In September 1987 Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzburg and Howard Cohn visited Amaravati Buddhist Centre in Hertfordshire, England. During a warm and informal meeting with the abbot, Ajahn Sumedho, they reaffirmed the interest that has been growing in establishing branches of the monastic sangha on American soil.
Joseph Goldstein asked if we would write an article describing how Theravada Buddhism is lived and practiced at our monasteries here in England. It is hoped that the following might go some way toward fulfilling this request. We would also like to extend a welcome to all interested people to come and visit, and experience our lifestyle and practice at first hand.
There is a peaceful serenity about the beautiful English countryside. Its rolling green hills provide a tranquil and conducive setting for cultivating the way of the Buddha. This ancient teaching has long interested many British people, an interest which has flourished over the last few years. One of the more recent developments, however, has a particular significance: Men and women born in the West are now able to become Buddhist monks and nuns in Britain. They shave their heads and wear the traditional robes of the Theravada, but receive instruction in Dhamma-Vinaya in the English language. This is a sign that the lotus flower of the dhamma is truly able to grow and be cultivated here in the West.
This more recent development traces its beginnings back to 1956, when a trust was set up by some people interested in establishing a bhikkhu sangha in England. However, early attempts to achieve this aim did not meet with sustained success. It was not until 1976, when the chairman of the trust met one of the senior Western disciples of Ajahn Chah (ajahn means “teacher” in Thai)—a highly respected Thai forest meditation master—that fortunes began to change. That disciple was Ajahn Sumedho, an American who had spent ten years as a monk in the forest monasteries of northeast Thailand.
From that meeting came an invitation for Ajahn Chah to make a visit to England, which he did the following year, accompanied by Ajahn Sumedho and an English monk. Ajahn Chah judged the situation in England to be worth an experiment and returned alone to Thailand, leaving the monks to continue their practice in their new urban environment, living in a small townhouse in North London.
Eleven years later the picture looks somewhat different. From that modest beginning has grown a monastic order of thirty-seven monks (bhikkhus), sixteen nuns (siladhara) and nineteen male and female novices (anagarikas), of over fourteen nationalities. Six monasteries have been established—four in rural Britain, one in New Zealand and one in Switzerland. They comprise a large Buddhist Center and a training monastery—both in Britain—and four small viharas (monastic residences).
Besides being places for the monastic Sangha to live and train, the monasteries act as focal points for the wider Buddhist community. People of many cultures, backgrounds and affiliations can gather to hear and practice the teachings and reaffirm their faith in the Triple Gem—the Buddha, dhamma and sangha.
The last twenty years have seen a great upsurge of interest in Buddhism in the West, particularly in the practice of meditation. In the movement from East to West, differing Buddhist cultural perspectives have affected each other in beneficial and sometimes unexpected ways. Such differences can be helpful to reflect upon.
For the rational Westerner, there can be mixed feelings towards the traditional Asian approach to Buddhism. As Wes Nisker described in his recent Inquiring Mind travelogue:
“Buddhism in Asia is not synonymous with meditation practice as it is here in the West. In Theravada countries most laypeople pray to the Buddha as a god and often ask the Buddha for favors or for merit. Buddhism in Asia is a religion. Although it feels alien to me, having rejected all that, I am touched by this lay worship, and sometimes wish it were more a part of my life…”
Eastern and Western minds can display very different tendencies, as was once observed by an English monk living in Sri Lanka:
“In Europe, intellectualism takes precedence over tradition; in the East it is the reverse. In dhamma terms, the European has an excess of panna (wisdom) over saddha (faith) and he tends to reject what he cannot understand, even if it is true; the Oriental has an excess of saddha over panna, which leads him to accept anything ancient, even if it is false.”
Joseph Goldstein, also writing in the Inquiring Mind, sees some danger in the Western tendency to pick and choose:
“A great concern is that this profound teaching of liberation will be diluted in the transmission of the dharma to the West. If we pay attention only to those aspects of the dharma which conform to our established world view, then our practice may become a matter of simply feeling good or even just doing good, and thus fail to at least test the waters of a more comprehensive understanding.”
However, when people of East and West are willing to learn from each other, they can discover qualities that can strengthen and balance their different approaches to Buddhism.
