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Notes from Sravasti Abbey

Nov 18, 2023

Thubten Jangsem, The Buddhist Center — Thubten Norbu Ling member, contributing writer

(Part I of III) Boldly Go

The view of Earth from space leaves some astronauts with a powerful “cognitive shift,” known as the Overview Effect.[1] Last year, after launching to the von Kármán Limit from Truth or Consequences in southern New Mexico, William Shatner (or Captain Kirk, to fellow Trekkies) described the feeling as being accompanied with an “overwhelming sadness,” which I suppose he may still be processing as an Earthling back on his home planet; apparently, the effect can grow stronger with time. For me—someone who has remained under a blue sky since birth—something about that profound, rare experience and leaving Sravasti Abbey feels the same . . . possibly like Mr. Shatner, I was not prepared.

No . . . I did not know what to expect when I booked my flight into Spokane, though the thought that I would be taking a spaceship never entered my consciousness. At the time, there was only joy and excitement upon receiving the reservation confirmation from Southwest Airlines. I had been looking forward to an opportunity to visit the Abbey since Venerable Sangye Khadro’s teachings at The Buddhist Center — Thubten Norbu Ling this past April.[2] After noticing that Venerable would be leading a weeklong retreat on Four Arm Chenrezig (Tibetan)—Avalokitesvara (Sanskrit), Kuan Yin (Chinese), or the Buddha of Compassion (English)—I didn’t hesitate in seizing this opportunity, despite the fact that I quit my job a few weeks prior (i.e., am on a tight budget).

“It’s an investment,” I told myself, as if justifying the purchase of some overly expensive item of clothing. You see, I had been reconnected with the Buddhist practice when I moved to Santa Fe last year for work, and, in truth, expensive clothing would have been much harder to justify after that reunion. Moreover, after arriving in The Buddhist Center Gompa upon Geshe Thubten Sherab’s return to teachings in Santa Fe, attending twice-weekly classes covering topics toward the end of Lama Atisa’s verses from “Lamp to the Path of Enlightenment” and the first half of Nagarjuna’s “Commentary on Bodhicitta”, my left wing—lined with down feathers of wisdom—was beginning to feel stronger, while my right wing—lined with feathers, also down, of the method, or compassion—was in danger of going limp. Continuing the analogy borrowed from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, this situation needed to be remedied ASAP if I were to ever fly to the shore of enlightenment . . .

Incidentally, as my departure from Sravasti was approaching a mere two days away, this uncertain energy of what to meet with at the abbey transformed into a knot in my chest—a physical manifestation of the wariness brought upon by an increasingly pressing question: “What to expect when I return home?”

 But, it seems, I am getting ahead of myself, writing about departures when I have yet to arrive.

(Part II of III) The Abbey

 Sravasti Abbey retreat

There is quite a lot of useful information on Sravasti Abbey’s website[3] regarding the monthly calendar of events, daily schedule (which is also posted every morning near the Abbey kitchen in case of changes), and FAQs of what to bring (unscented everything!), what not bring (scented anything!), etc. So, there is nothing further for me to add in this respect. Not to mention, Venerable Samten at the Abbey office is also extremely helpful to remind one of important logistical points; in fact, she is kind enough to share a quick zoom chat before one’s arrival to address details down to food offerings (if one can and wishes to do so, of course) and/or to help clarify any questions a visitor might have. Together with other monastics, Venerable Samten seamlessly manages one’s stay.

There is also a small orientation upon one’s arrival to help one get familiar with rules, various buildings, and the deceptively simple exercise of remembering where to find one’s shoes . . . Perhaps, this was a lesson taught for my own especially and perceivably busy mind that came with me from New Mexico. But, I admit, after a number of days exclaiming “Where are my shoes?!” in the confines of my skull, I managed not only to locate the door where I had left them before entering any Abbey building, but I started taking vivid mental notes of their exact location with respect to others’ shoes (e.g., on the left floor mat between a pair of large red sneakers and slender sandals with black straps).

