History, Vision, Community, and Theravada Buddhism

By Bhante Gunaratana

In 1976, a man showed up at the Washington Buddhist Vihara seeking some guidance in meditation. He introduced himself as Matthew Flickstein. I started teaching him meditation after that for a couple of years. Being a very good student, he asked me many questions. Once every week or so, he would call and ask me whether I would like to go with him for a drive. I would agree and he would come to the Washington Buddhist Vihara where I lived at that time and drive me for a couple of hours. During that time he would ask me more questions. As I was very busy at the Vihara, once every month or two he would take me to a motel and we would meditate for several hours.

After a couple years, I mentioned to him one of the dreams I had. Since I had come to the United States I had been travelling, giving Dhamma talks in universities, colleges, high schools, primary schools, organization and temples from Miami University to St. John’s Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada. Students constantly asked questions about meditation. So I wanted to start a meditation center to teach meditation. I thought Matthew might be able to help me to start such a center. He was very pleased and said he would give me his full support. However, I did not take his word very seriously because I did not know how much support he could give me.

Another year passed without any activity on the project. One day he asked me, “Bhante, tell me whether you are really serious in this project or not. If you are not interested in it, I will help someone else to begin such a project.” Finally, in 1982 I told him “Yes.”

The Search Begins

The first thing we did was to form the Bhavana Society on May 13, 1982. Although we did not have money, we simply went looking for suitable land. In 1983, we found 189 acres of land in Virginia for sale for $1.5 million. My friend negotiated and brought the price down to $700,000 and deposited $1,000 as earnest money. We agreed to pay them a $100,000 down payment in three months and the rest in five years with a balloon payment.

Matthew suggested we should raise funds immediately. I was the president of the Washington Buddhist Vihara at that time. I contacted some of the members of the Washington Buddhist Vihara Society and made appointments to meet them and explain our project. On Sunday, October 30, 1983, at 6:45 a.m. We left Washington on a fund-raising tour. We went to many places, homes, temples, organizations and individuals.

We went to New York Buddhist Vihara one evening and parked our car in front of the Vihara. After about 15 minutes, Matthew went back to the car to get something and found the windshield was broken and his radio was stolen. We had planned to leave early the next morning. But we had to get the car window replaced and ended up leaving at 10 a.m. This cost almost $1,000. We travelled as far as Newfoundland. People donated what they could at that time. After three and half weeks travel, we returned with $5,000. We discovered we had travelled 5,000 miles-and spent $5,000.

That was all we had. I suggested to Matthew that if he could afford to wait to be reimbursed for his expenses that we deposit this auspicious $5,000 in a bank. He agreed but did not want to deposit it in his account. So we opened an account.

An Auspicious Encounter

But we had since lost the 189 acres of Virginia land and our non-refundable earnest money. Then we thought of looking for a small piece of land between 10 and 15 acres. On May 2, 1984, Matthew made an appointment to meet a realtor at 9:30 a.m. in a place called Fern’s Restaurant on Rt. 50. The realtor failed to show up. Matthew asked the customers whether they had seen the man, but nobody had. Finally, a customer came to Matthew and asked him why he was looking for him. Matthew told him the reason. He took Matthew and showed him a 13-acre piece of land. Matthew came to the Vihara and told me about this and asked me to go and see the land. I went with him and saw it. It looked very beautiful. Both of us agreed to buy it if the price was right. Then we asked, “How much?” “$18,000” the man said. That was exactly all we had in the bank – $18,000. On May 4 1984, we bought it.

On July 15 of that year, we came with 30 of our supporters to see the land. We were supposed to meet at the same restaurant on Rt. 50 and from there to go to the land to eat our picnic lunch, sitting on the newly purchased property. But some of our friends got lost. Only two other monks and myself arrived at the restaurant before 11 a.m. We waited for the others for another half hour. Since we monks have to eat our lunch before noon, we decided to eat there.

We thought it might not be a good idea to eat our food on their premises without permission. So we went in and asked the restaurant manager. “Why do you want to eat your food outside in this scorching sun?” said the woman. “Come inside. We have an air-conditioned room. I will open it for you. Sit there comfortably and eat your food.” This was a wonderful welcome. We went in and she offered us plates, silverware, cups and water. Afterward, we wanted to give her a little money in appreciation of her wonderful service. She said, “No, I don’t want any money. I did all this with a good heart. Don’t spoil my merit.”

