Sravasti Abbey (2006)

Information about this center is no longer updated. This data was last updated on 11 April 2016.

Phone: 509-447-5549
Email: office.sravasti@gmail.com
Website: http://www.sravastiabbey.org/index.html
Sravasti Abbey is a monastic community in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that seeks to create a place for westerners to live and study the Buddha’s teachings. The abbey is located in Newport, WA, approximately one hour north of Spokane. Sravasti Abbey is located on 240 acres of land; the current buildings and meditation hall are on one 40-acre parcel, and the rest of the property consists of forests and trails. The property was purchased in 2003, and the founder and abbess, Ven. Thubten Chodron, moved there in October of 2003.

Significance of the Name

In a 1998 meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Ven. Chodron submitted to him a list of names for the monastic community she had envisioned. The Dalai Lama chose “Sravasti Abbey,” which was a place during the Buddha’s time that had flourishing communities of both nuns and monks.

Founder

Sravasti Abbey was founded by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron in 2002. Ven. Chodron was ordained a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, the Senior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and received full (bhikshuni) ordination in 1986 in China. After receiving ordination in 1977, she lived at Kopan monastery in Nepal for a few years, and also spent three years at Dorje Pamo, a now-defunct nunnery in France. (A more detailed biography of Ven. Chodron can be found at http://www.sravastiabbey.org/founder.html). The experience of living among other monastics was a moving experience for Ven. Chodron, and it has been her wish for a long time to found a monastic community in the west that would train westerners. Speaking to a group of students in August of 2005, she explained that “I found my time living in monastic communities so valuable. The opportunity to study and practice around other monastics allowed us to support each other in our practice.”

Role of Community in Monasticism

Since the time of the Buddha, communal living has been an important aspect of monastic training. Individuals go forth, leaving behind their homeland and jobs to enter a monastic community. A common metaphor used by the tradition states that by placing rough rocks into a tumbler and having them wear against each other, all of them become smooth in the process. In the same way, monks and nuns who ordain in order to devote their lives to the dharma begin to smooth out their rough edges by living closely in community with each other, learning to communicate skillfully, offer and accept feedback, and practice and live among people whom them might not otherwise ever live with.

Monasticism in America

As Buddhism has come to America, monasticism has received less attention and support than it has traditionally received in Asia. Many dharma centers cater to lay students, and certain traditions that have taken root in America do not emphasize monasticism to a great extent at all. The traditions that do emphasize monasticism (such as the Tibetan Gelugpa) will often have Tibetan monks and teachers who are supported at their dharma centers, but do not necessarily provide support in the same way for western monastics. In fact, there is no place for communal monastic living in the Tibetan tradition in America, although such places do exist in Canada, France, and Australia. For all of these reasons, Ven. Chodron wanted to found a place where western women and men who endeavored to study and practice the Buddha’s teachings—especially the Vinaya, or monastic discipline—could live and be supported in their efforts. Sravasti Abbey is this place. One unique feature of Sravasti Abbey is that both men and women will train as monastics there. They will be housed separately, in accord with the Vinaya, but they will practice and study together as equals. Explaining her decision to create a place for both men and women, Ven. Chodron said, “I didn’t want to abandon half of my students [by creating a place where only women could reside].”

