Buddhism - The Deathless Realm
by Badal Suchak
I never really went looking for Amaravati. It just arrived into my life, like a gift.
My meditation teacher at Igatpuri, India, had gifted me a book written by Luang Por Sumedho, the abbot of Amaravati - a monastery in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism at Hertfordshire, England, some 35 miles from London. His simple yet profound style of interpreting the Buddha's teachings opened up a new way of seeing and understanding the dharma. It helped me immensely in my meditation practice and I decided to visit Amaravati on my next visit to London.
The next summer, on a Sunday afternoon, I was there, sitting in the sala (the dining hall) at Amaravati, where lay disciples from London and nearby towns come to listen to Luang Por Sumedho's discourses.
The humility of this senior monk, heading Amaravati with several branches in U.K., Switzerland, Italy and the US, is awe-inspiring. "We are all destined to be enlightened," he says, in response to a question from the audience on 'fate and free will'. In a lighthearted manner, the abbot paves the way to enlightenment. "It is all grace …" he says, talking about his spiritual journey. "I know my potential… it is all grace, that I am here today..."
Chanting in Pali, Luang Por Sumedho explains: "The gates to the deathless are open. The one who listens, sees and pays attention, is awake. Trust and relax into this present moment with faith. It's a simple ability; it's not a complicated or difficult thing to do. It's not like you have to spend years trying to 'get it', it's a natural state that is relaxed and attentive, open, receptive, in the present. So when we trust in that, then we begin to recognize the way it is…"
As one listens to Luang Por Sumedho explaining the Buddha's teachings in such a lucid manner, one feels encouraged to move in through the open doors of Amaravati to take a journey within.
In appreciation of his contribution to Buddhism, the king and queen of Thailand recently conferred upon him the prestigious ecclesiastical rank of 'Tan Chao Khun', with royal honor. This is the first time a Buddhist monk of western origin has received this title.
Luang Por (venerable father) Sumedho was born in the US in 1934 and served in the US navy as a medic; he completed BA in Far Eastern Studies and MA in South Asian Studies, before being ordained as a monk in Thailand in 1967. Soon after this he met Luang Por Chah, a meditation master in the Theravada tradition, living at Wat Nong Pah Pong, a forest monastery in Thailand. Luang Por Chah's monasteries are renowned for their austerity and their emphasis on a simple direct approach to dhamma practice. Luang Por Sumedho practiced meditation there under the guidance of Luang Por Chah for ten years before being invited to take up residence in London by the English Sangha Trust. Beginning from their Hampstead Buddhist Vihara, Luang Por Sumedho established Cittaviveka, a Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in West Sussex. As interest in Buddhism grew, more and more lay people began visiting Cittaviveka seeking spiritual guidance. Also, the number of people wishing to live a monastic life grew over the years, making accommodation difficult at the monastery.
So when a residential school premise in Hertfordshire was up for sale, the English Sangha Trust bought it. Modified with the addition of a beautiful temple designed by architect Tom Hankock, Luang Por Sumedho's vision of a monastery with a retreat center having facilities for monks, nuns and lay people, came into being in 1984 as the Amaravati Buddhist Centre.
Accustomed as we are to the West streaming into India in pursuit of spiritual wisdom, it is amazing to see a peaceful Buddhist monastery so close to London, where a number of men and women live as monks and nuns.
For the past two decades Amaravati has been providing spiritual support to all those who come here seeking the 'deathless realm' or nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhism.
Bhikkhus (monks) and siladharas (nuns) begin their day early at dawn, and gather in the temple for chanting and meditation. Living a simple life, observing Buddhist precepts, practicing mindfulness and cultivating a compassionate heart, they even go around for alms, which is incredible in a non-Buddhist western country.
Initially, I was told, they faced some difficulty in gaining lay support. One monk, while going for alms, was asked by a well-to-do farmhouse owner, "What do you contribute to the gross national income?" The wise monk peacefully replied, "I contribute to the 'subtle' national income!" A nun explains wonderfully, "Some think it is begging, but we are actually giving people an opportunity to get in touch with intrinsic human generosity."
