December 11, 2016
Warm greetings from Aloka Vihara.
First, I would like to extend our condolences and metta to all who have lost friends and loved ones in the “Ghostship” fire in Oakland. What a great and tragic loss. A bodhi leaf inscribed with the name “Oakland” rests in the hand of the Buddha on our altar and we share blessings with all who died in the fire.
We are grateful to all who have supported and joined the Standing Rock Water Protectors in North Dakota over these months, including Thanissara, Rachel and Jim, who kept us informed. Although this is not the end of the story, the victory at Standing Rock is a milestone, and the strength and determination of the people to protect this beautiful Earth and its waters is more powerful than ever before.
On November 15, we joined a large group in Sacramento who were protesting in solidarity with Standing Rock. After the peaceful demonstration, Ayya Santacitta, Shannon, Satima and I traveled on to Oakland, where we attended the “Cool Climate Award” ceremony and were honored, together with other people of faith across America, for work in educating, motivating and acting to transform the current climate crisis that affects us all. It was inspiring to be part of this diverse group of people who work with great heart to make change in our communities and in the world.
After the ceremony, I left for San Francisco airport to travel for the first time to Taiwan, to receive the 1st Global Bhikkhuni Award, both for myself and for Ayya Santacitta, for establishing Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery. 51 bhikkhunis worldwide were nominated, including six from North America: Ven Pema Chodron of Gampo Abby, Nova Scotia, Canada (she was unable to attend); Ven Thubten Chodron of Sravasti Abbey, Spokane, WA; Ayya Sudharshana, of Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Center, Pinellas Park, FL – originally from Sri Lanka (Ven Sudharshana is the most senior Theravadin bhikkhuni in the USA); Ven Dr Pannavati of Heartwood Refuge, Hendersonville, NC and the two of us.
The occasion for the award ceremony was a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association (CBBA), which was established by a group of senior bhikkhunis in Taiwan. They joined with Ven Dr Lee & Ven Rattanavali of the International Women’s Meditation Center in Rayong, Thailand to honor bhikkhunis worldwide, bringing us together to learn and gain inspiration from each other as we continue our work and practice. Taiwan is predominantly a Buddhist country and has the highest percentage of bhikkhunis of any country in the world! These bhikkhunis have been instrumental in the reestablishment of the Bhikkhuni Lineage in Theravada and Tibetan traditions.
The senior bhikkhunis of CBBA – each having over 50 years in the robes – were part of a group of 23 nuns who were trained and educated by one of the outstanding bhikkhus, who came from China during the Cultural Revolution to seek refuge in Taiwan. People spoke of the hardships of those early years, when there was not enough to eat and accommodation was basic, if at all. Wishing to support the growth and strength of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, those bhikkhus emphasized the Buddha’s egalitarian teachings and de-emphasized the Eight Garudhamma rules, which position nuns in a subordinate and dependent relationship to the monks. Being empowered to take leadership and agency, these nuns have done great works and their strength, confidence and gentleness is impressive and heart warming.
On the days before and after the ceremony we were shown some of the places these nuns had established, including huge temples abundant in both Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist art, as well as an elementary school and a high school. The school, built on what had been a potato field when the nuns arrived, became badly damaged twice in earthquakes. Each time it was rebuilt, beautifully designed and spacious. The students were confident, disciplined and creative and shared their talents and hospitality with us during our time there. We visited other impressive monasteries and Buddhist museums in the country and saw some of the famous craggy forested mountains with temples tucked into the landscape, so beautiful. There were 5 coach loads of us in all, grouped together by language – Mandarin, Korean, Thai and English.
The award ceremony itself was held in a stadium in the city of Kaohsiung. Incredibly, around 10,000 people attended, with the audience consisting of members of the Fourfold Sangha; bhikkhus, bhikkhunis and a huge number of lay supporters. It was live streamed on TV and the national newspapers ran a full page spread on the ceremony. There is great faith in the bhikkhuni sangha in Taiwan!
Venerable Thubden Chodron, one of the most senior western bhikkhunis in the Tibetan Tradition, commented to me how inconceivable it would be for either of our traditions to honor their bhikkhunis in this way (not that we are seeking it!). While women continue to ordain in both Tibetan and Theravadin traditions, our ordinations are still not widely recognized by the bhikkhus. Recognized or not, the Bhikkhuni Ordination lineage can be traced from India to Sri Lanka, China, Taiwan and from there, out to many parts of the world. To meet and be part of this greater Bhikkhuni Sangha has been life changing for me and brings much joy and well-being. “We are your Dharma Sisters” they would say. It was like meeting long lost relatives and discovering a shared love and connection that only the heart can know.
