Lama Shenpen Hookham lives at The Hermitage near Criccieth in North Wales and is the resident teacher of the Awakened Heart Sangha. After an engaging and interesting drive in February 2007 I was warmly welcomed into the Hermitage and before long I had both met Lama Shenpen and eaten a good supper. Later I joined the community for an evening session of chanting and meditation.
I was fortunate to be able to speak to Lama Shenpen on a range of topics. including her research project some years ago at Oxford and published as ‘The Buddha Within’. Her supervisor had been Paul Williams a Tibetan Buddhist scholar who had converted to Catholicism a few years ago.
I was very interested to hear about the Tibetan guru system, as this is different to the way things work in Theravada. The relationship between a guru and disciple (or follower) is deliberately cultivated. I can see how at its best, such a relationship can be invaluable. In Theravada, the teaching is more impersonal, and carried out in something of a collegiate fashion. Monks who have an interest in teaching are encouraged to do so, and although there may be an acknowledged ‘spiritual director’ of a monastery, other teachers, mostly ordained, but sometimes lay, also teach.
Students may ask questions during retreats and after talks and do have limited provision for interviews with the teacher, but not the same close formal relationship that is embodied within the guru approach. This does protect both disciple and teacher from possible accusations of misconduct and delusions of self-importance—on both sides—plus the possibility of dependence, although at the cost of a certain distance and impersonality between teacher and student and of having to translate general teachings into specific directions for oneself.
We discussed Reginald Ray’s study of forest renunciants in ‘Buddhist Saints in India’ published some fourteen years ago. Ray’s idea is that the two tier model of monastic and lay Buddhist should actually be a three tier model of monastic, lay and forest based renunciant. He thinks that it is the forest renunciant who is the dynamo supporting a healthy Buddhism. I have yet to read Ray’s work in full but wonder at the somewhat simple models he proposes.
I certainly agree that conscientious practice must lie at the heart of Buddhism and without this the living Dhamma will stagnate. Without teachers who have at least had their ‘Dhamma eye’ opened we will have the blind leading the blind. And monastics do have many potential roles; of scholar, meditator, teacher, and counselor. But not all monastics undertake all roles. So it is quite possible for a monk to spend a lot of time in solitary practice developing samadhi and wisdom. It all depends on the monastery and the inclinations of a particular monk.
The vinaya which governs monastic behaviour does not dictate how a monk spends his time. It also supports an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy. As long as a bhikkhu follows the major Vinaya rules and meets when possible with the monastic Sangha, then his practice is to a large extent under his own control, especially after the first few years of training have passed.
What seems more of an issue is the policy or beliefs that a group of monastics may come to agree with. If they believe that nibbana is impossible in this degenerate age and that, therefore, simply maintaining scholarship, and accruing merit is all that one can meaningfully do, then this belief will obviously have an effect on their behaviour. This is the situation that prevailed in Thailand over a hundred years ago when the forest tradition arose. The history of Buddhism is a cycle of decline into various kinds of scholasticism, prescriptive approaches and loss of energy, alternating with reform movements often advocating forest practice and renunciation as vital.
I await the delivery of Ray’s book to see if my view is confirmed by actually reading the book in detail.
Lama Shenpen runs a successful online Buddhist correspondence course—An introduction to Buddhism.She finds that some of those who use the course subsequently come to the Hermitage for a retreat. There are both organised retreats and the facilities for personal retreats of various lengths. There are published guidelines and a framework for the personal retreats, including Lama Shenpen’s experienced teaching and support. I was up early the next morning— rather cleverly; the light in my room switched on automatically at 5 am— and joined in a two hour period of meditation, walking and chanting before breakfast. I left at Midday driving into a light Welsh drizzle, and reflecting on the good company, good teaching and good porridge I had tasted during my stay.