Chair's Letter – July 2023 – SubhadramatiOn Tue, 1 August, 2023 - 17:55
This month’s update from the College is a bumper edition before we take a break in August…
Recently the Ordination courses at Guhyaloka and Akashavana were completed, led by Maitreyabandhu and Subhadramati respectively; and the College-led ‘Lineage Retreat’ at Adhisthana was a great success, for which Mahamati was on the team. We wanted to share something from each of these aspects of the College’s work, and asked Subhadramati and Mahamati to write more fully.
I will be taking part in a few events at Adhisthana in August: attending a 10th anniversary event for ‘Communities Past and Present’ and the Combined Area Order weekend, and giving a talk on ’The Essence of Zen’ at the Sub35 Festival retreat. We’re also starting to plan the International College meeting in November, which will mark the beginning of the final year of my term and include a process to appoint the next College Chair.
Dear Order members and friends,
I hope you’re well.
I’m not long back from leading the 11-week ordination course at Akashavana. While I was there I found myself composing a letter to Bhante. And so, taking my inspiration from Padmavajra’s heartfelt ‘Instead of a Foreword’ which begins ‘Poems and Short Stories’ (Volume 25 of The Complete Works), this month’s ‘update’ is that letter.
I’m writing to you from the long ordination retreat at Akashavana. I always feel closer than ever to you when I am on these retreats. I wrote to you from the first one, led by Ratnadharini in 2007, telling you of the joy and gratitude of all the women as they first saw, and then experienced, having our very own retreat centre for ordinations for the first time. Hundreds of ordinations have taken place here since then and I was particularly delighted that three of our private preceptors this year were ordained at Akashavana themselves. This felt like a real coming of age.
I think you will be pleased to know that this retreat is quite international with three from different parts of Germany (we have all learned the Ten Precepts in German!) and one all the way from New Hampshire. I think you will also be pleased to know that there is a good age range, from someone in her 70s to two in their 20s: Saccamani (who you once met) discovered your teachings in The Religion of Art while at art school; Dhibhajana, trained as a tailor in London’s Saville Row, lovingly sewed the robes you were buried in.
We are all now wearing robes, of course, and I’m so pleased that the women’s wing now has this particular way of expressing the ‘entry into the family of the Buddha’ which ordination, especially the public part of the ceremony, is. Subhuti, of course, points out that this is ‘not merely an inner change, but a change in public identity’. And there’s a resonance for me in a painting in London’s National Gallery; by Sassetta. The painting shows St Frances of Assisi entering the monastery naked, casting off his rich garments to be exchanged for the patched robes. I’m also enjoying the aesthetics of the ‘circles of blue’ we make as we meditate, study, practice confession and perform puja together.
The landscape continues to inspire and delight. The vultures circling on the warm air thermals an image for the mind in a state of alertness and awareness without being driven towards a particular end which you’ve taught us is the pre-requisite for the ‘eye of Imagination’ to open. And the fossilized clam shells we find on the paths reminding me of the lines from the Zen poem: ‘Morning after morning flowers fade and fall;/Year after year men pass away./Here where the dust whirls up today,/in times gone by was a sprawling sea.’
A new feature of the landscape is the Stupa, inspired by Maitreyi, created in 2021 and containing some of Dhardo Rimpoche’s relics, given by Suvajra. This has become a great focus for circumambulation and devotion.
On our shrine is the photograph of you conducting the first ordinations. Of course, it is meaningful to many of us that the very first ordination was of a woman. Just before this retreat I was part of a celebration of ‘International Women’s Day’ [Deutsch / Español] at the Manchester Centre. The theme was ‘Equal Ordination for Women’. Dayanandi spoke about the founding of Taraloka and Dhammadinna about Tiratanaloka. And I saw more clearly than ever how this equal ordination, present from the very first moment of the birth of our order is a manifestation of your realization of the primacy of Going for Refuge. That equal ordination for everyone, isn’t a matter of ‘representation’ or anything ‘political’. It’s more simple, and more deep. It’s a consequence of the nature of the Dharma life itself.
Another thing I love about this photograph is that you are caught in time (perhaps like the figures on Keats’s Grecian Urn!) holding the kesa aloft, as if perpetually ordaining us. This image is echoed in Chintamani’s painting of the Tree of Refuge and Respect which resides at Adhisthana. We have prostrated before a copy of this many times and sometimes it’s been as if I’ve felt the touch of your hands placing this sacred symbol around my neck…
One of the joys of leading this retreat is working in close harmony with the team. Your old friend Kulanandi is here. She’s been inspiring us with talks on Vajrasattva; with vivid descriptions of her life and work in India, especially the determination of women to overcome so many obstacles in order to lead the Dharma life; and most of all by her own determination not to ‘settle down’ at a time in her life where she could be forgiven for doing so. Also here is Prajnagita from the ordination team at Tiratanaloka who rises an hour before any of us to read from your ‘Complete Works’. She’s pledged to read the whole collection within two years to raise money for Tiratanaloka Unlimited and it’s moving to see the profound effect this daily practice is having upon her. Then there are Sadayasihi and Kusaladevi, two young(ish) centre chairs from the Dublin and Nottingham centres. I’m delighted that this retreat is giving them the chance to deepen their friendship even more and I hope it will continue to do so, well into the future. And then there are the community team, Bodhipakshini and Padmasakhi with many volunteer helpers whose willingness to respond and serve is such an inspiration to everyone here and gives them more than a glimpse of the order at its very best.
And then, nearby, my very good friend Maitreyabandhu is leading the men’s ordination course in Guhyaloka. For a great number of years we welcomed newcomers through the door at the LBC’s ‘Wednesday Class’, so there’s a lovely poetry to us simultaneously welcoming people into the Order now (which, in a poetic sense again, is perhaps really what we were doing then too).
As well as studying some of your seminars and (slowly) working my way through The Norton Anthology of Poetry, I have been re-reading your memoirs accompanied by Nagabodhi’s wonderful ‘The Boy, the Monk, the Man’. I recommend this book to everyone! Nagabodhi’s prose is beautiful to read, of course, and the book has convinced me, even more, how fortunate I am to have you as my revered teacher.
Subhadramati was taught meditation by Dhammarati in London when she was 22. She almost immediately started working for the movement in London, then Dublin, then back in London, and has now joined the Tiratanaloka Team where she is heading up the Tiratanaloka Unlimited project.
Hear more from Subhadramati in a talk on ‘The Archetypal Guru and the Ten Precepts’ in 2020, in which she shares a memory of Sangharakshita’s last public appearance before his death, and unfolds the significance of this image.