Ayya Santacitta and I would like to express our deep gratitude to each one of you who have welcomed us and supported the evolution of Aloka Vihara over these years. You enrich our lives and without you none of this could have come to be. May the merits of your generosity and wise action be a support in your practice, as you continue to deepen this path of awakening and may it benefit all beings.
Now is the time to strengthen our common humanity and support each other, regardless of views or external differences. Be sure to reach out beyond your usual network. Wishing you peace, safety, courage and compassion now and for the New Year ahead.
With much metta,
November 11, 2016
Dear Dhamma Friends,
It’s my pleasure to write to you again this year in my role as president of Saranaloka Foundation, the steward organization for the nuns of Aloka Vihara.
One of Saranaloka’s jobs as steward is to oversee the finances (since, as you probably know, Buddhist nuns don’t handle money). This has given me the opportunity to witness the amazing generosity of our lay community (that means you!). I’m particularly grateful that the board never has to worry whether enough donations will arrive to provide for the nuns’ basic needs. And that we’ve always had enough to take the next step in developing our budding new monastery property. We are indeed blessed.
I’d like to share with you a few highlights of your support so far in 2016:
- General donations this year have reached nearly $110,000, with an additional $23,000 offered for the annual Almsgiving Ceremony in September.
- This support has come from over 230 individual donors, with a median donation of $50 and a major gift of $30,000. Sadhu!
- As part of her estate plan, a supporter offered $10,000—our first donation of this type.
- We made an extra payment of nearly $40,000 toward the mortgage on the monastery property.
- We now owe only $71,000 on our original loan of $250,000, taken out less than two years ago. Maybe we’ll be entirely out of debt soon!
- Donations have amply provided for our operating costs of about $78,000, meeting needs such as food, nuns’ health care, mortgage interest, utilities, property maintenance/repairs, transportation, administration, and more.
- Your support has allowed for nearly $50,000 in major renovations to the monastery, including the shrine room, office, heating/cooling, septic system, and a second yurt.
Other big financial news relates to our Founders Fund. Thanks to the many donations to this fund over the past several years, we were able to purchase the monastery property last year, carry out needed renovations this year, and set aside funds to complete the expansion of the nuns’ quarters next year. With these important steps, the purpose of the Founders Fund has been realized—together we have founded a new monastery for women to train as Theravada nuns!
As so, as we bring the Founders Fund to a successful close, may you feel the deep joy that arises through your generosity. I’m honored to join you as together we support the nuns and the flourishing of Aloka Vihara.
President, Saranaloka Foundation
August 16, 2016
Dear friends in Dharma,
In early August, I left a quiet community retreat Aloka Vihara to take part in the ordination of five women into the monastic life. I arrived at Mahapajapati Monastery where Ayya Gunasari, our sweet bhikkhuni Elder and the monastery founder, was warmly receiving visitors and guests and maintaining the quiet meditation times to support the community during these busy days. People gathered for the head-shaving ceremony of Talia (who has been resident at Mahapajapati through this year) in preparation for her anagarika precept ceremony on Aug 7.
Anagarika Martha (who spent some weeks at Aloka Vihara last year) and Sayalay Kawsala (both resident at Mahapajapati) were preparing their samaneri (novice) robes ready for their Going Forth. Samaneri Vimala, one of the candidates for Bhikkhuni Ordination, arrived with an incredible brightness despite what had turned into a two-day journey from her Hermitage in Belgium to the California desert. Ayya Dhammadhira and I had a chance to get to know her a little and to practice our chanting together as we were the “chanting acarinis” who would guide and question the bhikkhuni candidates during their ceremony.
The ordinations were held at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles, one of the first Buddhist temples to be established in the USA. Bhante Piyananda, originally from Sri Lanka, is the founding abbot and spiritual guide of the temple. Bhante has the warmth and wit of a loving grandfather and the sharpness of a true master. He has been a bhikkhu for over 50 years and has lived a monastic life for over 60! As well as training monks, teaching the Dharma and helping to establish several temples in the US, he was one of the key figures in reinstating the Theravada bhikkhuni lineage in 1996 in Sarnath, India and he continues to put great energy into supporting the Bhikkhuni Order to this day.
