The goal of Upavana is to support Buddhist practice through the medium of the forest tradition. In Theravada Buddhism, the Forest Tradition represents a movement towards simplicity – practitioners dwelling close to nature, supported by and in turn supporting their local communities. Contentment and a focus on meditation and mindfulness, along with a dedicated study of the Buddha’s teachings, provide the basis for profound spiritual development. Lay people and monastics co-exist in a vision of society that has no hard boundaries between spiritual practice and daily life.
Upavana is not just a place, but a network of offerings to support practitioners wherever they live and wherever they are in their practice. Since January of 2021, many of Upavana’s offerings and meditations have been broadcast online through ZOOM meetings and YouTube.
At least once a week, teachers and peers have the chance to come together and discuss the Dhamma. These informal ‘tea times’ help us establish Sangha, the sense of community despite physical distance. There are also weekly meditation groups, and chances on the New and Full Moons, the Uposatha Observances, to take precepts and hear instructional talks.
Upavana also occasionally hosts online meditation retreats. These retreats are free and publicly available, allowing individuals to tap in as they are able as well as adapt the format to fit their needs and timezone.
In 2015, after seven years in various monasteries, Pamutto Bhikkhu (who many now know simply by the honorific ‘Tahn’) began a period of ascetic wandering practice and came to the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. Over the next three years, he often dwelt in the forest and ate almsfood placed in his bowl, living up to some of the most rigorous forest monk practices. He traveled constantly by foot, seeking new ways to develop his practice and delighting in the community and support he found along the way.
In 2018, a long battle with Lyme Disease forced Tahn Pamutto to step back from being a wandering monk and attend to his health. Over the next year he stayed in the valley leading meditations and supporting centers, gathering strength. In spring of 2020, he returned to monasteries to once again take up robes.
Along the way, Tahn Pamutto met many practitioners, ordained and not, looking for support. The idea of Upavana took shape – a center, close to nature and the rural communities that have been the traditional home of the Forest Tradition for generations. Tahn Pamutto, with the support of friends and monastics gathered along the way, plans on returning to the Pioneer Valley in late spring of 2021.
The Pioneer Valley and surrounding area, as it turns out, is not just a beautiful landscape of forests, hills, and streams ideal for one who appreciates nature. It has also been a conspicuous hub of Buddhism in America for the last fifty years. Every major Buddhist lineage has had a presence here – the Dalai Lama has visited, as has Thich Naht Hanh. Students of Nichidatsu Fujii built a massive Buddhist Stupa, the peace pagoda, on a hill in Leverett. Chogyam Trungpa, the founder of the Shambala Foundation, had a powerful insight while on retreat just north of Charlemont, and the former Supreme Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism, MāhāGhosananda, chose this place to live his final days. His body still dwells in stasis in Pelham, MA.
The area is also bracketed by two of the oldest non-monastic meditation centers in America – the Dhammadhara Vipassana Center, teaching meditation by S.N. Goenka, and the Insight Meditation Society, one of the premier lay meditation centers in the west.
One of the distant aims of the Upavana Foundation is to support monastics who, like Tahn Pamutto, seek to come out of the monastery and spread the dhamma. The Pioneer Valley is an excellent place to train monastics for this lifestyle, and few places are so rich in resources and support for a lifestyle of wandering and forest-dwelling.
In the future, forest monastics trained here will be able to take the lessons they’ve learned and apply them elsewhere – bringing the dhamma to all those places and communities that need it.