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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 Sundara

Ajahn Sundara at a festival day in England

What initially drew you to this tradition, and later to ordain within it?

My life was comfortable and interesting by conventional standards. I was happily married and enjoyed dance as a profession. But, something essential was missing: my heart was sad. Wishing to understand this suffering and learn to be more at peace, I began searching for a spiritual path. My reference texts at the time were writings of Thomas Merton, Krishnamurti, letters of Brother Lawrence, Mother Theresa, mystics, poets, philosophers, but no traditional Buddhism. No one particular thing drew me to this tradition. I spent time in Christian monasteries where I had glimpses of the experience of the heart. Its qualities of silent listening presence and peaceful knowing were beginning to awaken within me.

Later, when I first heard Ajahn Sumedho talk about his life as a monk in Thailand and the teaching, it resonated deeply within me. Though, as yet, there was no sense that I would alter my lifestyle. Gradually my interest in Dhamma grew and I attended a ten-day retreat with Ajahn Sumedho. The rhythm of the retreat appealed to me: we rose early, ate one meal a day, received teachings and meditated all day in silence. However, my interest lay in the practice of meditation and the wish to understand my mind, not in joining a religious community with monastic rules and regulations.

I had also developed a strong sense of the uncertainty of life and that death can come at any time. A feeling of urgency and a deep appreciation of the preciousness of life arose. I discovered later that this contemplation of death is an integral part of this tradition.

As my practice deepened I decided to ordain as a novice. I saw my move to Chithurst as an adventurous journey into the unknown. It offered qualities close to my heart: the simple rhythm of meditation and work, good teachings, guidance and nourishment for the heart, also the opportunity to give generously of oneself. But as a westerner culturally conditioned to individualism, idealism and critical thought, I had not yet realized how difficult living in community would be within a complex traditional, hierarchical Eastern form.

By that time, my husband and I had amicably divorced. My father, who was an intelligent free thinker disillusioned with religion, was initially quite shocked at my decision to take ordination. Once, a woman called him because she wanted me to teach a dance course. He plaintively said, “Oh Madame, my daughter has gone into a monastery!” and she replied, “Oh dear, she was such a lovely woman!” Later my father became not only reconciled to my choice, but quite proud of me. My mother and my sisters were always very supportive.

What is it, all these years later, that sustains your momentum for this life?

My interest in the Dhamma is like my interest was for dance: passionate! I have found Buddhist practice amazing in its clarity and simplicity, while also appealing to my rational mind. There is no dogma and the benefits can be experienced directly. The treasure of Dhamma has continually sustained and liberated me.

When I began living in the monastery, I was struck by the amount of joy I experienced in spite of many difficulties. My heart was rejoicing at having finally found a place to express itself. This joy is with me still. I am fortunate that I always find peace and release in the refuge of the mind that knows things as they are. This quality of awareness, of presence, has been a constant friend and a source of energy, clarity and patience. It has enabled me to face difficult times without losing sight of their potential to transform the heart.

Ajahn Sumedho’s Dhamma reflections uncompromisingly point to ultimate reality, ‘the way things are’. The power of his teaching sinks deeply into my heart, and I have profound gratitude for this. This Dhamma keeps my perspective on the challenges of community life and practice, when situations arise that seem to have little to do with my ideals, my liking, or what I find inspiring. These inevitable challenges are balanced by knowing that community life is a priceless treasure of shared aspirations in the Dhamma, a polished reflective mirror for transformation.

You helped establish the Siladhara Order, and participated in its growth; could you describe its evolution?

When we started, we were four women living together in a small cottage near Chithurst House. We were ordained as eight-precept novices and practised with much determination, within a fairly tough routine of work and meditation. The monks welcomed us into the community. They seemed impressed at our resilience and our wholehearted commitment and support. These early years were characterized by the general chaos of a new and evolving monastery.

A major transition occurred when the first of us took ten-precepts ordination at Chithurst in 1983, thereby becoming alms mendicants. We were offered alms-bowls and robes and began to go regularly on almsround. Ajahn Sumedho had to obtain approval from the Thai Elders for this new order of Theravadan nuns, the Siladhara Order. We had more status and structural support than nuns in Thailand (maechee) who are treated as laypersons committed to eight precepts. After all these years it is difficult to describe how revolutionary our position was. We were establishing a monastic form in the West, where it had not been before, and a new role for ordained women within that form. In retrospect the task was daunting, and if we had foreseen the difficulties we may not have tried!

