2016-06-30
The two American Buddhists who are leaders at the Augusta monastery are from different schools of thought. They hope to combine the two traditions of the religion and encourage more Americans to become monks. A Buddhist ecumenical experiment is bubbling in the Missouri River town of Augusta.

If monks from two major Buddhism traditions - Theravada and Mahayana - can successfully blend their differing styles of religious thought and daily monastic traditions, while encouraging Americans to become Buddhist monks, the Mid-America Buddhist Association will get international attention.

"We will give it a year - maybe more than that, don't hold us to one year - to see if we can do it," said the Venerable Thubten Chodron Bhikshuni, 51, a leader in the experiment, as she sat in the stone monastery.

The public can get its first glimpse of this spiritual blending experiment Sunday on Vesak Day, the feast on which many- but not all - traditions of Buddhism celebrate their founder, Buddha. Vesak Day marks not only his birth, but also the moment he is said to have reached the fullness of enlightenment as a sage, and his death.

From 9:30 a.m., when horn blowing opens the celebration, until the 4:30 p.m. closing ceremony, visitors will mingle with the monastery's abbot, two monks, three nuns, an aspiring monk and the 25 area hosting Buddhists who go there every Sunday.

Bells will ring. Gongs and hollow wooden blocks will sound. They'll chant Buddhist mantras and hymns, follow a walking meditation in the woods and also meditate seated in the airy meditation hall near the Katy Trail at 299 Heger Road at Schindler Road in Augusta. A map is on its website.

Most who attend the annual public day want to improve meditation techniques. Regulars from the area's 10 other Buddhist communities also prepare to feast.

"Everyone always loves the delicious vegetarian lunch," Chodron said.

From teacher in LA to student in Nepal

Born Cheryl Green, Chodron, a Los Angeles native, took a weekend course from Tibetan monks 30 years ago, and a month later quit her job as a third-grade teacher and went to Nepal to study the tradition. In 1986, she was ordained a monastic.

The day's highlight for many will be the chance to hear her and the Venerable Santikaro Bhikkhu, a monastery member originally of Chicago, talk about the Dharma - the teachings of Buddha.

Both are authors who write for the secular American audience. She wrote the books "Working With Anger" and "Open Heart, Open Mind." He wrote "Mindfulness with Breathing."

The Dalai Lama has called on American Buddhists to begin their own monasteries. For some time, these two American Buddhists have been talking about founding an ecumenical monastery to meld their two separate Buddhist traditions.

The great division in Buddhism is between the Theravada style of Buddhism, which has it roots in Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and the Mahayana style, which is adhered to in China, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan.

After four years in the Peace Corps in Thailand, Santikaro stayed to study Theravada Buddhism for 20 years and eventually became an ordained monk.

Chodron studied Mahayana Buddhism. Last year, while the two Americans were guest teachers at the Augusta monastery, they told its abbot their dream of an ecumenical Midwestern monastery to train Americans. Basic to this plan was that women and men were to be equal and fully ordained, she said. Nuns rank below monks in some Asian monasteries, she said.

"I prefer not to be called a nun, but a monastic," she said.

Initially, the Augusta center's abbot, the Venerable Jiru Bhikshu, offered the pair half of the center's land. After long conversations, the three decided to try to have one monastic community. In February, the two Americans moved to the center.

"These North American experiences with Buddhism are unique," said Paul D. Numrich, who teaches Buddhism at Loyola University in Chicago. He is the author of the chapter "Theravada Buddhism in America: Prospects for the Sangha" in the 1998 book "Faces of Buddhism in America."

"Fifty years ago, people from Tibet never had a chance to talk to people from Thailand," Numrich said. "For the first time in history, Buddhists from all these different places are put in the same place and time."

Hard to find recruits to monastic life

The monastery, with its 10-foot, brass Buddha statue, was begun as a retreat in 1995 when the 59 acres were purchased by Chinese- Americans in a Buddhist study group at Washington University.

They invited Jiru, then living in Malaysia, to be its abbot. He repaired the 1890 German-style farmhouse, then helped build the modern meditation hall. To be a true monastery, there must be new students eager to become monks.

Andrew Clark, a Texan who grew up as a member of the Church of Christ, is the first aspiring monk. He had studied with Chodron in Seattle before she moved to Augusta.

Of the approximately 200 Buddhist temples in North America, nearly all have Asian-born leaders, said A.W. Barber, who teaches Buddhism at the University of Calgary in Canada.

"Not many American converts have taken to monastic life," he said. "Many try it, but few make it for more than a few years. It is hard to make this work in a culture that does not validate monastic life."

Growing up in a Jewish family in California, Chodron never considered becoming a monastic. She now knows hundreds of Jewish Buddhists. In the 1970s, she was a "hippie with waist-length hair and a backpack" who visited many sacred Buddhist shrines including Bamiyan, in Afghanistan. The Taliban rulers there, now deposed, blew up that shrine. Eventually, she explored the beliefs behind the statues.

"My generation found that Reform Judaism had become so reformed that there was nothing to sink our teeth into," Chodron said as she ran her hand over the gray peach fuzz of her shaved head.

She said Orthodox Judaism was too strict for her generation.

"We found Buddhism intellectually satisfying, and also something to live by, with tools that we can use in life," she said.

more from beliefnet and our partners