|April 1990||2533||Number 12|
A Leap of Faith
When Ajahn Sumedho returned from a visit to Switzerland and Italy last December, he brought back some news that created a blend of interest and enthusiasm mingled with appreciation - the possibe establishment of a vihara in Italy, about 120 km south of Rome. Ajahn Thanavaro, then in Italy visiting his parents, would be residing there, at least for awhile, as the senior incumbent. Not much else was certain, except the beauty of the situation on the Mediterranean coast, and the commitment of the lay supporters.
Such impresssions, and the signs they leave in the mind, herald the opening of all viharas - and are characteristic of much of Sangha life. The mind perceives a pleasant inspiring image, then looks around for something solid to base it on, and finds ... space. So it was with the establishment of Chithurst Monastry in a derelict miles away from lay supporters, by a handful of inexperienced bhikkhus and a penniless charity. So it was with Harnham - another primitive dwelling and impecunious Trust. And likewise with Amarawati - a Buddhist Centre for which we had no previous models, and whose purchase required an enormous bank loan.
And now, with the sangha feeling rather stretched in covering the duties which have already presented themselves - it looks like there is to be another vihara, dependet largely on one bhikkhu. To redress the situation in spiritual terms, it Is time for another leap of faith.
The chronology of this venture gives it a sense of inevitability. The supporters can be classified broadly as two groups: a large Sri Lankan community, and a group of experienced Italian Buddhists. The latter include Corrado Pensa and Vincenzo Piga, who have bee foremost, respectively, in teaching Vipassana meditation and Buddhist studies in Italy over the past decade. Yet, althought Zen, Tibetan and Nichiren monasticism are well established, there is no Theravadin monastic presence in Italy. The late Ven. Dr. Saddhatissa visited Italy quite often, and on learning of this situation, pased on the name of Ven. Thanavaro Bhikkhu, born in Italy, ordained by Dr. Saddhatissa, and living in New Zealand with Ajahn Viradhommo at that time. That was a couple of years ago. Ven. Thanavaro was then fully occupied with the Stokes Vally Vihara, but he nevertheless kept an open mind.
Brought up as a Catholic, he had abandoned that faith partly out of disagreement with the outer form that the Church expected of the laity, and partly due to an inner conflict.
Naturally, the situation developed. Ajahn Sumedho, visiting New Zealand in 1989, felt that it was time for Ven. Thanavaro to return to Europe after nearly fiuve years in the Antipodes. It would be a chance to pay a long overdue visit to his parents, and reconnect to a larger Sangha. But by the time that Ven. Thanavaro actually arrived in Italy, Ajahn Sumedho was also there - having been invited to Rome by the Theravadin community - and a small monastic residence had been prepared in the hope that a Sangha might be able to stay. The two bhikkhus were introduced to the community, the residence and the spiritual need, and it was decided that in principle the necessary factors were there for an Italian vihara.
Much of the rest of the story is Ajahn Thanavaro's. In some ways, this move represents an other stage in his practice as a bhikkhu, as he has only recently completed ten 'rains' as a monk, and now being being considered worthy to teach and train others. He spent the winter monastic retreat at Amarawati before going to the new vihara, and at that time, he reflected on his spiritual path as it has unfolded:
'My spiritual search was a result of inner values that I upheld as true to myself. And it became very apparent that in the world these are very difficult to realise: like harmlessness, non-violence. All the violence in the world really hurt me. I remember reading a newspaper article about Buddhist monks starving in Laos due to a change in their political scene. That was at a time when I didn't know anything about Buddhism. Just reading about Buddhist monks not being almsfood, because people were discouraged from doing so, really brought tears to my eyes.
Born near Trieste in 1955, and brought up as a Catholic, he had abandoned that faith partly out of disagreement with the outer form that the Church expected of the laity, and partly due to an inner conflict:
'My understading of the Catholic teachings was that there is a good, and that is what you should cultivate; and there is evil, and that is what shiould destroy and ger rid of. But it seemes to me that as you cultivate good, inevitably you are faced with evil, and you have to learn what that is, rather than run away from it.
'I kept praying until the age of 19 and using the prayer of "our Father', but eventually I had to stop, because every time I started the prayer of "our Father", this blasphemy would come into my mind and would represent the whole conflict between good and evil......I had to give up praying because it was too painful.'
Nevertheless, a strong sense of spiritual urgency stayed with him, accompanied by the ability to go forth in faith. He arrived at Oaken Holt Buddhist Centre, Oxfordshire, in 1977, as a layman, having heard about Buddhism while undergoing military service in Italy, then finding out thatBuddhism was strong in Englad, and finally deciding to go there - although he spoke almost no English. At Oaken Holt he met Ajah Sumedha and Ven. Viradhommo, who were teaching a retreat there. Through a translator he got 'a vague idea of what was talked about', and asked to syat at the Sangh'a Hampstead Vihara. On Ajahn Sumedho's return to the Vihara, he asked for Eight Precepts, and became an anagarika. Seven months later, on Vesakha Puja of 1978, he took the Samanera Precepta from Ven. Dr. Saddhatissa, who gave him upasampada as a bhikkhu on 27 October 1979. This was at the time that the Sangha were hard at work establishing Chithurst Monastry. The nature of the task in hand could be turned to advantage in one who had faith:
Leap, friend, leap.
