Mass Lay Meditation Movement: From Myanmar to Serbia (3)

The Case of Serbia

Up to this point, we traversed a long way both historically and geographically, to finally arrive to Serbia and try to see how all we were talking about reflects there. For the starters, Theravada Buddhism in Serbia started to be popularized mainly through texts written by the late Bhikkhu Nanajīvako, former Čedomil Veljačić, university professor of Eastern philosophies, who after retirement became a bhikkhu in Sri Lanka in 1966. His translations from the Pali Canon, articles and books attracted a lot attention among intellectual circles in former Yugoslavia, but mostly on the theoretical level. This interest and personal contacts brought some of well-known monks at that time to Belgrade, like Philip Kapleau Roshi in 1985 and two years later Master Seung San. But these visits hadn’t left much of a visible effect.

Steady Buddhist practice in form of the vipassana came somewhat later, in April 1996, when the first course in the tradition of S.N. Goenka was organized for 57 attendees. As the civil war had just finished, the Buddha’s message on suffering and the promise of liberating from it fell on a very fertile ground. From than on these courses, two per year, continued to be organized one after another. Less a decade later, in 2003, a group of enthusiasts got together to form an informal Theravada Buddhist Society “The Middle Way”, as a response to the growing interest in Buddhism and its practice. So, on their invitation, in 2006 Ajahn Munindo from the Aruna Ratanagiri Monastery in UK visited Serbia to deliver several public Dhamma talks. Next year the Society also started organizing regular Vipassana meditation courses. The first of them was led by Ajahn Jayanto from the Amaravati Monastery in UK. From then on, monks from Ajahn Cha’s network of monasteries regularly visited Serbia, led courses and gave public Dhamma talks in different places.

Meditation course in Čortanovci, 2008.

The Society membership was growing steadily, as well as the interest for meditation retreats, lectures and books being published. So the Society was officially registered in 2009 as a Buddhist organizyation. Already next year Ven. Dhammasami, the abot of the Oxford Buddha Viharaha (OBV), led his first meditation course in Serbia and became a main teacher of the group. Close connections with OBV were established, so other disciples of Ven. Dhammasami also taught there on regular basis. This gradually led to the next important step, establishment of the first Buddhist monastery, Oxford Buddha Vihara in Serbia (OBVS) in the Balkan region. Finally, as mentioned at the beginning, the Society in 2019 transformed into a religious community named Theravada Buddhist Community in Serbia. Buddhism became an officially recognized religion in Serbia.

Monastery establishment boosted activities on promoting vipassana meditation in the region. That is much supported by the presence of two Buddhist monks, who were able to teach in the monastery, but also to visit branch groups or individuals and help them in their practice. Beside meditation instructions, they also organized a series of weekend lectures on various topics, ranging from the four brahma viharas through sutta studies to the introduction into Vinaya rules for laypeople, so they can better understand dos and don’ts for monks.

Are you a Buddhist?

Compared to earlier practice in the Community, presenting Buddhism in a monastery environment and with resident Buddhist monks made somewhat easier to preserve the traditional forms of teaching and performing rituals. It is quite obvious, when comparing the dynamics going on within the groups in Belgrade and Novi Sad affiliated to the Community. When these groups were established, usual procedure was that a group meditation starts with chanting, of course much shorter then the puja in the monastery. It was believed that it contributes to the solemn atmosphere and as a nice introduction to the meditation practice. But after some time complains appeared from some of the members that all this chanting in an unrecognizable language, especially to newcomers, looks alienating, too much as some kind of cult. Finally, it was dropped, except when monks are present.

Outside of the monastery, vipassana was taught in various other places, mostly yoga clubs.
Here Branko leads a class in the yoga club “Hipokrat”, Novi Sad

Also, from the establishment of the group, but particularly after establishment of the monastery, we often come across the question of Buddhist identity. Who is a Buddhist and what makes someone a Buddhist. Many newcomers, but also some of the old members do not like to put any label on themselves. This opens the question of typology and finer segregation of the meditators we encounter.

While living in the monastery from its establishment, I was in a good position to get a clear picture of its visitors and what motivates people to come. Since, in Serbia of course there are no Buddhists by birth, generally all newcomers may be differentiated into three levels, for which I put a provisional label and sorted them from the widest to the more narrow one:

1. Medical level – those interested exclusively in stress relief by learning meditation technique, but not in Buddhist Teachings as such. These are usually people who are going from one spiritual tradition to the other, looking for something that will resolve their internal conflict or feeling of incompleteness, dissatisfaction, instability. They probably already have experience with yoga, meditative intensives (of the Western type), tai chi, astrology, anthroposophy or some other Western esoteric teachings and various other “products at the spiritual market”. Most of them stay for a while with vipassana meditation, until they leave for some other trendy technique or teaching. So far we have even people who once left the community and later come back.

