In April I went to Aranya Bodhi Forest Hermitage on the Sonoma coast of Northern California. The sisters there were kind and welcoming. Anagarika Gwyn has settled and seems to be enjoying the routine, the chanting, studying Pali and the presence of other robed Sisters. She has been working very hard, along with the others and the hermitage life seems to suit her.
Aranya Bodhi aka “the Awakening Forest” is both rugged and rustic both in its amenities and its close proximity to elements of nature. One monk who visited last year said that it was the most rustic of any of the Forest Monasteries he had ever been to. With so much rain over the last many months, the resident nuns and visitors have been busy this spring. In addition to cleaning and contending with the abundant growth of various molds, they have been painting the two new kutis or meditation huts, organizing road work, installing the new trailer and outfitting it with shelves, reorganizing the old pantry, and getting ready to install an upgraded shower and micro-hydro as an additional source of electricity.
In the past year it is impressive the infrastructure that has been put in place. Part of the effort isn’t intended solely for the three who are resident now. This next Vassa retreat (mid July to mid October) there will be more bhikkhunis, samaneris, anagarikaas and woman monastic life aspirants gathering to meditate, discuss the Dhamma and study the monastic discipline together. Ayya Tathaaloka is the Abbess and spent the winter at the hermitage’s in-town annex, the Bodhi House. It was due to her vision and research that culminated in a clear understanding of monastic procedures that both Bhikkhuni ordinations in Perth Australia in 2009 at Aranya Bodhi August 2010 were possible. She served as the preceptor for both.
I describe Aranya Bodhi as rustic. But rustic doesn’t begin to describe the beauty of this land- the sound of the stream, the absence of phones ringing, plane or cars noises. It doesn’t capture a banana slug sliming its way across the road with its antennae alert and responsive. Rustic doesn’t capture the transformation when the sun shines after it has rained; how each drop on the tip of every redwood frond and blade of grass suddenly becomes a jewel, a kaleidoscope of color. Nor does it convey discovering a cluster of orchids in bloom. Rustic doesn’t convey the views, the incline, flowers of many colors swaying in the wind in the field of green grass under the blue of the sky. Rustic doesn’t do justice to the birds in flight, playing the wind the way surfers surf the waves, with nothing more to do than to enjoy the timelessness of flight. Rustic doesn’t describe the dappled light looking up through the thick canopy of redwoods or a foot step received into a rich moist spongy loam of redwood duff- with each step received a waft of corresponding fragrance offered. Rustic doesn’t capture the vigilance of the lay steward Jackie as she tried to keep the chipmunks from invading the alms food while the sisters chanted. Rustic doesn’t capture the abseil of the spiders when the shower was turned on. Nor does rustic describe the sound of the chanting in the evening or the resonance of the Dhamma discussions after the meal. Rustic has no measure against the joy that the sisters have for being able to live and practice in a forest setting. Ayya Sobhana as the prioress is ideally suited to the place. Her love of monastic life, interest in supporting women, knowledge of the ancient Buddhist Pali language, practical skills and resiliency make her well equipped in her leadership. Samaneri Marajina is also well suited there. They love it and feel deeply connected to the land.
When we realized my system was reacted to the molds, Ayya Tathaaloka encouraged me to go to Aranya Bodhi’s sister monastery Mahapajapati in the high desert. I left heading southbound.
I have now arrived at Mahapajapati Monastery in southern California, in the Mohave Desert near Joshua Tree National Park – an hour away from Palm Springs airport. The contrast in landscapes from where I have just come could hardly be greater. The sky is wide open, the dryness apparant. There are few trees. The ants and lizards are abundant. There are birds, and they too soar on the wind currents. I hear there are bob cats, mountain lions and desert tortoises in the area which makes me happy, so too the coyotes call in the night and the sight or sound of snakes (at a safe distance). There is a carpet of flowers blooming everywhere right now like a quilt made of patches of rainbow- a delicateness emerging from the harsh dry landscape. Imagine my surprise when I found a cluster of orchids here too.
The desert is like the mind. It requires sustained attention, interest, calm as well as the knowledge of where to begin to explore or you miss much of what is going on.
Ayya Gunasari is the Abbess, a Burmese national who emigrated here in 1960’s with her husband. They both went to medical school in Burma and began to practice medicine here in the USA in the 1970’s. She was an anesthesiologist, he a surgeon. They have 4 daughters and 1 son. When Ayya was 60 years old, 19 years ago, she read the Samannaphala Sutta, The Discourse on the Fruits of Recluseship and woke her husband up and said “I want to do this; I want to be a bhikkhuni.” Her husband, said, “Go back to sleep, you are dreaming.” But she wasn’t dreaming. She was adamant. It took her 10 years to prevail against the initial resistance of her husband. In 2003 she took bhikkhuni ordination with 4 others. One of the nuns with which she ordained also a Burmese national had by then been a thilashin nun for 20 years. She returned to Burma and was put in jail for the sole crime of being a bhikkhuni returning to her homeland. The experience in jail was so disturbing, that it eventually culminated in her disrobing. But Ayya Gunasari persevered. In spite of incredible odds, she held firm to her wish to be a bhikkhuni and to create a place for other Buddhist monastic women to live. This would give a little more foothold for women who aspire to live the monastic life so they too can experience the abundant fruits of ‘gone forth ones’ that the Buddha so beautifully described- benefits that when Ayya first heard, set in motion her aspiration.
