over ten years. It makes life very agreeable to me because, now that I'm seventy-two, I no longer have the interest, the energy or the heart for managerial functions. I'm very pleased to have been able to hand all the decision-making over to the Elders Council, which has proved itself over many years as a capable, trustworthy group. I can now enjoy my retirement from those roles and live my life out as a Buddhist monk without having to be involved with committee meetings, let alone carry the responsibility myself.
In the beginning, I felt more or less that it was up to me to hold it all together. Now I don't feel that way at all: I feel I could exit at any time and it will be carried on, that it's not dependent upon me personally to keep it going. This is very satisfying, because as one gets older one clearly sees that if an organisation has been established so dependent on one person, then when he or she is gone the thing can't sustain itselfand that oftentimes happens with religious groups. Whereas I feel confident that what we have has its own momentum; it's not me doing anything, it holds together on its own. So, I feel our Sangha has been established in the right way.
The Elders' Council has evolved in a natural way, coming out of the process of growth as a community as we've lived it, rather than conformity to an idea of how this should work. There is a lot of experience involved; we're not just a bunch of neophytes coming from ideas. Over the years here in England, both the monks and the nuns have developed skill and wisdom around how to resolve the inevitable conflicts that can arise within the group itself. Of course, that gives it much more stability and maturity. And also, here at Amaravati and at Cittaviveka both the male and female communities have developed skills regarding living in the same monastery; we know better how to live within our own communities, and how the two can coexist in a way that works for each.
The nuns are now quite autonomous. I have great respect for the senior nuns: they know what's needed in the nuns community; whereas, I think oftentimes monks making decisions for nuns doesn't work. Just as it wouldn't work if nuns were making decisions for monks. But then, one feels that the two communities support each other, too.
I feel it makes things easier for the monks to have the nuns here at Amaravati, because they can take care of all the needs of the laywomen who come to the monastery. In the past, the monks would attend more to female visitors seeking guidance, and that doesnt happen much now because the nuns can provide that better than we ever could.
So the Sangha here feels to me to have taken root. The Thai forest tradition will always be our prototype; then it's up to us to adapt to conditions here, which has been done gradually. We've been particularly careful not to just discard traditional ways to try to make things more British, but instead see what works and what doesn't, through attrition and through time. You become more aware of what works, what benefits; what is respectful, and beautiful within this culture, too. What inspires faith in the British people, and what works in meeting their needs.
Because the main interest for Europeans is in meditation. As they develop they may become more interested in the religious side of it, but the popularity of Buddhism in the West is because it has such clear teachings and skilful means for mental development. And Id say thats whats most important to all of us.
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