Year In Review 2012 Report for Santi Forest Monastery
At Santi Forest Monastery in New South Wales (near Sydney) Australia, the year 2012 brought breathtaking changes that no one could have predicted. I happened to be witness and participant as events unfolded, including the departure of the popular abbot Bhante Sujato.
Please read my report published for the monastery’s Annual General Meeting Santi Forest Monastery Annual Report 2011-12 – email version (scroll to page 6).
Or, in case you cannot open the pdf, here it is without the beautiful photographs:
END OF YEAR REPORT
What Bhante Sujato accomplished during the past near decade at Santi was extraordinary, bringing people together in the most unexpected ways to do wonderful things. Bhante Sujato’s interfaith work is legendary; Chandra credits him with having inspired in the Sydney region a great revival of Buddhist devotion and activities among many people, particularly from Vietnam and Sri Lanka. And he brought together people of diverse backgrounds to form a support network that built up Santi into a lovely, well-apportioned monastery – which he had intended to hand over someday to the impoverished Bhikkhuni Sangha, to help raise them up. It is an extraordinary gift to womankind from a man of an extraordinary heart.
Last year Bhante Sujato reported to the AGM that things have gotten easier at Santi, writing,“As a young community, there’s the freshness and excitement of building new things, seeing what works in our situation. Now most of the urgent building work is done, and the monastery year has settled into its rhythm.” This remained true during the first part of 2012, as the rhythm he had established over the past nine years continued without large upheavals or big projects.
Year 2012 opened on a high note at Santi with the New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day successful Jhanathon meditation marathon; participants finished bleary-eyed but victorious, much merit having been made and funds having been raised to support Santi Forest Monastery. Two weeks later saw the head-shaving and anagarika going-forth of beloved Santi resident Ruwinie, nervously giving up her lovely long black hair to put on the white robes.
From January-April the monastery kept a relaxed schedule with few activities required other than the morning work period, Tuesday Sutta class, Wednesday night Dhamma talk by Bhante Sujato in the Big Cave, and Saturday night meditation. Each weekend, Bhante went to out to teach the Friday night program at the Well Awareness Centre in Sydney and Saturday programs which rotated among three venues: Paramatta (Gloria Jean’s cafe), North Sydney (Girl Guides Centre), and at the Canberra Temple, all primarily attended by Sri Lankan devotees; residents occasionally attended these teachings with him (except Nandiya who followed a year-long “vow” of abstaining from going into Sydney). Bhante also taught a monthly meditation class at Bowral Thai Restaurant which most residents attended with him. Residents enjoyed a couple of community-oriented outings, going to the beach and spending a day together exploring the historic town of Berrima.
In February Ayya Sudhamma Bhikkhuni arrived from the USA for a nine-month visit, having given up her position at a temple in SC to learn from Bhante Sujato and live amongst this community. During Bhante Sujato’s frequent absences from Santi, Ayya Sudhamma guided the community, taught most of the classes, and gave teachings to visitors. Also in February, longterm resident Ayya Mahacitta Samaneri announced her plan to disrobe and soon left Santi, to the great disappointment for many, as she seemed indispensable. Ruwinie took over office management in her place.
In early March, Bhante Sujato and Ayya Sudhamma flew to Perth to help facilitate the higher ordination of Santi’s own Ayya Pasada Samaneri (of Hong Kong), now Ayya Pasada Bhikkhuni. She ordained together with a young Thai nun, Ayya Munissara; both new bhikkhunis later visited Santi for a few months (May-July), bringing their calm manners and sincere focus on meditation, but also grilling Bhante Sujato almost daily with questions about how to live the holy life. (Ayya Pasada spent Vassa with her preceptor Ayya Tathaaloka in California, and has now joined the nuns of Dhammasara in Perth.)
Soon after the ordination was Bhante Sujato’s eagerly-awaited 5th March debate on Secular Buddhism with Stephen Batchelor in Sydney, with all proceeds going to the Buddhist Library Cambodia Project and The Bodhicitta Foundation. (Bhante won; or so his supporters say!) The replacement vehicle for the Delica van broke down en route to the debate. The Delica’s absence, gone for many months to get adjustments to its operating system, would continue to be a source of frustration for Bhante Sujato, the van never materializing again until his departure.