Now here in the middle of the desert there are bhikkhunis, samaneri, and anagarika as permanent residents with a few lay women visiting.
Surrounding the house are rose bushes blushing full with blooms. There are 80 acres upon which resides a fully equipped house including room for meditation, two kutis, a caravan, and a library that is resplendent. In addition to her love of meditation, Ayya is a well read scholar.
I feel well here. The dry desert air is comforting. The wide open views extend far. The sky seems infinite and the stars at night stellar. I explore the trails that go for miles weaving through the landscape. The kuti I am in has what I need plus some. Ayya is kind, welcoming and happy for me to stay.
One nice thing about the desert: There is time. I can read, I can write. There are hours a day to meditate. And when I met David, one of our few neighbors 25 minutes walk from here, he had time to talk.
Day two upon arrival I decided to explore the land and feel the earth beneath my feet, rocks against my back and limbs. I ended up on some boulders nearby. I felt well there, settled and content. As the light was dimming behind the mountains in the distance, I thought to return. Before leaving, I noticed a Buddha had been nestled into the rock right beside me. I felt happy. “Auspicious sign,” I thought. So I got up and after taking a few steps felt surprised to be surrounded by bees. Where did they come from?
I brushed them gently away. When they starting stinging me, I realized they weren’t happy to meet my acquaintance. I apologized for disturbing them. But they didn’t leave nor stop stinging. As quickly as I could move on the stones and through the thorny scrub, I headed back to the buildings apologizing all the while the bees kept following and stinging me.
Robyn, a monastic life aspirant, helped pull-out the stingers and counted 30 stings. That night, the sensations from each sting were strong and painful. The second night the itching was more intense and more difficult to bear than the pain. By day three, the swelling and itching were down. Ayya and I were acutely aware of some of the difficulties that could have arisen and we had back-up plans in case my breathing started to restrict. All those bee stings seemed to have shifted the immune reaction from the mold out of my system and my lungs felt a lot better after than before.
Meditation teaches how not to add anything extra to something difficult. True enough I was a bit tense when they were stinging, particularly near my eyes. Apologizing helped me to stay connected to a thread of kindness and supported relaxing around the tension. I wasn’t shaken. The ordeal over, there are a few things that come to mind; what a powerful reflection on how quickly things can change and how blessings can come in strange packages- venom into medicine- not what we normally think. Blessed bees.
I left Colorado Springs hoping to structure my life around writing, living with other sisters and meeting other peers, spending time in communities where there is interest in this journey of waking up and personal retreat time. I land here and see what emerges.
Having left Colorado, many people have asked how my Dad is as I was involved with his care. He is doing well. His health is a little frail but stable. All of us are grateful for my brother and sister-in-law’s loving care and the care and competence of the care-givers now. Mom in California continues to be remarkable.
The full Moon in May commemorates the birth, 2600 years since the enlightenment and 2554 years since the death of the Buddha. Once born, we share with all living beings the fragility of life and the certainty of death. And yet what of enlightenment? What is to escape the spell of the sensuous and abide in compassion, joy and equanimity as a resting place; be absorbed into calm and then to move towards realizing a pervading joy and peace that is not based on changing conditions?
I am in contact with many people who share how much pressure they feel. In these times of uncertainty and challenge, it is good to take care of ourselves and each other and keep our hearts warm.
(‘Amma’ is a Pali word meaning both ‘mother’ and ‘dear one’. As ‘dear one’ is reciprocal -I feel that way about you- it feels timely as a new -and yet another- way of addressing me.)
For information about teaching or to help with meals, transport
Michigan May 24-June 8. Contact: Martha Zingo firstname.lastname@example.org, (734) 730-4239
Colorado June 11-July 9. Contact: Kat Pecoraro email@example.com, (720) 988-9950
 A Bhikkhuni is a fully ordained Buddhist nun that has 311 precepts. A Samaneri is a novice nun who has 10precepts. An Anagarika is a postulant with 8 precepts. A monastic life aspirant is a woman often living on the 8 precepts who is interested in exploring if living as a nun is something that will be supportive to her path and her practice.
 My story was published as “Finding A Way Forward” in Inquiring Mind Spring Issue 2011 entitled “Passages.”
 Samannaphala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 2; Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation.
 Thilashin is an 8 precept nun in Burma.
 In addition to other Nuns and Monks, peers are post monastics, senior Dhamma teachers and senior lay practioners.