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forest sangha newsletter

October        2007               2550                 Number  81
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

The first siladhara: Ajahn Candasiri


What have you found brings you alive in the monastic life?

The sense that what I’m doing contributes in some way to the welfare of humanity. Of course that happens in many ways. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not. On a personal level, I find that I am now able to respond more effectively to difficult situations without becoming so embroiled or upset by them. This has been particularly noticeable with my family where I have been able to make a much fuller offering of support; I had not expected this.

It is extraordinary to witness the transformation of difficulties that can happen when the sense of inner refuge is strong. These experiences give confidence in directing others in negotiating the trickier situations they encounter.

Also, although it can be very painful, it is fascinating to see how community living can bring deeply held views or prejudices to the surface, into conscious awareness. The joy and lightness that arises when these are relinquished are more than adequate recompense for the painful struggle.

Teaching too brings joy, whether in the context of speaking with a group or in a retreat it is very heartening to see how people – particularly younger people – are able to benefit and find meaning in their lives through the Buddha’s guidance.

I have also enjoyed the challenge of negotiating the transition to a balance of responsibility, authority and sharing status between the monks and nuns that more accurately reflects the culture and nobler aspiration of the 21st century – realizing that this is at least as much an inner process as it is an outer engagement and dialogue with others. As such, it is a fascinating aspect of the journey towards liberation.

After 28 years in the monastic community you have now spent almost a year out within a household situation taking care of your father. Looking at where you find yourself now, how do you experience your life as a siladhara?

Basically I feel that my life as a siladhara has continued seamlessly over the past year. Since we are essentially a peripatetic order, traditionally having more a wandering type of practice, taking time to support my parents as they approached the end of life has felt most natural and appropriate. Having said that, I still find it surprising how much I seem to belong in the monastery – and also how natural it feels for me to be in Edinburgh supporting my father. Perhaps that is to be expected, since it seems fundamental that ‘practice’ is not tied to any particular situation or circumstance. Clearly the formal training and structures of monastic life are quite wonderful as supports, and I am always glad that I can return and spend time in the monastery, but to survive as a nun it seems useful to have times when one can engage in practice outside the formal routines and relationships of our monastic communities. I am interested that the training for monks under Ajahn Chah involved times of tudong (wandering away from the monastery) and also dramatic changes in the routines, when all day and much of the night the monks would be involved helping with hard physical work for several weeks at a time. He was careful not to allow the monks to become institutionalized.

Many years of monastic life and contemplation, together with the experience of accompanying senior monks on journeys away from the monastery (as an anagarika I often had opportunities to drive Luang Por and others to visit laypeople or to teach) are what have given me the confidence to spend such an extended time away from a monastic context. For someone with less experience I would hesitate to suggest such a way of practice unless they have good support … and in fact, I too have been greatly helped through regular email and phone contact with other nuns and monks, and occasional visits.

I was interested to notice an inner reaction when someone commented that I was now living more of a lay life than as a nun. Thinking about it, it is clear that the external circumstances are more like those of a layperson but there is no doubt that at a deeper level the practice of renunciation continues – as must be the case for many householders bound by obligations to family, or to elderly or sick relatives.

A question I have been asked several times is whether I miss the simplicity of monastic life. My immediate response is that actually it is a relief to enjoy the simplicity of life away from monastic community! As a senior person I tend to have many duties and to be involved in many aspects of community life; this often includes attending long meetings and receiving, digesting and responding to all kinds of information. Living with my father has been much simpler. However, up here in Edinburgh, I do miss the sight and presence of other samanas.

Besides having the joy and privilege of supporting someone like my father, it has been beneficial in unexpected ways. I have had several opportunities to hear different women speaking about their religious life. Being one of the first in our community I have felt a lack of suitable role models, so it has been very helpful to meet other women in positions of leadership. One noteworthy occasion was a conference entitled Spirituality and the Sacredness of the Divine Feminine where I had been asked to share some thoughts. What was encouraging was to hear women speaking in a way that was calm and clear about the need for humanity to find a better balance: one that allows for a more intuitive response to the challenges of our time, rather than simply allowing intellectual or material concerns to determine the way forward.