2. Theoretical level – Contrary to the previous group of those interested in “technique”, here are intellectual and I’d say idealistic type of persons, interested in Buddhism as one among many philosophies, but not in a practice. They can talk endlessly about various teachers, lineages, aspects of the teachings and be occupied by less important questions like: “If Buddha was so compassionate, how come that he didn’t prescribe vegetarianism for all his followers or at least for monks and nuns?” Or by some of the perennial questions, like the one: “If there is no permanent soul, what is that’s being reborn?” Probably because they themselves have difficulty to take one position and often move from one point of view to the other, their frequent question for me as an interlocutor was: “Are you a Buddhist?”. Which often had an unspoken follow-up question: “But than why you are not a Christian?”

3. Religious level – People who probably function more on emotional, than strictly intellectual level and are interested in both Buddhist theory and practice, in ways how to integrate them fully into their own life. The history showed that this is the smallest group, but also the one from which it is most reliable to recruit potential meditation teachers for our needs. No doubt that these groups are not fixed and there is nothing wrong with any of this approaches to Dhamma. Our experience showed that from both groups 1 or 2 there were individuals which, as they expanded their understanding the Dhamma and benefited from it, stayed permanently and engaged within the Community.

Ven. Dhammasami’s evening Dhamma talk during one of the meditation retreats

We are not an island

Important aspect of transferring vipassana meditation and Dhamma in general to Serbia and a matter of our deep concern was how this will be reflected in the media reporting, but also how people, on macro and micro community level will react to this. There were some fears that we might be perceived just as some new sect of oriental provenance within the wider spectrum of such movements and ideologies being transferred within several last decades to Serbia, like Hare Krishna or Sai Baba’s followers. Concerns were fed by media reports of occasional attacks to the objects belonging to small religious communities or verbal treats to their members. To our relief and also thanks to our efforts, media so far presented us in quite a positive way, without any negative reporting. For example, we had a dozen of media representatives, from local to national, at the opening of the OBVS. Later on, also, reporting in TV programs and newspapers was made without any distortions or misrepresentations. One of our members, who is also one of the most famous rock musicians in Serbia and the region, greatly contributed to that. Namely, who often gives interviews and good portion of them he dedicates to his meditation practice, since the unavoidable question for him by journalists is: “Why did you become a Buddhist?”

With father Predrag, the local priest
from the Serbian Orthodox Church

The other aspect of our public image we gave much importance to are our relations with other religious communities, especially the dominant one and that’s Serbian Orthodox Church. Of course, the difference in number of devotees and social influence between our communities is enormous, so our strategy was to start with small steps. We were lucky that the local Orthodox priest is a very open-minded and benevolent person, and he visited our monastery first, right after the opening ceremony. He offered any help in case there is any misunderstanding with the local village people. Later, we used a visit to Serbia by Ven. Dhammasami to deepen that relationship, by visiting him and giving a modest donation to the local church rebuilding project. We also do not forget to wish him well for the main Christian holidays.

All in all, I’d say this is a nice small example of inter-religious understanding and mutual respect. Our next step would be to use this contact and approach the bishop, who is the highest spiritual official in the diocese, the church district under his jurisdiction. Apart from being a nice event of itself, this meeting may help in further legitimizing our Community as a constructive factor in a wider inter-religious dialogue in the society. It can also prove helpful in approaching and establishing contacts with other religious communities in Serbia, since so far we had contact and got support from only one protestant, small religious community. But before that, we would also like to be a point of cohesion for other Buddhist groups in Serbia (Tibetan, Nichiren and Zen). Because, just after establishing inter-Buddhist dialogue, we can expand it into inter-religious one.

By being friendly and not intrusive to the people in our local community, we positioned ourselves as its constructive member, trying to contribute as much as we can. Therefore, we also gave donations to the local school, which was a big surprise for them. Thus the principal told us: “You are the only one who ever gave us a donation!” From that time, she invites us regularly to the end of the academic year and a school day celebrations. It is a great honor and pleasure for us to be there, but also important for locale people to see our Community represented.

Finally, like any beginning, transferring Vipassana practice and accommodating it to the Western context had its ups and downs in Serbia too. Downs are more related to the problems of our internal organization, of not having enough dedicated people for all the plans we have and the fact that we are exploring terrain which is unknown for all of us. But this process also provided us with important lessons to learn as we go forward. These lessons are related as much to the monastery establishment, expectations of the hosts for visiting monks, so much to their preparation and skills development, as well as understanding a general role of a missionary monk. Of course, among basic and decisive skills of the monks coming to teach in a new environment are a solid command of a local language, in ideal case, or more realistically, of English. Together with their thorough knowledge of Dhamma, that makes for the good start.

