Urban Dharma Newsletter...
January 27, 2004
This Issue: Ven. Ajahn Amaro
Ven. Ajahn Amaro
2. Interview with Ajahn Amaro
...by Inquiring Mind Magazine
3. Temple/Center/Website: The Forest Sangha
4. Book/CD/Movie: Free - 54 Dharma
Talks on CD
Ven. Ajahn Amaro
in England in 1956, Ven. Amaro Bhikkhu received his B.Sc. in
Psychology and Physiology from the University of London. Spiritual
searching led him to Thailand, where he went to Wat Pah Nanachat,
a forest-tradition monastery established for Western disciples
of the Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah, who ordained him as
a bhikkhu in 1979.
returned to England and joined Ajahn Sumedho at the newly established
Chithurst Monastery. He resided for may years at the Amaravati
Buddhist Centre north of London, making trips to California
every year during the 1990's. Since June of 1996 he has lived
at Abhayagiri Monastery.
has written an account of his 830-mile trek from Chithurst to
Harnham Vihara called Tudong-- the Long Road North, republished
in the expanded book Silent Rain, now available for free distribution,
and he edited The Pilgrim Kamanita, a Buddhist novel, published
The Happy Monk - Living Buddhism in the West - Interview with
Ajahn Amaro ...by Inquiring Mind Magazine
spending time with the Western monk Ajahn Amaro, one is left
with the unique feeling of having been in the presence of a
truly happy man, and one whose happiness is born of wisdom.
Ordained by Ajahn Cha in 1979, Ajahn Amaro has spent most of
his life as a monk at the Amaravati monastery in England. In
recent years he has lived in Northern California for several
months each winter. Soon Ajahn Amaro will be taking up permanent
residence in California on 120 acres of forested land in Redwood
Valley, Mendocino County, where a Theravadan monastery will
be established. The land was gifted to Ajahn Sumedho, abbot
of Amaravati, and to the Sanghapala Foundation by the founder
of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Master Hua, who passed
away this past Spring. The following interview with Ajahn Amaro
was conducted by Wes Nisker and Terry Vandiver in March of 1995.
16201 Tomki Road, Redwood Valley, CA 95470
MIND: How would you assess the
study of Buddha Dharma and the practice of meditation now being
taught in the West?
AMARO: In the West people tend to separate their meditation
practice from their lives. Ajahn Chah emphasized that "if
you have time to breathe you have time to meditate." You
breathe when you walk. You breathe when you stand. You breathe
when you lie down.
think part of the problem in the West is the emphasis on retreats.
If you do a lot of intensive retreats you will develop strong
concentration. Many of the people I meet in America have been
doing retreats for 15-20 years and they are really quite accomplished
concentrators. But I'm afraid they have not found much freedom.
how the word "sitting" has become synonymous with
meditation or with practicing Dharma. Sitting is the operative
word, meaning, "I am here on my cushion, my eyes are closed,
the world has dissolved into emptiness." We have learned
how to concentrate our minds and then to push out our worldly
irritations and responsibilities. We create this great space
inside and become very good at getting rid of thoughts and feelings.
Meditation can thus become rather like being in a shooting gallery
with the little ducks. You can become a great marksman or markswoman,
shooting down the thought ducks and the feeling ducks.
Is this emphasis on intensive meditation retreats unique to
the West? Or is it imported from Asian traditions?
One reason for the retreat emphasis, at least in vipassana circles,
is due to the Asian systems that have fostered many of our teachers
and styles of practice. Goenka-ji and Mahasi Sayadaw's disciples
emphasize a very controlled retreat situation as the primary
path. Retreat, retreat, retreat. Those teachers have had enormous
influence and have helped tens of thousands of people, but I
think that their style has led to this imbalance, the unhealthy
separation between life and retreat.
course, if you go on retreats for 20 years you can create tremendous
inner space. But it can become almost like a police state. You
just clear the streets of all the unruly inhabitants of your
mind. And while you may get them off the streets, the guerrillas
will still be active underground. So when you leave the retreat,
you begin to experience your ordinary life as difficult and
turbulent. Then you can't wait to get to the next retreat. I
am speaking very generally here, and maybe exaggerating a bit,
but I think I am describing a pattern that many of your readers
In contrast, Ajahn Chah and teachers in the Thai forest tradition
did not emphasize retreats so much, and placed equal importance
on community and daily life.