Somewhat interestingly, this mindfulness, or act of “clear knowing,” as the nun instructing me had described it, diffused into other aspects linking my mind and physical actions . . . [Update: Among other personal changes, I can attest that this level of attention towards shoes and other material objects has not yet dissipated entirely, though it takes conscious effort at times to sustain this small practice. If I had spent more time at the Abbey, I wonder how much this mindfulness of bodily actions would have spread to the other “two doors” . . . ]

In any case, all of this is to say that, perhaps it would be more beneficial to offer a personal perspective, for what it’s worth, that cannot be found on the website.

First of all, if one can manage the time, I highly recommend arriving before the beginning of retreats or other scheduled events in order to experience a sample of routine monastic life at the Abbey, which (1) frames an upcoming retreat within a distinct “monastic mindset”[4] (as described by the Abbess, Venerable Thubten Chodron) and (2) allows one to get to know and ask questions with the Abbey residents in more relaxed settings like offering services or lunch: discussing dharma and sharing personal stories while pulling knapweed, for example; learning the unique circumstances that brought both monastics and visiting lay practitioners to Buddhism, and, presently, to this remote forest in eastern Washington State.

Despite having taken different precepts, or none at all, our diverse group (in terms of geographic origin, age, stage of practice, and so on) shared a relatable spectrum of concerns, eagerness to learn, worries, habitual thought patterns, afflictions of varying degrees, that needed the appropriate attention and applied wisdom imbued in every—elusive, at times—particle in the Abbey air. (On a related note: don’t forget to fill your lungs while on a silent walk on one of the many forest trails throughout the monastery.)

Furthermore, a common thread emerged quickly from listening to these stories of meeting the dharma to donning the robes. This invisible string weaving through and connecting the Abbey monastics resonated deeply with me, and perhaps will not feel unfamiliar to you, either: a search for lasting happiness; meaning in life (or lives, if one is inclined to accept this theory while scientists explore the natures of consciousness and death).

Particular aspects, on the other hand, of monastic life—like a 5:30 AM meditation session and no makeup—had seemed more intimidating before my arrival, courtesy of a life-long reluctance for waking up before 7:00 a.m. and the aesthetically-focused attitudes prevalent throughout my Orange County, CA origins.

By some magic, or adrenaline, or whatever else, I began the week waking up before my alarm was set to ring at 4:45 a.m., not unlike the younger version of myself on the morning of an anticipated trip to Disneyland. Admittedly, I may have hit snooze once or twice towards the end of my stay, but was still out of bed at 5 a.m. After all, I had eagerly spent part of each previous day reviewing the actions of my body, speech, and mind—from way back when memory gradually took firm hold in my childhood brain to my most recent lapse in virtue—in preparation for the morning purification practice. What an opportunity to make prostrations to the Thirty-Five Buddhas every single day! “Bodhisattva biceps,” as one monk put it, are not just a cute alliteration . . .

Interestingly, the relationship with makeup, and specifically my lipstick, proved to be more complicated to unpack. It was not the fact that I couldn’t wear it—this I felt sure of in my gut. I actually became content with chapstick quite quickly. Still, on the evening of the first day of my visit, I suddenly burst into tears when I came across the shiny, corrugated golden tube while searching through my backpack for sunscreen. This strong, uninhibited, spontaneous emotional reaction was among the first concrete occasions that prompted me to think that something about leaving the abbey worried me, and I reviewed various theories on multiple days of my visit: “Was I, in truth, missing the extra color on my pale lips?” “Was the lipstick a symbol of societal oppression? Or, was this a more personal struggle with insecurities regarding my own external appearance . . . ?”

It wasn’t until my last day at the Abbey, that I truly understood the reason for those tears. Before that understanding could become as vivid as a marbled blue-brown-and-white Earth against a backdrop of black, however, there would be 9 more sunrises and, crucially, the retreat on Four-Arm Chenrezig. Note that the word “crucial” has been precisely chosen. And yet, I can honestly reveal that the retreat did not engender a sense of great compassion for my lipstick, nor did it obliterate my attachment to that shiny tube.

