A friend raised the following points, which I found stimulating. I address them here, inviting others to share their doubts, views, experiences, insights and prescriptions.
"My observation of BV [Bhakti-vriksha] and trying to implement it, is that it is often a separate initiative from the temple and its bag of programs. It becomes another program that has to compete for mindshare and resources, rather than becoming the new strategic organizational structure for the yatra . . . It requires cutting back on programs and building the cellular focus as the basis for everything."
I find this meditation intriguing and urgent for the long-term vision of how our movement should develop.
Historically, ISKCON in the West started small. I am not referring specifically to Srila Prabhupada's (an army of one) landing and gaining a foothold in the United States. I am thinking of the dynamics of the first few temples: small and intimate, family-like, and which after a short span of a few months would "multiply": a few devotees from one center would pack their bags and move to another city to start a new temple.
This original dynamics of expansion reminds of the process of expansion of cell groups (or Bhakti-vrikshas, in our terminology). The difference being that the division and doubling in the cell system (the multiplication) mostly happens in the same city, while in the infancy of ISKCON it would happen from one city to another.
Srila Prabhupada spoke clear directions on opening a temple while lecturing in the Los Angeles temple, which was previously used as a church:
"I am very much pleased that you are worshiping Deity very nicely, gorgeously. But in India you will find there are so many temples. Of course, it requires the energy. Otherwise here also, there are so many churches. Now they are being closed. This church, this was a church. Now it was closed. There was no customer. And now it is filled up. Why? The same church, the same men, the same spot. It is due to real knowledge. So if you go on simply opening centers, if there is no knowledge then it will again become a closed church someday. So don't do that. Before opening a center you must have perfect worshiper, perfect devotees. Not perfect; at least those who are willing to become. Then open. Otherwise, simply chant."
Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.42
Los Angeles, 23 July 1975
So, first of all, apparently, Srila Prabhupada was talking about the set-up that includes regular Deity worship, not just any preaching center. Secondly, he instructed to open the temple *after* having devotees. I read in this instruction that the congregation, the community of worshipers, should come before the establishment of the temple, the temple building and programs a manifestation of their desire and need to congregate, to worship the "Deity very nicely, gorgeously."
Actually this makes a lot of sense: a community of devotees ("those who are willing to become" perfect), decides that they want to upgrade their service to include elaborate Deity adoration, that they want to have a large common space for worship. They pull their financial capacity together and manifest the temple.
But, one might wonder, how will the community grow and come to the point of being able to open and maintain a temple *without* having a temple in the first place?
This question could be answered by another question:
How would the community grow if, instead of putting energy into building the congregation, we invested all our time and money to open and run a temple?
In other words—and we have seen it happen—when temple opening (or building, in some cases even renting) is given chronological priority over building of the congregation, what may happen is that all efforts focus on keeping the temple open and running, all time is invested in collecting funds and worshiping the Deity, and as a result the temple-residents have neither time nor energy to cultivate the local human beings who could become devotees.
Building a congregation doesn't depend on establishing a temple first—and having the temple first might often be an obstacle to building the congregation. The congregation can be built when people are cultivated in a personal, individual way (in small groups) and when they are encouraged and empowered to replicate the setting by taking responsibility to become reference points for other seekers. In other words, the cell approach: a group practices and grows in their faith and spiritual taste, in their vision and compassion, in their sense of duty towards the mission, and the mechanism should be in place to expand the number of groups to keep them intimate and allow for leadership expansion. The structure should, of course, be carefully monitored and supervised for optimizing purity, care, quality and missionary performance.
A community of active congregational preachers can penetrate society and grow to massive proportions even before establishing an official location for gatherings and worship.
A key issue is the vision we have of the candidates for the community. Do we see new people simply as potential donors (milking cows) or as potential missionaries? Srila Prabhupada wrote: "We are interested more in preaching members than in the sleeping members" (letter of September 1955).
Temples have an important place in Lord Caitanya's movement; but they should be sustainable manifestations of the devotion of active communities of practitioners, not as imaginary pre-requisites for preaching, as paradoxically self-defeating attempts at expansion.
Often it's more of a psychological dependence on "the building," the mistaken notion that having secured a place (four walls and a roof) corresponds to having established Krishna consciousness in a city.
Krishna consciousness is in the hearts of those who practice it, and the power of expansion is with the madhyam-adhikari preacher. Without that presence, buildings can turn into empty shells, difficult to maintain and unattractive to the public. The vibrancy of love in sadhu-sanga, the transformational clarity of Krishna-katha, the joy of the congregational chanting, the shelter and purification of japa, and the excitement of the missionary spirit are the infallible ingredients of expansion. When these elements are ignited, activated in the Bhakti-vriksha setting lives will change, minds will illuminate, energy will spring forth like fire from wood. It will then be a matter of management to see that such groups are protected and monitored in an organizational structure.
Such structure (when spiritually healthy and properly supervised) has the power (spiritual and economic) to establish not one, but many temples, many centers for larger gatherings and assemblies. So, a Bhakti-vriksha Program, when properly developed, can be the source of temples; but a temple without a clear plan for cultivation, care and empowerment of its constituency (through small, cohesive, active and outreaching groups) might end up "like the burden of a beast or like one's keeping a cow without milking capacity" (SB 11.11.18).
That was a very brilliant perspective and one that had not occurred to me. Thankyou for presenting this in a new light. I tend to agree with this because of various factors in my own devotional life. I would imagine also that temples Vs. bhakti-vriksha groups and vice-versa may strike fear into the hearts of say, temples that may already have economic suppoprt from it's congregation, (especially Indian-bodied) congregations and so what is discussed here while illuminating may be viewed as a kind of "catch-22" depending on time and place.
For example, in India at least, what I observed when I was in Mumbai and Vrndavana in 2004, is that the temple seems to be a vibrant place and as such, it appeared that the congregation rallies around the temple.
In North America, the reverse seems to be true especially after the disappearnce of His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada. Ironically, Srila Prabhupada did say to a devotee once that one day temples would be places that would be for Brahmanas and pujaris etc and that ISKCON would have a thriving congregation. In as much as Catholics for example are basically a congregation and the priests and nuns etc. maintain the parish or whatever. Perhaps this is the future of ISKCON.
It has also been my experience that for the last 27 years most people who are interested in Krsna consciousness love the philosophy of the Vedas and vegetarianism while coming to the temple may make them shy. The reason for this is the idea of deity worship which for most westerners and the unusualness of chanting the holy names, at least in the beginning, that seems diamtrically opposed to their ingrained beliefs inculcated by the Judeo-Christian ethic.
So I would imagine the above article in the end makes a lot of sense because perhaps it is the most practical way to have the general mass of people tip-toe ever so gently into the waters of Vaisnavism. After all, in the end, it is Krsna consciousness and the conclusions of sastra that is the summun bonnum. This of course is also important because of the gap in establishing a "Varnasrama" situation which would of course take in the "temple and congregational" community which by the way was seen in a film called, "Lagaan" whereby the village community had their temple and where the villagers were all Krsna conscious yet going about their respective jobs in the varna etc. In this light, the above article begins to make sense.