Eleventh Annual Buddhist Monastic Conference
by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron ©
For eleven years now,
Buddhist monastics have been gathering together in friendship to
learn about each other's traditions and practices. Nearly forty
monastics-mostly Westerners but some Asians-gathered at Shasta Abbey,
in northern California, Sept. 26 - 29, 2005. We came from the Thai
Theravadin, Japanese Zen, Chinese Ch'an and Pure Land, Vietnamese
Zen, and Tibetan traditions. Many of us had attended previous gatherings
and several were joining us for the first time.
The monastics of Shasta Abbey welcomed us warmly,
and I noticed how happy the monastics who were cooking and caring
for us were to do this, even though it meant they could not attend
the sessions. They live an important element of monastic training:
the willingness to work joyfully as a team for the benefit of the
community. This is quite an accomplishment and involves a lot of
practice-the Dharma practice of serving others happily even if it
means we have to give up doing what we prefer or enjoy doing.
The theme of this year's conference was "Practice."
Broad in nature, it allowed us to see the expansive nature of Buddhist
practice. Rev. Master Eko, the abbot of Shasta Abbey, gave the first
presentation, on the Japanese Zen practice of living in the meditation
hall. Here novice monastics live in the meditation hall for five
or six years, at night sleeping on the same narrow space that they
sit on for meditation during the day. Their robes and a few personal
belongings are stored in cabinets in the wall near their space.
Having very little privacy (and not being able to oversleep in the
morning!) challenges the mind that wants to "have my own space"
and "do things my way." But with the support of the teachings
and the guidance of senior monastics, novices learn to gradually
peel away layers of stubbornness. They come to see the inner peace
that comes from giving up attachment to one's views and preferences.
Rev. Heng Sure, from the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery,
shared practice in the Chinese Buddhist tradition from the Gandavyuha
Sutra. Those of us in the Tibetan tradition recognized this practice,
because the "The King of Prayers," a popular recitation
in our tradition, is found in this sutra. Rev. Heng Sure led us
through the main character Sudhana's search for enlightenment, as
he traveled far and wide to learn the bodhisattvas' practice from
53 teachers (21 of whom were women!). Rev. Heng Sure reminded us
of the importance of humility, effort, persistence, and kindness
as we, too, discover the bodhisattva way and put it into practice.
I gave the third presentation, sharing the Tibetan
Vajrayana practice of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara, Kuan Yin, Kannon).
In describing the psychology of this sadhana-the written text of
a guided meditation on Chenrezig-I showed how it contained many
practices common to other Buddhist traditions, practices such as
refuge, the four Brahmaviharas, bowing, making offerings, revealing
our harmful actions, and meditation on emptiness. This led us into
a discussion of how one meditates on emptiness and dependent arising,
which was great interest to all since it's the most profound focal
point of our practice.
Ajahn Amaro, the co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery,
described the Thai Theravadin dhutanga practices. These are ascetic
practices that the Buddha allowed-they challenge our attachment
to comfort without falling from the middle way into useless torturous
self-denial. They include eating only one meal a day, sleeping sitting
up, wearing rags stitched together for clothes. In some Theravadin
monasteries, these practices are optional, taken up by monks on
their own accord, while in others, the abbot may make one or two
of them a common practice for all. We discussed the importance of
using these properly, for example, not developing an "I'm more
ascetic than thou" attitude, and shared humorous stories about
how our teachers would insist on us doing the opposite of ascetic
practice whenever they saw us becoming attached to them.
Ven. Thubten Rinchen Palzang from Kunzang Palyul
Choling of Sedona, told of his journey to Mongolia, how Buddhism
is practiced there and how his practice was influenced by this
We also enjoyed discussions together, both in
organized groups as well as private chats. The first group discussion
was about celibacy, the most defining and perhaps most challenging
aspect of being a monastic. The female monastics' group talked not
only about the physical aspect of celibacy but its emotional side.
The male monastics' group discussed the importance of celibacy in
One afternoon we went on an outing to a nearby
lake. We were quite a sight, in our various colored robes, wearing
a variety of sun hats. A walk by the lake gave us the opportunity
to talk in a relaxed way. That evening we participated in a practice
of Shasta Abbey, the Surangama Ceremony. Walking in serpentine fashion,
we recited an English translation of the long Surangama mantra,
invoking goodness and clearing away obstacles to Dharma practice.
In our world where religion is tragically used
to stimulate hatred and war, the fact that Buddhist monastics from
various traditions meet together in harmony is important. Through
our efforts may we and others actualize the Buddha's teachings,
spreading peace in the minds of all beings.