Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we feature 2018-19 Resident Scholars. Susan Sink recently interviewed Jotipālo Bhikkhu, who is a Buddhist monk from Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley, CA. During his year-long residency, Bhikkhu is working on a project titled “What can Buddhist Artistic Traditions Learn from Christian Iconography.” To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about what you are doing while at the Collegeville Institute.
Fifteen years ago, I began using art as a meditative practice. I wanted to integrate creativity into my monastic life. While visiting my parents, my mother showed me some fabric paints she was starting to play with. They were quite simple to use so I undertook a practice of learning to paint a portrait. After painting daily for about two years, I got proficient enough and I set the practice aside. Several years later during a two-week winter retreat I picked it up again and have continued for almost ten years.
The Buddhist monastery where I was living is next door to Mount Tabor – Holy Transfiguration Monastery, a Ukrainian Eastern Catholic Monastery. The abbot, Father Damian Higgins, is a teacher of writing icons, and I attended several of his weeklong workshops. Father Damian is a dear friend and he has offered his guidance and assistance in helping me to develop icon skills.
This year in Collegeville, I’m working on my painting technique, and reading about icons. My goal is to become proficient enough to offer meditation retreats using art. I would like to offer retreats that engage people with art in a contemplative context.
Briefly, what is Theravada Buddhism, and what is your practice at Abhayagiri Monastery?
Theravada is one of the three major branches of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is primarily located in Southeast Asia in countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka. Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery where I was ordained is part of the Thai forest tradition. It is a very conservative form of Buddhism, which for monks, stresses the monastic rules: living in community, not using money, not eating after noon, celibacy, etc. We depend entirely on donations to run the monasteries, this helps to ensure that the monastics practice in accordance with the rules. If our practice gets sloppy or we start teaching things that are counter to the Buddha’s teachings, people will just stop supporting us. Each year during the summer months, the ordained community meets two to three times a week to go through all the rules to make sure we’re on the same page.
In the Thai forest tradition, there are three interwoven emphases of the training: practicing virtue, which is a foundation for meditation, which develops wisdom. Most of our teachings are passed down through an oral tradition; we learn by observing our elders and other wise people. We do have time during the day for reading and studying, but this is not compulsory.
I can’t help but think the woods surrounding the Collegeville Institute might provide some inspiration! How are you experiencing this place?
Truthfully, I have been so absorbed by painting that I haven’t done as much walking as I had hoped! I do get in about thirty minutes of walking around Stumpf Lake on my way to Saint John’s University’s art department, and I’ve done some walking on the arboretum trails.
I do all my icon writing at my Collegeville apartment, and I have my desk looking out onto the lake. When I arrived, the view was of green trees and water, and it was very calming. Now that autumn is full upon us, the view is magical. I’m especially looking forward to winter (I’m part Finnish). I brought a pair of snowshoes with me!
How did you learn about the Collegeville Institute?
I met Father William Skudlarek, OSB, at a Buddhist-Catholic interreligious dialogue meeting in California in 2005. He was visiting our monastery and heard that I was planning to attempt a walking pilgrimage, done completely on faith. My route was going to be from New Orleans to Thunder Bay, Ontario, roughly following the Mississippi River. Father William offered to assist if we needed help and was going to join us when we reached Minnesota. It turns out we did have difficulty finding places to stay, so Father William made contacts for us with Catholic Churches in Mississippi. We ended up staying in three Catholic Churches before the pilgrimage came to a premature end. Unfortunately, both myself and a friend who was walking with me, became very sick and we had to stop after about a month.
Several years later, Father William and I did a 100-mile walk from Brainerd to Bemidji. We put ourselves out there, making a pilgrimage on faith, without any money or plans. Every day we met Catholics, who recognized Father William as a Benedictine from his habit, and just about every day we met somebody who had a connection to Saint John’s! I couldn’t help but think it was a great experience for Father William to see how deep the roots of Saint John’s have gone into the soil of Minnesota.
