The Tradition Spreads – India to West Sussex

The Sangha in its original form has survived centuries of change, and the birth and decay of many empires. From India to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and throughout Asia, it spread and prospered. In Southern Asia, where the Theravada school of Buddhism developed, the Sangha received the kind of support that allowed it to retain its mendicant and homeless ethos.  At times it has been corrupted by worldly aims and ambitions, but throughout history it has reformed itself through returning to the guidelines of the Vinaya and the homeless life.  In the middle of the 19th century CE this was very much the case in Thailand, where a reform movement found great teachers (ajahns) in meditation masters such as Ajahn Sao and Ajahn Mun.  Shielded from the effects of urbanisation, the more remote forested lands of the North-East that they frequented have up until the present day maintained the standards of the samana life with integrity and purity. Because such a life draws strength from an austere lifestyle lived in forests and remote places, their lineage is called the Thai Forest Tradition. This lineage has subsequently produced a number of very fine and widely-respected teachers, including Ajahn Chah (1918-1992).

Ajahn Chah spent his early years wandering and practising meditation in solitude, but in the 1950s, at the request of local villagers, he settled down in a forest in Ubon province. Gradually other monks came to study under him and rudimentary huts were built. This was the beginning of Wat Pah Pong, a monastery where, for the rest of his life, Ajahn Chah trained monks, nuns and lay people in Dhamma-Vinaya.  His was a style that was as down-to-earth as it was subtle, as humorous as it was profound, and both readily applicable and far-reaching. Consequently, Ajahn Chah soon developed a large following of both monastics and lay people,  and before his death in 1992, over thirty forest monasteries following his teaching and training had been established in Thailand. Nowadays, this number exceeds 200.

Ajahn Chah's followers, however, were not confined to his own countrymen.  Since the late 1960's a number of Westerners had also taken up monastic training under his tutelage. Several of these would eventually help to transmit his tradition overseas. This process began in 1979, when the first of Ajahn Chah’s monasteries was established in the West in the hamlet of Chithurst, West Sussex, in England. Punning on the name ‘Chithurst,’ Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah’s most senior Western disciple and first abbot of the monastery, decided to call it Cittaviveka - a word that in the language of the scriptures means ‘the mind free of attachment.’ 

However, Cittaviveka is not just an import; it is also rooted in the aspirations and good-will of Western followers and supporters. The material resources for the monastery were initially provided by the English Sangha Trust, a charitable organisation which had been founded in 1956 for the purpose of establishing a Buddhist monastic order in Britain.  After years of supporting a number of different monks, the Trust invited Ajahn Sumedho to their Hampstead Vihara, in Hampstead, North London, in 1976.  There he and a small group of fellow-monks lived the samana life, meditating, wearing the traditional robes, and going on alms-round through North London.  This attracted attention and support, and in 1978, the Trust was given Hammer Wood, an area of land in a beautiful and unspoilt region of West Sussex.  Fortuitously Chithurst House - a derelict mansion built in 1862, less than half a mile away from the forest - came up for sale in 1979 with its outbuildings and 22 acres of land.  Soon, another benefactor purchased a small cottage and land adjacent to Hammer Wood as a residence for nuns.  The final piece of today's property, another cottage and land adjacent to Hammer Wood, was purchased in 2005.  These latter two cottages, now called Aloka and Rocana, form a residence for nuns and female lay guests.

Our Practice: Going Forth a Moment at a Time

The spiritual practice in a forest monastery is a process that pervades the entirety of the bodily, psychological and emotional aspects of a practitioner.  It is meditation in a very full sense, including contemplation of relationship, of illness, of responsibility, and of sexuality – to name but a few. Basically anything that one might take a stand on as having or being (or not being) is up for examination and overhaul.  This is because a mature practitioner seeks to liberate themselves from depending on, or identifying with, any aspect of body or mind.  All modes and experiences are questioned in terms of their reliability, their satisfactoriness and their ownership.  How long-lasting is the satisfaction obtained through getting one's own way or through being gratified by sensory input?  Can these prevent us from loss, stress, misunderstanding, sickness, and death?  And, if a thought, an emotion or a sensation is subject to change, and comes and goes – how can we say it belongs to us or constitutes our selfhood?  Wise consideration of experience spurs the inquiry of a practitioner, enabling them to ‘let go,’ and without rejecting the human experience, broadens and deepens it with an awareness that is not attached, but liberated and Awake.  In silence and in speech, in action and in stillness, this is the practice of a forest monastery.

Why a monastery?  Well, a monastery can provide many supportive conditions.  Firstly, it is an environment based on harmlessness, honesty, and moral strength:  that makes it safe to let down some of the defences that we create around our personal stuff.  Furthermore, it provides a situation where the people around one are going through the same process themselves, thus facilitating mutual understanding and sympathy. Then again it's a place where there's not a lot going on, particularly in terms of entertainment:  you can't distract, or avoid, yourself so easily. Lastly it is a place removed from domestic concerns, so there's much less of your personal story in it.  Because of this, and because it is shared and part of a tradition, it never follows any one individual's particular style or wishes.  And in a ‘Going Forth’ situation, trying to firm life up as ‘me’ and ‘my way’ can't get very far. Accordingly personal choices and resistances; moments when we get stubborn or defensive, or feel awkward and hurt; occasions when we feel uncertain with others or alone, or restless when there's nothing much to do – all these patterns, that in normal life we develop strategies to screen off, get highlighted for ongoing contemplation.    