Arriving at Dharma Vijaya temple, we met Samaneri Satima (not to be mistaken for Satima who was the Aloka Vihara Manager!), who would be taking full ordination together with Sm. Vimala. Having known Bhante Piyananda for many years, Sm. Satima had come from Sri Lanka to take Bhikkhuni Ordination and then return to her center there. Bhante commented on how extraordinary it is that California has become one of the most supportive places for women to ordain at this time, with women even coming from Buddhist countries to take the ordination back there! Monks and nuns gathered from far and wide to support these five women in their monastic aspiration. What was most touching to me was the full heartedness with which the bhikkhus took part in the ceremony. There was a tangible sense of love, support and well-wishing for each woman as she took her step into monastic life – one anagarika, two samaneris and two bhikkhunis. I left Dharma Vijaya with a feeling of being part of a much greater monastic sangha and with a lot of joy at what is unfolding here in the United States.
I landed back at Aloka Vihara as the retreat came to an end, finding the community radiant after those days of deep practice and contemplation. News was awaiting us that Anagarika Sharon Jasper, to whom we had given the Eight Precepts in October 2013 at her residence in Folsom, had died on August 2 after a long and painful illness. Those of you who met Sharon on her visits to the vihara would know that she struggled with chronic pain and illness for many years, and that she loved the Dharma more than anything in the world. While we are sad that we won’t see that twinkle in her eye again or see her practicing walking meditation with the staff we made from the branch of a tree, there is a relief in knowing that she has been able to lay that painful body down. On Aug 11, three of us went to her cremation, chanting the funeral rites over her body which was shrouded in her anagarika robe. May she find deepest peace.
Sharon at last year’s Almsgiving Ceremony
Back at the vihara, we are in the midst of making plans for remodeling upstairs, in order to make better use of the space and to accommodate more nuns as our community gradually grows. Sm. Ahimsa is with us until December and intends to return to join our community on a more permanent basis. There are others in the wings with aspirations towards monastic life too and we want to be sure that we can accommodate those who have this calling and the adaptability and skill to live this renunciant life. Donations for the Almsgiving Ceremony this year (Sept 3) are dedicated for the remodel project, so anything offered for the Almsgiving will literally be part of building the monastery!
With gratitude for your part in the unfolding of Aloka Vihara and for your kindness and support of each of us in our practice.
Sharing blessings with you,
March 27, 2016
Greetings from Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery!
The resident community’s winter retreat has been unfolding for the last 2 months. We now have about a week of precious silence before the nuns emerge from retreat. I thought this might be a good time to share some reflections from my perspective as the vihara steward.
The retreat began with some strong reminders of impermanence and death. One of our long-time supporters, Nancy Lonnergan, died after 2½ years of living with cancer. Then Ayya Jayati’s grandmother died suddenly around the same time. And, as things sometime come in threes, the man who came to repair our backup generator had a stroke the day after his visit to the vihara and died a few days later. I think of him each time the generator goes on! Each day we remember loved ones like these and dedicate our practice to them.
My retreat has been one of service, and I have had the pleasure of cooking for the community, sharing this responsibility with Becky and Jill. There have also been opportunities to practice together: pujas, morning readings, weekly personal check-ins with the nuns. Each person in the community was given 3 weeks of solo time, relieved of all community responsibilities. They took turns practicing in solitude in either the yurt or one of the two trailers, grateful for these quiet refuges on the land.
These few months have been my first time at the vihara since the sisters moved here in 2014. I have grown to really love this land: the streaked morning sky, the misty fog in the forest, the green moss on the trees (the trees!), the sunset sky, the stars at night, and the wonderful moon I can glimpse from my window. We had snow three times, which was very special, and then a long string of warm days. The rains returned in March, heralded by a rainbow in the eastern sky at sunset.
Robert, the newest member of the Saranaloka Board of Directors, has been a part of our retreat as well. He visited often when the weather was clear to build a new trail down to the creek. With all the sunny days in February, he made much progress and the trail is now open and invites future visitors to explore more of the forest—and the swimming hole in the creek!
