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Ven. Dr. Henepola Gunaratana Mahathera

Chief Sangha Nayaka of The United States of America,
President of Bhavana Society.

This paper was given at the International Monastic Seminar in Toronto on September 29, 1998.


The subject of my presentation focuses upon my own experience in developing two Buddhist centers in the United States. I will talk about what I think brings success in developing a Buddhist center, in general, then I will touch upon some ideas I have about success in the United States.


Following Your Intuition

Intuition is the key to establishing any organization, particularly Buddhist organizations. If you work for profit, you can make a plan based on the expected profit. With non-profit organizations, especially Buddhist organizations, you work to make others spiritually happy and peaceful, not for material or financial gain. It is your intuition that lets you know how to bring peace and harmony to people, and which guides you as you make plans and decisions for your organization.

You need some basis of inner support, in order to meet and overcome the obstacles you will face. From relying upon your intuition, you have a vision of what you want to accomplish. Your faith in your intuition gives you inner power to support your work. With that inner power, you will not budge for anything before your project reaches the state where it takes off the ground. Other people sense the power of that vision, and they come to support you, and to support your work.

You have an inner voice of confidence. It says, "Ah! This is what I want to do, and I think that I can. If I do this, this and this -- then I can!" Trust in your own ability, your own experience, based on your success in the past from using your intuition or inner voice. Build up more and more faith and confidence in your intuition.

Thirty years ago I came to America, and for the first twenty years here I helped to develop a city temple in Washington, DC, the Washington Buddhist Vihara. The Washington Vihara started in the mid-1960’s after a monk, Bope Vinita, came to Harvard from Sri Lanka to study comparative religion, and discovered an interest in Theravada Buddhism among the American people. A Sri Lankan organization sponsored him to return to Washington with a mandate to start a Buddhist society. At that time there was not one Theravada Buddhist organization in the United States. He lived in rented apartment while looking for a house. Being a popular monk he made friends with many people, and formed a society which he registered as "Washington Buddhist Vihara Society." The Thai embassy helped him to locate a building, on 16th Street NW. The Sri Lankan government and the Sri Lankan organization which sent him to the United States donated one half the cost of the building; Venerable Vinita arranged to borrow the other half from a bank. He left Washington, and I stepped into his shoes; we bought the building three months later. That is how the vision of an individual began that temple. At the time that I stepped into the role of abbot, there were ten members of the Washington Buddhist Vihara; by the end of the second decade, there were 2,000 members.

Sixteen years ago I began the work of founding the Bhavana Society, a monastery and retreat center in the forest in West Virginia. Since the time I had arrived in the United States, I had done a lot of traveling, giving Dhamma talks, and always I received many questions about how to practice meditation. So I began to dream of building a meditation center, to teach meditation. One student of mine received the idea with enthusiasm, and offered to help.

When he and I started Bhavana, confidence in my intuition was all we had. We had no money, no place, and we did not know who would support us. Yet we kept thinking and thinking, making plans guided by intuition. Whenever we came across the slightest opportunity, we would put our thoughts forward. We would ask questions. We would ask people, "Can you support us?" We were gathering information.

My friend and I formed the Bhavana Society in 1982; a lawyer told us we needed at least four people to create a society, therefore we added two people; then there were four of us, and a vision, and no money. But we went looking for some land. We found a large parcel for over a million dollars, negotiated the price down to below a million, and went out fund-raising. In three weeks we ended up traveling 5,000 miles, raising $5,000, and spending $5,000, exactly. We lost the option of buying that land.

We continued to try to raise money, and managed to raise $18,000. We went looking again for some land. We planned to meet with a realtor at a certain restaurant in a rural area two hours outside of Washington, DC. We looked for the man at the restaurant, but he never showed up. Another customer asked us why we were looking for that man, and we told him. He offered to show us a 13-acre piece of land for sale. It was beautiful, and my co-founder and I decided to buy it if the price was right. How much? He asked for $18,000, exactly. We bought it two days later.

As we followed our vision, many things like this happened. Right when we needed a carpenter with a certain kind of expertise, such a person would show up. That sort of thing. At one point, when we were raising funds in hopes of building more housing for our center, a neighbor offered to sell to us her house adjacent to our property -- and again, the asking price was exactly the amount of money that we had raised.

Trust in the Dhamma

I always go back to the Buddha’s words, and trust in that. He said,

Dhammo have rakkhati dhammacari
chattam mahantam yathavassakale.
Esanisanso dhamme sucinne
na duggatim gacchati dhammacari.

That is, when you want to protect the Dhamma, the Dhamma protects you. Like when you protect an umbrella, it protects you from sun and rain. When you protect the Dhamma it protects you from going into a woeful state of affairs.

