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.

18 comments :

  1. Venerable Sir,

    I am so happy that I have had such a chance as to come to learn to practice Vipassana, and I am very grateful for the work and dedication put into this site, and the new ones.

    But surely, it would also make me very sad to see that such things taking away from the practice and maybe even be a drag, I don't know.
    You could and should always be free to just stop the study sessions and refuge, and be happy about what has already been done. But the world would for sure be missing a great gift, if all talks and all work was taken down completely, so I hope that your blog+content at least get a chance to survive such struggles, even if it is taken down for some time - to pop up again in the future maybe.

    May the monastery survive and its practitioners be blessed with peace,
    best wishes and thanks again to all who support this work.

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  2. It strikes me that the meditation centre could do with a regular income. Have you considered setting up the support PayPal in a way that would allow people to make a regular monthly donation? People could pay what they could afford, whether 5 dollars or 50 dollars a month. I'm sure many people would appreciate the opportunity to help out :-)

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  3. Interesting, yesterday I was wondering how all the monastery expenses are being covered,,for some of us Sirimangalo is the only Sangha we have, and we will be happy to help, if you tell us how much you need a month we can all help. Paul is so right ;
    it is an opportunity!:)

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  4. Paul, thanks for writing. That's one of the issues; afaics, PayPal won't work for us, since it doesn't include Sri Lanka in its list of supported countries. Some sort of organization like you suggest might help, but it still doesn't bring people together as a community, informed and involved in running the centre. The monastery has received donations, but they are sporadic and isolated - what is really needed is an open organizational structure that can make it clear what is necessary and what is available. Maybe we need yet another subdomain, dedicated to this task.

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  5. Thank you, Claudia, you are kind. I think I have a new idea as mentioned to Paul; some sort of information hub for organizing requirements and availability, so it is clear to everyone where we stand. Something to look into, anyway'

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  6. I just read about the issue with Paypal, which is unfortunate. I, for one, would love to subscribe to a small monthly donation if it was possible (perhaps through some other service?). Anyway, I see that the issue is obviously quite a lot larger than what a few individuals can do with their pocket readers. But for those of us far verseas from you, I can't think of how else to personally help. The website is very helpful and it would be a shame to see it go.

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  7. Just a thought that came up in my mind yesterday:
    I donated 25 dollars to you via paypal last month and have a 50 dollar free IEEE yearly membership within a month :) Those who have faith in the Teacher and Bhante can get some inspiration from reading the Dakkhinavibhanga sutta and might go on to donate something from their pockets considering the fruits of such a simple action out of faith.

    More than once, the thought had crossed my mind to support the website that has benefited me hundreds of times. Paul's idea to have a monthly donation is ideal provided the context is understood, the Teaching is not given in return for money.

    Maybe you can add a donation amount needed per month (or yearly expenses) to the wishlist under the monastery section considering the website is a Sangha for many ? Right now, we have no clue about what is necessary and sufficient. It is a wonder how Claudia and I (perhaps there are others) had thoughts about supporting you even before reading this entry. Will do our best to support your Internet expenses.

    Even if you "shut down", as long as youtube exists , the wholesome kamma of yours will keep growing :)

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  8. Thanks, Simon; it sort of seems like a one-way road, at this point, since we would have to make some serious adjustments, but for sure eventually something might materialize at a later date - one day I will speak Sinhala, after all, and our community is growing.

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  9. It's really not the amount of support that is the problem, it's that we don't have a sustained, committed, local community. The last thing we want to do is go around asking for support; many of the people who come to us are in difficulties themselves, and our intention is to give, not take.

    If there were some way to make the whole system transparent so it could be clear what is going on on all sides, maybe that would solve the problem. From a financial point-of-view, the centre's running expenses are about $300/month. It's not a huge amount of money, but it is more than most Sri Lankan village monasteries can ever dream of receiving on a regular basis. It's not just about money, though, it's about coordination; even if PayPal worked with Sri Lanka, someone would still need to transfer the PayPal money to the monastery account, which none of us are allowed to do as monastics.

