What Sangha Does
Buddhist monastics have always been a mainstay of Buddhist communities. The monastic Sangha is revered in traditional Buddhist countries as one of the three ‘refuges’, along with the Buddha and his Teaching. The Sangha has endured through 2500 years of history, adapting and changing in time and place, but always keeping its relevance for the people. In Australia today, the Sangha serves a wide variety of roles, preserving the best of Buddhist traditions, while developing new ways to implement the Buddha’s message of peace, wisdom, and compassion.
|6. Counselling & Chaplaincy|
The classic image of a Buddhist monk or nun is a shaven headed, robed figure, wrapt in serene contemplation. This other-worldly ideal for many epitomizes the spiritual East in contrast to the materialistic Western culture that now dominates our globe.
The meditation culture for Buddhist monastics is healthy and flourishing in Australia. With its abundant wilderness, quiet landscapes, and peaceful, welcoming community, Australia is an ideal country for meditation.
Buddhist monastics have developed a number of dedicated meditation monasteries in Australia, such as Bodhinyana and Dhammasara in WA, or Bodhivana in Victoria. These forest monasteries house monastic community dedicated to meditation, and entirely supported through the traditional practice of generosity. Other meditation centers include retreat centers, where monastics enter into meditative solitude for periods ranging from a few days to a several years.
Since its introduction to the West, meditation has come under close scientific scrutiny. It is now widely recognized that, in addition to its spiritual significance, meditation has a wide range of benefits for psychological and even physical well being. Meditation courses are now found in schools, hospitals, prisons and elsewhere.
Through supporting Buddhist monastics in their meditation training, we are not only helping them to achieve their own spiritual purpose, but to support the development of teachers and community that can help make the benefits of meditation more widely available in the future.
Buddhist monastics have always been teachers. In traditional cultures, learning was focussed on the local temple, and it was through the Sangha that the rich and diverse heritage of Buddhist literature, philosophy, and art was passed down.
In temples and monasteries throughout Australia, Buddhist Sangha members are continuing this long tradition. Buddhist education for the community can be highly varied, from simple folk tales that stimulate development of moral values for children, all the way to the most subtle and abstruse philosophies. Teaching styles also vary, from the spontaneous and unpredictable to structured courses.
Buddhist teachings encourage a spirit of inquiry rather than dogmatism. The Buddha rejected an approach to knowledge that insisted ‘Only this is true, everything else is false’. This is expressed in one of the common phrases from the early scriptures. When faced with a question for which they did not know the answer, the monastics would ‘neither accept it nor reject it, but inquire as to the meaning’.
Every culture celebrates its significant moments, times of change or commemoration. Monastics are involved in most traditional Buddhist ceremonies, such as New Year, Vesak (the Buddha’s birthday), coming of age, weddings, and funerals. The temple provides the focus for the community to come together and celebrate their shared values and heritage.
Buddhist ceremonies are highly varied, but typically involve offering candles and incense to the Buddha, chanting of scriptures, meditation, food offerings, and sometimes a parade or performance.
These ceremonial forms have become adapted to each new culture as Buddhism has spread. This adaptation is contuining in Australia. For example, the Quang Minh Vietnamese temple in Melbourne has incorporated Aboriginal serpent motifs into traditional Vietnamese dragon dance, music, and art.
For over 40 000 years, Australia has been a diverse, multi-religious land. Buddhism, too, grew up in the ethnically and religiously diverse culture of India. Very many of the Buddhist scriptures are in fact records of the Buddha’s discussions with followers of other religions. The Buddhist scriptures show the diversity and strangeness of ancient Indian spirituality, and how the Buddha responded with wit and wisdom to every situation. These texts give an invaluable series of lessons in how to engage in interfaith dialogue.
The Buddhist community actively and positively participates in interfaith activities. The ASA and FABC are represented on the peak interfaith body, the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations. Buddhist monastics regularly engage in dialogue with members of other faiths, including Christian monastic traditions. At the local level, Buddhist monastics work and share with members of all faiths, both in day to day activities as well as in specifically religious contexts.
The emergence of Buddhism in modern Australia is virtually synonymous with multiculturalism. The arrival on Australian shores of large numbers of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees and immigrants from the late 1970s saw the first major Buddhist communities develop.
Since then, these communities, together with many others, such as Thai, Sri Lankan, Laotian, Burmese, Chinese, and other communities with large Buddhist components have become a vital part of the fabric of Australian society.
For all Buddhists, the monastic Sangha forms an essential part of who they are. Thus one of the first tasks that a new Buddhist community does is to establish its own temple with its own monastics. Here we remember our past, preserve the architecture, artwork, and culture that have defined a people. But equally important, the temple is a launching pad for the future, providing support and confidence for new arrivals, a reassurance that they do not have to leave behind the best of their old ways as they learn the new.
Buddhist communities are eager to join and participate in Australian culture. Many of our Buddhist immigrant communities have suffered at the hands of assorted wars and tyrants, and so are highly grateful for the opportunity to live, work, and practice their religion at peace here in Australia. Buddhist monastics provide spiritual leadership for the community, showing by example how to live at peace.
In Buddhist countries, the temple is the refuge for the troubled in mind. A visit to the temple provides a sense of peace and security which, simply by itself, is comforting and reassuring. But beyond that, Buddhist monastics offer guidance and counselling to all those who seek it.
Traditionally, this takes place through the lens of the Buddhist teachings, using parables, advice, and emotional support to help the distressed. Increasingly, however, Buddhist monastics are seeking more specialized training as psychotherapists and counsellors.
Buddhist monastics participated as both teachers and students at the AABCAP course on Buddhism and Psychotherapy.
Monastics work as chaplains and counsellors in universities, prisons, hospitals, schools, and the police. A number of Buddhist monastic centers have been set up as hospices, to care for the those in need.