Santi Forest Monastery is a Buddhist education and meditation residence for nuns, monks and laypeople. Established by Bhante Sujato in 2003, it is set in the rugged bush ravines of the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Australia. Santi offers accommodation, teaching, and support for study and practice in the Forest Tradition, with a special emphasis on the earliest teachings of the Buddha that are shared by all Buddhist traditions. Since 2005, the Sangha of Santi has performed ordinations each year, and has become internationally recognized for its advocacy of full ordination for Buddhist nuns (bhikkhunis).
After Bhante Sujato’s departure from Santi in August 2012, the monastery has been handed over to the Bikkhuni Sangha by Bhante Sujato , a decision supported by the new spiritual director Ajahn Brahm. Ayya Phalanyani Bhikkhuni has been appointed to be the new leader of Santi Forest Monastery.
For information on the teachings offered by Bhante Sujato and others from Santi FM, see here.
The property at 100 Coalmines Road was purchased in 1986 by Elizabeth Gorski. She was a local Buddhist practitioner, who was working with local meditation teacher John Hale to set up a meditation centre. As a fitting precursor to Santi’s role in supporting women’s ordination, one of the founding trustees was the first Western bhikkhuni of modern times, Ayyā Khemā.
The meditation centre never eventuated, and John Hale resettled in Tasmania, where he passed away a few years later. Elizabeth kept the property, and from time to time retreats were held or a monastic would reside, and yet the place never fulfilled its potential. Meanwhile, another local monastery, Suññataram, was set up on land offered by Elizabeth, although entirely independent of the Coalmines Road property.
In 1997, Elizabeth purchased two lots adjacent to the original property, bringing the monastery size to around 150 acres. Shortly afterwards, she went to Perth, where she took ordination under Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Vāyāmā at Dhammasāra Nuns’ Monastery. On October 22nd 2009, she became one of the first group of women to receive full bhikkhuni ordination in the Forest Tradition in Australia.
Before leaving, Elizabeth established a charitable body, then called Citta Bhavana Incorporated, to manage the Coalmines Road property. This consisted of a small committee, with Ajahn Brahm as the Spiritual Director. At the AGM of 2003, it was agreed that the property should be run as a Forest Monastery under the leadership of Bhante Sujato, and the name was officially changed to Santi Forest Monastery Incorporated. In subsequent years, the constitution was amended to reflect these changes, and Bhante Sujato replaced Ajahn Brahm as the Spiritual Director.
In the Rains retreat of 2003, Bhante Sujato stayed together with just one lay resident. Since then, the monastery has grown rapidly, and now usually has a resident community of around fifteen people.
Santi is created in the spirit of the Buddhist Forest Tradition. It does not feature large monuments or spectacular images. For us, the forest (or ‘bush’ as we say in Australia) is the temple. We remember that the Buddha went forth to the forest, practiced in the caves and wilderness, and was Awakened beneath the Bodhi Tree.
In the early years of Buddhism, all monastics lived in the forest. Gradually, there was a drift towards more settled monasteries in the villages and cities, but the forest life has always been there. Throughout history, whenever Buddhism becomes too domesticated and safe, there always arises a ‘back-to-the-roots’ revival of the forest contemplative life. In modern Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and elsewhere one can find monasteries and hermitages tucked away in secluded regions, providing quiet havens for contemplation and solitude.
The most vital modern resurgence of the forest tradition was in Thailand. The modern forest tradition was made possible by the reforms initiated in the mid 19th Century by the future King Mongkut (1804-1868). During his 27 years as a monk, he became highly critical of Buddhism as it was then practiced in Thailand. He believed that it was full of magic and superstitions that had nothing to do with Buddhism, and was particularly critical of those who mindlessly passed down the teachings according to what their teachers said, without any understanding of the Buddha’s own words. He undertook an intensive study of the Pali Canon, which he believed to contain the earliest teachings of the Buddha. Using modern text-critical methods, he attempted to divest Buddhism of its harmful and irrational accretions, and to return to a pristine form of original Buddhism. These inquiries became the foundation for the reformist Dhammayut order.
In its endeavour to construct a Buddhism on modern, rational lines, Mongkut’s reforms tended to deprecate meditation. Indeed, it was commonly believed, and still is today, that meditation was useless, as the lofty spiritual attainments spoken of in the ancient texts are no longer accessible in our degenerate age.