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  10. huitzilopochtli6:31 AM

    I'd say that you have to choose your priority. Is focusing on reaching "the end of the road" your main goal? or do you feel that you need to teach internationaly as well? because locally you sure wouldn't stop teaching... and keep in mind that the people on the internet, such as myself, will always be able to find resources with a bit of hard googling, there will be no shortage of information about buddhism, and you have already contributed quite a lot to us. So in the end I think you would just have to determine whether teaching the internet is such a high priority for you, that you are willing to invest the effort needed, or if your own practice, together with teaching localy, is all you need.

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  11. Peter3:33 PM

    Your teachings had the most profound effect on my life. I found the answers here that neither my local meditation centre nor the rest of the internet could provide. I'm sure there must be a proper balance between one's own practice and all other activities, including teaching. In terms of support, I think this is OK to simply tell us what's needed. Working as an IT professional I could, for example, take care of everything hosting-related via the Amazon EC2 cloud, including the cost. I'm sure others could contribute other things... All we need is some sort of structure :-)

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  12. manjula01237:51 PM

    Ven: Yuttadhammo,

    I'm a Sri Lankan who lives in New Zealand.
    I have many friends who have enough potential to be helped to you. I asked them to contact you. Doing your good works and meditation in Sri Lanka where the Bodhi tree was planted and the Buddha's tooth relic is located is inspirational. I'm sure, some good educated local people will contact you to organize your things. Please advice them. Then you have a time to do your own mediatation with helping others. Everything will be fine. May the triple gem bless you all!!!

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  13. Oh, the related thread has already started! Sorry I missed it. I think we all could go there to continue the discussion in a more interactive manner.

    http://forum.sirimangalo.org/topic/what-can-we-do-to-keep-the-ekayana-magga-aranya-alive/

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  14. I think this is not due to lack of support rather lack of access to supporters. My feeling is some sort of local coordination is essential for the survival any monestery. I know as a fact people there are very generous - yes they are poor but they would do anything possible to help Maha Sangha. Since there is no local coordinator, locals who lives miles away from the monastery have no way of communicating to provide services or supplies. In general locals don' like to disturb the monks asking that this. They are more comfortable to talking to a lay organizer so they could be more open. If there is a way to sort that out I think things going to happen faster.

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  15. One problem we have there is that we are not very much connected with the people here; our community extends more to the rest of the world than within this country. I'm not sure how much that will change over time; monks in our meditation tradition have expressed the difficulty in spreading this teaching here - I was told by one monk that what I practice is not the Buddha's teaching. Apart from that, most people already have centres they support and are involved with.

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  16. Thank you for your help. I look forward to coordinating with your friends in this, but I am more confident that within our community on this website we will find greater support because everyone here is already interested and involved in what we do.

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  17. I'm not sure, really. If someone asks you to teach, can you really turn them down? I think the answer is only when there is no ability to help them within reasonable limits. As long as our Internet community is here, I think we have no reason to stop teaching. If we have to disconnect the Internet, then we will have a reason to stop teaching on the Internet :)

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  18. Anna Aiyar5:42 PM

    Hi

    I am a Sri Lankan and I speak both Sinhalese and Tamil. I totally understand when you say the local Monks think differently. After 20 years I visited SL last Jan/Feb 2012 and went into some Temples to find what they now follow is just a "Tradition" - hardly people appreciate buddha's dhamma. What you are doing a great thing... spreading the Dhamma and his teachings. The village people can hardly live with the incomes they have therefore, religion has become secondary to them now.. even the Dhamma :) that is the reason... Ignorance is the key to that... Do you have a Sinhala Speaking Monk in the Monastry? that might help to reach the local community. In Dhana biggest Dhana is Sangha Dhana... We are all very happy to help. In fact yesterday I spoke to Manjula. Please let us know...

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