Bhavana Society Forest Monastery & Retreat Center
The Washington Post
May 24, 2006
The mind, Buddhists say, is a monkey.
To see what they mean, walk quietly into the meditation hall at the Bhavana Society Forest Monastery & Retreat Center. Tuck an ochre cushion beneath you. Cross your legs. Close your eyes. And then for an hour do nothing.
It's then that you'll meet the simian behind your synapses the unruly ape who offers up the steady parade of images, thoughts and feelings that form waking consciousness.
Overwhelmed? Be glad. That recognition, say the teachers here, is a starting point for sharpening concentration and achieving tranquillity.
Located on 48 wooded acres in northeastern West Virginia, the Bhavana Society is both a home to monks and nuns and a refuge where curious laypeople may meditate and study. A monastery in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, it puts a special emphasis on vipassana (insight) meditation. The goal, explains founding abbot Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, is to make the mind "calm, relaxed and peaceful" and to free ourselves from suffering.
To that end, the Bhavana Society offers retreats ranging in length from three to 10 days, on subjects such as meditation, Buddha's "noble eightfold path" and metta, or loving friendliness.
While Buddhism stresses compassion and mental liberation, guests shouldn't expect a freewheeling flower-power-fest. Dinner is forsworn at the monastery, and breakfast and lunch are vegetarian. Accommodations are either one-bed cottages called kutis or Spartan, gender-segregated dormitories. Silence is observed during retreats, and twice-daily meditation (at 5 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.) is mandatory. Guests are also asked to help out with menial chores. (I vacuumed.)
The society's rules haven't scared off visitors; in fact, participation has mushroomed over the years, with the monastery now offering about 13 retreats annually. Each retreat draws around 40 people; weekend stays typically draw five or six.
Taking a break from meditating or admiring the plentiful Buddhist art, one may encounter an unlikely array of pilgrims to the Mountain State: The weekend I was there, I met visiting nuns from Burma and Nepal, a monk from Uganda and a former forester from British Columbia who now dons saffron robes and goes by the name of Abhaya.
I didn't manage to cultivate my monkey mind that weekend; I think a longer retreat will be required for that. But walking through the woods was it a delayed reaction? I must admit I felt peaceful, relaxed and calm.
The Bhavana Society (304-856-3241, http://www.bhavanasociety.org) is in High View, W.Va., about 100 miles from Washington, off Route 259. The center doesn't charge for retreats but runs on donations. Guests may also work on the property in return for instruction.