A Bit of a Conclusion
What about the engaged Buddhist part? What does that mean? As far as I understood before coming here, there are lots of different types of alternative communities. Some focus on alternative energy use, some focus on alternative education, there are alternative government, alternative property-structure, alternative consumption methods, etc. So the engaged Buddhist part of the community I was looking for was to specify what kind of alternative community I wanted to study. The party culture of Southern Thailand where "firang" from all over the world congregate for months at a time is certainly an alternative community. So I feel the engaged Buddhist specification is an important classifier.
I think that should give a good idea of what my project was about. I wanted to go to a community that was both outside mainstream culture, and involved in the engaged Buddhist movement.
So it was that focus that landed me at Pathom Asoke. Pathom Asoke is a large community consisting of 3 main groups. First and most numerous are the students who live in large dorms near the center of the village. These can be seen everywhere in the community, and are easily identified by their blue uniforms. Second are the lay people who work at all kinds of jobs contributing to the maintenance of the community. The majority of lay people live in small houses around the core student center of the village. This center consists of two dorms (one male, one female), two cafeterias, two monk villages (again, segregated by sex), a 6-story school building, and a publication house. The third group is the monks. Each monk lives in a small abode, about the size of half a SMCM single dorm room. Their possesions are few: a nowl, a spoon, a straw mat to sleep on, an extra monk robe, general toiletries, maybe some books or writing utensils. In the Pathom Asoke spirit, nobody officially owns anything. The monks don't even own the small huts they sleep in. They are like auspicious little permanent squatters. Of course, they play a vital role in the community. While there is no official governing body, the word of a monk holds a great deal of sway.
As far as sustainability goes, Pathom Asoke is not completely removed from modern culture. During my time here, I have started to understand that for the present state of things complete removal might not be the best, or most effective, course of action. When you have electricity, internet, some cars, communication with modern culture becomes a lot easier. This is a concept that is central to the engaged Buddhist movement. It is not enough in this day and age to focus purely on one's own actions and spiritual journey. Even though contact with the larger world may carry with it some bad personal karma, it can bring about the end of greater universal karma.
So Pathom Asoke, and engaged Buddhists in general, do not intend to completely side-step modern culture. It is true that cars pollute the environment, and the energy used for computers reinforces an oppressive power structure, but with cars you can quickly transport people to places that need immediate aid (like southern Thailand after the Tsunami), and with electricity you can spread knowledge and wisdom over the globe and effect positive change.
To me, the engaged Buddhist movement is really about trying to find a certain balance. Let me tell a brief anecdote. I am and have been a vegetarian for four years. Along the way, I have also decided to stop using leather products. I was in a store recently trying to buy a good pair of hiking boots. Of course I asked if they had synthetic. It turns out the salesman was a vegetarian as well. However, on different moral grounds, he refused to buy synthetic boots. After all, the plastic factories that produce those synthetic materials probably do more harm to more organisms than simply taking the life of one cow. I don't know any statistics on this (and I don't really think you can ever know which action produces more harm), but it brings up an interesting point. Sometimes, the best life has to consist of bad actions. Sometimes a good vegetarian needs to eat meat, sometimes a good environmentalist needs to drive a car. There is a balance to strike between doing what is better taken out of context, and doing what is better put in context. This all points to the buddhist concept of Upaya (skillful means).
So I think Pathom Asoke is not so much an alternative living community in an engaged Buddhist context after all. Pathom Asoke is simply an engaged buddhist community. This encompasses the alternative living aspect. It is certainly believed by the founders and followers of Pathom Asoke that a sustainable life closer to the land is a superior one. They are even strictly vegetarian due to their interpretation of the first precept. As much as possible, the Asoke people try to pursue actions that bring along no personal guilt, no personal bad karma. But the people are also willing to be flexible where a little bad Karma can do a lot of good. Couple this with the Buddhist concept of interbeing, and everything falls into place. Because, after all, there is no personal karma that is not part of the larger karma of things.
The world is not a perfect place, and suffering does exist. All you can try to do is cope with it, and try not to create it whenever possible. Sometimes you are afforded a set of choices in which creating suffering is an inevitability. Actually this is the nature of life itself. For us to live, others must suffer inherently. Even in an ideal world where everybody is kind to everyone else, there is no disease, no crime, and people are all fruitarians (they only eat things that have fallen from trees) - there is suffering. What about our poor fungi friends? The fact is, to survive, we must consume, and there is constant competition for resources and energy. Something is always starving., suffering, running out of energy.
Okay, granted. Now what are we going to do about it? How are we going to spend that precious bit of energy that we have? That is what engaged Buddhism and Pathom Asoke are about. Minimize suffering where possible, and learn to experience it freely and openly where not.