Friday, April 24, 2015

Aranya Bodhi - A Forest Hermitage for Buddhist Women

From upper access road, headed down to common areas
Hidden deep in the hills of the Sonoma Coast in Northern California lies a true jewel, a refuge for Buddhist women that's unlike anything else available in this country. Carved from the surrounding redwood forest, off-grid and primitive while at the same time offering running water, electricity and internet access in common areas, Aranya Bodhi is a perfect place for deep meditation and practice away from the busyness of the modern world.

I admit to bias. I've spent time there during each of the past three summers and I consider the Bhikkhunis to be good friends. But bias aside, I've watched it grow and develop over these years and I see it as it is, without pretension and without hype. This is a special place and it's run by very special women who are a constant inspiration to those of us who spend time in their presence. Personally, I am deeply drawn to go there and stay, as I have been from the beginning, yet there remains in me enough resistance that I know permanent, or even long-term, residency is probably not for me. This isn't a reflection on the people or the place, but my own shortcomings that I've yet to overcome, as well as creeping old age.

An ancient Korean stupa sits high on a sunny hill.
After my first visit in 2012 I wrote this on another blog, long before this blog became even an idea. There's a good bit of history, of the land and the place, written here and rather than repeat myself, I'll let you choose what to read. Missing from that story were photos of the infrastructure, which was minimal. Two old travel trailers composed what's referred to as the lower landing, serving as a tool shed and sangha hall/office. There was also an outdoor shower in a tent. The water was hot some of the time, but once that warmth was turned off the cool forest breeze would blow aside the flimsy nylon 'door' (which looked into the forest, actually quite private), and encourage a quick dry-off and dressing. Nippy! Mold was a constant battle in the trailers, with the cool and moist coastal conditions.

The new tool shed, built almost entirely by women!
On the upper landing, another old travel trailer held the kitchen, very inadequately so. There were challenges with the space, with storage, with workability, with rodents, yet everyone made it work and met the challenges with the Buddhist attitude towards working with challenges in life. Several individual wooden kutis (huts, for sleeping and meditation, with heat but without electricity or plumbing) were scattered through the redwoods. Things were on the primitive side, all around, but good plans were in the offing, awaiting sufficient funding to put them in place. Still, things were happening -- more kutis were constructed and a new tool shed. One old trailer was hauled away.

The robes shed, with part of the outdoor kitchen visible
Then, in early summer of 2013 the mold issue drove almost everyone from the property just as Bhikkhunis and lay women from around the world were gathering in anticipation of a summer vassa retreat. While once more attempting to make the kitchen trailer work, with a new interior to offer more space and fight the rodents and mold, a worker accidentally punctured the black water bladder that served the old (and non-functional) toilet. A miasma of unhealthy and unpleasant odors and air permeated the entire clearing, along with toxic mold fumes uncovered when tearing out old interior walls. Many of the women became ill, developing allergic reactions and some required medical assistance. All but one Bhikkhuni and one lay person fled the property to stay with scattered supporters inland. The sangha trailer had become dangerous from toxic mold and offered no refuge. Things looked bleak indeed. Women who had thought to visit that summer, or think about long-term residency or ordination, changed their plans as word spread quickly through the community.

Yurt interior is always pleasant and peaceful
Back in Georgia, I kept vaguely abreast of these happenings, although I didn't realize the extent of it until I returned from a retreat at Bhavana. Then, I learned that Ayya Sobhana, the prioress and dear friend, was mostly alone there and working alone to overcome the many obstacles and continue to develop the property. She had one lay woman visiting, another due soon for a few weeks, but then no visitors were scheduled for a long time period. When I read this after my retreat, I immediately offered to come out and help, even though I hadn't planned to visit that summer. She chose dates of greatest need and I flew to California for about 5 weeks.

By the time I arrived, the kitchen trailer had been demolished down to the frame and work was soon to begin on building a new, wooden structure on the frame. In the meantime, an outdoor kitchen had been put together under canopies near the laundry area. Kitchen equipment consisted of three deep laundry tubs, a refrigerator around the side of the robes shed, two big camp stoves, a few cabinets and a counter top. Food storage was in a couple of old chest freezers, not plugged in but rodent proof, on the other side of the clearing near a portable shed that held dry supplies. We rotated jugs of ice between the two cold storage units and the refrigerator freezer. The sangha trailer was still there and we still used it -- against common sense -- for shelter while using our computers.