At Cittaviveka, our 'holding on' – in a life process that essentially can't be held – is thrown into relief against a backdrop of green rolling hills, birdsong, and the generosity of people bringing offerings. 'Where is the suffering?' is the penetrative question. And – 'Where does that suffering cease?'  The ‘answer’ is in letting go of self.  But this answer occurs in a non-conceptual sense.  It requires not just a philosophical stance, but a shift of centre, and it brings around release. This is the fruit of the training:  the experience of ‘unsatisfactoriness’ (dukkha), its origin, its ceasing and the Path to that ceasing – the Four Noble Truths, the heart of the Buddha's teachings.

And as the Buddha said: if you have to suffer a hundred years in the process of discovering these truths, it's still well worth while; the realisation of release is one of joy like no other.  This is why we practise – when we're meditating in silence, or working, or meeting; whether we're tired, or worried, or full of energy, or whatever. It's a Going Forth from our habits, assumptions and difficult places. It sounds like a big job, but actually it's only for a moment at a time – for a lifetime.

Facilities for Women: Rocana And Aloka

An almost unique feature of Cittaviveka among monasteries in the West is that it provides a situation wherein women can learn from, or train as, ten-precept Buddhist nuns  (siladharas).   Four women were members of the community that established Cittaviveka in 1979: they quickly took on monastic training under the Eight Precepts and in 1983 were given the Going Forth with the ten precepts (which includes the relinquishment of money) by Ajahn Sumedho.  Ajahn Sucitto, the current abbot, supervised their training at first, and in the course of this, a detailed system of training evolved that owes much to the regulations and procedures of the original Bhikkhuni Order. This has resulted in a nuns’ community that has structures and procedures where women practise and take guidance within a community of other women.

The women’s residences at Cittaviveka are contiguous with Hammer Wood and comprise of a small cottage, Aloka, where up to four guests can stay, and Rocana, which is the residence for the nuns – currently they number around nine. There is a shared shrine-room in the downstairs of Rocana. The two cottages lie beside a stream in the bottom of a small valley and provide a supportive situation for those who benefit from a quiet, natural environment.

 

Hammer Wood

Hammer Wood consists of 144 acres (60 hectares) of woodland and heath that surround a 5 acre pond and stream – a resource unmatched by any other monasteries of this tradition in Europe.  An essential part of the monastery,  it was the gift of this woodland that first brought the Sangha to the area.  The Wood provides a suitable environment for tranquillity and for being with nature - both key features of the Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism.

There are a few paths through the woods that visitors and guests may walk along.  However, the guiding principle behind the Sangha’s use and stewardship of the Wood is to maintain it as a place for solitude and an environment where wildlife can live free from threat or disturbance.  Therefore it is vital to the welfare of this precious resource that visitors do not bring dogs into the woods, and that they also respect the silence and purity of the environment in every way.

The uplands of Hammer Wood were originally heath and sessile oak forest, with the valley around the stream being lusher in its vegetation.  Much of the original land was cleared and planted with sweet chestnut after the First World War in order to provide timber.  However, as sweet chestnut is not a tree native to Britain, it doesn’t support insect life.  Its leaves are also toxic and acidic, and as a consequence, Hammer Wood became depleted of wildlife.  Therefore, one of the requests made by the donor of the Wood was that it be restored to a more ecologically compatible condition;  complying with this request, the monastery is actively involved in an ongoing project to replace areas of sweet chestnut with native trees.  

Already there is a great improvement in the wildlife situation in the Wood, and many insects, birds and mammals are returning.  The trees that have been planted so far are coming into maturity.  Nevertheless, the Wood requires continual maintenance, and there are periodic ‘Forest Days,’ and even a ‘Forest Work Month’ every autumn, to help with this.  Although the work is simple, it requires the help of lay volunteers as the bhikkhus  are prevented by their monastic rules from undertaking work such as clearing paths and removing invasive species.  Most of the bhikkhus’ work is that of collecting firewood from felled sweet chestnut in order to heat the monastery.

If you are interested in participating in forest work, please contact the monastery for details.

For a PDF file of the forest map and guide please click here.

Chithurst House And Dhamma Hall

Chithurst House, which has now been renovated by the resident community, is the area for the general public and a residence for monks and male lay guests.   It can accommodate up to seven male guests, in three or four upstairs rooms, depending on the number of monks in residence.  The ground floor of the House is accessible to the general public and has a shrine room, reception area, office, toilets and kitchen.

The House sits in an area that is mostly gardens and parkland, and which is open to the general public to go for walks in.   To one side of the House is the Dhamma Hall, which was created on the site of a ruined coach-house and was opened in 2004.  The Dhamma Hall is a meditation hall that can sit 150 people.  Visitors and residents can use it for silent meditation at any time.  The only exception to this is when the resident Sangha have their meal in there, between the hours of 10.30 a.m. and 12.30 a.m.   On the weekends, Dhamma talks and meditation instructions are given in this Hall.

Dialogue and meetings are otherwise held in the main House, where visitors and resident guests also eat their meal.