Monks looking for forest monastery

Meditation retreat to be offered at farm

TEMPLE — In the Buddhist tradition, forest monasteries are quiet, contemplative places where monks may live in cooperation with the community surrounding them, offering prayer, meditation and advice to those who seek their guidance in return for food and other necessities. There are hundreds of forest monasteries throughout the world. Many are concentrated in Southeast Asia. Fewer than a handful are in the United States. And there are none on the Eastern coast. But there will be soon.

Two Western monks, Ajahn Jayanto and Caganando Bhikkhu from monasteries that follow the Buddhist forest monastery tradition, are on a mission to find a suitable location to build a forest monastery in New England. One of the tracts of land under consideration is the Derbyshire Farm in Temple. The monks will be visiting the farm Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., to lead the community in a day of meditation and contemplation, as well as to walk the property, according to the farm’s owner, Bruce Kantner.

“When we saw his property, we saw that it is the sort of thing we’re looking for — mainly forest land,” said Jayanto in a phone interview Monday. He and Bhikkhu have already seen eight or nine potential properties in New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the past few months, and will likely view as many more before making a decision, Jayanto said. “People seem to like what we do,” said Jayanto of forest monasteries. “It’s not a commercial thing. It’s just a quiet, contemplative environment.”

“People are drawn to these monks,” said Kantner in an interview Monday, “because they are living ethical, simple lives, without distractions of modern life, and are dedicated to helping people and gaining clarity.”

Forest monasteries — literally a simple group of dwellings where Buddhist monks reside in a forest setting — date back to the time of the Buddha, but have been a tradition that’s waxed and waned over the years. The practice saw a resurgence in the mid-19th century, when Thai practitioners saw a laxness in the teachings of the time, and used forest monasteries to return to a more basic and meditative way of living. The practice grew in Thailand and the surrounding countries, but it was not until the mid-1970s that forest monasteries began to find roots in other countries, with branch monasteries being established in England, France, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Italy, Canada and the U.S. Since then, monasteries were founded in California and Washington state.

Then a few years ago, the Jeta Grove Foundation, an organization of Massachusetts residents dedicated to supporting a monastery in New England, began work to bring a forest monastery to the area. At the time, the idea never got off the ground, but now Ajahn Jayanto and Caganando Bhikkhu have taken up the cause, scouting possible locations. The two are currently visiting a temporary residence in Allston, Mass., at the invitation of Jeta Grove. The monks are touring several sites throughout New England, with hopes that a preliminary decision about a location will be made by the end of October. That will not be the end of the journey, though. Once a location is decided upon, the next step will be to do fundraising work, which could mean another nine months before a land purchase could happen, said Kantner.

Once the monastery is established, it will be occupied by about 10 to 12 monks, who will maintain a small grouping of central buildings where communal meditation happens and monastery guests are housed. Each monk will also have a retreat cabin. Forest monks are required to be celibate, to eat only between dawn and noon, and handling money is forbidden. They also wander on foot through the countryside in a practice known as “tudong,” on pilgrimages or in search of solitary retreat.

While the monks are looking for the site of the future monastery, they are also taking the time to offer retreats, in which community members can get a taste of the clarity the monks have to offer . They will lead a free retreat Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Derbyshire Farm. The day will consist of 45-minute sitting and walking meditation periods and a dharma talk led by Ajahn Jayanto, and time for the public to ask questions. Participants are asked to bring a bag lunch. To participate in Saturday’s retreat, register at bruce@commonnatureweb.org or call 654-2523. Space is limited to 25 participants.

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