Monks chant Paritta blessing during opening ceremony for Pacific Hermitage. Pictured on stage, left to right: Ajahn Sudanto, Ajahn Pasanno, Luang Por Sumedho, Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Paññasaro. On floor, left to right: Ajahn Dto and Ajahn Gunavuddho. Not shown: Venerables Tithabo, Caganando, Pavaro, and Cunda.
When enthusiastic and dedicated individuals band together with a common purpose, good things are bound to follow. Such is the case with the establishing of Pacific Hermitage, dedicated on site and in Portland in early July.
Perched on five acres of leased property high in the hills on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, the Hermitage is a branch of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. Three Theravada monks will reside there. The opening of Pacific Hermitage is the result of much patient effort on the part of Portland Friends of the Dhamma and the sangha’s dedicated founder and spiritual director, Sakula (Mary Reinard).
Presiding over the opening ceremony at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in SE Portland was Luang Por Sumedho, abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in Hertfordshire, England. Ordained a Theravada monk in 1967, he is the most senior Western monk in the Thai Forest tradition of the Ajahn Chah lineage. Visiting Abhayagiri co-abbots Ajahns Pasanno and Amaro also participated, as did Ajahn Sudanto, who is now Pacific Hermitage’s senior resident monk. A formal meal offering was made earlier in the day at the Hermitage.
Sakula (Mary Reinard), spiritual director of Portland Friends of the Dhamma, with Pacific Hermitage sernior monk, Ajahn Sudanto.
A student of Ajahn Pasanno, Sakula has been a frequent visitor at Abhayagiri Monastery. For a long time it has been her dream to have a Theravada monastic presence in or near Portland.
Years ago she asked Ajahn Pasanno what it would take to bring monks from Abhayagiri to live in the area. “Lay the foundation,” her teacher told her.
Sakula’s foundation-building took two forms. First she established Friends of the Dhamma as a way point for monks and nuns of the Theravada tradition. Over the years the Portland center has hosted monastics from around the world, including Ajahn Thanissaro, abbot of Wat Metta in San Diego; Ajahn Sucitto, abbot of Cittaviveka Monastery in England; Ajahn Sundara, of Amaravati; Bhante Henepola Gunaratana of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia; and, of course, Ajahn Sumedho. Last spring, Ajahn Liem, abbot of Wat Nong Pah Pong in Thailand and direct successor of Ajahn Chah, and a retinue of Thai monks also paid a visit.
The Upasika Program is the other foundational piece Sakula set in place. An upasika (the male form is upasaka) is “one who draws close” or “one who sits close by” the monastic Sangha. The Upasika Program is designed to give support and instruction to lay people who want to learn more about Theravada monastic life.
Although Sakula was the driving force behind the concept of Pacific Hermitage, she intentionally kept her hands away from the concrete activities that made it a reality. Instead, she stood aside to let others in the Friends of the Dhamma community take on the necessary duties and responsibilities.
“Portland Friends of the Dhamma formed around my intention and vision,” Sakula said. “Once it was known that Ajahn Sudanto would be the senior monk, it was necessary for people to see the abbot as the linchpin. The Hermitage needed to form around Ajahn Sudanto’s intention and vision.”
Although a hermitage and a monastery are both places where monks or nuns live, there are several differences between the two. Monasteries are usually busy centers where novices are trained and ordained. They receive many visitors and offer both community ceremonies and extended retreat opportunities for lay people. A hermitage, on the other hand, is a place of solitude where monks can get a break from monastery life and focus on meditation and study. Hermitages are intentionally small and quiet places.
Ajahn Sudanto and Ajahn Karunadhammo get the feel of going on alms rounds during an early visit to Pacific Hermitage in May.
Monks of the Thai Forest tradition are alms mendicants. That is, they rely solely on what others may provide for them. They don’t cook, grow or store food, drive or handle money. Everything that comes to them must be offered. This includes their single daily meal, which must be eaten before midday.
Most monasteries and hermitages of this tradition have at least one lay person (a steward) or one anagarika (someone who has “gone forth into homelessness” but has not yet ordained) to prepare and offer meals as well as provide other services. Ajahn Sudanto and his companions, Venerable Caganando and Venerable Thitabho, have chosen not to have a steward or anagarika but to live on faith alone that meals will be offered to them. If no meal is offered, they will forgo eating for that day.
Ajahn Amaro commended Ajahn Sudanto who “in the spirit of a wanderer takes on the standard of living on faith.” He added, “Living on alms guarantees a channel of communication. If the door is not open to the wider community, you’re going to get hungry really quick.” Supporters maintain a Pacific Hermitage website (see below) to coordinate meal offerings and other forms of support for the monks.
The channel of communication works both ways, of course. The monks of Pacific Hermitage have made themselves available to teach the Dhamma. Ajahn Sudanto now travels to Portland once a month to teach at Friends of the Dhamma and, when available, accepts invitations to teach elsewhere.
In all, 11 monks took part in the 90-minute opening ceremony. Nine of them made the 12-hour drive from Abhayagiri along with an anagarika and two lay supporters. Luang Por Sumedho was accompanied by Ajahn Paññasaro, also from Amaravati in England. The 76-year-old Luang Por Sumedho, now in his 44th Rains Retreat, has recently stepped down as abbot of Amaravati. Taking his place is Ajahn Amaro, who returned to his native England and to the monastery where he once lived for ten years.
After a morning meal offering in Portland the second day of their visit, the entire company of monks returned to the Hermitage where together they recited the Patimokkha, the code of 227 precepts established by the Buddha and still strictly followed by Theravada monastics today. Recited twice-monthly—on the new moon and full moon—the Patimokkha is at the core of the Thai Forest tradition. “It’s the heartbeat of the community,” Ajahn Pasanno said.
Pacific Hermitage is located at 174 Tunnel Road, White Salmon, Washington.
If you would like information about offering a meal to the monks, please visit the Hermitage website, www.pacifichermitage.org and click the “Meal Dana” button.
Information about Portland Friends of the Dhamma can be found at www.pdxdhamma.org.
Contributor: Paul Gerhards.
Photos: Paul Gerhards.