~ Presented by John M. Williams ~
Welcome to Crystal Spring
Nestled among the rolling hills of Crystal Spring, the Pennsylvania Meditation Center stands as an outpost of the Theravada tradition in the bucolic cornfields of south-central Pennsylvania. Despite close proximity (~9 miles) to the town of Breezewood and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Crystal Spring is thoroughly rural, Brush Creek Township (of which the unincorporated community is a part) called home by just over 800 inhabitants.
A relatively small monastery, consisting of a ranch house occupying a donated two acre plot, the Pennsylvania Meditation Center was incorporated in 2004 as the International Buddhist Society of Pennsylvania. Despite its identity, the entire property is far from distinctive as a place of worship. Bar the Sri Lankan flag flying out front, the unaware would not be remiss to assume the monastery but a well-kept farmhouse on an untraveled country road; even I, actively looking for the address, admittedly drove a mile past the property before realizing my error.
The monastery is home to four monks hailing from the island nation of Sri Lanka, who are joined intermittently by their teacher, who splits his time between Sri Lanka and Pennsylvania. Most of the information presented in this post was gathered via a conversation with Chief Monk, Venerable Chandrawansa, known more intimately as “Bhante,” a Pali address for a Theravada monk meaning “Venerable Sir.” Though our conversation occasionally became a bit strained due to a significant cultural language barrier (the nuances of American English are only fully appreciated when communicating with one who does not take them for granted), it was nonetheless pleasant and informal, a tone with which I desire to describe the lifestyles of the monks with whom I spoke.
The monks of the Pennsylvania Meditation Center spend a good deal of their time engaged in study of the Dharma as well as Vipassana, or Insight, meditation. When the weather allows, the monks alternate between sitting Vipassana practice and walking meditation, an alternation utilized to suppress the inherent lethargy and fatigue developed as a result of maintaining the same position for too long. The walking path and both meditation huts are but little more than a year in age, beautifully set within a thicket of pines near the rear of the property, a short walk from the main building.
The climate of Sri Lanka is undoubtedly tropical with distinctive wet and dry seasons, the country experiencing average temperatures fluctuating between 82 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The climate of Crystal Spring, in contrast, is humid continental, experiencing four distinct seasons. The average high for the region peaks in July, at 83 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching an average low of 18 degrees approximately half a year later. Suffice it to say, this temperature change is a huge adjustment for the monks, many of whom have never encountered such cold (though, to my surprise, Bhante told me that he had braved a winter in Ottawa; I do not have the gall to compare that change in climate).
Though a winter in Ottawa certainly puts things in perspective, a Pennsylvania winter can still be harsh, unforgiving, and brutally cold. Adjustments to practice are, unsurprisingly, essential, and begin with an emphasis on meditation in the central building come the colder months of the year. This is not where the monks’ ingenuity in these conditions ends, however, as exemplified by their care of the monastery’s Bodhi Tree.
A variety of fig, the monastery’s Bodhi Tree would, unfortunately, stand no chance at surviving a Pennsylvania winter; the climate is simply too brutal. Unable to grow naturally in this region, however, it is nevertheless thriving at the monastery. Beautifying a corner of the Buddha Room for most of the year, bearing witness to meditation and Dharma sermons, the Bodhi Tree is only moved outdoors during Pennsylvania’s summer months to enjoy the sunlight as the weather allows.
Though the Pennsylvania climate may alter some aspects of Theravada practice, it does not erase tradition. Every year, from July through late October or early November, the monks participate in the Rains Retreat, during which time they avoid leaving the monastery and surrounding property. At the end of the retreat, the Katina, or Robe Offering Ceremony, is celebrated, an ancient ritual in which one monk who has strived valiantly in Dharma practice during the Rains Retreat is presented with a unique robe.
