The 7th Buddhist Monastic Conference
Presentations and discussions on:
October 18-21, 2001
City of Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery
for the October 2001 conference is Monastic Training.
The presentation topics are Upholding the monastic tradition
in the West - What are the essentials?, Adaptation to the
West, Transforming Worldly People into Monastics, Heart
of the Life, and Where are we Going? These discussions will
provide opportunities for us to broaden our understanding
of these topics and expand our capacity to work within our
own communities and gain greater appreciation and understanding
of other communities in these areas.
This year the host is Rev. Heng Lyu, Abbot of the City of
Ten Thousand Buddhas and Rev. Heng Sure, Director of the
Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. Our monastic conferences originally
started for western monastics to gather together and spend
time learning about each others works and practices
in the west as well as to rejuvenate in a monastic setting.
As in the past, this conference is open to monastics from
all Buddhist traditions and cultures and for persons who
are seriously interested in becoming a monastic, following
traditional vows, which includes observing celibacy.
Last October our conference theme was The Four Messengers;
the signs Prince Siddhartha saw when he explored the world
outside the palace gates of aging, sickness, death and the
spiritual seeker. This was the presentation focus in our
lives as monastics and twenty-six participants including
four abbots of western monasteries attended.
Ven. Ajahn Amaro
16201 Tomki Road 506 W. Taylor St., #2
Redwood Valley, CA 95470
Thubten Shedrup Ling
Springs, CO 80907
on the 6th Western Monastic Buddhist Conference
By: Ven. Tenzin Kacho
Assisted by: Sister Jitindriya,
Rev. Kusala, Rev. Meido, Ajahn Pasanno,
Ven. Heng Sure and Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Reverend Master Eko Little and the monks at Shasta Abbey hosted
the 6th conference of western Buddhist monastics for the third
consecutive time. It took place from Friday October 20 to
Monday, October 23, 2000 in Mt. Shasta, California. This was
the largest gathering ever with greater diversity and there
was representation from the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai,
Tibetan and Vietnamese traditions. There were four abbots
among the twenty-six participants. Some persons had been ordained
well over two decades and the newest monastic was ordained
just months ago. The conference theme was The Four Messengers;
the sights Prince Siddhartha saw when he explored the world
outside the palace gates; revealing the signs of aging, sickness,
death and the spiritual seeker. We used this as a presentation
focus in our life as monastics.
Most guests arrived at the Abbey on Friday evening to the
welcome introduction and opening by Rev. Master Eko, Abbot
of Shasta Abbey (Japanese Soto Zen tradition) and Ajahn Pasanno,
co-Abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery (Thai tradition). Everyone
was invited to attend the evening vespers service and meditation
with the resident monastics. And in the early mornings many
attended the morning services and meditation in the Meditation
and Ceremony Halls. The services at Shasta Abbey are sung
in English, set to western Gregorian chant melodic style by
the late Reverend Master Jiyu-Kennett who established Shasta
Abbey in 1970. The services are uniquely beautiful and many
participants looked forward to returning to the Abbey for
Saturday morning the first gathering was on the topic of Aging
and Rev. Daishin from Shasta Abbey (Japanese Soto Zen tradition)
presented his experiences of being in the monastery most of
his adult life. He spoke of growing up and aging in the monastery
as he has been ordained for twenty-six years. He started his
talk by relating a recent visit to the local bank where he
noticed that no one had gray hair. Was it that everyone was
young or just appearing young? In our American society we
deny and defy old age. We are a culture addicted to youthful
appearance. Surgically and cosmetically we try to sustain
youth and push away the reality of age in the hopes of remaining
youthful. Living in a monastery, we dont have to be
compelled to engage in our life and aging in this way. He
spoke of enjoying being older and of the satisfaction of monastic
life. Discussion focused on how the natural process of aging
is accepted and appreciated more as we deepen our practice
and study of the Dharma. Reflection and blessing were held
at the beginning and end of every session offered by monastics
from different traditions.
Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo (Tibetan tradition), assistant professor
of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San
Diego, spoke on the topic of Sickness. She related
her personal experiences with sickness while pursuing her
Dharma studies in India and other countries. Some years ago
in India, while viewing land sites for a nunnery, Ven. Lekshe
was bitten by a poisonous viper. She spoke graphically about
her three-month hospital ordeal in India and Mexico, and the
difficulties that even seasoned practitioners may experience
when confronted by intense pain and the uncertainties of serious
illness. She described the traditional Tibetan explanation
of illness and its causes, and presented a variety of Buddhist
practices that can be helpful for transforming our attitudes
toward illness, coping with pain, and using the experience
of illness as an opportunity for practice.
