Seven - The Fluidity of Ideas
A boundary in traditional Buddhist monasteries is known as a sīma. Official sangha activities, such as the fortnightly recitation of the pāṭimokkha, are known as sanghakamma and tend to take place within a designated sīma. Within a sīma one might find a building where the sanghakamma take place, known as an Uposathā Hall. The sīma can be a forest sīma, which is defined just by the fact that the area is surrounded by forest, or it can be defined by water or land features such as trees, ponds, mounds or stones. For centuries in Thailand, standard practice has been to use sīma stones - special carved markers which are placed around an area where all sanghakamma, including ordinations, take place. Another old practice in Thailand is to use a water sīma. In cases where an Uposathā Hall is built in the middle of a pond and connected to land by a bridge, a small gap between the hall and the bridge is required, thus making the hall completely separate from land, surrounded by water on all sides. However the sīma is established, the intent is to demarcate a sacred area according to the same methodology used in Buddhist monasteries over the centuries.
Since its inception, Abhayagiri has made use of a forest sīma. Having a large forest with boundaries which roughly match the boundary of the property itself gives us the freedom to hold our sanghakamma in different areas depending on what is convenient at any given time. For example, the pāṭimokkha recitation would normally be held in the Bhikkhu Commons up the hill, but due to the hot weather we’ve been having the recitation in the Monk’s Dining Hall below, under the cool breeze of the swamp cooler.
Just above the Bhikkhu Commons is the Ordination Platform, where a Dhammacakka Buddha image resides. Many of our past bhikkhu ordinations have been held on this platform, before the new Meditation Hall was constructed in the cloister area. This 8-sided outdoor platform was built on the site of a possible future Uposathā Hall, which we received permission to build according to our change-of-use permit over two decades ago.
Over the past few years, we’ve been starting to develop our Chedi site, a flat spot on a mountain finger in the heart of the Abhayagiri land (learn more about chedis here). It is one of the hardest-to-access locations, but we’ve managed to carve a trail up to it and use it as a spot for meditation practice. The main issue with actually building something at that site is getting materials and supplies in - this would have to happen from the nearby ridge. There are a couple of very old access roads which are, judging from the trees growing in the middle of them, nearly 100 years old.
Last autumn, our local road builder Heath Garmin and I walked around the steep hillsides to find out if cutting access down to the chedi site would actually be possible. After sliding down scree slopes, crashing through chaparral and manzanita, and working up a sweat climbing back up the hillside, Heath was of the opinion, “I’m not sure this is going to work…” This is coming from a master excavator operator who has a reputation for being willing to take risks others aren’t willing to take. With no realistic possibility of vehicle access, how are we going to get elderly Ajahns in for ceremonies? How would the lay people who want to help support the building of a Chedi get in to spend time there? And how would we get the materials in to actually build it?
Almost a couple months ago, on June 8th, Ajahn Karunadhammo left Abhayagiri to spend the vassa period at Pacific Hermitage in Washington state. This was effectively his retirement as a co-abbot, leaving me as the sole abbot. Unexpectedly, he had been a buffer of sorts for me, and things got quite a bit more difficult after that. In fact, that first two weeks without Ajahn Karunadhammo was one of the more difficult-to-endure periods of my bhikkhu life. There were many contributing factors, including the global pandemic, the looming entering of the vassa, and my own doubts about my abilities as a teacher and trainer of new monastics. I ended up having to take a three day solitary retreat to settle and consider things.
During that short retreat, I went late one night to the ordination platform to do some sitting meditation. It was after 11pm, there was no moon out, and a clear mandala of stars and the milky way overhead. There was a slight breeze which was slightly warm, just enough to make the late night sit extremely comfortable. Recollections arose of things that happened on that platform in past years… Luang Por Liem enshrined relics behind the halo of the Dhammacakka Buddha image in 2004… Luang Por Plien giving a talk in 2007, with Ajahn Pasanno translating… Sitting in the morning and evening during the vassas of past years… Then the thought came, “Why don’t we build the chedi here?” It could be done according to our change-of-use permit, we could combine it into an Uposathā Hall / Chedi which you could go inside of, and we could demarcate the area into a proper sīma.
After my retreat, I mentioned the idea to Luang Por Pasanno. He smiled and said he thought it was a good idea. Later I called Heath to tell him about the change of plan for the chedi. He said, “I think that’s… fantastic.”