Chuan-deng Jing-di March 26, 2005
This text is based upon the Teachers Report to the AGM held at the Maenllwyd in February 2005.
During the last year the Western Chan Fellowship has continued to function effectively according to its constitution and there have been a number of valued developments. The committee has also begun the task of considering the direction the Fellowship should follow in the long term. This discussion has arisen from articles in NCF by Jake Lyne and myself (NCF 27 Winter 2002) and from a request from Eddy Street following his election as Chair.
Most of our retreats at the Maenllwyd have been well filled or full and appear to have been successful in facilitating participants’ understanding and practice of Buddha dharma. We continue to receive appreciative and often heart-warming reports of retreat experiences and learning. In addition, a number of retreats elsewhere in the country have been well supported and generated some enthusiasm leading to more people coming to the Maenllwyd. In particular, the Medway Towns group under the leadership of Stuart McLeod has held very valuable events at an excellently equipped location. Our association with Gaia House has continued. Bristol has continued to present excellent weekend events for retreatants mainly in the South West. Short retreats are being held in Manchester and York. Local groups have appeared in Totnes, Stroud and become well established in Cornwall and York but our London (Hampstead) group has folded after Will Turner decided to cease hosting them. London remains a blank on the map for us and we need to establish a good group there. We also have no group currently operating in Scotland and the Aberystwyth associated group is operating only uncertainly.
I have led retreats in Poland and Norway where the local Sanghas continue to flourish. In Norway the Hrydaya group, under the leadership of Thøger Nordbo, has now run two retreats led by myself, and Simon will be going there this year. Plans are afoot for a retreat in Lithuania based on the Oslo group. The Norwegian group is affiliated to us and Thøger and others are attending our retreats in the UK for leadership training. We are gradually establishing a firm working relationship with the small Norwegian Sangha, which we encourage to develop through wider recruitment.
Last Spring, Simon, Hilary and I led a Western Zen Retreat in Pine Bush near New York for the Dharma Drum Mountain of Master Sheng Yen. Retreat reports in the latest Chan magazine (Winter 2005) show considerable appreciation of this event although numbers were low probably because of poor advertisement. This year we will be returning again hoping for better support.
Simon and I attended a conference of European teachers of Buddhism near Munich in September and were able to witness the divergence of views and practices in European Buddhism as a whole. The atmosphere was warm, cordial and we all clearly shared a profound faith in the value of the Buddha Dharma which came to underpin our emerging relationships. Compared with this rooted faith, the divergences of view and practice appeared of little significance. Such meetings bode well for future collaboration between the differing schools of Buddhism in Europe. In the UK, Sally Masheder is doing major service in this same direction as the Secretary of the NBO.
Simon and I continue to train Guestmasters at several levels (see NCF 30 Summer 2004). In fact we would like to respond to one or two more individuals who wish to participate in such training. A problem here is that the number of retreats available for training purposes is limited and this is an issue we shall have to consider seriously in the immediate future.
All of this is generally to the good and we can be happy at the way the Fellowship is functioning so far as retreat presentation and the teaching of practice is concerned. In other respects however there are some sources for concern.
The number of people becoming Fellows remains very small and the total membership of the charity is little changed from the time of its inauguration. It looks as if people may be personally inspired on retreats but not in such a way that a commitment to an involvement with the charity emerges. This means the charity remains dependent on the leadership of its founders who are inevitably getting older.
The gender ratio among retreatants remains strongly male oriented. This is especially marked in the figures for our up-coming three-week retreat where nine males (to date) are attempting the whole period but no women are doing so. We need to keep encouraging women to attend retreats because those who do so benefit equally as much as men do. Our senior women fellows need to consider this issue further and make proposals.