The renowned meditation master Ajahn Mun (1870-1949) was not content with this ideology, and he resolved to test it for himself. He developed a practice emphasizing austerity, strict discipline, and orthodox meditation, dispensing with the magical and superstitious elements that then dominated Thai mysticism. Rejecting the purely scholastic emphasis of the reformist Dhammayut order in the early 20th Century, Ajahn Mun insisted that the path to realization of the Dhamma was as open and relevant today as it was in the Buddha’s. While the basic doctrinal framework that he used was informed by the rationalist conclusions of Mongkut, Ajahn Mun strongly emphasized the primacy of direct experience over mere book learning. His radical, uncompromising approach led to years of conflict with the central authorities, who preferred their monks tame and civilized. In the intensity of his gaze as preserved in the few photographs of his that exist it is easy to understand how he is regarded by many in Thailand as an arahant, or fully Awakened master.
Ajahn Mun had many talented disciples who established their own monasteries. Perhaps the best known was Ajahn Chah (1918-1992). He spent his formative years wandering around Thailand, staying in forests and monasteries, learning from many different teachers, but always dedicated to meditation. Eventually he settled down near his home town and set up the monastery Wat Nong Pa Pong. While Ajahn Mun emphasized solitary, dedicated striving, Ajahn Chah saw how such practice tended to become dependent on the strength of charismatic teachers, and when those teachers passed away, the practice fell apart. He changed the approach found in the Ajahn Mun circles to give more emphasis to the Sangha over the teacher.
Ajahn Chah became extremely popular as a teacher, and the organization he founded is now by far the largest group of forest monasteries in Thailand. He attracted many Western disciples, who set up the first forest monastery in Thailand for English speaking monks, Wat Pa Nanachat, in 1975. Subsequently, several Wat Pa Pong branch monasteries were established internationally.
The forest tradition of 20th Century Thailand has been one of the most fascinating and important forces in the development of modern Buddhism, both in the East and West. Its contributions are innumerable, and the practice of its founders remains perhaps the closest we have seen to the way of life of the original Sangha in the Buddha’s day. Yet it is not without problems. Since the 1960s, the forest tradition became endorsed by the Thai elite, including the Royal Family, and subsequently has become very wealthy. Some of the forest masters, notably Ajahn Maha Bua, have used this wealth for charitable purposes while keeping the monastery very simple, but many other forest monasteries have become extremely luxurious. These days, while some places still have simple bamboo and leaf huts, other have become splendid marble constructions. Such wealth has its corrupting influence, as does the vast holdings of property in the forest monasteries, which often extend to hundreds or even thousands of acres. Inevitably, concerns of institutional security come to the fore, and the early spirit of adventure and direct personal experience becomes diluted as the community focusses more and more on the inviolable memory of the departed founder.
The most recent challenge faced by the Wat Pa Pong community has been the question of full bhikkhuni ordination for women. While the Western leaders of Wat Pa Pong typically maintain a public stance of agnosticism, the organization has consistently, without negotiation or compromise, rejected full ordination for women. In October 2009, the nuns of Dhammasāra Nuns’ Monastery were ordained as bhikkhunis in Bodhinyana Monastery. Within weeks, Ajahn Brahm and his monastery Bodhinyana were expelled from Wat Pa Pong. As the leadership of Wat Pa Pong becomes more conservative and patriarchal, it remains to be seen whether the tradition preserves the vitality to reinvent itself, or whether it will ossify into fundamentalism.
Santi Forest Monastery is established with three primary goals.
- Building a community based on Vinaya
- Study of the Buddha’s words in the early scriptures
- Meditation in seclusion
3.1: Building a community based on Vinaya
The Vinaya is the code of monastic conduct for Buddhist monks and nuns. It originates in the rules and procedures that were laid down by the Buddha. These were codified, extended, and organized in the generations following the Buddha’s passing away to create the Vinaya texts as we have them today. The primary texts used at Santi are those of the Pali Vinaya as passed down in the Theravada school, which are similar in most respects to the Vinayas preserved in Chinese and Tibetan translations.
