Back in May, Tahn Pamutto was just returning to Massachusetts and beginning the process of reconnecting with friends and Buddhists throughout the pioneer valley. It had only been a few weeks when he was contacted by Bhante Sumano and Anagarika Drew, who had left Empty Cloud monastery but were still wanting to continue their monastic education and seek ordination.
It was a precarious time to be a monastic without a temple, as COVID lockdowns were still in effect and many orders were not accepting any more members. Tahn Pamutto had experienced the similar lack of options the year before when he had sought to get reordained after his recovery from Lyme Disease. He had met Bhante Sumano and Drew on that journey and decided that he would provide what assistance he could.
Nevertheless, Upavana was still in its infancy. Tahn Pamutto could provide guidance and instruction in etiquette, the monastic vinaya precepts, teachings on dhamma and the skills of being a forest monk – but ultimately it would be the lay community of western Massachusetts who would decide whether there was room for two more monks. Could small American towns support a full monastic community appearing almost overnight?
The answer was a resounding yes, and they have seen it through to ordination. Bhante Sumano is now fully ordained, and Drew has become Tahn Tānakāro.
Though nothing came easy. The trainees had to be willing to live in the tradition of some of the most austere of Buddhist monks. They slept against the ground in tents with little space to themselves. They walked almsround in the village and learned to be content with a single meal per day. They endured torrential rains, blistering heat and humidity, and have transitioned to frosty nights. They have done it without complaint. In fact, if you asked, they would say they kinda dig it.
Checking in with young monks in other traditions, they were surprised. Very few get so much personal time with a teacher, and some are ordained for years before they get much detailed instruction in the monastic vinaya. For Tānakāro and Sumano, their dwellings and belongings are simple but they are blameless. With so little to go around everything is shared, even down to dividing a bagel or piece of fruit three ways. And yet when something is needed, there is enough.
Why would one practice in this way? What could be the benefit? Traditionally, the ‘dhutanga’ austerities are optional practices used to develop contentment. To understand this, consider the future for Tahn Tānakāro and Bhante Sumano. Wherever they go the beds will be softer than they are used to, the food will be more plentiful. They will get to bathe and do laundry more often. Every abode after their time in Massachusetts will be more comfortable than they need, and they can walk away from any temple without fear of discomfort or starvation. They have started in a position many monastics in wealthy monasteries long for – the simplicity of having so little there is nothing to be attached to.
As the winter approaches, Tahn Pamutto is preparing Upavana’s resources to support him in staying through the snows. He will continue to grow the organization so in the future more monks can be seen roaming the forests and practicing at the outskirts of small American towns. Bhante Sumano and Tānakāro will likely depart for warmer climates, but they take a wealth of lessons from their time. Be sure to check in with them while you have the chance, for like birds who have only their wings as burdens, they are likely to fly far with their new freedom!