In the 1960s and ’70s many Westerners, disillusioned with materialistic values, were attracted by the spirituality of the East. Some, including Jack Kornfield, Christopher Titmuss, John Orr and Ajahn Sumedho, found their way to the forest monasteries of Thailand to try the bhikkhu lifestyle. A few decided to stay on. Although he spoke no English, Ajahn Chah seemed to be especially gifted at teaching Westerners. So many eventually gathered around him that he established an international monastery, where Dhamma-Vinaya could be taught in the English language. Ajahn Sumedho was installed as the abbot.
At that time, when their own country was undergoing a period of rapid modernization, many Thais saw America as leading the way toward a rosy future of material plenty. It intrigued them that young people from the West should spurn such apparent riches and journey to Thailand to live with old forest monks in the most down-home rural areas. Increasing numbers of Thai lay people have now turned to take a fresh look at their own religious traditions and culture and have developed an interest in the practice of meditation. In the past, meditation had generally been regarded as being solely for those in monasteries.
Many Westerners who went to Thailand to explore the practice of meditation were, in turn, influenced by Eastern ways. The generosity, faith and devotion that permeates Thai culture was for them an instructive example of a more graceful way of living—one of joy, respect and concern for others. Traditionally the Buddhist Path is separated into three aspects—dana (generosity), sila (virtuous conduct) and bhavana (cultivation of the heart, or meditation). When Ajahn Chah started teaching Westerners, Thai people often asked why he just taught them meditation, without stressing the first two steps. He replied that Westerners would in due course find it impossible to make progress without cultivating generosity of heart and a good moral foundation. He was, however, content to let them find this out for themselves.
On beginning to practice, Westerners often thought that meditation meant sitting for long periods in quiet places with no disturbances. Ajahn Chah’s frequent response to this attitude was to frustrate their efforts to seek out tranquility. The emphasis in his monasteries was on surrender to a busy community lifestyle. Investigation of dhamma in all situations was encouraged, not just in formal meditation practice, and great stress was placed upon careful and attentive observance of the vinaya—the monastic rule:
“Our practice really isn’t that difficult; there’s not much to it . . . simple things like cleaning basins and washing bowls, performing one’s duty to one’s elders. Keeping rooms and toilets clean are important. This is not crude or menial work. Rather you should understand it is the most refined . . . Take care of moral discipline as a gardener takes care of trees. Don’t discriminate between big and small, important and unimportant. Some people want short cuts. They say, “forget concentration, we’ll go straight for insight” or “forget moral discipline, we’ll go straight for concentration.” Westerners are generally in a hurry, so they have greater extremes of happiness and suffering. The fact that they have many defilements can be a source of wisdom later on . . . Don’t be concerned with how long it may take to see results, just do it. Like growing a tree, you plant it, water it, feed it, keep the bugs away. If these things are done properly, the tree will grow naturally. The speed of the growing is something you can’t control.”
At first, life in the West was quite difficult for the newly arrived forest monks who found themselves living in urban London. However, their training and the practical wisdom of Ajahn Sumedho helped them to adapt to their new surroundings, and a few more Western monks came from Thailand to join them. Interest in the fledgling monastic order grew, and in 1979 they were able to move to a larger house in the countryside of southern England. This was the first step toward the creation of a proper monastery.
Shortly after the move, despite the fact that there were no nuns yet, four women expressed interest in joining the monastic community. In Thailand there are white-robed nuns holding the Eight Precepts. However they have much less social status than Bhikkhus in Thai society; (the Bhikkhuni Order, the womens’ equivalent, disappeared in the Theravada over 1,000 years ago). Although Ajahn Sumedho had no experience in training nuns, he was impressed by the women’s determination and sincerity, and decided to make use of the Eight Precept form for the time being, as it provides a basis upon which to begin monastic training. So these four women, of very different ages and backgrounds, took a step into the unknown and became the first Theravada Buddhist nuns in Britain.
(These are observed by the novices and resident lay visitors to the monasteries.)
Harmlessness: to refrain from intentionally taking the life of any creature
Trustworthiness: to refrain from taking anything which is not given
Restraint: to refrain from sexual activity and indulgence in sensuality
Right Speech: to refrain from false, abusive or malicious speech
Sobriety: to refrain from taking intoxicating drink or drugs
Abstinence: to refrain from eating after noon
Renunciation: to refrain from entertainments, self-adornment and provocative dress
Moderation: to refrain from overindulgence in sleep
By 1983 it had become clear that more space was needed. Chithurst could no longer cope with the increasing numbers wishing to join the community and the general widening of interest in the teachings. Although two small viharas had been set up—in the southwest and in the north of England—accommodating the expansion of the monastic Sangha was not the only consideration. Ajahn Sumedho felt that the needs of the time required a larger place, one that would greatly broaden opportunities for dhamma practice.
