College meeting November 2006

Notes by Parami

The following is based on my notes from the meeting and should be read as an informal record rather than as minutes exactly. I have recorded in some detail things that I think might be of general interest. The college wanted to do more to keep other Order members and mitras informed about our meetings, which happen twice a year, and I offered to write these notes

This November, 19 members of the FWBO’s College of Public Preceptors met at Tiratanaloka for 10 days. These They were Abhaya, Dhammadinna (for the latter part as she was conducting Shraddhi’s funeral in London), Dhammarati, Dharmanandi, Dayanandi, Karunamaya, Mahamati, Maitreyi, Manjuvajra, Nagabodhi, Padmasuri, Padmavajra, Parami, Ratnadharini, Ratnaghosa, Saddhaloka, Surata, Suvajra, Sona (for the first half).

Many of our meetings take place at Madhyamaloka in Birmingham, but we had decided some time back that we would like one meeting a year to be in a retreat centre. Summer 2005 we met at Taraloka and I wrote quite a full account of that in the autumn of 2005. This time we met at Tiratanaloka, It has lots of advantages to be in a residential retreat centre. It makes the meeting more contained as well as giving us the chance to easily meditate all together. Funnily enough I think it can also be fairly informal when we are residential — we can sit around chatting together after meals, watch a film (well we did last year, there wasn’t time for that this year!) or sit up late without having to walk the streets of Moseley afterwards, something which some of us end up doing fairly regularly.

The first few days were spent in various meetings, both in kulas and in informal groupings as well as occasionally all together.

In the first part of the meeting we looked at various topics:

Other topics looked at were more internal and of relevance to the meeting itself:

And some were specifically related to particular Kulas, for example specific ordination requests and private preceptor consultation or review process updates

We also did a certain amount of quite personal reporting in.

Bhante came along for two days at the end of the meeting and we had a couple of q+a sessions with him. These were recorded and hopefully will be transcribed and put into Shabda as we have done with the q+a we had with Bhante at the April meeting.

Consultation process for new preceptors

Padmavajra made the observation that the consultation process for new preceptors had sometimes been difficult and time consuming and made the suggestion that consultation could be better thought of as part of a training process.

There are retreats offered at both Tiratanaloka and Padmaloka for preceptors and people in the consultation process. There is a good take up on the women’s side and a bit less on the men’s it would seem. They do seem to serve a very real purpose and are appreciated by people who attend them. The idea of wedding the consultation into this was broadly accepted in principle though there was no attempt to discuss details. This is something to keep thinking about and to come back to at the next meeting.

One advantage of seeing the whole thing in terms of training is that hopefully it helps avoid worries about ‘status’ of proposed preceptors, by reassuring people that prospective preceptors have a context for feedback and training. Also it potentially gives the correspondent a training ‘team’ for support and discussion. That would be helpful because correspondents are not necessarily trained in mediation or even necessarily able to individually follow through everything that comes up in the consultation process.

It was commented that there is an analogy with the ordination process: people asking for ordination will hopefully have been able to undergo systematic training, but there is always some room for flexibility where appropriate. There is a value in training preceptors — of course with similar flexibility

We also agreed that once the consultation process has concluded to the satisfaction of the correspondent and the arbitrator, the appointment would be made by the appropriate Kula, though the whole college would still be informed. This makes sense as it will be the Kula members who know the person being appointed. This is a change in working practice rather than principle.

A related point discussed was around the 5 year reviews that preceptors are asked to undertake. The new College members (over 20 of us) underwent pretty thorough consultation processes and there have been quite a number of new private preceptors over the last couple of years as well. All of this has taken time and energy and only now can we take the time to get the 5-year reviews of existing preceptors underway. It was quite a difficult discussion and we realized the need to further clarify the point of these reviews and also the exact mechanism for them.

There seem to be 2 main purposes in doing these 5-year reviews: so that the preceptor can learn from feedback, and also to maintain the trust of the order in the process.

