Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Bhavana Society Forest Monastary Meditation Center

I returned Sunday from a week of quiet at Bhavana. I started going to this place in 2003 having read one of the books on meditation written by the founding abbot, Bhante Gunaratana (more fondly called Bhante G). It is located in an oak woods in WV just a few miles from the Virginia border, a 3 hour drive through the countryside for me. Founded in 1985, it is completely supported by donations and a devoted volunteer community. I have always found the atmosphere of "meta", loving friendliness, to be positively palatable here. This is a group of people living their faith. In true Buddhist tradition the cost is what you can give, they refuse to give even a "suggested retail value".

On arrival in late afternoon you sign in and get your job for the week and your assigned living quarters. I have been fortunate to always get one of the small wood stove cabins in the woods, "kuti's" they are called, with no plumbing or electricity but nicely secluded. There are some dorm accommodations with more ammenities if preferred. At the first evening meditation "noble silence" begins. No more speaking to anyone. This might sound difficult to some but I probably would not go if this rule was not in place for then the days would be filled with comparisons and measurements and complaints as we are want to do.

The next morning begins at 4:45, optional yoga 'till 5:30, and then mediation until 6:45. Breakfast at 7:00. I love the food here - well prepared simple vegetarian fare. And the mealtime procedure is nice with some chanting by the monks and a quiet procession of folks getting their food and eating mindfully.

Clean up chores until 9:00, then meditate until 11:00 with some guidance by the retreat leader. Lunch, clean up, and personal time to walk or rest or read. They discourage reading a bit, certainly a novel would be a distraction, but I have found reading my favorite book on the subject to be helpful in not getting stuck in my own spinning wheels. Lunch is the last food of the day - no supper is served. This sounds harder than it is. I lose a couple pounds but do not think about food.

Meditation from 2-5. This is a gentle approach discipline. You sit as long as you can, on a cushion, in a chair, propped up with 5 pillows, whatever it takes. When your knees or joints are just too much you stand or walk slowly to and fro, or leave the meditation hall to do what you must. No one asks or questions what you are doing. Everyone moves quietly with concern for others, trying not to disturb. At some time in the week there is opportunity for one to one 15 minute interviews with a monk during the afternoon session.

5:00 is another optional but longer yoga session. The instructors talk through these and the students too if asked a direct question. Then tea time or personal time until 7:00 when there is a Dhamma talk. There is always a subject to be covered at the retreats on some aspect of the Dhamma and they are well presented. Some folks diligently take notes and submit written questions for Q & A sessions. But I confess most of it floats over me in a pleasant drone. I come more for quiet than information. Meditation ends at 9:00 but you could go all night if you wanted. Most are glad to go to bed.

This being my 6th visit, the experience has leveled out, fewer peaks and valleys. It is still not without effort however. I arrive quite focused, looking for something though I know not what it is. There are usually several nights where I can't sleep. Just lying there and sleep will not come. I've wondered if it is from the hours of trying to keep the mind from drifting. My body aches plenty, back aches, knee aches, I take Advil with me. Yoga stretching helps some of the discomfort but Yoga is not a regular practice for me so maybe that adds some new sore muscles, who knows. Though I don't feel an urge to talk, as the week progresses the stories build up in my head. What I will say to so and so, and how will the conversation go, and must remember to tell them about this or that and I have to work a little harder to turn these off. Same with creative ideas, they almost seem to come in a flood, ideas for sculptures, and photos, and songs and whatever, turning them over and over with different twists. It feels like the mind saying "hey wait, ya gotta think about something man, otherwise I'm toast."

I come home glad to be home and fall into my normal life with nary a hitch; everything waited for me, no elves finished anything. But also there is a renewed interest in the practice, a little more resolve to move it up the priority list, to sit a little more, to pay more attention.

I posted a short slideshow of pictures.

The Center's Website:

Monday, March 2, 2009

My Friend's Art

The things we put on the walls of our house is part of what makes it home. Family photographs tell of history and continuity and artwork gives personality and familiarity to our space.

In my town we have an annual event called the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. It's a wonderful 4 days in July with hundreds of artists booths displaying all manner of art and craft as well as constant musical performances. We always check it out and have three or four prints on our walls that were purchased there.

But the art that has the most meaning for me is the work that is done by my friends. Not only is this work pleasing to the eye but comes with a story, a wave of memories of the maker and how the work was done and how it came to me.

Click to enlarge images.

Jill Powers - Cast paper has been Jill's primary medium for many years. She has work in galleries and exhibits in shows. She is a wonderful teacher and does freelance workshops and artist mentoring. I am forever grateful to Jill for the encouragement she gave me in the making my own art.
Her website:

cast paper - each 8" x 12"

Joan Blasko - raised 6 children and got her MFA later in life. She did a lot of print making - abstract natural images. She now makes beautiful hooked rug hangings. A founding member of the artist's group to which I belong.

A rainbow of X's for Dylan
A rainbow of sunshine for Robin
Each 8" x 10"

D.R. Stanley - my brother in law. David has a MFA and teaches art at a small Quaker boarding school in southeastern Ohio. He does sculpture, and painting and photography and music. He does it for fun or just because. This was done with ink and one of those cheap wide foam brushes.

"The Rookery" - ink, 15" x 24"

Bridget Oleary - Bridget gave us this as a gift before Robin's birth. As subtly as she could she made sure of what we were going to name our daughter. Then at the shower we started talking about how we might change our mind and give her Margy's last name. She must have been dying. When we opened this gift we laughed and said "All right this settles it".

woodcut, hand painted - 12" x 16"
Jerry Shue - a long time friend. Jerry is a tripod man so his work is generally carefully composed and razor sharp and always an interesting point of view. This was an old one I admired and later it showed up as a gift.

photograph - 8" x 10"

Comely Richie - my mother's cousin, a white-bearded man with a Kris Kringle smile and the ladies' favorite I understand. He made this in his eighties while living in an old folks home. They had given him a little space in the basement with a bench and band saw, poor light and low hanging water pipes. I had always admired his work - my sister has a smaller one in a blond wood. When I built my high ceilinged living room I pictured a mobile there and contacted him and gave him the wood from which this is made.
I love the idea of this artwork being infinitely variable and in fact it has probably never looked exactly the same twice. Sometimes it is perfectly lined up as if it was a board again but it's pointing at something.

mobile - walnut, 72" x 20" x ?

ink - 10" x 20"
Jean Giddings - another member of the artist's group. Jean did the art festival circuit for years with wall hung weavings. She has done a lot of multi media work and recently turned to oil painting. I love the way Jean talks about making her work with no pretense or great expectations, just matter of fact trying this or that. But she fearlessly keeps trying new things and making interesting pieces. This one is poured acrylic ink on dampened and rumpled silk tissue, ironed flat after it dries. I love its subterranean feel, like what might be beneath the artic ice.
Jack Troy - lives in nearby Huntingdon where he taught ceramics for many years at Juniata College. He is very well known in the world of wood fired ceramics having written two books and given workshops internationally. I have several of Jack's pieces- cups, and bowls and a large urn that anchors a corner of my dining room and holds the cat's food. Jack also writes wonderful poetry.
His website:

ceramic 15" x 12"
Mazette Stover - Mazette was known as the butterfly lady. She lived at the same retirement community as my folks. She would do talks with a slideshow on the life span of the Monarch. She went through a tough time losing her partner in an automobile accident and turned to art as therapy. Her work was energetic and colorful with images of dragons, butterflies, and phoenix. But this painting was my favorite and when she died and her estate was being divided up it came to me because others thought it was too sad.

acrylic painting - 18" x 18"