The one taking initiative in starting a religious organization should not put his or her own personal interest before the interest of the organization. Do not think about how much you will get out of it, how many people will recognize you, and so forth. If you think of your own interest, that is a factor which weakens the organization. If you sacrifice personal interest that is a very powerful factor that people recognize. People recognize selfless work.

From the beginning, in my work with Bhavana, my intentions have been pure. In setting up Bhavana I had no idea of making money, gaining fame, getting disciples. All I had in mind was to set up a place for people to experience peace, to relax, to meditate -- to make an exemplary community. I wanted to see monks and nuns everywhere, under every tree, as many trees as in the forest.

As long as we have pure intention, not personal selfish motives, we can trust how things will work out. So many unexpected things have happened. So many things that are very surprising, and who would have guessed that this or that good thing could come about?

For example, at a Board meeting some months ago, one Board member kept making suggestions for ways to raise funds. He wanted to form a committee to raise funds to buy land, and wanted to send out letters to urge people to remember us in their bequests, and so forth. I said no to all of these things, because I do not want people to talk of us as a fund-raising organization. Someone suggested a celebration instead, and one member of the Board came up with a marvelous idea for a Tenth Year Anniversary celebration, to include a special retreat and opportunity for members to take lifelong refuge and vows of basic moral conduct (the Eight Life-Time Precepts.) So we did that. It brought attention to us; it showed our members that we are awake, we are doing things, and gave everyone an opportunity to reflect upon our considerable accomplishments from having started with nothing, and also for them to grow in the Dhamma. It was greatly successful in every way, for many of the participants have written me that the event served as a turning point in their life. This all came about indirectly from our maintaining the integrity of refusing to change our focus from the Dhamma just to make money.

Some times people may try to abuse our organizational principles, to take advantage of us for their personal interest. They get very disappointed in us when we refuse. Buddhist organizations should never get involved in that sort of thing. Following the basic precepts of not speaking falsely and so forth gives great protection in these sorts of situations.

We feel successful and protected because we are working for the Dhamma. If people here get into a quarrel, I ask them, Why? You do not quarrel for property, nor for positions, nor for profit. There is none of that for anyone here. So they have to see that it is just a useless, foolish fight just for their egos and they have to get rid of that. Our sole purpose is to practice, teach, and learn Dhamma. The Buddha said,

Na tavata dhammadharo - yavata bahu bhasati
Yo ca appam pi sutavana - dhammam kayena passati,
Sa ve dhammadharo hoti - yo dhammam nappamajjati.

his means, "A man is not a Dhamma scholar because he is talkative. But, he who lets Dhamma express itself through his behavior, even if he knows only a little Dhamma, is, in fact, a good Dhamma scholar."

People see Dhamma in the behavior of the people here. People come and see residents are living in this way -- they can see that the Dhamma is doing something in peoples’ lives. This is part of how the visitors learn: they learn from books, from listening to the teachings, from discussions, and, from our example.

Overcoming Criticism and Other Obstacles

The creation of a Buddhist organization requires an individual’s vision, energy, perseverance and determination, and his or her diplomacy in connecting people. It also takes patience to tolerate all kinds of problems.


When you first try to organize, perhaps starting with nothing but your vision, you will be criticized, because people do not know your mind and do not yet believe in you. You have to make a few people believe in you and your project. If, for example, you contact fifty people, forty-five will reject the project with suspicion, and five will believe -- so your initial task is to convince those five. Those five must convince more out of the forty-five that you are not a crook and that they have seen how you work, and so forth. Then maybe ten people will believe. Later you will have fifteen or sixteen out of the fifty people. It may take several years before you have another twenty people.

As your project develops, there are some supporters who contribute substantially. They give their work, their money, ideas, cooperation, and sympathy.

Unfortunately, there are others sitting doing nothing for your project, who negatively criticize, and try to discourage people. Of those negative people, there are one or two who do all they can to destroy the effort. They use their time, effort and money to destroy the project. That is their enjoyment.

There may be other obstacles such as competition from other organizations, but this may not be so bad. The worst problems may be the negative individuals. They may be completely ignorant of your character and the means and goals of the project, but out of fear and jealousy they want to destroy it. Out of 50 people you will find two or three people like this. They are very detrimental. It takes only one person to drop a bomb, and they can destroy everything. They have powerful destructive force: character assassination and mud slinging, all without one iota of truth, all based on irrational suspicion.

It happens with all organizations. Even at the very start of your effort, some peoples’ suspicions may begin. You find yourself in a very difficult position. If you try to correct everyone’s wrong ideas, you blow up the problem, and cause more people to question your intentions. If you just ignore them, they get more and more frustrated, disappointed at the lack of reaction, and they become worse. As you go ahead regardless of them, they become more jealous and angry. As you begin to show success, they feel guilty, and get upset because they lose face.

