Friends at Pipal Tree in Bangalore recently opened the Pipal Tree-Alliance Ashram dedicated to the exploration of "secular spirituality" in light of the on-going social contexts of South India, Asia, and the world. I was asked to contribute a comment on the meaning of "the Ashram." This may be of interest to those with similar aspirations, including our own in the USA's Midwest.
My understanding of what an "Ashram" is depends much on my experience of living at Suan Mokkh, "The Garden of Liberation" founded by the great Thai teacher Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. The name "Garden of Liberation" or "Liberation Park" (Americanized version) says a great deal about the Ashram. First of all, and most crucially, its purpose is liberation, which in Buddhist terms means liberation from all forms of dukkha (suffering), including personal, emotional, ecological, and socio-structural. Once a place is dedicated to liberation, certain things become possible and others impossible.
The Ashram explores what liberation is and what enables it. To do so, we must understand the suffering from which we seek liberation. For us, all suffering is rooted in selfishness and egoism. Individually, ego wreaks havoc in our own hearts & minds. Collectively, systems of selfishness like capitalism, racism, & militarism create untold collective pain and harm.
The garden or park aspects means that an Ashram is a natural setting where Nature is given many opportunities to influence and teach us. Ajahn Buddhadasa emphasized living intimately with nature in order to know its secrets, especially how to live free, in harmony with the Law of Nature (Dhamma).
Since we are not merely individuals (despite all the modernist propaganda) and are equally imbedded in all kinds of relationships, the Ashram is the proving ground for Sangha. Sangha is any community that comes together for the sake of liberation and letting go of selfishness. In the Ashram, we foster Sangha through learning the daily nuts-and-bolts practices of kindness, tolerance, open-mindedness, responsibility, flexibility, discipline, communication, and healing.
Finally, the Ashram is an ancient laboratory given new meaning by the pressures of our bizarre post-modern world. These days, few people really know how to live and humanity as a whole is bewildered by the speed of change and globalization. We need to start over, like babies, and experiment with how to live together happily, unselfishly, creatively, freely!