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Buddhadharma : Spring 2008
spring 2008| 82 |buddhadharma “You can talk till you’re blue in the face, but when a person lives a certain way, it’s very effective,” says Bhikkhu sona. “that’s what inspires people, if you actually do it.” “doing it,” in the case of Birken forest Monastery, has required thousands of per- son hours, largely voluntary, from count- less lay supporters and numerous monks. Among the men in robes who have labored to dig drainage ditches, stack plywood, install siding, and pour concrete have been Bhikkhu thitapuñño, a post-doctoral research chemist; Bhikkhu nanda, a highly accomplished self-made businessman; and Bhikkhu Pavaro, a Ph.d. and former pro- fessor of religious studies. “these guys are very competent people, as good as you could possibly get,” says sona of his “monks of all trades.” today the main residence provides nearly 10,000 square feet of living space, including a beautiful meditation hall that overlooks the surrounding forest. the vaulted ceiling of the sala is thirty feet high, and behind the sitting Buddha rises a floor-to-ceiling wall of glass. out- doors, seasonal variations are extreme, with temperatures ranging from summer highs of 100°f (38°c) to -40°f (-40°c) in winter, while inside the mix of ceiling fans and radiant floor heating keeps the atmo- sphere consistently comfortable. it’s a far cry from the “shack days,” when keeping warm could mean tearing apart an old box spring mattress for firewood. the monks themselves live in kutis, single-occupant huts spread out among the surrounding bushes and trees. living conditions for them are considerably more spartan than they are for guests, with nei- ther plumbing nor electricity. Ubiquitous in various regions of south Asia, these tra- ditional dwellings have a maximum size of roughly one hundred square feet, speci- fied by the Buddha himself to ensure that his followers would not become a burden on the laity. remarkably, the monastery is now completely “off the grid,” Bhikkhu sona reports. sixteen solar panels supply enough electricity to meet most require- ments for most of the year. on cloudy days and in the winter, supplemental power is provided as needed by a backup die- sel generator. Both sources feed through state-of-the-art inverters to an array of deep pile batteries, producing a standing thirty-five years ago, when cana- da’s bounteous natural resources still seemed inexhaustible and the environment barely rated among leading popular concerns, tom West was already raising alarms about “the bad times ahead.” in a prescient article for his high school newspaper, the conscientious teen examined the delicate coastal ecosystem in his home province of British colum- bia, speculating on the devastation that would result if one of the giant oil tank- ers frequenting the waterways south from Alaska should ever spring a leak. that was nearly two decades before exxon Valdez disgorged eleven million gallons of crude off the coast of Alaska. tom West is now Bhikkhu sona, the abbot of canada’s first Buddhist monastery in the thai forest tradition, Birken forest Monastery, located in British columbia. And though he’s dedicated himself to a monastic life, he has not lost any of his ecological zeal, which is clearly evident in the monastery’s sound ecological design. Bhikkhu sona began work on Birken in 1994, at the age of 40, after return- ing from thailand, where he spent three years training in monasteries, including Ajahn chah’s Wat Pah nanachat. in the early days, Birken was just a two-room shack located in the mountains near Pem- berton, British columbia, that Bhikkhu sona shared with fellow monk Bhik- khu Piyadhammo. despite the remote location, the scavenging bears, and the absence of plumbing, electricity, a phone, and even a sign to point the way, “a cer- tain magic prevailed, and people showed up.” in less than a decade, in fact, their supporters ballooned from a handful to hundreds, then thousands. the shack of Birken i gradually trans- formed into Birken ii, featuring running water, power, a furnace, refrigerator, sink, “and even carpeting.” And finally, the existing monastery, Birken iii, was built, nestled on eighty acres of forest and pris- tine marshland, 4,000 feet up, eight miles from the nearest neighbor, with room for twenty-five residents and guests—all sustained by “good-hearted, unsolicited donations.” david kiRk iS a foRmeR televiSion pRoduceR living in kelowna, bRitiSh columbia. couRteSybiRkenfoReStmonaSteRy PROFILE: bIRkEn FOREst mOnastERy By David Kirk (Left) Bhikkhu Sona in Birken’s meditation hall.