There is no solution to the problem of these kind of people. You can just consider them to be part of your project, for they are inevitable. You cannot prevent or escape them. It is said that every job takes four people: one to do the work, one to support, one to remain silent, and the other to criticize. So when you do the work and someone criticizes you, you can feel good, because now you know the job is complete. You have done your job, and the criticizer has done his job.

Those who take the initiative should have a vision or idea of "This is what I’m going to do," without getting disheartened by others. Just work, slowly, and gently. I have seen a log splitting machine at work. Each log goes into the machine slowly and steadily. The machine stops for nothing. Its pointed tip reaches the front end of the log, and with consistent and steady force it slowly pushes its way through, not budging for anything. It goes until -- with a great cracking noise -- it splits the log. That is the kind of charisma the leader should have: consistent, steady, and not budging for anything.

Thus, when you hear that "so and so" is upset and angry, do not get angry too! Welcome him. If he asks about the project, tell him the general information. However, do not irritate him by saying more than is necessary about your successes.

Do not hold anything against the people who try to stop your good work. They will eventually lose interest. Some day they may become your supporters. Because you do not insult them and do not close the door on them, you may even have the chance to offer them great help in the future.

Nothing is always smooth and rosy. To start anything good, there is rugged, dry ground to break.

The Need for Discipline

Religious organizations have to have discipline. They must at least have Five Precepts, for people to build upon. With a moral foundation of the Five Precepts, keeping and enforcing them, problems of various kinds can be avoided -- such as drunkenness or illegal activities within your organization. You avoid embarrassment and people losing faith in the organization.

In our organization we keep more than the Five Precepts. Monastics at Bhavana Society maintain monastic discipline, the rules of the Vinaya given by the Buddha.. Lay residents and visitors keep Eight Precepts, which are the basic Five Precepts with rules added such as not to engage in any sexual behavior, not to take food after noon, and not to indulge in certain entertainments (including watching shows and dancing.) This gives a solid foundation for our practice and our purpose, and helps to avoid even more problems than the Five Precepts help to avoid.

Because of the protection of the precepts, we do not get side-tracked by things which do not fit in with our purposes. For example, we do not get caught up in entertainment. We do not feel tempted to have a dance at the temple. Many times people try to donate a television to us. I see the advantages to having a television; we could watch spiritual movies, and see videos of our own events. But that is just the beginning. Soon we would be watching nature videos. Then the next level: a very beautiful movie, perhaps on the culture of another country. The standard would keep getting lowered. Maybe eventually we would have movies of a sort which would stun a visitor. Once you start, there is no control.

No matter how pure the behavior of the group, misinformation and rumors can arise and spread very easily. A member of our Board of Directors, while visiting an Asian country, attended a meeting with other Buddhists from America. Various retreat centers were discussed, but he did not mention his association with Bhavana Society. When the name of Bhavana Society came up, a woman exclaimed, "Oh, that is the place where they had that Japanese tea ceremony." She heard somewhere that this event had happened. Our member told her that he had been with Bhavana since its very beginning, and had never seen such a ceremony at Bhavana. Even where there is no basis for a story, it may spread. With even the slightest thing, people can blow it up. Thus it is important not to start any behavior that strays outside of your goals or outside of the precepts, so that there is nothing that leads to damaging talk.

People have suggested that we allow people to stay here keeping only Five Precepts. That way, couples could stay here together, and we could have families with their children as part of our community. However, I know of a place which allowed this, and had couples as part of their community. One wife had an affair with another man, and the husband told the leader that he wanted to murder the man. The abbot said, "There is no ‘killer’ and no ‘killed’, so do what you want to do." So the husband killed the man, and buried him on the property. The leader was arrested, fined, and sent to prison; later he was released on the provision that he not live at the community’s property. I visited the center while the leader was staying nearby, outside of the property.

When you allow people to live together, and allow sex, you always have to expect jealousy and thousands of problems. At Bhavana, families can come for a visit, but the man and the woman cannot stay in the same room. Couples have come here for their honeymoons -- and stayed in separate cottages.

If people who come here do not want to discipline themselves in accordance with the precepts, and we insist upon it, perhaps they will not come. That is okay. Then we will simply have a smaller number of people. It would just mean that we cut down on extra activities. We do not have to relax our discipline to attract more people. If only monks and nuns stay here, we will continue our meditation practice, and follow discipline. We can convert from retreat center to monastery at any time. Of course, people always come. People have a tremendous respect for discipline.

People expect discipline from their leaders. Look at what happened with President Clinton. As President he could have thousands of women, but he is expected to have discipline and not sleep with anyone he chooses. The whole nation expected it. Even though they themselves cannot keep discipline, there is real respect for it. We want to respect that respect. Even thieves, and those who break all the rules, respect discipline in others. When they are emotional or disturbed, they may say they do not care, but when they return to normal they do care.

