On June 30th, 2006, the 12th Western Buddhist Monastic Conference was held on the east coast after many years of meeting annually on the west coast. Monastics came from all over the country and beyond for five days of retreat and fellowship.
We were hosted by The Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia, a Theravada Forest Monastery and Meditation Center. Set in a forest with
kutis (individual cabins) spaced out among the trees, with winding paths for walking to the sound of the rushing creek, rustling leaves and the croaks of frogs, the Center featured a graceful meditation hall, a Buddhist library, a dining hall, and a Sangha hall.
This year’s theme was “Holding the Ancient Traditions.” Bhante Gunaratana, a Bhikkhu from Sri Lanka who has been ordained for 59 years and the Abbot of Bhavana, opened the conference. Rev. Daishin Yalon from Shasta Abbey, a Soto Zen Monastery, spoke on the meaning and benefits of celibacy. He explained how Soto Zen in Japan was not a celibate order, but that in the West, the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives decided to make celibacy a requirement.
Dharma Master Heng Liang spoke on the history of Dharma Realm Buddhist Association (DRBA) and the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, and explained how the Venerable Master Hua set things up so DRBA could continue operating after his passing. This inspired discussion on how to organize a large order and how to make the transition after the Founder passes on. Heng Liang Shr also imparted the Venerable Master Hua’s mission of establishing an indigenous Sangha in the West that faithfully upholds the Buddha’s instructions, and the Three Guidelines and Six Principles that he left as an inspiration and standard for the Sangha.
In an evening discussion on pindapata (the Pali word for alms round), monastics from various traditions shared personal stories. The Shasta Abbey monastics have begun doing regular alms rounds with a gift of large alms bowls from the Theravada Abhayagiri Monastery. Bhante Buddharakkhita of Uganda reported that when he first started doing alms rounds in Africa, people either thought his large bowl was a bomb and ran away in fear, or they mistook if for a drum and started beating on it. Bhante Gunaratana recalled that as a young monk in Sri Lanka, he was responsible for doing the daily alms round to feed everyone in the temple, and he had to visit all sixty households in the local village in a single morning. Ajahn Amaro of Abhayagiri Monastery recounted how a homeless man once offered him a nickel, the only thing he had, but when told that monastics did not accept money, he responded, “Cool!” and promised to give food next time.
The next morning everyone had an opportunity to actually experience
pindapata. Some were driven into the nearest city, Winchester. Others did alms rounds of various lengths in the forest (the 79 year old Bhante Gunaratana led a two hour walk), receiving offerings from local donors. It was a powerful experience of mindfulness, as one walks slowly and spreads thoughts of loving-kindness (metta) to all beings.
Ven. Khenmo Nyima Drolma, a Bhikshuni from the Kagyu Tibetan tradition, described her efforts to start Tibetan nunnery in Vermont. She commented that Tibetan teachers are telling their American disciples to set up training centers and strict guidelines for ordination and monastic life. She brought up the issue of health care, a concern for Westerners seeking to ordain. The exorbitant costs of health care and insurance seem to be at odds with the life of a mendicant. There was also a lively and informative discussion on Tibetan esoteric practice.
Bhante Bodhi, a Theravada Bhikkhu and translator of many Pali scriptures, described a current phenomenon in Buddhism. Many lay Buddhist teachers teach mindfulness meditation as a therapeutic technique for overcoming alienation from self, others, and nature caused by modern society, but the Dharma’s greater purpose as a liberation tradition from samsara. In ensuing discussions, the group agreed on the need to emphasize the role of the Sangha as the torchbearer of the Buddha’s teachings, and the purpose of monastic life in the quest for ultimate liberation. Since the establishment of Buddhism in the West requires a flourishing indigenous Sangha, it is important to have nourishing examples of committed monastics in the West that will inspire more people to leave the home life.
Venerable Thubten Chodron, a Bhikshuni from the Gelugpa Tibetan tradition, reported on the status of the effort to initiate Bhikshuni ordinations in Tibetan Buddhism, which never had a Bhikshuni lineage. With the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, some progress has been made. A committee of learned Bhikshunis from various traditions, including Chinese Mahayana, have met with Tibetan Vinaya Masters to investigate the Vinaya and the history of Bhikshuni transmissions. Participants at the Monastic Conference were hopeful that the effort will be successful as the Buddha obviously intended for there to be Bhikshunis.
Bhante Gunaratana closed the session by summarizing the presentations and commenting on the difficulty of monastic life in the West. He told a story of how one of Bhavana’s monks was at the airport, sending out thoughts of metta as usual. As he passed through security, a drug-sniffing dog came up to him in a friendly way and wagged its tail. Unfortunately, security officers were convinced that the monk was smuggling drugs and demanded to know where the drugs were. The moral of the story was that while metta is supposed to be practiced unconditionally, one should not practice it in the presence of drug-sniffing dogs at the airport!
All in all, the forty-one participants represented approximately ten Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. The fully ordained monastics ranged in Dharma age from 59 years to six months. The richness of Dharma study and monastic living experience of this group was an encouragement of living the Left Home Life especially appreciated by the younger participants.
Next year’s Conference will be held in June at the City of the Dharma Realm in Sacramento.