Finally, much gratitude to all of you who kept in touch, sent in meal donations and dedications, or even visited in person to offer food at the monastery. Your care has been a great support to everyone’s practice here and a reminder of the interconnection we all share in creating this special space.
As we wind down our retreat, if you feel moved to send a dedication for our meal offering, you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will pass it on to the sisters. And if you would like to pair your dedication with a donation, you can do it here through PayPal. It would be wonderful to hear from you one last time before my visit to Aloka Vihara comes to an end!
I’ll be back in August. I hope to see you then and at the Almsgiving on September 3!
January 10, 2016
New Year’s Greetings from Aloka Vihara
As another year draws to an end we look back with hearts full of gratitude for the abundant support that has been received towards building our vision of creating a forest monastery. It has truly been a pivotal year, starting with the purchase of the Tolowa Trail property after a unanimous recognition of the potential of this place. The initial excitement of this event has now mellowed into a deepening of roots as we learn to live in this beautiful environment and develop a relationship with the land and trees.
In the service of creating suitable and conducive opportunities for quiet practice, one of the priorities has been to install some outdoor dwellings. At the end of 2014 we had purchased one refurbished trailer and with the work of several helping hands, it was ready for our winter retreat in 2015. We took turns using it for solitary practice. This is a precious means to go within and experience the depths possible in the presence of nature and its endlessly generous teaching on the blessings of simplicity.
Now at the beginning of 2016 we are delighted to have two trailers and a yurt on the property! One of the advantages of the second trailer is that we now have accommodation for both male and trans-gender guests to visit. We wish to welcome all and create a space of refuge for Dhamma practice which is accessible for those who choose to walk this path. Please write if you have any questions about arranging for a visit after the end of March 2016 ~ click here for more details. We will be in winter retreat from January 15 through March 31 and will be in touch again at the beginning of April.
There have also been building projects inside the house to make the space suitable for residents and guests alike. The shrine room now has a soundproof door so that noises from the kitchen are barely audible and the space feels more peaceful and protected. We also feel a great benefit from the new skylight in the office, which opens up the space and brings in the light and fresh air. A welcome change after one and a half years with no windows!
Throughout the year we have enjoyed visits from many friends old and new. In January we were delighted to have a visit from Jill Boone, the founding president of Saranaloka who has recently moved to Seattle to be closer to her grandchildren. Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Jayati enjoyed a visit with her in late October en route to the Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering.
This year has seen some changes for Saranaloka with Wren Withers stepping down as board president, though she continues to serve as a board member. We are deeply thankful for all her support, hard work and care. Wren…bless your good heart! Dennis Crean stepped in as the new president of the board and has been doing an awesome job so far…thanks Dennis, you’re a star! Sue Boeger continues her steady support as board secretary and we were also pleased to welcome two new board members this year, Julie DeHart and Robert Hohn.
Another positive development has been a wave of support from the local community. People have been showing up offering different skills to support the ongoing maintenance of the land and to help with rides, meals and other tasks needed. This feels very much in alignment with our wish for this to be a monastery where folks can come and feel they are part of the creative process of bringing this vision to life. The training monastery cannot happen in isolation from the world, it is rather a part of the world, but one which serves to provide another way of living than that of the mainstream culture.
We had a direct experience of this possibility for an alternative way of living after screening the excellent documentary “This Changes Everything”, based on the book of the same title by Naomi Klein. This insightful and provocative reflection on climate change and many of the (often unacknowledged) contributing factors had an energizing effect on the group of almost 20 people in attendance that night. One result from the discussion that followed was that some of our local friends are now looking into a move to solar energy and how to make that possible for a wider spectrum of the community, via energy incentives.
So all in all it has been a busy year and we are looking forward to having some quiet time of retreat in the New Year. Throughout 2015, as well as our three months winter retreat we enjoyed three shorter retreats of 8 or 9 days at the vihara, which certainly gave much needed breaks in the service of keeping perspective on the purpose of our lives as monastics. The commitment to live mindfully and in a way which leads to the development of wisdom and compassion is a daily process of renewal. We need to remember this here at the monastery as much as anywhere else.
We look forward to seeing and hearing from you in the spring, after our winter retreat. Please enjoy our 2015 photo gallery on our new mobile friendly website.
Wishing all of you peace, ease and joy for this New Year….
Ayya Santacitta, Ayya Anandabodhi, Ayya Jayati & Marina