Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Future

Over the past year, something quite wonderful has grown out of the craziness of this life on Earth.

The website I originally set up on behalf of my teacher while still living in Chiang Mai, Thailand has in this short time become something quite remarkable. Sure, it has evolved many times over the years, following me around the world when no one else at Chom Tong was interested in the name "sirimangalo" - the foreign department wanted "ajarntong.com" and the monastery wanted "chomtong.com", so I was stuck with "sirimangalo.org". But this past year, with the experiment started at ask.sirimangalo.org and continued with my.sirimangalo.org, it really has taken on a life of its own. ask.sirimangalo.org now has over 3,000 questions and answers, a phenomenal amount if you consider its relative infancy. my.sirimangalo.org, with a name that sounds decidedly unBuddhist (but one must admit is catchy), has become a hub of activity for people following our meditation teachings at home and those looking to come to our centre to practice and even ordain. forum.sirimangalo.org, a recent addition, is already on its way to becoming a laid-back alternative to the more formal Q&A format of ask.siri ("ask siri" is the number one Google query driving people to our site, btw - it has caused some confusion at the other end as well, as per this forum post). Then of course, there is radio.sirimangalo.org, home of our weekly live broadcast session where we give refuge and precepts, and answer questions, sometimes for two hours or more.

All this is what has come from the genuine interest we all share in the Buddha's teaching, and an interest to share what we have gained with others. It is something that has brought happiness to a great many people, myself included, and is surely something we can all feel good about having been a part of its growth from infancy to a mature and harmonious community spanning 43 countries (counting only those who have selected their country in their user profile) and cultivating an amazing level of comprehension of the teachings of our tradition, as well as an impressive ability to pass that learning on to new members. Everyone who has participated deserves much gratitude from our organization, making our work of disseminating the Buddha's teaching far easier and more effective than we ever could have accomplished alone here in our forest.

The forest, as well, has changed around us in the past year. Never before have I seen such wonderful physical manifestation of hard work and dedication to the continuation of the Buddha's teaching. We have restored what was a more-or-less abandoned forest hermitage into a lively and growing meditation centre; a mammoth three story complex that still amazes me; how did we get that into the jungle? Four rooms, four bathrooms, and a (soon to be roofed) meditation area on top, reaching almost to the Bodhi tree on top of the rocks against which the building is set. And around the monastery, the new kitchen, stairs, bathrooms, the list goes on. The success can be measured in how much use we've already got out of all the projects, which is to say a great success indeed.

So, this is where we stand, looking back at the past. But this post is not meant to be about the past; it is meant to pose questions about the future. Specifically, the future of our organization, our monastery, our website, and of course the international community of which we are all now a part. All of this started based on a specific set of circumstances - one might even blame my arrest in California back in 2009 and subsequent fear of going outside wearing monks robes, which started the Second Life videos and eventually Ask A Monk; at any rate, those circumstances have changed now. Sri Lanka is a wonderful country; I haven't felt so at peace with my surroundings since I was a young child in the forests of Manitoulin Island. It is not, however, on par with places like North Hollywood in terms of things like Internet access or monastic affluence - and yes, that is part of what makes it such a peaceful place, for sure.

The question now is whether we can meld the old with the new. Sirimangalo International, the California non-profit originally set up to start a meditation centre in America, is now more-or-less defunct, its president (me) living on the other side of the world, without regular contact with the rest of the board. The organization was most useful in helping build our monastery, and has continued to fund our website and cloud-based server (for Monk Radio) via PayPal, but it is a long ways away from our present place of activity, and the only way for it to support our monastery is via grant request, which somehow doesn't seem like something a monk should engage in :)

The grant that built the bulk of the monastery is used up now; other generous support for the building projects went to its respective ends in what we hope was proper use for it. Now, all that is left is for us to maintain what we have built. The question we have been asking ourselves recently is whether the bed that we have made for ourselves is one in which we can lie, or whether we have bit off more than we can chew. When I was teaching in Hot (Chiang Mai province, Thailand), we were in a similar situation; very little local support, too new to expect much foreign support, and several meditators either with us or on their way to us. The Burmese nun with whom I worked told me we either had to start asking meditators to support the centre or we had to shut the centre down. My reply was, "then we shut the centre down." I believed, and still believe today, quite strongly in helping others from the heart, with no strings attached. If someone comes to us for food, they should get a free lunch. If they come to us for meditation, they should get meditation without any thought that they might be expected to give something in return besides respect and gratitude.

