Introduction to Buddhism Fall 2018
History and Founding
In 1993 Venerable Thubten Chodron talked with the Dalai Lama at the Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conference about how little support the West gave for Buddhist monks and nuns. The Dalai Lama told her that they shouldn’t wait for Tibetans to provide for them but to start their own monasteries. Venerable Chodron organized the Life as a Buddhist Nun conference in 1996, where Chinese and Tibetan monastics taught the Vinaya to Western nuns. Venerable Chodron submitted a list of names for her monastery to the Dalai Lama and he chose “Sravasti Abbey”. She chose Sravasti because it was the place where Buddha spent 25 rain retreats and spoke many sutras at Sravasti. She added the term abbey because it was gender neutral which indicated that both men and women monastics could practice. Venerable Chodron found a 240 acre property in Newport, Washington in August 2003 and moved in with her two cats. Some of Venerable Chodron’s students from Seattle formed the Friends of Sravasti Abbey (FOSA) to support the abbey through donations. Sravasti Abbey is the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western monks and nuns in the United States.
Mission and Beliefs
Sravasti Abbey’s mission is this; “We seek to preserve Buddha’s teachings purely, to root them deeply in Western soil, to share them with others, to build an enduring sangha, and to serve sentient beings for as long as space remains”. The abbey wants its residents and guests to develop a Monastic’s Mind. They try to embody the teachings on compassion and wisdom and express the Dharma through their body, speech, and mind in their interactions with others. One of their main goals is to learn and practice Buddha’s teachings and then share the tools to develop compassion and wisdom with anyone who asks. One way in which Sravasti Abbey does this is by putting books, videos, talks, and live teachings on the internet through various social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
The residential community of the Sravasti Abbey consists of 13 nuns, 1 monk, and trainees and visitors. Most of the monastics were born in the United States and are white but two nuns were born in Asia (Singapore and Vietnam).
Sravasti Abbey has many prominent Buddhist teachers and monks that come to be guest teachers and/or are on their advisory board. One of the guest teachers of the Sravasti Abbey is Ganden Tripa Lobsang Tenzin Rinpoche. He is the 104th Ganden Tripa which is a spiritual leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Dagri Rinpoche, who’s a current adviser, was recognized as the reincarnation of Pari Dorje Chang (one of the great geshes of Lhasa) but due to the political situation in Tibet, was prohibited from religious training. Years after, he received the Geshe Lharampa degree (highest qualification obtainable) and supports the Dalai Lama.
The founder and Abbess of the Sravasti Abbey is the Venerable Thubten Chodron. She was born in Chicago and grew up in Los Angeles. She was a teacher who worked in the Los Angeles City School System. In 1975 she attended a meditation course given by Lama Yeshe and Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche. After this she decided to continue to study, practice, and train for many years in Asia and received sramanerika (novice ordination) from Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in 1977 and bhikshuni (full ordination) in Taiwan in 1986. She has written several books on Buddhist philosophy and meditation and co-authored a book, Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, with the Dalai Lama who she studied with for 40 years. Her creation of the Sravasti Abbey comes from her dream to train Western ordained sangha in the Buddha’s teachings. She’s also passionate about teaching and doing Buddhist prayers and practices in English through technology to spread the Dharma to Western society.
What they Believe
As previously stated the Sravasti Abbey practices in the Tibetan Buddhism tradition. Venerable Chodron was taught in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism but has also received precepts in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage practiced in Chinese Buddhism. Overall the abbey is a part of the Gelug school but Venerable Chodron believes that she is just Buddhist. The Gelug school is also known as the Lama school due to Dalai Lamas being important monks of this school.
The abbey teaches everyone to have a monastic mind. Their definition of a monastic mind is one that is humble, imbued with Buddhist worldview, dedicated to cultivating mindfulness, clear knowing, love, compassion, and wisdom. They have dharma principles that they think should apply to everyone not just monastics. These include non-harmfulness, compassion, generosity, mindfulness, gratitude and respect, rejoicing, and humility and willingness to accept instruction.
