“Buddhism will not take hold in a country until there are local Monks supported by local people”

This past October I finish my fourth Vassa as a Bhikkhu. It is also the first time I spent a Vassa outside of a monastery. For those unfamiliar with Vassa, it is a tradition that existed already at the time of the Buddha and then was adopted by Buddhist monastics. India back then had three seasons: Summer, Winter, and Rains/Monsoon. During the Rains(Vassana) season monastics stay in one place with a few exceptions, What was the reason?:

“People looked down upon, criticized, spread it about, saying: “How can these recluses, sons of the Sakyans, walk on tour during the cold weather and the hot weather and the rains, trampling down the crops and grasses, injuring life that is one-facultied and bringing many small creatures to destruction²? Shall it be that those members of other sects, whose rules are badly kept, cling to and prepare a rains-residence, shall it be that these birds, having made their nests in the tree-tops, cling to and prepare a rains-residence,³ while these recluses, sons of the Sakyans walk on a tour during the cold weather and the hot weather and the rains, trampling down the crops and grasses, injuring life that is one-facultied and bringing many small creatures to destruction?”

At the end of the Vassa period(Kathina) the tradition was for the monastics to receive new cloth to make robes, and so into the modern age the tradition of rains retreat and robe cloth giving is kept. It is also how monastics judge their seniority. When two monastics meet each other for the first time they ask “how many rains?” so they know who is senior.

With my exit from Bhavana and being in NJ during quarantine, I wanted to go spend some time in a more mountainous quiet place away from the world, with lots of nature and few people. I had a few invitations for places to stay the Vassa, but it was a combination of travel/Covid 19 concerns and my desire to be back in nature that caused me to accept an invitation to stay with friends on a secluded mountaintop farm in West Virginia, and so I did.

It is a wonderful place with no television and not very much involvement and engagement with the wacky world. A place with good people supportive of my path and practice, and wonderful mountain forests to roam. Neither the family nor any of their close friends/neighbors whom I met in my months there were Buddhist, but they were kind, inquisitive, and accepting, they went out of their way to make sure I could live comfortably there as a monastic. It was quite nice to be in a place where you could find people of different political and religious views peacefully enjoying each other’s company while sitting on the porch watching the sun set and clouds roll over the mountains.

A few weeks into the Vassa, Gini, the lady who owns and runs the farm, was reading up on what Vassa was and came across the tradition of making a robe for the monks. With a somewhat naive exuberance and excitement, (she is known for getting over her head in doing good things to help others) she proposed to me the idea of get getting some of her friends together, the “Mountain Mommas”, and proving me with a new full set of robes, after commenting on how mine were “thread bear” and “hand me downs”, to which I had a good laugh.

In previous Kathina events I had seen Buddhist people come together at the monastery to make a robe, sometimes in teams working late into the night. I had also gained experience sewing robes in my early days at the monastery, so I knew a little something of what went into doing this project. I contacted Karen, the lady who taught me how to sew years back, to get the diagrams for the robes, which she sent via email, and Gini and I had a brief meeting with her friend Kathleen, who was a seamstress. They took measurements and calculated how much robe material they would need. They spoke to me about various material types (cotton, linen, etc) and color. The color had already been decided between myself and Gini in our initial talks, and requires a bit of explanation for the reader.

One thing I take seriously in my monasticism is my desire to help the Dhamma grow in America, it is my “Dhammaduta”(Dhamma mission) that coincides with my own desire for awakening. It’s roots stem from the days of my first delving into Buddhism and finding Theravada and the suttas. It was like a missing piece of my puzzle that I finally found. It was like coming home from a long journey.

It was so impactful that I knew even before becoming a monk that if I did, part of my monastic life would be sharing the Dhamma. My preceptor, Bhante G, also felt the call of Dhammaduta and came to America. It is because of him and the other monastics who came to America from Buddhist countries that I was able to learn the Dhamma and go to retreats, and I am forever grateful for them because they did so.

Now as they get older and pass on, it is up to my generation of monastics to take up the baton and build upon what our preceptors gave us. I have thought about how I would be the most useful in doing so, traveling all over and teaching as my preceptor did, or building a community of good well trained monastics that I could then send out to grow the Dhamma, akin to what Ajahn Chah did, and to this end I believe it would be better for me to grow the number of monastics.

This brings me to something I was told by a long-time friend of Bhante G. At Bhavana’s first ordination in 1989 this person asked Bhante G what Nikaya(monastic lineage, of which there are 3 in Sri Lanka) that they would be ordained into. Bhante G said “ The North American Nikaya”.  This sentiment was very impactful to me then, and still is now.  A monastic order not connected to any one Buddhist country, but home grown Dhamma, a goal for the future.

