|Forest Sangha Newsletter||April 1992|
A Niche in the Woods
Ajahn Viradhammo stopped over in Britain for a few days in December. Normally based at Bodhinyanarama Monastery in Stokes Valley, New Zealand, he is invited every year to Canada by a group in Toronto who are interested in setting up a forest monastery nearby. That gives him a chance to visit his mother in Canada, the Sangha in Britain (he was one of the first bhikkhus to come over from Thailand in 1977) and the Sangha in Thailand on his way back to New Zealand. Such contacts with the larger Sangha are essential he feels, in order to learn from different approaches, keep up with developments and keep things in perspective. 'I miss the feed back,' he commented in the course of our brief conversation at Amaravati. With characteristic vigour and straightforwardness, 'Ajahn V' was gathering feedback from all corners in his brief visit to Britain. Visiting Chithurst, Amaravati and Harnham, and conversing with their resident Sangha and guests in the space of a week, takes some enthusiasm and stamina; but remembering him from the strenuous years spent in establishing Chithurst Monastery, this hardly seemed unusual.
Having trained in Thailand, helped establish Chithurst, worked in the early days at Harnham, and now living in New Zealand with a yearly world tour, have your perspectives on the role and responsibilities of a bhikkhu developed?
One thing I suppose is. . . I realise now what my niche is. I see the value in going around and meeting people. I didn't see the value for the world at large when I was in Thailand; I just saw the value for myself and I never had the vision of having value for society. And in travelling around I see there is a lot of misunderstanding of what a bhikkhu is and why this tradition is needed. Why not have money, a car and a brown suit? Why do you have to hassle people with all your rules? Why don't you adapt to the times?
If one does not have a kind of mind which likes to research the text and language, then perhaps it is helpful to have more formalised ways of study in our tradition.
So that's one misconception I see: people don't understand that the bhikkhu life offers a way of training - the teaching is secondary.
And then I also see there are very few places that have a spiritual centre that they can plug into - whether it's Sangha or lay people - and always have the practice and be able to talk on Dhamma; values of non-competition and non-becoming. Competition and ambition are so strong in society. But one thing I realise we're offering is that very rare kind of situation which is of such great value. However, many lay people don't understand that they can share in it.
Also, I suppose I see that very few people have a philosophy of life where they have some kind of direction in their life. Many people just make do or try to be happy or think of things like feeding the poor - but finally, what's the point, if they're just going to watch more television, more Dallas? I recognise we're also offering people a life philosophy.
More specifically then, how are you going about creating situations for fuller understanding?
In the past I've been more involved with building up situations in terms of organisation, though of course I teach as well. Now I want to offer formal situations for Dhamma. Lay people do ask to be given formal structures to study. So, I want to learn how to create Dhamma situations which will bring lay people to the monastery. Like at Amaravari, where you have afternoon talks by Luang Por, you have children's summer camp, different kinds of publications, you study and have sutta discussion groups - the kind of things which I've never done much of because I've always been busy with organising things.
Also I want to give the Sangha more formal training in Dhamma. If one does not have a kind of mind which likes to research the text and language, then perhaps it is helpful to have more formalised ways of study in our tradition. So those are the kinds of things I would like to see happen also as a challenge to myself... because I'm the kind of person that tended to have no confidence in my own ideas - or I tended not to have any ideas!
Does Buddhism have a fairly good image in New Zealand; or is it seen as a strange cult?
No, I think now, especially in Stoke's Valley, we're treated with great respect. We've helped the police with some refugee matters, we've been active in the community centre, we donated excess food to them and got involved in communal things. We've had quite a high profile I suppose, because it's such a small community, with so few people doing spiritual things, and everyone seems to know about everyone else. So I feel very much involved with this.
And there are other Buddhist groups in New Zealand?
There's a few Asian bhikkhus, and a supportive Tibetan Sangha. I'm on the committee that is helping organise the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I'm on the national committee, and we have regional committees. Two of the national meetings have been in our monastery and we have a senior Tibetan Rimpoche coming with four nuns, and some of their monks. Lay people also. it's been a very harmonising situation with all these different traditions coming together.
I suppose, when you're at a big place like Amaravati, set up to hold a lot of active functions, you can fantasise about a quiet little place like New Zealand.
New Zealand is really romanticised as being the ideal place where there is no suffering! But yes, there is a lot more personal space because of the kutis; and because the bulk of the work now of establishing the monastery is done. So up until last year it was hard to get in a longer retreat, it was just getting stuff built, but that's done now. Now the building work is about adding facilities for the Sangha, so there is more space. But what the difficulty is, is the isolation. It can get quite claustrophobic because it's in a tight valley and you're always with the same seven people. There is nowhere else to go.
But each monastery has its challenges, and you figure out what the challenges are. I try to create some sense of space for people - that's possible now.
We've also been given a summer cottage. One of the original founders of the monastery died at the age of forty. His family gave us this. It's close to the sea. He was a Zen practitioner; he got involved with us to help set up, though his love was Zen. He had a brain haemorrhage two months before he was due to become a Zen monk in up-state New York. He was just about ready to sell his house, he was organising everything, and he just died in forty-eight hours. We had our first funeral at the monastery.
So we have a good involvement with the Zen people. Feels quite good.
During the Rains Retreat we have three months of formal practice. Two of the senior bhikkhus are involved with the teaching duties, so we don't have as strict a retreat as you do. Every Sunday twenty to thirty Lao people come to the monastery; someone is involved with running the place. So it has its challenges. One thing we really miss is that sense of a larger Sangha. With a larger Sangha, the younger monks can see what Sangha is about as distinct from the characters that are here.
I reckon that each monastery has its own variables, has its own lay people and monks, and you figure out what this place is about. You get on with helping it and helping your practice.
New Zealand has had a lot of experiments with communities, because it is that kind of romanticised place, but very few have lasted. I think a lot of people want the Dhamma but to practise as a spiritual community is very rare. I do not hear of many communities that are able to stick together and have a good Dhammic philosophy and good Vinaya. Very few people want to live as monks, or practice at all. So I find it inspiring and important that in some way we're actually doing it: that's our niche.
So I'm more and more confident about the value of what we're offering. Just look at what's happened at Amaravati, compared to 1977 when we were four bhikkhus and three lay people in a house in London. Because what's happening in New Zealand is what's happening everywhere. We're at the end of a suburb and we have lay people buying houses near us and a community has been able to form. So the society changes from the roots, rather than through the government changing society. And we're beginning to in our small way create a different kind of society.