in the West - October 2004 - City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
Row, L to R - Ajahn Sudanto,
Fr James Connor, Rev. Heng Sure, Abbot Mark Serna,
Rev. Kusala Bhikshu,
Bro Gregory Perron, Jang Chup Phelgyal, Fr Joseph Wong.........
Front Row, L to R
- Fr David Bock,
Ajahn Pasanno, Fr William Skudlarek, Dharma Master Heng
Lyu, Fr Daniel Ward, Lama Norbu
...by Fr William Skudlarek
A gathering of Monks in the West was first proposed at
the annual meeting of the Board of Directors of Monastic Interreligious
Dialogue in October 2003. At that meeting the Board received an enthusiastic
report from five of its members who had participated in the first
Nuns in the West meeting the previous May at the Hsi Lai
Temple in Hacienda Heights, California. After hearing how beneficial
it was for Buddhist and Catholic nuns to reflect together on what
it means to be a nun in the United States today, the board appointed
a committee to explore the possibility of sponsoring a similar meeting
for monks. It suggested that the topic for such a gathering be the
meaning and practice of celibacy in the monastic life.
Organizing the First Meeting of Monks in the West
The committee began its work by seeking advice from the Boards
advisors, one of whom suggested that it might be better to initiate
an interreligious dialogue on monastic life with a somewhat milder
topic: novice training, for example.
The committee then contacted the Buddhist monks who had participated
in the second Gethsemani Encounter in 2002 to determine whether or
not they or someone from their respective sanghas would be interested
in a meeting of this kind. The response was very positive. One of
the Buddhist monks, the Reverend Heng Sure, an American Chan (Chinese
Zen) monk, proposed that the meeting be held at his monastery, located
at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas near Ukiah, California. He also
offered to help plan for and organize the encounter.
We agreed that this first meeting would take place October 13-14,
2004, immediately prior to MIDs annual board meeting, which
was to be held at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California.
We also decided that the gathering would be relatively small and that
one of the items on the agenda would be to determine whether or not
to plan for a future, larger gathering of Monks in the West.
Seven of the fourteen monks on MIDs Board of Directors were
able to participate in this first gathering: four Benedictines (Daniel
Ward, Gregory Perron, Mark Serna, and William Skudlarek), two Cistercians
(David Bock and James Connor), and one Camaldolese (Joseph Wong).
Seven Buddhist monks also participated: Heng Lyu and Heng Sure (Chan);
Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Sudanto (Thai forest tradition); Norbu Lama
and Jang Chut Phelgyal (Tibetan); and Kusala Bhikshu (Zen).
Two Buddhist Settings
The Abbot of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Master Heng Lyu,
and the Reverend Heng Sure went out of their way to provide a gracious
and hospitable setting for our dialogue. We were invited to join the
monks and nuns (about 30 of the former and 70 of the latter) for their
chanting services in the Buddha Hall. They had a huge cross placed
in the Hall of Confucius, where we celebrated the Eucharist each day.
Since the monks and nuns eat only at mid-day, breakfast and dinner
were provided for us in the renowned vegetarian restaurant that is
run by lay affiliates.
We were given a special visit to the shrine in which are venerated
the sharira of the Venerable Master Husan Hua, the Founder
of the Dharma Realm Buddhism Association and the City of Ten Thousand
Buddhas, who died in 1995. Sharira,
the gleaming crystals that sometimes are formed when a body is
cremated, are regarded as a powerful sign that a person has entered
During our short two days we were also able to visit and conduct part
of our dialogue at the near-by monastery of Abhayagiri, the first
monastery in the United States to be established by followers of Ajahn
Chah, a respected Buddhist Master of the ancient Thai forest tradition
of Theravada Buddhism.
We also took time to call on their next door neighbors, the Ukranian
Catholic monks of Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Mt. Tabor), founded
by Archimandrite Boniface Luykx, a recognized theologian and liturgist
who died in Belgium earlier this year.