Over the years the sangha (group of monks and nuns) has rightfully won the lay people's respect and admiration, besides being a great source of spiritual inspiration to them. Today, the laity wholeheartedly supports the monastery, financially, as well as by helping in the monastery's work.
Particularly on Sundays in summer, people from nearby towns come laden with offerings for the sangha. This gives the laity an opportunity to serve the sangha as well as to strengthen their own spiritual practice by meditating in the calm environment of the temple. In the afternoons, Luang Por Sumedho gives inspiring talks based on Buddhist teachings, followed by an open discussion where questions are answered.
Several introductory weekend retreats are organized to teach the basics of 'insight meditation', the western term for Vipassana. For those interested in deepening their practice, the center offers a longer 10-day retreat. Special family weekends are organized for meditation practitioners eager to give their families a taste of the peace and wisdom inherent in Buddhist teachings. The workings of the human mind is wonderfully explored in Buddhism and therefore, draws the attention of several western psychotherapists. At times, special retreats are organized for those in such helping professions. The library stocks spiritually inspiring books from different religions of the world along with audio recording of talks given at Amaravati. The 'Rainbow Room' introduces children to Buddhist teachings with simple meditation, games and stories.
Interacting with the monks was an interesting experience for me. Some of the younger monks were curious about the fact that I, as an Indian citizen, had come to England in search of dhamma! They asked me if I had gone to all the Buddhist pilgrimage centers in India. They were open to learning from other schools and even asked if I had met Ramesh Balsekar (as I am from Mumbai) and the hugging Mother from South India! (I guessed they were referring to Mata Amritanandmayiji). One of the monks also got an astrological reading done from me. I was also told that Goenkaji from India had also initially conducted meditation retreats at Amaravati.
Fortunately, I got an opportunity to attend a ten-day retreat led by Ajahn (teacher) Vajiro, who was assisted by Ajahn Succhito and Ven. Suboddho. All the participants were encouraged to begin the day with walking meditation at dawn, contemplating the transition phase in nature. After which we gathered in the meditation hall for morning chanting and sitting meditation. The purpose of insight meditation is not to create a system of beliefs, but rather to help one see clearly into the nature of mind. In this way one gains a firsthand under-standing of the way things are, without relying on opinions or theories. It also gives rise to a sense of deep calm that comes from knowing something for oneself, beyond any doubts.
One is encouraged to be mindful while doing any activities throughout the day. The vegan breakfast is followed by an hour of helping with the retreat center's work. This is an excellent opportunity for training to be mindful while working in a group or alone. This practice bears wonderful results when carried back home, giving rise to a peaceful and clear mind to help one live every moment mindfully and wisely.
The participants at the retreat also help in preparing the daily meals and serving them to the sangha members who are leading the retreat. After some rest in the afternoons, one has options of sitting meditation or walking meditation in the adjoining forest or in the field near the stupa. In the evenings after the chanting in Pali and English, the Ajahn gives a talk followed by walking meditation at dusk, again to contemplate the transition phase in nature.
During one of the guided meditations, Ajahn Vajiro instructed us to focus on the natural rhythm of the breath. "Notice how each in-breath is followed by an out-breath; whenever one breaths in, one is sure that it will be followed by an out-breath." He gently added, "And when one breathes out, one is never really sure if it will be followed by another in-breath!" The entire hall burst out laughing as he so wittily brought home the truth about impermanence and change.
Attending a retreat indeed helps one deepen the practice of meditation, besides giving one an opportunity to interact with the sangha members and getting doubts and difficulties cleared. Amaravati is a wonderful opportunity for those intending to enhance their spiritual practice.
For more information on Amaravati and to listen to
discourses online, visit ww.amaravati.org.
Badal Suchak offers counselling as a psycho-spiritual astrologer
in Mumbai and London. Tel: (0)9820416366, (022)28981593.
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