Tapping the Monastic Roots of Buddhism

Just now this morning in downtown Lebanon, the church bells are ringing reminding me that it was one week ago today that ten of us joined together for the monthly Sunday morning Valley Insight gathering at AVA Gallery. After a brief time of meditation, we watched FEARLESS MOUNTAIN, a documentary on the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Northern California. “Abhayagiri” means “fearless mountain,” an apt description of its natural setting and of the inner development that comes through Buddhist practice. The subtitle of this insightful film is:  A timeless message of hope for the modern world.

Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia, who was in town to lead the meditation/workshop on clinging the day before, was able to stay for the film and facilitate the discussion. She is an ordained lay minister under the auspices of this monastery and had just returned from a visit there. Taraniya has spent many years of practice in the British monasteries in the Ajahn Chah lineage; Abhaygiri is in this tradition. She spoke to us of the Buddha’s wisdom in creating what is known as the “four-fold sangha”; that is laymen and women practitioners and monastic men and women practitioners in interdependent relationship. Those people interviewed in the documentary represented three of these four “folds.”

One man who has lived near the monastery for many years said that, although the access to Dhamma teachings is definitely of great value to him, of deepest importance is the direct joyful experience he has almost daily through his offering organic vegetables from his garden to the monks. Walking up the road to the monastery with a basket of fresh vegetables “is enough”, he reported. He said he would feel something was missing in his life if there weren’t a monastery nearby.

A young monk spoke eloquently of life in the monastery where, he realized, he has simply traded his “college suffering” for “monastery suffering.” Through much greater awareness on his part of these ongoing mental habits and views that lead to suffering, they have been transformed while being held within the context of his deepening understanding of Dhamma in his experience at Abhayagiri.

We showed FEARLESS MOUNTAIN to the men in our prison Sangha last month. Afterwards they were speaking of what was similar in monastic life to their experience in a prison and what was not, when one man said, “What is different is that they chose to be there, and we didn’t choose to be here.” Other men began to agree with the statement, but one older, long-time prison resident interrupted softly and kindly, “I have to disagree. All of us chose to be here, in prison. Our very actions, decisions and intentions have led us here.” This understanding of Karma as cause and effect, i.e. that our actions have an effect in this world, has been allowing a deep healing to emerge for this man. Once we own our actions and intentions, we can objectively look and see: Are they wise or unwise? With this kind of reflection, they begin to change. We all agreed that the decision to become a monk had had more wisdom than the choices that led to prison; we also agreed that the prison can become a place of transformation.

The young monk’s realizations about suffering in and out of the monastery and the older prisoner’s thoughts both remind me of a story told by Jack Kornfield. When he arrived at the door of a monastery in Thailand asking to be allowed to become a novice monk, the Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah asked him if he were prepared to suffer because, he said, “Here we teach the suffering that leads to the end of suffering.” Mindful awareness transitions suffering (whether we become aware of it in a monastic setting, a prison or our daily life) into faith, an abiding commitment to practice and wise reflection; and in this way, to wisdom and liberation. Monasteries provide an intense and specific laboratory for wisdom to arise, both for those who are in the institution and for those of us who participate, support, witness and are inspired by the process.

Along with the realization of the roots of our suffering, we also become more familiar with the happiness of giving vegetables and the moments of letting go of what we thought we knew, what we thought we were– those times of non-suffering in our lives. The joy of the monks of FEARLESS MOUNTAIN is contagious. It is a happy place and a happy film.

When she was asked why she chose to spend so much time at the monasteries, Taraniya said that in living her life she wants to create the conditions for the best in her to arise and that the monastery does this for her. This is another wise understanding of Karma (and a wonderful example of non-attachment to self-view as solid, consistent and unchangeable): How we behave, speak and think in any moment is created and conditioned. Last Sunday one sangha member spoke of the beauty of her home and its natural surrounding as being conducive to peace of mind and ease of heart. Though she stated that sometimes she feels guilty about having access to this, we all reflected on the importance of creating a safe and comfortable place for ourselves when possible. Wise contentment (“wise” meaning that it is held with an understanding of the 4 noble truths, Karma, impermanence, suffering and emptiness) is conducive of greater wisdom, compassion and happiness.

FEARLESS MOUNTAIN doesn’t show the fourth fold of the four-fold sangha, i.e. nuns – monastic women, simply because it has only monks in residence at this time. As you will see elsewhere in this newsletter, we do have Ajahn Metta, a Buddhist nun from the Ajahn Chah order, coming to visit and lead our Monday sitting group on June 28th. This will be a wonderful opportunity to have contact with a woman who has chosen to devote her life to realization of the promise of the Buddha’s teaching – peace, kindness, love, liberation. She too has spent much time at the British monasteries and some at Abhayagiri practicing in the direction of “fearless mountain.”

Though we in the Upper Valley are very fortunate to have a number of practice and study centers very near and a monastery in the Ajahn Chah tradition in Ontario, we don’t have a Buddhist monastery nearby. Sitting with Ajahn Metta will allow us to touch the ancient, current and ever-evolving relationship of Buddhist lay and monastic practitioners, which has a great deal to do with “a timeless message of hope for the modern world.”

May you enjoy the light of the solstice and the dawning of summer.

Peace and best wishes,

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