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forest sangha newsletter

January     2007                  2550                      Number 78
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah


Triple celebration of the Triple Gem

25th anniversary of Harnham Monastery
by Ajahn Munindo


When we decided to mark
our 25th anniversary on the same day as our Kathina festival this year, then follow it the next day with a double ordination, and then with an Elders’ Council meeting the day after that, to some it seemed we might be taking on too much. It’s true, it might have been too much. As with all such events we didn’t know how many people would come, Sangha or lay friends; we didn’t know how we would accommodate everyone, what the weather would be like, how we would cope with the parking…. Yet as Ajahn Sucitto later pointed out, goodness has a tendency to attract goodness, and I took the decision to go for it. And anyway, if I believed in the way things seemed to be, Harnham Monastery probably wouldn’t be here.

I’m sure it was the same for the monastery’s founders, Nick Scott, Virginia Deeper and Richard Hopkins: without their faith, daring and commitment this sanctuary wouldn’t even have been started. The same was likewise true for Ajahn Chah. He endured the physical frustration of years of malaria fever and the apparently endless torment of mental doubts he thought would ‘make his head burst’ – not because of mere will-power or superficial certainty, but rather because of trust in the deep principles of Dhamma-vinaya [teaching and training of the Buddha] which lie behind the way things seem to be. Walking this not-easy way, such trust has the power to overcome otherwise very convincing obstructions.

As many of you will already know, soon after I arrived at Harnham in 1991 we were issued with a solicitor’s notice, alleging that the land and the buildings we occupied were obtained illegally. That court case took several years to resolve and cost the monastery £70,000 to defend. Not long after that ended, I noticed that the beautiful glass engraving of the Dhammacakka that graced the east wall of the monastery had been shot out. On another occasion one of the monks was convinced that he too had been shot at with an air rifle. Then there have been the years of difficulty trying to solve the problem of a seriously inadequate sewerage system. From time to time fellow Sangha members have suggested we should just leave the place. But even if we’d contemplated such an action (and I didn’t wish to), all of the monastery’s land is covenanted, restricting it to ‘monastic use only’ and meaning that if we had left, we would have left with absolutely nothing.

The way things seem to be cannot be trusted. So when Ajahn Sawaeng arranged as a 25th anniversary souvenir gift to have shoulder bags made in Thailand, we thought it would be good to have printed on them the Buddha’s words "Mindfulness overcomes all things" since it’s Right Mindfulness that enables seeing through the way things seem. Not only did these words of wisdom reflect the practice that has gone on here over the years, but they also reminded us of the way to get through a gathering that was full of uncertainty.

As it turned out the weather was fine; unseasonably mild and no wind. We planned for about 35 Sangha guests and 33 arrived. Our nearly ready new guest accommodation, Kusala Retreat House, housed 20 visitors comfortably; a mountain of food was offered by the 400 or so folk who turned up on the big day (we had guessed between 100 and 300). No problems with parking: a local farmer lent us a field. Many friends gathered together, enjoying a shared sense of commitment to something beyond personality and preference; beyond certainty and conventional security. It was a great joy.

The only evidence of our immediate neighbours on the day was the one coming to photograph for his pleasure the large banners depicting the history of the community that hung outside the front of the Dhamma Hall. He was one of many to take pictures over the three days, and as I look through some of them I see there is plenty of material for the 2008 community calendar. That is a relief, since the search for suitable images starts well in advance – several years in fact – and even then they are hard to find. For about 15 years now I’ve been putting it together and it doesn’t get any easier, so if any reader has a good suggestion about anything, including themes and images and skills, please be in touch. As is usual on Kathina days, at the completion of the ceremony we handed out the calendar for next year, this time along with various other gifts including the shoulder bag. Besides reminding people of a joyous day, I hope the Buddha’s words on the bag will encourage cultivating mindfulness. (It might also reduce the use of plastic bags. I’ve had a small campaign going since reading about a whale washing up in France with 800 kilos of them in its stomach.)

The 2007 calendar features images and words from our teacher, Venerable Ajahn Chah, this year being the 15th anniversary of his passing away. The photographs are printed on high-quality paper, in order to provide people with pictures of Ajahn Chah suitable for framing. I find the photograph and the quotation for December particularly inspiring: "Staying or going is not what matters. What matters is the mind. So all of you, please work together; cooperate and live in harmony. Let this be your legacy." We took these words from a talk Ajahn Chah gave in the early years of Wat Nanachat, the international forest monastery he founded in Thailand. From many years of experience in leading the Sangha, Luang Por Chah knew how easy it is for young monks – and also those not so young – to become caught in outer distractions and forget inner vigilance. A commitment to individual likes and dislikes does not lead to harmony. I remember vividly that a sense of harmonious community was one of the things that struck me most when I first arrived at Wat Nanachat in rural NE Thailand in the winter of 1976: "Anything that makes it possible for twenty-one young energetic men, of nine different nationalities, to get on so well together has got to be a good thing," I thought. The spirit of cooperative community was more attractive to me than anything I had ever seen.