On Sunday morning two participants shared the topic of Death.
Rev. Kusala (Vietnamese Zen tradition) spoke on the recent
passing of his teacher, the late Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara,
eminent master and scholar from Sri Lanka. The late venerable
monk had founded the American Buddhist Congress, the Buddhist
Sangha Council of Southern California and numerous other organizations
and schools in the United States and Sri Lanka. He spoke of
the incredible teaching Dr. Ratanasara showed through his
acceptance of approaching death and in mindfully releasing
his responsibilities, turning away from this life and looking
in direction of his rebirth. Rev. Kusala said of Dr. Ratanasara,
He taught me the need to turn away from everything in
this lifetime as death approaches and make ready for the next.
Dont be attached, he would say; It
only leads to more suffering. Rev. Kusala also
addressed the theme of dealing with grief as monastics.
I, Tenzin Kacho (Tibetan tradition), spoke on a different
aspect of Death in the Death of the Monastic.
I prefaced my talk saying that the focus was on the difficulties
and concerns of the western monastics today and presented
some of the encounters and views of lay Buddhists and lay
Dharma teachers toward monastics. Some persons view monasticism
as an austere self-centered practice and monastics as escapists
not able to cope in society. Also mentioned were the comments
of the head of a national Buddhist organization (name was
not mentioned) who feels that there are only two jewels left
in Buddhism anymore; that the Sangha has degenerated in Asia
and not accepted in the West. Some persons comment that there
is no need for a monastic Sangha. I also noted that there
were no monastic presenters at the 3rd Annual Buddhism
in America Conference held in October 2000 in Colorado.
These views stimulated some fruitful discussion. In general,
although concerned, the participants were optimistic and that
we need to continue our efforts to study, practice and conduct
ourselves well. With time, as we foster Dharma friendships
with lay people and participate in Buddhist gatherings, the
presence and value of monastics will naturally come to be
recognized in this country. Excellent training and continued
guidance is key before one takes ordination and especially
in the early years of ones life as a monastic.
Ven. Heng Sure, Director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery,
a branch of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Chinese Chan
tradition) spoke on the Samana, the spiritual seeker and started
by having each person share the signs or triggers that set
each of us on to become monastics. This gave people a chance
to express themselves and it was skillful for it allowed everyone
an opportunity to speak.
He then presented ways of according with the Dharma and of
the signs and form of the Samana. The evening before he had
translated the Poem in Praise of the Sangha by
Qing Dynasty Emperor Shunzhi (mid 17th century) and read it
to us. He shared how the internal signs of the Samana were
the combination of blessings and wisdom; that blessings without
wisdom was like an elephant with a necklace and wisdom without
blessings was like an Arhat (one who has attained liberation)
with an empty bowl. Blessings come from making others happy.
Monday morning Sister Jitindriya from Abhayagiri Monastery
(Thai tradition) presented the Spiritual Friend.
She began her talk with the view that the Four Messengers
can be seen as opportunities for awakening; that we dont
usually see them that way, but instead we see them as things
to avoid. Because we dont see suffering (dukkha), as
an opportunity to awaken, as a sign pointing out
the truth of the way things are, we continue to wander aimlessly
in samsara. Dukkha is a sign that can lead to liberation if
we dont despair. She suggested that if the Buddha had
not awakened to dukkha in seeing the earlier signs, he might
not have seen the Samana, the sign of the renunciate
would not have meant much to him.
She quoted from many sources in the Pali Suttas.As worldly
beings we are intoxicated with youth, health, beauty and life,
we dont see their impermanent and unstable nature. The
monk Ratthapala was asked, Why have you gone forth when
you have not suffered the four kinds of loss? that is,
of health, youth, wealth, and family. He replied in the manner
of a teaching he had heard from the Buddha: that life is unstable
and there is no shelter or protection in any world. Ananda,
the Buddhas attendant, said that association with good
friends (those who encourage and help us on the Path) constituted
half of the holy life, and the Buddha commented that the whole
of holy life is association with good friends. Good friendship
is the forerunner and necessitates arising of the Noble Eight-Fold
Every session was purposely created with sufficient time for
discussion after the presentations to allow questions, concerns,
and dialogue in depth. It was encouraging to voice and listen
to others personal views. Most of us have very busy
lives alone or in monasteries and it is a true joy to spend
some time in engaging conversations and learning about other
monastics lives. Our gathering truly felt like a conference
for and by monastics.
