Tony Anthony, The Ukiah Daily Journal: Ajahn Pasanno appears out of the woods, walks up a few steps and plunks himself down in a comfortable wicker chair on the front porch of Abhayagiri “Fearless Mountain” Monastery in Redwood Valley.
The day is coming to a close and the peace and the quiet of the place is what is noticeable. The only noise is the distant sound of a lawnmower, which almost seems to come from some other world, a world different from this one. Ajahn, means teacher and is used in place of a first name for the abbot of the monastery. Pasanno means “one having faith and joy,” the name his teacher bestowed on him when he was still a novice.
It is difficult to imagine Ajahn as a young man in a secular sense, now that he is of middle age, with a shaved head and clothed in a simple mustard-colored robe. It seems he was always this person he is now. But Ajahn’s journey began in the 1970s as a young man when he left his home in Manitoba, Canada after finishing his university studies to travel the far reaches of the world. He rambled through Europe, Afghanistan and India, not seeking to become a Buddhist monk but visiting various holy places along the way.
It wasn’t until he arrived in the north of Thailand that he began to feel a sense of belonging. In order to learn more about Buddhism, he attended some classes at a monastery called Wat Nong Bah north of Chiang Mai. “I was just passing through, but the Thai society seemed to have a whole different value system. I felt at home,” he said.
After a month-long stay, the Abbot of the monastery suggested the young man consider ordination with an initial goal of remaining three or four months. Although he was not yet sure what he was getting into, he was willing to give it a try. He took on the robes of a forest dwelling monk thinking it would be only for a short time that was the beginning of the life he still lives now, more than 30 years later.
“You are not required to make a life-long commitment,” Ajahn says, “It just happened.”
The monk says he didn’t have any intuition that he would lead a monastic life.
“When I began it was to learn how to meditate.” But, he says, “at one point, it didn’t seem possible to go back.”
Thus the young monk began a practice where monks wear plain robes and shave their heads in an effort to let go of their own personal preferences.
“Doing this, is about simplification,” Ajahn says. “We renounce the world because of the peace that comes from it. The quality of peace we can access and dwell in is deeply satisfying.
“I encourage people that peace and well-being are a possibility for your life – to explore that for your life. I encourage people to use the tools of a virtuous life.”
An Abhayagiri pamphlet lists the “The Eight Precepts” for leading such a life: 1. Harmlessness: not intentionally taking the life of any living creature. 2. Trustworthiness: not taking anything which is not given. 3. Celibacy: refraining from any sexual activity. 4. Right Speech: avoiding false, abusive or malicious speech. 5. Sobriety: not taking any intoxicating drink or drugs. 6. Renunciation: not eating after mid-day. 7. Restraint: Not seeking entertainment, playing radios or musical instruments. Dressing in a modest, unadorned way that does not attract attention. 8. Alertness: refraining from over-indulgence in sleep.
Choosing to live amidst the beauty that surrounds Fearless Mountain may not seem to be renouncing the world at all, but Ajahn Pasanno says, “we even try to renounce the beauty. Most people try to get more of everything. Then when they get more they feel a loss when they lose it and don’t have it anymore. Then they lament the separation.
“A monk gets to the place of stillness. It is not rejecting anything – it’s another aspect of life that most people don’t pay attention to.”
A gift of land
There are eight monks who live at Abhayagiri, plus one novice and one postulate in training, all living on 250 acres of almost untouched forest land, originally a gift from the late abbot of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah – Master Hsuan Hua. Master Hua dreamed of bringing the Northern and Southern Traditions of Buddhism together again where they could relate in an atmosphere of mutual respect and harmony.
The monastery was founded by two teachers, Ajahn Sumedho, and Ajahn Amaro after they developed a devoted following in Northern California in the1980s. The original Abhayagiri was in ancient Sri Lanka at Anuradhapura and although it follows the Theravada branch of Buddhism, the monastery was known for accepting both teachers and practitioners from many different Buddhist traditions.
“The monastery currently has more people who want to come here and be monks than the facility can handle,” Ajahn says.
