Santi Forest Monastery is established with three primary goals.
Building a community based on Vinaya
Study of the Buddha’s words in the early scriptures
Meditation in seclusion
3.1: Building a community based on Vinaya
The Vinaya is the code of monastic conduct for Buddhist monks and nuns. It originates in the rules and procedures that were laid down by the Buddha. These were codified, extended, and organized in the generations following the Buddha’s passing away to create the Vinaya texts as we have them today. The primary texts used at Santi are those of the Pali Vinaya as passed down in the Theravada school, which are similar in most respects to the Vinayas preserved in Chinese and Tibetan translations.
Vinaya contains the famous pāṭimokkha list of rules, 227 for bhikkhus, 311 for bhikkhunis in the Pali version. These rules structure important aspects of monastic life, such as celibacy, wearing robes, not using money, use of food, and so on. Such rules are strictly emphasized in the Forest Tradition, and monastics at Santi are expected to follow these rules. However, we do not follow some of the more culturally specific customs, such as the use of a cloth by monks on which to receive offerings made by a woman, as is practiced in Thailand.
Inside a hutThe disciplinary aspect of Vinaya, however, is only one aspect. The Vinaya also sets out organizational principles to guide how a Sangha community should be run. According to the Vinaya, a community should be entirely egalitarian, without hierarchy or command. All important decisions are made by the community as a whole, in consensus.
The community should appoint Sangha officials to take care of various tasks, such as monastery maintenance, storekeeping, accommodation, and so on. Within each department, the respective Sangha official has authority, but there is no overruling authority for the Sangha as a whole, except for the Vinaya itself.
The Vinaya does not mention an ‘abbot’, and there is no allowance for a power of command by seniors over juniors. The relationship to authority is based on respect, not obedience.
Traditional monastic forms have drifted away from this model, to such an extent that monastics often believe that hierarchy and obedience are essential aspects of Vinaya. This is the result of the historical development of the Sangha as a social institution that reflects the governance of the society in which it lives. However, the way the Buddha originally set up the Sangha is uniquely suited to our egalitarian, democratic culture, with governance based on principle, rather than personality.
3.2: Study of the Buddha’s words in the early scriptures
At Santi we believe that it is essential for new monastics and serious practitioners to have a thorough grounding in the essential teachings of the Buddha as laid down in scripture.
All students at Santi are expected to acquire a good knowledge of the Buddhist Suttas and Vinaya. In addition, we encourage those who are interested in Pali, Buddhist history and so on to pursue these further.
The study of scriptures is not based on secondary sources or modern compilations, but starts directly with the original text in its original languages. We use the Pali Nikāyas and Vinaya as primary, and refer to corresponding Āgama and Vinaya texts in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan whenever possible. In this way we try to approach as near we can to the original teachings, before Buddhism split into competing schools.
3.3: Meditation in seclusion
Like traditional forest monasteries, Santi is set in a large bush environment, perfect for meditation. Residents live in small huts scattered around the property, and gather in the main house only for teachings, meals, work, and so on. The monastery is planned, built, and managed with emphasis on devotion to meditation in seclusion.
Bhante Sujato specialised in loving-kindness (mettā) meditation which he learnt from one of his teachers, Ajahn Maha Chatchai. In addition, he taught other mediation methods found in the Suttas such as breath meditation (ānāpānasati). However, Santi has a non-dogmatic approach to meditation, and residents may practice whatever form of meditation they find useful.
The Buddha constantly exhorted his students: ‘Here are roots of trees, here are empty huts – practice jhana! Do not be negligent! Do not regret it later!’ In his time, meditation was primarily a solitary matter, not performed in meditation halls in large groups. This practice is continued in many of the Thai forest monasteries today, whereas other centres have developed a strong group practice. At Santi, we try to follow the earlier model, which gives each individual the freedom to set their own pace in meditation. For those who wish, however, there are optional group meditations in the hall or cave.
When leaving the urban life for the forest, there is more to it than simply quiet and seclusion. The forest is the place of the wilds, where the conditioning and expectations of culture fall away. Sitting alone, in the thick blackness of the night, with no-one around and only the beasts of the forest for company, is a challenging and exhilarating experience. At such times, the details of method or doctrine seem of little importance, and the essential thing is the sincerity with which one is able to face the truth.