The monks’ resourcefulness in Pennsylvania moves beyond the weather, of course. Upon speaking with a number of individuals concerning my visit, I have noticed a lack of recognition concerning modernity in regard to not only Buddhist monks, but any religious tradition other than Catholicism. My suspicion, at least in regard to Pennsylvanians, is an association with rural Pennsylvania and the state’s famed Amish population, well-renowned for their “shunning” of modern technology (although this belief, too, is not entirely factual).
Regardless of association, the belief that the Pennsylvania Meditation Center and its monks eschew the developments of the 21st century could not be farther from the truth. On the contrary, the monks make ample use of the technologies at their disposal. For one example, the monks are particularly active on Facebook, using the social media platform to help leverage the hardships of the monastery’s relative social and geographic isolation. After all, the Sangha is a social network of sorts; why not keep it connected online?
Yet another example of the progressiveness of the monks comes via their liberal use of iPads. As I will address shortly, the monks at the Pennsylvania Meditation Center face a significant challenge in receiving material support in a Catholic-majority, rural area. Resources are at a premium. What better way to cope with this reality than by taking advantage of the numerous resources that digital sources have to offer, eschewing the cost of print? In this manner, the monks can pursue study of the Dharma at a fraction of the cost required to maintain a print library.
The Pennsylvania Sangha
Like any Theravada monastery, the Sangha of the Pennsylvania Meditation Center is more than just its monks. The monks regularly interact with the lay community, reliant on their dana, or generosity, just as in other Theravada monasteries. Here in Crystal Spring, however, the increased importance of that bond cannot be overstated.
It is easy for one to forget just how difficult it is for a monastery (or any group, really) to survive without self-sufficiency. This lack of independence requires dana on the part of the lay to support the monks, to allow them to meditate and study the Dharma while the lay make merit. This is quite an effective system when a religious tradition has a large and/or supportive congregation. But what of those congregations facing adverse circumstances? Enter the Pennsylvania Meditation Center.
Here is a Theravada monastery located in one of the least populated regions of Pennsylvania. This is a place where the few families who do surround the monastery are not Buddhist adherents, interested in making merit through dana, but mostly Catholic Christians who are under-educated on just how important their generosity is to the monks. Quite frankly, plenty of these individuals may be completely oblivious to the existence of the monastery hiding in plain sight.
Yet, despite all of the odds stacked against them, the monks of the Pennsylvania Meditation Center seem to fare well. During my visit, I learned that despite the relative isolation of the monastery, the monks are still entirely supported by the Sangha, whether by means of direct donations of food (as one might anticipate in a more traditional context) or by means of monetary donation.
The acceptance of monetary donations is of interest to note in this scenario, serving as a rather practical bridge between the monastery and the aforementioned, mostly Catholic local community. As I previously noted, the local population is undoubtedly under-educated on matters of Buddhist custom and practice, and I have personally witnessed some resistance to the idea of further education. With this in mind, the expectation that the local community might donate food to the monastery might be a bit optimistic given the cultural context. In my experience, the lay of the area interpret a position held by a religious figurehead such as a priest or nun to be a salaried position; to donate food to feed such an individual would be considered offensive. However, if the monastery were to be open to the concept of monetary donations, the local community might be more apt to donate knowing that they are doing so in their own socially-accepted format. This is indeed what seems to have occurred, and the monks take it upon themselves to order provisions as they see fit.
The Pennsylvania Meditation Center’s relationship with the lay community is not, of course, centered around donations, but around study of the Dharma and meditation. Bhante presents a Dharma sermon followed by a discussion and meditation to those interested on weekend afternoons, also leading the community in meditation on Tuesday evenings from 7 to 9. Bhante and the other monks further intend to strengthen their relationship with the Sangha with the addition of one-day and weekend meditation retreats come 2019. All programs are free of charge, although it should be remembered that donations allow the monks to continue their practice. Dana is always appreciated.
The Pennsylvania Meditation Center may be reached via the following:
1999 S Valley Rd, Crystal Spring, PA 15536, USA
(814) 735-4458, (814) 954-9011
I would like to thank the Pennsylvania Meditation Center, Bhante, and all the monks for hosting me – it was an absolute pleasure to meet you!