The WCF has numerous facilities for the teaching and practice of Dharma that are barely supported, indeed neglected, by both Fellows and others who attend retreats. For example, there are now facilities for personal or solitary retreats available both at the Maenllwyd and at the newly established Winterhead Retreat House in Somerset. Occasional use of these facilities happens but they are basically ignored to a point of neglect. Personal retreats up to eight weeks long are possible at Winterhead and retreats of about two weeks duration are possible at the Maenllwyd - for two persons in residence in each place at a time. The beautiful new Hut at the Maenllwyd has come on stream during the year. Summer retreats in the hut would certainly be a delight for anyone undertaking to do one. Only about seven persons have used these facilities for never more than around seven days in the last twelve months. Such retreatants have valued their experiences but this has not led to a wider use.
There is a very good library available for consultation at the Maenllwyd. Individuals could therefore carry out reading and writing retreats using the library as a source for study. Books are also available in my own library at Winterhead. Two persons have used their retreat time for study at Winterhead but so far the extensive library at the Maenllwyd remains totally unused.
These considerations mean that Fellows and retreatants are not making use of the facilities available to them through the WCF. One conclusion would be that most people who attend retreats are beginners or people simply exploring occasionally the relevance of a Buddhist experience in their lives. However good a retreat experience may be, the demands of the Dharma may then subsequently be left aside as the claims of conventional life resume. Other, perhaps more regular participants, may be essentially Dharma “hobbyists” (to use Simon Child’s phrase). That is to say, people who pop in and out of retreats much as one might pop in and out of a counselling room for occasional psychotherapy. This remedial use of retreat is of course entirely acceptable and helpful in these stressful times but hardly amounts to a commitment to practice or action in the true Buddhist sense. Those who use retreats as an adjunct to a seriously conceived and thought through daily commitment to the development of bodhicitta remain few. We are, none the less, fortunate that among those coming forward to train as Guestmasters are several insightful practitioners upon whom the future of the WCF will eventually rely.
These reflections naturally bear on thoughts regarding possible developments of the WCF. It has become clear that major European Buddhist institutions are founded on two principles: firstly, a devoted group of loyalists who give up conventional life to live often communally as “home-leavers” in close affinity to a guru or lama, secondly, such institutions are housed in a communal dwelling similar to a monastic setting. Some such institutions have expanded by creating related institutions sometimes worldwide. They are major success stories with well developed “business plans” for their maintenance and profitable expansion.
In considering our future, one thought has been that we should to some degree follow this same line of development. There are plausible possibilities for property development at both the Maenllwyd and Winterhead but the detailed examination of such ideas reveal considerable complexity and solicitors advice would be needed. Alternatively the accumulation of funds for the purchase of a quite separate location could be envisaged. Either way a case is being made for the development of a considerable property fund to enable action to be taken in whatever way seems most appropriate. In principle I support this idea but there are problems.
Firstly our institution is not set up in this manner either in terms of a constitution nor in terms of the general motivation of Fellows or retreatants. Previously, plans for a local centre in Southampton along somewhat similar lines were completely disregarded by the membership. As we have seen, support for personal retreats is very limited. Certainly the idea of pushing towards something like a monastic–type solution is coming from the top. There is no evidence of any grass roots demand for it within the charity. Few show signs of leaving conventional life styles in some practice of “home leaving”. Those about to retire might well consider such a course of action however and this could be successful. Yet we should not risk getting ourselves into the business of creating a retirement home! While the idea of creating a sort of monastery does attract me, there is no doubt any move in this direction must come from would-be monks. I don’t see many of these around in our Sangha.
Secondly, although Fellows certainly express loyalty and a lot of kindness to me together with gratitude for the work I do, I see no evidence of a demand for me to function more in the role of a residential teacher. In any case, I am not at all sure whether I would like to undertake this - especially outside the context of the Maenllwyd or Winterhead.
One committee member has raised serious doubts about this whole line of thought. Perhaps it would be better to consider other lines of development, he suggests. It remains true that the WCF is a unique institution in the manner by which it brings the Dharma to many individuals. Perhaps we need to consider how this may be improved rather than changed to a different type of institution. The large scale financing required for property investment and utilisation would require a comprehensive and professional business plan managed responsibly by several competent persons. This would introduce a very different kind of government within the WCF and opportunities for personal rivalries around contrasting policies. Solving the koan Mu might move very much onto a back burner.
