The 7th Buddhist Monastic Conference

( "View Photos Here" )

Presentations and discussions on:

City of Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, Ukiah, California

The theme of the October 2001 conference was Monastic Training. The presentation topics were 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 provided opportunities to broaden our understanding of the 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 was 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 other’s works and practices in the west as well as to rejuvenate in a monastic setting. As in the past, this conference was 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.

If you are interested in attending the next conference, please contact:

Ajahn Amaro Ven.
Abhayagiri Monastery
16201 Tomki Road 506 W. Taylor St., #2
Redwood Valley, CA 95470

Tenzin Kacho
Thubten Shedrup Ling
Colorado Springs, CO 80907

Report 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 these services.

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 don’t 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. ‘Don’t 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 one’s 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 don’t usually see them that way, but instead we see them as things to avoid. Because we don’t 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 Buddha’s 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 Path.

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 other’s 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 America’s 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 Buddha’s 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.”

We 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.



Colors of the Dharma:

The Fourth Annual Conference of Western Buddhist Monastics

by Ven. Thubten Chodron

Four 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.

Shasta 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 for them.

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 are foremost.

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 spiritual guide.

"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 that.

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.