Ven. Sandimar and Ven. Uttara

But preferences and needs go much further. The missionary monks also need to be flexible enough and willing to accommodate to a new social and cultural environment. This is very important, since rigidity and insensitivity to a new environment can put off many among potential followers and meditators. One of the questions we faced with is understanding the importance of gender equality, which might be a problem for monks coming from a distinctly male dominated culture. The other is awareness of the new legal framework they are now operating in, so that what was legal or simply accepted back home might not be the same in the new country. The example was an offer of one of the monks to heal children with mental problems like autism. It was explained to him that this would be illegal, since only certified medical specialists are entitled for this kind of treatments.

It is impossible to completely prepare monks for the new environment they are going to live in and act. As we all know, the best way of learning is by example. Therefore, by living in that new environment. That’s why it is crucial that missionary monks are flexible and easy to accommodate to the new situation, where for example sense of respect and reverence by the locals is not something set in advance, brought by tradition itself, but has to be acquired day by day through genuine interaction and impeccable behavior.

It is also important that missionary monks have a clear awareness and appreciation of the new role they are in. Being in the completely new territory, surrounded by people who often do not know much or anything about Buddhism, but are necessary to interact with, they are somewhat in the same position as the first monks Buddha sent to propagate the new Teachings. And today this role is not only of transferring one age old religion and some of the cultural baggage that accompany it, but also the role in helping to find proper ways of its acculturation, adaptation and, as we saw through examples so far given, change in the new environment. This is especially visible in countries like Serbia, where an immigrant population from traditional Buddhist countries doesn’t exist, so there is no opportunity for learning from Asian communities of practitioners. In that respect we are lucky there is a Myanmar Embassy in Serbia, which give a lot of support to the monks and the Community in general.

Conclusions

This paper traces a wide range of socio-political, cultural and historical factors that contributed to the rise of mass lay meditation movement by highlighting the life and practice of Ledi Sayadaw and lay teachers in his lineage. It looks at how such a movement play an important role in the spread of vipassana meditation to the west, and how western meditation teachers draw on a range of Buddhist meditation traditions, including Burmese vipassana, in the development of mindfulness movement in the west. Finally, this study examines the arrival and spread of Buddhism and meditation in Serbia. I will make some concluding remarks on the case study of Buddhism in Serbia.

In sum, we could say that in a way, arrival of Buddhism to Serbia followed similar pattern we saw elsewhere in Europe and in the West in general. That pattern starts with intellectual curiosity, translations of the Canon and philosophical debates around some of the key aspects of the Teachings, to be followed with an active engagement through meditative practices and its application in everyday life.

In front of the Oxford Buddha Vihara Serbia in Čortanovci

To our big satisfaction, we learned that the attitude towards not only meditation, but to Buddhism in general in Serbia is positive. From ordinary people, through media to the other religious communities. Unfortunately, recent conflict with Rohingya, which in the Western media was pictured in a rather stereotypical, black and white way, castes a shadow. Especially because there a Muslim community in Serbia. On several occasions we had to express our views on this problem, but trying to stay away of any politics, which, like in many other places, could be quite a hot topic.

Regarding the method, we are somewhat similar to the one used by mass lay meditation movement back in Myanmar, since we also regularly organize group readings and discussions about individual suttas. As these meetings showed quite popular, we also record some of them and put on our Youtube channel.

Thanks to our donors and for those who are not able to attend our events, we have substantial publishing program, Thus, so far, we distributed more than ten thousand free books and have plans for publishing some new titles, among them the complete Majjhima Nikāya. Demand for books is big, but unfortunately, with quite limited resources, we cannot satisfy all of them.

What we are especially proud of and contrary to the widespread commodification of the vipassana meditation, all our programs and events are free, financed exclusively by donation made by participants. Exceptions are only our summer 7-day retreats, when we rent the space and have to pay for it and the food provided. But also in these situation we try fee to be the lowest possible and thus to allow everyone to attend.

Finally, we also learned that, although small and with very limited financial means, group of dedicated individuals can do a lot for promoting Dhamma in a completely new environment. Obviously, we are not going to create another mass lay meditation movement in Serbia, but we are confident that our activities contribute to the overall harmonization of the society, by helping some of its members not only to overcome challenges of their everyday life, but also to heal deep, still quite visible wounds inflicted by past decades of social instability, disintegration of an established system of values and ruthless civil war.

(Part 3 here)

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