Once a week, brown-robed monks and white-robed postulants from the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery can be seen walking the streets of Ukiah in a traditional, silent quest for food.
"You're not allowed to ask," explained Ajahn Pasanno, a senior abbot at the Tomki Road monastery he helped establish four years ago. So they enter establishments where they're welcome and wait silently for an offering. They're given a loaf of bread here, a bowl of rice there. In return, they offer a prayer chant.
"It was really cool," said Patti Nichols, who invited the monks into the Garden Bakery for a loaf of bread on Wednesday. "They chanted and hummed kind of in harmony. There was like this vibration."
A few minutes later, the monks were at the Alex Thomas Plaza, where they were greeted by a group of food-bearing supporters.
Sheryl Greene brought a pasta salad with tomatoes and zucchini from her garden. She said she's been trying to make it for the weekly alms since the monks started making the rounds earlier this year. Greene has also been making regular visits to the monastery for its Saturday night meditation and talks for about a year.
"It's a real inspiration for me to be able to support a community that lives life based on thoughtfulness, kindness, peace and generosity," Greene said. "I think it's a real gift to our community that they're here." And community participation is crucial to the monks' survival. They're forbidden from buying, asking for, preparing or storing food for the one meal they're allowed each day, said Pasanno, who originally hails from Canada but spent 23 years in Thailand as a Buddhist monk before moving to California four years ago to help found the monastery.
As a result, their food is kept for them, prepared and served by lay supporters who frequent, or live at, the monastery. If there's no one around or supporters forget to offer food before noon, they go hungry until the next day. Pasanno said the monks also cannot decline food that is offered. So, while they try to avoid animal-derived food, like meat, "we would be obligated to eat it if offered," Pasanno said as he sipped a Pepsi One delivered to him as he sat cross-legged in the monastery's reception area - the living room of a small house.
The alms tradition and food restrictions are intended to keep the monks dependent on the lay community, he said. As a Westerner, Pasanno said it originally was tough for him to get used to being dependent on others. But, "in reality, is anyone able to be completely dependent on themselves?" he asked.
The alms round is part of a code of discipline established by the Buddha, SiddharthaGotama 2,500 years ago in India. It's done daily in Thailand, Pasanno said. The code also includes celibacy and frugality. And monks are forbidden from handling money. Instead, worldly matters are handled by a board of directors and a foundation.
The Buddhism practiced at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery differs somewhat from that at the City of 10,000 Buddhas. It's based on the ancient Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced in the south of Thailand.The City of 10,000 Buddhas is a northern tradition, Pasanno said. He said Theravada is simpler and has fewer rituals than the northern tradition. "That's what attracted me to the southern school," Pasanno said. But the two are connected. It was the now-deceased Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, abbot of the City of 10,000 Buddhas, who instructed his disciples to deed 120 acres of Redwood Valley forest for the Abhayagiri monastery. The land has since expanded to include 250 acres. So far, the monastery consists of a small house, a garage converted into a meditation center, and several outbuildings and cottages. Plans for expansion are under way as permitted by money and manpower.
The monastery is not a retreat nor meditation center, however people are welcome to visit or even stay for brief periods of time. The Saturday meditation and talk, held at 7:30 p.m., particularly is geared to the community at large. Guests at the monastery are asked to observe the eight Buddhist precepts:
Harmlessness: not intentionally taking the life of any living creature
Trustworthiness: not taking anything which is not given Celibacy
Right speech: avoiding false, abusive or malicious speech Sobriety
Renunciation: not eating after mid-day
Restraint: not seeking entertainment, playing radios or musical instruments, dressing in a modest unadorned way that does not attract attention
Alertness: refraining from over-indulging in sleep.
The monks may shun worldly passions and goods, but the monastery does have technology. It can be reached at 485-1630; faxed at 485-7948; or e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. It also has a Web site:
—Courtesy of Ukiah Daily Journal—