How to run a monastery

Many people enter monastic life because of a love of meditation. They seek the solitude and support that monastic life provides for meditators. It is quite paradoxical, then, that the same people, Ajahn Brahm included, often end up running monasteries and being in charge of communities. So how do these natural hermits run a monastery?

Ajahn Brahm applies principles of leadership that he picked up from his teachers in Thailand, especially Ajahn Chah. Some of these ideas are quite different from what most people are used to in general society. For instance, Ajahn Chah was sometimes criticised for being inconsistent in his teaching style, at times saying one thing on one day and the exact opposite the next. He explained his approach in this way: if a person is veering too far to the left then you need to push them to the right, whereas if they are veering too far to the right then you need to push them to the left. In other words, what is right at any particular time depends entirely on the circumstances. Being inconsistent is not necessarily wrong.

Another lesson for Ajahn Brahm was seeing the importance of knowing how to let go. He tells the story of what happened at Ajahn Chah’s funeral. Ajahn Liem, the new abbot of Wat Pa Pong, had constructed the stupa within which Ajahn Chah’s body was to be cremated. The body was contained in an iron casket, which was placed inside the stupa, whereupon the fire was lit. Unfortunately, the engineering details were not up to scratch. As the flames grew out of control, it looked as if the whole stupa might burn down. Ajahn Liem took one look at it, then calmly went back tohis kuṭi to have a rest. He had done his duty in building the stupa to the bestof his ability. He could leave this unforeseen problem for someone else to solve. What may seem irresponsible to an ordinary person is probably just a selfless act of letting go to someone with a higher level of wisdom.

Ajahn Brahm took these lessons to heart and added a few ideas of his own. From this emerged his own unique management style. On a typical day at Bodhinyana Monastery, he might walk around inspecting what the various monks are doing during the work period. He might see one monk sweeping, another chopping wood, and a third preparing for the installation of a funeral plaque. In each case, he would probably crack a joke before saying, “Very good, carry on.” One of the hallmarks of his leadership style is gentle encouragement without fault-finding.

Ajahn Brahm encourages everyone at the monastery to take responsibility for themselves. He recognises that true spiritual progress comes when you are self-motivated, not when you are pushed from the outside to do the right thing. For this reason, there are no group meditation meetings at Bodhinyana Monastery. In fact, the interaction between the monks is kept to a minimum, in line with Ajahn Brahm’s idea that a good monastery is not just a spiritual community, but a community of hermits. The monks are, therefore, allowed ample time for personal meditation retreats. Based on the general guidance given by Ajahn Brahm, it is for everyone to decide for themselves what they need to do to make the best possible use of their time.

When it comes to deciding who should be allowed to ordain, Ajahn Brahm always prefers to give everyone a chance. He has learnt from experience that it is very hard to predict who will make a good monk. It is better to have someone ordain and then disrobe than not to give the opportunity to a person who might turn out to be an exemplary monastic. And if someone turns out to be difficult to live with, it becomes a learning experience for everyone to develop patience, kindness and compassion.

Indeed, Ajahn Brahm prefers to motivate rather than to criticise, to inspire rather than to control. He trusts his disciples to do the right thing. More often than not, the trust pays off with the monks mostly living the monastic life to a high standard. Ajahn Brahm’s management style is really just an extension of the principles he uses in his meditation practice: be kind, make peace and let go. And if you uphold such high principles, there is no need to worry about being inconsistent!