I have been glad too of the contact I have had with those of other faiths. It is always a delight to me to be around people who love Truth. I enjoy feeling what we share in common; what separates, although it has a place, seems less inspiring to me … even though I still feel quiet delight contemplating the Buddha’s Way of Training. Some weeks ago a Christian friend arranged for me to lead a day retreat in a spacious church hall right in the centre of the city. It was billed for ‘those of any faith or none’ and it was encouraging that about 50 people came: some Christians of various denominations, as well as Buddhists from the different practice groups here in Edinburgh, also a Hindu. I was glad that people seemed to benefit from the Buddha’s practical common-sense approach to life in the human realm.

You mention it being helpful meeting other women in positions of leadership, given a lack of suitable role models within your training. As you and the community have come of age across these 25 years what models of leadership have you found are supportive of women’s spiritual growth? 

Well … having initially had role models that we tended to perceive and emulate with varying degrees of consciousness, it is clear that a strictly hierarchical and authoritarian approach simply does not work for us as women; some of us may be able to respond to such an approach, but it certainly does not bring out the best in us. This has been true for the monks as well. One time an elderly Christian nun visited our nuns’ community and surprised us all by her response to a question about what to do with rebellious novices who always think they know better. She simply said, ‘With firmness – and a lot of love!’ I realized that it was a huge relief for me to hear that. That was what felt right to me and, in a sense, it allowed me to develop a much more familiar and softer approach in guiding others. It feels important too to really trust people; to encourage each person in making their unique contribution to the life of community – and for that to be properly acknowledged. Currently we are experimenting with ways of sharing information and decision making; at one time everybody in the community was involved in almost every decision and so our meetings tended to be very very long. So I am interested in being more discerning around the different sorts of information and decisions: who needs to be involved, and at what stage in the process? How is information shared with those who were not part of that process? I feel glad that now the community has sufficient maturity and trust for this approach to be viable. When people understand the reasoning behind certain agreements there is a much greater chance that the agreement will be fully accepted and supported. Although in some ways I liked the unquestioning obedience of the very early days, it is clear that for us now it does not support spiritual maturation and liberation – even though it may, for a time, look good on the outside.

Since I have been out of the community for extended periods in recent years, there have been opportunities for others to experience positions of leadership. It seems vital for there to be many in the nuns’ community who are able, as necessary, to adopt a leadership role – having learned how to take this on without identifying too strongly with the role itself. Our experiments with shared leadership also allow this to happen.

How has your understanding of ‘practice’ altered over the years? 

I began with an earnest desire to end any suffering as it occurs in each moment – that aspiration has not changed at all. What has changed most is an
understanding that well-being, while being a natural fruit of practice is also a fundamental requirement. So in the last few years, particularly since my close encounter with Yama (the figurative ‘Lord of Death’), I have placed much emphasis on the importance of having a deeply rooted sense of self-respect and a firm commitment to enjoy the nun’s life. This applies both in relation to my own practice and also in guiding others.

What particular direction or shape do you discern for the community of siladhara across the next 25 years?

Well, I hope that it will grow – that there will be many more women willing and able to take on the training either as siladhara, or perhaps as bhikkhunis (I wouldn’t rule out that as a possibility). So we will need a lot more accommodation since currently both Amaravati and Cittaviveka monasteries are full to capacity. I would envisage our first nuns-only community being fairly close to one or other of the existing nuns’ communities, so that the new community can be adequately supported and encouraged in the resolution of inevitable difficulties that arise. We have also received invitations to start nuns’ communities further afield so in due course I would envisage there being more monasteries for nuns in other parts of the world where conditions are favourable.

Along with this I long to see many more opportunities for nuns to practise in different cultures and surroundings – living in cities, in nature, in large monastic communities, in tiny ones, walking tudong, learning how to care for elderly and sick sisters, and having contact with nuns of different traditions. We can learn so much from others and, at the same time, value our own tradition.

I would also hope to see the double communities maturing so that while each group (monks and nuns) exists as a separate entity, there can also be even more cooperation and dialogue – particularly around our shared monastic commitment and what that means in terms of Dhamma practice. However, that may not come about until the practicalities of our lives in community arrive at a more satisfactory balance. Much has changed over the years; it has been a remarkable process of evolution, but I am curious to see how we move forward in a way that both acknowledges the tradition that gave rise to our precious community and that also responds to the increasing dissonance felt when viewing it from the viewpoint of prevailing social norms. It seems to me that what is needed is an equal sharing in the public face of the Sangha that we all serve and participate in.

These are a few of the possibilities that arise in the mind from time to time when considering the question of what the future holds for the Siladhara Sangha.






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