For ten years I have known of Shravasti Abbey near Spokane, Washington, and seen photos of it growing under the tutelage of my spiritual friend, Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron. Finally on this full moon in May, I was able to visit the abbey. This full moon is a particularly auspicious time in the Buddhist calendar, because it commemorates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. It is a celebration known as Vesak.
At Shravasti Abbey, I saw the effects of having well-trained monastics dedicated to putting the Buddha’s teachings into practice—a direct manifestation of the Buddha’s blessings. The property is located on 240 acres with spectacular views. I found it uplifting being in the meadows, looking to hillsides across forested valleys. I was delighted to see well-designed buildings equipped for living, cooking, shared meals, the practice of meditation, and teaching, both for the residents and potentially large numbers of visitors. I was inspired to see the rigor of study and practice of the monastic community in this Tibetan tradition and how it has adapted to our cultural context. And I was delighted to have time with other nuns and enjoy the blessings of spiritual friendship and the intimacy and nourishment that it brings. This all emerged from vision and focus—Venerable Chodron’s clear understanding of the blessings that come from having a training monastery and the generosity and sustained effort from people near and far to make it happen.
We performed an Uposatha ceremony, one that has been taking place since the time of the Buddha’s first monastic disciples. This ceremony reaffirms refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and our commitment to our Bhikkhuni precepts. This ceremony gives us the opportunity to reflect on our actions and aspiration and provides stepping stones to discernment—all fundamental elements in a monastic’s life.
After Shravasti Abbey, I travelled to Santa Rosa, California. My mother lives twenty minutes from Dhammadharini Vihara, where Ayya Tathaaloka and other Bhikkhunis live. As we drove to the vihara to join in their Vesak celebration, we saw Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Korean families in traditional dress, and marching bands lining up for the Santa Rosa Rose Parade. Many were carrying flowers and banners. Dhammadharini also had been decorated. The extended community that arrived to join in the Vesak celebration at the vihara brought an abundance of flowers and food.
Reflecting on all of these events—my time at Shravasti Abbey, the Rose Parade, and the Vesak celebration at Dhammadharini—I was struck by their similarities and differences. I noticed that flowers were prominently featured on all the shrines at Shravasti Abbey; they made up many of the decorations on the floats and were also carried by hand in the Rose Parade; and they were a significant part of the ceremony in the Vesak celebration. In each of these events, I experienced a lot of goodness, seeing diverse people gathering together in harmony for a common goal. In each case, the festivities and decorations were uplifting and meaningful to the participants.
But I could also see a difference between the beauty and goodness of the flowers in the Rose Parade and those on the shrines. In the Rose Parade, the flowers’ beauty was for beauty’s sake as well as a cultural identity—rose parades have roses. While it is important that beauty is affirmed and cultural identities are honored and respected, in and of themselves they are not paths to unshakable peace. The ceremonies we performed, on the other hand, are designed to develop qualities that do lead to unshakable peace. In the Vesak ceremony we were invited to focus on our gratitude for the blessings we have received from the Buddha’s teachings.
As I considered those blessings, I offered flowers to the shrine to the awakened mind from which all of the Buddha’s teachings have emerged. For most practitioners, simply offering flowers is not enough to bring about unshakable peace. But when I reflected on all the elements that made up the Vesak ceremonies at both Shravasti Abbey and Dhammadharini—generosity, integrity, refining intention, Dhamma teachings, meditation, contemplating the blessings of the Buddha, gratitude and sharing blessings—they inspire appreciation of beauty, goodness, and cultural identity and go beyond to cultivate qualities that lead to discernment, discernment of what is true.
Discerning what is true leads to an all-encompassing awareness that is able to embrace what is arising without holding on. Cultivating what is good, beautiful, and true leads to a way of being peaceful with what is, a way of going beyond the good and the beautiful. While flowers everywhere eventually fade, the Buddha’s blessings can be realized so that they are ever present and not subject to decline. All living beings seek peace and happiness. Like the flowers that fade, the nature of all conditioned things is to pass away. When we see this clearly, we stop holding on. As we let go, we realize greater and greater peace until it is unshakable. Knowing deeply what is good, true, beautiful and beyond is the greatest way to celebrate the Buddha’s birth and awakening and honor the blessings that his legacy bestowed.