In April we held the Bush Regeneration Day, guided by lay supporter Dana; it nearly was rained out, yet the volunteers’ efforts brought a lot of improvement to the land and raised much enthusiasm. Bhante Sujato taught his popular annual Easter weekend Metta retreat (6-9 April) at the nearby Quest For Life centre; several Santi residents joined the retreat, commuting each day.
From May-July, as in recent past years, Bhante Sujato held a period of intensive study at Santi in addition to regular morning work. The ambitious schedule was nearly overwhelming; in retrospect perhaps Bhante planned this to be his last teaching period at Santi. We had regular classes on Suttas, Vinaya (code of discipline), Philosophy, Pali language, Jataka story-telling, and Novice training, along with the weekly Dhamma talk and required meditation. Bhante Sujato also added a weekly Pali class at the Buddhist Library to his outside teaching commitments.
Our group did a road trip to Melbourne on 22-24th May for the All Sangha Association (ASA) conference held at Quang Minh Temple. (Traveling together were Bhante Sujato, Bhante Santi, Ayya Sudhamma, Ayya Munissara, Ayya Patacara, and Alex; the Santi nuns stayed at Sanghamittarama, the males at BSV.) At the conference Bhante Sujato stepped down from his position in the ASA, over the objections of his many colleagues in the various Buddhist traditions, as he had helped found the group in 2005 and remained one of the leaders. Ayya Patacara accepted a responsible position on the ASA Committee.
Bhante Sujato’s unexpected announcement in mid-May that he would depart before Vassa threw the community of Santi residents and supporters into a state of shock, followed by the initial stages of grief: disbelief, bargaining, anger, depression, each moving at their own pace towards acceptance. Some said later they had noticed his growing unease, but no one had expected him to leave. Bhante assured us that no one was at fault, he just didn’t want to be Abbot anymore. Perhaps Santi’s settled routine no longer satisfied him. Also, he perceived it to be the right time to turn the monastery over to the nuns. His final days at Santi were a blur of visitors receiving last teachings and wishing him well, group labors following his directions to complete numerous small tasks around the monastery, and heroic efforts to finish editing all of his books.
Several residents departed from Santi soon after Bhante’s announcement, some with coincidental timing such as Alex, Ayya Tempa (Tiben-robed nun), Ruwinie (who returned to lay life), Ayya Pasada and Ayya Munissara, and some leaving due to Bhante’s departure, including Nandiya and Martin. On Bhante Sujato’s invitation Ayya Dhammananda arrived in mid-June to kindly help with the transition. Those left behind at Santi and newly arrived residents struggled to master the complexities of this monastery, with numerous legacy systems and unusual arrangements, such as the IT system which requires multiple passwords and a knowledge of several programs, the multifaceted water systems (rainwater tanks, gray water, and septic) and the solar/electric/gas heating system. It would take a thick manual to convey all the instructions necessary for running Santi! Fortunately for us, Chandra, who knows all things Santi and can make all things work, returned from months of travel just prior to Bhante’s departure, and compassionately agreed to stay on.
At that juncture, just before Bhante Sujato’s departure, the Santi Change Committee formed, composed of several members of the Committee, along with Ayya Sudhamma and professional change-consultant Renee Neely who kindly volunteered her skills. The Change Committee’s goals were to help the nuns make a smooth transition of leadership, and to convey information to supporters in ways that gain their confidence and maintain their loyalty and support. The Change Committee created or inspired several soothing, beautiful postings on the website, including Comings & Goings, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS), and Changes at Santi – A Powerpoint Presentation. However, the skills gained from Renee’s expert advice continues to inform all the online outreach made by Santi nuns.
THE VASSA (2nd August – 30th October 2012)
We needed more nuns to form a team to govern Santi during Vassa. We were very lucky that the nuns obtained Ayya Phalanyani’s agreement to join Santi in time; the world’s numbers of English-speaking Theravada bhikkhunis remain so small that they cannot easily be quickly brought where needed, and Ayya Phalyani would bring much-needed skills. We began the Vassa with four nuns: Ayya Sudhamma, Ayya Dhammananda, Ayya Phalanyani and Ayya Patacara Samaneri. They were soon joined by Ayya Phalanyani’s white-robed student (Mae Chee Faa), who received novice ordination during the Vassa.
