Saturday, January 21, 2012

Aranya Bodhi

While I was at Bhavana this last time someone told me about a new Hermitage (a forest monastery) for Buddhist nuns that is being established on the Sonoma Coast of California. She told me it was in Jenner, and that may be true, although I have yet to confirm that. Sonoma Coast, yes. I keep thinking Jenner is in Mendocino County, but it's been awhile since I've been there and I could be wrong. And I'm too lazy to look it up. Check out their website: Aranya Bodhi.

Anyway - the two women who founded it are long-time nuns from this country and their focus is to bring back the little-used policy of ordaining nuns in the Theravada tradition. Someone donated a big chunk of land on the Coast for their use -- redwood forests and all! -- and they've been more or less camping out for the past two years on a portion of coast that isn't always hospitable. It's beautiful, but can be cold and stormy. One of the founding nuns, and another who recently joined them, lived at Bhavana for a long time. I met the most recent one, Ayya Suddina, when I was there in August.

As long-term readers may remember, I have for years wanted to go to some such place for retirement -- out of the 'world' where I can be with like-minded people, study and meditate. I decided during my last visit that Bhavana would not work too well for me (too much of a male-dominated society), so this is very appealing to me. I would love to be a part of building such a place! They live in tents or Kuti huts, have some solar power, a kitchen trailer and a few other improvements, but they have a long way to go.  I've already arranged for my bank to send them a small donation every month -- the best I can do at the moment to help them. I've also emailed to ask about ordination or living/working as a lay person. Every monastery or hermitage needs at least one lay person, to handle money, since monastics are not allowed to handle money. I could also run errands and basically help keep the place running smoothly.  After all, it's what I do for pay.

I wouldn't be able to go for a year -- the house issue. But, Ayya Sobhana (the founding prioress, who was at Bhavana for years) is leading a Metta meditation retreat at Southern Dharma Center (in North Carolina) in March, so I may decide to go there and meet with her, if they are open to that. Time will tell.

We are under a tornado watch again today. I didn't know it until I arrived at the library and read an email, but waking up to 60 degree temps at 5am in January, with rain and thunderstorms happening, pretty much told me that we were having tornado weather.  Damn.  I'd still rather live with the threat of earthquakes than tornadoes!

Other than that -- not much happening. The usual errands, shopping. Cooking.

Be well, all.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


On a couple of the days when I was at Bhavana I had a real need to communicate, so I scribbled on the backs of whatever paper I could find. That satisfied the need, but I thought I'd put them here anyway.

Undated, but the first one:

A-NEE-cha. Perhaps the most important Pali word those following the Buddhist path need to know. This trip to Bhavana could not have illustrated the meaning better. Summer's dense greenery has turned to winter's bare branches, a thick bed of brown leaves and lots of downed trees.

Roughly translated, Anicca means 'impermanence', yet according to Bhante G it means a great deal more than that. Like so many words from ancient languages, there is no clear English word that conveys the full meaning, so 'impermanence' has to do. He suggests we learn the word and use it, to benefit from its full meaning. Does my English-fed mind truly understand the Pali nuances? It's not a question I can answer, but I can tell you that when I contemplate 'anicca' (a word I learned 7 years ago at my first retreat) in my meditation, I do seem to feel a tad different than when I contemplate 'impermanence.'

We contemplate anicca, or impermanence, because the entirety of the Buddha's teaching can pretty much be boiled down to this word. He taught that the cause of all suffering is greed, or its opposite, aversion. And yet, since everything in this world -- this universe -- is impermanent, we can never find happiness, or freedom from suffering, from grasping and trying to hold onto pleasant feelings, perceptions, ideas and circumstances, or from angrily pushing away or against feelings, perceptions, ideas and circumstances that we find less appealing. It just doesn't happen. That shiny new car, or that new love in your life, satisfy a greed or desire, but only temporarily. Once the newness of either wears away, we're mostly off to some new object or idea to 'make us happy.'

Everything changes.  The oceans, rivers,mountains and trees -- even the stars in the sky -- are constantly changing. And so, my friend, are you. Does your body look the same in the mirror as it did 20 or 40 years ago? One year ago? We age. We mature, hopefully. Our body loses old cells by the millions daily, replaces them with new. We have ways of making us live longer, but death and aging are inevitable.