The year following the establishment of our Order we moved to the significantly larger Amaravati monastery enabling us to form a true monastic women’s community. Over the next few years a more extensive set of monastic rules was established to enable us to live in harmony and to have common standards in all areas of our life: precepts, wearing the robes, deportment, relationship with each other, with the monks and laypeople.

These early years were groundbreaking, challenging, but also filled with love and laughter. I especially recall our hilarity over the idiosyncrasies that manifested in the kitchen. How could these English not understand the way to make a proper French salad dressing? And we did indulge in occasional subversive laughter about the formal ‘dance’, imported from the Asian teachers and culture, between men and women Sangha members.

After seven years of guidance from Ajahn Sucitto, Ajahn Candasiri and I undertook the responsibility and challenge of running the nuns’ communities at Amaravati and Chithurst. Over time, the nuns’ community has matured, becoming more independent, autonomous, and confident. At some point we were invited to teach, an experience that I found quite joyful as I discovered that sharing the Dhamma provided a source of mutual inquiry that enriched my own practice. Today, while still evolving, it is vibrant and strong, with seasoned Dhamma practitioners who are invited to teach internationally.

How do you see the evolution of your practice? 

The first few years of my monastic life were years of ‘becoming’– fuelled by that kind of youthful energy of ‘going somewhere’. I was intent on meditation, on learning how to live this life within the restraint of the discipline and adapting to the complexities of communal living. Inspiration kept us going even when things seemed hopeless.

Being a senior nun of the community brought a radical change in my practice. I became a visible manager, organizer, decision-maker and role model, all without any training for such responsibilities, and at times the task seemed frightening and Herculean. I focused on developing metta (loving-kindness) for myself and others for several years, and persevered in the face of real and perceived difficulties. Finally, after having lived in community for 15 years, I wished to discover if I could sustain this monastic life without group support, and was yearning to experience solitude. Ajahn Sumedho once told me, ‘Never follow the party line, Sister Sundara’, and this suited my inclination to venture into new territories. So in 1995 I travelled to Thailand with no sense of where I might go, or for how long.

Eventually I stayed for nearly three years. I was fortunate to be welcomed into a forest monastery whose abbot was Ajahn Anan. He is a remarkable monk whose strong compassion and metta helped me to accept myself; to reflect on my ultimate and conventional natures so clearly that my personality fell away as a problem altogether. At least, for a time. I felt happy there, strengthened by living in the midst of some beautiful and magical forests.

As part of my quest for solitude I spent over a month in a remote rainforest on the Burmese border, populated with tigers, elephants, poisonous snakes, and far from human habitation, with only a plastic sheet, mosquito net and a small bamboo platform for shelter. On the second evening there, as I tied the last branch of my mosquito net to a tree, the rain began pouring in torrents, and the night became very dark. I had a choice: to be frightened, or to laugh. I began to see the situation as very funny; if anything happened to me, I would not have a clue where to go! At that point I turned around and saw quite close to me a fluorescent light in the pitch black. I pondered every scientific possibility to explain what it might be, without success. Finally, I accepted the mystery of everything we cannot see or hear, and I had a companion in the midst of the lashing rain; perhaps a devata (heavenly being), a little gift of certainty that everything is, after all, OK.

Upon my return to the West my practice once again deepened in unexpected ways, as I faced questions regarding monastic conventions. The community had changed in my absence, and re-entering a relatively complex Western monastery, from the simplicity of a rural Thai forest monastery, was trying and disheartening at times.

In 2000 I accepted an invitation to spend some time at Abhayagiri Monastery. I stayed in the U.S. for three years, during which time I discovered a spiritual culture that surprised me by its positive outlook, as well as its supportive and empowering approach towards women. My meeting of a number of mature spiritual practitioners and teachers gave me a broader context within which to view and experience monastic forms.

Finally, in recent years I have faced the heavenly messengers of sickness and ageing. Despite the pain that they cause, I can receive their teaching of impermanence as a blessing. When I look back, I feel enriched by a life whose sole purpose is to free the heart from its miseries. It has taken me on a journey into the mystery of our human existence, filled with paradoxes, pain and joy, and it instils my heart with a deep trust in the path of liberation.

And how do you see the future of the community?

I feel quite strongly that as long as the Dhamma-vinaya (‘doctrine and discipline’) is protected in our hearts, our community with its creativity and wisdom will evolve in harmony with the needs of the group and the individuals committed to the path of Dhamma. We have demonstrated from the beginning an ability to adapt to the changes occurring in community rather than adhering to fixed norms and views of the way things should be. I feel sure that this approach will continue to sustain us in the future, however uncertain the future is.




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