July             2008                             2551                      Number     84
The Forest Sangha is a worldwide Buddhist monastic
community in the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

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About this issue



While words like ‘karma’, ‘nirvana’ and even ‘samsara’ have made it into popular speech these days in English-speaking cultures, their meanings have remained predictably confused for the average person. Like monastic life itself perhaps, their real meanings imply an understanding of things which is rare for any person to grasp. So I’m not surprised when I’m sometimes asked if I’m a Shaolin Kung Fu adept, or if we brew cider and ale at the monastery or sell tapestries, crafted things and honey. What do monks or nuns do, most people must think, picturing friars. Pray all day?

Of course, the monastic vocation for disciples of the Buddha is generally not one of prayer (in the way that word is usually meant), instead it’s primarily for the cultivation of awareness. Through restraint, meditation and investigation, acting in wholesome ways; the nurturing of wisdom that leads to release is what we try to spend our time doing. This requires little more than taking care of the body and living simply, without a need to supplement our daily routine with activities, creative or otherwise. Yet, while for the Sangha our training precludes some kinds of creative expression, such as making music and dancing, there are others that when developed in a contemplative way can support a calm mind and reflection. Those who appreciate words and speech may benefit through work with the verbal symbols of poetry. And for those more visually oriented, painting perhaps, or … sculpture.

This at least has become a part of Ajahn Vimalo’s life of practice. Having begun when a layman, with no prior background in the necessary skills except the eye and the hand for detail he needed as a professional photo retoucher, Aj. Vimalo (then called Paul Hendrick, and already a longtime supporter of Luang Por Sumedho’s Sangha) began by making a small Buddha image or two. He then embarked on a labour of love that would last over 20 years, from seeing a picture in a book of the famous Javan Prajna Paramita, to finishing his own interpretation based on an exact replica, forming a mould himself and proceeding to cast his own copies.

Three have already been made, and another will follow: Prajna images for Cittaviveka, Amaravati, the siladhara nuns’ community and, it now looks like another will be heading to India to the Tibetan nunnery being built by Tenzin Palmo. Ajahn Vimalo plans to continue until the end of this year as long as he has enough materials, and then, finally, stop the work.

Prajna Paramita means the ‘perfection of wisdom’ (Sanskrit for the Pali, pañña parami). In Mahayana Buddhist traditions it became associated with important teachings, and was often represented in a female form. As abbot of Cittaviveka Monastery and one who was responsible for ‘commissioning’ Ajahn Vimalo’s continued work on the image, Ajahn Sucitto was asked to write a few paragraphs about it, and the recent occasion where the Prajna was installed in the Cittaviveka Dhamma Hall.

Although it might appear that renouncing song and dance is a kind of prudish fearful movement away from the natural energies of life, those who practise Dhamma know that, far from running away from the feelings we’ve stopped acting out, renunciation is a tool that serves to bring them closer into focus. We then have an option other than suppression on the one hand and expression on the other. Ajahn Thanasanti speaks very well about this in her words on Celibacy and Sublimation.

Also, Ajahn Karuniko, the second most senior monk at Chithurst, shares his recent experiences on pilgrimage to some of the sacred sites of Sri Lanka. Noting how grateful he felt to be in a culture where the saffron robe is recognized and appreciated, I thought myself how far along things have come towards greater familiarity here in Europe. These days we are at least usually recognized as belonging to something monastic. Yet I remember an example some years ago when our monks were taken for something different, by a group of local punk rockers on a city train in Bern. ‘Where are you from?’, they asked, and the monks responded, ‘England.’ Keen to know the latest underground fashion the punks pointed to the monks’ robes and asked with interest, ‘So, is that what they’re wearing in London?’

With all best wishes for the Vassa,


Bhikkhu Jayanto 




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