Virginia de Leon/Staff writer
"We live our lives as lives of generosity. … In
America, we have such a consumer society. We try to pull people
from that materialistic state of mind so they can learn how
good it feels to give."
Sravasti Abbey founder, Venerable Thubten Chodron leads
a meditation session before a teaching.
Wash. – Eyes closed, heads bowed, hands together
in prayer, the 10 women and men inside the log cabin meditate
in silence. "Through purity, freeing from attachment, through
virtue freeing from the lower realm," they later chant out
loud, sitting on cushions on the floor before an ornate altar
to the Buddha. "…To the Dharma that is peace, I bow."
prayers are led by a nun – a thin woman with a shaved
head dressed in flowing crimson robes. She is known as the Venerable
Thubten Chodron, a Western Buddhist monastic in the Tibetan tradition,
a spiritual leader renowned worldwide for her teachings.
Two years ago, Chodron established this monastery in a quiet,
rural area about 50 miles north of Spokane. Encompassing 240
acres of forest and meadow, Sravasti Abbey is the only one of
its kind in the area. While many cities have Dharma centers and
Tibetan Buddhist temples, sacred spaces devoted to monastic life
remain rare in the United States.
recent months, the abbey has received a flurry of visitors
from across the region to learn more about Buddhism and to
volunteer. Together they pray, listen to Chodron's teachings
and hold discussions in the log cabin known as the meditation
hall. They cook and eat meals in silence inside the main building,
a chalet-like home with large windows adorned with Tibetan
prayer flags. They also help with construction projects or the
garden beds of vegetables, lilies and wildflowers.
visit for a day or a weekend, some for a couple of weeks. A
few have stayed for four months or longer. Although the abbey
exists specifically for monastics and those preparing for ordination,
it welcomes laity who seek to deepen their spirituality.
week, seven people and three others who live at the abbey are
in the midst of a retreat to clarify their calling to monastic
life. Some aren't sure if they're meant to be a nun or monk – to
pursue spirituality full time by leading a life of obedience,
humility, celibacy and utter simplicity – but they wish
to explore the possibility.
"I want to make the best use of this life," said Kathleen
Herron, who turned to Buddhism 10 years ago after juggling motherhood
and her career as an attorney and political activist. "I'm
looking for the broadest and deepest way to practice my values."
Chodron, who has studied with the Dalai Lama, understands this
quest for meaning.
in Chicago in 1950, she was raised by a "non-religious" Jewish
family in a Christian neighborhood in Los Angeles. She graduated
from UCLA and worked as an elementary school teacher after spending
more than a year traveling Europe, Asia and North Africa.
1975, a meditation course she attended spurred her to go to
Nepal to study with the teachers of that class, Venerable Lama
Yeshe and Venerable Zopa Rinpoche. Chodron received novice
vows in 1977 and full ordination in 1986. Chodron continued
her studies in India, France and elsewhere. She also has taught
at Buddhist centers in Singapore and Seattle and participated
in Jewish-Buddhist and Catholic-Buddhist dialogues. Chodron
is the author of several books, including "Open Heart, Clear Mind" and "Working
With Anger." Many of the people who visit the abbey are
longtime students of Chodron's.
While people bow their heads when she enters a room, Chodron's
smile, gentle demeanor and the jokes she cracks immediately put
them at ease.
"Venerable (Chodron) speaks in a language that I understand," said
retreat participant Andy Housiaux, a 25-year-old high school
social studies teacher who's working on his master's degree at
Harvard Divinity School. "She has such clarity and a way
of carrying herself."
few years ago, Chodron searched all over the country for a
place to start a monastery. She sought a rustic environment,
a place "to make the mind calmer." She
discovered the Newport property in a North Idaho real estate
magazine during a visit to Boise in 2003.