Our ideas change, too.  When we look closely at the feelings of body and mind we see constant change. Things arise, they pass away. Nothing stays the same. Yet, we grasp at objects, people, ideas for happiness, even though it's impossible for that object, person or idea to remain constant.

So, we're back to anicca. We contemplate everything as impermanent, unable to give us lasting happiness. Along with that we realize that these feelings or desires are not 'ours', since we cannot control them or hold on to them. They are mere products of the mind, which with close attention we can watch arise and pass away, arise and pass away. Regarded as impermanent, we cannot grab hold and develop attachment, cause suffering. And that, to answer many questions, is a good part of 'what do you do up there?". Anicca, anicca, anicca.

Christmas Day:

I have just arrived at my own personal version of 'Bhavana heaven'.  Well, maybe not quite, but certainly so in its own way.  How? I moved out of the crowded, noisy dorm (8 women in 4 small rooms) into a Kuti hut of my very own. Karuna is its name, and it's really quite lovely. As I write this I'm sitting in filtered sunshine on my nice screened deck, looking out at the woods. Peaceful. Quiet. Outdoors.

As you can see [from previously published photos] it has its own meditation cushion and I expect to put this to use for the afternoon sits (2-5:30pm with a 1/2 hour break). I find these difficult, but it should be easier here. Maybe. I like to think so, anyway.

I've been thinking of this for a few days, since the weather hasn't been forbidding, then last night I got a new roommate, who flipped on the lights 3 times while I was trying to sleep (and another in another room who snored, loudly). The decision was made. The move is accomplished. I'm a happy camper. Or, happy Buddhist camper.

One of our new arrivals (for the 2nd half of the year-end retreat) brought lunch dana, or offerings, for us today. Not only did that get me out of my lunch prep in the kitchen (which I love!), we got a scrumptious meal. Some kind of bean soup, roasted brussels sprouts (yummy), sauteed mushrooms, biscuits, brie cheese, fabulous guacamole, some kind of European pastry and fresh raspberries. What's not to like about that? Don't get me wrong, food here is always plentiful, varied and delicious, but when someone offers dana they tend to bring their best shot, and it's a bit more luxurious than the Bhavana budget (or my budget!) tends to allow. We have Sri Lankan dana on our last day, January 1st, and I know from experience just how wonderful that can be.

The three of us who stayed over from the first half of the retreat had a grand old time yesterday. Meditation? Forget it. Silence? Forget it. We talked, laughed, got downright giddy and silly. A break for the body and the mind. -- and friendships forged.

Friday, January 6, 2012

On the subject of aging

I've been on one of my periodic quests for a warmer, cheaper place to retire. A place without tornadoes and without snow. Granted, this has been a warmer winter (so far) than the past two, but the snow has been replaced with tornadoes, and that's not a very good tradeoff. I can't kid myself that the snow is gone forever, either, or that even if it is, tornadoes are preferable.

So Wednesday I was searching around online at various wonderful places around the world with warm weather and low costs of living and then reality entered the picture when a little voice reminded me that I would be 70 years old my next birthday, and wouldn't be able to move before then. And c'mon, people, 70 is just a little too old to go following my nose halfway around the world. Or even to the Caribbean, for that matter. Costa Rica is really appealing.

It's not just a case of wanderlust -- it's mostly weather related. I also have to face the fact that I won't be able to afford to maintain the house (new roof, paint, whatever else might come along). So, after February 8, 2013 I'll need to move on. And since I have to move....well, why not search for fine weather once again?  Unlike several years ago when I opted not to move to Mexico because I didn't think I'd find enough to do, right now I think I'd be completely happy to have nothing better to do than walk on a beach every day.

I'm also not following old patterns of running away from things, because I know full well that the things we try to run from will simply follow us wherever we go. The only things I want to run away from are tornadoes and snow. Period. And if I'm careful about my selections, those won't follow me and I won't replace them with hurricanes.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Trip report -- finally

I'm still having a  hard time getting into writing about the two weeks at Bhavana -- not because it was a bad experience, because that's certainly not the case. Somehow, it seems so long ago -- and certainly 'other worlds' apart. I was there, and I remember it clearly, but it just isn't at the top of my mind the way you'd think it would be.

