Saturday April 19, 2014





Kamloops Buddhist monk teaches path to the simple life

Keith Anderson

Ordained Buddhist monk Ajan Sona.

When asked to explain why his disciples always looked cheerful, the Buddha said: "They have no regret over the past, nor do they brood over the future. They live in the present, therefore they are radiant."

The comment made thousands of years ago could have been about Ajahn Sona.

The Buddhist monk is the founding abbot of the Birken Forest Monastery, located 40 kilometres south of Kamloops in the Roche Lake area.

In the typical Buddhist tradition, Ajahn ("teacher") Sona has travelled around the world five times, accepting invitations to deliver Dhamma talks on the discipline and principles behind this 2,500-year-old religious practice.

"We're not missionaries — it's to share," he said. "The more grateful you are for something you receive the more you feel like sharing it.

"I feel like I really benefit so much from this that I want to make it freely available. There's no charge for anything and it's not highly structured or organized."

He has spoken in Kamloops every month for nearly five years on topics that are at times spontaneous and at times in answer to questions from the crowd.

But every time, Sona makes each individual feel as though he can see through to their core,
according to Brenda Zeigler.

"I don't know how he manages to do that, but he makes everyone feel that he has spoken directly to them in your personal life."

Zeigler has been organizing Sona's Dhamma talks in Kamloops for the past 18 months. She said she first started coming "for the same reason everyone wants to come."

"We're just looking to get rid of our delusions, find peace, find a reason to be. He helps all of us keep it simple, not let your mind run away with you."

To describe Sona's talks fails to do them justice — that may be why his followers have posted so many of them on YouTube and on the monastery website, birken.ca.

The website offers more than 3,000 recordings of Sona and other Buddhist monks and nuns in what may be the largest digital collection of Dhamma talks in the world.

Despite that easy availability, Sona's followers are feeling somewhat anxious these days because he is going into seclusion. He has two more Dhamma talks planned for Kamloops and then he will stop speaking for a year — well, maybe not entirely.

"Sometimes you have some excellent conversations with squirrels," he laughed.

During that time, he will live in a cabin on the monastery grounds, making only the briefest appearance to receive his lone meal of the day.

To ease his admirers' apprehension, he encourages them to take a moment each day to imagine the peaceful serenity of his seclusion.

"They can come and join me when I'm in there and be with me in the monastery and meditate and feel that inner space, the serenity and the goodwill. That's how you share it, you come with me in your mind under the tree, you know?"

Marcia Wilson, who opened the Yoga Loft studio in downtown Kamloops last year, met Sona seven years ago and organized his Kamloops Dhamma talks for three years.

She said Sona's impending departure was an incentive for her to reconnect and express appreciation.

"I thanked him for what I learned from him. His teachings were the inspiration for the entire philosophy of the yoga studio this year," she said.

Even in his absence, it seems Sona still delivers lessons.

"He has a presence that's very calming and very grounding for a lot of people," said Wilson. "So it's going to give people the opportunity to have to look for that in another place."

Sona came to Buddhism in his 20s while on an exhaustive search for answers to the big questions: What's the meaning of life? What's the point? Does anybody know anything?

He first turned to university philosophy courses.

"But I quickly realized that . . . you'll find out all about the history of philosophy but you won't find out how to live," he said.

Then he turned to music, becoming a classical musician, which he calls a "pleasant and fairly harmless" occupation that provided some richness.

But his pursuit for meaning persisted. He became a lay hermit, living for several years in isolation in a cabin in the woods.

His interest in meditation and study eventually led him to the path Sona believes is his karmic destiny.

He began the journey of becoming a monk as a grown man surrounded by Western ideology, which wasn't easy.

"It involves leaving all things behind. It's called renunciation," he said. "I had a wife. I had to leave my family and everybody behind.

"Some people think it's irresponsible. But on the other hand, in the East it's much admired that certain people just leave the things that are ordinary value in the world.

"You have some concern for those who do not understand what you're doing. This is something that you're comfortable with yourself but everybody else . . . You try to explain it. You have to at some point realize not everybody can understand. So you have to go anyway."

Sona was ordained as a Therevada monk in 1989 at the Bhava Society Forest Monastery in West Virginia, where his first years of training took place. He further trained for more than three years at monasteries following Ajahn Chah in northeast Thailand.

Upon his return to Canada in 1994 he helped found Birken Forest Monastery near Pemberton. He then established Birken (or Stavana, "cool forest") south of Kamloops in 2001.

The monastery offers retreats that can last three days, one month or longer. Retreatants are asked to live in way that may seem demanding to many.

Visitors are asked to adhere to eight Buddhist precepts, among them forgoing eating after noon, sexual activity, false, malicious or frivolous speech, singing, dancing, music, entertainment and luxurious seats and beds.

Retreatants are also asked to practise meditation and maintain "grand silence" all day from Monday to Wednesday, and from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Thursday to Sunday.

"You don't have to talk to each other all the time," said Sona. "You might upset somebody and say the wrong or politically incorrect thing. So we encourage people to enjoy the silence. Be unselfconscious together in silence. And this is a beautiful way to be supportive."

Each guideline is meant to enable contemplation and its impact is immeasurable, said Wilson.

"You're giving yourself a little bit of time to explore the world in a different way," she said. "Although it may seem a little restrictive, there's a sense of freedom that you have in giving up some of the obligations that you think you have.

"You take out some of the noise. Just this idea of having a little bit of quiet time and within that quiet, you can maybe hear yourself a little better, or a have a stronger physical experience of yourself."

Wilson brings that same philosophy into her yoga studio, inviting every student to reach for an inner stillness while on the mat.

It may not be for everyone, but Sona realized many in the Western world were drawn to that stillness just as he was.

"There are people not drawn to the party. They go to a party and head to the back lawn to look at the stars," he said. "That person is not provided with resources for that in the West. They're left a bit of a stranger in the midst of the world.

"So that's what Buddhists, monasticism is for, to provide a way for those who want to pursue that. We have established formal monasteries and people don't have to go to Asia anymore. Some get training and practice right here."

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of understanding a Buddhist monk for Western thinkers may be the ascetic lifestyle.

As per doctrine, Sona must remain dependent on lay people and rely entirely on their generosity for food, travel, shelter, all the physical necessities.

He hasn't touched money in decades. And in all that time, he has gone less than a handful of sporadic days without food.

How?

"We call it karma," he said.

In Thailand, the monk is understood, recognized and appreciated by everyone. They even have a free seat on buses for monks.

But the notion was a little more daunting when a Western monastery was first being established in England.

"We wondered how it would go . . . we said, 'I don't know whether it'll work,' " said Sona. "Then one of the senior monks said: 'So you mean, there's no kind people there, eh?' "

In a telling turn of events, the venture reinforced a fundamental Buddhist belief: there is no need to worry.

"We've found people thoughtful, receptive, curious, kind, generous," said Sona.

It took 18 years to accomplish the work Sona set out to do, and now, he said, it's time for him to "enjoy the pleasant energy that's created" and to deepen his practice.

Whatever insights he gains in his quiet moments, Sona is certain of one thing: there is no regret.

"I feel very fortunate that I made the choice, that I took the chances, that I persisted. It's a very disciplined world. There's nothing like it. It's an enormous demand on the individual but there
is no other lifestyle for me. I feel very fortunate that it still exists in the world."

spaillard@kamloopsnews.ca


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