Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Aranya Bodhi - the experience

I have to tell you, people, that I honestly don't even know where to begin here. There are so many angles, so much to relay -- how to begin? There's the location itself, there are the wonderful people who live there and work hard to make it the place they envision, and there's my personal experience that's all wrapped up with all of it.

One conclusion I have reached is that you will never, ever, truly understand it until you experience it. You can read what I write, you can read their website and blog, but there are simply no words  in my lexicon that will adequately express either the difficulties or the joys that come with daily life, or the inner beauty of the nuns and lay residents and other Buddhist women who share the land. I'll do the best I can, but admit from the get-go that my writing skills, such as they are, will be inadequate. I also choose not to publish any photos of either the people or the facilities, so I can't do my usual photo essay. Nobody asked this of me, but I also didn't ask permission, so I prefer to let them judge what they want published on their own sites. I do have photos of the land to share, never fear!

Maybe the land is the best way to begin, because without the land, none of the rest of it would exist. The ancient redwoods here were logged -- clear-cut -- somewhere around 22 years ago. I don't remember the exact year. I also don't know how many acres -- but it's in the hundreds. Probably 500 or more, although all of that has not been given to Aranya Bodhi. After it was logged the land was purchased by a woman who in effect gave up what was then her life in order to own, and save, these acres. She didn't know what she was going to do with it, but as the years passed she offered some of the land to a group of Buddhist lay women who inhabit simple cabins, mostly I believe on a part-time basis. Later, she met Ayya Tathaaloka (the Abbess), who at that time led a small meditation group in Fremont (near San Francisco) and who expressed interest in a forest meditation center, or hermitage, as a part of what she was trying to build. Thus came Aranya Bodhi. As you might imagine, the story is much more complex than that, but I've tried to put it in the proverbial nutshell. If I've made any mistakes when it comes to facts, I know I will be forgiven.

This is how a redwood forest regenerates after being logged. The stumps become mother trees, shooting up offspring all around. Throughout the forest, sights such as this abound. New growth surrounding old stumps.

I was surprised to see how tall these trees have become in the short, 20-odd years since the land was logged. The regrowth has, of course, been totally directed by nature and includes various deciduous trees as well as the redwoods.

This is the trail that led from the kuti I stayed in up to the main trail. None of the trails and few of the roads existed when the nuns arrived -- all have been established and built by the nuns and lay volunteers -- a formidable task that I can appreciate, as a former trail maintainer of four miles of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Steps at the far end here are barely visible, yet indicative of many others that aid in the ascent and descent of the many trails that go up and down the mountains here.

Redwoods want to live!

One of the basic teachings of Buddhism is that all sentient beings have a desire to live. It's one of the reasons Buddhists do not kill any living beings. Plants are not sentient beings, but as these photos illustrate, redwoods certainly have a deep desire to live.

Redwood logs lining the trail just above 'my' kuti.

"Dead" logs, with no connection to any rooted stump, issue sprouts all along the trail in the above photo. Is this not a desire to live? 

This 1500 year old Korean pagoda, or stupa,was found in a Seattle antique store and rescued by someone who recognized what it was. Somehow, it found its way to this land and now sits atop a hill on the property, not far from my kuti.

I found great humor in this sight, which is not far from the stupa. The logs and dolly belong to another large landholder up here. I wonder just how far that little blue dolly would get trying to move one of these monster logs?

While the land is beautiful, and while without it Aranya Bodhi would likely not exist, the real heart of the land is the people who inhabit it. I had the good fortune to have a couple of good talks with the woman who owns the land, lives nearby, and who has donated the land to Aranya Bodhi. I won't mention her name because I don't think it's on their website. She may prefer to remain anonymous. I found her fascinating, interesting and easy to talk to, and her story really touched something deep inside me. She, as well as all of the other women, were true inspirations. More about them later.

The first thing that surprised me upon arrival is the terrain. I'd envisioned some kind of level or rolling spot of clear meadow that would contain the basic infrastructure and community, but that is certainly not the case. Very little here is level and my first introduction was to carry my gear up a forest trail to the kuti, a distance I'd guess to be around one-quarter to one-third of a mile. It feels much longer when you first make the attempt, especially laden with bags and camping gear. My experience here was no-doubt colored by the fact that the stitches had only come out of the skin cancer excision site on my leg two days before my arrival, and the fact that I hadn't been allowed to walk for three weeks while the incision healed.

I think it was the second group of steps on the trail where my legs simply said 'no' and wouldn't allow me to lift my body and bags up another riser. Ayya Sobhana, the prioress and driving force behind this place, carried my heavy bag the rest of the way, much to my embarrassment. She isn't all that much younger than I am, but then, she walks these hills daily and also hiked the Appalachian Trail years ago before going forth to become a nun. I struggled with every up and down trip for the first week or so, until the muscle that had been cut out healed and rebuilt, but that didn't stop me from exploring and walking for pleasure, as well as necessity.