Our first day of dialogue was devoted to listening to the spiritual
autobiography of each participant, and was characterized by a frankness
that was both striking and refreshing. Each monk spoke of what drew
him to and keeps him faithful to the monastic way of
life. A list of possible topics for discussion, drawn up by the planning
committee, suggested areas that might be explored (See Above).
Some of the participants spoke of being attracted to the monastic
life when they were still young boys; others only thought of becoming
a monk later in life, after undergoing an existential crisis (I
am going to die) or experiencing the bitter aftertaste of material
success and sensual pleasure.
For some becoming a monk meant going off to a distant land and embracing
an entirely different culture; for others life in the monastery was
not all that different from the life they had experienced growing
up in a rather closed ethnic or religious community where all shared
the same values and customs.
In some cases becoming a monk meant expanded opportunities for education,
work, and travel; for others it demanded renunciation of success and
advancement in a chosen profession.
Some came to the monastic life with a good deal of experience in the
ways of the world; others confessed that they became monks
so as not to have to deal with their sexuality or other personal issues,
only to find that denial and repression made these same issues more
difficult to deal with later in life.
There were stories of difficult relationships with superiors or confreres,
some of which continue to cause pain and distrust.
Others spoke of how superiors trusted and supported them during times
of vocational crisis, thus helping them to trust themselves and to
deepen their commitment to the way of life they had chosen.
Again and again one heard of the struggle to remain faithful to contemplative
monastic practices while responding to the many demands that are made
on monks especially superiors either by their own communities
or by others. How can we keep our best monks from burning out?
was a question that was asked repeatedly.
Similarities and Differences
After listening to each others spiritual autobiography,
we named some of the common questions or concerns that emerged, as
well as differences we perceived between the Buddhist and Catholic
expressions of the monastic life:
* How do we keep our life authentic?
How do we integrate human happiness and development with a spiritual
* How can we articulate and witness to the monastic vocation as an
alternative to the marketplaces emphasis on pleasure and possessions,
showing that humans are more than the body and its appetites, that
Las Vegas is not the highpoint of a life well lived.
* What does it mean to be in community in the new millennium?
What happens to a community when women and children are removed from
* Are we dealing with two different understandings of monasticism
based on different understandings of the human person?
* How does one balance the need for solitude and for community in
human and monastic life?
* Does one become a monk to do something, or to be something? The
former understanding seems more typical of Buddhists; the latter of
* When is suffering fruitful?
What is the place of renunciation and abnegation in the monastic life?
* How do our different traditions relate to celibacy?
What is the place of authentic celibacy in the modern world?
* What has happened personally or institutionally that has distanced
us from a more heart-centered intimacy?
A Second Monks in the West
Finally, we took up the question of whether we would meet again,
and if so, for what purpose. The rapport, friendship, and encouragement
that we experienced left little doubt that we would want to continue
our relationship and invite other monks to benefit from engaging a
specifically monastic interreligious dialogue. Several of the participants
remarked that they wished they could experience more often in their
own communities the level of conversation we had with one another.
The topic for a follow-up meeting emerged quickly and was unanimously
accepted: Authentic Practices of Celibacy and Intimacy in Monastic
Communities of Men. We are looking at May 2006 as the time to
bring together about 30 Buddhist and Catholic monks to examine the
teaching of our monastic traditions on celibacy as well as to look
into more contemporary insights into sexuality and human development,
all for the purpose of helping one another live the monastic life
Reflections on 'Monks in the West' ...by Abbot Mark Serna
The most powerful and fundamental experience for me as I lived the
three days of dialogue with my Christian and Buddhist monastic brothers
was the deep sense of honesty, fraternity, mutual warmth, and depth
of desire for authentic living. Only with hindsight can I see that,
perhaps, each monk brought to the experience a desire (maybe not
even conscious) for connection, a space in which to speak and be
in ways that we at times find difficult or obstructed in our own
communities. The experience, therefore, was both refreshing and
alarming (in the literal sense of alarms being set off!). Consequently,
it is not surprising that the group should have organically settled
on the topic of celibacy and intimacy for its next gathering. After
all, in wholeness were we fashioned from our mothers womb,
and our hearts thirst for a life of integrity which takes account
of our entire selves.