(Part III of III) Retreat

sravasti abbey cap

A retreat on any Buddhist topic or deity, I was told, should not be viewed as an escape from mundane life, but rather as a “retreat from the afflictions.” In other words, through a concentrated, extended practice of listening to and reflecting on the dharma, participating in meditations, sadhanas,[5], “noble silence,” and mani recitations, the retreat—however long or brief—is an opportunity to examine and transform the negativities of one’s body, speech, and mind into their more virtuous states.  To be clear, there is nothing supernatural involved here, such that all retreatants emerge from white lotuses, sitting upon sun and moon disks once the teachings are over and the khatas have been offered.  For me, and many others, I presume, the process can be more like turning one mala bead slowly to the next—thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions . . . of times.

In the past month, I have been fortunate to attend two retreats on the subject of compassion; as I mentioned in Part I of this series, the timing was excellent for balancing the strength in my pair of fledgling’s “wings.” These retreats focusing on Four-Arm Chenrezig and Mani wereled, respectively, by Venerable Sangye Khadro at Sravasti Abbey over the course of one week and The Buddhist Center’s resident teacher, Geshe Thubten Sherab, over three days.

The teachings and practice sessions shared the same core essence of helping to discern and extinguish the self-centered attitude, engender love, compassion, and bodhicitta—though they were vastly different in material covered, overall structure and teaching styles. I confidently report that both events succeeded immensely in their common goal. That is to say, the blue skies springing forth from the lush green pines surrounding the monastery and resting low on the desert brush encircling The Buddhist Center, were one and the same.

Incidentally, at least from my point of view, the two retreats seemed to be linked harmoniously together in this effort. For example, both Venerable Sangye Khadro and Geshe Sherab chose Four-Arm Chenrezig as the manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion for the teachings and sadhana practices, taking care to explain the symbolism of his having one face, four arms, and so on, in this particular form. The importance of understanding the meaning behind each aspect of the deity takes the visualization beyond a mere mental image into a tool to contemplate the deeper meaning and realizations associated with the Buddha of Compassion. I learned, as just one example, that the four arms represent the four immeasurable thoughts: love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

Regarding equanimity—or the view free of bias, attachment to some and anger toward others—Ven. Sangye Khadro and Geshe-la similarly expressed the noteworthiness of establishing this quality before building genuine love, compassion, and, ultimately, bodhicitta. Paraphrasing VSK’s words, as I recall them, aspiring to abide in equanimity is like the preliminary step of leveling the ground before one can even begin construction on the foundation of whatever is to reside on top, whether bodhicitta or the future Buddha Hall at Sravasti Abbey. I can note many more instances where the teachings overlapped: the explanation of the jewel clasped at the center of Chenrezig’s chest symbolizes the ability to fulfill the wishes of all sentient beings, with Geshe-la offering an additional interpretation on the role of compassion as being precisely such a precious jewel that fulfills the needs and happiness of one’s self and others. The harmony, however, between the retreats resided in their differences.

Ven. Sangye Khadro’s deep dive into the two principle methods for generating bodhicitta—focusing mainly on the Seven-Point Cause and Effect method—and Geshe Sherab’s leading us through the mani practice combined to produce a very effective and unexpectedly moving connection with Chenrezig and the “wish to attain full enlightenment to benefit all sentient beings, without exception.” Or, at least, they surely inspired the more humble aim to try to reduce one’s own afflictions so as to prevent causing harm to others.