I guess it's a kind of jet lag. It certainly was a culture shock, coming from two weeks in that quiet, forest environment onto freeways and into the craziness of life here in the real world. It took me days to rest up from the drive home, then I sort of partied Monday night watching the Rose Bowl (Yay, Ducks!) and had to return to work yesterday to a real mess. That part wasn't surprising -- these two men are hopeless when it comes to banking and money and such. I finally got the bank account straightened out this morning and now I'm all caught up and can start to relax again.

So back to Bhavana -- the first word that comes to mind is cold. Not as cold as it is here today (17 at my home this morning) but chilly, inside and out. We all wore whatever we had with us that would keep us warm, in the dorms, the lunch/tea area, and the meditation hall. There was heat, but it was kept low to keep expenses down and it never felt warm unless you were standing in front of the wood stove when the fire was going strong, and even then you had to be really close to it. Brrrrr! Other than that.....

I was surprised but not unhappy to find that we were a very small group, for both weeks. We had 8 women and 2 men for each week, although only four of us women attended both weeks.  Our schedule called for 9 hours of meditation per day, beginning at 5:30 am and ending at 9pm.  I quickly found that schedule wouldn't work for me (no surprise there -- I can't stay up that late!).  I'd get up at 4:30am, take a quick shower, then go make coffee for everyone, have a quick cup for myself, then head into the meditation hall around 5am. For the first week, it was only me and Bhante G in there at that hour, and my cushion was probably no more than 10 feet from him so I enjoyed that half hour before others began to straggle in. Bhante Seelananda returned from a trip and then there were just the 3 of us in there in the mornings until the second week, when there were one or two other early folks with us.  Then, in the evening I began going into the hall at 6pm instead of 7pm, and again would find one or both of the monks in there and it would be just us. Then I'd leave early and go to bed.  The early morning meditation was almost two hours, and then we'd sit again for two hours after breakfast. I never managed to sit the entire 3-hour period in the afternoons, but still, I did more than a lot of the attendees and I did all I could.

What was interesting to me was how much the retreat changed for me when the first group of people left and the new group arrived. I had issues with my new roommate not being thoughtful about turning the light on when I was trying to sleep, and requested a move to a kuti. Somehow, all the changes brought up all kinds of ugly stuff for me to look at, meditate on, and let go. I left in the middle of the third one, foolishly. I know I can't run away from this stuff, and I could have dealt with it if I'd stayed -- but at the time I just felt I had to get out of there. Nobody's fault -- just part of long meditation retreats. It's actually why we go to these things, so this stuff can come up and be addressed, but it's never fun while it's happening.

I was able to walk the path through the forest almost every day. It takes about a half hour, and is very peaceful. Unfortunately, the sun only shown intermittently, so the moss doesn't stand out as much as it could. But it was a grand portion of my day. Once, I was having such a struggle with stuff coming up that I left the meditation hall all wigged out and walked this path, working on all the stuff as I walked. Sometimes, I can't work on the stuff sitting -- I do better out in nature, even if it's below freezing outside, as it was that day.

I loved watching the sunset each afternoon from my kuti.

This is Karuna Kuti, which was my home for several days before I bolted. It's heated with propane, but I tried to keep costs down for them, and didn't turn the heat up far enough to be really warm. Just kept the chill off.

Inside -- a very nice little home.

In my walks and exploration I found this Buddha statue sitting on a log near the upper women's dorm, and thought it was really cool.

This is Parami Kuti, where I stayed last summer.  It looks really different in the winter -- all that lush greenery of summer is long gone.

This has absolutely nothing to do with Bhavana -- I was drawn by curiosity to see what the sign was all about at a rest stop in Virginia on the way north.  Enlarge the photo to hopefully read it, but this is the Arch Truss Bridge, the oldest in Virginia, dating from the 1700's. Kind of cool.

So, that's it, folks. Full report.