The time shared in silent meditation at the beginning of each morning,
the laughter at meal times, the conversation about personal matters
(both serious and light), all punctuated the fact that supporting
the dialogue between practitioners of different religious traditions
there is a commonality of human experience. For example, as I talked
with one of my Buddhist brothers about being an abbot (we both assumed
the abbatial role early in life), it was wonderful and strangely
consoling to see that his experiences were very much like mine in
terms of what happens to the psyche and life of one who is promoted
into leadership at a very young age.
So I am left with an ongoing desire to reconnect to my brothers
with whom I spent these days of dialogue. I am also left with the
intuition that the horizon for interreligious dialogue may be a
more stable or ongoing/daily experience of monastics of different
religious traditions living together in some form; each tradition
maintaining the integrity of its practice, while living together
in a way that supports and nourishes all that is shared and mutually
a Monk Thing ...by Kusala Bhikshu
2004-- I found myself on Interstate 5, zooming along at 75 miles
an hour, sun shining, with light traffic, headed for the City of
Ten Thousand Buddhas (C.T.T.B). The first 'Monks in the West' conference
was about to take place, and I'd been invited to participate. Monastic
Men from the Catholic and Buddhist traditions gathering to share
training and inner life for three days.
live in a mixed gender Buddhist community, the I.B.M.C.-- The International
Buddhist Meditation Center was founded by a Vietnamese Monk in 1970.
I received both my novice Zen monk ordination (1994) and full ordination
(1996) at the I.B.M.C. I am a member of the Los Angeles Buddhist/Catholic
Dialogue and knew some of the Catholic monks and most of the Buddhist
monks from previous conferences or gatherings.
shared our first meal Monday evening, a wonderful array of Chinese
food, made especially for us. As we sat and talked, I felt a kinship
with my fellow monks. For many different reasons we had renounced
main stream life for the monk's life. Some reasons were secular,
some were spiritual. Some came from outer life, some from inner
life. Some of us were chosen, while others made the choice. It was
a great way to launch the conference, getting to know each other
over a meal of Chinese noodles and tofu.
morning we gathered early for meditation. I had a chance to shave
and shower afterwards, and found breakfast waiting for me in the
little cafe at C.T.T.B. The morning meal consisted of hot rice gruel,
tea and coffee, and a variety of delicious Chinese food.
I drank my morning coffee, I noticed there seemed to be a problem.
A couple of the Catholic monks were talking to a Chinese nun. I
couldn't make out what they were saying, but there seemed to be
a certain urgency in their body language. I heard words of assurance
from the nun, that it would be taken care of. I wondered, what could
possibly be wrong?
had our main afternoon meal with the larger C.T.T.B community, and
gathered again at the Cafe for supper. I noticed a few of the Catholic
monks looking at the food table with a sense of relief. What had
our hosts forgotten to offer them? Was it some kind of obscure Catholic
moved across the room towards the food line in a slow unassuming
way, and there on one end of the table lay two loaves of bread and
a large jar of peanut butter. As each Catholic and Buddhist monk
moved through the food line that evening, one by one they stopped
in front of the peanut butter, and made a peanut butter sandwich.
Our plates were overflowing with noodles and rice, green beans and
tofu, and peanut butter sandwiches.
wasn't a Catholic thing at all; it was a monk thing. Men like peanut
butter, it's a comfort food. As I spread the peanut butter on white
bread that evening, I looked around and felt a deep connection to
every man there. Common ground had been discovered in the food line.
We had gathered not as monastic men, but as men with monastic lifestyles.
I felt confident now-- Although religious differences may come up,
we could always reconnect in that special monk way, around the peanut
MID - Monks in the West - Overview / PDF - Click Here