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What is a Chapter-Subhuti

by Subhuti

What is a Chapter?

by Subhuti

Talk given at Madhyamaloka, September 2000

So I am following the suggestion of Kovida's. There are two sort of geneses of tonight's
talk, which is more like notes towards a talk rather than a talk itself. First of all we have
been dealing with some quite difficult things amongst you and it seemed to be important to
put that into context. And secondly, you particularly ... were saying you weren't sure what
a Chapter was for in a way. And so I thought that by addressing that to some extent I could
make a useful contribution to the meeting. So this might be called 'what is a Chapter' or
'the Chapter as a Context', perhaps that would be even better as a preliminary working title.

We know from Bhante's founding document, or rather Cittapala's notes on Bhante's
founding statement on the Chapter system, that he sees the Chapter as the smallest unit of
the Order and the formation of a Chapter should have a tonic effect on the whole Order. So
he sees that the Chapters as operating in relation to the Order as a whole, that if the
Chapter is alive and effective then the whole Order will be alive and effective.
But it is quite important to ... relationship between the individual Chapter and the Order as
a whole whereby if those Chapters are working well then the Order as a whole is working
well. Perhaps that is not the only factor but it is no doubt a very significant one.

But I think it is perhaps even more important to think of the Order Chapter as the focus for
the individual Order member's spiritual life. So, if you like, the Chapter is both the smallest
unit of the Order and what stimulates and makes the whole Order effective. But it is also
the context within which the individual Order member lives his spiritual life. Or it is the
focus, perhaps that is the best way of putting it, for the individual Order member's spiritual
life. This is at least the theory and when it works well it is the practice. I say for instance
that is largely one's experience here. So insofar as the individual Chapter stands between
the Order as a whole and the individual Order member it is in a way you could almost say
the basis for the Order and it is for that reason that Bhante says an Order member without a
Chapter is a contradiction in terms. Because if you have got no Chapter you haven't got a
context within which to experience yourself as an Order member and if you are not
participating in an Order Chapter you are not contributing to the life and health of the
Order as whole in that fundamental way. Of course, there are other ways you can do that
but the Chapter is essential to it.

If we didn't have Order Chapters, if you imagine it, what would we have? We would have
a lot of individuals who might be make quite a lot of spiritual effort and so forth, perhaps
meeting in large gatherings or in ad hoc gatherings but there would be very little ... to keep
the whole Order in being, you could almost say. You would have to try to keep the Order
in being by having Conventions and so on and so forth. But because there is nothing
intermediate between the individual Order member and the Convention, the Convention
itself would have a quite different character, it would have to carry a lot of weight that the
fact you have got Chapters means it doesn't have to carry. One could develop that thought
further but it is at least worth contemplating what the Order would be like if you didn't
have Chapters. Even if Chapters are not always that effective they do play a very important
part in the spiritual economy of the Order. Yes, as I say, I think one could develop that
thought much further but I just throw that out as a clue to the importance of the Order.
Imagine the Order without Chapters - what would we have, how would it work? And I
think there would be little doubt that it would not be nearly as effective as it actually is.

So we have got the Order Chapters standing intermediate between the individual Order
member and the Order as a whole. Because you have got individual Chapters in a way you
can have an Order as a whole, because each Order member belongs to a unit which is more
than himself, which is a microcosm of the Order. I think Bhante even used that term, a
microcosm in the hermetic sense, because you belong to the smaller you belong to the
larger. Because you are interacting with other Order members within a Chapter you have
got a model and a basis for your interaction with Order members within the macrocosm,
within the Order as a whole. The Order as a whole doesn't exist you could almost say, it is
almost in practical terms you never experience the Order as a whole. It must be many years
since we have had every single Order member present in the same room at the same time.
So you can never sit down in a room and experience every other Order member at the same
time. Of course you can in various situations and circumstances come across other Order
members but if you have got a Chapter you have got a lens almost through which you can
see the Order as a whole. It focuses the Order as a whole to the individual Order members.

But you can look at it from the other point of view that the individual Order member needs
an immediate context within which to focus his or her spiritual life. And that is the
function of the Chapter. This I hope will emerge much more because this is going to be the
main thread in some ways of my discussion.

So, looking at things from the point of the view of the individual as part of the Chapter, the
Chapter being the focus for the individual Order member's spiritual life. Clearly that arises
from the nature of spiritual commitment, because one is committed to the Three Jewels.
That is why we come together, we come together as individuals who Go for Refuge to the
Three Jewels. That is what forms the Order. So it is the continual act of Going for Refuge
to the Three Jewels that keeps the Order in being. And the way I want to explore this is by
looking at the verses of acceptance at the end of the ordination ceremony. Partly because
they do form a very neat ... , and partly because they are somewhat neglected. I know that
Vishvapani recently talked about them at Padmaloka. And Bhante doing the ordination in
the woods recently said that he had realised just how important those verses were and
especially the last one - for the benefit of all beings I accept this ordination - and felt that
we needed to draw those out much more because they do make much more explicit the
contextual nature of ordination, and especially the Bodhisattva dimension. In accepting
ordination you are accepting in the spirit of the Bodhisattva Ideal.

So I want to use that to look at how the Order works both as a focus for the individual
Order member's spiritual life and to some extent secondarily as the basis for the realisation
of the Order as a whole. So both dimensions, from the Chapter down to the individual, and
from the Chapter up to the Order as a whole, I think are revealed by examining each of
these four verses of acceptance.

I am going to take them in an order which suits my exposition rather than the order in
which they are usually taken, which varies.

For the Sake of Enlightenment

So I am going to start off with the verse - for the sake of enlightenment I accept this
ordination. And I take this first because in a way it is most fundamental insofar as what
unites us is our Going for Refuge to the Buddha with his Dharma and his Sangha. And you
Go for Refuge to the Buddha because he is the enlightened individual and we see
enlightenment as the goal of our lives and as the source of all value. Everything achieves
its place, its due proportion, because of enlightenment. This incidentally is something I
think is quite important that for the Buddhist the Buddha or enlightenment is the pinnacle
of value and everything else is valued in relation to that in all dimensions, whether
aesthetic, moral, or in terms of cognition or whatever. So in Going for Refuge to the Three
Jewels we put the Buddha at the centre of our lives, we see the Buddha as the source of all
value, and we dedicate our lives to trying to become more and more like the Buddha. In
other words Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels.

So as Order members, as those who are committed to the Three Jewels, who accept their
ordination for the sake of enlightenment, we are trying to apply the principles of the
Dharma at every moment of our lives, in every aspect of our lives, and in all the detail of
our lives. If we are to Go for Refuge effectively there is no area of our lives that should not
be permeated by the spirit of Going for Refuge. Meaning that quite literally. To take the
most ridiculous, we should go to the toilet mindfully enough for that to be an aspect of
Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. We are never on holiday if we are effectively Going
for Refuge. And that is a very tall order, and of course there is a very big difference
between our aspiration to do that and our ability to do it. And I think probably every one of
us would have to admit that we fall far short even of the sort of standard descriptions of
effective Going for Refuge. Of course we are effectively ...

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