The Tenth Annual Western Buddhist Monastic Conference was held this year at Land of Medicine Buddha, in Soquel, near Santa Cruz, California. Thirty monks and nuns from the Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese traditions represented Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhist schools. This gathering marked the tenth anniversary of the North American Monastic Sangha as it emerges in North America. The theme was Simplicity and Renunciation, and the organizers of the event, Reverend Heng Sure and Venerable Losang Drimay facilitated the daily councils and discussion groups that ensued. In the afternoon the group went to Seacliff Beach in Aptos to offer purified water to “Feed the Pretas,” or hungry ghosts and suffering beings at the ocean side.
Day two was a full moon day and the fully ordained monks and nuns from different traditions recited the Pratimoksha—their rules of training—together, thus dissolving barriers between lineage and robe color. The Bhikshus recited the Rules under the rising full moon on a hilltop above Land of Medicine Buddha.
One of the highlights of the gathering was a conversation with a senior Tibetan Lama Choden Rimpoche, who told of his decades of practice in seclusion while under house arrest in Tibet.
Keynote speakers related personal experiences of alms rounds, Vinaya practice and adaptation to Western culture, decision-making and conflict-resolution in the Sangha, avoiding burn out, living in community vs. living on one’s own, among others. Following each the five keynote talks, attendees met in smaller groups to discuss the topics in detail. Reverend Kusala of the Vietnamese Zen tradition spoke about his own reasons for ordaining. “Families cause much suffering, and being single leads to contentment. Families take money and focus. By leaving family behind I leave behind the potential for lust. In a relationship there has to be two, a girl and a guy. Celibacy levels the playing field. With celibacy you can see how lust arises daily; you can see how to control it.”
Reverend Kusala works with youth in several juvenile halls in the Los Angeles area. He says, “I talk to them in a language they can understand. And before I leave I pull out my harmonica and play the blues. It’s a sound they can relate to.”
Heng Ch’ih, a Bhikshuni with 35 years in robes ordained in the Chinese Mahayana tradition, questioned how the Sangha resolves issues of decision-making and administration: some use consensus, hierarchy, or democratic models. As the Sangha grows, the need to make decisions harmoniously becomes more challenging. A whole new level of difficulty arises when we attempt to combine Buddhist traditions.
Reverend Meian of Shasta Abbey offered reflections around balancing work and practice, and how to simplify life, or at least keep the mind simple in the midst of complexity. In the past few years, Shasta Abbey has begun doing alms round in the local town of Mt. Shasta, and has shifted their support base to relying completely on voluntary donations (dana). “We aren’t allowed to ask for food. We actually walk quite fast; maybe too fast! But people give offerings, and they appreciate the opportunity to give. That’s what we’re trying to be: a field of merit for the world.” Bhante Rahula, a Theravada monk living at Bhavana Society in West Virginia, talked about living with a simple mind in a more complicated environment.
Ajahn Viradhammo of the Thai Forest Tradition greatly appreciated the simplicity of his early days in Thailand. “While I was living in the forest the amount of greed I experienced over a simple mango was embarrassing—it was absurd and ridiculous. There weren’t multiple outlets for greed so the mind focused it all on a mango.”
Venerable Thubten Chodron, a nun of the Tibetan tradition, reflected on the aspiration to be devoted to her new center—Sravasti Abbey in northern Washington State. “I always found myself in complex situations. I was only a junior nun and was having to face things that brought out the anger in the mind, the anger I thought I didn’t have.” Sravasti Abbey is the first Tibetan training center of its kind in the U.S., and is run completely on a voluntary donation (dana) basis.
Alms rounds were discussed at length, particularly how the Theravada monks of Abhayagiri Monastery walk with their bowls once a week in the local city of Ukiah. The monks at Shasta Abbey have begun regular alms rounds in the town of Mt. Shasta. Reverend Shoho of Green Gulch Zen Farms walked regularly for alms in downtown San Francisco.
Many monastics, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, live on their own without a supporting lay community and have to work to support themselves. Reverend Meian told a story of a dedicated nun who lives in an RV. She waited 30 years to ordain and has completed a 100 day intensive session on her own, without community support.
The Buddha’s Sangha in India split into factions and schools and never returned into a unified community. Now in North America the opportunity exists to resolve the accumulated issues and set down the sectarian baggage carried for centuries. As Chan Master Hsuan Hua said when he invited monks of all traditions to join together to ordain new monastics: It’s time for the Northern School to stop moving to the North, and it’s time for the Southern tradition to turn around and meet in the Middle, where there is only one Dharma.”
The group tallied their collective years of ordination and discovered that as a group we had been in precept robes a total of 500 years.