Religious organizations especially must keep discipline. People look up to religious organizations, and expect higher standards from them. There have been a lot of problems with meditation centers in the United States, abuse of power by teachers who make students their victims. The students may temporarily enjoy the pleasure, and may even think it is a special blessing, but when they come back to their normal senses, they loathe it. They think, "How can he be a religious person, a leader, if he did such & such to me? . . . and what else does he do?" Also, jealousy and other suffering happen within the community. The religious organization should not have lower standards, but should be a beacon. Thus, you can see how establishing a basis for discipline plays an important role in the success of the organization.



Why a Buddhist Organization in the US Can Thrive

Religious Freedom

America truly is a melting pot. Many early settlers came to this country to seek religious freedom. The forefathers of this country had great foresight to establish religious freedom in the Constitution. Anything can be successful in this country because of the unlimited freedom provided by the Constitution.

Although about 80 % of Americans are Christian, and there are many fundamentalists and fanatics, there is great tolerance for other religions. I do not know of any other country in which there are so many fanatics among the majority religion, yet in which the law provides so much protection for diverse religions. Even if someone wants to start the one thing most horrifying to Christians, a devil-worshipping church, it can be done. The American Constitution is so generous, it allows anything.

For example, when a certain religious leader in another country drew world-wide attention by his acts of opposition to the United States, and had American flags publicly burned and so forth, Americans felt outraged, and patriotic feelings were strong. During that tense time, some students of that country in America -- who were enjoying the benefits of living in America and receiving an education here -- demonstrated against the United States. A proposal went before Congress to have the students deported. Congress decided that the students have the right to express their opinion, and that it would be un-American to deport them. The Representatives said, "We don't want to bite the dog that bites us." So, they did nothing. We don't know what could have happened to the students in any other country.

America has such noble principles. Thus any religious organization can thrive here, provided that it abides by the legal code and tax regulations, and also so long as there is not a language barrier preventing communication.


The American people are very curious. They can afford to spend the money and time to investigate, to satisfy their curiosity. When something new comes here they want to know: What is this? The country is new relative to other countries in the world. It is like a teenager. The people have a lot of energy. Buddhism is new to America, and interest in Buddhism is strong. Many, many people are reading books and going to meditation centers for the first time, to find out what Buddhism is about.

Special Challenges When Organizing in the United States

Problems with the Neighbors

Although the Constitution gives noble principles, not all individuals uphold these principles. In starting a Buddhist organization in America, which is mostly Christian, one must be very tactful. Stick to the fundamental Buddhist principle of peacefulness. If you cause fights and quarrels to arise, peace will go into "pieces"! If the non-Buddhists feel that we are a threat to them, they get upset. Buddhism is not viewed as a theistic religion, thus theist religious people may oppose our presence. Also, some fear that a Buddhist organization may be some kind of cult. Buddhism still is not viewed as mainstream, though it is slowly entering the mainstream. Some people fear and suspect anything they do not understand; anything new is a threat.

Some Buddhist temples have burned down. I recall one that burned in Boston about ten or twelve years ago. It was a beautiful Japanese temple set on a hill, which the people had poured millions of dollars into building. It burned down the day after its opening ceremony.

It is important to contact the neighbors in a friendly way, to make them understand what you are doing, before you build anything. Instead of setting up the organization all of a sudden, you must be tactful, mindful and peaceful. A friend of mine and co-founder of Bhavana Society has begun to set up a forest monastery in Virginia, in a rural and very religious area. After selecting the land, before he even bought it, he held public hearings about his plans to build a monastery on that site. The neighbors came, and they voiced some objections at first. My friend worked things out with the neighbors, and slowly they all agreed to accept the project.

Despite America’s generosity and freedoms, people are still people, and have their weaknesses. At most centers I know, the closest neighbor remains very upset. One time when a non-Christian religious group bought five acres to set up a community, the nearest neighbor felt so strongly about it that he set up a butcher shop just to upset them (the group was strictly vegetarian.) The group did not react. Over time, they slowly bought up the surrounding properties and settled their followers onto them. When they held the surrounding 1000 acres, the man had to shut down the butcher shop because no buyers of meat lived close enough. He sold his land to the community. That was a very peaceful way of doing things. The group now holds 7000 acres in that area.

I know of a center in Florida that has a neighbor who starts a chainsaw or his lawnmower to disturb the meditators whenever there is a retreat. At a Vietnamese temple in Washington, DC, the neighbor asked them to remove their sign. They asked him whether he would object to the sign if it were a Christian group, and he said that he would not object it if they were Christian.

