April             2008                             2551                      Number     83
The Forest Sangha is a worldwide Buddhist monastic
community in the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

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Teaching in Europe
Questions for Ajahn Chandapalo

Questions for Ajahn Chandapalo


You are English, and you became a monk with Ajahn Sumedho at Chithurst in West Sussex in 1982 – yet you have been practising and teaching in Continental Europe for 20 years. How has that come about?

Soon after I first became interested in meditation and Buddhism, while studying engineering at Lancaster, I was invited to a Wesak celebration at the Samatha Centre in Manchester. Not quite knowing what it was all about I went along anyway, and I saw Buddhist monks for the first time: Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Viradhammo and several newly-ordained novices. That was in 1978, thirty years ago. Shortly after graduating I moved to Dundee to study for a master’s degree, and again I met Ajahn Sumedho, who came at the invitation of the Dhamma group there, and I saw Luang Por Chah in Edinburgh on his last visit to Britain. After a few months in Glasgow, while hesitating to commit myself to undertaking a research degree, I went to spend a week at the recently-opened Chithurst monastery. There it became evident where my heart really was.

In the following years I found myself present at the inception of the other European branch monasteries: Harnham, while still an anagarika; Devon, as a newly-ordained monk; Amaravati for the first four years and then Dhammapala in Switzerland. In 1991 I was offered a ticket to Thailand and so, after ten years of Sangha life, I visited a Buddhist country for the first time. It was wonderful. I stayed for a year and found it a very enriching and formative experience. Somehow, though, I felt a stronger connection to the European monasteries, having been involved from the early days, seeing how much work had gone into them and being inspired and uplifted by the goodness and benefit that had been generated. Also, I don’t know if I could have endured another hot season in Asia!

I’ve always gone to where I’ve been asked to go, or to where I’ve been invited; for me, this has worked out well and I feel very grateful. I like to be in a situation where I can contribute something and so be part of it. Fifteen years ago I was invited to Italy by Ajahn Thanavaro, the Italian monk and founder of Santacittarama. Three years later he disrobed, and I stayed on, initially for a year and ... here I am still!

What is your relationship with the Sangha in the UK? Do you have regular contact?

Every year I go to the UK at least twice, to visit the monasteries and attend the Elders’ Council meetings, and to spend some time with my parents in York. I feel a strong bond to the Sangha in the UK, and appreciate being able to maintain a close connection.

Have you had to become fluent in Italian? Do you speak Italian within the monks’ community at Santacittarama?

My Italian is reasonably good. There’s room for improvement, I’m sure, but I can also see a self-deprecating tendency at work there. Generally I receive a lot of praise for my use of the language – although the English accent I can’t seem to shake off tends to amuse people. Soon after arriving it became clear that if I really wished to help I needed to learn the language, and I had come with that intention. Having previously put a fair amount of effort into learning German while in Switzerland, and then Thai, but not really getting to the point of being able to put them to much use, I was determined to take it further with Italian. After less than three years I could give a simple Dhamma talk, doing my first weekend retreat in Italian – but then when I found myself in hospital and was presented with a menu I had no clue what was on it! The resident community is quite international, so we mainly speak English amongst ourselves.

As the abbot, do you teach the monks who live with you? What is your role at Santacittarama?

Usually we have several senior monks here, a middling monk who trained in the UK and one or two ‘home-grown’ junior monks, novices and anagarikas trained here in Italy. My role is mainly that of senior monk – ‘abbot’ sounds a bit grand, especially in this context – but is something I hold fairly lightly, consulting with the Sangha on many things, but being a reference point for the laypeople and for overseeing the training of the junior members of the community. I feel it’s important to keep my own practice as the priority and allow everything else to flow from that, adapting to what is appropriate according to time and place, rather than identifying too much with a specific role. It’s an ongoing process of learning how to take responsibility without letting it become a burden.

In what ways do you provide teaching for laypeople? How do you find using a second language affects your teaching?