History of Sravasti Abbey

Describing her hope for a monastic community in America to the Interfaculty Working Group at the Pluralism Project in April 2004, Ven. Chodron said, “I had this strong feeling that we needed to establish a monastery, and I realized in the early 1990s in a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and some western Buddhist teachers that to wait for the Tibetans to establish a monastery for us westerners, we would be waiting a long time.” Indeed, the primary focus of the Tibetans—and rightly so—has been the preservation of their own culture in exile. As a result, it would be incumbent upon a westerner to take the first steps in establishing a Buddhist monastery in American for westerners. At a meeting of Western dharma teachers in the late 1990s, Ven. Chodron met Bhikku Santikaro, a Theravada monk who also envisioned a monastic community in America, known as Liberation Park. Ven. Chodron and Bhikku Santikaro decided to work together to create a monastic community that bore the name “Sravasti Abbey at Liberation Park.” However, after some time working together, Ven. Chodron and Bhikku Santikaro realized they had different goals, and decided in friendship to pursue their projects separately. In 2003, Ven. Chodron moved to Boise, Idaho, where some of her students offered to support her while she looked for property for the abbey. After two unsuccessful bids on land, she found a place in eastern Washington that seemed extremely promising: it had a large main building, a barn, and smaller outbuildings that could be remodeled. However, the asking price was $200,000 more than Ven. Chodron had! In the course of time, however, the prior owners of the property agreed to carry the mortgage, and Ven. Chodron was able to raise money from her network of supporters around the world to pay off the mortgage within one year. Yet this was done without any major benefactors; as Ven. Chodron noted in a 2005 talk at the Pluralism Project, “We don’t have any big benefactors. This all happened because many people gave a little bit. Because of many people giving a little bit, we were able to pay off the mortgage....To me, the beauty is that so many people were able to get in touch with their deeper spiritual values and were able to put their resources behind their spiritual values.”

Moving In

Ven. Chodron moved to Sravasti Abbey in October of 2003. During her first few months there, a nun and former student of hers, Ven. Tenzin Tsepel lived there as well, although Ven. Tsepel eventually left the abbey to continue her studies at a monastic community in Australia. In June of 2004, Nanc Nesbitt, a lay student from the Seattle area, moved to Sravasti Abbey full time, and has resided there since then. She is responsible for helping to procure the Four Requisites, the traditional four needs of Buddhist monastics: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine.

Activities and Schedule

From January-April 2005, Sravasti Abbey hosted its first three-month retreat. Seven students came and spent three months in silence while Ven. Chodron conducted her own private retreat in a meditation cabin on the Abbey land. Another landmark in the history of the Abbey occurred in August of 2005, when eleven students gathered for a three-week course entitled “Exploring Monastic Life.” This course was for people who were interested in exploring the possibilities of ordaining in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and provided the clearest example yet of what a monastic community might look like at Sravasti Abbey. The Abbey also holds weekend retreats and teachings for residents in the area. Examples of this are the upcoming “Rejoicing and Giving Thanks” retreat over the Thanksgiving weekend, and a weekend on forest stewardship. The abbey also hosts all-day practice events with teachings, lunch, discussion groups, and offering service once a month.

Looking Ahead

As of this writing in October of 2005, Ven. Chodron is still the only monastic at Sravasti Abbey. One more woman moved to the Abbey in the summer of 2005, and a fourth woman spends a great deal of her time there. Although no one has yet to take the leap into ordination, there is a great deal of momentum from the Exploring Monastic Life program, and a number of students from that course have also signed up for a three-month retreat at the abbey which begins in December, 2005.