I’ve gotten to know Saint John’s mostly through my connections with Father William, and participation in Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. One of our conferences was held at Saint John’s and I’ve been a guest here on several other occasions, as I occasionally visit a meditation center in Minneapolis called Common Ground. It was often easy for me to visit Collegeville while I was in the area.
What has your experience been like so far at the Collegeville Institute?
I feel extremely welcomed here. I get the sensation that there is a flavor of goodness on this campus. It’s the same goodness I feel from the Buddhist community that has formed around the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery. In many ways I don’t feel any different here, or feel like I’m treated differently or have to act differently. The first week I was here there were a few double takes when people saw my robes, but that is to be expected.
Being at the Collegeville Institute has been interesting because I think I’m the only resident who is not a professor or taught at a university. So, it seems odd to me to be a Resident Scholar. It’s quite an honor to be part of the weekly seminars we hold and hear about each other’s projects. It’s informative for me to see how people from other faith traditions address religious and cultural issues. I think it will be quite a fun year.
I’m also leading the student Mindfulness Meditation Club. We meet at St. Francis House on Wednesday evenings for one hour. We’re exploring different types of meditation: body awareness, loving-kindness/goodwill meditation, walking meditation. Riding the bus between the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, I met a student who asked me about meditation. I told him if he was looking for happiness in the mind, he was looking in the wrong place, and that he should learn to put his attention in the body. Suffering happens in the mind, the sensations in the body are not judgmental and the body is always present. When I told him this, he got excited, “Yes I can feel that, I understand what you mean.” It’s fun just being on campus and having little interactions like that.
I read that your monastery was affected by the fires in California a year ago. Please tell us a bit about that experience. How is the monastery doing now?
That was a tragic event. Eight of our neighbors perished in the fire and 500 homes were destroyed. During the initial stage of the fire, which was fueled by 70 mph winds, the fire raced across the landscape just a mile south of the monastery. We were fortunate that we had time to evacuate and had places where we could shelter.
The evacuation itself was a powerful example of how a community can work together and how we are stronger as a group than as individuals. We were awoken around 2 AM by one of the younger community members who smelled the smoke. When he went to investigate, the entire southern sky was a mass of fire (a thousand feet tall — no exaggeration). It was interesting to watch the wisdom of the community unfold as various members took on responsibilities for things that they could do. One person collected the petty cash, check books and documents; the kitchen manager gathered enough food to get us through the first day; several monks gathered the alms bowls; another monks made out lists of vehicles and who was to be in each vehicle.
We were not sure if we needed to evacuate or if we would be able to navigate the dirt road that led away from the fire, but at about 3 AM, the propane tanks in the houses just south of us started to explode. It seemed obvious it was time to leave.
We ended up being evacuated for a week, and when we returned we discovered how lucky we were to still have a monastery. The fire did reach the monastery and burned about 70% around the monastery. Our monastery is 300 acres and the fire burned about 50 acres within our boundary. The fire fighting crews made protecting our property and Mount Tabor’s a priority. They said they valued having the monastic communities and did everything they could to save them.
Here is what we wrote on our website, about a mysterious occurrence that the firefighters reported to me:
“I asked the crew from New Mexico how it was fighting the fire… They reported that the fires got down to the trail but the fire wouldn’t cross it. They said it was like the monastery refused to burn, and none of them could explain it. They reported their hair standing on its end and then the fire reversed itself and went back up the mountain. Everybody was kind of freaked out, as they had never seen anything like this.”
A notice posted on the Abhayagiri website conveyed a similar attitude of awe and gratitude:
“We were extraordinarily fortunate to have experienced no damage to any of our structures, except minimal damage to one of our water tanks. There are likely many reasons for this blessing, with most of the credit going to the excellent work done by the fire-fighting crews from many different areas. We also believe there must have been some very powerful protective forces on the property looking after the monastery as we had fires coming from several directions that seemed to unexpectedly reverse direction.”