People come from all over Italy and beyond to have a taste of monastic life, and often there are as many as six or eight guests at a time. So this is one way: by simply providing the opportunity to live in such a lovely and conducive setting, free of many worldly distractions, in the company of the Sangha. People appreciate this very much. There’s not a great deal of formal teaching; not having a large enough indoor space, it’s difficult to provide for that. Usually there’s an evening talk on Observance days and, during the warmer months when we use a large marquee, there are meditation classes and thematic day-long retreats. Most days I have tea with the guests and day visitors, when they may ask questions and teaching happens more informally.

Teaching in a second language does mean that I have to keep it more simple, and to be really clear about what I’m trying to say. Perhaps it also forces people to listen more carefully! You also realize how rich the English language is – often it’s difficult to find the right word in Italian. For example, there is no exact equivalent of ‘restraint’, and I still find myself struggling to translate the term ‘going forth’.

Do you spend much time teaching retreats outside the monastery or are you mostly occupied teaching the community at Santacittarama?

Most of my time is spent in the monastery, and maybe I’m away about ten weeks in an average year. I think it’s important not to be away too much, to be able to offer a sense of continuity and stability. On the other hand it’s good to know that I can be away and not have to worry about it. Several years ago I was able to take a ‘sabbatical’ of around nine months, and everything went fine, although the community seemed glad to have me back.

I do some visiting of groups and teaching retreats here and there and tend to give priority to the south of Italy, where there is not a lot happening but where there is genuine interest in Dhamma. I go to Sardinia and Bari every year, and I’ve been to Sicily a couple of times. There is a Theravada-oriented retreat centre in the North, near Piacenza, where I teach most years and I also visit Milan and Padua on a regular basis. Since 1999 I’ve been going to Slovenia nearly every year, giving public talks and leading retreats; I’m very fond of the country and people and would be delighted to see them have their own branch monastery one day.

Have you noticed differences in the way you teach when in different European countries?

I do notice that temperaments vary in different countries and inevitably that affects how you feel and what you put out, but I find that it’s something more spontaneous and intuitive rather than deliberate. It feels very different if those you are talking to are friendly and receptive, or if they seem dull and disinterested; or if they’re calm and attentive rather than excitable and distracted.

How is Buddhism received in Italy? Have you met with problems?

From my experience, Buddhism is held in high regard in Italy, and I haven’t encountered any problems that come to mind. It has certainly become much better known in the time that I’ve been here. The film The Little Buddha, made by an Italian director, triggered off a veritable explosion of interest when it came out not long after my arrival, and it was almost too much to deal with at the time. Recent events in Burma have sparked off an interest in Theravada Buddhism in particular.

The Roman Catholic Church is much more influential in Italy than, say, the Church of England is in the UK. Does that make a difference? Being in a culture where Christian monks and nuns are commonplace, how does it affect how you as Buddhist monks are received?

All over the country, but especially in Rome, monks and nuns of different nationalities and wearing different coloured habits are quite a common sight. It seems to me that there’s a general sense of respect for religious people that goes across the board. We have made friends with Franciscan friars – there are several important sanctuaries in this province, places where Saint Francis actually stayed – and a Benedictine monk from the local abbey has become a frequent and much-loved visitor.

In the UK, school groups often visit the monasteries since religious education is required in the schools. Is it the same in Italy?

It does happen, not to the same extent as in the UK, but it is growing and we get more and more enquiries. Rome’s city council sponsored the making of a documentary on DVD about non-Catholic religions, to be distributed to all schools in the area. They came here to film the Buddhist section. Every year a priest in Rome who teaches in a state school brings a large group of students; they offer the meal and stay for several hours, listening to an introductory talk and asking questions. There is also a Korean professor in a Catholic university that comes every year with a group of mature students, mostly priests, monks and nuns.

What do you find attracts people to the monastery?

It’s probably much the same as the other monasteries and varies from person to person. Some only come for the major celebrations such as Wesak and Kathina, finding it uplifting to connect to the wider spiritual community and meeting old friends. Others come when it’s quieter, seeing the monastery more as a sanctuary, a conducive environment where they can allow their minds to settle and contemplate their lives, free of many of the distractions and pressures of the modern world. Some are definitely seeking to understand what it’s all about and have many questions, others wish to learn how to live more peacefully and harmoniously. At times people make it clear that they are Catholic but feel that there is something here that they can learn and benefit from.




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