Sravasti Abbey celebrates twenty years of sangha building and builds a new Buddha Hall
This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of Northwest Dharma News. By Venerable Thubten Chonyi.
Sravasti Abbey turns twenty this year. Having nurtured a community of ordained sangha and spread Buddha’s teachings for two decades, the Abbey’s trajectory is still on the rise.
In this year alone we’ve welcomed Geshe Tenzin Chodrak (Dadul Namgyal) as a new resident and ordained four novices, bringing the monastic community to a total of 24. Meanwhile, construction of the new Buddha Hall continues steadily. It is slated for completion in 2024.
Buddhist nun, teacher, and author Venerable Thubten Chodron established Sravasti Abbey in 2003 to offer English-speaking practitioners the opportunity to study, train, and live as Buddhist monastics. Dharma education, practice, and service are the pillars of the training.
Reflecting on the Abbey’s journey, Venerable Chodron is pleased with how the monastery has evolved.
“Of course, there are lots of things I’d still like to do,” she said. “But I’m quite satisfied with what has happened so far. I think we have a great community. People are sincere; they’re dedicated and serious about their practice.”
Has it turned out the way she planned?
“I’ve always said that what the Abbey becomes, how it grows, depends on the karma as well as the talents and interests of the people who come,” she said.
That’s a clear example of a dependent arising.
The wisdom of that view has revealed itself over the years. “Our prison work is an example,” she continued. “In the beginning, I was the only one involved in it. Now the program has blossomed, and we reach well over a thousand incarcerated people every year. That growth depended on the monastics who came here and wanted to join in.”
“The same is true for the outreach we do in town—the inter-religious dialogues, talks to hospice groups and at environmental events, and so on. Those all depend on monastics willing to speak to different groups. And we couldn’t have built the various buildings without the monastics who have led those efforts.”
“On the other hand, we could have attracted a group of scholastics that wanted to study Abhidharmakosha,” she said. “If that’s who had come, you’d have a very different Sravasti Abbey!”
Sravasti Abbey is the first of its kind in the Tibetan tradition in the United States, and is unique in many ways. For one thing, it was founded by a woman. Also, it’s a monastery with both nuns and monks—hence the name “abbey”—and espouses gender equity.
Having both nuns and monks opened the way for Geshe Tenzin Chodrak (Dadul Namgyal) to join the community. He has been a monk in the Tibetan tradition for over 40 years.
An esteemed scholar in the Tibetan tradition, Geshe-la has been a regular guest teacher at the Abbey. He has also supported Venerable Chodron in her work on The Library of Wisdom and Compassion, the ten-volume book series that she co-authored with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Geshe-la brings his Dharma joy and humility to the community. Along with his recent background in exploring science and Buddhism, he brings years of traditional study and practice.
When he joined the community Geshe-la wrote, “I have known Sravasti Abbey, its founder and abbess, Ven. Thubten Chodron and the community of genuine practitioners under her guidance for a long time now. I have long developed a sincere admiration for the integrity and transparency by which the community lives, practices, and conducts their day-to-day administration.”
Venerable Sangye Khadro’s presence is another sign of the Abbey’s vitality. Ordained in 1974, she has studied with many great Tibetan masters and has taught Buddhism since 1979, mostly under the auspices of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), including 11 years as a resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Centre in Singapore.
Author of the best-selling, How to Meditate, Venerable Khadro joined the Sravasti Abbey community in 2020. She and abbess Ven. Chodron have been Dharma friends since they were “baby nuns” in the 1970s. We are happy and fortunate to have her with us.
“I love it here,” she said. “I’ve been to a lot of Dharma centers, and this is the most conducive situation I have encountered, especially for monastics, and for Dharma in general.”
Venerable Chodron was the Abbey’s sole resident teacher for many years and is delighted with this development.
“Most places just have one resident teacher,“ she explained. ”I think what we have here, with excellent teachers like Geshe-la and Ven. Khadro, is extraordinary.“
Between them, the three teachers instruct on practical topics, such as working with afflictive emotions, and they teach classical Buddhist texts. All teachings are posted on the Sravasti Abbey YouTube channel, where over 7,000 videos are freely offered.
New Buddha Hall
Another sign of the Abbey’s vitality is our current construction project, the 17,000 square foot Buddha Hall. It’s a long-awaited temple and library facility that will be the center of religious activity in the monastery.
Venerable Chodron and advisers foresaw the need for a Buddha Hall as far back as 2006, but waited for right timing. The original Meditation Hall—a remodeled garage—was sufficient for many years. As the community expanded, however, the meditation and teaching space grew tighter.
Planning for the Buddha Hall began in 2019, but construction was stalled for three years by the pandemic. At last construction began in the summer of 2022. The Buddha Hall should be ready for occupancy in 2024.
The Abbey has commissioned beautiful images for the Buddha Hall, such that it will be both inspiring and functional.
The Buddha Hall will expand the meditation hall capacity for teachings and events, offer a dedicated room for monastic rites, and house the growing collection of Dharma books in English, Tibetan, and Mandarin.
What do all these changes bode for the future of the Abbey? Venerable Chodron is philosophical.
“How the Abbey grows going forward will follow the same principle we’ve always had, unfolding as people deepen their practice and as karma ripens.
“We’ve had a strong fully ordained nuns’ community for nearly 12 years, giving the Abbey a solid foundation. Now there are five monks as well.
“We are one community dedicated to transforming our minds and sharing Buddha’s teachings.
“As long as we cultivate compassion and bodhicitta,” she concluded, “I’m confident that the Abbey will grow and benefit not only individuals, but also society as a whole.”
The Abbey’s birthday celebration is scheduled for October 15 this year. A date for the 2024 Buddha Hall consecration is yet to be set.