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upasika renewal trip

June 18, 2013

Our caravan to Abhayagiri for the Upasika Renewal Day left around 4:45am Friday morning, a motley crew from all over the Pacific Northwest gathered together for this special occasion. Irv, the driver of our car, for example, was from Pullman, Washington, and had driven to Portland the day before. We all met at the old Portland Friends of the Dhamma hall, organized our luggage and seating arrangements, and began the twelve hour journey to Abhayagiri before the sun started its own daily migration across the sky.

We made a brief stop near Eugene early on to grab some coffee, tea, and water at one the innumerable Starbucks that dot the universe, like some kind of ley line nexus points tying together all things, and then hurried towards the California border, eager to meet up with two monks on tudong in time to offer their daily meal, which has to be eaten before midday. Along the way, we passed the time by discussing everything from Dhamma to archaeology, anthropology, ecology, and the conditionality underlying geopolitics.

Close to 11:30am, we arrived at the Mystic Forest RV Park in Kalamth, California, just in time to offer the meal to the two tudong monks walking from Abhayagiri to the Pacific Hermitage in White Salmon, Washington, as well as the three that were driving down to Abhayagiri with us.

Afterwards, the group paid for their campsite for another night, Denise, the event organizer, arranged their meal the following day at the nearby Forest Cafe, and we all took a short hike to Hidden Beach to enjoy the beautiful landscape and fresh ocean air before saying goodbye to Ajahn Naniko and Tan Thitabho and continuing on to Abhayagiri. We arrived at Abhayagiri just as the sun was setting in Redwood Valley, paid our respects to Ajahn Pasanno, and settled in for the night.

Saturday began at 4am for Shad, one of the drivers, and I. We’d been offered a room at a guest house across from Abhayagiri that was about a ten minute drive up a rather rugged slope, and so wanted to make sure we weren’t late for morning puja, which started at 5am. We chanted both the traditional Pali and the English translation, and then we meditated as the sun rose. Morning puja was followed by a short work period and a light breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, both of which were heavenly.

My heavenly bliss was soon interrupted by the main work period, however, and I was sent to rake one of the many winding paths that weave their way through forested property that makes up Abhayagiri, mindfully avoiding the copious amounts of poison oak that also help to make up the monastery grounds. The work wasn’t unrewarding, though. Many of the paths offered their natural beauty and a sense of tranquility in return. We worked our way down towards the main house, making sure to finish in time to clean up before the start of the Upasika Day events.

By 10:30am, the meditation hall was filled with people, both lay and ordained. Upasika Day commenced with those of us taking the precepts with Ajahn Pasanno for the first coming up one by one with a traditional offering of candles, incense, and flowers, bowing three times, and requesting to take the three refuges and five precepts. Then we all took the refuges and precepts as a group, chanting in both the traditional Pali and the English translation that we undertake the training rules to refrain from taking the life of any living being, refrain from taking that which is not given, refraining from sexual misconduct, and refraining from indulging in drink and drugs that lead to carelessness.

Lunch followed. After the meal offering, Ajahn Pasanno and a number of his senior students spent the rest of the day explaining many of the monastic rules and ceremonies, not only to help educate the laity about monastic life in general, but also to help relate how some of these practices can be incorporated into our lay practice. Talking about the ins and outs of monastic life was inspiring; it filled some of us with a sense of longing. I couldn’t help fantasizing about what it must be like in being robes and surrounded by such skilled and dedicated monastics. At 7:30pm, after the informal tea period, Ajahn Sudanto led the evening puja and gave a Dhamma talk on the importance of spiritual friendship (kalyana-mitta) as a source of support on the path.

Sunday was slightly different since it was Wan Phra or ‘Monk Day,’ which is kind of like the Thai Buddhist equivalent of a sabbath day. There was no morning puja, so we all met up just before breakfast around 6:30-7:00am. Many of the monks went on alms round in the traditional style, some being dropped off in town while others simply walked along Tomki Road, with people placing food offerings into their bowls, while the lay people did their best to help out around the monastery. Since everything seemed to be taken care of, and I was mostly just getting in everybody else’s way, I decided to hike the two-and-a-half mile Cool Oaks trail that wraps around the monastery grounds, arriving back as the monks were returning from their alms round.

After the meal, the monks began to prepare for the ordination ceremony taking place at 4pm as the laity cleaned up from lunch, filling the remaining time however they felt the most appropriate. I spent most of it talking with Irv and Shad, checking out some of the books in the main house, and sitting in the meditation hall. Around 2:30pm, I started up the Cool Oaks trail, taking the long way around to the ordination platform. Others took the shorter way, or else caught a ride up the relatively steep mountainside.

Tan Sudhiro’s ordination ceremony lasted about two hours, all throughout which Ajahn Pasanno explained what was happening in detail as he acted as preceptor. The ceremony seemed especially auspicious as it had a full quorum of ten monks — double the number of monks needed to perform it outside of the Ganges valley (ten vs. five), illustrating the growing strength of Buddhism in the West — was attended by three senior monks and seven novices from the City of 10,000 Buddhas, and was performed on Father’s Day/the 18th Anniversary of Venerable Master Hua’s Entering Nirvana. I was happy for Tan Sudhiro and jealous at the same time.

The night ended with a quick clean-up of the ordination area and an informal tea period. The Pacific Hermitage monks took this time to catch up with some of the monks from Abhayagiri, while the group from Portland and some of the other upasikas took the opportunity to spend time with Ajahn Pasanno in the meditation hall, talking and asking questions about the practice. At the end of the night, we paid respects to Ajahn Pasanno and took leave, which is traditionally done in the monastic community by ceremony of Asking for Forgiveness (although we did this informally).

Monday began much like Friday and Saturday, at 4:00am before the first rays of dawn. We all congregated at the main house, packed the cars, and commenced the long drive back to Portland just before 5am. Along the way, we stopped to eat at the Forest Cafe, and then took short a break at the half-mile Stout Memorial Grove trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park to stretch our legs, the trees as amazing and wonderful as the last three days. We arrived at the rendezvous point near Shad’s just after 7:00pm, and said our final farewells as the group disbanded and we went our separate ways.

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