Chairs' Letter – July 2022On Sun, 31 July, 2022 - 23:49
Dear Order Members and Friends,
This month we hear from two of my deputy-chairs, Punyamala and Jnanavaca, who have recently arrived back from leading Ordination courses at Akashavana and Guhyaloka.
It has been my great good fortune to spend the last 11 weeks at Akashavana, the forest retreat of luminous space, leading an international ordination retreat during which 18 women entered the Order.
It feels foolhardy to attempt to convey something of the beauty, depth of practice and transformative nature of that time dwelling in the Spanish mountains in the wild and sacred landscape of Akashavana. However, maybe I can give you a flavour of a remarkable retreat the experience of which is largely incommunicable. As T S Eliot says,
I can only say there we have been, but I cannot say where
And I cannot say for how long, for that is to place it in time.
So we were wholeheartedly practicing under vibrant, deep blue skies where the vultures soar and glide surrounded by pines and holm oaks and protected by ancient rocky cliffs, in a timeless realm away for the sorrows and heartbreak of the world for a while.
Our community of 23 had various challenges to face. Early on in the retreat we had a covid outbreak in which 17 of us were affected by covid. Everyone responded magnificently to this situation and as most people were only mildly affected we were able to maintain our retreat programme. Some heroines gave unstintingly and worked very hard cooking and doing essential tasks. Everyone was kind, co-operative, flexible and generous. We also had 2 periods of very hot weather, one during the ordination phase of the retreat. The heat was tiring and debilitating at times but again everyone remained positive and creative.
This was the first long ordination retreat for women during which everyone wore robes. We had a strong robing ritual at the start of the retreat. I found that the wearing robes emphasised our faith and common purpose in Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. I discovered that putting on my robe before going to the shrine room strengthened my commitment to practice effectively.
It was also the first retreat at Akashavana since the stupa to Dhardo Rimpoche has been built. The stupa has a strong presence and has a splendid location on a terrace above the shrine room. It brings a significant new dimension to Akashavana recollecting Dhardo Rimpoche and Bhante’s friendship with him and also providing another practice area in the very heart of the landscape. This was well used both for individual and collective practice.
Akashavana felt especially important to me this year not only because it provides such extraordinary and magical conditions for women’s ordination in Triratna, but also, more generally as a sacred place in the world where women can experience great beauty and profound silence and a true sanctuary from the travails of samsara so that
Refreshed we rise and turn again
to mingle with this world of pain.
Akashavana only exists through the generosity of so many. I’ll conclude with expressing my gratitude to those who made this year’s retreat such a rewarding experience. Firstly, I am very grateful to the 18 new Dharmacharinis who so wholeheartedly engaged with the retreat creating a loving and harmonious community which enabled deep transformation and supported everyone into the Order. It was particularly good to have 3 women form North America who enriched the retreat in so many ways. The team for the retreat, Kalyacitta, Hridayagita, Sucimani and Jvalamalini worked tirelessly and good humourdly and took the various challenges we faced in their stride. They also provided excellent and uplifting talks and teachings. I am truly grateful for all their input.
Finally, the retreat could not have happened without the support of the Akashavana community who worked tirelessly and with great generosity throughout. Bodhipakshini and Padmasakhi and their volunteers were simply magnificent.
It has been a rich and rewarding time and I am delighted that 18 new Dharamacharinis have joined the Order.
I returned just over a week ago from co-leading the Guhyaloka ordination course with Paramabandhu. We had 11 wonderful weeks in the ‘secret realm’. Guhyaloka, as many of you will know, is spectacularly beautiful. I knew and felt this while I was there but somehow after a few weeks it was easy to become accustomed to the beauty. Now back in London, and more particularly in Bethnal Green with it’s traffic and concrete, the retreat feels like a gorgeous dream.
There were 20 of us there - 16 retreatants and a team of four. The other two team members were Jnanadhara and Santaka who were wonderfully supportive, hard-working and capable. One of the most enjoyable aspects of being there was the tangible sense of harmony between us all. Each of the retreatants was impressive as an individual, but even more so as part of a community where there was such a spirit of co-operation, kindness, good-humour, and friendship. I felt very fortunate to be there not only with Paramabandhu who is one of my kalyana mitras and who I’ve lived with for 27 years, but also with three other much younger men from my community Samaggavasa, who are now part of the Order.
It was the first time I’d co-led an ordination course, and the first time I’d conducted public ordinations. I must admit that before going, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, feeling the responsibility of co-leading the retreat as something of a burden. This feeling wasn’t helped by me contracting Covid two weeks before leaving. The thought of being up a mountain in the cold and possibly wet conditions without most of the creature comforts I am all too accustomed to, felt like an unwelcome challenge. Fortunately I was well enough by the time the retreat started and the physical conditions were just fine and more than fine. We were very well looked after by the resident community at Guhyaloka who shopped and cooked for us and were always available to take care of our needs. I rejoice in all their dedication and hard work, not just in looking after us, but in taking care of Guhyaloka - a demanding job that I would not be able to do.
