by Marsha Rule
The residents of Sravasti Abbey come from different places and for different reasons, but they all come with the same motivation-to deepen their Dharma practice by living and working in an intentional spiritual community.
Belief in Ethical Discipline
Twenty-three year old Carl Willmott III, the Abbey’s maintenance manager, came to the Abbey last May after serving a year in prison on a drug charge.
“Smoking pot was my way of avoiding decision-making and avoiding life,” Willmott explained.
Meeting Venerable Thubten Chodron marked a turning point in Willmott’s life.
“Venerable gave a teaching at Airway Heights Correctional Facility, near Spokane,” Willmott said. “It was life-changing seeing her––I can’t even explain it. The love that poured out of her-that just blew me away. I never felt that way with anyone. I knew I wanted to practice with her.”
Upon release from prison, Willmott came to one of the Abbey’s Sharing the Dharma Days, and realized his “strong connection to Venerable.”
Willmott said his probation counselor supported him in continuing his spiritual practice, but emphasized “that I needed to get a job.”
He was offered part-time work at the Abbey. “That really helped getting a job-which isn’t that easy for a felon.” At first, Willmott worked five days a week at the Abbey doing maintenance work and studying and practicing the Dharma.
Last August, he took precepts and decided to stay at the Abbey full time.
Why would a young man barely out of his teens choose to cloister himself in a monastic community?
“I believe in ethical discipline and right now I feel the best way is to become a monastic-it’s a way of gaining more confidence in my practice and deeper understanding and realizations of the Dharma. If I make it in the robes, I know I will be more comfortable with myself.
“I’m looking at my life in two phases: Right now, I need this-the vows, teacher, and the practice. In the long term, all I really know is that I want to help people by just being who I am. Hopefully, I will be able to apply bodhicitta and be strong enough in myself that I can be of spontaneous benefit when and wherever I meet people.”
Since this interview, Carl has taken the first vows of ordination and wears the gray clothing of those preparing for life as a monastic.
Commitment to Help
Kevin Conlin, 53, is the Abbey’s office manager and a long-time Dharma practitioner. Nine months ago, he left Gainesville, Fla., his home of 34 years, and his job as a computer consultant for an accounting firm, to live in community and offer service at the Abbey.
In 2006, Conlin came to the Abbey for a Friends of Sravasti Abbey meeting, where he realized the enormity of Venerable Thubten Chodron’s many projects and wanted to contribute.
“I came here out of a commitment to help Venerable. I believe in the vision of Sravasti Abbey,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of the vision that Venerable has created to touch, inspire and energize people. It’s important to hold those places that touch people all over the world. And I wanted to live and be a part of this community.”
Conlin said his cross-country trip from Gainesville to the Abbey was empowering. “I had never driven across country-it was very much a purification and a practice in letting go.” That trip was just the beginning of Conlin’s journey of letting go of his former life.
“The biggest barrier in all of this is letting go-it’s not the norm to do something so out of sync with the mainstream. I had to let go of my books, clothes, and personal attachments like buying coffee, having time for myself, having my own space, my sense of being gainfully employed-all of this is a real ego buster-I guess that’s what I signed up for.”
The depth of relationships developed while practicing and living in community with those who share similar values far exceeds any loss, Conlin said.
“You know, I’ve been married twice and have two kids. Living in community at the Abbey is good training in being transparent with others-it’s really a wonderful and challenging opportunity to go deeper into relationship than in the conventional sense. The tools and playing ground are different-it’s not as easy to hide on an emotional level. This is a life style that has been very good to me and for me.”
Conlin said that although he has no “burning desire to take robes,” he doesn’t rule it out. For right now, he’s happy and content with the rhythm of his days and “the opportunity to share the vision of the Abbey, work with my mind, and try to put the Dharma into practice day by day.
“Yep, I’ll show up for practice, I’ll be there in the morning. You can count on me to be there. I may not be enlightened, but I will show up tomorrow.”
Practice a Hundred Percent
Barbara McDaniel, 54, Venerable Thubten Chodron”s assistant, wears the gray suit of people preparing for ordination.
Earlier in her life, Barbara McDaniel”s spiritual journey had taken her from the Protestant denominations of Baptist, Methodist, and Disciples of Christ, to walking on fire and South American hallucinogenic rituals.
“I had been on a spiritual search my whole life,” she said, adding that the quest ended when she attended her first Buddhist meditation retreat. A couple of years later, when her 12-year, “perfect” relationship evaporated suddenly, her practice took on a greater significance and urgency.
McDaniel said practicing the Dharma helped her to let go of the relationship and led to a desire for a deeper practice. “I tried to practice to the max as a lay person, but it wasn’t enough. With Venerable founding the Abbey, I realized she was creating a community that would support a greater level of practice.”
Although she loved her work as a Reiki practitioner, McDaniel said attending teachings by Venerable Thubten Chodron was a catalyst for not only deepening her practice, but also for taking a closer look at her life.
“I remember Venerable telling the story of her brother riding his tricycle into a swimming pool and clinging to it all the way to the bottom,” McDaniel recalled. “He clung to his tricycle as his refuge. I asked myself-what tricycle am I clinging to? What am I taking refuge in-my work, my business? I was questioning. How can I actually help people, given the state of my mind? I am going to die; what am I using my life for, what is my life about?”
Since coming to the Abbey last June, she has decided to seek ordination.
“I said to myself, if I want release from samsara, I must pursue this practice a hundred percent. I recognize that I have created a lot of negative karma, and I am definitely going to die. This is a precious opportunity to practice more deeply and to create positive karma in the time I have left, whether that’s one year or 30 years. I want to do this so I can be more effective in helping others.
“I’ll be in this gray suit for about a year. It’s about practicing, preparing to keep the vows, and determining to be free from cyclic existence.”
To receive Dharma teachings from a highly trained teacher and to have the time to study and practice is rare, precious, and critical to the continuation of the Dharma.
“The more time I spend with Venerable Chodron, the more I am amazed at how she has been able to hold the Dharma within herself, the strength of her faith and discipline. Keepers of the Buddha’s pure Dharma mostly reside in the monastic tradition.
“To make sure the teachings continue, especially here in America, we have to have a strong body of practitioners. Tibetans are spread around the world; the old lamas are dying. A new generation must carry the teachings on. Venerable is and has created a real bridge here at Sravasti Abbey.”