'For me, meeting the bhikkhus was a very inspiring experience. The element of devotion was sustained through the devotion to my teacher and to the Sangha... and through my willingess to serve the Sangha. And that was at a time when people needed to sacrifice themselves for a commo purpose. So although I wasn't able to actually have much time with, or speak to, my teacher ...nevertheless that relationship of service and devotion sustained me through my practice.
'My intention for being there was very well-defined in my mind. I wanted to be a Buddhist monk, and that was the way of doing it: just be around ad wait.'
Faith in the reality of the spiritual life, as experienced and enacted, made his transition from Christianity and prayer to Buddhism and meditation remarkably smooth. Actually, Ajahn Thanavaro now sees his realignment of faith as a development in his practice rather than a rejection of values.
'I came to the coclusion that Jesus lived very similarly to a Buddhist monk, and strangely enough, this conviction seems to be quite reasonable! So although I had a lot of feelings towards Christianity, particularly to the Gospels and to Jesus, I felt I was doing the right thing.
'However, it was quite difficult to give up the idea opf God and the tool of prayer. So the practice of meditation, and particularly the letting go of the dialogue in my own mind, was quite a step - because I had to let go of ythat relationship with God. I just had to leave things alone rather than sustain them according to past models - to deal with the mind, rather than keep a bewlief going. So meditation seemed to be the best wayu of doing that : enter the mind and really see what's gopin on there.
'I felt the Buddhist teachings are particularly effective for dealing with defilements. Catholicism has given me an aspiration, an element of faith that has supported me. It's not that I have lost what I gained through Christianity.'
Perhaps it is with this synthesis in mind that the Italian vihara has been named 'Santacittarama' - 'The Monastery of the Peaceful Heart' if you understand Pali, but very close to 'The Holy City of rome' to a Italian ear! In practice, the peaceful heart and the Holy City require a lot of work, not always characteristically spiritual. Sangha life in the West has meant applying the spirit of devotion to the physical task in hand. It is always a fine balance, dogged by workaholism and anxiety on one hand, and craving for solitude and tranquillity on the other.
'In a sense, I feel a bit of a pioneer. Like most of us, I have been mixing cement, carrying gravel, building places. For me that kind of giving of oneself to the situation has been a very strong element in the practice.
'When I was sent [to Harnham] with Ajahn Anando, we were really involved with a lot of renovation work. I remember that I had to take up my sleeping time for practice. So that was the time when I started doing "the sitter's practice" (*) just to catch up with my lost meditation hours. So one has to find the time, in a sense.
'My priority was more in terms of focussing the mind and exoperiencing some tranquillity, and I was pretty good at it, I felt quite happy with it. But it's obvious that the practice is more than just getting into a tranquil state. The working situation was a confirmation of that - it doesn't allow you to be still for to long! So it was obvious that one hsad to deal with circumstances as they presented themselves.'
During the first five years of monastic training, a monk is expected to stay with his teacher, but after this time he has some choice in the matter of where he lives. After Ven. Thanavaro's iitial training under Ajahn Sumedho, he offered to go to New Zealand to help Ajahn Vira dhammo start a monastry there.
The building of that monastery is another story. However, in spiritual terms, Ven. Thanavaro here became acquaited with a familiar problem of the middle years of monastic training --a kind of dreariness of the heart, and estrangement from the vitality of the traditio. New Zealand was a perfect setting for such a sese of aloneness:
'My experience in New Zealand was very much an experience, in some respects, of "survival", because we felt so isolated. This is a common feeling for New Zealanders - being apart from everything.'
However, compassionate forces in the universe presented him with the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to India, and then to Thailand, in 1988.
'I discovered for myself this conneection with a tradition, after the pilgrimage to India, because before that I couldn't really relate to the Buddha as my teacher... Going to India was establishing that connection not only for myself, but also for New Zealand Buddhists.
'There is a very strong pull towards a Buddhist country. Oe feels a great deal of gratitude for the Buddhist countries that have kept the teachings going, and I even started learning Thai when I was in New Zealand, just to feel a sense of connection again.'
Having opened to the experience of visiting India and Thailand, Ajahn Thanovaro seems to have added that confidence to his powerful sense of faith, and returned to the West with a doubt.
'It becomes apparent that as a Western Buddhist, my place is in the West; and that is where the work needs to be and the practice has to go on.
'It came as a surprise for all of us, the establishing of this vihara [in Italy]. But I certainly can say that it has been a happy surprise. I feel very honoured to be in this position of taking back to my own coutry what I have been able to learn over the last twelve years.'
As with any of the monasteries, all seekers will be welcome as visitors, whatever their religion, even if they don't speak the language. The vihara is in a embryonic stage right now, with just two residents, and the course of future developments cannot be predicted. However, one feels that if the vihara is founded on Ajahn Thanvaro's practice, all will be well. We would like to wish him many blessings and timely support.
The contact address (this is not the address of the vihara) is:
SANTACITTARAMA, c/o Maitreya Foundation,
Via Delia Balduina 73, 00136 Rome, Italy.