Chairs' Letter – May 2022On Tue, 31 May, 2022 - 18:50
Dear Order Members and friends,
As well as being College Chair, I’ve come to hold various other responsibilities within Triratna, including currently being a Centre President and involved in the International Council. Looking back, becoming part of the women’s ordination team at Tiratanaloka was probably the most significant factor in shaping this life; but actually it goes back even further than that and has really emerged from a network of kalyanamitrata…
I first encountered the FWBO / Triratna in London, when I was in my 20s and already living in a housing association community. It was a short step to move into an LBC community, and then my sense of needing more contact with spiritual friends led me to abandon my lucrative and engrossing career in computer programming, for team-based Right Livelihood. The contexts of living and working with other buddhist women gave rise to formative relationships with my kalyanamitras Vidyasri and Sanghadevi, with Sanghadevi later becoming my private preceptor. Some 15 years later, and by now an Order member myself, I was invited to spend six months with women practising in Melbourne – forging lasting connections.
It was a surprise to then be asked to join the women’s ordination team at Tiratanaloka, as I was a relatively new Order member and hadn’t thought of myself as the kind of person who lived in a retreat centre (similarly to most people who end up doing so) or even as an obvious full time kalyanamitra (many people finding me unapproachable and even scary). I remember discovering how privileged and inspiring it was to witness the transformation of women training for ordination. In the days before ordination teams started to develop more fully elsewhere, we kept in contact with women training for ordination all over the world (outside of India) – which at that time involved writing an extraordinary number of physical letters. To make things more manageable we divided up the world between us, and I got Australia, Scandinavia, and Cambridge! Over time I became preceptor to some of these women, and my long-standing connections with the Stockholm and Helsinki sanghas led to my becoming president to these Centres, as well as to Tiratanaloka.
However I hadn’t factored in becoming College Chair, and the rather demanding first couple of years made it clear that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to all three presidencies. It seemed natural to keep up my connection with Tiratanaloka, and I had already started to explore the possibility of stepping down from Stockholm and Helsinki when Covid restrictions halted travel. I am now delighted that Sujana is about to become president in Helsinki, which seems an excellent match, and I keep up my friendship with Prasadacarin, Stockholm Chair, while he explores other options.
I was able to spend time with Sujana during the Presidents’ meeting at Adhisthana this month. The theme was the lineages of responsibility and of inspiration (two of the four lineages of teachings / practices / inspiration / responsibility, outlined by Bhante). It was our first in-person meeting for three years, and very much appreciated by those present (markedly fewer than last year’s online meeting, which just about everyone attended). There were short talks on the theme from Subhadramati, Kulamitra, and Vajranatha, and more personal ones from Ratnaghosha, Lokabandhu, and Maitreyi, as well as Subhadramati interviewing Paramartha on his connection with Bhante. Ratnaprabha introduced study sessions on ‘Authority and the Individual in the New Society’ – a talk given by Bhante in 1979 for the opening of Sukhavati / The London Buddhist Centre; and Prakasha led evening meditation and puja. Bhante’s talk gave us plenty to discuss, e.g.: ‘Going for refuge means moving from the group to the spiritual community, i.e., from the power principle to the Bodhicitta.’
As president of Tiratanaloka, I joined the team this month for some of their community days, and we spent some of that time with the Pāsādika Sutta (The Delightful / Inspiring Discourse, Digha Nikaya 29). The Sutta begins with the novice Cunda relating to his preceptor Ananada how, following the death of the Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta, the Nigaṇṭhas had split into two factions and were now quarrelling and disputing with each other – in a manner that makes it clear that human nature is much the same today! The Buddha’s response is that not only does there need to be a fully-enlightened Buddha whose doctrine is well-proclaimed and whose disciples have fully mastered it, but that understanding and ability to teach effectively needs to have percolated throughout the sangha, without anything being deducted from or added to it. He then says his disciples should come together and recite what they have heard from him, and gives one of the early lists of what constitute his essential teachings (the 37 Factors of Enlightenment, or Bodhipakkhiya Dhamma). They should check their understanding of both the meaning and expression, carefully suggesting alternatives if either are wrong, and applauding when correct. He goes on to clarify the reason for his teaching of restraint, and makes the point that this does not mean the avoidance of all forms of pleasure; in fact the experience of jhāna is entirely pleasurable and leads to Arahantship. This is the purpose of his teaching, and he does not engage in useless speculation.
I was delighted, as always, to spend time with the team, who are impressively inspired and harmonious. During my 15 years at Tiratanaloka, the maximum size of ordination team and support team combined was about 12 or 13; the current team is about 6.5 with some volunteer help. Not only are they the core leaders of GFR retreats – with help of other experienced Dharmacharinis; they also do most of the administration as well as supporting or co-leading ordination retreats (including three month retreats at Akashavana). Currently, with input from Subhadramati and FutureDharma, they are setting out to raise funds for the larger and more sustainable project that is needed to respond to the increasing numbers of women who have requested ordination – Tiratanaloka Unlimited. A true band of dharma heroines – with more beginning to appear in the wings!
Next summer will be the tenth anniversary of the opening of Adhisthana, and I’m glad plans are starting to take shape for a series of celebratory events. The opening event in July 2013 had been planned as a meeting of the European Chairs’ Assembly (ECA), which I thought would be big enough (around 60 people) and forgiving enough, to test the facilities without overwhelming them. When they decided to invite the College, Presidents, Order and Mitra Convenors to join them, there was a rush to decorate the remaining bedrooms; I woke up disoriented early one morning, standing with a paint roller on a pole and leaning against a freshly painted wall… The event itself passed in a blur, but I’ve heard it was great, and there’s a plan to repeat it next year…
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