Wednesday 12 June 2024

Birthday in the Deathless

 

Luang Por Sumedho’s 90th birthday! The notion swam around in the minds of many sangha members through his 89th and even 88th year. A man who had exercised well and taken good care, he seemed capable of extending the lifespan into the tenth decade ...  surely a commemoration was due – and not just for staying alive, but on account of transmitting Buddha-Dhamma in the West in terms of a way of living that has always linked ‘inner’, meditative cultivation to the ‘outer’ training in terms of ethics and lifestyle. Without a Dhamma that's lived humanly and warmly, we only have books, intensive retreats and lectures. His has been a transmission well worth marking.

 

Of course, Luang Por's verbal teachings did come to the fore as worthy of presentation ... so we created a publication of quotes from his books. But, as his major work has been one of establishing a sangha in the West and supporting hundreds maybe thousands of gone-forth and householder disciples, the real marker had to be a live event, a maha-sangha gathering.  And it was going to have global attraction, so, bearing in mind that Sangha members would be limited in their travel capacity during the Rains Retreat during which his 90th birthday ( July 27th) actually fell, we chose May 19th as a suitable date.  There was no question as to the site: it had to be Amaravati, 'the Deathless Realm', his current and longstanding residence and the only place large enough to accommodate such a gathering. 

 

I arrived there on May 13th with the intention to both help out and to warm up gradually to the occasion by meeting Sangha members as they came in. So I landed, as on many occasions, in the Bhikkhu Vihara - a couple of long single-story converted huts possessing all the charm of a storage unit, but brightly painted and clasped by scraps of garden. This living territory of a couple of dozen samanas and assorted guests and volunteers is a compact warren. The section that I was domiciled in consists of a series of small cells strung along either side of a narrow corridor. Animation in the thin-walled rooms is constrained by the space, and subdued out of respect for one's neighbours. Similarly, proceeding down a corridor that is only slightly wider than the average body requires courtesy; residents quickly determine who has right of way, and one party shifts into one of the two passing niches to allow the other through. However, the corridor empties into a spacious common room where relaxed conviviality amidst a range of teas, juices and coffees is the norm. Here monks from Poland, Guyana, America, Australia, Thailand, Switzerland, Britain, Germany (and so on) merge and mingle in the 'all-flavours' mode of the Western Sangha. It's an updated version of those clusterings that preface some of the suttas ... scenarios wherein a group of monks are engaged in conversation – some edifying, some desultory chit-chat – when the Buddha walks in. One can imagine that backs straightened when the Lord inquired as to the topic of their conversation; however in the Amaravati common room, the normal response is to be offered a place to sit, and a mug of whatever. You find common ground and see what unfolds from there.

 

However, on May 13th the common room was a transit area with resident monks moving through with backpacks of gear to camp out or lodge in a loaned house nearby. A visit there revealed a garden sprouting green, blue and sandy-brown micro tents, and rooms with mattresses in rows to accommodate the nomads. Amaravati's roofs would largely be offering shelter to visiting sangha elders. Even there, the influx of samanas was restricted by invitation to one or two representatives from each monastery, plus senior add-ons such as myself. The allowance for the laity was more generous, but largely stipulated camping in Amaravati's field; most however stayed nearby or came just for the day.

 

Over the next few days, people flowed in from America, Canada, New Zealand, several European countries and of course Thailand. In the Bhikkhu VIhara, doors of the rooms sported many an illustrious name. But here the occasion wasn't one of being an abbot or a renowned teacher but of good-humoured mingling framed with gestures of respect and studded with anecdotes and shared memories. This time for conviviality itself brought back memories of a three-month retreat when Luang Por had deliberately ratcheted down on intensity and silence and emphasised contentment and the enjoyment of noble companionship. But at this time, Luang Por himself made no public appearance until Friday 17th. That's how it is these days: personal meetings with him are arranged and rationed with an attendant monk monitoring time and energy. I didn’t expect to connect with him on this occasion, imagining that such time as he had would be allocated to those who visit less often.  Like many, I've had a good helping of his presence, teaching and example. He has introduced me to the state where there's no need; no-one could begrudge a man of such generosity a little quiet time. 

