Eastern Horizon Interviews Venerable Aggacitta

Eastern Horizon: Can you tell us about the Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary which you are planning to start? [Next question]
Venerable Aggacitta: Sasanarakkha [Guardian of the Sasana] is a compound formed from the Pali words sasana and arakkha. For Theravada Buddhists, Sasana is an abbreviation of Buddhasasana [the Buddha's Teaching], which is basically three-fold: to study, practise and realise the Dhammavinaya. Arakkha means guardian or protector.

The word "sanctuary" has very interesting connotations that are appropriate to what we intend to do. Among its meanings are: a sacred place, any place where refuge or protection is provided for the conservation of something original or natural.

A Buddhist Sanctuary is more of a monks' training centre. Its aim is to train monks on how to live as monks according to the original scriptural tradition. Nowadays, many young Malaysians (except those of Thai, Burmese, or Sri Lankan origin) ordain because of meditation. They go to Burma or Thailand to become monks. They are taught how to meditate but not the Vinaya. When they finish their meditation courses after a few months, they return to Malaysia. But they may not know how to conduct themselves in accordance with the Vinaya. And since they do not have proper guidance they may be prone to act according to their whims and fancies. This is detrimental to the Sasana.
I feel there's a great need for a monks' training centre in Malaysia where our local monks can come together in a place to be properly trained. Many of them were ordained in different places. When they come back, there's going to be arguments because of different interpretations and practices. The Malaysian Sangha is very young compared to those in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Each of the three countries is different and has its own Buddhist culture and art. Often we Malaysians are copying them wholesale without understanding the principles behind their Buddhist customs and traditions.

If, as young Theravada Buddhists, we Malaysians must copy customs and traditions, we should do so at the very roots, rather than after several centuries and generations of cultural adaptation and transformation. In other words, we should go back to the scriptural traditions enshrined in the Pali Canon, Commentaries and Sub-commentaries. When we understand the principles behind them, we can then evolve a Malaysian Theravada Buddhist identity that accords with the original scriptures.

EH: How big would the Sanctuary be, and where would it be located? [Next question]
A: The Sanctuary will be planned along the lines of a forest monastery. A main building incorporating a shrine-hall, library, classrooms, publication room, office and other central facilities will be built. We also plan to construct a small water sima. There will be kutis located in secluded places so as to allow for solitude for each monk. The maximum capacity of the Sanctuary will be 21 monks at any one time. We have found a suitable piece of land measuring 10.75 acres in the outskirts of Taiping. It is situated on a hill, surrounded on three sides by state forest reserve and accessible only through a cemetry and neighbouring orchards. Water supply is obtainable from a spring up in the forest reserve as well as from springs and brooks found within the site.
EH: Would Bhante be the main teacher in the Sanctuary? [Next question]
A: We will start off with a handful of monks. Then the older students will help to teach what they know to the newer students. In the meantime I shall be the main teacher. There may be other teachers if they are suitable, and available.
EH: Would the courses in the Sanctuary be based along the lines of some existing Buddhist institutes in Thailand such as Mahachulalongkorn or Mahamakut Universities? [Next question]
A: No. It will be more like a blend of the Lampang Pali College, Yankin Forest Monastery and Wat Pah Nanachat of the Ajahn Chah tradition. Recently I visited Wat Pah Nanachat in Thailand. I am impressed by the systematic way the monks there are trained.
EH: What would be the main focus of the training in the sanctuary? [Next question]
A: The basic course of training will offer teaching and guidance on the theory and practice of the Vinaya, dhutangas and meditation. It will emphasise on strict adherence to Vinaya rules while adopting a more liberal stance with regard to dhutanga practice and meditation. In this way, each monk will have the liberty to experiment with various options so that he may be able to find the most suitable practice for his own spiritual progress.

Pali studies will also be offered to those who have the interest and aptitude so that they can gain direct access to the original scriptures. Hopefully, a new breed of learned Malaysian monks may be inspired to produce innovative interpretations of the Vinaya that not only conform to the scriptural tradition, but also contribute to the evolution of a Malaysian Theravada Buddhist identity.

As part of a long-term plan, monks who have sufficiently mastered the basic course will have the option of taking up dhammaduta courses. These courses will survey the application of contemporary missionary skills in a Malaysian Theravada Buddhist context. They will be more like post-graduate courses. Eventually, we hope to produce competent local monks (bhikkhus) to serve the modern needs of our growing Malaysian Buddhist community.

[See also Curriculum.]

EH: What would be the initial capital to start the Sanctuary and the subsequent operational costs to sustain it? [Next question]
A: The land itself costs RM350,000. Taking into account the proposed building works and infrastructural development, I'm told that we need around 2 million ringgit to get this project moving. Although the project will officially be carried out under the auspices of Taiping Insight Meditation Society, I want to make it clear that it is a national project. We need the support of the Buddhist community in Malaysia and elsewhere in order to evolve and establish a modern Malaysian Buddhist identity.

[See also Home page.]

EH: Are your plans only for monks, or would lay people also be trained in the Sanctuary? [Next question]
A: For the time being it will be for monks only. The average duration of the basic course is 5 vassas. The Buddha laid down a rule that a newly ordained bhikkhu must stay with a competent teacher for at least 5 vassas in order to master the Vinaya and fulfill other requirements for independence. If after 5 vassas he is unable to do so, he must stay on until he qualifies for independence. In the future, if we have enough quorum for higher ordination, we may take in laymen as postulants. They shall, of course, be required to observe 8 precepts.
EH: What is the target date to start operating the Sanctuary? [Next question]
A: With the generous support of the Buddhist community in Malaysia and elsewhere, we hope to start the first in-take of monks in January 2001.
EH: Would bhante have any final words for our readers? [Bottom]
A: This is a story that I would like to relate about Venerable Mahamahinda who went from India to Sri Lanka to propagate the Buddha's teaching. After he converted the Sri Lankan king Devanampiya Tissa to Buddhism, the king did a lot of things. He built stupas and monasteries and planted a sapling of the original Bodhi tree. He allowed the royalty to become monks and nuns while he generously supported the Sangha. Through the sermons of the Venerable and his entourage, thousands of Sri Lankans attained various stages of enlightenment.

The king then asked Venerable Mahamahinda, "Is the Sasana now established in Sri Lanka?"

Venerable Mahamahinda answered, "It is established but its roots have not yet descended."

"When will its roots descend?" asked the king.

Venerable Mahamahinda answered, "When a young man born of Sri Lankan parents in Sri Lanka renounces the world and becomes a monk in Sri Lanka, studies the Vinaya in Sri Lanka and teaches it in Sri Lanka, then will the roots of the Sasana descend."

I hope that all Malaysian Buddhists will appreciate the importance of teaching the Vinaya to Malaysian monks in order to firmly establish Theravada Buddhism in our country. Then the Sasana will last not only for you but also for your children and grandchildren. [See also a historic lesson.]

EH: Thank you.

Regarding the interviewers:
Mitra Chong is a trainer, public speaker and motivator and is currently employed as a Training Manager with an insurance company.
Selena Chew, a lawyer by training, is a tutor and a Buddhist youth worker.

Adapted excerpt of an interview with Venerable Aggacitta conducted by Mitra Chong and Selena Chew for Eastern Horizon in Klang on February 19, 2000.

[Only portions pertaining SBS is shown here. You can read the whole interview in Eastern Horizon (April 2000 Issue No.1) available at YBAM and Sukhi Hotu PJ.]

For more questions and answers, please read FAQ.