After a while, our other friends appeared and all of us went out to the land. We chanted sutras, made speeches, and expressed our appreciation to all who had donated money to buy the property. We installed a sign that read, “Dhamma Village.”

Hearing we had bought a piece of land in West Virginia, some concerned friends said, “You live in Washington D.C. Why did you buy a piece of land in West Virginia out of all the places in this country? It is very far away from Washington. Nobody would go there. There is no one who knows you in West Virginia. You will not get any support there. You have simply wasted money.”

After about six months, a friend of ours came from Korea. I wanted to show him the land we had bought. He had rented a car and we drove there. When we arrived we saw that “Dhamma Village” had been turned into “Dam Village.” About six months later I returned with another friend and found the signboard was gone completely.

Building Begins

In May 1985, we began the first building. On October 2, 1986, Matthew Flickstein bought the 10 more acres of land nearby and donated it to the Society on July 20, 1989. We found a builder who agreed to build when we had the money to do so. We started when we had $2,000. When we had more than that he would build for that amount. When the structure was up he told us: “Since you don’t have much money I suggest you get some volunteers to build trusses and I will draw the plan.” He drew a plan on the concrete foundation.

We called for volunteers and 70 of them came in one weekend and built 40 trusses. The builder came and put them up and found they all were of different sizes and shapes. Some of the joints were about 1/4 inch apart. He rebuilt all of them. After putting on the roof, we called an inspector for his approval. He looked at the roof and shook his head horizontally. I asked him what was the matter.

“I don’t want to live in this house,” he said. “Why?” I asked. “One snowfall will cave the roof,” he replied. “What shall we do now?” I asked. “Destroy the whole roof and build a new one.” “Please give us a break. You don’t know how much trouble we had in building even this much.” “All right, I will give you an alternative,” he said. He agreed to help us rebuild new trusses, but that we should give him one helper. At that time there was a man at the Washington Vihara who agreed to help him. My friend called me one Wednesday and said he had taken a one-week leave and asked if the helper would be ready to go to West Virginia that Friday. I mentioned this to the man who was at the Vihara. Next morning, I found he had run away from the Vihara. I told my friend what had happened and he cancelled his leave and went back to work.

A few months later a man came from New York and asked me whether he could spend one night at the Vihara. That evening he asked me whether there was anything for him to do. All I had in my mind was this building project. I asked him whether he could build. “That is what I do for living,” he said. He agreed to help. He came and put the new reinforcing beams up and left without charging us a penny.

In April 1987, Ven. Rahula wrote me a letter saying he had heard we had started a meditation center and wished to come and spend two weeks there. I agreed. Then on May 15, 1987, he came to the Washington Buddhist Vihara to give a dhamma talk. On May 17, we drove him to the Bhavana Society meditation center and left him there. After two weeks, I came to see how he was doing. I saw that he had already made it his home. He had done an enormous amount of work by himself. I was so impressed with his work that I asked him to stay.

In August, John Hitchings and Karen Egbert donated two more acres between the 13-acre piece and the new ten-acre plot. One day in 1988 we received a white Buddha image from Sri Lanka, donated by Ven. K. Sri Pemaloka and a Malaysian man, Rex de Alwis. A year after that we received another dark Buddha image from Thailand. In 1991, a Thai monk visited us, recognized the dark Buddha image and said, “I am glad you received this image.” I asked him who sent it to us. He humbly acknowledged that it was he who made the arrangements for it to arrive here. Becoming an opportunist, I told him we were planning to build a meditation hall and when it was finished we hoped to have a little bigger image in gold color. “When are you going to finish it?” he asked. “We don’t know. We have not even started it,” I replied. “I don’t know whether I will live that long to see the completion of your meditation hall to send an image. Let me send one as soon as I return.” Sure enough, a couple of months later we received the gold image, which we installed in the former shrine room.