On Monday, the day after our Kathina, Ajahn Sumedho needed to be off early back to Amaravati in time to catch a flight to Thailand. The spirit of harmonious and cooperative community was beautifully evident as we made arrangements for the ordination ceremony at 10 o’clock in the morning. Ajahn Abhinando had been intensely involved in much of the organizing of the previous day’s events, and he could have been forgiven if his faculties were not up to their usual crispness. However, together with Ajahn Sawaeng he conducted the demanding chanting of the ordination ceremony very smoothly.

There were two ordinands. Samanera Hiriko (‘one imbued with integrity’) from Slovenia received full acceptance into the Sangha and now begins his bhikkhu training. This requires him to live ‘in dependence’ on another bhikkhu, appointed by his preceptor Ajahn Sumedho, for the next five years. Tan Hiriko has been corresponding with me since he was sixteen. While still at high-school he attended a retreat I led in Slovenia. On the day of finishing his final exams he left home heading for Santacittarama in Italy where he eventually took anagarika precepts with Ajahn Chandapalo. He has now been here at Harnham as a samanera for nearly two years. Anagarika Ninoslav from Serbia, now Samanera Nyanamoli, has been with us for one year, and in receiving his initial ordination begins a year-long preparation for full acceptance as a bhikkhu.

As we sat around for breakfast on the next morning, Tuesday, we knew that at 8:45 am the Elders’ Council meeting would begin. But wonderfully, there was no evidence of anyone feeling ‘I would rather not’. As has become our custom these days, the senior monks and nuns had met the night before for a ‘check-in’. We have learnt from past experience that to dive into business-mode without first meeting each other as people, risks less-than-sensitive exchanges. So as we went around on Monday evening, all the sixteen participants had a chance to say where they were at and what had been happening for them since we last gathered in April. As I write this now I’m reminded of how Ajahn Chah told Ajahn Sumedho when he first came to Britain, that he should see himself as a rubbish tin available for people to deposit their suffering. I don’t think any of us feel like we are treated as rubbish tins, but it is true that we receive a lot of what others don’t know how to handle. And that carries with it a unique challenge.

It wasn’t too long ago that we saw, and felt the consequences of, seven leaders of our Western Sangha disrobing within a two year period. One of the lessons I think we have learned since then is that leaders need support. And probably the best kind of support comes from those who share the same job description. It’s embarrassing to think that we ever assumed it could be otherwise. I guess this is all part of community building. Reading in the last issue of the Forest Sangha Newsletter Ajahn Amaro’s excellent review of the evolution and functioning of the Elders’ Council, one could get the impression that the entire thing was designed. But if it was designed, it wasn’t conscious and it wasn’t the design of any one individual. More likely it emerged, and what has emerged is a twice-a-year gathering of those senior Sangha members to whom the juniors go for dependence, or nissaya. And alongside them a number of other elected senior Sangha members.

This year we addressed such matters as who and how a monk or nun gets to be called Ajahn; what the next step was to be regarding leadership at Hartridge Monastery; what criteria were in place for selecting whose talks were distributed on the Dhammatalks and Dhammathreads websites, and similar subjects. We gathered in concord and we parted in concord and it was for me, as is these days usual, a meeting characterized by patience and mutual respect, imbued with a well-grounded ability to contain diversity. Personally I find these gatherings an essential source of support. Those who live in our larger communities might not feel quite the same need, but I know I am not alone in valuing them.

Concord like this does not manifest easily, and this is so especially when we remain attached to our personal opinions. One of the things that made Ajahn Chah stand out in his style of training his Western monks, was his insistence that we were treated no differently from the Thais – irrespective of our opinions about that. In some Thai monasteries Western monks were excused from chanting because they were thought to be more sincere about meditation practice. In those monasteries there was not the same emphasis on such things as memorizing the recitation of the Patimokkha rule, or learning to bow according to seniority. My firmly held-to opinion of Americans at the time (this was the 1970’s with the Vietnam War) made that sometimes difficult, until with mindful persistence I discovered that in truth my attachment to opinions – not bowing – was the source of my suffering. For Ajahn Chah there was no difference between cultivating mindfulness in these ways and in sitting meditation, or in sweeping leaves or washing the buffalo dung off the Ajahn’s feet when he returned from alms-round. It was all practice – practice in wearing down self-conceit – practice that has been going on at least as long as the two and a half thousand years of Buddhist history.

In that context, our quarter of a century on Harnham Hill doesn’t seem much, but in the immediate context of a complex, materialistic, secular society, it is significant. And so, with all our visitors now left, and the season for Kathina festivals over, our small community resumes its more usual but still mixed appearance, and continues to try to live and practise in harmony: one New Zealand monk, one Thai monk, one German monk, one Slovenian monk, one Serbian samanera, one Swedish anagarika, one Polish anagarika and two Englishmen. Sometimes we understand each other. Sometimes we don’t. Conventional language doesn’t always flow and the differences can appear as obstructions. But in truth they are not. And it’s this truth that we are interested in. The rest is distraction. It is not the way things seem to be that matters, it is the way things are. And that way is indeed a Refuge worth celebrating.





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