Ayya Sobhana
Still, some fine meals came from that primitive kitchen during those weeks as I met my own fears and challenges about being responsible for daily meals for anyone other than myself. I learned to cook with whatever was on hand, often veggies I didn't even recognize and others that I recognized but had never cooked. Shoppers in town loaded us up on fresh food every couple of weeks, and it had to last and it had to be kept fresh. Fortunately, Ayya Sobhana is an 'easy keeper', not fussy about food, but for me one big challenge was preparing enough at each noon meal, since the monastics can't eat again until breakfast the following morning and Ayya worked hard physically, from morning to night.

Somehow, we both survived my cooking challenges and when I left, it wasn't without a lot of sadness. I'd come to really enjoy being outdoors for food preparation, even on foggy mornings. It had been a good visit and somehow I adapted to living in the forest much better than I had the previous summer. Work was underway on the new kitchen trailer and the other Bhikkhunis were settled into a long-term rental in Santa Rosa, where they still reside, with frequent visits to the forest.

Upper landing, new kitchen on right
Fast forward a year or so and after driving west from Georgia late last April I returned to the forest for a longer visit. Three months had been planned, but then it turned out that there were needs at the vihara in Santa Rosa (and my body was getting tired of the hills), so in the end I spent only two months at the hermitage, and my last month in a lovely home in the country, caring for and getting to know the other two resident Bhikkhunis better.

New sangha hall, lower landing
By then, the new kitchen trailer was long finished and the new shower had been completed. More solar panels had been installed and internet had been expanded up the hill to the kitchen. Running water in the kitchen was potable (!) and other improvements made, including removal of the last travel trailer and newly-finished construction of a wooden sangha hall on the lower landing.

Formal blessing of new buildings last summer
Kitchen interior
There are still challenges -- although this phase of construction is finished and the entire place is quiet, peaceful, fresh and healthy with plenty of time for individual meditation or supported personal retreats. Those two months last summer were blissful. I still did the cooking, as I was the only lay person there for most of the time, but while I had a lot of nostalgia for the outdoor kitchen, I enjoyed the luxuries of the new one, and the new shower. The yurt had been cleaned and disinfected (the toxic air penetrated into that, as well), insulated, and with a wonderful gas fireplace to warm it up.

Shower - just like home!
There is still no indoor plumbing of the toilet sort, and won't be until the next building phase at some future date. Laundry is still done by hand or sometimes, at a laundromat in a town about 20 miles away.
Laundry equipment

The hills are still steep and one cannot go anywhere without going up or down a hill. The trails are in good shape, but can be difficult in low light. There are insects, cougars, rattlesnakes and various other wildlife, although rarely encountered. Still -- the trade-off is all those quiet acres of redwoods for practice, for walking and exploring. The daily meditation and chanting in the yurt, the whole monastic experience, is invaluable.To succeed here one needs to be in good shape physically, comfortable with 'camping out' in a rustic kuti or tent out of sight or sound of others.

Solar panels and new shower on wheels
There are other benefits too, of the fun sort. A creek-walk to a beautiful waterfall. A visit to a beach at the foot of the hill. A full-moon kayak paddle (not always available). Quiet reflection and the opportunity to put the Buddha's teaching into practice in daily life around others who understand. These, and other, opportunities more than make up for the hardships.

The local beach

Scattered kutis
Lots of hiking trails

All in all, I urge any woman to give it a try. If you've considered a visit previously but were turned off by the mold/toxicity issues, be assured that this is long in the past and that it's clean and beautiful and safe, a refuge and a haven. If Aranya Bodhi is new to you, and if you are physically and emotionally able to live in the forest safely, I encourage you to contact them and schedule a visit. Spring, summer and fall are perfect times, as the weather is warm (other than the cool ocean breezes in the mornings) and often sunny. There are trails to hike, many private places to sit and meditate outside or in your kuti or a platform tent.

Contact and more information can be found at the Aranya Bodhi website.

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