A few years back when the robe I had started to fade, I tried to dye it, darker and more of the maroon color that is common for Sri Lankan forest monks. What came out was a red color. When people asked me about the color, I jokingly remarked “I’m in the North American Nikaya”

Bhante G gave me a gift in that I was not trained as a monk from any specific place. Both he and Bhante Seelananda would say “we are not Sri Lankan, or Thai, or Burmese monks, just monks”. Now they didn’t always live up to that sentiment, but I always appreciated it. I like just thinking of myself as a monk, but when I’m around Sri Lankan people or I go to a Thai place, I’m “the Sri Lankan monk”. The colors of our robes truly have become “team colors” in many ways, so if I have to be on a “team” I will choose the team of the “North American Nikaya”.

This is not to put Buddhism or monasticism from our Buddhist countries in any negative light, but to encourage the growth of the Dhamma in the various forms it will take in the west. At one point there was no such thing as a Thai, Burmese, or Sri Lankan Buddhism, this developed over long periods of time.  There are many good things from the various Buddhist countries that should stay and be incorporated into a Western Buddhism, but there are also things that can be left behind. It is quit an American tradition to take on the best that the world has to give into its culture, and an American Theravada could be no different. So when I wanted to choose a color, I chose the color of the red in the American flag (although I believe it also works for Canada, and Mexico too). This was something that Gini and the ladies really liked and so the color was decided. In checking samples and on recommendation, I chose linen as the material, as I did not have any experience with it and it would of most likely been the more common material used by the monastics in the Buddha’s time.

So the first session of sewing was set and the “Mountain Momas” assembled. Gini, Kathleen, Cindy, myself and others who came for a time and left.

Progress was made, fun was had, but we all realized that there would need to be 2-4 more sessions to finish. Over the course of the next month and a half we came together a few more times. Towards the end Karen was called in to help as some of the ladies had family duties that kept them from helping.

The full set of robes was offered to me at a fireside ceremony one night, after the farm work was done. The Mountain Mommas were rightfully proud and happy of their work, and I was happy to of been part of the experience, and to see something so wonderful and rare in the world.

Dana as a practice is something that our friends from Buddhist countries are experts in. They are well practiced in it from a young age. They are born into an ancient tradition of supporting renunciates and doing good deeds, both for themselves and their relatives, living and deceased.

This is a practice most westerners are not born into, and it can often seem foreign or not very useful. Don’t get me wrong, this is not me talking about practicing generosity per say, America is always in the top three of most generous countries in the world, and most of the people who give in America are religious, so our brothers and sisters in this country of various religious backgrounds are versed in generosity, but it is most often in the form of sending a check, which, while helpful is in some ways a lost opportunity for the giver.

It is a great benefit for laity to be able to be around monastics in Buddhism, This is not the case in many other religions. I have spent more time in Catholic monasteries since becoming a Buddhist monk, then when I was a Catholic. I have had many positive experiences with them and In many ways I wish I had more contact with them as a child growing up in a Catholic school.

 One of the blessings in the Mangala Sutta, is “the seeing of recluses” and “hearing the Dhamma at the right time”.

For Buddhism to thrive There must be a place for monastics in an American Buddhism. The Fourfold Assembly is the vehicle through which the teacher’s dispensation survives and thrives throughout the millennia, and it is no different here in America. Monks and laity are an inseparable pair, without or the other, there is no Buddhism.

The quote at the beginning of this article is said to of come from a monk in Thailand I believe. I remember reading it years ago and it was very impactful to me. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find it anymore, either in any of the books I thought it was in, or by google search(perhaps you the reader may know?).  

“Buddhism will not take hold in a country until there are local Monks supported by local people”

Now there are Thai monks being supported by Thai people in Thailand, likewise Sri Lanka, Myanmar. In America there are monastics from all of those countries here, all being supported by people from their own previous countries as well, in addition to a very small but growing group of Western convert Buddhists. Nearly every westerner who becomes a Buddhist monastic will do so within the cultural framework of well established Buddhist countries and be supported in large part by the people from those countries.

Buddhism has not yet taken hold in America, but perhaps one day it will. I think there is much wisdom in the above statement, that Buddhism doesn’t really become part of the fabric of the country until its own laity supports it’s own monastics. Just as there once not a Thai/Sri Lankan/Mynmar Buddhism in the past, but it grew over centuries to dominate the culture. It started out no doubt that monastics from other countries and immigrants came first, then it became integrated.

So seeing westerners(not even Buddhists no less!) do something like this is heartening. That people were willing to give of themselves to support a monastic in such a way, with all four requisites. They fed me, sheltered me, gave me medicine, and they put in many hours of their own time and hard work to cloth me.

Seeing this generosity for me, a lowly newbie monastic not worthy of much, gives me the zeal and desire to be the best monastic I can be, to practice well and live as purely as I can. To, in essence, be worthy of their effort.

The “Mountain Mommas” and all the farm friends provide a good example for Western Buddhists, as do our born Buddhist friends, who can teach us so much as we grow the Dhamma together in the new world.

3 Comments on “Vassa Americana: Mountain Mommas and Buddhist Robes

  1. Thank you for sharing this very inspiring story. I too feel the call to share the Dhamma and I also would like to see an Australian Buddhism develop here.
    Blessings to you.

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