Generosity in Action: Dana at Sravasti Abbey

Dana The Buddha originally envisioned a relationship of mutual generosity between lay supporters and the monastic community: monastics would offer religious teachings and guidance to the lay people, and lay followers would in turn offer the four requisites—food, shelter, medicine, and clothing. The term given to this mutual support was “dana,” a Sanskrit term which is often translated as “giving” or “generosity.” Ven. Chodron sometimes translates this term as "giving with a sense of joy." Historical Context of Dana in Buddhism As Buddhism spread from India to other countries in Asia, the relationships between laypeople and monastics took on different forms. According to the Pali canon, at the time of the Buddha, lay supporters often offered food and drink directly to the monastic community. Monastics would go on alms rounds with their begging bowls, and would eat the food offered to them by devotees. Other people made donations of land so that monastics could have a more permanent place to stay. One such person was Anathapindika, who donated a large park to the monastic community; to commemorate such generosity Sravasti Abbey has decided to name one of the open fields on their land Anathapindika’s Park. As Buddhism spread to other places in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, this practice of begging for alms continued. Indeed, if one travels to Thailand today one can still see Thai monastics receiving their daily fare in this way. Yet as Buddhism began to plant roots in China, different cultural values prevented the Buddhist monastics from continuing their tradition of alms rounds. Begging was viewed as unseemly, and people would have lost respect for the monastic followers of Buddhism if they had persisted in the habit of alms rounds. As a result, many Chinese monasteries grew some of their own food, and lay people made donations by visiting the temples and monasteries themselves. The tradition of begging for alms never really took hold in Tibet either, although in this instance the factors were more geographic than cultural. The nomadic culture of Tibet generally lacked stable populations of people to provide consistent support for monasteries. Great distances could separate people from even the nearest monastery, which also made such exchanges more challenging. As in China, lay people brought their donations to monasteries and offered either food or precious substances for their offerings. In each of these Asian cultures, people have come to respect and value the contributions made by monastics, and often look upon the opportunity to make offerings to the monastic community as a great privilege and opportunity. Dana in America Yet as Buddhism has come to America, this custom has been difficult to establish. Many of the first dharma centers in America were oriented toward the teaching of lay people, not the support of nuns or monks. As a result, many of the teachings in this environment emphasized methods for bringing Buddhism into one’s daily life and did not emphasize the traditional role that monastics have played in upholding and transmitting the Buddhist teachings. The mere sight of a Buddhist monastic is a rare sight in America, and very few monastic communities exist where monastics can live, study, and receive support from the lay community. One challenge faced by Sravasti Abbey is the simple fact that most people in America—even most Buddhists, much less people from other religions—do not understand the importance of the reciprocal relationship of dana in supporting monastic communities. People are used to paying money in exchange for services, and may not even think to offer money if nothing is charged (“if they’re not charging anything, it probably isn’t worth anything”). Many dharma centers charge for teachings (largely because they have bills to pay), although some have “suggested” or “recommended” fees for teachings. Such accommodations are often necessary to help provide a fledgling center with a more stable source of income. Dana at Sravasti Abbey In this atmosphere, Ven. Chodron has insisted that everything at the Abbey be offered free of charge, in keeping with this tradition of dana initiated by the Buddha. One reason for doing so is precisely because it challenges the norms of our goods-for-services economy. Ven. Chodron and the residents of the Abbey want people to choose to support the Abbey because the believe in vision and activities of the place. According to Buddhist teachings, making a financial contribution with the intention to create a place where others can study and practice the dharma without charge creates a far different effect in the mind of an individual than writing a check to pay for room and board. Similarly, freely giving something to support an idea or project one believes in creates a different mental attitude and habit than paying for something religious with the same attitude that one purchases a DVD. Although Sravasti Abbey certainly requires the support of others in order to survive, Ven. Chodron wants all parties involved to rethink their own attitudes toward this support. Dana is considered first a mental attitude and secondly an exchange of money, time, or other goods. The Buddhist understanding of cause and effect emphasizes the great role that motivation and intention play in determining the outcome of our actions; Ven. Chodron draws people’s attention to this teaching by emphasizing the importance of giving with joy. Residents at the Abbey learn to both give and receive generosity as well. It is a rather humbling experience to realize that. Residents also work to make their own motivations at the Abbey as altruistic as possible. Such potentially-mundane tasks as weeding, shoveling gravel, or sanding a deck are consciously thought of in terms of offering service to Sravasti Abbey and creating a place in which Buddhist monastics can live and study. To emphasize the importance that the mind plays in such actions, the afternoon period is called “Offering Service” instead of being referred to as a work period. This emphasis upon one’s own attitude—and even the very labels one uses to refer to certain actions—concords with Buddhist teachings about the interdependent nature of phenomena. In Buddhist terms, the activity of, for example, framing a doorway is determined more by the personal motivation behind the action that the physical movements themselves. Someone can do the exact same actions with either an altruistic intention or a sour mood, and this mindset will play a greater role in determining the individual’s subsequent experiences than the physical actions. Even for those who stay at Sravasti Abbey and choose to leave a donation, Ven. Chodron wants them to rethink this act. She says, “You are not paying for yourself. You are supporting the Abbey.” A vision of supportive generosity, in which money is offered to provide a similar experience for others, replaces the traditional quid pro quo transaction of staying at a rest house or hotel. She wants people to “put their money where their values are. If they value a place like Sravasti Abbey, then they will support it. We rely completely on the generosity of others.” A belief in the natural generosity of people pervades Sravasti Abbey; by inviting dana instead of charging visitors, the Abbey hopes to encourage people to get in touch with this spirit of generosity. Ven. Chodron concludes, “people’s dana supports the Abbey, which freely offers a place to practice.”