The 'doorbell' to a private monastic kuti.

Even the structures and travel trailers are on two different levels, so very little happens without going up and down somewhere several times per day. I'm grateful for the forced exercise, because I know that with the heat of a Georgia summer I would never have driven myself to this level of exercise and rebuilding that muscle. Plus, it just feels so darned good to be out in nature for any reason. The six kuti's are scattered up the hills in various directions, none within sight of another or any other structure. Likewise, tent sites are also scattered. As promised, the weather was mostly cool, but often warm and sunny without being hot. Because I wanted to travel with carry-on, I only had one set of sweats and some thermal undies. I rarely took the sweatshirt off and unlike other bits of clothing, it never got washed because it takes too long to dry. Laundry is washed by hand and hung on lines to dry. I was really happy to see the last of these clothes by the time I left!

The community has everything you might consider a necessity, other than flush toilets and telephones. Power is solar, internet via a dish, whether microwave or satellite I don't know. There's an indoor shower for cooler weather, but what I used was the outdoor shower, which has an on-demand water heater. It's basically a tent, of sorts. There's a flap one can zip for privacy, but since it faces the redwoods it's nicer to stand almost in the woods. The last time I used it however, the air had a chill and a cool breeze, so I zipped it up.  That worked great until you need to reach your towel and clothing, and then there's a bit of briskness involved!

Solar panels in the redwoods. There were others atop the laundry shed.

My work for the week was in the office trailer where I worked on catching up with their bookkeeping. Others worked on the construction of a new wooden tool shed, which was a far more impressive endeavor, to me. When I arrived only the foundation was built. Soon, the plywood floor was laid, then the walls built and raised one at a time, by a group of lay women with little or no construction experience, led by the indefatigable Ayya Sobhana, who works harder and longer than anyone else on the property. Men are welcome, by the way, but because it's run by women it tends to draw more women. A couple of monks were expected a few days after I left. And then there's the old sexism issue in Buddhism (and elsewhere), where women are relegated to inferior roles, so it's not surprising that Buddhist women come here.

During my visit three nuns were in residence, along with one impressive young lay woman who is the steward -- she does most of the cooking and much more. Several women came and went during my stay -- for periods ranging from a few days, to a week, to two weeks and one who arrived a few days after me who plans to stay for two months. Others were expected after I left. They come and work -- inspired much as I am, helping to build this wonderful community. Some have monastic aspirations, others do not.

Back to the women who live here, including the Aranya Bodhi residents, the donor, and the other group of Buddhist women who dwell on the other side of the creek. The one single, over-riding impression I received from all of them is the deep level of happiness and contentment that comes from following the path of the Buddha. You can see it in their eyes -- and feel it in the kindness with which everyone treats everyone else. This is one place where words totally fail. You just gotta be there.

Another place where words fail is in how simply they live, how little they have. Everything they have is the result of a donation of some kind: money, time, or in-kind donations such as food. Almost everyone who visits brings food, especially fresh veggies. They are able to shop for what they need, but town is a couple of hours away for the most part, and they would never spend money on things they might consider to be luxuries, so they mostly live from food donors. Take coffee, as one small example. When I arrived, there was a Folger's can that didn't hold Folgers -- just a mix of coffees people had brought up there from time to time. I suspect they wouldn't buy coffee at all if they ran out, but I know they'd never buy anything premium, even though some of the nuns and lay residents enjoy good coffee. We coffee drinkers were all really grateful when the woman who arrived a couple of days after me brought two pounds of a fine coffee from San Francisco. Thank you, Geri! The first thing I did when I got to Napa was buy some good coffee and send it to them.

And yet, despite the simple life and what most of us would consider to be deprivations, these women are thriving, as individuals and as a community. The visitors I watched come and go also had a glow -- certainly by the time they left, if not when they arrived. Inspiration is everywhere -- in the forest, and in the way these women practice what the Buddha taught. See? Words fail again. One thing that I can say unequivocally is that I truly miss everyone I met here, every day.

That's enough for now, people. Inadequate, but enough. If you get a chance, go visit and see for yourself.


  1. Kitty, it's lovely to read your impressions of the hermitage, the land, and all of us who reside upon it. May you abide in well-being, and come back to us, whenever it seems right.

    1. Thanks, Jill. I hope to return, somehow or other. My body resists the physical difficulties, but my heart draws me west. For now, a photo taken in the yurt of 'the group' hangs on my wall as a poor substitute for being there.