That question has a longer life-history but the brief answer would be that my husband changed jobs in 2009 which required us to move to the Winchester, VA area from our home in Pennsylvania. We raised our children in Pennsylvania but they were born in Maryland. We lived in Maryland from 1986 to 1996 and visited Washington Buddhist Vihara frequently. My wish from 1996 on was to someday live near a temple where I could learn Dhamma. Even so, it was 3 years before we visited Bhavana Society after moving to Virginia. Our children finished university and we were still energetic people willing to devote our time to meaningful work.
Initially my husband, Upul, began remodeling the men’s bathrooms in the main building at Bhavana. We had an elderly dog at that time and he could not be left alone. I cared for him at home until he died. From that time on, I was available to volunteer. I was at my husband’s side, learning and assisting in all manner of work. Upul’s dedication and energy were, by far, the driving force in a vast variety of projects that we carried out to restore some neglected parts of the property at Bhavana. If I helped with 1/4 of a project, he did the other 3/4. His energy was to be admired.
As a somewhat timid and cautious person, I was ever grateful for the kindness and welcoming smile of Bhante Dhamma, especially important in those early times.
Can you share a memorable experience or moment from your volunteering journey at Bhavana Society that has had a lasting impact on you?
Dealing with fear in every sense. It can begin with fear of forest ticks and snakes and go on to fear of power tools. In between those are all sorts of other emotional fears: how to talk to monks, how to ask a Dhamma question without showing foolishness and ignorance — well, the overwhelming desire for truth brings up courage so foolishness takes a backseat. And if you want to get things done, you have to learn and also respect power tools. Keep going with metta and you find yourself whispering to a snake “buddy, how are you? It’s nice to see you again.”
In what ways have you seen Bhavana Society positively influence the community or individuals during your years of volunteering?
Bhavana Society is in a remote location so the vast number of people who come are outstanding and upstanding and excellent people. They come full of happiness and respect for the community of monastics. They bring their faith in the teachings of the Buddha and their reverence for Bhante G. They come with generosity and smiles. They work hard to create a beautiful Dana and to serve the monks. Usually there is a lot of kitchen clean-up when large groups come to give Dana. This is where volunteers can help. Supporters are tired after travel and meal preparation. They gather around Bhante G’s asana , a sea of supporters respectfully dressed in white, listening to Dhamma, asking their questions, and feeling refreshed by hearing the Buddha’s Dhamma. Now volunteers and residents can give their own Dana by cleaning up, washing dishes, and putting the kitchen back in order, win win.
Of course there are many, many, many wonderful residents also. I’ve been fortunate to meet so many good people at Bhavana. Please come, please volunteer, all skills are needed. You will drive home tired but smiling.
How has your understanding of mindfulness and meditation deepened through your volunteer work at Bhavana Society?
I’m still working on those, definitely. My mindfulness and my meditation is up, down, and all around. Before coming to Bhavana my meditation was in shambles and I worked to revive it or, more accurately, start from scratch. Sitting on a meditation cushion was so painful that my duration was 7 minutes. With determination and help from yoga stretches, I am now comfortable. It took years. If not for volunteering at Bhavana, I don’t know how I would have started.
What challenges have you faced during your tenure as a volunteer, and how did you overcome them?
The years that Upul and I volunteered together, he did an excellent job of organizing and anticipating what would be needed to complete a project and make it successful. He possesses those priceless qualities that I do not. My leadership skills can never match his. Now that he no longer volunteers, I consult him at home but I am on my own. Sometimes I overestimate what I can do yet I keep trying. My gardening skills are self-taught and only semi-successful. I try to fit in whatever way that I can.
There are limitations, also, as a semi-elderly woman. I don’t wish to give up, I still like to try and don’t mind huffing and puffing and sweating through heavy work. A number of years ago I worked with Upul to split and stack wood. It was great work. However, a group of men can be reluctant to let a female join those activities. You don’t have to overcome everything, some things have to be accepted.
Can you describe a specific project or initiative that you were involved in at Bhavana Society that you are particularly proud of?
There are many things that, when I recall, I am happy about. Three stand out as things that I wished and hoped to find a way to accomplish.
The first is my ability to sew. My Mother never hesitated to let me use any appliance in the home. She sewed some of my clothes and let me use the sewing machine whenever I wanted. I made a few of my clothes from 2nd grade on. Upul’s mother and sister sewed so it was something that he valued and encouraged. He made sure I had good equipment and I made many things. When I started volunteering at Bhavana, I hoped that there might be an opportunity to sew. Bhante G gave me that opportunity when he asked me to replace the zipper on one of his bags. Later, I learned how monastic robes were constructed.
I don’t recall all the details but my Mother gave me a small, black, metal seated Buddha statue. It belonged to a family member that passed away about 1970 and the story is, to me, one of metta. My uncle (a cousin, really) was born in the later 1800s. He ran away to the join the Navy when he was underage. There was a massive earthquake in Japan and his ship was sent by the Navy to help the people of Japan. While he was there, he was given the Buddha statue as a token of thanks. He carved the dates in the underside of that statue. I had a wish to give it to a Buddhist temple so that it could be properly revered. Bhante G accepted it years ago and it is in Sacca Kuti.
When I first saw Visakha House, I hoped to find a way to give it some attention. During Covid, I continued to volunteer, working outside and never entering the main building. During winter, I painted and cleaned parts of Visakha House.
How do you balance your personal life with your long-term commitment to volunteering at Bhavana Society?
My adult children and my siblings know that I can be hard to reach on the weekends because I will be in West Virginia at “the meditation center.” I do have responsibility for my elderly parents and that takes priority. It’s not a difficult balance. I make my decisions reflecting on my deathbed. On that day, when I let go of this life, I hope that no regrets will pull on the mind. There is foolishness and stupidity and loads of wasted time in my past and I can’t do anything about that so why regret it. I can only make sure that now is, maybe, a little better directed. I loved what Bhante G said recently, something like: the future will never come. Yes, the future of our imaginations, how often does it really happen — never.
My volunteer time is a little different now compared to years past. Bhante G used to teach a Pali/Sutta class on Saturday. It was the most important time of my entire life. Now there is Zoom and those classes can reach many more people so it is the best choice.
Bhante Saddhajeewa has made some changes at Bhavana. I really love parking my car in the lower lot and walking up the road towards the white marble Buddha statue. In the morning the sun will be coming up behind the statue. It brings happiness.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering volunteering at a meditation center or similar organization for an extended period of time?
Please do it, without hesitation. There’s so much to learn, about yourself! It’s all positive, even the negative is positive! All skills are useful: cleaning, gardening, mowing, working with wood, everyone is welcome. You can give your service in any capacity. Come and meet me, I will be happy to show you around.
In what ways has volunteering at Bhavana Society shaped your own spiritual or personal growth?
It has shaped every aspect of my life. I hold all of that very close to heart. It’s more than could be wished for.
Looking back over the past ten years, what changes or developments have you observed in Bhavana Society, and how do you envision its future impact?
I completely trust that Bhavana Society will go on as a rich center for the teaching of the Buddha’s Dhamma. I’m sure the Sangha will insist on that.
I would love to see a Karma Retreat, Qualities of the Buddha Retreat, a Dependent Origination Retreat, etc. It would be great to have one “wildcard” retreat each year.
One change that can still be remedied is the walking path along the edges of the property. Bhante G used to walk the property daily. Now the path has deteriorated and needs attention. The path is a beautiful way to enjoy solitude. At certain points, no buildings are visible, it’s all nature, wonderful and rare.
Thank you so much!