A New Year’s Message

A new year’s message from Venerable Pamutto:

In July when I arrived the monastery was eerily quiet.  The community was on an open schedule.  A single kitchen steward woke every morning and prepared meals for two bhikkhus, while a single summer guest dragged a sprinkler across the newly-seeded lawn.  It seemed the monastery was waiting for something, and when asked about puja or work projects the residents would smile and say, “Soon enough.  The abbot is coming back, and abbots have a way of finding things to do.”

Ajahn Viradhammo returned one evening with little fanfare, having finally reached the end of a long tour of traveling and teaching.  He sank into his office chair, glowing with his soft and calm aura, looking as though he had never left.  It was my first time meeting him, and he was exactly the warm, friendly ‘luang por’ of his reputation.  It was this reputation, and the possibility of expanding opportunities for bhikkhus in North America, that had brought me here for a year of training.  And, though easy-going, there was an energy about the Ajahn that foreshadowed a new beginning for the small monastery.  The sense of change was palpable — ‘Ajahn V’ had arrived at last.

Within days everything began to shift.  Ajahn Hassapanno moved on and our steward Rocky announced that after 11 wonderful months he would return home to care for his ailing sister.  In his place former committee member Philip Jurgens moved in, ready to begin training.  Other committee members, local supporters and long-time beneficiaries of the monastery began to emerge.  Friends new and old began arriving, and rapidly the various stories came out.  Some had known the Ajahn for years, others had been living just down the road when they suddenly realized they had ‘a Buddhist monastery next door’.

Within days Ajahn V was off to Ottawa for teaching, and I suddenly found myself the senior monk.  But my panic was short-lived.  The way the community calmly went about the morning routine despite the abbot’s absence assured me that this was to become a normal pattern of life at Tisarana.  After a short while Ajahn V would come rolling in to brighten, teach, direct, establish projects and define protocols, then be off again to teach in another part of Ontario.  When he was here the whole place vibrated with his energy, and while he was away we continued our work with the momentum he had created.

When he was here, the Ajahn strolled up and down the newly-graveled forest road, pointing out features and occasionally diving into the brush to uncover a hidden path.  He was half giving me a tour and half outlining the future of the monastery, as though current facilities and future developments existed simultaneously in his mind.

The Ajahn’s hope was to create a monastery that could survive independent of any one teacher or training style, and it wasn’t long before this vision began to take shape.  As he went from city to neighboring city, giving teachings and leading retreats, he rapidly reconnected with his many fans and supporters from the many years he has lived here.  With the monastery at its center, these connections became a massive web of support.  It wasn’t long before guests were coming and going in a near continuous flow, and the kitchen tables filled with generous meal offerings day after day.

Soon two new computers and a satellite internet connection (upgrading from dial-up) brought the monastery into the new millenium.  Venerable Atulo responded with a dramatic overhaul of www.tisarana.ca, building a new website from the ground up.  It was now possible to browse the site from an I-pad or cellphone, and the calendar on the front page helped keep everyone abreast of the rapidly expanding schedule of events.  He also resurrected the Dhamma talk Podcast, which had been offline for two years, and once again our Dhamma talks were available to the web.

We went from room to room in the house, reorganizing furniture and putting down fresh sheets for incoming guests.  Out in the forest each monastic cabin was given similar treatment.  Two were just finished this year, and the third was an old workshed that was hardly usable.  But with spare lumber, old curtains and some bits of styrofoam insulation, our teamwork revitalized it, making it usable year-round.  Each of the communal spaces in the monastery was re-envisioned: opening storage space in the barn and clearing out its neglected lower floor, hiring contractors to completely renovate the existing workshop, finishing the gravel road, smoothing walking paths, and opening the basement — where monastics clean their bowls — into a warm and spacious common room.

