Why do you need to spend so much on a place to meditate? A recent comment on Instagram challenged the Abbey to explain what’s behind the new Buddha Hall project.
To clarify the project and the need, Venerable Chonyi gave the following reply. We’re happy to say our questioner understands the project now, and is in full support. We hope this helps you, too.
Sravasti Abbey was established in 2003 as the first training monastery for Western monastics in the Tibetan tradition in the U.S. Founded by Ven. Thubten Chodron, the Abbey was envisioned as a residential training center for English-speaking monks and nuns, as well as a resource for Buddhist teachings and practices for all who were interested.
A monastery needs a temple
From the beginning, the Abbey needed a meditation space—a place for practice, teachings, and ceremonies. The property we bought had a large house, a garage, and an old barn.
We remodeled the garage to become the Meditation Hall, and so it has remained for 17 years. Since the very beginning, however, we had planned a temple. What monastery exists without a temple? It was just a matter of timing. And need.
So here we are, 18 years later, with a resident community of 17 monastics and several trainees. And the need is here for a Buddha Hall.
Your point is well taken, that $250,00 could build a small house. In fact in the U.S., it’s not quite enough. But this Buddha Hall is not a small house. It’s a 17,000 square-foot, two-story temple and library with a small apartment for guest teachers.
Still, why do we need something like that?
Number one, this Buddha Hall isn’t for us, the monastic residents.
If no one ever visited the Abbey or tuned into online teachings, we would not need to build it. Our Meditation Hall is a very tight fit for the residents of the Abbey. We meditate there, prostrate there, do pujas and ceremonies there, but we make it work. When we have guests, however, we run into real problems.
Before Covid, the Abbey regularly saw 50-60 people coming for retreats (which we do a couple of times a month at least) and 100 or more for one-day events. There just isn’t enough space to fit everyone who wants to come. And we’ve reached so many more people online during the pandemic, we expect even more will want join us when it’s safe to travel again.
Live from the Abbey dining room
We’ve resorted to doing large retreats in the dining room. That means we sit on the floor to meditate at 5:30 a.m., set up tables for 60 people to have breakfast, take down the tables for 60 people to sit and listen to teachings and meditate.
Set up the tables for 60 people to have lunch. Take down the tables for 60 people to take afternoon teachings and have another meditation session. Put up a few tables for about 40 people to eat in the evening. Etc. This is not impossible—we’ve done it for years now. But it’s not ideal for the community or the guests.
During Covid, of course, this has not been the issue. Instead, we’ve streamed or Zoomed teachings, meditations, and so forth. This, too, has to be done from the dining room, as the Meditation Hall has no Internet connection and the cost of fitting it out is prohibitive.
The Buddha Hall will have broadcast capabilities so that teachings can be streamed live without affecting the cooks who are trying to make lunch in the next room.
A place to be inspired
Secondly, the Buddha Hall is designed as a place of inspiration, to uplift the minds of all who enter. In Europe, I suppose, the great cathedrals would be an example of such a place.
If you’ve ever been to Asia, you’ve seen that Buddhist temples small and large serve that purpose—a peaceful place where people can be inspired to develop their good qualities, to cultivate their love, compassion, and wisdom.
While we have many churches in the United States, a spiritual sanctuary for Buddhists is rare. Functioning Buddhist monasteries are even more rare. Yet they serve an important role in society.
The Abbey is situated in a very conservative, rural area of the U.S., yet we’ve seen over a thousand visits every year, coming from all parts of the word as well as from our local towns.
We have regularly hosted groups of young people—high school and university class groups in particular—who come to learn about Buddhism and expand their cultural awareness. Their few hours on the Abbey grounds may be the one chance in their lifetime to connect with Buddha’s teachings. We find that the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism leaves a lasting imprint on their minds.
Tibetan Buddhist temples in general are beautiful places, which can leave positive imprints on the minds of these who pass through, even if they come only as tourists.
In addition, of course, a monastery is really not complete without its temple. It’s the central place of religious activity for the entire community. That’s true of Christian monasteries as well as Buddhist ones. Sure, meditators can attain samadhi under a tree like the Buddha did if the climate is right, the insects are kind, and the practitioners already have strong concentration. For ordinary beings, however, the practice is enhanced by being sheltered from rain, snow, driving winds, cold temperatures, and so forth. And meditating in the presence of Buddha images inspires the mind.
If we believe there is value in the spiritual life, and we acknowledge that contemporary culture provides enormous distractions that are sometimes antithetical to inner development and finding peace, then it’s an easy leap to think that it’s important to create spaces that are conducive and supportive to developing those inner qualities. That’s what a temple is about.
Rural building: no water, no power, no sewer, etc.
And because we are in a rural, undeveloped area, there is no city water system here. We have to dig wells and lay the infrastructure for our own water system. There is no city sewer system. We must engineer and install a septic system for every building. There is no city power system. All electricity has to be brought in from the county power lines. And adding broadband requires digging the trenches and adding cable for connectivity. And so forth.
And we don’t charge
Oh. I forgot to mention that we do not charge for the Dharma, for visiting, for staying here long term, for anything. As our founder, Venerable Chodron, says, there is no way to make merit—good karma—through a transaction.
However, when people feel inspired to practice generosity, spontaneously from their hearts, they get in touch with one of the first virtuous practices the Buddha taught.
And for monastics, living solely by the kindness of others makes us stay honest about our practice, to keep the precepts we have taken and practice well in order to repay the kindness.
$250,000 is just the beginning
In fact, $250,000 is a small portion of the actual cost of simply building the structure to house the essential activities of a Buddhist monastery. That $250,000—matched with the additional $250,000 of three donors—will get us started this summer. Over the years we have saved a couple million dollars—because we live very frugally, actually—and that savings will be the real foundational funding.
How much more will we need? When we have secured all the necessary permits, our commercial contractor will send the project out for current estimates from his sub-contractors. Once we have that price, we’ll post the final cost estimate.
Merit from giving
One more thing to note. This idea of creating merit by giving is not a modern ruse to coerce funds from donors. The Buddha himself laid this out.
We use this quote from Vinayavibhanga, The Scripture on Discernment, that describes seven virtues derived in relation to substances that are meritorious imperceptible forms. These include offering a residence to the ordained sangha, offering a prayer hall to the sangha, offering cushions or seats for the prayer hall, and offering food regularly to the sangha.
In the sutra the Buddha praises these actions as being “of great fruit, highly beneficial, splendid, and enormous in nature.” The merit of those who offer these will “unceasingly increase at all times, whether they are walking, sitting, sleeping, or waking.”
And so this is a very long explanation of what we’re doing at Sravasti Abbey and why. I hope this relieves some of your disturbance about the purpose of Buddhist temples. No matter where they are—and even if they have some gold in them—their purpose is to benefit sentient beings everywhere.
Hopefully you’ll come visit and practice with us in person someday!