 

As I said, Luang Por made few appearances, but his name and his Dhamma body were the unifying centre piece. He had carried Luang Por Chah's way of practice from N.E.Thailand to Britain and the West; he had inspired and supported at least eight monasteries ranging from New Zealand to New Hampshire; no one else has transmitted and modified the Thai Forest tradition in a foreign culture to the extent that he has – while embracing contemplative practice in other non-Buddhist traditions. His physical form is now stooped with age; his eyesight is poor even with glasses; his hearing is weak, even with hearing aids, and the huge feet now lose sensation and make walking without a guide hazardous. But the presence was much as ever, as, guided into the assembly by his even larger attendant to begin the occasion on the Friday evening, Luang Por delivered a short address expressing his gratitude for the mind-state behind the event and for the legacy he had received from the Buddha via Luang Por Chah. His voice is not as strong as it used to be, but the mental intention and the straight-from-the- heart directness were as ever. The assembly listened in silence, taking in his words; then he rose from his seat and left.

 

Amaravati’s abbot, Ajahn Amaro, was, on the other hand, constantly and genially engaged, greeting and inviting senior Ajahns, and informing the rest of us of the ongoing program. The seating arrangements and flow of human traffic were impeccably choreographed through a largely invisible logistical process that involved all residents. Opening a door on a cramped office and glancing at a complex spreadsheet of names, events and places spread out on a large monitor was enough to evoke a dizzy admiration for the community's endeavours. People gave up their dwellings and served long hours. One lay woman told me of spending six hours in the kitchen cleaning dishes and pans. I could only guess at the duties of the guides, cooks and office workers. But despite the intensity of an atmosphere charged with poignant reflection, reverence and human energies, a mood of genuine ease and happiness floated above it all. It was a fitting commemoration of someone who committed to duty while making it look enjoyable.

 

The visiting sangha included a significant representation from Thailand. Some of those Ajahns were senior to Luang Por in terms of years in the Order, others had shared time with him for forty years or more. Most of us were considerably junior to Luang Por and saw him as a spiritual father.  Some like myself have a stock of memories and anecdotes and a recognition of the changes that this remarkable bhikkhu has been through in the last 45 years. It's impossible to condense all that into a simple unified 'Ajahn Sumedho teaches this' except with remarks such as 'unwavering, wide-spanning mind', 'devoted to authentic realisation'; 'generous with his time, and accessible'.  For the last twenty years he hasn’t been involved with the day-to-day running of any monastery, and gone are the days of working alongside Ajahn Sumedho with a paintbrush. So for the junior sangha, Luang Por Sumedho is a figure of veneration and respect rather than a daily companion. As is the way of things, the presence of the Teacher now has to be conveyed by the demeanour of those who followed him.

 

For a newcomer, the birthday party must have confounded any expectations. No alcohol, no dancing – just a couple of days when a large number of people gathered inside the Temple: a body of monks in ochre robes, nuns in brown, anagarikas in white, and a sea of lay people of all kinds. Everyone seated upright, unmoving, and silent. We must’ve looked like cutouts until one of a chosen few was invited to ascend to a seat to give a presentation. Many of the talks, given in Thai, were unintelligible to the Westerners until translated, but ripples and focal shifts among the Thai laity gave a hint of the animated nature of each discourse, some lyrical, some humorous, some bringing the earth and forests of Ubon into the mind. Western Ajahns followed suit with appreciative reflections. People came and went in the breaks, Luang Por Sumedho was absent. No conformist organisation this one.

 

You can listen to the talks on the Amaravati website (www.amaravati.org) and catch some of it, but you can’t get what it was like to be in a space wrapped by the silent attention of several hundred people and infused with gratitude for the teaching, the example and the company on the rocky spiritual path. Fittingly, Luang Por's final appearance was to ask forgiveness from the most senior Elder, Luang Por Liem, and to offer it to the rest of us. That gesture of sharing humility and openness encompassed the hearts of around 130 samanas and 500 lay people.  Then, as things went quiet, he slowly made his way out of the assembly. It was finished.

 

After that we were all on our respective ways. Abbots bundled down the road to Cittaviveka for a business meeting, some samanas picked up their schedules and teaching duties, while others prepared for their tudong wandering. Most just headed for some quiet space to breathe out for a week. Following the Master, into the silence.