Even so there are several models of development that we should consider. For reasons already discussed, the creation of a residential monastery seems unlikely to be supported. In any case, Ken Jones has reminded me that such Buddhist houses as already exist are by no means always exemplary. Dependencies on teachers and institutions arise, community life generates its own in-group tensions and divisions over policy. Personal antagonisms or prejudices fester. Authority may be heavy-handed or not strong enough. The goal of residential life may become lost in communal discussion. Yet alternative institutional patterns are provided by Gaia House, the varying forms of Sharpham College, the Golden Buddha project and so on.
One form of institution that might work would be a natural extension of our existing practices. It could be that in a suitable establishment with facilities for retreat and adult education a small group of retired “elders” (say two persons) could provide a core for the quality management of a system involving various patterns of residence (one day events, short term group retreats, personal retreats, longer term staffing). They would commit themselves for a year or two and receive support from a further small contingent of existing fellows (say 2 people at most) committed to residence for say four months at a time on a rotating basis within the fellowship as a whole. The programme would be constructed by the committee, approved by the Teacher and supervised by our Dharma Heirs functioning in some form of abbacy for the whole. I can imagine such a social structure working quite well in a constructed centre on the ground available at Winterhead. I believe such an experiment could work but again the drive for it must come from the membership and not merely from within the committee. I place this idea in the open for discussion.
In the meantime the most important thing is to develop the relations between our various local groups through “networking”. At the Leaders Retreat 2005 Ken Jones gave an eloquent presentation on what this would mean. In effect we have the roots of such a process well established. Some local groups already interact with one another, run retreats inviting outside speakers or facilitators and talk with one another. A more developed network of such interactions needs to be developed both formally and informally. Email linkages, visits between local leaders giving, in some cases, short talks or opening discussions and sharing common problems. The Dharma Heirs will endeavour to get around at least the larger groups hopefully to provide inspiration and Dharma instruction. We seek opinions on such developments and the committee empowered by the AGM will be making suggestions also.
I think we do need to establish a fund for eventualities that might include substantial property development or even purchase but a great deal more thought needs to be put into the whole matter and some demand for it stemming from the fellowship itself has yet to be demonstrated. Development may however take many forms and perhaps what we need at this time is a more mature policy to underpin with funding resources to be made available to support local events, joint ventures and networking projects in general. This discussion must continue for we cannot simply rest on our attainments so far.
At daybreak come the raucous crows
and jackdaws yacketing
down from the wooded cliffs
and tall, tossed branches
of their nightly stay
straight to our beech trees
and chimneys too.
In joyful disarray
they shout down rude comments
on a windy dawn
peer at curtained windows
telling us how to greet the day.
Only the ravens stay on high
solitary upon the escarpment’s sweep.
Mates in tow they take the air
and play in updrafts off the crags
swoop and interweave
the patterns of their flight
until at last they perch upon a topmost bough
and stretch their necks
in honking chorus at the rising sun.
In early February, following the Silent Illumination retreat at the Maenllwyd, I spent a few days with Ken and Noragh Jones in their beautifully secluded home in the quiet valley of Cwmrheidol. Ken and I had decided to climb over the massive hump of Plynlimon to visit Ken’s “cave” among the crags and his Kuanyin shrine in the valley nearby. But the morning dawned under dense cloud cover and we almost gave up. Knowing Ken was an old man of the mountain I none the less ventured up into the thick mists. Ken surprised himself by getting lost and we had left the compass behind, but by idling around a bit in the fog we finally located landmarks and came down the far shoulder into the one of the remotest, wildest, least visited cwms in Wales. We moved the small rock slabs from the entrances to the tiny, hidden shrines and conducted liturgies consisting of Buddhist devotions and some wild shamanic mantras in the style of Guru Rimpoche. For moments at a time the cloud lifted and the vast reaches of the mountain were adorned with mysterious light.