The monastics at the abbey are dedicated to the Bodhisattva path, in which one aspires to become a Buddha in order to benefit sentient beings. They believe that this is the most noble intention because you’re caring about the happiness of each and every living being. To develop the Bodhicitta mind, they need two things; altruistic intention to benefit sentient beings and to understand that it’s possible for them to become Buddhas. They realize that some might say that it doesn’t make sense to stay in samsara for the sake of sentient beings but one has to realize that sentient beings want to be free of suffering as much as Buddhists do. They also say that the nature of one’s mind is clear and undefiled but ignorance, anger, attachment, and karma obscure it. They aim to purify their minds through developing wisdom that understands reality (lack of inherent existence).
Lamrim teachings are central to the Gelug school. They are stages of the path to Bodhisattva. Venerable Chodron teaches the six far-reaching attitudes which are; generosity, ethics, patience, enthusiastic perseverance, meditation, and wisdom. They help Buddhists attain enlightenment. Venerable Chodron doesn’t like to call them perfections because we have perfection complexes that complicate things. She prefers to call them far-reaching because they encompass all sentient beings in the scope of who we are doing them for. There are two aspects of the path; the method aspect and the wisdom aspect. The method aspect of the path are all the actions done out of the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings where this intention is truly present in the mind. The wisdom aspect of the path is the wisdom that realizes emptiness. One way to look at the far-reaching attitudes is to practice the first three (generosity, ethics and patience) for the purpose of others and then practice the next three (enthusiastic perseverance, meditation, and wisdom) for one’s own purpose.
Living Vinaya in the West
Venerable Chodron believes that practicing Buddhism is an art, monastics are the artists, and the materials they use are the five aggregates of form, feeling, discrimination, mental formations, and consciousness. The purpose of the art is to bring harmony and peace into the five aggregates so that you can offer happiness to others. She says that monastic life is possible in the West because there is a 2,500 year history of the Buddhist Order in Asia and because of the experience of Catholic nuns in Western countries. Speaking from her personal experience, Venerable Chodron says that when you first become a monastic you might feel embarrassed because lay people show respect to you but don’t become arrogant as they’re showing respect to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha not the individual. It’s important to wear robes because that shows that the seed of devotion is alive. Laypeople and monastics should help each other to practice and laypeople have an impact on ordained people.
On January 22 to February 8, 2018, forty-nine nuns gathered at Sravasti Abbey for “Living Vinaya in the West” which was a seventeen day course on experience in learning and living the Vinaya. Taiwanese Vinaya Master Venerable Wuyin guided this conference. The conference included nuns from three Buddhist traditions-Chinese Mahayana, Tibetan, and Theravada. Nuns came from across the world, including South America, Asia, Europe, and Australia.
Sravasti Abbey believes that practicing Buddha’s teachings involves sharing them with others in a helpful manner. They respond to problems afflicting the world today such as mass shootings, terrorism, and suffering refugees by teaching compassion, tolerance, fortitude, and wisdom. Sravasti Abbey also takes prayer requests for illness, death, childbirth, or marriage and will perform Lama Chopa puja, meditation on Tara, Chenrezig, or Medicine Buddha.
The abbey has a set schedule that they follow everyday. Days do vary depending on who’s visiting that day, if there’s guest teachers, or if they’re traveling to other monasteries or Buddhist conferences. Below is their usual daily schedule.
5:00 a.m. Wake Up-Before they get up, they take refuge in the Three Jewels
5:30 a.m. Meditation Practice-During meditation they cultivate wisdom and compassion
7:30 a.m. Breakfast-Before eating they recite Praises to the 21 Taras and eat in silence
8:15 a.m. Offering Service-Work outdoors or indoors to maintain the abbey
12:30 a.m. Lunch-Before eating they recite the five contemplations and eat in silence
1:30 p.m. Dishes and break-Time to take a break
2:30 p.m Offering Service-Gather to set their motivation with the offering service prayer
4:30 p.m. Study time-Review teachings or delve more deeply into a specific topic
7:00 p.m Meditation or Chanting-On Tuesdays and Saturdays they do Chinese chanting
8:15 p.m. Study and Personal Time-They keep silence in the evening
10:00 p.m. Lights Out-They evaluate their day to reflect and rejoice
They maintain this schedule to spend their days and train their minds to create peace in themselves in a chaotic world.