Vinaya contains the famous pāṭimokkha list of rules, 227 for bhikkhus, 311 for bhikkhunis in the Pali version. These rules structure important aspects of monastic life, such as celibacy, wearing robes, not using money, use of food, and so on. Such rules are strictly emphasized in the Forest Tradition, and monastics at Santi are expected to follow these rules. However, we do not follow some of the more culturally specific customs, such as the use of a cloth by monks on which to receive offerings made by a woman, as is practiced in Thailand.
The disciplinary aspect of Vinaya, however, is only one aspect. The Vinaya also sets out organizational principles to guide how a Sangha community should be run. According to the Vinaya, a community should be entirely egalitarian, without hierarchy or command. All important decisions are made by the community as a whole, in consensus.
The community should appoint Sangha officials to take care of various tasks, such as monastery maintenance, storekeeping, accommodation, and so on. Within each department, the respective Sangha official has authority, but there is no overruling authority for the Sangha as a whole, except for the Vinaya itself.
The Vinaya does not mention an ‘abbot’, and there is no allowance for a power of command by seniors over juniors. The relationship to authority is based on respect, not obedience.
Traditional monastic forms have drifted away from this model, to such an extent that monastics often believe that hierarchy and obedience are essential aspects of Vinaya. This is the result of the historical development of the Sangha as a social institution that reflects the governance of the society in which it lives. However, the way the Buddha originally set up the Sangha is uniquely suited to our egalitarian, democratic culture, with governance based on principle, rather than personality.
3.2: Study of the Buddha’s words in the early scriptures
One area where Santi differs from the Thai Forest Tradition approach is our relationship with scripture. While the Thai Ajahns typically minimize the importance of scriptural study, at Santi we believe that it is essential for new monastics and serious practitioners to have a thorough grounding in the essential teachings.
All students at Santi are expected to acquire a good knowledge of the Buddhist Suttas and Vinaya. In addition, we teach introductory courses in Pali, Buddhist history, philosophy, and so on, and encourage those who are interested to pursue these further.
The study of scriptures is not based on secondary sources or modern compilations, but starts directly with the original text in its original languages. We use the Pali Nikāyas and Vinaya as primary, and refer to corresponding Āgama and Vinaya texts in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan whenever possible. In this way we try to approach as near we can to the original teachings, before Buddhism split into competing schools.
3.3: Meditation in seclusion
Like traditional forest monasteries, Santi is set in a large bush environment, perfect for meditation. Residents live in small huts scattered around the property, and gather in the main house only for teachings, meals, work, and so on. The whole monastery is planned, built, and managed with meditation as the priority.
Bhante Sujato mainly teaches a form of loving-kindness meditation which he learnt from his teacher, Ajahn Maha Chatchai. In addition, he teaches breath meditation and various approaches to developing insight. However, Santi has a non-dogmatic approach to meditation, and residents may practice whatever form of meditation they find useful.
The Buddha constantly exhorted his students: ‘Here are roots of trees, here are empty huts – practice jhana! Do not be negligent! Do not regret it later!’ In his time, meditation was primarily a solitary matter, not performed in meditation halls in large groups. This practice is continued in many of the Thai forest monasteries today, whereas other centres have developed a strong group practice. At Santi, we try to follow the earlier model, which gives each individual the freedom to set their own pace in meditation. For those who wish, however, there are optional group meditations in the hall or cave.
When leaving the urban life for the forest, there is more to it than simply quiet and seclusion. The forest is the place of the wilds, where the conditioning and expectations of culture fall away. Sitting alone, in the thick blackness of the night, with no-one around and only the beasts of the forest for company, is a challenging and exhilarating experience. At such times, the details of method or doctrine seem of little importance, and the essential thing is the sincerity with which one is able to face one’s own truth.
The property is wholly owned by Santi Forest Monastery Incorporated, a not-for-profit charity. The management is carried out by a committee that is elected each year. The 2010 committee is:
President – Nicola Le Corteur
Secretary – Jacqui McGirr
Treasurer – Bill Stanley
Committee Member – Sam Jerga
Committee member – Sooi Turner
The committee meets monthly (see news), and is charged with ensuring the financial compliance and security of the monastery. They ensure all accounts are kept to the stringent requirements of the Australian charities laws, and are professionally audited each year. In addition, the committee assists with various administrative duties in running the monastery, such as insurance, work safety, and so on.