Supporters of Sravasti Abbey

As explained above, Sravasti Abbey does not charge for any of the services it provides. Instead, it relies completely upon the support of a network of volunteers and donors. This article will explain the network of supports who help to sustain Sravasti Abbey, and will focus upon three main groups of people: Friends of Sravasti Abbey (FOSA), a group of lay students of Ven. Chodron who have organized to help support her vision; the international network of people who offer financial support; and finally, the local community that provides food and in-kind services to the abbey.

Friends of Sravasti Abbey (FOSA)

FOSA was founded in 2002 as a way to provide additional structure to help support Sravasti Abbey. The group itself is largely sustained by the efforts of its board members, who are each responsible for supporting Sravasti Abbey in a different way. For example, one person is in charge of the Four Requisites—food, clothing, medicine, and shelter—the traditional list of the four items that all Buddhist monastics needed. This job covers a range of responsibilities, as the person in charge of the four requisites does everything from securing clothes for residents and guests to tending the vegetable garden and maintaining the physical plant of the Abbey.

Other FOSA board positions help to connect the Abbey to a larger audience. One person is responsible for disseminating the Dharma, and creates free CDs with talks by Ven. Chodron that are then distributed to supporters of the Abbey or to local visitors. Although the webmaster does not have a board position, Sravasti Abbey also maintains an extensive website, which contains additional information about Buddhist teachings, monasticism, and events at Sravasti Abbey.

Another FOSA board member is responsible for what they Abbey calls “Inviting Generosity.” Although this board position originally had the more traditional title of fundraiser, the board changed the name of the position in order to reflect the Abbey’s emphasis upon generosity. The responsibility of this person is therefore to create the opportunities for people to be generous. The Abbey emphasizes an attitude of generosity as much as possible, modeling it in its interactions with guests and visitors, and inviting it from people who find a vision of a monastic community compelling.

International Supporters

Ven. Chodron also has a large group of supporters and donors around the world. She taught in Seattle for much of the 1990s, but lived and taught in Asia for much of the decade prior. In particular, she has close connections with students in Singapore, where she spent close to two years. Several donors of the Abbey have been from Singapore and other places in Asia, a remarkable fact when one considers that many of these donors may never make it to America to visit the Abbey.

Other donors come from America, Mexico, and other countries where Ven. Chodron has taught, including Malaysia, India, and Israel. One especially moving group of supporters is the number of prisoners who have chosen to become monthly benefactors to Sravasti Abbey. Ven. Chodron carries on correspondence with a number of prisoners around the country and makes visits to see them whenever she can. A number of the inmates that she corresponds with have decided to support the Abbey on this regular basis, helping to provide a crucial source of support for the ongoing needs of the Abbey, including bills, regular maintenance, and costs associated with disseminating the dharma.

Local Supporters A final group of people who help sustain the Abbey is the group of local volunteers, both those who physically reside at the Abbey and those who live in the greater Spokane area. Two of the FOSA board members mentioned above, the Chair of the Four Requisites and the Chair of Disseminating the Dharma, reside at the abbey. As of October 2005, there are three full-time residents of Sravasti Abbey in addition to Ven. Chodron. In addition to their larger FOSA responsibilities, each of these people helps with other important daily tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, making offerings in the meditation hall.

Yet the residents of Sravasti Abbey will not purchase food for themselves (all cash donations go to a separate fund that is used for construction, general maintenance, and other related expenses). All food that is eaten at the Abbey is brought by volunteers and supporters. Visitors who come to the Abbey are encouraged to bring food, and many who stop by even for the day will bring fruits or vegetables. Early in the Abbey’s history visitors would often bring sweets and cakes, which occasionally resulted in a preponderance of desserts, although it seems that more recently people have begun to bring more essential food items.

In order to allow people who do not live within physical proximity of the abbey to make food donations, a food fund has been created. This fund is currently administered by a woman in Idaho, who receives checks and then uses this money to purchase food for the abbey. Each week a volunteer brings staple items of the abbey diet, such as tofu, cheese, breads, and juice. However, the rest of the items that the residents of the abbey come from offerings that people have brought, either in the form of more perishable items such as fruits and vegetables, or pastas, nuts, and other food with a longer shelf life that has been offered.

An especially remarkable event concerning food offerings occurred in August of 2005. After reading an article about Sravasti Abbey in the local paper, a woman brought by an entire car-load of food to help support the residents of the Abbey.[1] She movingly explained how she wanted to support the vision of the Abbey as described in the article, and all the residents and other visitors (the donation occurred during an “Exploring Monastic Life’ program) were humbled and inspired by her generosity.[2]

This network of supporters illustrates well the fundamental Buddhist principle of dependent arising. The Abbey is sustained in dependence upon the efforts of a tremendous range of people, all of whom contribute to the flourishing of the physical environs of the abbey and the sustaining of the lives of the people who live there.

Daily Life at Sravasti Abbey

Guiding Principles of Sravasti Abbey

Daily life at Sravasti Abbey is an attempt to embody monastic principles of communal harmony, generosity, simplicity and contentment, as well as the desire to offer service to the Dharma and other human beings as much as possible. The community at Sravasti Abbey strives to live simply, refraining from the use of TVs or radios, traveling by car only when necessary, growing some of its own food, and generally minimizing external distractions. A typical day at the Abbey actually begins in silence, which is maintained from the end of evening practice the night before until breakfast the following morning.

Morning Routines

By 5:30 in the morning the residents of the Abbey meet in the meditation room to begin their morning meditations; certain students have been even earlier offering water bowls and incense. They begin with a practice known as “Prostrations to the 35 Buddhas,” in which participants acknowledge unskillful actions and take remedial efforts to prevent themselves from harming others similarly in the future. This practice lasts until approximately 6 am, when the residents then begin their meditation practice.

This meditation lasts for about an hour, and includes the foundational Buddhist practices of taking refuge and generating a kind heart, a more devotional meditation on the Buddha, and an analytic meditation on one aspect of the Buddhist path. These meditations are led in turn by the residents: during my stay there, each person led the morning meditation at least once. Such a rotation encourages all people to become more comfortable leading such sessions.

During this time Venerable Chodron remains in her room. Her morning meditations begin before even the earliest students arise, and she continues her practice in her own room as the other residents assemble and begin their own practice.

At breakfast, the silence from the night before is concluded. The entire community assembles, as they do for all the meals. One or two of the residents takes responsibility for preparing the food; others will do the dishes or help with the next meal. Each meal begins with a prayer, offering the food to the so-called Three Jewels: Buddha; the Dharma, the teachings; and the Sangha, the monastic community. While eating, discussions about the day begin: which jobs require assistance, who needs the computer, which visitors (if any) will be coming. The day gets mapped out.

Teachings and Discussions After breakfast, Ven. Chodron often teaches from a Buddhist text, or organizes a discussion group based upon a previous talk. The talks take place in the meditation hall, and begin after three bows and prayers have been offered. In August of 2004, Ven. Chodron was teaching a thought transformation text known as The Wheel of Sharp Weapons; this teaching emphasized the role that an individual’s own ignorance and self-aggrandizing plays in causing one’s own suffering. The teachings generally last for a hour, with an additional 30 minutes for questions at the end. If Ven. Chodron does not teach—or has taught for several days in a row—the students sometimes meet as a community to discuss the teachings. For these sessions, Ven. Chodron leads an analytical meditation at the beginning and asks several questions that will form the basis of the discussion. One session focused on attachment, which is understood in Buddhism as a mind that exaggerates the positive qualities of an object and then clings to that exaggeration. Ven. Chodron asked the residents what it meant to be attached to views and opinions; if there was a difference between feeling strongly about something and being attached to it; in which situations this attachment arises; how such attachment influences our behavior; and what particular views discussants found themselves attached to.

After contemplating these questions in silence, the group convened as Ven. Chodron excused herself to give the students the space to speak freely without their teacher present. During the discussion, each student first spoke for several minutes without being interrupted; only after everyone had spoken could “cross-talk” begin, in which one student might ask a question of another, or seek clarification of something that had been said. Such a format allowed all people to speak at least once before the more open-ended discussion began.