Often topics of discussion at Buddhist gatherings focus more
on particular interests and concerns of laypersons and lay
teachers; the purpose of this conference is to meet and share
monastic concerns and to enjoy the company of others who have
gone forth. This fundamentally different orientation highlights
the importance of holding monastic conferences as much as
possible at monasteries. The purity of the Sangharama (monastery),
this time the hospitality we enjoyed at Shasta Abbey, lends
a priceless support to our gathering.
The participants expressed deep appreciation for the rewards
of the Sixth Monastic Conference. Our time together is brief,
but precious, as the program brings together studies, traditions,
inspiration and wisdom from Americas diverse Buddhist
cultural traditions. The very fact of our gathering with six
monastic traditions testifies to the gradual deepening of
the Dharma roots in Western soil. The historic significance
of our gathering, the community we create, and the merit and
virtue generated when the Buddhas Sangha gathers in
harmony is truly an occasion for rejoicing!
We have set the dates for the 7th Western Monastic Conference
for October 19-22, 2001 with the theme tentatively set
for Monastic Ordination and Training.
encourage other western Buddhist monastics to join us next
year and thank the American Buddhist Congress for offering
some financial assistance for travel to this 6th conference.
Bhikshuni Tenzin Kacho
(e-mail) is a fourth-generation American of Japanese ancestry.
She was ordained by HH the Dalai Lama in 1985 and received
higher ordination in 1994 by Ven. Dr. Karuna Dharma and Ven.
Dr. Ratanasara. She held the post of Executive Secretary for
the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California and is
currently resident teacher at Thubten Shedrup Ling center,
established by Ven. Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen, in Colorado Springs,
Colorado. She is the lay Buddhist chaplain at the US Air Force
Academy (lay chaplain as she is not an enlisted
serviceperson in the military) and attends Naropa University
in Boulder, Colorado.
of the Dharma:
The 4th Annual Conference of Western Buddhist Monastics
by Ven. Thubten Chodron
years ago, American nuns from the Tibetan tradition mused
about how wonderful it would be to have Western monastics
from the various Buddhist traditions in the USA meet together.
Thus was born a series of annual conferences. All were interesting,
but for me the fourth, held October 17-20, at Shasta Abbey
in California, was really special.
Abbey is a community
of 30-35 monastics, established by Reverend Master Jiyu in
the early '70s. A bhikshuni trained in Soto Zen, her
disciples follow the Zen teachings and are celibate. All of
us were amazed at what the community has created together.
Many of the monastics have been there for over twenty years,
a kind of stability seldom seen anywhere in America these
days. Clearly, the monastic life and that community were working
My overwhelming feeling at our first meal together was how
wonderful it was to sit in a room filled with "altruistic
closely shaven ones," as my friend calls us.
There were 20 participants, Westerners from the Theravada,
Tibetan, Soto Zen, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean traditions.
The collage of colors was beautiful. The theme of our time
together was training, and at each session there was a brief
presentation, which sparked a discussion.
There was an introduction on Friday evening, and on Saturday
morning Reverend Eko, the abbot of Shasta Abbey since Reverend
Jiyu's passing last year, talked about their training. A monastery
is a religious family. It's not a business, a school, or a
group of individuals competing with each other. One is at
a monastery to be a monastic, so learning, practice and meditation
Another reason is to be part of a community, and that itself
is our practice because living with others puts us right up
in front of ourselves. We keep bumping into our own prejudices,
judgments, attachments and opinions and have to own them and
let them go, instead of blaming others. Novice training focuses
on helping us be more flexible and give up clinging to our
opinions and insisting that things be done the way we want.
Too much formality in the training makes us stiff; too little
and we lose the sense of gratitude and respect so important
for progress. A third reason for going to a monastery is to
offer service to others.
Ven. Tenzin Kacho, a bikshuni in the Tibetan tradition,
talked about teacher training. For beginner teachers, learning
teaching techniques was emphasized, but for those who have
been teaching for some time, the issue was how to be a good
"Students will share their confusion with us, but if we accept
it without hurt or blame, it may transform the confusion as
well as the student. Because sentient beings' minds are untamed,
it is not unusual for them to misinterpret their teachers'
actions and to project faults. When students have problems
with their teacher, we can refer them to another teacher or
member of the monastic community to help them at that time."
