It was a little over a year ago that I wrote to Ayya Santacitta, one of the two founding monastics of Aloka Vihara. We’d known each other for several years, and I had always enjoyed her presence and practice. I wrote telling her of my deep longing to come out for a visit to the Vihara, an unassuming home in Northern California, set at the top of a broad meadow where deer feed in the twilight hours. We agreed that a visit could be arranged for a time before the winter retreat began in January, but the airfares were simply too costly, and I had to defer. Respecting the retreat time of the monastic community, we arranged for me to come in May 2017.
It was so pleasant, the warm familiarity of good Dharma friends Ayyas Santacitta and Anandabodhi contrasted with the newness of meeting (then Samaneri, now) Ayya Ahimsa and later Anagarika Shannon, as well as learning how the details of daily life reflect the pāṭimokkha or monastic rules of early Buddhism. I felt drawn to this way of living Buddhism together with women, and there was something more. I experienced a spaciousness and sincerity about practice at the Vihara, a sense that there is room for a whole human life, room for a practice that is as big as all things.
The three of us were sitting on the floor in Ayya Santacitta’s room, talking quietly about how we were and how my stay was going, when I asked about a longer visit. I knew that my term at Empty Hand Zen Center, in New York, was coming to a close. I thought that three months would give me a taste of this Theravada life governed by the Vinaya, and enough time to plan next steps, whether here or in a Zen practice setting. The Sisters agreed, and I was really pleased.
Still, I had my doubts. The monastic rules of Theravada Buddhism are very strict. They call for complete sexual abstinence, refraining from all entertainment and alcohol, no meal between Noon and dawn of the next day, and many other forms of renunciation and virtue. Would I be willing to set down everything in order to focus exclusively on practice?
Some of this territory is familiar. I have been celibate for many years now, and practicing brahmacarya for the past two years. I have lived at remote places, like Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery and Hosshinji, where there were no televisions or computers with which to watch any form of entertainment. And I have gone for long periods of time eating only twice per day and not having a drink. Yet the commitment of this entire group of women to these and other renunciate forms of practice as the basis for a peaceful life is an invaluable support.
Now I have been living at the Vihara since October, and the weekly rhythm has become familiar. Just as it is at the Zen monasteries in which I have lived, this life is full. There is early morning and evening community sitting and chanting called puja. There are regular times in which to contemplate the early Buddhist teachings, and to hear a Dharma talk by someone in the community or a recorded talk by someone far away. There are regular gatherings to check in about how we are feeling, and to divvy up the work of cooking and cleaning and maintenance. Visitors come and help out, and then go back to the larger world. Everyone contributes with work. Everyone participates in sitting.
The activities are familiar, but the way in which they are held is quite different. Here there is no wake up bell; each person is responsible for monitoring their own attendance and yet there is no one who forgoes the pujas for more than a day or two. During retreats, 10 day periods of focused practiced with only minimal work, the sitting is arranged in two or three hour blocks of time. People move about as they wish, sometimes sitting with the group, sometimes alone, sometimes walking. The walking meditation is relaxed. People move at a slow but natural pace, without any mudra or pattern, just moving back and forth. It feels as though there is room enough for each person to find their own pace.
Also, I find it interesting and inspiring that, rather than a doctrine, much of what we chant here is appreciation for the Buddha, Dharma and the early Sangha. It is a sharp contrast with the Zen liturgy, which is primarily concerned with teachings about emptiness. The chants and teachings here strongly emphasize ethics as a part of the Buddhist path, and virtue as an attribute of those who have embodied it deeply. I have come to realize that this is an important part of what drew me here. This is a place where there is an understanding of monastic ethics as a support to, and container for the practice of discovering the wisdom of non-self. It feels so right. It has been true for me that each time I have chosen to live a more ethical life, it has led to greater clarity of mind and fewer difficulties in life. Now I can live among women for whom this is also true.
And what of the differences in the teachings of Zen and Theravada Buddhism? First, I must admit to being surprised at how similar these paths are. For example, although the Mahayana rhetoric is that ours is the stream of Buddhism that concerns itself with practice for the benefit of all beings, my experience of the Theravada is that we chant for the benefit of all beings at meals and other times during the day. Some days we chant the "Loving Kindness Meditation" that I learned at San Francisco Zen Center, which is actually a teaching from early Buddhism, one which predates Zen by centuries.
I often encounter threads like this, that begin with the historical Buddha and continue right through to present day Zen in America. The Buddha said that the sangha should be harmonious, “blending like milk and water,” which was later quoted by Eihei Dogen and later quoted by Shunryu Suzuki, and is now regularly quoted by Greg Fain, the Head of Practice at Tassajara.
I also find that the way that language is used is very different, as you might expect, but what is being described is similar or the same. For example, Tiantong Rujing clarified that Dogen’s “body and mind dropped off,” while Theravadan Teachers say, “there is no one who attains jhana” not because it’s not possible, but because that meditative state does not include the sense of one’s personal body and mind. These are very simple examples but, for me, they are emblematic of the shared values of these two traditions.
One key difference, however, is the emphasis that these Western Theravada practitioners place on leading a simple, disciplined life, one that steps out of most of the trappings of contemporary America. This is seen as necessary and beneficial, not just for the residents of the monastery, but for everyone with whom they come in contact. That is, the practice of the Vinaya is a demonstration that these monastics are "all in" and have devoted their entire life's energy to the practice of awakening. This gives the rest of the sangha confidence in the leaders of the sangha, and perhaps an appreciation for how much effort they are investing and the Dharma they are sharing.
It is different from the Zen view that even the ordained sangha can participate in secular life, which was particularly strengthened in the mid-1800s by Japan’s “Niku Jiku Sai Tai” law. This law allowed Buddhist clergy to eat meat and marry, and they also began growing their hair and drinking alcohol. Surely there were political reasons behind the passage of the law, but it was also a recognition of the fact that some members of the Japanese Buddhist clergy were already doing those things. As for the value of the renunciate life, so far my experience has borne out its usefulness. The simplicity of this form of monasticism, as structured by early Buddhist texts, brings the practice and one's personal responsibility for it into sharp focus, while ensuring that the lay and ordained sangha clearly understand their inter-dependence. It leads to some lovely relationships.
I wonder why Dogen chose not to bring to Japan the pāṭimokkha rules of the Vinaya that I understand were practiced at Mount Tiantong and other Chan practice places. His teachings that all beings are expressions of Buddhanature, and therefore fundamentally enlightened, did not obstruct his teachings about the necessity for realization of this fact. Thus, at times, Dogen was clearly able to acknowledge the ultimate and the conventional at once. It therefore seems that he could have upheld the conventional value of the Vinaya precepts, just as Chan monastics do up to the present day. However, he chose to create a tradition in which only the 16 Bodhisattva precepts are taken. This is something that I hope to understand better in the future by studying the history of the Zen precepts and the Eihei Shingi, the monastic code of conduct that is specific to Soto Zen.
At this moment I can honestly say that there is no other place I would rather be practicing. Aloka Vihara is becoming my new home, in my heart, body and mind. Much more of this path is unfolding too, and there is much for me to learn and to share with my new community. It is my intention that the Noble Eightfold Path continue through me. And it’s my plan to stay on here at the Vihara for a much longer period. The whole community has welcomed me with open arms and I embrace them too. This decision also means that I will be taking the Vinaya precept vows, as a complement to the Zen vows I have been upholding for the past 13 years. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to practice this way, and I look forward to sharing this journey with all of you. May it be of benefit to all beings.