Next day we attended a remarkable little ceremony in the village of Pennal near Aberdovey famous during the brief rule of Glendower. Here Father Geraint ap Iorworth has established an interfaith chapel on the upper floor of his little house. It is dedicated to the wisdom common to all faiths as epitomised in Christianity by Saint Sofia. We assembled in church for an account of the reasons behind the event and then after a hearty meal of Cawl and rolls in the village hall we drifted along the main road to the little chapel bearing candles in the fading light.
I had been asked to bring my robes but in the absence of Hindus, Sikhs and orthodox Moslems I found that only Bishop Anthony of Bangor and I were dressed in style. “Showing the flag!” said Ken. Readings from Orthodox Christians, Quakers, Sufis and Buddhists in both English and Welsh followed the dedication ceremony led by Bishop Anthony. I read a lightly edited version of the Metta Sutta as prepared by Christopher Titmus. It seemed appropriate for such an occasion.
May all beings be happy.
May all be joyous and live in safety.
Let no one deceive another,
Nor despise another, weak as they may be. Let no one by anger or by hate
Wish evil for another.
As a mother, in peril of her own life, Watches and protects her only child, So with limitless spirit
one cherishes all living beings.
Love the world in its entirety Above, below and all around, Without limitation
With an infinite goodness and benevolence.
Standing or walking, sitting or lying down
As long as one is awake
Let one cultivate loving kindness.
This is called the supreme way of living.
Such activities raise questions about interfaith work within Buddhism. It is not my intention to consider them in depth here for it is a multilayered question with experiential, ontological and philosophical components. There is however a text by Raimon Pannikkar, which everyone faced by an interfaith event should contemplate prior to participation. And this must apply to us as Chan practitioners. I offer it here, lightly edited, for your thoughtful perusal.
When you enter into an inter-religious dialogue, do not think beforehand what you have to believe.
When you witness to your faith, do not defend yourself or your vested interests, sacred as they may appear to you. Behave like the birds in the skies: they sing and fly and defend neither their music nor their beauty.
When you dialogue with somebody, look upon your partner as a revelatory experience, as you would and should regard the lilies in the fields.
Try first to remove the beam in your own eye before the speck in the eye of your neighbour.
Blessed are you when you do not feel self-sufficient while being in dialogue. Blessed are you when you trust the other because you trust your faith.
Blessed are you when you face misunderstandings from your own community for the sake of your fidelity to truth.
Blessed are you when you do not give up your convictions and yet do not set them up as absolute norms.
Woe unto you theologians and academics when you dismiss what others say because you find it embarrassing or insufficiently learned.
Woe unto you, practitioners of religions, when you do not listen to the cries of the little ones.
Woe unto you, religious authorities, because you prevent change and connection.
Woe unto you, religious people, because you monopolise religion and stifle the spirit which blows where and how she wills.
The silence that has fallen
carpetless your busy room,
embedded still the presences
of absent furniture,
empty bookshelves, departed garden tools,
flowering pots, patches of empty wall
where pictures hung -
so strange is time -
this ancient photograph lost behind a
list of phone numbers -
so long ago - the way you look at me
and I so vigorous - was that my prime?
The place is gently haunted now-
alone before the ten-o'clock news
memories of two cats gaze beyond the horizon
and distant donkeys bray.
I do believe it's much more difficult
staying behind -
the ghosts in your place
they will not trouble you.
Here they come through doors
or creak along corridors
or run a bath.
The place vibrates in its past
the gaps in decoration
to sudden pictures
drown the heart.
The farm is restless now, reproachful,
distractedly a place in silence.
It’s making cheerful phone calls
as if nothing in particular
has happened that does it --
At least you watched the ten o'clock
news with me where even timbers
now refuse to creak:
funny how these memories
are of happy things remorsefully recalled.
You will not be coming back.