On October 22, 1988, the first building and two kutis were officially inaugurated. On July 22, 1989, Sima was established and we ordained 3 men and a woman. In 1992, we thought of building a dormitory and our rough estimate of the cost was $65,000. We wrote a notice and pasted it on the wall. Several generous people who came to the Bhavana donated some money. Meanwhile, our neighbor on some nearby property passed away. His wife happened to be our friend. She approached us and said she was going to sell her house that included an annex building. She said she would prefer if we bought it. We asked how much. She said $65,000. That was what we wanted to raise to build a dormitory. When we mentioned this to the members of the Board, some suggested we should negotiate and bring the price down. But we said, “She is a good neighbor. What she is asking seems to be fair.” One director said, “Bhante when it comes to business we sometimes must lose friendship.” “That depends on our priorities. If we value money more than people, certainly we lose friendship,” I said. Finally, they agreed and we bought the two houses with 7 acres of land, making 32 acres altogether.

In 1993, I suggested to our in-house architect, Bhante Rahula, that he draw a plan for the new meditation hall. He drew the plan that was approved by a professional architect.

Meanwhile, we started thinking of building a new meditation hall. We made a chart with small squares and when somebody donated $50 we checked off one square. We thought of raising funds for the new meditation hall this way. Our plan was to build slowly as funds came in. Seeing this very slow fundraising project, the Thai community arranged a Dana ceremony in 1994. At the end of it, Dr. Piriya and Dr. Nee Pinit gave me an envelope in which I found $73,500. Then we started work on the new meditation hall.

Expansion & The Good Kamma Continues

Later on, more and more donations came in. We contacted a local builder named Timothy Nally. Bhante Rahula contacted the right people and got the right materials. We purchased high beams in the dead of winter in 1995. But we could not put them up because of the rough winter and they sat in our parking lot for almost two months. As soon as the weather improved, Bhante Rahula got in touch with a minister, Mrs. Sue Adams, from a local church called Lord’s Chapel and asked her to help us find a boom truck. She spoke to her husband Sam Adams. He contacted a friend with a boom truck. He brought the truck to begin the work, but the weather didn’t let up and the truck sat in our parking lot for almost a month. Finally, he came with five people and in two days installed the beams – all free of charge. We announced in our newsletter that we needed someone to make a Bodhi leaf in stained glass. A woman, Jenette Foster, from California came with all the material, made it, and donated it to us along with a cash donation.

Bonnie Spoales donated her time and material in making the second piece of stained glass for us with our logo. Two generous gentlemen, Robert and Gene, donated three large glasses for windows. In the finishing stage, two other monks appeared, Ven. Dhammapalo and Ven. Saddhadhiko. The two of them, along with Bhante Dhammaratana and many other people donated many hours of labor, while many other people donated the money we needed to complete the building. Now many of them have come and seen for themselves the results of what they have done for this place.

At the start of collecting donations, a man sent us $1 each month. Once he had sent $8. He was so poor he could not send us more than that. He had suggested to his son that if he was willing to donate something to a worthy cause, he could put his leftover pocket money into a till and donate it to the newly formed Bhavana Society. Occasionally that child wrote us a note along with his monthly donation, which was a few cents. This continued for several years. We wanted to invite them to come for the opening ceremony, but they had moved away.

The opening ceremony was attended by more than 300 people, including 24 monks and 4 nuns. Breakfast was organized by our friends in Virginia Beach, lunch by the Gaithersburg group, and refreshments by members of the International Buddhist Cultural Center in Wheaton. We thank all of them.

Almost all the major events in the history of the Bhavana Society took place with pleasant surprises. Here are some of them:

  1. Meeting the right person in the Washington Buddhist Vihara in 1976
  2. Traveling 5,000 miles, spending $5,000 and collecting $5,000
  3. Buying the land with $18,000 when that was all we had in the bank at that time
  4. Cushions arrived the same day the carpet was installed
  5. When we bought paint someone anonymously sent by mail a sprayer
  6. The day before the opening when we were struggling to make the sound system work, a sound system expert showed up and made it work
  7. The same day a cabinet maker appeared and made a cabinet to put the sound system in
  8. Until Friday, April 25, it was raining. On the day we had the opening ceremony, the sky was very clear and the temperature was pleasant and warm. Sunday the rain continued again.
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