The Tradition Spreads – India to West Sussex

The Sangha in its original form has survived centuries of change, and the birth and decay of many empires. From India to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and throughout Asia, it spread and prospered. In Southern Asia, where the Theravada school of Buddhism developed, the Sangha received the kind of support that allowed it to retain its mendicant and homeless ethos.  At times it has been corrupted by worldly aims and ambitions, but throughout history it has reformed itself through returning to the guidelines of the Vinaya and the homeless life.  In the middle of the 19th century CE this was very much the case in Thailand, where a reform movement found great teachers (ajahns) in meditation masters such as Ajahn Sao and Ajahn Mun.  Shielded from the effects of urbanisation, the more remote forested lands of the North-East that they frequented have up until the present day maintained the standards of the samana life with integrity and purity. Because such a life draws strength from an austere lifestyle lived in forests and remote places, their lineage is called the Thai Forest Tradition. This lineage has subsequently produced a number of very fine and widely-respected teachers, including Ajahn Chah (1918-1992).

Ajahn Chah spent his early years wandering and practising meditation in solitude, but in the 1950s, at the request of local villagers, he settled down in a forest in Ubon province. Gradually other monks came to study under him and rudimentary huts were built. This was the beginning of Wat Pah Pong, a monastery where, for the rest of his life, Ajahn Chah trained monks, nuns and lay people in Dhamma-Vinaya.  His was a style that was as down-to-earth as it was subtle, as humorous as it was profound, and both readily applicable and far-reaching. Consequently, Ajahn Chah soon developed a large following of both monastics and lay people,  and before his death in 1992, over thirty forest monasteries following his teaching and training had been established in Thailand. Nowadays, this number exceeds 200.

Ajahn Chah's followers, however, were not confined to his own countrymen.  Since the late 1960's a number of Westerners had also taken up monastic training under his tutelage. Several of these would eventually help to transmit his tradition overseas. This process began in 1979, when the first of Ajahn Chah’s monasteries was established in the West in the hamlet of Chithurst, West Sussex, in England. Punning on the name ‘Chithurst,’ Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah’s most senior Western disciple and first abbot of the monastery, decided to call it Cittaviveka - a word that in the language of the scriptures means ‘the mind free of attachment.’ 

However, Cittaviveka is not just an import; it is also rooted in the aspirations and good-will of Western followers and supporters. The material resources for the monastery were initially provided by the English Sangha Trust, a charitable organisation which had been founded in 1956 for the purpose of establishing a Buddhist monastic order in Britain.  After years of supporting a number of different monks, the Trust invited Ajahn Sumedho to their Hampstead Vihara, in Hampstead, North London, in 1976.  There he and a small group of fellow-monks lived the samana life, meditating, wearing the traditional robes, and going on alms-round through North London.  This attracted attention and support, and in 1978, the Trust was given Hammer Wood, an area of land in a beautiful and unspoilt region of West Sussex.  Fortuitously Chithurst House - a derelict mansion built in 1862, less than half a mile away from the forest - came up for sale in 1979 with its outbuildings and 22 acres of land.  Soon, another benefactor purchased a small cottage and land adjacent to Hammer Wood as a residence for nuns.  The final piece of today's property, another cottage and land adjacent to Hammer Wood, was purchased in 2005.  These latter two cottages, now called Aloka and Rocana, form a residence for nuns and female lay guests.