The sadhanas at both rereats followed similar structure (e.g. reciting refuge and bodhicitta prayers, Seven Limb prayer, dedication of merit, etc.), except for Geshe Sherab’s addition to the sadhna practice of a prayer to Avalokitesvara as practiced by Bhiksu Padma Karpo[6]; the more brief meditation we performed multiple times each day at the Abbey retreat remained for me, at times, more of an intellectual practice. Perhaps this is necessary (for some individuals) before feeling a connection in the heart/mind. I don’t know. In an case, something about the act of contemplating the suffering of the six samsaric realms in human experience, then purifying this suffering with four recitations of the six-syllable mantra manifested the presence of Four-Arm Chenrezig above—and within—one’s self and all others (inside the Gompa out to the ever-expanding Universe) in a palpably inspirational manner.

At Sravasti Abbey, emotions were stirred more frequently, I noticed, in myself and in fellow retreat participants, throughout VSK’s explanations of the Seven-Point method. It was not uncommon to hear the sound of sniffles multiplying throughout the teaching room and see bodies reaching for tissues, as many of us were brought to tears over the suffering of others (including a Polish squirrel named “Dudush”). But feeling compassion is only step five of seven in the method.

Furthermore, as Ven. Sangye Khadro pointed out, one must be careful to not steep too long in this empathic, mutually experienced suffering (as described when translating literally from the Latin “compassio”). One recommendation, upon finding that one is struggling to breathe on the ground under the weight of dark shadows of the misery of the various (8, to be exact) types of suffering is to meditate on the second half of the Four Noble truths (namely, the Truth of Cessation, and Truth of the Path to Cessation) to prevent the first two (Truth of suffering, and Truth of the Causes of suffering) from becoming one’s sole worldview.

The sense of developing bodhicitta—the final step in the 7-point Method—became experiential for me at the monastery during a guided meditation on the kindness of one’s parents . . . of all things(!).[7] The analytic meditation carried us through recollections of the vital care we received to survive (beginning in the mother’s womb), the changes our parents made in their lives to support us (financially, physically, mentally, etc.), the question of whether they were truly happy in their own lives as human beings, what afflictions had they been through . . . and there it was: not a rush of allergen-ridden air that had entered the hall, I maintain, but compassion.

At that point, I had given up trying to quietly wipe away the wet streaks on my face and joined in a small chorus of uncontrollable sobs. The nun leading the meditation noticed this and very expertly tried to guide us through these emotions so that they did not overwhelm us by suggesting we hold and observe this emotion as objectively as possible, or to open one’s eyes and take a break.

Unfortunately, for me, the crying only got stronger as I could not separate myself from my emotion, and opening my eyes to see other meditators crying only stoked my sadness. Instead, I desperately reached for my mala, and after a few rounds of om mani padme hum, the tears gradually stopped flowing, I saw behind my eyelids the collection of my peers. Suddenly, my focus shifted from my own sadness to the collective sadness echoing softly throughout the meditation hall. “We are all crying.” I contemplated in silence. “The reasons for this are undoubtedly distinct for each person, but the fact remained: We are all of us crying.”

And then, my eyes turned dry. Behold that “crucial” realization, i.e., the one that brought about my understanding of the Lipstick Effect: “This suffering is not necessary . . . We are all crying over some fundamental reason. While my own tears have stopped—though momentarily—this is the time for me to do something to help dry other’s tears.”

Back at the Spokane international airport—waiting for my flight back to Albuquerque—I searched in my backpack for my lipstick, and I saw it clearly: the view of Earth from space, or samsara within a gold-colored cylindrical tube.


[1] Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overview_effect

[2] Link to VSK’s teachings on The Buddhist Center’s YouTube

[3] sravastiabbey.org

[4] “Monastic Mind Motivation”, Pearl of Wisdom: Buddhist Prayers and Practices (Book I), page 77

[5] meditation involving visualization on a particular deity, e.g., Chenrezig, in this case. 

[6] https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ZJe663TC5Z20Zk0WhJxz4uESnNInT5Qt/view

[7] After the period of “noble silence” ended, I spoke with others who had a strong emotional response during this meditation. The parent-child relationship was rarely wrought without various complications—up to outright resentment for some.

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