That evening I spoke about thought training, emphasizing "taking
and giving" meditation and ways to transform adverse circumstances
into the path. Taking and giving is a turnabout from our usual
attitude, for here we develop compassion that wishes to take
others' suffering onto ourselves and love wishing to give
others all of our own happiness. Then we imagine doing just
Of course, the question arose, "What happens if I do that,
get sick and then can't practice!" This led into a lively
discussion about our multiple layers of self-centeredness
and our rigid concept of self. Giving all the blame to the
self-centered thought is a way to transform adverse circumstances
into the path, because we experience adversity due to negative
karma we created in the past under the influence of self-centeredness.
Therefore, recognizing that this self-preoccupation is not
the intrinsic nature of our mind but an adventitious attitude,
it is only fitting to blame it, not other sentient beings,
for our problems.
Sunday morning Ajahn Amaro from the Thai forest tradition
spoke on Vinaya training (monastic discipline). "What is living
in precepts all about? Why was our teacher, the Buddha, a
monk?" he asked. When the mind is enlightened, living a life
of non-harmfulness--that is, living; according to the precepts--
automatically follows. It's the natural expression of an enlightened
mind. The Vinaya is how we would behave if we were enlightened.
Initially when the Buddha first formed the sangha, there were
no precepts. He set up the various precepts in response to
one monastic or another acting in an unenlightened way. Although
the precepts are many, they boil down to wisdom and mindfulness.
The Vinaya helps us establish our relationship to the sense
world and live simply. The precepts make us ask ourselves,
"Do I really need this? Can I be happy without that?" and
thus steer us towards independence. They also heighten our
mindfulness, for when we transgress them, we ask ourselves,
"What in me didn't notice or care about what I was doing!"
The Vinaya makes all the monastics equal: everyone, regardless
of his or her previous social status or current level of realization,
dresses the same, eats the same, keeps the same precepts.
On the other hand, there are times when one person or another
is respected. For example, we heed the Dharma advice of our
seniors (those ordained before us), no matter their level
of learning or realization. Serving the elders is to benefit
the juniors--so they can learn selfless behavior. In other
situations, we follow whoever is in charge of a certain work,
regardless of how long that person has been ordained.
When someone--a friend, student or even teacher--acts inappropriately,
how do we deal with it? In a monastic community we have a
responsibility to help each other. We point out others' mistakes
not to make them change so that we will be happier, but to
help them grow and reveal their Buddha nature. To admonish
someone, the Vinaya gives us five guidelines: 1) ask for the
other's permission, 2) wait for an appropriate time and place,
3) speak according to the facts, not hearsay, 4) be motivated
by loving- kindness, and 5) be free of the same fault yourself.
Saturday afternoon was "robes around the world," a veritable
Buddhist fashion show. Each tradition in turn showed their
various robes, explained their symbolism, and demonstrated
the intricacies of getting them on (and keeping them on!).
Several people later told me that this was a highlight of
the conference for them: it was the physical demonstration
of the unity of the various traditions. At first glance, our
robes look different: maroon, ochre, black, brown, gray, orange,
various lengths and widths. But when we looked closer at the
way the robes were sewn, we found that each tradition had
the three essential robes and each robe was made of the same
number of strips stitched together.
Patches of cloth stitched together is the symbol of a simple
life, a life in which one is willing to give up the immediate
pleasures of the external world in order to develop inner
peace and ultimately in order to benefit others. This is the
quality I noticed in the people present at the conference.
No one was trying to be a big teacher, make a name for themselves,
set up a big organization of which they were head. No one
was complaining about their teachers or anyone else's teachers.
No, these people were just doing their practice day after
day. There was a quality of transparency about them: they
could talk about their weaknesses and failures and not feel
vulnerable. I could see that the Dharma worked. There were
qualities about those who had been ordained for twenty years
that aren't found in the average person, or even in the newly-ordained.
These people had a unique level of acceptance of themselves
and others, a certain long-range vision, constancy and commitment.
Sunday evening we discussed the student-teacher relationship
and how it fits in our practice. At first there seemed to
be big differences between us in the importance of the teacher-student
relationship and how it is to be cultivated and used in the
practice of each tradition. However, a unity emerged: our
teachers recognize a far greater potential in us than we see
in ourselves, and they challenge us to the core in order to
help us bring this out.
Each evening, post-session discussions lasted into the night.
There was a genuine thirst to learn more about each other's
practices and experiences and to use that knowledge to enhance
our own. As Monday morning came, everyone felt a deep sense
of appreciation at the dependently-arising event we had shared
in and strong faith and gratitude for the Buddha, our common
teacher. After meditation and prayers, we met together and
each monastic said a dedication from his or her heart, and
then the winds of karma blew the leaves in different directions
as we parted.