Ajahn Chah would have us do periods of intensive practice, but
we would still go out on alms round in the morning and there
would always be work to do around the monastery. So even the
times of intensive, formal practice were not so separated from
life or so completely free of stimulus.
you focus on creating a clear, subjective, interior space, then
your life is built around trying to be in that space with as
few distractions as possible. That space then becomes a counterpoint
to the external world. Even though we might have great brightness
of mind or experiences of selflessness within that space, those
states exist in counterpoint to our family, our society, and
the entire phenomenal and physical world. We are losing half
the picture. Furthermore, our peace and happiness becomes completely
dependent on conditions.
have recently been addressing this issue through the story of
the Buddha's enlightenment. During the course of the night,
as the story goes, the Buddha-to-be made his vow not to get
up from his seat until he was completely enlightened. The Lord
of Illusion, Mara, tried to disturb his meditation with fearful
and sensual images but was unsuccessful. By the end of the night,
the Buddha's realization into truth was complete, but although
he was fully awakened the armies of Mara were still around him.
Mara asked him, "What right do you think you have to claim
enlightenment?" The Buddha then reached down and touched
the earth, invoking the Earth Mother who appeared and said,
"This is my true son and he has done everything necessary
to claim complete and full enlightenment. He is the supremely
awakened one." Then from her hair she produced a great
flood of water which washed away the armies of Mara, who eventually
returned carrying flowers and other offerings.
think the story is saying that if our liberation is simply a
subjective, mental, interior experience then we are only half-cooked.
Wisdom has to reach out into the world. Even the Buddha has
to make that gesture of humility and ask the earth for her blessing.
In order for the armies of Mara to really be dispelled, we have
to open our eyes and step out of that blissful interior space.
For liberation to be finalized we have to touch the earth.
What prompted you to become a Buddhist monk?
When I first visited Ajahn Chah's monastery in Thailand, I found
a group of Westerners like myself, with very similar backgrounds,
who were living in the forest doing Buddhist meditation practice.
And they all seemed remarkably cheerful.
they explained their way of life and the basis of their practice,
it made perfect sense to me. Previously I had assumed that freedom
came from having no rules and no boundaries. I'd never really
questioned that premise, even though trying to live that way
had been painful and difficult. These monks suggested that I
look for freedom where it could actually be found. They pointed
out that the material world is filled with limits, and you don't
look for that which is boundless in the place where you find
limitation. They explained that by living a life which is disciplined,
simple, and harmless one could discover the true freedom that
inherently lies within us. Upon hearing their words, my immediate
reaction was, "How could I have been so stupid?" I
felt simultaneously embarrassed and relieved.
Did the monk's life live up to your initial expectations?
Absolutely. Even though the last thing I would have planned
for myself was a lifetime of celibacy and renunciation, what
I discovered was a new delight in simplicity and the deep satisfaction
that comes from not actively seeking satisfaction. It is a strange
but sweet irony that in the monastery I find the very delight
that I was so rabidly searching for outside the monastery. It
just looks like I've given up everything, but actually, the
inner experience is one of great delight. In fact, this monk's
life is a feast! When I was first ordained I used to think,
"I don't deserve this," or "I'm not going to
get away with this for very long."
Are there any particular difficulties that you encounter as
a Buddhist monk in the West? How do you feel walking around
in robes in this culture?
For me it has always seemed like the most normal thing in the
world. I think, to a degree, we all feel like outsiders in life.
We all feel slightly different from other people in one way
or another, and being dressed like a Buddhist monk in the West
is just another form of being different.
even though we are Buddhist monks and nuns, we are only alien
when we are outside the monastery. Inside the monastery it is
normal to have a shaved head and wear brown robes: the women
have shaved heads and the men wear skirts!
as part of a Buddhist monastic community makes all the difference,
whether you are in the West or the East. Ajahn Chah always emphasized
the Sangha, the community, as a method of practice in and of
itself. It wasn't a matter of living with a bunch of other people
just in order to do meditation practice. The life of the community
of monks and nuns was itself a method of practice and a method
of liberation. Although Ajahn Chah did teach individual meditation
techniques, over and over again he stressed the importance of
community. I think that is one of the reasons why our monasteries
have succeeded in the West.
when you live in a community, then the monastic traditions make
a lot of sense. They work and they work well. We aren't just
trying to sustain some archaic Asian system as a curio or a
formality. The life of renunciation -- living on alms, wearing
the same robes as everyone else -- and all of the rules are
methods whereby we train ourselves. Through those forms the
heart can be liberated.
