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Ordained at age twelve in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the Venerable Henepola Gunaratana trained as a novice for eight years and as a bhikkhu (monk) for seven years before leaving Sri Lanka in 1954 to work with untouchables in India. In 1968 he came to the United States and became the Honorary General Secretary of the Buddhist Vihara Society, an urban monastery in Washington, D.C., while earning a Ph.D in Philosophy from the American University, where he later served as the Buddhist chaplain. He has been teaching Buddhism and conducting meditation retreats in Southeast Asia, North America, Europe, Mexico, and Australia for over forty years. His books include Mindfulness in Plain English from Wisdom Publications (see article here). In 1988, Bhante Gunaratana became President of the Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia, a center to promote meditation and the monastic life. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Helen Tworkov at the Bhavana Society last November. Bhante is a Pali word equivalent to Reverend in English.

Tricycle: When colleagues from Sri Lanka visit your community here in West Virginia, what do they find most surprising?

Bhante Gunaratana: That we allow monks and nuns to work together. They may not approve of that.

Tricycle: Nowadays, in the West, many people find that hierarchical distinction between the monastics and the laity outdated, old-fashioned; something that developed in Asia but that has no place in the West.

Bhante Gunaratana: The monastic path is better, not in a political sense or as a power structure, but better for spiritual growth. Monasticism nourishes, supports a frame of mind for practice. You cannot have a cake and eat it at the same time. If you want to live in a non-monastic community, it cannot be called monastic, and you cannot expect to do the practice in the best way. Life today has so many commitments, and people get into very difficult situations, emotionally and otherwise. Everyone has so many things to do. You have to have a space to grow, to improve your spiritual practice. That is why the Buddha said, “Have few duties.” When you have few duties, you have time to practice, you are not all the time tense, uptight, rigid and nervous, worrying and destroying your health.

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