Bhavana Society’s experience has been typical. Our neighbors were unsure at first, but when people came to understand what this place is, they became friendly. Yet, like other centers, our immediate neighbor remains unfriendly. When we first held a retreat on the land, before the buildings were built, our unhappy neighbor came out and sang Christian devotional songs. She was disappointed that we enjoyed her beautiful voice. For our next retreat, the family beat on drums over a loudspeaker. We said nothing but the other neighbors complained to the Sheriff, and they had to stop. When the unhappy neighbor lady tried to start a petition against us, a friendly neighbor called all the other neighbors and asked them not to sign it, and they did not.

The family next door has done many things but we have remained peaceful. Sometimes they played rock music over loudspeakers on celebration days, when we had many visitors. The neighbor man used to shout "Stop ringing that bloody durn gong!" when we would ring the gong at 5:00 AM. He eventually stopped shouting. On a few occasions the neighbor shot a gun aimed over the head of one of our monks. Over time, they calmed down, and the incidents became fewer. A few months ago the neighbor’s son, who is now in college, dropped by and apologized that he used to oppose us. (He used to spread rumors among the children that we were eating human flesh.) We used to tell our visitors not to walk on the lane between our properties, to avoid stirring up the neighbors. Recently we bought a house and property adjacent to the back of our land and also partly adjacent to our unhappy neighbor. As one of our visitors walked to the new house last week the lady shouted at her that we should go away.

The Constitution shows America’s official open-mindedness, and I think that the law is executed without discrimination. However, individuals have their weaknesses, and we have to watch out for that.

The Legal System

To become successful in the U S, you must abide by the legal code. There are federal rules, state rules, and local rules. The state and local rules differ, depending upon where you are setting up your organization. You must take the time to learn all these rules.

You need a lawyer at the very beginning to help you through the process. In forming the organization you must follow a certain paperwork process, step by step. Do not try to evade the legal procedure. You must draw up your by-laws and so forth. You must register your organization with the state, and you must renew the registration every year. Some states also require annual financial report. There are many things like this that you need to know.

There is a federal tax exemption for charitable organizations as part of U S policy -- you have to look at the various ways to get the tax exemption. For example, if you are completely a religious organization, you get one tax exemption, if educational you get another; if you are a non-profit you get a different exemption, and if a religious non-profit you get yet another. At Bhavana Society we chose to incorporate as a "non-profit" organization, but we continue to debate whether to change to a "religious" classification. All of these ways of categorizing your organization give different benefits, and may give some unexpected impact in the future, so it is important to get good legal advice.

You must file federal Income Tax forms with the IRS every year -- and if you fail to send in all of the proper forms, years later you may be hit with tens of thousands of dollars of penalties (even though your group did not actually owe taxes for those years.) Recently at Bhavana Society we received notice from the IRS (federal tax department) that we had failed to send in certain required forms for several years. I immediately contacted a lawyer, and was prepared to pay him for whatever work it took to clear up the problem. I did not want to take any risks with the taxing authority; our records should be completely clear.

If you will serve food at your organization, you have to obey certain Health Department codes. You have to follow certain Building codes when putting up your buildings. You have to follow regulations in your sewer system and in treating your water if you are not in a city system. For example, even if your members do not want chlorine, you must put it into your water, because the government insists upon it.

When choosing land to buy for your organization, find out about the zoning. Zoning regulations forbid or allow certain kinds of buildings (industrial, housing, retail business, and so forth) in certain areas. You can petition to get a zoning ordinance changed to allow you to build your center. Do not take the risk of carelessly building in violation of the zoning ordinance.

Some states have more strict rules than others. Also, some states are more strict in enforcing the rules that they have. Hence, you must know what kind of state you are in. For example, in Massachusetts the building codes are so strict that some meditation centers are still trying to build kutis (cottages), and they cannot. In West Virginia we can have "rustic" buildings -- buildings lacking plumbing and electricity -- hence we were able to build our small simple, fairly traditional kutis (cottages) for solitary meditators. I think that "rustic" facilities are also allowed in some other states. Another example is the state property tax: I found in Washington, DC that the temple could get an exemption for state property tax, but in West Virginia, a temple cannot. Also note that in certain states you can get state sales tax deductions on certain items (exactly which items may depend upon how your group is classified in your federal tax paperwork; in West Virginia there are more deductions for a non-profit than for a religious group.)

Also, be aware that some cities have extremely strict rules, especially when it comes to putting up buildings.

The Complex Society

Everything is more difficult at the beginning than it is, say, ten years later. At first you must contact the correct people at the correct time, accepting and making use of their kindness and generosity to start things, and getting used to the new system. Through trial and error we learn to find easy ways of doing things.

It is especially confusing at first in a competitive society, for there are so many choices on how to do things. For example, choosing a telephone long distance service company. One company approaches you and offers certain terms, rates and services, and you accept that company. Then another company approaches you and offers some kind of custom service and useful options. Perhaps its services seem more convenient than the other company. So, you have to choose. Perhaps you decide to change to the second company. Then the first company does something to try to get you back as a customer, such as offering better rates. There are endless administrative decisions such as these to make, to try to save money and make things convenient. Also, you need make sure that sales people do not take advantage of your lack of knowledge and charge you far more than they would another customer.

