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Shut Up & Meditate: My Weekend at the Birken Forest Monastery

A few years ago, I befriended a girl on a Greyhound bus. She radiated a beatific calm that I immediately coveted. It was a calm that could have soothed a Berserker. I listened as she told me she had been on a retreat at a Buddhist monastery in Kamloops. She had barely begun her story when I decided that I would go there as well. The following spring, when the monastery re-opened after its winter hibernation, I arranged a four-day stay with a friend who had just completed her nursing degree.

Birken Forest Monastery, or ‘Sitavan’, translated from Pali as ‘cool forest grove’, is a Theravedic Buddhist monastery forty kilometers from Kamloops. Tucked away in the forest, the main building is a large, understated wooden cabin containing a spacious meditating hall with floor-to-ceiling windows. The air is crisp and smells of pine needles. Scattered among the trees, there are a few small cabins which house the monks. