In April of 2019 two Abhayagiri monks accepted an invitation to spend some time at Dharma Realm Buddhist University (DRBU), which is located at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB). CTTB is a large Chinese Mahayana monastery and community in the nearby town of Ukiah. Abhayagiri and CTTB have maintained a connection since Abhayagiri’s beginning. The Venerable Master Hsuan Hua was the founder of both CTTB and DRBU. In 1995, shortly before his death, he offered about half of the land that eventually became Abhayagiri.
This recent invitation to DRBU came about as the result of a series of discussions and inquiries between some of the Campus Life staff of DRBU and our community. DRBU’s mission involves not only educating their students in the traditional Western sense, but also providing an environment for personal growth and self-reflection in a wider sense. To these ends, DRBU has adopted some themes from the Buddhist tradition, especially regarding personal codes of conduct and an integrated approach to studying texts and introspection. These themes are shared with the Thai Forest Tradition and with Abhayagiri’s training culture specifically.
The only educational curriculum required of Abhayagiri monastics is our annual review of the monk’s training rules. Although formal study of the rules is limited to a series of two-hour classes attended by the monastic community each Vassa (July through October), the monastic training program is both rigorous and broad, touching every aspect of life here at the monastery. Because Abhayagiri is loosely connected with the wider Buddhist monastic tradition, we also have a sense for how our training style relates to the many styles and lineages of training in the broader tradition.
Master Hua was very supportive of monastics obtaining formal education. In fact, this was a key part of his vision, and for a period of time the Master Hua required all of his monastics to have a bachelor’s degree. He felt that an educated Sangha would both have a better grasp of the teachings (especially if the orthodox teachings of Buddhism were part of the curriculum) as well as be more familiar with the wider scholastic and cultural trends. This would enable a well-trained monastic to communicate and model the teachings more effectively to the wider populace. However, integrating spiritual practice and formal education is not an easy task.
The purpose of the invitation was primarily for the DRBU Campus Life staff to talk with Abhayagiri monastics and learn from our lifestyle and training. The current Western models of education and training are not geared towards monastics or spiritual practice in the traditional Buddhist sense. The needs of monastics differ from those of a typical student and sometimes the nature of those differences are hard to communicate and it may not be culturally appropriate to do so. By setting up a deliberate dialogue between monastics not currently attending the university, the Campus Life staff sought to learn about the ways monastics can be supported, as well as the possible difficulties.
Even for the students who are not inclined towards formal monastic training, the lifestyle at DRBU can be quite challenging. The DRBU Code of Conduct asks more of students than similar codes at most other Western campuses. Even though students knowingly take on the Code of Conduct, the implications and personal challenges that play out over the course of a two- or four-year program can be daunting. The challenges faced by the students at DRBU are strikingly similar to those faced by trainees at Abhayagiri. To thrive at DRBU or Abhayagiri, one needs to re-learn some basic relationships to authority, ethical precepts, and community life. Monastics training at Abhayagiri have lots of experience making the most of this type of practice environment and were happy to offer insights and encouragement to the community at DRBU during their stay.