The next day in Hot, we received a donation that allowed us to continue providing food for the meditators and, in the end, there was always just enough support to get by, but these words come back to me often, especially now that there is so much more involved in the work of teaching that I do - a video camera, a computer, a website, Internet connections, etc. on the computer side; workers wages, electricity bills, water pumps, wells and filters on the monastery side. And especially since I am now in a country whose language I don't speak beyond basic sentences, and in an area whose people are not so well off that they can support our monastery beyond as a place for them to come for veneration of the Buddha and Bodhi tree.

Can we continue? Can we shut down? Neither has a clear answer; sometimes I think I would be better off doing this work in a more developed country, surrounded by modern conveniences and the relative affluence necessary to continue the work reassured of its success. Yesterday, Manju and I climbed out on the the rock ledge to fix a short circuited main power line - he tugging one end, me tugging the other, tying a knot in the wire, crimping the thick copper cords together, taping it up, climbing back to safety before the rain came. We don't have the resources to get a new power line. I'm not complaining, it was great fun, and is very much a part of the monastic life. The point is, it's a bit incongruous with the extra-monastic work of Sirimangalo International; without that power line, no Internet. Without Internet, no website (or yes website until it crashes and no one is there to bring it back on line), no contact with meditators, or even with our own families whose acceptance of what we do is often conditional on our ability to contact them.

And as for running a meditation centre, no power means no water. Our water supply itself is another issue. As monastics, we can deal with hardship without much difficulty. We can carry water from the river, boil it for drinking, etc. These sort of activities don't jive so well with an international meditation centre, where people who have lived their whole lives in cities have to become accustomed to drinking water that either tastes like ashes or contains e. coli bacteria, and where it needs to be boiled constantly to feed it to them - firewood alone is an issue of its own. Again, this isn't meant to sound whiny, or even pleading. I'm not writing this to ask for support, just air my thoughts and share them with those in the blogsphere around me, which is what a weblog is for, I think; maybe sometime soon this too will end.

Nor do I want to sound like we don't have support. We've had incredible support over the past year. The problem, really, and it is a problem endemic of international meditation centres in general, is that we have no base. There is no "dayakasabha" as they call it here, a group of lay supporters taking care of all worldly concerns of running the centre, both administratively and financially. Support comes from lone individuals sending care packages (bless you all, they have been put to good use) or moneygrams to our treasurer. It's heartwarming to see people one has never met express such appreciation in one's work, but it can never be a substantial support for a meditation centre.

I don't think the monastics here would have much difficulty giving this all up and focusing on our own development; this is part of where the impetus to write this post comes from. It's hard to fathom just turning out the lights on the website, but really, it would make things quite easy for us. The villagers here are more than generous sharing their food, and beyond simple requisites we need very little to survive. Manju's salary and the Internet and electricity bills complicate things :) The question I am exploring is whether shutting down our operations can or should be done.

So, I am sort of interested in hearing some thoughts on this as well. I imagine a great amount of response will be from those not involved with our community, who will say yes, give it all up, get on with the real task of purifying your own mind! I'm interested in hearing such things; after all, it would be more difficult to hear many voices telling us to continue this work that seems more and more incongruous with our current state of affairs. I suppose a part of me is wondering whether there is a way to coordinate our international community in such a way that it can help keep the centre going. The idea of a resident steward/meditator who handles financial affairs and works without salary has been floated around, as an example, but the visa situation for a foreigner in that position is uncertain.

What will the future bring? Maybe I can learn enough Sinhala to begin to coordinate with the people here in order to help the centre run smoothly? Maybe we will begin to hold more courses abroad, networking with Buddhists around the world on a physical level, such that we can coordinate with an International community? Or maybe soon we will have to buckle down and radically change our sphere of activity to an immediate surrounding. Even thinking about it casually brings up much doubt, given our status as foreigners in this country without a sponsoring monastic body. We would probably have to disperse and find places where support for things like visas and international communication is more readily available. Not ideal, but something to be open to.

Ideally, we would be able to continue to live our simple lives with basic personal requisites and at the same time come to terms with the modern reality of spreading the Dhamma to the Internet generation. Whether this ideal awaits us, only the future can tell.