If you have any inquiries in how the monastery is managed, or monastery finances, don’t hesitate to contact our office.
Please note that Santi Forest Monastery is owned and managed independently, and has no institutional affiliations.
Bhante Sujato (1966-?) was born in Perth and raised in a liberal Catholic family. After dropping out of University he played music, notably in the indie folk-pop band Martha’s Vineyard. In 1992 he travelled to Thailand, ostensibly as a tourist, but actually in search of a new direction. He entered an intensive vipassana retreat at Wat Ram Poeng in Chieng Mai, after which he knew that this would be his path.
A year later, he ended up at Wat Nanachat, where he took novice (samanera) ordination and, on 5/5/1994, full ordination as a bhikkhu. In Thailand, he stayed mainly at Poo Jorm Gorm, a remote hermitage attached to Wat Nanachat. From the little-known Thai monk Ajahn Maha Chatchai he learnt the practice of Metta or loving-kindness meditation, which still forms the backbone of his own meditation and teaching. In 1996 he returned to Perth, and sent three years at Bodhinyana Monastery practising under Ajahn Brahm, who he considers his primary teacher. He left Bodhinyana in 1999 and spent three years in isolated hermitages in Malaysia and Thailand.
In 2003, Bhante Sujato came to the Coalmines Road property, where he established Santi Forest Monastery and has overseen its development.
As well as being a meditator and teacher, Bhante Sujato is a scholar of early Buddhism, with several books and essays of original and often groundbreaking research. He contributes to Buddhism in Australia through a wide variety of forums and organizations, including the Australian Sangha Association, Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils, Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations, Australian Association of Buddhist Councillors and Psychotherapists, Australasian Association of Buddhist Studies, and Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.
Santi is one of the world’s leading advocates of full ordination for women in Buddhism. Even though the Buddha established an order of fully ordained nuns, called ‘bhikkhunis’, this order has disappeared from traditional Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism.
In recent years, the bhikkhuni order has been revived, thanks to the introduction of an ordination lineage from the East Asian tradition, which has always preserved the bhikkhuni lineage. In Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam, the bhikkhunis outnumber the bhikkhus, and provide the mainstay of much Buddhist training and education.
Women practicing in the Tibetan tradition started taking bhikkhuni ordination in the 1970s, and now many of them have become renowned teachers, such as Tenzin Palmo, Thubten Chodren, and Lekshe Tsomo. Since the reintroduction of bhikkhuni ordination in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s, there are now several hundred Theravadin bhikkhunis there, as well as a few in Thailand, the U.S., and elsewhere.
In addition to Santi FM, there are two other Theravadin bhikkhuni monasteries in Australia, Dhammasāra in Perth and Saṅghamittārāma in Melbourne.
Santi Forest Monastery is one of the few English-speaking monasteries in the world where women can be ordained and trained as a bhikkhuni. The community at Santi is a mixed one, where the male and female residents have separate facilities and dwelling areas, but come together for meals, teachings, and work.
The bhikkhuni revival has met with opposition from conservative forces within the Theravadin Sangha. In focussing on the ‘purity’ of lineage and the supposed legal problems with bhikkhuni ordination, such opposition shows a lack of compassion for women and little understanding of the harmful effects of discrimination.
It is time to move on. The eightfold path, the four noble truths, dependent origination, the way of wisdom and compassion: these are the true teachings of the Buddha. None of them have anything to do with gender.
This point was explicitly made, perhaps for the first time in human history, by a bhikkhuni in the Buddha’s time. In a remarkable dialogue preserved in the canonical Saṁyutta Nikāya, the fully Awakened bhikkhuni Somā was challenged by Māra, the Buddhist Satan or Trickster. Playing the archetypal male chauvinist, he challenged:
That dhamma that’s so hard to achieve
Which is to be attained by the seers
Can’t be attained by a woman
With her two-fingered wisdom!
But Somā recognized him, and replied undaunted:
What does ‘womanhood’ matter at all,
When the mind is concentrated well
When knowledge flows on steadily
As one sees correctly into Dhamma?
One to whom it might occur,
‘I’m a woman’, or ‘I’m a man’,
Or ‘I’m anything at all’ -
Is fit for Māra to address!