Hence five nuns from five countries stayed together at Santi during Vassa. Bhikkhunis Ayya Sudhira and Ayya Yeshe often visited on the moon days, enabling Santi bhikkhunis to recite Patimokkha. Bhante Santitthito kindly visited on full moon days to teach the community. Lay residents Chandra and Jeannette remained in residence, and a number of additional friends came for portions of the Vassa, including Goon Tat Ong, Gia Hieu & Tam Ngan, Alex, Ruwinie, Satya, and Maria Lopez. A total of ten nationalities thus were represented: Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Australia, USA, Germany, Switzerland, Thailand, Brazil, Italy, and Sinagpore.
The Vassa retreat began with daunting circumstances and much uncertainty among a nervous, somewhat leaderless group of residents from diverse backgrounds trying to pull together after Bhante Sujato’s departure. Awareness of the high stakes involved and the Buddhist world’s attention upon us only increased the stress. Shared goals and values, including respect for Vinaya, helped keep us together. So did the Committee members’ active involvement (thank you!), particularly Paddy’s presence as liason; and also Chandra’s steady hand, Helen’s assistance, and encouragement from visitors who came to offer dana and receive teachings.
During the Vassa the bhikkhunis, on a rotating basis, divided amongst themselves the weight of authority and opportunities for secluded meditation. (Meanwhile Samaneri Patacara served as office manager and attended to guests, and built a bike shed as a hobby; and Samaneri Taapassii began to learn English.) The bhikkhunis’ rotation of duties allowed Ayya Phalanyani’s leadership potential to become apparent, not hidden by the usual hierarchical allocation of authority to more senior nuns.
The Vassa brought periods of great effort in meditation, with good results, yet we also enjoyed daily light-hearted interactions that established friendships among residents. A couple of highlights during this time were the going-forth of Ayya Taapassii as a samaneri on 1st September; and the 17th September annual Bhikkhuni Day, led by Ayya Dhammananda.
Our new Spiritual Director Ajahn Brahm stayed in touch with the bhikkhunis from a distance. Motivated by compassion, he visited Santi 2- 4th September to counsel the Santi nuns on meditation and discuss the future of Santi, although traveling broke a pledge to his Sangha. (We owe a debt of gratitude to his monks for allowing him come.) During his brief visit, Ajahn Brahm witnessed the going-forth of Samaneri Taapassii, counseled each resident, discussed issues in depth with the bhikkhunis, and imparted much needed wisdom. Like the Santi residents, Ajahn Brahm also began to recognize the leadership abilities of Ayya Phalanyani. His subsequent decision to place her into the position of Abbot does not come as a surprise to anyone who resided at Santi during the Vassa, for she proved herself worthy.
POST-VASSA (November-end 2012)
The end of the Vassa finds the community at Santi again in a time of youthful freshness and excitement due to the wide open possibilities – no longer set in the rhythm established during the past decade, but finding our way anew, sifting through the old forms to see what will be kept and what will be improved. Ayya Sudhamma returns home to the USA as planned, expressing gratitude for the special care and healing that she received while at Santi, and Ayya
Dhammananda also departs before the end of the year. They leave Ayya
Phalanyani and Samaneris Patacara and Taapassii as the nuns in residence, with more nuns and laywomen who seek ordination scheduled to visit, perhaps to stay. Lay supporters Upasaka Chandra and Jeanette also remain in residence, and many devotees and friends from near and far continue to visit and support the monastery.
With Ayya Phalanyani established as Santi’s new Abbot the initial transition is complete, though it should take many more months before we can say that Santi has stabilized into its new identity. At the time of this writing the little Bodhi tree near the front door, looking sadly barren and leafless for the past several months, has burst into an abundance of bright green foliage. The stupa at Santi also has a beautiful new visage thanks to Ayya Patacara’s recent artistic efforts. The fresh appearance of these most powerfully sacred objects can be taken as symbols of this new time of growth and change. Santi is now well on its path to achieve even greater service as a harmonious community for monastics to develop in the Dhamma and for lay supporters to find goodness and peace of heart.