This gathering of our Order’s monks at Shasta Abbey was called in response to a shared wish in recent years, and a specific commitment made at the 2011 Conclave, to meet more frequently. (The plan is to meet every six years for a rules conclave, and then again for a more informal gathering on alternate years, with Throssel and Shasta taking turns to host the event.) The gathering was envisioned as an opportunity for monks to be together with one another and secondarily to have discussions on matters of important to us. The purpose of this gathering was not to make any formal decisions about the Order and how we conduct business, rather, our purpose was to simply get together and discuss issues in our practice and our Order
Twenty-four monks from the UK and various locations in North America joined the Shasta community [of 24] to participate in the gathering. Following up on a monk’s suggestion, we began by discussing together what it means to be a contemplative order. We reached no definition, but shared broadly about what it means to be a monk and to have a monastic vocation. This developed into exploring together the contemplative ‘calling’ of both monks and laity and the responsibility of the Order to support the pursuit of ‘the important thing’ among us all. We also devoted a fair amount of time on the role of almsgiving in support of temples and the interrelationship of monks and laity. The main benefits from two days of discussion were a strong foundation of harmony based on our common recognition and gratitude for the great gift of the Dharma and our genuine appreciation of each other’s practice. This helped set the tone for the rest of the gathering.
The remainder of the mornings were devoted to topics recommended by the structure and function working group based on the results of the group‘s survey conducted last spring (see OBC interim board and working group news in the news section of the www.obcon.org site). All of these discussions were characterized by a warm-hearted openness and generosity. The first topic was considering help for the Head of the Order, which we began by inviting Rev. Master Haryo to express his view and understanding of the position, how he approaches it, and how we could help and support him. He explored with us the uniqueness of the role, given that we are a contemplative order, as well his responsibility of ensuring that we remain true to the Founder’s vision.
The other major topic was decision-making and structure within the Order. Given its breadth, we were able to only touch on many aspects. One theme we returned to frequently was exactly how decisions are made, how changes can be proposed, and the spiritual dimensions of this process. In particular, we learned more about how the head of Order takes wide refuge regarding any major decision, and the role his advisory council plays in that.
Central to this discussion was the recognition of the importance of retaining an emphasis on the ‘heart’ and responding intuitively from meditation to genuine needs. Also inherent in the decision-making process is the efficacy of the master-disciple relationship, which in the wake of Rev. Master Jiyu‘s death brings a certain complexity, given that the Order now has numerous masters and teachers. Another essential quality in making decisions together is humility, particularly embodied in bowing, as this is the counterbalance to the ‘vertical’ dimension in the master-disciple or teacher-student relationship.
Other major themes included: the possibility of standing committees, particularly in the ethics area (which is already underway); the pros and cons of having more people play a greater role in decision-making; financial responsibility, both of individual temples and of the Order in itself (as an organization); and a brief review of the past three years’ efforts, particularly those of the interim board and the various working groups, to assess how well that had worked and if our efforts had been adequate.
A last extensive discussion concerned the participation of the laity in the Order. This discussion included: expressing our gratitude for the practice our lay congregation embodies; sharing with each other the myriad evolving opportunities for lay participation already being offered in many quarters; exploring both the value and the potential issues of the lay ministry; and the challenges and spiritual dimensions of encouraging more communication among and with the lay Sangha. As with some of the other topics we had on our agenda, time only allowed an initial exploration of this topic, and no proposals were put forth.
Regarding the future, Rev. Master Haryo opened one session with remarks on the mechanisms we already have in the Order for making changes, especially when they have wide support, and his faith that if any idea is truly good, people will gradually come to realize that.
The afternoons of the gatherings were left open for visits, teas, rest, or small group discussions. Most afternoons were used for discussions, which were more spontaneous than the morning ones, in that they were organized by individual monks after arrival. All focused on practice and were of two types. One sort was organized by shared responsibilities, such as masters who have monastic disciples; masters with lay disciples; priors; and chief cooks.
The other type was based on a theme and included: electronic technology and its effects on our communities and teaching the Dharma; celibacy, meditation, and sexual energy; writings of our founder, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett; and learning to recognize when attachments to views crystallize into breakage of the Precepts — and how we address such, both within ourselves and with our fellow monks in the Sangha. Many monks expressed gratitude for what they felt had been the best gathering of this type that we’ve had.
—Rev. Master Oswin