When coming to a new country and trying to start your organization, you do not know much about these things. You have to contact someone who is knowledgeable of these things. Get advice; find out how other organizations do things.

In your initial search, gathering information, you must learn the right questions to ask, to get the right answers. For example, you need to know about insurance: auto insurance, health insurance, buildings insurance (against fire and other damage), premises liability (in case someone falls down and sues you), and coverage for the Board of Directors. Then you have to contact the insurance companies, and maybe later change the company if the policies are not good. At Bhavana, ten years after opening, we are still readjusting these things.

Less Support in America

In Asian Buddhist countries the lay people take care of much of the work in the temples. Lay people are always there to offer support. They bring food, cook, offer goods, pay the bills, sponsor buildings, make repairs, and so forth. In the temple in which I lived for years in Malaysia, lay people did work all day long. Whenever a monk wanted to go somewhere, a lay person drove him, or the monk would use a taxi which was paid monthly by the temple’s supporting organization. It was very easy and convenient.

This kind of physical support is hard to find in America. Americans offer support in the form of money. I was not completely surprised by this, for I saw money offered in temples in other countries before I came to America, and I know this is the trend around the world. However, I see four strong reasons for this to happen in America. The first reason is Americans’ lack of time. Although they may be able to take nice, long vacations, on a day-to-day basis they are rushed just trying to survive. They spend more time driving on the road and working in the office than they spend at home; volunteering their time at the temple usually means sacrificing time at home with their families.

The second reason is the lack of a Buddhist tradition in America. Unless the temple is located in the heart of an ethnic Buddhist community, it will not serve as the local community center the way it may in countries with a long Buddhist tradition. There is no such thing as a Buddhist temple serving an American village. Almost everywhere in America, most local people are Christian. Supporters of the Buddhist organization are spread out over great distances. Most of the supporters must travel a long way to come to the temple. At Bhavana, many of our supporters come from out of the state, even hundreds of miles, to visit Bhavana. Many of my students keep in touch with me as a teacher, by E-mail, fax, letter, or telephone, and by seeing me when I visit their cities. Dropping in regularly to help with the upkeep of the temple is impossible for many of the devout Buddhists.

The third reason comes from a cultural difference between American people and Asian people. Americans prefer to plan everything in advance, including who will be responsible for certain chores. They have difficulty adapting to the flexible approach taken in a traditional temple, where people will come and see a job needing to be done, and take care of it. The American needs to be invited to do the task, because the American is afraid of annoying someone who had a particular plan for doing that task. However, monks are supposed to discipline themselves not to ask for things on their own behalf, and there is the problem. The American will not work without being asked, and the monk will not ask.

The fourth reason is that Americans have enough money to offer money to the temple. Hence, they offer money. In some ways this turns the tradition on its head. Traditionally, lay people come to the temples to support the meditative life of the monks and nuns. Here, the monks and nuns use lay peoples’ donated money for purchasing groceries and other necessities, but they themselves do the work of the temple. Then --when they have time -- the lay people come and enjoy meditation practice at the temple -- supported by the work of the monks and nuns.

To start the Washington Vihara, we monks had to do things by ourselves. After we bought the building, it had to be repaired. It was run down, with bad plumbing, broken window, broken walls, broken roof, everything broken. We asked for building materials -- nobody brought them. We asked people to help -- nobody came to help. We had to buy things. We had to clean, cook, get groceries, and do office work. I had to walk nearly an hour to get to the lumber store, and then I had to carry the wood back on my shoulder. We had to mow the lawn, or the neighbors would complain. We had to collect money for the mortgage. We did not have enough money to hire people; we had to do all by ourselves.

We monks were not trained in administrative work, secretarial work, carpentry, cooking, and such things. We had to do what we could, learning by trial and error. Volunteers did not come.

In setting up Bhavana Society, the situation was the same: most of the work, including designing and setting up the buildings, has been done by the monks. However, in recent years we have been able to hire men to do a few building projects. In the last several years much of the housekeeping work has been done by lay residents who planned to ordain.

You may wonder how the Theravada monks can do all these things, because we believe in strictly following the Vinaya. We did these things only to get the temple started, and the rules we broke were only the rules that do not hurt anybody, such as not handling money and not to drive a car. Actually, there was never any rule against driving a car, of course; the Buddha told the monks not to ride animals or be pulled in a cart by animals, out of compassion, because they are living beings. With the modern car, you are the only animal.

