One day, in the early nineties, I arrived at a daylong retreat at which Vipassana Santa Cruz was hosting the visiting Ajahn Amaro. I remember mostly his brilliant smile, his ears, and his monks’ robes. We offered him his lunch that day under a huge tree in a nearby park. And I saw that this was as it had been for centuries: the local people gathered to receive inspired teachings and to offer a visiting monk his food. Fifteen years later, after many monastic retreats and several visits to Abhayagiri Monastery in California and the monasteries in England, I again watched as the students of Vipassana Santa Cruz offered Ajahn Amaro the midday meal, this time at the opening of our new center. I realized that our center was well rooted in a long lineage of practice, and I wept.
Ajahn Amaro has a particular teaching that resonates with many and is remembered by all who hear it: when saying goodbye to someone, remember that you might never see them again and say, “Goodbye forever.” It is a difficult practice; we so yearn to see each other again. So Ajahn Amaro, in honor of your teachings and with deep bows of gratitude and respect, we your colleagues, friends and students say, “Dear Bhante, goodbye forever!”
—Mary Grace Orr
“Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.”
—T. S. Eliot, from Little Gidding
In the fall of 1989 at Amaravati Monastery near London, during a conversation over a cup of coffee with Ajahn Sumedho, he mentioned a growing interest from the lay community in the San Francisco Bay Area in starting a branch monastery there. He thought it might be good for one of our monks to visit for a few weeks, establish a temporary vihara, and “test the waters.” I innocently asked, “Do you have any particular monk in mind?” To my surprise he replied, “Well, actually, Venerable, I was thinking of you.”
At that time I had never been to the USA, and it took me a while to attune myself to what might be useful for the Buddhist community there. On my first visit in 1990 it became clear that the kind of people who were attracted to Theravadan monastic practice were not looking for or expecting a quick fix. They were not looking just for spiritual entertainment either. When I returned in 1991 with a list of suggested titles for talks—like “The Myth of the Hero,” “Buddhist Metaphysics,” “The Joker” and “Navigating the Straits of Paradox”—the group looked at me plaintively and asked, “Couldn’t you just give talks on the Four Noble Truths and the Three Characteristics, Ajahn?” It’s still the same today: People want us to be conservative.
Reflecting on our “early days,” I recall that the people we seemed to meet the most had been practicing vipassana meditation for a number of years. A prominent feature of this group’s style of practice was the conscious movement away from traditionalist Theravada Buddhist forms. Spiritual practice was shaped around formal sitting and walking meditation and blended with a Western psychological vernacular to describe the inner world being investigated. This has worked well—very many people have found inspiration and benefit from this approach—but it seemed that for some we met, there were areas of spiritual practice left unaddressed . . . or at least some potential in their hearts which had not had the opportunity to flower.
One area where this difficulty appeared is in the basic premise that motivates the practice. By couching spiritual work in a psychological idiom—even though it is thereby more accessible—the practice can be construed in terms of “me and my problems, which I have got to get rid of.” This is fair enough—“me without problems” is much more attractive an idea than “me with problems.” However, the longer this premise is followed blindly, the greater the resulting anguish.
According to classical Buddhist understanding, the person doesn’t have problems, the person is the problem. It is because we conceive of everything in terms of me and mine, in an absolute sense, that we continue to suffer. We have to make a paradigm shift from “me and my problems” to “the Buddha seeing the Dhamma.” Buddha wisdom is the ultimate subject—the One Who Knows. And Dhamma—the Way Things Are, Nature—is the ultimate object, which can have no owner. As this shift is made, the heart is liberated. The world is still the way it is, but it’s no longer a problem, and it’s certainly not mine.
A second area of hazy misunderstanding was devotional practice. At one of the first ten-day retreats we offered, in Santa Rosa, we had a period of chanting and bowing before the shrine at the start of each morning and evening meditation. It took a good few days for many people to get a feel for the role of puja (devotional ritual) in relationship to meditation and self-knowledge. However, by the fourth or fifth day we noticed more and more vigor coming into the pujas. Ritual and devotion can be a way of reasserting, on the emotional plane, the aspiration to enlightenment—a way of engaging the faculties of the heart, along with those of the head, in empowering the practice of the Path.
The pujas were done in English to lend a little more to their relevance, and they became a keynote in the practice for many people. They made such an impact, in fact, that by the end of the retreat some of the “skeptics,” one of whom was a leader of the local vipassana community, professed themselves to have been thoroughly sold. There is a natural need in us to honor that which is good, higher, more noble, and it seems that people realized that making appropriate gestures of respect on the material level can be something beautiful. In our hearts we are bowing to wisdom, truth and virtue, to purity, radiance and peacefulness, not to a golden idol.
In the many years since my arrival, it has been a delight and an honor to join in the unfolding of the Dhamma in this American landscape, and to help the monastic form of practice take hold. Now a U.S. citizen, I imagined myself growing old in this, my adoptive homeland. But in the fall of 2009, twenty years after his initial request, Ajahn Sumedho surprised me again. This time, owing to his keenness to retire from the leadership roles he has held for more than forty years, he asked me to return to England to take over as abbot of Amaravati.
As I return home to the small island where I grew up, I am aware of a radical shift in my sense of space. In the U.S., a 200-mile journey to teach a daylong event seems inconsequential; in England I’d think, “That’s halfway across the country—I can’t go there just for the day!” In a similar way the years in America have broadened my internal sense of space; there is a lot more room to accommodate all that arises. I have been offered many gifts through the good hearts and enthusiastic spirits of the people of this fair country, but perhaps it is this more open spaciousness that is the greatest gift from my time here in the Golden State—with its big sky, its wheeling turkey vultures, its tree-clad hills, and the glowing dust of summer evenings.
Thank you all for this gift.
Adapted in part from Rugged Interdependency: A Monk’s Reflections on the American Buddhist Landscape, 1990–2007, published electronically by Abhayagiri Monastic Foundation and available for download at www.abhayagiri.org.