It wasn’t long before the effects of these efforts were felt.  With more space and available cabins, practitioners and guests – young and old, male and female – began inquiring about visiting and staying in unprecedented numbers.  Many were satisfied with a few days on the grounds and perhaps tea with the Ajahn, but among them were more dedicated practitioners as well.

Increasingly Tisarana was hosting committed individuals for long stays of service and meditation.  Among them were former live-in stewards, former anagarikas from Chithurst and Sitavana monasteries, and long-term supporters of the Ajahn Chah lineage in North America and abroad.  Though they weren’t coming to stay permanently, these fully-trained and savvy ‘upasikas’ offered their experience and enthusiasm for Dhamma practice – teaching steward Philip the tricks of the monastery kitchen, receiving and orienting visitors, and finding their own unique ways to support the community during their free time.  They built shelves, chopped wood, stewarded three-day camping excursions, and even managed the Ajahn’s diet.  They were content with whatever space we gave them and whatever program was running, and by the time they left we could scarcely remember a time without them.

We began the month of October with our first annual in-house, non-residential meditation retreat, and were heartened by the show of support from locals and visitors alike.  Some drove in every morning to participate in the morning puja, and though we initially decided we wouldn’t try to host the entire group for the meal, our closest supporters came forth and donated both the food and cooking services.  Even when Ajahn Viradhammo fell ill in the middle of the retreat, everyone pressed on with the schedule, a great testament to his vision for the monastery.

Autumn saw the arrival of two new members of the community. Anagarika John came in October and Venerable Subharo in late November, both coming from Sitavana Monastery in British Columbia.  With the abbot Ajahn Sona set to begin a year-long sabbatical in April, both were overjoyed at the opportunity to continue training here in their home country.

With Ven. Subharo’s arrival, the Sangha once again had a full quorum of four bhikkhus.  This is the minimum number required for the fortnightly recitation of the monastic rules, and for the holding of a kathina festival.  Even before he had arrived, though, long-time supporters from Ottawa were bowing before the Ajahn and requesting to offer the next year’s kathina cloth.  The festival, a large offering ceremony, is a treasured tradition for any monastery large enough to hold it – and 2013 would become Tisarana’s first such event.

All six cabins were now filled, and a waiting list was rapidly growing.  Thus, three years after the last trainee Bhante Atulo received the higher ordination, Tisarana now had a full house of monastics, as well as candidates representing the various stages of training.  The Sangha was indeed thriving.

With autumn fading, the frost is setting in and the ponds are freezing over.  Despite a long run of blissfully pleasant weather, it’s time for the work season to wind down, and the various projects to wrap up for the winter.  Water barrels have been emptied, hoses rolled up, and paints and batteries packed away indoors.  The energy of the summer is receding in favor of a calm abiding and evening meditation next to our stoves.  Propane tanks are filled, logs are split and stacked, coat hooks line the walls, and rubber boots stand in rows ready for service.  With the change of season comes a sense of completeness.  Done is everything that could have been done, and everyone has come together to make 2012 a landmark year for Tisarana.  The community can enter the winter retreat delighting in the fruits of a year well-spent.

But though the coming winter will be a time of quiet practice and introspection, mixed with long periods of solitary retreat, it won’t be as though we are shutting our doors.  During the retreat we will continue the Saturday ‘Day of Mindfulness’ meditations and Lunar Quarter Vigils.  The kitchen crew, buoyed by a nearly uninterrupted stream of generosity from donors, stands ready to receive anyone who might brave the weather to share the daily meal.

All through the retreat, plans are to maintain a daily meeting or puja, so even though a ringing phone may sometimes go unheeded, the shrine candles will still get lit.  In this way, though a busy year is ending, the momentum we’ve all created will remain, waiting to emerge again next spring.

From Luang Por Viradhammo: “As always, all of us who have the good fortune to live at Tisarana are deeply grateful for the generous support that continues to makes this good life possible.  May we all enjoy a truly exceptional New Year filled with good health, prosperity and deep contentment.”