Some of the rules are just tools of etiquette. So among these minor rules, it may be acceptable. These must not be rules which concern our main principles of non-harm, non-greed, and non-hatred. For example, in Buddhist countries, in the public eye it seems inappropriate for a monk to drive a car. In Western society, it does not seem inappropriate to people. They would criticize if we used an expensive car, or if we used it just for pleasure. If we use a car just to get important things done, and provided we use it without clinging or craving for it, there is no problem. I personally approve of these kinds of adaptations.


In Asian Buddhist countries, the same people will support a temple for many years. A person will stay with one organization or one temple unless something drastic happens. In America, people do not stay involved with the temple for a long period of time. They either move away, or they lose interest. American peoples’ interest dwindles after about two years. They may be very deeply involved, but after about two years they slowly withdraw.

I have noticed that in the last thirty or so years Americans have become "spiritual shoppers". They like to shop around for a spiritual taste. They are like tea tasters, specialists who taste tea at the factory. The tea taster does not smoke or drink and so forth, and he tastes tiny amounts of tea all day, comparing the flavors. Americans are like that. They keep tasting spiritual experiences.

Americans always look for new things: new ground, new people, new food, new fashion, new cars, new friends. It is like the American dynamic, disposable economy. This also happens among the schools of Buddhism; there are lots of Buddhist organizations. People go to one organization which is perhaps more traditional, then to another which is more ritualistic, and so forth.

Temples traditionally do not keep mailing lists, membership lists, donation lists -- these things are typical of the West. In Asian countries people do not think about whether they are a "member" of the temple. They just happen to go there, and keep going, and feel that this is the temple to which they belong. If you ask a visitor whether he is a "member" of the temple, he will be offended. The temple is open to everyone; if you can bring food or money to offer, you take it there, or if you decide to participate in some way, you do so. You do not give dues, or receive membership cards, and you do not receive "reminders" to donate money.

Because the supporters constantly change, Buddhist organizations in America have to adapt to doing things in a Western way. When new people come, the Buddhist organization will put them onto the mailing list, and send them a newsletter, and will encourage them to send in money to become a "member" (or "supporter" or "patron" depending on the amount of money). Once a member, most organizations will send them the reminders to "keep up their dues." Also, the mailing list must be continually updated. Every time we send out our newsletter, we receive a dozen of them back as undeliverable because people have moved -- and the Postal Service charges us a fee for the inconvenience.

An American Monastic Retreat Center

Because Buddhism is so new to America, American Buddhist organizations are primarily: temples established by Buddhist immigrants to serve as ethnic cultural centers, and meditation centers that dispense with traditional customs.

The temples usually are run solely by ethnic groups to meet their cultural needs. They conduct religious services and give Dhamma talks in their own native languages, and even answer the telephone in their native language. Everything revolves around their traditional customs, in their rituals and chanting, food, manners and behavior patterns. These temples will import monks from their home countries, and do not have much interest in ordaining local people.

Developing a Buddhist organization in a multicultural society is more difficult than it is in my home country. The community starting a temple may wish to have an ethnic community center, and feel disappointed or threatened when other groups of people change the atmosphere of the temple. These tensions call for great diplomacy.

Because of requirements of the legal system, the Board of Directors of a charitable organization has a lot of control over that organization. Thus struggles for power in the organization may take place among groups trying to get their preferred people onto the Board of Directors. I have seen the ethnic composition of temples’ Boards of Directors change to reflect the group that has the most influence in the temple. One temple’s Board of Directors at one time was composed of one-third Americans, one-third Burmese, and one-third Sri Lankans; in recent years it has been completely of one ethnic group.

Most American meditation centers are run by either local American Buddhist organizations or immigrants. They conduct their meditation retreats in English or their native languages and the participants come from all races and countries.

There are very few Buddhist monastic organizations, which are established in order to help people interested in getting ordained as monks and nuns and live monastic lives. Since coming to this country three decades ago, I have been fortunate in getting involved in two such organizations. One, the Washington Vihara, was a city temple; the other, Bhavana Society, is a very unusual combination of both monastery and retreat center.

At Bhavana Society, we maintain monastic discipline and ordain and train Westerners as monks and nuns. We also hold formal retreats open to the public. In creating the Bhavana Society, I made it very clear from the start that this would not be any ethnic community center or cultural center. Much of the cultural trappings cannot be found here. I wanted it to be a place that people of all traditions and countries feel comfortable coming to visit.

I am the only Sinhalese monk in residence. Our eight monks and two nuns come from seven different countries; three of us are Asian people and seven of us are Westerners. Still, all the residents here must be very careful, very sensitive, because visitors are sometimes very quick to feel that they are being discriminated against.

The cooperation of the various communities offers great strength to Bhavana Society. The majority of daily visitors and retreatants are Americans. Because of the presence of monks and nuns, although we do not engage much in Asian cultural trappings, we attract visitors who grew up in Theravada Buddhist countries, who come for the traditional observances and rituals of their home countries.

