Perhaps no one can truly understand money, power and sex until trying to give them up completely. So we begin our exploration of “the tough stuff” by turning to Ajahn Amaro and asking him to explain the monastic approach to these worldly matters. Amaro was ordained by Ajahn Chah in Thailand in 1979 and currently serves as coabbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. Touching on everything from the economics to the “communist” ideals to the renunciate lifestyle of his forest monastery, Amaro makes it clear that the Buddha’s path to freedom is radical and difficult, and is not likely to be completed “on your terms.” Not long after Ajahn Amaro‘s fiftieth birthday this past fall Inquiring Mind staff members joined him in Berkeley for the following conversation.
Ajahn Amaro: In the Thai forest tradition, one of the basic principles in setting up a monastery is to make sure that it’s a place where everybody from across the whole social spectrum has an equal sense of belonging. There’s no entry fee, so everyone has equal access to the teachings and to the amenities of the monastery, such as the meditation hall if they want to come for blessing ceremonies. The whole relationship to money is in that spirit so that everyone feels welcome.
Inquiring Mind: It must have been challenging to translate this principle and related practices into a Western context. Did you have to make any fundamental changes when your teacher Ajahn Chah’s branch monasteries were established in England?
AA: Actually, Ajahn Chah was open to all kinds of adaptations. He told his monks, “You can change the way you wear the robes; you can change the chanting.” But he insisted on keeping at least one thing the same: “You must go out on almsround every day.” He was surprisingly strict about that. Ajahn Sumedho replied, “What? In London? Who’s going to offer us almsfood when we go out in the morning with our bowls?” But Ajahn Chah said, “You have to go on almsround because it’s your duty as a monk to be the fourth heavenly messenger. If you don’t, then you’re depriving people of the opportunity of coming in contact with monastics.” You might remember from stories about the Buddha that a monk was the messenger who pointed the way to freedom from suffering.
As it turned out, it was on almsround on Hampstead Heath one day that the monks in England met a guy out jogging who ended up donating a forest in the countryside to them. He happened to own a forest and was looking to find some people to be forest wardens, and they were a bunch of monks stuck in London looking for a forest.
IM: When you set up a Buddhist monastery in the English countryside, how were you going to get the support you needed? No one knew who you were, what you did, or even that you existed.
AA: Ajahn Chah said, “If you make good soup, people will hear about it.” When Ajahn Sumedho and his group in England accepted the gift of this forest and set up a monastery in the country, they took that principle very seriously. Some people said, “You’re crazy. How are you going to survive? Look at the economics. In London, you’ve got guaranteed income from rent on the houses that were donated to you. You’ve got people who know you and look after you. Yet you’re moving away to a place where you have no assets, no one knows you, and no one’s going to look after you. What are you going to live on?”
Indeed, when Ajahn Sumedho and the monks gave up the houses in London and moved down to Sussex, they had no guaranteed means of support. If someone didn’t show up with food, building materials or cloth for them to wear, then the monks would go without. But by going out for alms, not only were they making sure they were seen, they were demonstrating that they were vulnerable. It’s a strange alchemy. The basis of support and involvement from the greater community is created by that vulnerability. And that’s when people started coming.
We’ve followed that principle in all of our branch monasteries ever since. We don’t proselytize. We don’t try to fundraise. If we have a need, we just let the word spread. If people find out, then that’s good; and if they don’t, then they don’t. We just let the funds come in and accumulate, and we figure out how best to fulfill our plans as that happens. Our projects are driven by the level of support rather than by the schedule and the desires of the people who live at the monastery.
IM: In a monastic situation you’re really dealing with a whole other way of organizing a society. How do you make your decisions?
AA: We’re kind of a communist outfit, spiritual communists! All the real property of the community is owned by the community. Things that affect the whole community are most often discussed and decided on by the whole community. And decisions are ideally made by consensus. According to the vinaya, the monastic discipline, everyone has an equal say. Occasionally, if things cannot be decided by consensus, they’ll be decided by majority vote. Incidentally, Ajahn Buddhadasa once wrote a book on this theme, called Dhammic Socialism.
In the spirit of communality, we’re the janitors as well as the teachers and the administrative staff. We don’t employ anybody. We’re fulfilling all of the different roles ourselves, so I might be in the role of Dharma teacher one moment and toilet cleaner a bit later.
IM: So the monastery is practicing a kind of communism, guided by dedication to the greater good of all. That presents an interesting contrast to nonmonastic Buddhist centers set up in a capitalist way—with hired executive directors and fundraising drives. Many centers say they have to charge a lot in order to build something that will be suitable for people who expect a certain degree of comfort when they meditate or go on retreats.
AA: The contrast is clear in the very act of taking ordination. You make a deal with the preceptor to live at an absolutely basic standard of living. You agree to be content—even if your only clothing is discarded cloth, your only food is what gets dropped into your bowl on almsround, your only shelter is at the root of a tree, and your only medicine is fermented urine.
IM: You agree to drink urine? We thought you monastics were renouncing sense pleasures. [Laughter]
AA: Sure. Fermented urine. It’s called Vitamin P in the trade. [Laughter] It’s actually a very good medicine for preventing colds, for example; as soon as you get a sore throat you take it. Of course, it’s not to everyone’s taste. [Laughter] But traditionally, it’s the standard you agree to.
It should be added that even though you’ve consciously agreed to these four supports (rag robes, almsfood, root of a tree and fermented urine) as your standard, if something better comes along, that’s fine. In the ordination ceremony, you state that too. You’re allowed to wear cotton robes, wool robes, even silk robes, but if all that is available is rags, that’s what you agree to wear.