In principle the consultation includes:

There was discussion as to the appropriateness of approaching the people that one has ordained. The whole topic is quite a big area and needs to be revisited in detail, which we will do at the next meeting.

New OMs and Chapters

This was brought up by Dayanandi who was a bit concerned that a growing number of people are being ordained without having a Chapter to enter and that a number of other OMs are choosing not to participate in Chapters. We agreed that if possible it is best to know before ordination which Chapter a new order member will join. It was also agreed that participation in the community of the order is a vital part of someone’s ordination. However, while this participation is crucial and while we strongly encourage people to join — or form — Chapters, a lack of a Chapter would not in itself be a reason for someone not being ordained. In the absence of a Chapter, there are other ways a new order member may participate in the collective life of the order.

The discussion moved onto the collective life of the order, not just Chapters.

Interestingly enough, this was one of the main topics Bhante touched on in one of the q+a sessions. He obviously wanted to talk about this and was obviously concerned that we look very seriously at the whole area. However, as usual, while making quite strong, even provocative, statements of principle, in discussion, he was neither prescriptive nor proscriptive in his understanding of the application of those principles. Someone asked him about something he had allegedly said somewhere that an OM without a Chapter is only half an OM. He had indeed said this and went on to talk about it at some length. While he was obviously concerned about the topic, he reminded us that this was an aphorism and therefore said to provoke discussion, rather than to be taken literally.

He related it to the private and public parts of the ordination ceremony. He reminded us that, having made the individual commitment to the 3 jewels during the private ceremony, by virtue of the public ceremony the newly ordained person is also part of an Order. He commented that the Chapter is a working unit of the order and is where you can meet with other OMs purely as OMs, not in any other capacity. It is where we can strengthen each other’s faith.

He talked about the need for personal individual spiritual life and collective spiritual life to be held in balance. He wondered if one of the things that is happening at present, within the order at large, is that there is a tendency for them to get out of balance and that perhaps the public ordination and its significance is getting neglected in favour of the private ordination. He speculated that this might perhaps be in line with trends in society in general where the collective is now undervalued. He wondered if more needs to be said about the fact that when one is ordained, one hasn’t just committed oneself as a Buddhist but as a Buddhist who belongs to a particular order, and who has therefore a connection to other members of that order. He said that while we don't want to make up hard and fast rules, he thought it odd to imagine an order member who never wants to have any contact with other Order members.

We talked about the Vinaya and how, in the days of the Buddha, even the monk meditating in the forest had to give priority to the call of the Sangha rather than continuing meditation. This led to a discussion around how we all go through ups and downs in our spiritual life and the importance of kindness and encouragement to those who are going through difficult patches. As Bhante reminded us, we never know when it might be us in need of encouragement, understanding and kindness.

Bhante also talked at some length about the undervaluing of the Public Ordination, and the relationship with the private preceptor. The following is an unedited quote from that discussion which I have lifted directly from Dhammarati’s blog. Dhammarati says: let me make the usual disclaimer. Bhante expresses himself extraordinarily carefully. these are my much sketchier, unchecked notes of him speaking

Relation to private preceptor

I’ve sometimes heard people speaking about their relationship with their prospective or actual private preceptor, almost in romantic terms.

There's a lot of emphasis on choosing someone whom you like, who you feel naturally attracted to, rather than someone whose spiritual qualities you admire.

There's another connection. in India there’s the caste system, and under the caste system, you didn’t choose your life partner, it was arranged.

I have read some indian sociologists who said that the only area of important relationship where you could choose was your choice of a guru.

Therefore, some of these almost romantic emotions that in the west seem to be focused on the partner, tend to be focused on the guru.

In Hinduism this emphasis is very strong, this relationship between you and the guru is very strong. in Hinduism there’s no idea of spiritual community.

Generalising widely, not to say wildly, I’m wondering if this emphasis that seems to be falling on the relationship with the private preceptor, and the lack of interest in sangha activities, suggests to me almost that we're slipping into a Hindu, rather than a Buddhist, spiritual model.