In some ways a retreat center is easier than a temple. Temples serve the role of a community center. Many Asian visitors to temples in America will visit the temple in order to connect with people and symbols of their homeland; thus the temples also serve as a cultural center.

A retreat center can have more structure than a temple. The people who come are mostly serious meditators, who like to discipline themselves to meditate and keep silence. They follow whatever structure you give them for the day: when to meditate, when to eat, when to practice yoga, when to work, and so forth. They do not try to express their opinions about things. In a ritualistic temple, there is not much of a schedule. With no organized activities, and without any attempt at keeping silence, it becomes very noisy, like a congested center of a city. Hundreds of people assemble and each talk. They have come for socializing -- to see friends and acquaintances, and to make new friends, so they keep talking. It is the very nature of a cultural center. The visitors are very emotionally charged, and boisterous. One staying there cannot even read quietly, much less meditate.

We have dispensed with much cultural trapping and most of our daily visitors and retreatants are American. However, because there are monks here, we do occasionally experience cultural flavor. People from Buddhist countries will come on full-moon days, or to offer lunch to dedicate the merit to someone who has died, and so forth. During silent retreats some visitors may show up who want to follow some particular custom from their home country. Occasionally during a silent retreat the dining hall is filled with completely silent American meditators who are eating slowly and mindfully, while in the adjoining hall several families of people from an Asian country sit boisterously chatting, with their children running around.

These visitors never make an appointment to go to the temple; such a thing is not done in their home country. They just pack up things to donate, and go. They assume monks and nuns will be there, and they want to see them, perhaps to get advice from them, or to give dana (donations). If no monks or nuns are present, they will wait a while, and return home, and try again later. When we ask people to call in advance to make sure we will be here, they say that they never did such a thing in their home country. They want to maintain that cultural source of comfort. They expect the temple to be completely open with volunteers coming and going, not with set office hours, times to sign up for appointments, rest periods and scheduled times of silence. Even if they are coming from 100 miles away, especially if they have a visitor from the home country, they will plan to come to visit Bhavana, and it will not even occur to them to call first.

It is not easy to stop that, and I do not want to stop that, because there is no way to do it! Because of their sense of devotion, the visitors want to cook by their own hands and serve to the monks by their own hands. The American lay residents working in the kitchen have to develop a flexible mind, because the unannounced visitors will take over the kitchen. The residents learn to develop appreciation and gratitude for the good intentions of our visitors.

I have heard it said many times that Americans do not offer money unless a specific amount is required of them; for example, it is said that they will not pay anything for a retreat unless there is an admission fee. That is not what I have seen. I am very happy to report that Buddhist centers in the U S can operate successfully on a completely dana (donation) basis. There are thriving centers which do not charge money for anything.

At Bhavana Society, we do not charge money for anything. I want to do things, myself, in the spirit of dana. I want to give without charging anything. People recognize this, so they also want to give. If you ask them to pay you, they will want you to pay them back. Then, at times when you cannot do anything for them, they will not want to do anything for you. They will see giving to you as being unproductive. That is the result of a materialistic, capitalistic system, a system in which old people are pushed aside as being unproductive. It is better to never mix the teaching of the Buddha’s message with these strong forces -- especially in America. Relying on dana, on peoples’ generosity, is so rare and special here, that it opens up peoples’ hearts and minds. It makes a very powerful statement in this country. People respond almost with awe that we would operate with such faith and devotion. They feel more trusting because we clearly are not trying to take something from them. Thus their minds become more receptive to the Dhamma.

Do all, give everything you have, free. Then, when you cannot do something, people will still want to give in return. They will remember ever after you are dead: "this is how he worked and this is how we want to work, to follow this principle." Dana is a way to express self-lessness. On this basis, I work.

I have heard some complaints about a temple, that when visitors first step inside they hear about money. They hear, "We have this project, and that project. . ." People feel embarrassed. At many, many places, on days when there is a special function, they will have tables out waiting for people to come. When the visitor gives some money at the table, it is announced loudly, "So-and-So donated such-and-such (amount of money)." Those who hear it feel embarrassed and feel they must give something to get their names announced. They think, "He gave five dollars, so I will give six dollars." This is manipulating peoples’ greed and ego. One time I saw a head monk take the mike and read the list of donors and the amount each had given, and then publicly question those present whose names had not made it to the list.

I find the American people to be generous. Even if they just stop in to look around, they will at least put a dollar into the donation box.

However, keep in mind the effects of the economy. If the economy is good, that is the time that people give the most donations. If people can hardly make ends meet, how can they make donations? Donations will be the last things of the list of their priorities. It is a phenomenon of the American economic system.

Source: Bhavana Society, USA, https://www.bhavanasociety.org/

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