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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
When I was younger, I encountered monastics who would put down lay practitioners as if the laity were beneath them. When I returned to the U.S. and began to encounter Western Vipassana communities, I encountered people who put down monasticism as if it were a dinosaur. I do think that is begin- ning to change. Our model must be, as Rev. Chozen said, the Buddha’s simple notion of the fourfold sangha. I think of it as a good vehicle with four wheels. If each is steady and the whole vehicle is in balance, we can all move forward effec- tively, mutually supporting and uplifting each other. BuddhadhaRma: Traditional monasteries were built and main- tained through both citizen patronage and royal patronage. Can such institutions be developed and maintained on a large scale in the West? Jan Chozen Bays: One big difference is that in the West we have separation of church and state. Very few here would want any one religion funded by the government. So, we will not enjoy royal patronage here. This provides the same incentive that the Buddha established for his monastics to help them stay close to the lay population. We have to educate Western- ers about the difference between the more isolated form of monasticism familiar from the Catholic tradition and the more permeable approach of Buddhist monasticism. RoBeRt thuRman: Yes, even using the term “monastery” to describe Buddhist viharas creates some confusion. Tradition- ally, the Buddhist monastic sangha was not so much into being solitary—they interacted strongly with the lay community. The Buddha’s order was that you must beg for your food, so you have to interact with the lay com- munity every day to get your lunch. It’s not about hiding from society. Jan Chozen Bays: Also, one of the important roles of monasteries, or whatever we choose to call them, is to be available to anyone in need, to be a place where people can put away their concerns for the world. Almost every person has within them a monastic voice, a calling to step aside from life as a personality and step into the uncon- ditioned. Then the larger community can begin to think of the monastery as an extension of itself, and may even begin to call it “our monastery,” as has started to happen around here. Grassroots support is the foun- dation of Buddhist practice in America. The donations may be mostly small donations, but they come from wide sources. BuddhadhaRma: What about support for large institutions, with a hundred or more monastics? Bhikkhu Bodhi: It would be difficult to support monasteries of that size here, but that is not necessarily the model we need to follow. In Sri Lanka large monasteries are not very common, except for monastic training centers. The typical vihara in one of the countless towns and villages will usually have two or three senior resident monks, a few novices, and that’s it. The temples don’t get much support from the government. They’re supported by the people. I would say it would probably be healthier to have a larger number of smaller monasteries spread out over different parts of the U.S. than a few large institutions. ayya tathaaloka: Even in Thailand, the majority of monasteries are smaller. There are larger ones that have royal support and also ones that develop around a great teacher, which is a very organic development. There are people who make offerings of a little bit of food each day or a small amount of money, but there are also wealthy people seeking out teachings, and they offer greater support. The support of wealthy patrons is something I can very much see happening in the United States and is already happening here to a degree. In the U.S. economy a few people have an enormous amount of wealth, and if those people benefit from the dhamma they may make the kind of donations that could lead to much larger endowments. RoBeRt thuRman: Many people may benefit from meditation, from the wide funnel that Chozen Bays talked about, and they will support that development, but perhaps a few will see the benefit of supporting the devel- opment of Buddhism itself, and will truly be generous and support people who want to devote themselves full time to the teachings. BuddhadhaRma: As Buddhism has moved into different parts of the world it has always changed in some way. Can we develop alternative forms of monasticism other than lifelong ordi- nation for people in the West? Today’s monastics are going to have to be much more aware of what is happening in the world. As the gap between rich and poor widens, monastics are going to have to present a Buddhist perspective on issues such as war, poverty, and ecological destruction. —Bhikkhu Bodhi Ayya Tathaaloka (center) and a fellow monastic on alms rounds near Bodhi House in the Bay Area. unknownmountainsandriversordernationalbuddhistarchives