A model in which the relationship with the guru, or the private preceptor, is the important one, and the membership of the sangha is getting more and more neglected.

More on this and other topics can be read on Dhammarati’s blog.

Kalyana mitra ceremonies

The question raised was about who could officiate at KM ceremonies for Mitras. Originally it was only members of ordination teams who did this. This broadened out and it is now any preceptor. Obviously there are a number of experienced OMs who are not preceptors who would meaningfully officiate at a ceremony. After discussion we agreed that, since for mitras the KM ceremony is part of ordination training, someone involved with the mitra’s ordination would oversee the process but we could be flexible about who actually does the ceremony. In other words it would be the preceptor who made sure that appropriate discussions had taken place — with Chapters, etc — but that responsibility for actually performing the ceremony can be delegated by the preceptor, where there is a celebrant who would have the spiritual confidence of all parties.

“Vision” brainstorm

One morning we had a session where we just shared our thoughts around our vision for the College. It was a very open-ended discussion and was very moving. It was agreed that we were just sharing our own thoughts rather than creating a definitive list. We wanted to share our own interests and concerns and talk about things that move us and that are “live” for us as individual OMs and as College members. The points raised naturally grouped into 4 different headings, which we discussed in more detail in 4 small groups. We thought the priorities for the College were:

After the small groups we came back together to fill each other in briefly on what had been talked about

Confidence and clarity

  1. Valuing Bhante’s teaching and approach.
  2. Order lasting beyond our lifetime.
  3. Honouring bhante’sBhante’s legacy while adapting to changing conditions.
  4. Harmony and cohesion.
  5. Shared vision.

Exemplification and depth of personal practice

  1. Shared practice.
  2. Time together on retreat.
  3. More engagement with the world and more disengagement.
  4. More resources to teaching.
  5. Exemplifying the collective dimension of the Order.
  6. Living together.
  7. Rigorous examination of our own practice.

Kalyana Mitrata

  1. Mutual appreciation and trust.
  2. Meeting in harmony, fellowship, shared understanding.
  3. Flow of information and experience.
  4. Better communication between College and Order.
  5. Intensifying practice after ordination.
  6. Deeper study.
  7. Locus for bodhichitta
  8. Support for OMs in difficulty.
  9. Responding to individuals not ideology.

Supporting new growth

  1. Re-visioning the "3 Cc’s" — the principles below the form.

After a day out in the middle of the meeting we began to explore Bhante’s system of meditation. Padmavajra kicked us off with a talk in which he related the 4 stages of the System of Meditation (as explained in a talk given by Bhante in 1978) to the Great Stages of the Path (as elucidated by Bhante in a seminar on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland in 1976). In commenting why he was so interested in this material Padmavajra said:

A question arises from time to time: what is our path? do we have one? Sometimes people can get bewildered, and wonder what to concentrate on. This isn’t a fault, and it seems to have been the case even in the Buddha’s day, for example, Mahaprajapati Gotami asking the Buddha what his teaching really was. Bhante has pointed us towards the richness of the Buddhist tradition… I recently became aware of an early teaching of Bhante’s which attempts, in a few words, to communicate the whole path....

Padmavajra also related these to the Five Paths (marga) and, just to round this all off, he connected all that with the five spiritual faculties.

The rest of the days we spent exploring the meditations. Each of the main practices of the system of meditation was introduced by someone with a particular connection to the practice introduced whichever of the main practices of the system of meditation we planned to focus on that day, and then we meditated together. Afterwards we had small group meetings to talk further about ourt experience of the practices.

In the evenings we told life stories. Manjuvajra and Dharmanandi told full life stories, as it was their first meeting — and Padmavajra also had a whole evening to himself as he was celebrating his 50th birthday. The rest of us gave (very) edited highlights, 15 minutes each. Although short it was very good to do that. Most of us know each other quite well and have done so for a long time, but nevertheless it’s always different to hear someone’s biography, to get the narrative of it — or at least of part of it.