The discussion focused on practical concerns: attachment to political views, attachment to certain understandings of friends or family members, and attachment to certain ways the world should be. After approximately 30 minutes, Ven. Chodron returned to hear the results of the discussion and to address any lingering uncertainties. The discussions were marked by a genuine openness: the students clearly took these teachings seriously, and attempted to see their relevance in their own lives. Connections would be made as people reflected upon, for example, unrealistic ways of approaching a friend or colleague.

Offering Service Both the late morning and afternoon are filled with periods of offering service to the Abbey. Such service may take on many forms: during my stay, I pulled weeds, stained siding for the meditation hall, edited prisoners' letters for Ven. Chodron’s website, helped prepare a garden for the following season, and marveled at the canning prowess of those who were responsible for preserving the vegetables and fruits for the coming winter months.[3] During this time, the community maintained the physical environment of the Abbey, while also interacting with various people and groups affiliated with the Abbey. For example, one resident spent much of her time arranging the itinerary for Ven. Chodron’s upcoming trip to Asia, which includes stops in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and India. Another volunteer spent some of her time researching various companies who would provide better internet service. Physical labor was necessary to ensure the continuing health of the Abbey’s environment, and a large amount of phone and internet time was also required to oversee various construction projects and plans for the Abbey. Ven. Chodron generally spent this time in her office, either communicating with her students by email and letter, working on the two books she is currently writing, or meeting with various individuals in the local community—zoning board representatives, building code inspectors, and wildlife specialists—to explain to them the undertaking at the Abbey. Lunch The main meal of the day for the residents of the Abbey was certainly lunch. This emphasis concords with traditional Buddhist monastic cultures, in which the monks would eat the food they had received at lunch and then not eat for the remainder of the day. Although three meals were generally taken at the Abbey, the lunch meal was still the heartiest, and also contained the most extensive prayers. Before the meal, a longer offering prayer to the Three Jewels was recited, and the residents also recited the five contemplations, in which they acknowledged the good fortune—and responsibility—of eating food that has been offered by others. At the conclusion of the meal, the residents made an offering to the 'pretas,' a class of beings whom the Buddha promised would always be fed by his followers, and recite the Heart Sutra, a fundamental Buddhist teaching about the nature of reality. Afternoon and Evenings The flexible schedule of the Abbey also allowed for impromptu discussions over the lunch meal. At two different times these conversations lasted well over an hour, and substituted for the day’s religious instruction. Although the residents made an effort to maintain a general schedule, there was ample freedom for such spontaneous discussions, for walks in the 240 acres of the Abbey, or for visiting with guests who came to visit the Abbey. In general, residents offered service during the afternoon period, but there were also opportunities to sit and rest with a cup of tea, enjoying conversation with other residents.

The dinner meal followed the pattern of the other two meals. It was generally lighter in terms of food. It allowed everyone a chance to reflect upon what had been accomplished that day—as well as what remained to be done—and also to begin winding down, as silence would begin after the evening dishes were put away.

After dinner, everyone gathered in the meditation hall for evening meditation practice, repeating the same analytical meditation from the morning and also performing meditations that emphasized the development of compassion. The evening session concluded with the residents mentally reminding themselves of the larger and interdependent context in which the Abbey exists, and dedicating the positive efforts and intentions of the day to the longest-term and widest benefit imaginable.

The Daily Schedule in Brief

6:00-7:15 morning meditation 7:30-8:00 breakfast 9:00-10:15 morning teachings 10:30-12:30 offering service 12:30-1:30 lunch 2:00-6:00 offering service 6:30-7:00 dinner 7:30-8:30 evening meditation; silence begins after evening meditation

[1] http://www.sravastiabbey.org/samplingmonastilife.pdf. Accessed 2006.↩︎ [2] http://www.sravastiabbey.org/eml05p3.html. Accessed 2006.↩︎ [3] http://www.thubtenchodron.org/PrisonDharma/prison_dharma.html. Accessed 2006.↩︎