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Buddhist abbey lives on generosity of those they teach

Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron’s search for life’s meaning led her from Los Angeles around the world to Nepal, where she studied Tibetan Buddhism with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and others.

Thubten Chodron
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron

In 2003, she founded and now is abbess of Sravasti Abbey near Newport, a monastic community learning and practicing the Buddha’s teachings to cultivate peace in the hearts of residents, visitors and, by extension, the world.

The abbey offers retreats, meditation and classes for lay people. It also prepares men and women for ordination.

The abbey is named for Sravasti, where the Buddha spent 25 “rains retreats” and spoke sutras, teaching and training monastics. It is an abbey because male and female monastics train as equals.

The resident community of seven—three monastics and four in training—live on donations of people who find their teachings nourish their spiritual lives.

Chodron grew up in a Jewish family and culture that often talked about suffering in the Holocaust.
“As a child in the Vietnam War era, I wanted to know why I was alive and what the meaning of life was,” she said of her years in middle-class Covina, Calif., a small orange-growing community.

Despite her comforts, she heard often about the Holocaust
and did not understand how humans could treat other humans that way. Neither could she accept that fighting a war in Vietnam would ever bring peace nor understand the prejudice that led to the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

“I could not figure out why adults had such prejudices when they taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves,” she said.

Studying history at the University of California in Los Angeles, she learned that in every generation people kill each other in the name of God.

After graduating in 1971, she thought she could help people by teaching. Perhaps that was the purpose of life.

She taught a year in Los Angeles and then traveled with her husband around the world using mostly local transportation to go through Europe, North Africa, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nepal, where she first encountered Buddhism.

Returning to the University of Southern California for graduate school, she studied education and taught in an inner city school.

For her summer vacation, Chodron went on a retreat led by two Tibetan lamas and “the rest is history,” she commented.

“They opened my mind to the importance of transformation of the heart and mind,” Chodron said. “I had thought I was unhappy because of the external world and other people.”

Through Buddhism, she realized she was unhappy because she continued to cling to anger, jealousy, resentment, self-centeredness, arrogance and attachment. She realized that it was the source of unhappiness for her personally, as well as for groups and nations.

“I found that when I wanted to solidify my identity and how others should treat me, problems ensued,” she said.

“Buddhism penetrates the nature of reality so we dissolve the false sense of self, and cultivate love and compassion through meditation,” Chodron said.

Instead of returning to the classroom in 1975, she went to Nepal with her husband and practiced under the guidance of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche at Koplan Monastery. While her husband was also taken with Buddhism, she decided she wanted to be ordained. That meant she was to be celibate, so their marriage amicably ended. She took novice vows in 1977 and full ordination in 1986.

Chodron was ordained by the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor and trained by other Tibetan masters.
She lived in India, Nepal, a Dharma Center in Italy, a French monastery, and later in India, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Returning to the United States to live in Seattle in the late 1980s, she wondered what had happened in the country. Despite problems, she found that Buddhism had spread.

For 10 years before founding Sravasti Abbey, Chodron lived in Seattle, teaching at the Dharma Friendship Foundation. A Dharma center is for lay people.

“At the abbey, we live a life of generosity and hope
others will see the value in that and support us. We do not buy our own food but rely of donations of food, clothing, shelter and medicine by laity. “We depend on the generosity of others to stay alive, developing gratitude in our hearts.

When we have extra, we give it to the Carmelite nuns and the food banks in Newport and Oldtown,” Chodron said.

Gender equality and social service are key elements of life at Sravasti Abbey.

Chodron does prison work, corresponding with inmates around the country, sending Buddhist books on request and visiting prisoners in many prisons, including Airway Heights.

She also travels around the United States and world, leading classes and retreats.
Courses help people develop compassion, handle stress and reduce anger in hope that by creating peace in the heart of its residents and visitors that peace will extend through them throughout the world, she said.

We function as a community, working together and learning about each other,” she explained, describing that “like rocks tumbling and rubbing together, we smooth our rough edges.”

The abbey, which models communication and conflict resolution skills among its practitioners, also promotes interfaith dialogue to spread love, compassion, wisdom and inspiration for society
.
Chodron enjoys engaging in Christian-Buddhist, Jewish-Buddhist and other forms of interfaith dialogue, believing that entering dialogue with an open mind, respect and willingness to learn benefits those who participate.

While philosophically there are differences between religions, by recognizing those, we can appreciate our similarities. We are freed from the need to agree on religious beliefs in order to have meaningful and mutually beneficial dialogues,” she comments on the website at Sravasti.org.

With religious institutions run by imperfect human beings, problems arise, she said. Some turn their religion into an “ism” or dogma unrelated to its teachings.

She believes that by coming to know each other in person, people of different faiths can recognize and respect similar aims through differing rites and philosophies.

Some she encounters ask her to help them learn meditation or practices to enrich how they live their religious values.

For information, call 447-5549
.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © November 2007