Monks making their daily alms-round through the English village of West Sussex. Courtesy of the Chithurst Buddhist Monastery.
Monks making their daily alms-round through the English village of West Sussex. Courtesy of the Chithurst Buddhist Monastery.

Throughout its history Buddhism has regarded the establishment of a monastic sangha—of at least five bhikkus, or ordained monastics—as the indispensable condition for a country to qualify as a place where the dharma has taken root. Symbolically, such a community represents the living presence of the Buddha’s dispensation; in real terms, it shows a society sufficiently conscious of the value of the dharma to support a community of men and women dedicated to its practice. Chithurst Forest Monastery is the first such community to be run entirely by Western monks and nuns, with the wholehearted backing of an orthodox tradition.

At Wat Pah Cittiviveka or Chithurst Forest Monastery, dawn awakes with the faint cry of a rooster and, moments later, cobalt-blue light smoldering in the panes of the Victorian bay window, sharpening the golden gleam of the Buddha’s forehead. Floorboards creak, radiators strain and clunk, as nine shaven-headed monks sit immobile, cross-legged, wrapped in creased ocher robes. Lone birds stammer out their first notes. The cooing of wood pigeons entreats them back to sleep. A cluster of leaves presses against a corner pane. The kitchen clatter of ill-fitting lids on aluminum pots signals the preparation of gruel.

Chithurst is a converted nineteenth-century manor house situated amidst the pastoral affluence of West Sussex, England. These monks were born in America, Britain, Switzerland, and Latvia, but their spiritual roots go back to Magadha, the prosperous kingdom of northern India where the Buddha attained awakening and taught for most of his life. Their presence in Europe can be traced, via a meandering two-thousand-year trail through Ceylon and Thailand, to the missions of Ashoka, the Buddhist emperor of the third century B.C.E. who unified India and established Buddhism as the dominant religion of the subcontinent.

The Arhat Mahinda, son of Ashoka, introduced Buddhism to Ceylon around 250 B.C.E. One of his first tasks was to construct a sima—the formal boundary for monastic ordination—with the king himself driving a plough along the lines drawn out by the monks. Then he ordained the first Ceylonese bhikkus (monks), declaring that Buddhism could not be said to have taken root in the land until native Ceylonese had ordained and could recite the monastic rule (Vinaya). Shortly afterward, his sister Sanghamitta arrived in the island to institute the order of bhikkunis (nuns).

Of the two strands into which Buddhism was dividing at the time of Ashoka, Mahinda and Sanghamitta represented the tradition of the Elders (Sthavira) rather than that of the Majority (Mahasamghika). During Ashoka’s reign the first major rupture occurred in the Buddhist community; Ashoka convened a council at his capital, Pataliputra (modern Patna), to settle it. While outwardly the dispute between the Elders and the Majority concerned doctrinal differences, inwardly it concerned a more fundamental divergence over the nature of authority and the ordering of spiritual priorities. The Majority demanded a greater say in the running of the community for the ordinary, imperfect monks—even, it seems, for the laity. For the Elders, such democratic tendencies were felt to threaten the very authority they believed to have been invested in them by the Buddha. Ashoka’s council was unable to resolve this dispute, and the two sides went their own ways—ultimately resulting in the confusing division into the so-called “Hinayana” and “Mahayana” traditions of Buddhism that persists to this day. Over the centuries the Elders developed into numerous branches, the most resilient of which proved to be the Theravada, now the established school of Sri Lanka and much of Southeast Asia.

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