10th anniversary of Ukiah's hidden treasure

By Tony Anthony, Ukiah Daily Journal, May 23, 2006

Ukiah, CA (USA) -- Even a short visit to Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley is sure to dispel any preconceived notion about a monastery being a closed society for ascetics hiding out from the world. Abhayagiri is just the opposite.

<< Above, Ajahn Amaro, co-abbott at Abhayagiri monastery, gazes out over the valley outside one of the many individual cabins, or kutis, that are scattered throughout the monastery hillside in Redwood Valley. At top, Venerable Jotipalo rings the monastery bell, an empty bomb-shell casing from the Vietnam war, once a symbol of destruction which has been transformed into a symbol of peace at the Abhayagiri monastery. (Isaac Eckel/The Daily Journal)

Although it is home to about a dozen full - time monks who live by strict Buddhist precepts, Abhayagiri is a welcoming place, open to people in the community in a very wide way, a cross, of sorts, between a retreat house, a Buddhist temple, and a community center.

More than 2,500 years ago the Buddha set up a system whereby the monks would not be cut off from society by making them interdependent with the local community. In Abhayagiri's case, this includes the people of Ukiah.

The monks can be seen once a week walking through town on the lunar quarter days dressed in traditional brown robes, carrying alms bowls to receive their sustenance from the community. In turn, the monastics preserve and give back centuries of spiritual knowledge. And for the weekend of June 3 - 4, Abhayagiri is inviting everyone to visit the monastery and help them celebrate their 10th anniversary.

One may wonder if "food for knowledge" is a fair trade, but in most Eastern cultures including Thailand, India and Japan, this has been a standard practice from even before the time of the Buddha. It is a common sight in those countries to see monks accepting gifts of food, and it is considered a blessing to be able to support the monastics. Across Asia, monks are revered because of their dedication to the spiritual path, but in the West, monks outside the Roman Catholic Church, are rare.

Ukiah is most fortunate to have the presence of the monks following the ancient Theravada Buddhist tradition living in our midst. Not only do they offer spiritual knowledge freely but the monastery itself offers a place of refuge - of peace and serenity away from the daily cares of normal workday life.

When asked why the monastery is having a public celebration, co-abbot Ajahn Amaro jokes, "It's a birthday party. We're 10 years old!"

British-born Ajahn Amaro was one of the first two monks to settle on the land, which has grown to 280 acres now. He explains the thought behind the event more seriously: "We are part of both the Buddhist community and the Mendocino County community. So we've planned our two-day celebration around that, Saturday being an Open House Day especially for the locals and Sunday being a Buddhist Community Day with more traditional Buddhist activities. But," he adds, "all are welcome to come to either or both."

A celebration of gratitude from the monastic community

The Abhayagiri community is grateful for how fully and easily it has been accepted as part of the local community. Ajahn Sudanto, explains, "We're extending an invitation to the community, whether they're Buddhist or not, to get to know us. It's also an opportunity for us to express our gratitude to everyone who contributed to building and supporting our monastery over these past ten years." For these two days in June, they wish to welcome all people from the community to visit, get to know the monks and learn about the monastery.

A highlight of the weekend will be multiple showings of the hour-long documentary film, "Fearless Mountain," which gives an overview of the monastery and insight into Theravada Buddhism, the most ancient branch of the religion. Guests of the celebration will have many opportunities to ask questions of the monks, to join tours of the monastery given on both Saturday and Sunday, and to share in a potluck meal at 11 a.m. each day.

For a full schedule of events, visit the monastery's website at www.abhayagiri.org.

Abhayagiri, which means "Fearless Mountain" in the ancient Pali language, has another strong connection with Ukiah. The monastery was built on land donated by Master Hsuan Hua, abbot of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas.

Although the two Buddhist communities are from different branches of the religion, they support each other and share their knowledge. Students from the CTTB visit Abhayagiri to learn from the monks about the Theravada tradition.

Among the several "firsts" that have taken place at Abhayagiri was the ordination of the first American monk in the Thai Forest Tradition on American soil. Ven. Karunadhammo, originally from North Carolina. The monastery has also welcomed many distinguished monks from around the world, including Luang Por Sumedho from England, the most senior Theravada monk in the West.

The celebration of Abhayagiri's 10th anniversary is a wonderful opportunity for the people of Ukiah and the surrounding area to become acquainted with one of Mendocino County's most precious resources, a spiritual sanctuary open to all, a timeless place of peace and refuge in a time - honored tradition.

For more information or directions to the monastery, go to www.abhayagiri.org or call 485-1630.