A monk named Sudanto, meaning “one who trains himself well” calls Abhayagiri, “a zone of peace people can use as a community resource.” He explains the monastery’s connection with the community as, “an interrelationship that keeps us (the monks) relevant, as a peaceful presence – people with deep knowledge and experience of the Buddhist teachings of peace and wholeness.”
A day in the life of a monk
The day on Fearless Mountain begins at 4 a.m. Then from 5-6 a.m. they begin their spiritual practice with meditation and chanting. These reflections set a tone of the mind during the day. 6:30-7 a.m. there are some general chores, cleaning up and a light breakfast. At 7:30 a.m. the monks meet to delegate chores – maintenance, cooking, office tasks and the job of maintaining the miles of trails which circle through the forests. After chores, the monks have their main meal from 10:30-11 a.m.
When it comes to food, the forest dwelling monks are alms mendicants. Not allowed to plant or pick their own food, they rely on gifts. The monks can be seen on Fridays walking through the center of town collecting gifts of food.
“This creates interdependence with the lay community. We don’t want to be completely cut off,”Ajahn said.
He explains this synergistic relationship. “People from the community come to the monastery to gain more simplicity, more well being. We give the opportunity for people to have the way of living, which is more peaceful, more fulfilling. Sharing our life is sort of the by-product. If one’s goal is to teach, it can be distorted. Refocus on the quality of our lives and that becomes an example to others.”
Ajahn is suddenly explaining some of the core elements of a monastic life. “The more the I’ can get out of the way, the more peaceful things become. The monks spend the remainder of the daylight hours in their cabins where they do various forms of meditation – both traditional sitting, and walking. Ajahn explains: “Outside each cabin is a level 50-foot path where the monks develop sustaining attention on the walking – recognition of words and mental states. ”
At 5:30 in the afternoon the community gathers once again for tea. This is the time for guidance by the teacher. Help also comes from the community at large – mental support from other monks. Even monks learn from each other’s foibles. Asked if monks maintain personality traits like senses of humor, Ajahn says that even ascetic monks remain individuals and some are known for their enlightened sense of humor.
At 6:30 p.m. there is a reading where monks can ask questions, then from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., evening chanting and meditation.
Many questions, of course, will arise even in those experiencing blissful states of mind. Ajahn explains, “of course there is a longing to repeat that experience. We don’t want to be dependent on anything. The enlightened are not dependent on anything for their happiness. Although,”he is quick to add, “there is a quality of compassion. But we strive for separation from attachments that create entanglements. We are conditioned to think we need certain things for our well-being.”
Too much eating or sleeping creates complications in life. Ajahn laughs as he mentions just how much of everything people seem to need to be happy. And then, he asks, are they ever really happy?
As the sun is ready to drop behind the mountains to the west, Ajahn Pasanno is eager to show a “walking meditation.” High up on the mountainside at the end of a path curving between the manzanita trees, is a small cabin where the monk spends most of his time in meditation. Beside the cabin is a 50-foot dirt path where he thoughtfully, mindfully walks with his eyes sometimes closed, sometimes open.
A gift from Thailand
During one evening recently, the Abhayagiri Monastery held a ceremony for the installation of a statue of the Buddha, a gift from a Thai donor. After the sun had set and the moon had risen, a delegation of monks – both resident and visiting but of the same forest tradition – sat on a wooden platform amongst the trees, chanting at the base of the statue. The scene was magical, with a hundred or more devotees from all parts of the country in attendance.
As the mountaintop had grown colder as the night grew later, the visiting abbot Ajahn Liam spoke in his native Pali, translated by Ajahn Pasanno for the western guests in attendance. “We might feel it is a bit cold – but nature is just being natural, natural to the climate and the season. It is just liking it or not liking it.” He went on to say, “Nobody wants to suffer, to experience discomfort.”
The moon was half full, sitting in the sky above the mountaintop, giving a golden glow to the resplendent life-size statue of a sitting Buddha. The breeze rushed through the trees making a sound much like ocean waves breaking on a shore. The monk’s point was that nature is always in the business of just being nature and it is up to humans not to be disturbed by the world around them. Then, only then, when we accept the world for what it truly is, are we able to see ourselves as we truly are – perfect, divine, awakened individuals – happy to be who we are.
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