After a search, a former school was purchased, set in the Hertfordshire countryside quite close to London. The name chosen, Amaravati, meaning “the Deathless Realm,” echoes an oft-quoted stanza attributed to the Buddha: “Open are the doors of the Deathless, let those who can hear give forth their faith.” This reflects the spirit of openness and optimism which characterizes the intention for the new center.
In the four years since the opening of Amaravati Buddhist Centre, the site has been converted and developed, and the monastic community again has had to undertake most of the renovation and construction work itself. Support and interest have blossomed, and people in large numbers now come to visit, stay and practice here. A variety of teaching activities are offered—beginners’ meditation classes, public talks and family days—and retreats are held at a self-contained retreat facility on part of the site. Outside teaching invitations are also accepted. Behind all the comings and goings however, the steady rhythm of monastic life continues, imparting a sense of tranquillity to the many facets of the center.
The future, as we are often reminded, is uncertain. In Thailand, Ajahn Chah now lies paralyzed from a stroke and is not expected to live much longer. Requests have come from many countries to send people to start monasteries, but it is not possible to expand rapidly. It takes time for monastic training to bear fruit. Recently there has been much talk of American interest. But, as Ajahn Sumedho used to remind the monks during the early days in London,
“We didn’t come here to build monasteries or to spread Buddhism, or for any other reason. Our duty is to do the practice, that is all. Everything will flow from that in its own time, according to its own nature. We don’t need to concern ourselves with anything else.”
At Oaktree House that morning there had been a great flurry of activity, tidying this, cleaning that, and dusting everywhere. We were a community of young people practicing vipassana meditation with the various dhamma teachers around. It was the mid-seventies, and this was a very good place to be, with people dedicated to dhamma making efforts to share and live harmoniously. We had hour-long group sittings morning and evening and would attend as many retreats during the year as time would allow.
There was an air of anticipation as we rushed around straightening everything up. In the midst of it all there was a knock at the door. My heart missed a beat; the feeling of both joy and fear came welling up inside. We opened the door and Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho and Venerable Anando were standing there. The world seemed to stop for a moment, in which the morning’s hasty cleanup now seemed so absurd. They came in and we showed them into the spacious dining room. To us this place was idyllic, a four-hundred-year-old thatched farmhouse set in a beautiful garden, with a large vegetable patch, an orchard, outbuildings and even a tennis court.
The monks sat at the large round dining room table in silence. I’d taken a seat next to Ajahn Chah, unaware at that time of the etiquette which is observed when relating to monks, just feeling joy in my heart. His presence was so powerful; one felt almost exposed. He looked around the table at the vivacious young people, surveying the scene. He seemed to be looking beyond appearances—the silence was almost too much . . .
After a while he spoke in Thai. Ajahn Sumedho translated: “Are you bored yet?”
That simple question struck a deep chord, touching something I’d been feeling for quite a while. It was like awakening from a dream. “Yes,” I thought, “I’m weary, weary of being on the wheel, going round and round; yes, I feel as if I’ve had enough.” I was just twenty-one then and already was feeling the irresistible pull toward liberation, drawn like a moth to a candle flame.
That was ten years ago now; it’s funny how things work out. Sometimes you think you know what’s going on, but then you find . . .
One year after that meeting around the dining room table, I was visiting one of Ajahn Chah’s monasteries in Thailand. The Western nun there said to me, “It’s like a web. You’re a fly, flying around, you’re attracted to the web and you land on it. You go to move and find you’re stuck; you realize you can’t get off the web. Well, that’s it. The pull toward freedom is like that. Once you’re caught it’s just a question of letting go and allowing yourself to be pulled in.” (Easier said than done, of course.)
Not long after meeting her I took ordination as an Eight-Precept nun myself, at Chithurst Monastery, with three other women. This was the beginning of our venture into the monastic Sangha.
This summer at Amaravati I was involved in coordinating a family summer camp for about fifty children and their parents. This was a far cry from what I originally envisaged when I took ordination in 1979, but I’ve found that as one lets go of fixed ideas about the way things “should be” and instead adapts to the changing flow of how things actually unfold, then surprising things can happen. To look without judgment requires a deep letting go, with no holding, pushing away, contriving or controlling. The more clearly one sees, the more one can relate spontaneously from wisdom and compassion. Trusting dhamma in this way, one finds the doorway to true peace.