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Bringing the kathina ceremony to the West

Bringing the kathina ceremony to the West

A talk given during Sravasti Abbey’s monthly Sharing the Dharma Day.

  • Following in the footsteps of Buddhist monastics of the past
  • The dependent relationship between the monastics and the laity
  • The joy in making connections with lay people at the Abbey
  • An invitation to visit Sravasti Abbey

This morning Venerable Chonyi gave a beautiful explanation of what the purpose of this beautiful day is and how the story of the bhikkhus getting wet and exhausted found their way to the Buddha and how this whole rite of kathina started. Because she just filled that in so beautifully, I wanted to give somewhat of a perspective from being a monastic at Sravasti Abbey, what this means for us and how we try to practice.

When you think about how much has gone on in the world. 2,600 years ago climate eruptions, wars, moves of civilizations and communities, of cultures, it’s really quite amazing that these rites of the Buddha that were set in place 2,600 years ago are still here, and that we can still practice them. The Abbey monastic community tries to follow in the footsteps of these monastics from 2,600 years ago, trying to live our lives simply, to keep the monastic precepts as best as we can that the Buddha had set down, and truly get into understanding with this dependent relationship is about with the laity.

We live in a culture of spontaneous gratification, and this community in particular is composed of some very independent, professional, successful people. For us to be able to do what the Buddha taught, which is basically…. If we want to truly practice and do the deep inner work that culminates in liberation and awakening, in order to have the skill, the compassion, the wisdom to be able to be of benefit, we’re going to have to let go of the householder’s life.

2,600 years ago that was probably a fairly difficult thing to do. Not just because there was a lot of wealth in India, but also it was hard to live depending on the kindness of others. Villages were far apart, there were all sorts of difficulties and challenges. In our culture, and in particular in the West, we’ve got so much that we have to give up. Not only do we give up—as Venerable Chonyi said—the attachment to our families and our friends, but also our livelihood, our possessions. We’re doing that because we are stepping into the “homeless life,” which is stepping into a world where we consider each living being to be our family. This is a huge shift, that there’s nobody special anymore. That’s what part of our transformation as a monastic is, to see every living being in this world as a member of our family, as being our friend. Huge shift, as far as letting go of the attachment of just a few and incorporating the whole world as part of your family. You no longer cling to the family of this life, and see each and every person as your dear one. That’s a huge practice of being a monastic.

You’re also giving up getting caught up in the mind of acquisition and ownership. Members of the community here, we had professions, we had homes, we had successes, we had fame, we had reputation, we had education. To be able to give all of that up, as well as the identities that went along with that…. You can probably imagine that to be able to do that requires a certain level of humility, and a deep level of trust that what the Buddha said to his sangha is that if you practice and you keep these precepts deeply you will be supported. There is a saying (I’m not sure, I couldn’t find the sutra) that says that the food will roll up the hill, if you keep your precepts purely and you practice. For that support, what you learn about the Dharma and what you integrate in your life and what you come to deeply understand, to repay that kindness of that support, this is the sharing, this is the giving back, this is the being able to teach and to guide others. That’s pretty much what the whole relationship is about for this support.

The reciprocity between the sangha and the laity here, I was thinking this week about what this relationship, how it happens on a daily, weekly basis here. There is nothing here at the Abbey that doesn’t come through those doors that someone hasn’t offered, hasn’t built, hasn’t grown, hasn’t repaired, hasn’t sewn, hasn’t crocheted, hasn’t canned, hasn’t designed, hasn’t carved, hasn’t assembled, hasn’t manufactured. There is nothing. And we don’t know the causes and conditions. The causes and conditions for all of that to come about, and the beings involved, as Venerable Chonyi said, there’s no number on who actually is involved in making this place actually happen.

The fact that the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is flourishing here at Sravasti Abbey is due to each and every one of you. We couldn’t do what we do, which is try to transform our minds, trying to keep our precepts. We couldn’t have this amazing, beautiful environment, these amazing circumstances, this remarkable teacher if we didn’t have you folks having some level of confidence, to have faith in what we’re doing here, and also to be able to see the deepening of your own practice with the buddhadharma. That wouldn’t happen. If we didn’t have your generosity, if we didn’t have your open-heartedness and your kindness, we wouldn’t be here. That’s really, baseline, cut to the chase, this place would not be where it is right now. Not in terms of just the United States, but in terms of what it offers to the world. It’s because of your kindness and your generosity that we’re able to do what we do.

And what does is it brings so much joy to this community to see you come and connect with us, to come and connect with this place, to come and connect with the Dharma, I can’t tell you how much joy and how much gratitude we feel when you come and be with us. And it gives us a huge deep incentive to practice on cultivating our love, our compassion, our wisdom, and work really hard on abandoning our jealousy, our greed, our anger, so that we can be in a position of being of greater benefit, not just to you but to the world.

I wanted to end with just this very, very clear invitation and a reminder, is that Sravasti Abbey is also your spiritual home. It’s not just the spiritual home of the sangha, it is also your spiritual home. That the door is always open for you to connect and explore your deep spiritual aspirations here with us. And we’re here to help you at whatever level that is. That’s the part of the skill that we’re trying to grow so that when you come to be with us and you have questions and you have concerns and you have challenges in your life we can say, “Oh, I’ve been there and this is how I’ve worked with it and maybe this will help you.” That’s the circle, that’s the circle that the Buddha created from the very get-go, is that the laity supports, the sangha grows in wisdom, gives back, the laity grows in wisdom, appreciates, deepens their confidence, and the sangha in gratitude appreciates and deepens their practice and gives in return. That’s the circle that the Buddha had created. So remember that. Because it’s true, by doing this all together, and it may sound at this point, I think it’s more and more profound, is may we create peace in a chaotic world. That is really what we’re doing here. So, from the very depths of all of our hearts, with great gratitude and love and appreciation, we’re really so happy that you’re here with us today.

Venerable Thubten Semkye

Ven. Semkye was the Abbey's first lay resident, coming to help Venerable Chodron with the gardens and land management in the spring of 2004. She became the Abbey's third nun in 2007 and received bhikshuni ordination in Taiwan in 2010. She met Venerable Chodron at the Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle in 1996. She took refuge in 1999. When the land was acquired for the Abbey in 2003, Ven. Semye coordinated volunteers for the initial move-in and early remodeling. A founder of Friends of Sravasti Abbey, she accepted the position of chairperson to provide the Four Requisites for the monastic community. Realizing that was a difficult task to do from 350 miles away, she moved to the Abbey in spring of 2004. Although she didn't originally see ordination in her future, after the 2006 Chenrezig retreat when she spent half of her meditation time reflecting on death and impermanence, Ven. Semkye realized that ordaining would be the wisest, most compassionate use of her life. View pictures of her ordination. Ven. Semkye draws on her extensive experience in landscaping and horticulture to manage the Abbey's forests and gardens. She oversees "Offering Volunteer Service Weekends" during which volunteers help with construction, gardening, and forest stewardship.