Buddhist daily life in backwoods West Virginia

A sign to ‘Sivali’ kuti on the Bhavana Society grounds. A kuti (pronounced ‘COO-tee’) is a residential cabin for retreatants, monks, and residents and there are many sprinkled across the monastery grounds. | westvirginiaville.com photo | march2022

By Douglas John Imbrogno | WestVirginiaVille.com | march2022

Hackneyed, knee-jerk associations about West Virginia’s unenlightened hillbilly disposition belie the truth on the ground in many corners of this sometimes unpredictable state. Take, for instance, daily life at the Bhavana Society, a Theravadan Buddhist forest monastery and retreat center, located since the late 1980s on about 60 acres of forest land in the windy shade of Hampshire County’s Great North Mountain.

The monastery first came to my attention when I was feature editor of ye olde Charleston Gazette in West Virginia’s capital city. That was in the glory days when — backed by expense-account cash and crowded with staff — we in the newsroom kept our eyes peeled and gas tanks full for any notable story in any nook, cranny, and corner of the state.

Um …. a traditional Buddhist forest monastery? On a back-road in the Mountain State?? Founded by one of the Western world’s leading Buddhist meditation teachers and authors, Bhante Gunaratana, known and beloved globally as “Bhante G”???

Along with then-Gazette photographer Fritz Hoffmann, I spent some days profiling the place. We published a long take on Bhavana in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, with some great photos by Fritz. Beyond that story, I was personally floored in that initial encounter. I felt I had finally found the spiritual conversation I had long sought (although I’ve lost, found, and lost my way many times along the Middle Way through the years and may yet again if I’m not mindful and careful enough).

I became friends with Bhante G and the monk and lay resident community there. I attended numerous silent retreats, cutting and stacking logs for its wood stoves, cleaning dishes after Bhavana’s two meals of the day (breakfast and lunch), and 1,001 other chores, inside and out. These included running unofficial tech support for some years for Bhante G’s burgeoning reliance on Apple products, which were key to his book-writing, Dhamma talks and videos. (He was possibly one of the first notable globe-trotting Buddhist monks whose Mac laptop and iPhone were essential to his teaching regimen!)

Bhante G later asked me to serve on the Bhavana board, which I did for a couple decades. I saw behind the scenes the challenges, roadblocks, and triumphs in running a complex spiritual community, open and known to the wide world, full of colorful personalities and vying visions. More on that in some future writings.


Reciting from Buddhist texts after morning meditation at 5 a.m. in the meditation hall of the Bhavana Society. | westvirginiaville.com photo | march2022

In 2020, I finally delivered on a long-ago promise to Bhante G to compile and edit a book, gathering up his responses to the most common questions he receives about meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhist teachings in more than 50 years of teaching. Wisdom Publications released the book that year, titled “WHAT WHY HOW: Answers to Your Questions About Buddhism, Meditation, and Living Mindfully.”

Suffice it to say, I have some history with the Bhavana Society. I spent a week there this month and had an ‘a-ha!‘ moment one cool, sunny day. At age 64, exactly half my life — 32 years — has had Bhavana in it, up Back Creek Road in the West Virginia outback. (A few years ago, the monastery successfully petitioned the state to change its street address to the delightful: ‘97 Meditation Trail.’)

Bhante G is going strong at age 94. He is working on releasing a magnum opus on ‘Dependent Origination,’ that most tricky and subtle teaching at the core of the Buddha’s fundamental insights into the nature of consciousness and experience.

Bhavana has never looked so good with a host of ongoing improvements and upgrades encouraged and overseen by Co-Abbot Bhante Ethkandawaka Saddhajeewa Thero.

And — knock on a bodhi tree — with the COVID pandemic in a more diminished form, Bhavana will re-start its yearly retreats beginning in April for the first time in two years.

Bhante G, meanwhile, resumes his free, hour-long ZOOM guided meditations and Dhamma talks to a worldwide audience at 10 a.m. on most Saturdays and Sundays, starting Saturday, March 19, 2022. Details for joining the ZOOM meet-ups here. Plus here’s a link to a Youtube archive of past talks, which are a significant resource for those wishing meditation and mindfulness guidance and a deeper dive into the Buddha’s core teachings.

It is ever more important that such places as the Bhavana Society exist and thrive in the world. In the face of the insistent, often overwhelming challenges of daily life, and horrors like the current attempted mugging of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, places that renew and strengthen the spirit are key. They help us regain our equilibrium when we inevitably lose it. We’re then able to help others in special need on the frontlines in a place such as Ukraine. We are in this together.

Here, then, are some some quick snapshots of daily life at a most special place in a nook, a corner, and cranny of West Virginia. These photos and many more are also compiled in the video slideshow below.


Bhante G (at left) and other monks fill their metal meal bowls at lunchtime, the second and last meal of the day at the Bhavana Society forest monastery in High View, WV | westvirginiaville.com photo | march2022

“May the grieving be free from grief. May the fear-struck be free from fear. May the suffering be free from suffering. So, too, may all beings be.”

~ Buddhist invocation recited at Bhavana Society

A monk does walking meditation in the dining hall. | westvirginiaville.com photo | march2022

“All actions are led by the mind.
Mind is their master, mind is their maker.
Act or speak with a defiled state of mind,
then suffering follows,
as the cart-wheel follows the foot of the ox.

All actions are led by the mind.
Mind is their master, mind is their maker.
Act or speak with a pure state of mind,
then happiness follows.
As your shadow follows you without departing.”

~ ‘Closing Recollection’ in morning recitation at Bhavana Society. From chapters 1 and 2 of The Dhammapada, a collection of key sayings and teachings by the Buddha


Walking path at perimeter of Bhavana Society property. | westvirginiaville.com photo | march2022

VIDEO: “Monastery Days” (click to view)
“Monastery Days” by AmpMediaProject.com

Parting Shot
Bhante Dhammaratana considers the day’s rain falling into the pond outside the Bhavana Society meditation hall. | westvirginiaville.com photo | march2022

RELATED

5 QUESTIONS: Bhante G on meditating via ZOOM, daily mindfulness and facing death: April 17, 2021: It is perhaps not as well known as it should be that a much-beloved, 93-year-old global figure in Buddhism has called West Virginia home since 1985. We check in with him on ZOOM meditating and more.


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2 Comments

  • admin

    Not sure about that ‘like’ issue. I don’t think the like registered. But thanks for the comment! Cool that you had that Magnolia Village experience.

  • Errol+Hess

    When I try to click “like” I get “this webpage might not work in your browser” which is
    firefox, for goodness sake. Anyway, I liked it. I had the pleasure of learning walking meditation with Thik Naht Hahn on his 80th birthday at Magnolia Village dedication in Mississippi.

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