I experienced a great deal of joy and gratitude and a deep sense of fulfilment on the retreat. Conducting the public ordinations I was very much aware of all the kalyana mitrata I’ve received in my dharma life. As well as Paramabandhu there were other preceptors present - namely Arthapriya, Mahamati, and Vessantara - who have been teachers and guides at various points in my life, and whose example I look up to. And then there were the peer friends amongst the private preceptors (too many to name) as well as of course the men being ordained. All of us there, and so many other friends not physically present, united in Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. All of us participating in a common vision of human potential. I was delighted to privately ordain two men who I live with - Maitrishura and Maitrikumara - as well as publicly ordain six men including another man I live with, Samantavajra. The ordination ceremonies, both private and public, felt emblematic of what is most important in my life expressed more purely than I am usually able to do.
I was very aware of my own ordination in India in 1999 and of Subhuti, my private and public preceptor, my teacher and friend. And as it were standing behind Subhuti were Bhante and Bhante’s teachers, the teachers of the past all the way up to the Buddha. A sense of lineage has become more and more important to me as the years go by. I’m afraid I don’t really have the words or the clarity to express what I mean by this, but I do have a tangible sense that the honouring of lineage is a key to opening up to the blessings of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. I think this may be what Shenpen Hookham is pointing to in her book ‘The Guru Principle’, and personally I feel proud and humbled and profoundly grateful to be part of a lineage.
On the retreat, as well as studying the Dharma section of ‘The Three Jewels’, I re-read chapters two to four of ‘The Survey of Buddhism’ as well as ‘Ambedkar and Buddhism’ and various other pieces of Bhante’s writings, including many of his poems. As well as being affected by the depth and clarity and devotion in the writing, it was another way for me to stay connected to Bhante. I’m not generally prone to visionary experience, but in one meditation where I was ‘just sitting’, Padmasambhava seemed to spontaneously appear. “Great Guru, please give me a teaching” I asked. I thought this a reasonable and appropriate request but there was no response. I repeated my request a second time and still there was silence although his presence remained quite vivid. However the third time I asked there was an immediate and definite response that took me aback. Very clearly, deliberately, and in a rather stern manner the Precious Guru replied “I gave you Bhante”, in a tone that I took to mean “what more do you want?”.
During the ordination period I was aware more than ever of the trust that our Sangha is founded on - particularly the trust that is placed in the College and it’s members to welcome people into the Order and to oversee the ordination processes. Since joining the College in 2020 I’ve taken on being one of Ratnadharini’s deputies and been involved in trying to manage some of the more difficult issues that can arise in our Order from time to time. I’ve found this work challenging and at times quite unpleasant, although its also rewarding to work closely with Ratnadharini and her other deputies - Punyamala, Amrutdeep and Ratnavyuha. Like many of us I’ve been involved in taking responsibility in our institutions all my Order life and like many of us it’s not work that I always enjoy or find easy, and at times I can question why I do it. However conducting my first public ordinations has helped me to put some of the more difficult aspects of the work into its proper context, and I think its also helped me to feel more confident as a member of the College.
So I’m ‘landing back’ reasonably well and starting to re-engage with my life in London. I’ve just finished reading one book and started two others by Dr. Eben Alexander - an American neurosurgeon and academic who in 2008 had a near-death experience while in a coma caused by a rare strain of bacterial meningitis. The disease severely damaged his neocortex - the part of the brain that he says makes us human. I’m reading his books because I’m interviewing him next week as part of the ‘Nature of Mind’ project. Before his near-death experience he was a committed scientific-materialist convinced that consciousness is a phenomenon created by the brain. His experience, including his full and scientifically inexplicable recovery, has transformed him and he now believes consciousness is more fundamental than matter. As a neurosurgeon he understands and explains why the experiences he had while in the coma couldn’t have been fabricated by his infected and damaged brain.
Personally I don’t need convincing of the continuity of consciousness after death, but I meet many people, including Buddhists, who hold a scientific-materialistic world-view, sometimes more or less consciously. It’s a pernicious view that is arguably infecting western Buddhism. For me one of the values of the ‘Nature of Mind’ project is to have this view challenged by contemporary scientists.
Dr Alexander’s books are fairly light-reading, nevertheless I think he’s sincere, and I found the account of his near-death experience in his book ‘Proof of Heaven’ compelling and remarkable. In ‘Living in a Mindful Universe’ he explores ideas about consciousness that resonate with Buddhism, and which I think may have more impact on some people because of his scientific training and previous rational scepticism. I’ll end with some words from an earlier book of his, ‘The Map of Heaven’:
“Love, Beauty, Goodness, Friendship. In the worldview of materialist science, there is no room for treating these things as realities. When we believe this, just as when we believe it when we are told that meaning isn’t real, we lose our connection to heaven - what writers in the ancient world sometimes called the ‘golden thread’.
We get weak.
Love, beauty, goodness, and friendship are real. They’re as real as rain. They’re as real as butter, as real as wood, or stone, or plutonium, or the rings of Saturn, or sodium nitrate. On the earthly level of existence, it’s easy to lose sight of that.
But what you lose, you can get back.”
Wishing you all well, especially those who have recently joined our precious Order.