Amaravati, a Buddhist monastery in the Hertfordshire village of Great Gaddesden is inspired by the Theravadan (Thai Forest) tradition and the teachings of the late Ajahn Chah. Amaravati means ‘deathless realm’ in Pali and the intention of the Forest Tradition is the realisation of ‘Nibbāna’ which means freedom from all mental suffering. It is home to an international community of monks and nuns and like Chalice Well, is open to visitors every day, who can come and stay for retreat, spiritual teachings or practice or to contribute to the life of the community or sangha.
I was welcomed by the Retreat Manager who has been a garden volunteer at Chalice Well and is now a lay member of the Amaravati community. She explained that the monastery, formerly an army barracks, was established in the 1980s.
It has been developed over the years and includes a beautiful timber frame temple at its heart.
She showed me the sala, the hall where the monks receive the offerings of food that are brought in for them daily, the retreat centre where fifty retreatants from all over the world were currently residing and suggested that I might also like to visit the library which houses books not only from the many streams of Buddhism but other faiths and spiritual traditions.
She told me that I was welcome to stay for the ‘Smanera Pabbajja Anagarika’ ceremony taking place that afternoon, where two of the novices would be exchanging their white robes for brown ones and taking their monastic vows.
One of the vows or precepts is to abstain from taking from what is not given and the monastics rely on the lay community for all physical needs. The giving of offerings, whether they be food, donations or supplies is called ‘Dāna’ which is the practice of cultivating generosity.
This spirit of generosity was palpable in all aspects of my visit to Amaravati. All whom I met, including visitors, were warm and friendly. I was able to sit in the temple, peacefully enjoying a moment of quiet and stillness. I browsed the many shelves of books in the library, found a copy of Awakening Letters by Cynthia Sandys and Rosamond Lehmann* in the section on death and reincarnation and was able to join as a member, borrowing three books on Buddhism.
I enjoyed sharing food offerings and meeting other visitors, many of whom were Thai and Sri Lankan Buddhists from London who regularly visit the monastery at the weekends. I particularly enjoyed speaking with the abbot Ajahn Amaro, about his visit to Glastonbury in the 70’s and the forthcoming Chalice Well festival. He gifted me his small book on the practice of ‘Mettā’ which means Loving-Kindness. I have read it (twice now) and can recommend it. I found it simple, full of practical wisdom and guidance on how to keep the heart open and soft in times of conflict and discordance.
“The quality of awareness itself is like a heat lamp on a knotted muscle. After a while there’s a sense of ease which is hard to put into words but I think we all know that quality of softening. We learn to trust that quality of awareness, letting it rest on the place of tension, the place of discomfort, and we stay with it, letting the presence of loving, attentive awareness loosen the tension. Then we see for ourselves that this is another way of tracing back the radiance; it’s a way of coming back to the source and realizing: ’It’s really not that big a thing. It’s just a feeling. Why do I do this to myself?’ And then we relax.”
For more information about visiting Amaravati and their programme of teachings, meditations and retreats visit www.amaravati.org
*Rosamond Lehmann is author of 'My Dear Alexias: Letters from Wellesley Tudor Pole to Rosamond Lehmann' (1979). Wellesely Tudor Pole founded the Chalice Well Trust in 1959.