Sravasti Abbey is a place built by the kindness of others, Chodron
a Buddhist monastic, she and other nuns and monks rely solely
on "dana," Sanskrit for donations – not just
for the purchase and maintenance of the monastery, but also for
food, clothing and medicine. While they grow some vegetables,
people at the abbey never go grocery shopping – they eat
only food offered to them by neighbors and visitors. In return,
the abbey does not charge people for staying at the abbey or
for its books, programs and services.
"We live our lives as lives of generosity," Chodron
explained. "We share what we have, and we survive on donations. … In
America, we have such a consumer society. We try to pull people
from that materialistic state of mind so they can learn how good
it feels to give."
Those who stay at the abbey for study and meditation also must
follow the rules, which include eating only vegetarian food;
abstaining from sex, alcohol, tobacco and activities that include
dancing and singing (even radios and musical instruments are
not allowed); and observing silence from 7:30 p.m. until 7:30
a.m. the following day.
this current two-week session called "Exploring
Monastic Life," many of the participants have been waking
at 4 a.m. to meditate. Some enter the Meditation Hall to bow,
chant and make offerings of food, flowers and bowls of water
to the gold statues of Buddha at the altar. "The whole idea
of offering is not because Buddha needs us to bow, but it helps
train our mind and develop the habit of giving," Chodron
spend the rest of their day listening to teachings, participating
in Dharma discussions and working together – cooking, doing
chores, following a schedule posted near the kitchen.
"I love the simplicity of it all," said 22-year-old
Nerea Keesee, an abbey resident who was first drawn to Buddhism
as a 15-year-old, when her mother brought her to Spokane's Chagdud
Gonpa-Padma Ling Buddhist Center. "Buddhism teaches us to
take responsibility for our actions, not to blame and to help
others. It's a message that has always spoken to me."
As they continue to learn more about monastic life, Herron and
others are shedding romantic notions of saffron-robed monks meditating
peacefully. Through discussions and Chodron's daily teachings,
they've learned that becoming a Buddhist monk or nun doesn't
mean retreating from the world, but embracing it and giving back
to the community.
the abbey opened in 2003, Chodron and other residents of Sravasti
have adopted a stretch of highway that they regularly clean.
They also offer a portion of the food they receive to the food
bank and extra building supplies to Habitat for Humanity. They're
involved in prison work – while Chodron visits
area jails and prisons, the others exchange letters with inmates.
In addition to writing books, Chodron gives talks in Spokane
and other places. This past year, for instance, she offered classes
in Newport on stress management and dealing with anger.
"So much of Buddhism isn't dogma or theology," said
Chodron, who wears the same clothes everyday and shaves her head
in order to "cultivate inner beauty" instead of focusing
on her physical appearance.
"It's really about common sense and learning how to work
with your mind," she said.
It's certainly a practice that lay people can incorporate into
their lives, said Herron, who was raised Roman Catholic.
a commitment to monasticism, however, requires a drastic change.
Those at the abbey this week are delving deep within themselves
as they contemplate leaving careers in education, law, physical
therapy and other fields. Monasticism would also alter their
relationships. Herron has been living with her partner of seven
years in Portland. She also has a son who's 30, and she expects
to have grandchildren someday. As a Buddhist nun, she probably
wouldn't be able to babysit, let alone live in the same town. "I'm working with my fears," she admitted. "I'm
between 'yes' and 'I don't know.' "
if they don't become Buddhist nuns or monks, those who come
here say they're beginning to find solutions to problems that
have plagued them for years. Keesee, who changed her college
major multiple times, wanted an end to her "emotional rollercoaster." Housiaux
hopes to become a better listener and bring more meaning to his
life. Nanc Nesbitt, a landscape artist from Seattle who has been
living at Sravasti for a year and a half, longs to find a place
of contentedness, to put an end to that nagging question: "Why
is there nothing in this world that brings me a happiness that
Chodron, meanwhile, continues to teach about the qualities of
a monastic mind: humble, respectful, tolerant, able to develop
a sense of joy and love inside oneself instead of looking outward.
"It requires counteracting our own self-centeredness," she
said on a recent morning. "We must cultivate a heart that
cherishes others in a society that says the individual is all