Most Westerners don't seem to be very attracted to community
as a path. Perhaps one reason is because that path clashes with
our cultural belief in the primacy of the individual, the importance
of going it alone.
I would agree. Community life is about setting aside my own
desires for the sake of the group. It's self-sacrifice. To the
individualist, that sounds like death. But the training in communality
is, for many Westerners, a blessed shift in perspective. Because
what makes us suffer most of all in life is having "me"
at the center of it all. Our society supports and validates
that attitude, which has led to deep feelings of alienation
we learn how to surrender our own urges and biases, we are not
inherently giving up our freedom or denigrating our individuality.
Being able to listen and to yield to other people is a way of
recognizing our relationship with them and our interdependence
with all the life of the planet. As we let go of our selfish
demands we begin to recognize the vastness of our true nature.
That dynamic is extremely important in the full development
of spiritual life.
Do you feel there are significant differences between being
a monk in Europe or America and being a monk in Asia?
One of the great blessings of Buddhist monasticism in the West
is that it becomes free of the formalism, ritualism, and cultural
accretions of Asia. In many ways, it is much easier for Westerners
to get to the essence of the teachings. Even our Asian teachers
have remarked on this. They say, "You are really lucky.
We have all this cultural baggage that we have to work through
with our students." Westerners don't know anything about
the "-ism" of Buddhism before we start our studying
On the other hand, Western monks and nuns don't get as much
support from the lay population as their Asian brothers and
Yes, and that respect and support is very sweet. When I go to
Thailand, I get treated like a visiting dignitary. In the West
we still have to earn our respect. I've had people say to me,
"What do you do for a living? What do you contribute to
the Gross National Product?"
You should just tell them you are working on the Subtle National
I respond by asking them what makes a nation healthy? Does it
depend on how many sacks of wheat it exports or how many tons
of steel it sells? Or does the health of a nation include the
well-being of individuals, and furthermore, is that well-being
only dependent on their physical health and comfort, or does
it also involve their peace of mind? I try to expand the definition
of national well-being.
What are the hardest monastic rules to keep when you are living
in Western culture?
It is different for different people, I think, but for many
of us the hardest rules are those around celibacy, maintaining
a kind of evenness in our relationships with other people. And
it's not just about refraining from sexual intercourse. Ordinary
human affection and friendliness can easily lead to a flow of
emotion that suggests something more intimate. While there is
nothing wrong with that flow between human beings, when you
have taken vows of celibacy, then that suggestiveness or flirtation
is in violation of your commitment.
What about entertainments? Do you miss listening to music?
Not much, although I used to be a big music fan and listened
to it all the time. Now that I don't deliberately listen to
it, I find that when I do happen to hear music, it's as if I'm
hearing it for the first time. Music used to be such a constant
presence in my life that it had lost its power. If I hear it
now, it has an astonishing quality of freshness. I am with every
note, every phrase.
we adopt the renunciate life we aren't condemning the world
of the senses, per se, because that leads to aversion and negativity.
Instead we are learning to accept whatever is offered to us
with full appreciation. Whatever arrives is received and cherished,
but we don't try to add anything. I think many people listen
to music because they love the place that the music takes them
to, which is the present moment. You are not thinking about
anything else; you are experiencing the harmony, balance, and
rhythm that the music suggests. But all of those qualities are
present in a meditative mind. If we need music in order to get
us there, then when there isn't music (or delicious food or
beautiful surroundings or whatever it might be), we are likely
to feel bereft. We immediately start to look for another experience
that will take us to that place of beauty. What the precepts
do is to shut the door on all our habitual sources of satisfaction
so that our entire attention is directed inward. That is where
we discover a beauty and clarity, and a vastness of being which
is unshakable, independent of circumstances and conditions.
Then when we hear a piece of music, or see a beautiful blue
sky or the fine shape of a tree, that's an extra.
it or not, I became a monk because I am a hedonist at heart.
The fun began when I became a monk. I am not trying to be flip
by saying this. For me at least, being a monk is the way I can
most enjoy my life, and I do mean en-joy. My life is en-joyed,
filled with joy as an ongoing experience.
Everybody is going to want to ordain after they read this interview!
