Speedbumps and the Vassa

From Tahn Pamutto: “One of my root teachers, Luang Por Pasanno, once famously exclaimed, “It’s illegal to live simply in this country!” That became something of a running joke at Abhayagiri Monastery in northern California, where ever stricter building codes have made it incredibly expensive to build even the tiniest structure. You can’t just nail some boards together – everything must be able to simultaneously withstand both forest fires and earthquakes. That means concrete, metal rebar, and elaborate fire-suppression measures.

Yet, with a devout lay community and a long-cultivated spirit of compliance with the fussy Building and Planning Commission, Abhayagiri has managed to build everything they originally set out to (and survived said forest fires along the way). They are a model of steady growth and a stable monastic training environment.

Though I no longer live there, Abhayagiri Monastery’s long uphill battle to afford ever more expensive structures is part of my monastic DNA. I was there, watching and learning. Last year, when I set my mind to return to western Massachusetts to start a dhamma practice center, I knew what I would be up against. Every improvement has a cost.

It’s illegal to live simply here! You would think it wouldn’t be too hard for a couple of Buddhist monks to get together and practice diligently, but you would be wrong. Our laws and societal structures are built around a very narrow definition of living, and monasticism, to say nothing of forest monasticism, was not in the consideration.

There are these four requisites of life – Clothing, Food, Shelter, and Medicines. That is the simplest definition of human needs, and for years I traveled this area content with the bare minimum: almsfood placed in my bowl, three thick robes, sleeping in the forest, and only the supplies I could carry on my back.

I learned over time, though, that only individuals can aspire to live by the minimums. The moment you seek to bring others along for the journey, needs multiply and laws and societal structures start to kick in. Complications arise. And yet, curiously, in those places you succeed and the conditions for practice are stabilized, interested dhamma friends seem to show up as if summoned.

Thus, I’ve spent much of the last three weeks puzzling over the fate of Upavana’s ‘mobile temple’. There have been a number of requests by monastics and lay people to visit and perhaps join for the summer. Both the Leverett site and camper weren’t yet fit for the expansion. In every place I thought to expand, I ran across a lack of resources and even legal considerations. The more people, the more visible a movement becomes. But through perseverance and flexibility, I think the pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place.

After one of the many speedbumps to finding a place to park the camper — a town Board of Health that wasn’t sure if camping on private property was even legal in their town — a friend who was frustrated by the matter turned to me and said, “Well, if I’m this upset, I can only imagine how you feel.”

Curiously, I didn’t feel anything. “Maybe I’m just in shock.” I said. “But it doesn’t seem like a big deal.” It was potentially a major setback, yet somehow I knew if I stayed on course, I would still get where I was going. It wasn’t about results, but having a clear trajectory that could tolerate the bumps.

All of this – finding a site, repairing structures, deciding who to live with — is happening like clockwork and occurs every year at this time. We are about to enter the period of the Indian calendar known as Vassa, the monsoon season [Vassa sure sounds a lot like Water, doesn’t it?]. During this time the intense rains make it impractical to travel. Monks are required to secure a shelter or shelters and determine a region to live three months of this four-month season.

We used to joke in California that we were keeping the Rains Retreat in the driest part of the year, but this is already the third wettest July on record and we’re barely half through the month. Nevertheless, two monastic friends are undaunted and arrive on Monday to see if Upavana might provide a place to train for the season.

More on them when they arrive. In the meantime, I’m set up in the town of Wendell, the densely forested hill-town with a warm and inviting community of less than a thousand people. This was the first place I came on my wandering in 2015 and the first place I spent a Vassa on the road. The ability to go almsround every day provided the perfect nourishment for my growth in the disciplines of wandering. How very circular that Upavana’s sangha should arrive here first to begin it’s own journey!”

Comment

  • Jonathan von Ranson

    Tahn and fellows – welcome to our back field! Susan and I never thought it would get such an agreeable, constructive use! The challenges with the local authorities seem to have subsided, but your comments about how difficult it is to legally live a simple existence ring true for us. This property is reputed to be the site of the first electrical hookup in Wendell Center (it held the post offie at the time). Coincidentally, it’s where the first efforts were made to give up electricity. It took us five years to be authorized to live without the full complement of modern conveniences like pressured, hot and cold water, heat piped to every room, hard-wired smoke detectors (as opposed to battery-operated ones), flush toilet, etc. I see a parallel between what we went through seven years ago and, more recently, with getting Upavana accepted there in the back field – namely, the challenges of fitting the round peg of simplicity into the square hole of contemporary, official thinking. Part of my interest in your practice is how it demonstrates the humility, possibility, elegance and realism of simpler living.

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