The Forest Sangha is
a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn
When East meets West
Ajahn Piyasilo, a Thai monk of twelve vassas who is spending a year with the community at Cittaviveka, shares some of his impressions so far.
Having been a monk in a rural part of Thailand for more than eleven years, I never thought that one day I would find myself living in the West. But here I am, thanks to a recommendation from one of my venerable Ajahns and the generous support of a lay Buddhist. People often ask how I see the differences between the East and the West and about my impression of living in England. It took me a while to reflect upon these questions and here are my responses.
When I think of the most memorable experience I have had while living in England, the first thing that comes to my mind is the chanting at Luang Por Sumedho’s 72nd birthday celebration. Since I’ve been a monk I have chanted the anumodana, the expression of appreciation for giving and generosity, numerous times, but none were like when I chanted in the Amaravati eating hall with my fellow monks, nuns and novices of various nationalities. I was so impressed that I almost cried. It was wonderful to be among a group of more than 50 people from different backgrounds and cultures, sharing the same aspiration and living in a harmonious way. The unison of the chanting was a clear example of that harmony.
With 13 nationalities represented during the vassa, Chithurst is the biggest community that I have ever lived in. For most of my years in the yellow robe, I stayed in a small monastery in the forest or lived by myself in a hermitage. It was a drastic change in my life to come to the West. One can see how it could be a cultural shock for me. However, I have been surprised by how easily I’ve been able to fit in to this Western community ‐ just taking to it like a duck to water, as one would say. In doing so, I am very grateful to the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha and all my teachers who have provided me with an excellent way of practice, enabling me to adjust to any environment without much difficulty.
To me, one of the crucial aspects of Dhamma practice is to develop the ability to go beyond the conditioned mind. Since we tend not to see how we have been conditioned by our own culture, we then have to meditate to see ourselves more clearly. Like good singers who learn to use their voice in a wider range to be able to sing better, Dhamma practitioners learn to expand beyond limitations in their own mind to find more freedom and inner happiness. Living in England provides me with more chances to reflect on my own cultural conditioning and helps me to understand more about the Western mind. Here is just one of many observations that have helped in such a way.
During late June, about a month after arriving in England, I noticed that the grass in the field near the monastery had all been cut down. It was later stacked into a big square block wrapped in black plastic. An English friend of mine explained that the hay would be kept for cattle and horses during winter. This small incident may be nothing special for westerners, but to someone from rural Thailand it is quite unusual. I’ve never seen any Thai farmer use such good planning.
In England the climate is very different from Thailand. In over 800 years of known history the people in my homeland never experienced winters severe enough to cause much death and starvation. The Thai people do not have a comparable need to be so well prepared; even in the middle of winter Thai villagers can still go out to get wild vegetables and leaves which can be used as food. Their cows and buffaloes are allowed to roam freely, feeding on the plentiful grass in the paddy fields.
Having had some experience with the cold weather in England even in late autumn, I can imagine how difficult life would be through a long winter. There must be no way to take it easy like Thai farmers do. The reason for being well prepared and organized seems obvious to me. And no doubt anyone who has grown up in a things-have-to-be-planned environment will adopt this attitude towards other aspects of life. This helps me understand the often-made observation that westerners are a lot better than Thais at planning and organization.
While we can all appreciate the many good points of being highly organized and well-managed, perhaps deep down in the mind there is a greater potential for suffering due to expectations and fear. When things do not turn out as expected, many westerners find it difficult to cope. They sometimes make the problem even worse by seeing it in a negative way. Many blame themselves when things go wrong or not as planned. In order to avoid problems that might only potentially occur, they can put even more effort into planning ‐ which can end up in more suffering.
Thais are not any better than westerners in coping with life’s problems ‐ and there are some harsh climates there, believe me. Yet they tend to differently define what could be called “problems”. There is generally more acceptance of physical discomfort, feeling hot and sweaty, mosquito bites, pain and so on. Since many of their activities are not well planned, there is nothing wrong when things do not go as planned. When life presents the unexpected, they then find it is not so difficult to accept and are able to make the best of it.
Because these habitual approaches to life are deeply ingrained, we bring them with us when we enter the monastery. They clearly influence the ways our monasteries run. While monasteries in the Thai tradition tend to have a family-like administration, the Western Sangha is more like an organization. In the Western context, responsibilities are delegated to make them more efficient. Here at Chithurst monastery there are the Guest Monk/Nun, Work Monk/Nun, Chores Monk/Nun, Librarian Monk/Nun, etc. Everyone has responsibilities in running the monastery in some way regardless of how long they have been in the community.
Not only does each person have their own responsibility in a particular area, but they also take it quite seriously. I have witnessed occasions where people were offended or annoyed when someone went beyond their own area of responsibility, even with good intentions ‐ like helping with another person’s chores. Recently the person responsible for the community white board was offended when someone wrote information on the board without asking him. There was then a community discussion about what should be done when there is important information which had not yet been written on the board by the official board-writer. I believe that many Thais would not find this topic serious enough to be discussed. They would just be happy to help or to be helped by others: merit can be made that way, they would think.
Apart from sharing out responsibilities, the Western Sangha also adopts a democratic way of decision-making. In the West now for not yet six months, I have attended more meetings here than I had during the entirety of my 11 years as a monk in Thailand. There are a lot of management issues I never saw brought up for discussion in the Thai tradition, where most of the responsibilities lie with the abbot. The whole community can just let the abbot decide and then they follow. My first five years passed without having to take part in any decision in the Sangha at all. I did not even have to relate to any lay supporters. During that period, I quite enjoyed the space and time to focus mainly on my meditation practice.
Though there are differences between the two Sanghas, it doesn’t seem useful for me to assess which is a better model. We have to take the larger cultural context into consideration. The Western branches of Ajahn Chah’s tradition have developed their ways of fitting into this cultural context in 30 years of adjustment and experimentation, and it is still an ongoing project. At the same time, as Luang Por Sumedho recently put it, we always have the Thai tradition as a prototype. We cannot neglect the connection with the Thai Sangha, and can continue to learn from it. This strong connection between East and West will be fruitful in terms of Dhamma-vinaya practice both for each individual and the community as a whole.
The main purpose of the Buddha in creating the Sangha is to support growth in spiritual life. Reflecting on this means that from time to time we must re-examine our basic needs in living a renunciant life and ask ourselves if we are still on the same track. Despite the differences in culture, those who join the Sangha share similar aspirations. In this life there will always be a common ground where everyone can meet. The message of the Buddha goes beyond any boundary, ‘East’ or ‘West’.
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