That's fine. But remember that the joy only comes after the
self-surrender and sacrifice. I think as a culture, we are afraid
of sacrifice. We feel that we must own and accumulate things
in order to be complete, and not just material objects but people
and relationships as well. It is hard for us to understand that
letting go is not a loss, not a bereavement. Of course, when
we lose something that is beautiful or dear to us, there is
a shadow that crosses the heart. But we enlighten that shadow
with the understanding that the feeling of loss is just the
karmic result of assuming that we owned anything in the first
place. The renunciate life is based on the realization that
we can never really possess anything.
article is republished by DharmaNet International, with permission,
for free distribution only. The interview appeared originally
in Inquiring Mind, Volume 12, Number 1 (Fall 1995).
Inquiring Mind is
a small, donation-supported organization. At this time they
do not have the resources or personnel to manage a lot of web
activity. If you wish to contact them for any reason, they ask
that you do so by regular mail:
PO Box 9999
Berkeley, CA 94709-0999
The Forest Sangha
forest SANGHA site functions to represent the monastic communities
of disciples of Venerable Ajahn Chah, particularly in the West.
the management of this site is undertaken at Aruna Ratanagiri
Buddhist Monastery in Northumberland, UK. We have been up and
running in this format since Vassa 2001.
Buddha has pointed out the way: beautiful in the beginning,
beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end.
Each morning in Theravada Buddhist monasteries around the world,
the above stanza is chanted as part of 'The Homage to the Triple
Gem'. It could just as well be said of the teaching example
of Meditation Master, The Venerable Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah,
or Luang Por as his disciples called him, possessed that uniquely
beautiful quality of being: a quality visible only to a heart
seeking The Way of Truth.
'Beautiful in the beginning', in Ajahn Chah's case, was his
commitment to the life of a renunciant monk (dhutanga bhikkhu).
He cultivated impeccable discipline and displayed consistent,
daring effort to confront all situations, especially those from
which he was inclined to turn away. He gave himself completely
to the training and eventually the Way became clear.
'Beautiful in the middle' was the selfless sharing of his realization
with all who came to be near him. Regardless of personal discomfort,
he ceaselessly offered his body, speech and mind to assist his
disciples, lay and ordained alike, to enter the Way. He said
of his own teaching method, that it is the example that counts
- not just the words. Those who were able to spend time with
him know full well that this is so.
And 'beautiful in the end' remains. It is that radiant confidence
of heart in thousands of individuals who now walk the Way; that
verified faith which most profoundly expresses Dhammam Saranam
Gacchami- 'I go for refuge to the Truth of the Way Things Are.'
Without having seen an example of the Way in another, such awakening
of confidence might not have taken place; hence it is said,
'No gift excels the gift of Dhamma.'
Free - 54 Dharma Talks on CD...
recently compiled a second volume of Dhamma Talks from the Community
of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery which contains 54 talks from
Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro, as well as the talks that both
Bhante Gunaratana from the Bhavana Society and Ajahn Sucitto
from Chithurst Monastery gave while visiting.
CD contains the following talks in MP3 format as well as a number
of publications from Abhayagiri, including Ajahn Amaro's
new book, Small Boat, Great Mountain.
you would like to receive a copy of - Dharma Talks Vol. 2 -
please send an e-mail to:
5 Hindrances Having a Wonderful Time - Wish I Were Here
4 Foundations of Mindfulnesss Joy from Meditation
Ajahn TongRat and the Worldly Dhammas Living Beautifully in
Bamboos Living in Harmony
Breath Energy and the Elements Luminous Mind
Chanda and Tanha Meditation is Like Picking Mangos
Choosing Peace Mere Fear
Communal Practice - Internal and External Perception
Contentment as Practice Perception 2
Dhamma Fighting Rejoicing in the Wholesome
Establishing Attentiveness RESPECT
Experience the Dhamma Rooting out the Hindrances
Faith and Wisdom (at BBM) Self of Fear
Faith in the Buddha Simile of the Spoon
Graduated Teaching Stillness and Activity
Gratitude Sustaining Focused Attention
Grounding the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness The War Begins
A Completely Pointless Talk Meditation Guide
After Dinner Mints Peace Vigil
Arctic Viveka Saturday Night at the Movies
Dhamma Donuts Still Flowing Water
Endless Wandering Talk given at Yoga Mendocino
Feeling Emotion Viagra or Viraga?
The First 3 Fetters Vipassana
Forgiveness The War and Right Effort
Heedfulness Welcome to the Homeless Clan
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