IM: Silk robes? So after setting such a standard of simplicity, is it really considered perfectly okay if people offer you a mansion or drive you around in a Rolls-Royce?
AA: Yes. It’s very interesting that in the lifetime of the Buddha, fellow yogis would sometimes criticize him: “How can you call yourself a monk when the king invites you to the palace and you eat at banquets? A seven-story building was built for you. How can you accept such a thing?” The Buddha replied, “Of all of the monks who live in this seven-story mansion, none of them consider that they ‘own’ it or that it is their ‘right.’ They all look upon it as a roof over their heads for a night. They didn’t ask or maneuver for it. Therefore, it is blameless.”
IM: When is the line crossed? How many donated Rolls-Royces are too many?
AA: If you study the vinaya texts, it’s feedback from the lay community that often determines what is too much, so the monastic community makes a choice as to what is appropriate by balancing these different sources of feedback.
Foreseeing the wide spread of the Dharma, the Buddha also laid down rules adaptable to different times in history and different cultures. He said you must be guided by the lifestyle of average householders who are supporters of your monastery. Would these ordinary people consider a gift to be luxurious? The Sangha has to weigh it up. If there’s a multibillionaire who wants to make a donation of $20 million for us to build a meditation hall, shall we accept that? What if she’s making a stipulation that it’s got to have marble floors and gold fittings? The community would discuss it and likely reply, “Well, it’d be very nice to build a meditation hall, but hey, marble is a bit too lavish.”
IM: And very cold to sit on! [Laughter]
AA: We might say, “Thanks very much, but we can’t accept the donation on that basis.” So you can decline an offering in that way if there are riders on it that are inappropriate. The Buddha was aware of what is considered indulgent in the eyes of society.
IM: A key question is how the lifestyle of a practice center affects what is taught and what is learned there. Not everyone is drawn to practicing like a monk or nun. There are plenty of us who would blanch at the very thought of sleeping on the floor of a bare cabin in the woods, eating only before noon, or using an outhouse. So we end up at retreat centers that, unlike monasteries supported purely by donations, are financed by high fees and fundraising drives. Depending on which setting one chooses for practice, does the Dharma change?
AA: It’s an interesting question. What could change is that the Dharma that gets people in the door—filling the seats and paying the entry fee—might have to be more entertaining and less threatening. If you’re not charging at all, you can talk about unattractive things. You can dwell upon subjects that might not be that interesting to many people or might even be really off-putting, like the unattractiveness of the body. On the other hand, if you’re charging, you may start wondering, what can we do to make the Dharma sexy? What can we put up on the billboard so people will be assured of getting their money’s worth?
IM: But those laypeople who don’t want to take robes, who want their comforts when they study the Dharma, might not come in contact with the teachings if it weren’t for retreat centers where there’s delicious food, clean bedding, bathtubs. So for them, something is gained. But you’re suggesting something is also sacrificed.
AA: It’s a huge issue really: Dharma on my terms. Is it Dharma? Contrast that to: Dharma in line with the Dharma. If Dharma is practiced according to my preferences, it’s not necessarily a gateway to liberation. That’s its danger. I’m not saying that having a sink with hot and cold running water in your room is necessarily an obstruction to enlightenment. . .
IM: Lucky for you. We heard that you have a new abbot’s kuti (cabin) with a private bathroom!
AA: Absolutely! But there are other dimensions to this discussion. It seems to me that for many laypeople in our society who go to the nice retreat centers, the whole role of renunciation is excised from the Dharma field. Monasticism is forgotten or seen as a quaint lifestyle that happens off on the edges. It’s not really a central piece of Dharma. The fact that the Buddha was a monk gets lost.
Of course, people are free to practice as they want. Nonetheless, many Western Dharma centers seem to marginalize what to the rest of the Buddhist world is central and historically vital to the whole process of Dharma practice and enlightenment. It’s like opening up the chest, detaching all the veins and arteries, carefully removing the heart, and maintaining the body on a life-support system. One can’t help but wonder, is this thing really alive? Is this really going to carry on? Obviously, my perspective is slanted; I’m a card-carrying monk. But in wedging Dharma teachings into a comfortable life, one may be missing something that’s crucial to the Dharma. I would suggest that people look closely at that: is the Dharma something that I tack onto my life or is it something that I offer myself up to? It’s just like nature: do we see it as a pretty and refreshing adjunct to my world or do we see that all that we are, mentally and physically, is inescapably part of nature?
I’ve noticed that for some people, when they don’t have things according to their own preferred model, they fall apart. I’ve seen that happen many times, with famous Dharma teachers as well as regular folks. Renunciate practice can help develop resilience in meeting life’s difficult conditions. It counters the drift towards, “I’ve got to have everything according to my way.”
It has to do with the relinquishment of control. If you didn’t choose the food that you ate every day for the rest of your life, how would that feel? What if you couldn’t drive a car and you could only go places on invitation? At a monastery, you can’t listen to music, play games or watch DVDs; there’s no radio, no TV, no sex, no dinner.
IM: And when you’re not a customer, when you’re not paying, you can’t complain. In monasteries, if you complain, nobody listens to you because nobody complains, right? When you walk in the door, then you live according to the system. That’s it.
AA: When you relinquish control and take on the simplicity of the renunciate life, you have an opportunity to reflect on all the things to which you’ve become habituated. You take on restrictions in order to contact the most profound dimension of your own nature. There are no special meals or special rooms for special needs. If you’re continually seeking comfort or trying to arrange the material world to meet your preferences, then you don’t notice those areas of bondage and attachment, and they remain barriers to accessing the fundamental unconditioned nature of the mind.
IM: In giving up the desire for control of your own life, you’re finding freedom.
AA: Yes, and that’s practicing Dharma in line with the Dharma.