Monks in the West - October 12th to 15th 2004 - City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
- Buddhist and Catholic Monastic Men Gather to Promote a Sharing of Inner life and Training -

Photo Album  ---------  Photo Album  ---------  Photo Album

City of Ten Thousand Buddhas  ---  Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery  ---  Mt. Tabor Monastery


Monks in the West
was sponsored by the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID), Institute for World Religions, City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, and Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery. The conference organizers were - Catholic: Father William Skudlarek  Buddhist: Rev. Heng Sure

The conference was held at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is situated in Talmage, Mendocino County, California about 110 miles north of San Francisco. It occupies an area of 488 acres, of which about 80 acres are presently been used. The rest of the land includes meadows, orchards, and forests. Large institutional buildings and smaller residential houses are scattered over the west side of the property. The main Buddha hall and monastic facilities, the educational institutes, the administrative offices, the main kitchen and dining hall, the vegetarian restaurant, and supporting structures are all located in this complex.

An outline of proposed topics and decorum was emailed to each attendee:

Overall - Whenever possible, speak in the first person, that is, speak about your experience of being a monk, rather than about "the monastic life" The four sessions on Wednesday and Thursday will begin with each participant giving a short "first person" response to the topic or questions.

Tuesday, October 12, afternoon/evening - Introductions: Who we are, what drew us to monastic life, what it has been like to be a monk, what we hope for, etc., etc. What are some of the topics we would like to discuss at this gathering of monks?

Wednesday, October 13, Morning - What are the changes in life-style, attitude, and expectations that are necessary for those who ask to be admitted into the monastic way of life? How much of the "world" (specifically the contemporary American world) can be brought into the monastery? What needs to be left at the door? What are the particular challenges faced by those who come to monastic life having been formed by contemporary American culture?

Wednesday, October 14, Afternoon - How is authority or leadership to be exercised in the monastic community? Is there a place for individual initiative or personal independence in monastic life? Can monastic life be "democratic"?

Thursday, October 15, Morning - What is the function, importance, and place in monastic life of such "externals" as dress, diet, schedule, and the like. How "different" should monks be from those who are not monks? In what does this "difference" consist?

Thursday, October 15, Afternoon - What is the place of celibacy in the monastic life? Of poverty? Poverty obviously means different things in different cultures; how is the meaning and practice of celibacy affected by cultural differences?



Father Joseph Wong, OSB (Cam, Big Sur, California)
Father William Skudlarek, OSB (St. John's, Minnesota)
Father David Bock, OCSO (New Mellery, Iowa)
Abbot Mark Serna, OSB (Portsmouth, Rhode Island)
Father James Connor, OCSO (Gethsemani, Kentucky)
Father Daniel Ward, OSB (St. John's, Minnesota)
Brother Gregory Perron, OSB (St. Procopius, Illinois)


Ajahn Pasanno, (Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery, Redwood Valley, CA)
Ajahn Sudanto, (Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery, Redwood Valley, CA)
Rev. Heng Sure, (Berkeley Buddhist Monastery/Institute for World Religions, Berkeley, CA)
Abbot - Dharma Master Heng Lyu, (City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Talmage, CA)
Rev. Kusala Bhikshu (International Buddhist Meditation Center, Los Angeles, CA)
Lama Norbu (San Jose, CA)
Jang Chup Phelgyal (Santa Rosa, CA)

Monks in the West - 2004 Conference Schedule

Tuesday Evening:

6:00 pm - Dinner
7:30-9:30 pm - Introductions & pre-planning


6:15 am - Sitting Meditation
7:00 am - Breakfast
8:00-9:00 am - Tour of City of Ten Thousand Buddhas - (Photo Album)
9:00-10:20 am - 1st council: Spiritual Biographies
10:30 am -12:00 pm - Lunch Offering
2:00-4:00 pm - 2nd Council: Spiritual Biographies (continued)
4:30 pm - Evening Mass
5:15-6:00 pm - Dinner
6:30-8:00 pm - 3rd Council: Spiritual Biographies (continued)
8pm - Presidential Debate (tape-delayed)


6:15 am - Sitting Meditation
7:00 am - Breakfast
8:15-9:30 am - Tour of Mt. Tabor, Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Redwood Valley, CA) - (Photo Album)
10:00-11:30 am - 4th council at Abhayagiri: General Discussion and themes from Bio's
11:45 pm - Lunch Offering
12:30 pm - Tour of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery - (Photo Album)
2:30-4:30 pm - 5th Council: General Discussion & Planning for 2006 Conference
4:30 pm - Evening Mass
5:15-6:00 pm - Dinner
7:30-9:00 pm - Closing Gathering: Planning for 2006 Conference, Slideshows, and Dedication of Merit (Rev. Heng Sure)

6:15 am -Sitting Meditation
7:00 am - Breakfast
7:45 am - Departure
End of Conference

Monks in the West - October 2004 - City of Ten Thousand Buddhas

Back 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


Afterword 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 Board’s 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 MID’s 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 MID’s 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 Nirvana.

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.

Spiritual Autobiographies

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 other’s 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 life?
* How can we articulate and witness to the monastic vocation as an alternative to the marketplace’s 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 it?
* 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 Christians.
* 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 more authentically.


Personal Reflections on 'Monks in the West' 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 mother’s 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 builds up.


It's a Monk Thing Kusala Bhikshu

October, 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.

I 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.


We 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.

Tuesday 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.

As 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?

We 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 dietary thing?

I 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.

It 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 butter jar.


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