A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

My friend Senaka Seneviratne, whenever he calls me, addresses me as ‘Captain Seneviratne.’ I have duly appointed him to a higher rank, Admiral Seneviratne. We’ve known each other for more than 40 years now, but back then he was just a junior scout and I was, so he says, his instructor.

Time passes. Acquaintances become friends and friends become brothers. My brother, Admiral Seneviratne, called me a few days ago. He had a proposition.

Now Admiral Seneviratne’s propositions are all about giving. Sometimes he proposes gifts; most times he just gifts. He loves his school and country. He loves his friends. He will do anything to help them, he will do anything to make them shine. In this instance it was ‘an experience’ that was being proposed. It involved traveling through beautiful country to a place I hadn’t known of before, the ‘Bhavana Society,’ a Buddhist monastery in the backwoods of West Virginia established some 40 years ago by the Ven Henepola Gunaratana Thero.

The Admiral knows the ‘Loku Hamuduruwo.’ He knows the monastery. He’s been going there annually for over 15 years along with his family and several other families. A clan, you might say. So, during the four hour drive to the Bhavana Society he told me all about the monastery and the scholarship of Ven Gunaratana Thero, affectionately referred to as Bhante G by those who have visited the place, either to offer alms, as the Admiral and his clan do, or to participate in the numerous residential meditation programs conducted at this remote, idyllic and absolutely calming facility.

Bhante G is widely known and respected for the many insightful and easy-to-read books on meditation that he has authored. ‘Mindfulness in plain English,’ first published in 2011, has been read by hundreds of thousands and is considered ‘the bible of mindfulness,’ especially for those who are venturing for the first time into those regions of exploration. Equally acclaimed are ‘The four foundations of mindfulness in plain English,’ ‘Meditation on perception’ and ‘Beyond mindfulness in plain English.’

Obviously, I was ignorant of all this. For me, ‘the introduction’ came in the form of Rev Ethkandawaka Saddhajeewa Thero’s sermon the evening we arrived. The explication of danasila and bhavana, to be practiced together and not individually to the exclusion of the other two, as a necessary prerequisite in the pursuit of wisdom was lucid to the point that it compelled me to peruse the books authored by the Loku Hamuduruwo freely available at the monastery.

Now over 90 years of age, the Loku Hamuduruwo elaborated on this same theme the following day. Not a word out of place.

I later discovered that Douglas John Imbrogno, who had first visited the monastery when he was the feature editor of the Charleston Gazette, had compiled and edited a book, ‘gathering up his, Gunaratana Thero’s, responses to the most common questions about meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhist teachings in more than 50 years of teaching,’ a book released by Wisdom Publications a few years ago. It was titled ‘WHAT WHY HOW: Answers to your questions about Buddhism, Meditation and Living Mindfully.’

It is not easy for me to capture ‘Bhavana Society’  in word or image or both. Imbrogno can and has in an article titled ‘Buddhist daily life in backwoods West Virginia’ published in www.westvirginiaville.com in March 2022. Having attended numerous retreats, chopping firewood, cleaning dishes and other chores and serving on the Bhavana board for many years, he has seen the changes, the challenges and triumphs of ‘running a complex spiritual community.’ He has written and promises to write more.

What of the principle thrust? How can it be captured? One way of course is to practice as recommended. There are no shortcuts to such insight. Nevertheless, Imbrogno has offered a glimpse of the spiritual in a less spiritual form. It is a photograph of Bhante Dhammaratana contemplating the rain falling into the pond outside the meditation hall. A koan, I am convinced. I felt it is an entry point to the examination of the four foundations of mindfulness, that of the body, of feelings, of the mind and the Dhamma. One of many, true.

Both Gunaratana Thero and Saddhajeeva Thero contend that these explorations are possible, right and and right now, wherever the practitioner may be. ‘The Word,’ after all, is not containable within four walls, even if it is a meditation hall in a monastery. Wherever and whenever an individual practices, right there is a monastery constructed (to be abandoned eventually, hopefully).

That said, the Bhavana Society does offer an environment conducive to the uninitiated, the less disciplined and ignorants such as I. There was no rain to watch. There was sunlight. Moonlight. And light that surpassed both in the matter of illumination. Admiral Seneviratne recommended that I spend a few days there. At the right time, perhaps.


7 Viewers