Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chapter One

Driving 11 hours after a tiring week turns out not to be the best idea I ever had. Seemed fine at the time -- I was filled with adrenaline and made the drive with no problems. But let me tell you, I've suffered for it afterwards, wanting to do nothing more than sleep. I did make it to work yesterday, but even now my energy has not returned.  I'm really getting too old to act like I'm a kid!  

Because my experiences at Bhavana were so varied and so wonderful, I've opted to break the tale into two parts, beginning here with my experiences with the place itself.  I'll talk about the retreat a bit later on.

This sign greets you, assures you that you are not lost, after several miles of driving back country roads. I love this photo because it shows the beauty of the entire area -- lush greenery, nature at her best.

I arrived on Saturday around 2pm, a day before the actual retreat was to begin. A wonderful resident named Ann greeted me, showed me my kuti (the little hut that would be my home for the week) and gave me a great orientation tour of the property. As it turns out, I was just in time for a weekly Pali (the language of the Buddha) class, to be followed by a Sutta (the teachings of the Buddha) class.  I opted out of the Pali class, deciding to settle into my kuti instead. Ann introduced me to the resident monks, Bhante Seelananda (or, as he introduced himself, Bhante Seela), and Bhante Dhamma. I met the Abbot, Bhante Gunaratana (better known as Bhante G) rather by accident while standing in the entry looking at some items on a bulletin board. The door opened and a monk in full robes, a big floppy hat, wearing sneakers with a backpack water container over his shoulder walked in. I knew who it had to be, although he didn't introduce himself. He did greet me, asked me a question, then went on his way. He is, I believe, 83, and all of them had been up until 2am in the temple, celebrating the half full moon, so he was no doubt a bit tired.  He also had a Sutta lesson awaiting and needed to get his shower after his daily walk. Wisdom and kindness simply radiate from this man, and I soaked up every opportunity I had to be in his presence.

I attended the Sutta class, very small, held in the library with perhaps a dozen people, including the monks, the resident nun, resident lay people and some outsiders who are always welcome to these classes.  I was more than a little awed, I must admit, to have the opportunity to get a Sutta lesson from Bhante G himself. It was a rather magical hour.  I also had the opportunity to meet Sayalay Susila, the retreat teacher, who arrived during the afternoon.

This is my kuti, named Parami, which means 'perfection' in Pali. There are 10 parami's in Buddhism, virtues cultivated as a path to purification and leading an unobstructed life, so it was a good name to have. It has windows on three sides always open to light breezes and the sounds of nature.  Crickets and tree frogs serenaded me during the night. The kuti's have neither electricity nor plumbing, but neither presented a problem. The main building wasn't far away, for plumbing and electrical needs. Although I took several photos of the kuti during my stay, this one was taken and sent to me by Ann, the resident I got to know fairly well during my stay.

This sign adorns the office building in the main courtyard, and signifies what Bhavana and Theravadan Buddhism are about.  Sila is virtue, Samadhi is concentration, and Panna is wisdom. It's what we all strive to find in our practice.

Another photo of my kuti, from the path leading from the main building. My camera really does not do greens well!

I slept well that first night, tired from the drive, peaceful from the afternoon and evening spent with various activities and meeting people.  Early Sunday morning (as in 5am!) we were all in the meditation hall being led through the morning routine by Bhante G.  The sounds of children laughing and playing disturbed the peace of that early hour, which seemed strange, because while there are houses in the neighborhood, these children were nearby and what average American child is going to be wandering outside in groups away from home in the morning darkness? Once the morning routine was finished, I learned what was going on.  It is not unusual for families to bring food to the monastery as dana, or generosity in giving, and that's what was going on. They were expected, of course, but arrived earlier than expected.  This turned out to be a real treat!

This was a large Sri Lankan family, at least three generations, perhaps four.  Three children under 10 or so, and two infants.  Breakfast at the monastery happens at 7am, and they had brought a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast lovingly prepared by the family. We had beans, noodle cakes, rice cakes, oatmeal and cereals with nuts, a traditional breakfast soup -- very green and very vegetative but very good -- that was supposed to be very healthy.  The family stayed to also provide lunch, which was even more of an array than breakfast. Rice, other grains, potatoes, a mushroom dish, green beans, a minced parsley salad and a similar cooked minced parsley dish, a fruit that looked like a bite-sized chunk of pot roast, curried (or at least with tumeric) cooked cashews, red lentil soup, fresh fruit, two rice puddings and sweet rice bars.  And I'm sure I left some out!  This was really a treat, a wonderful opportunity not only to experience the traditional food, but also to observe the family and see the importance to them of this dana and the ceremony.  Bhante G read off a list of departed family members who were being sent merit by the living families through this act of dana.  In fact, every meal, every day at Bhavana is the result of dana from some persons or family, and the names are always noted at mealtime.

Mealtime at Bhavana is always a ceremony. The monastics sit on raised platforms in the background, the rest sit on the floor.  This was another photo Ann sent me, of our group at some meal or another. The yellow pages before us on the table contain various passages that are recited daily at each meal.  Some only by the monks, others by the monks as well as others -- most of them are in Pali.  Because of these recitations, mealtimes tend to take a fair amount of time. That would not be bad in and of itself, but this old  body did grow weary of the amount of getting up and down from the floor, between dining and meditation!  When I left, I felt as if I didn't want to sit down again for a very long time.  The food, incidentally, was absolutely delicious.  All vegetarian, of course, but with a wide variety of terrific food in great abundance.  Everyone visiting Bhavana has a daily work assignment, and I chose to work in the kitchen for an hour each day helping prepare lunch.  I really enjoyed that, and learned a lot in the process.

This is the meditation hall, photo taken on the last day once the retreat officially ended.  It's an extraordinarily beautiful room, with the bentwood arches and wood paneling. The windows are always open to breezes and the sounds of nature.

This peaceful spot is what I believe they call the columbarium, although I may be wrong about the term.  Whatever you call it, the area behind the wall is a place where one may choose to have one's ashes interred after death. This is something I've known about for years, and I can't think of a better place for my ashes to lie. No, I'm not in a hurry,  but at my age one never knows.

I spent time hiking various trails into the woods, sat outside on little benches in secluded spots, generally enjoyed weather that I can only call spectacular.  Days were balmy, in the mid-eighties, nights cool, mostly breezy, with a few showers here and there.  It's a beautiful place inhabited by beautiful people teaching a beautiful message.  Tired as I am, I'm glad I went.

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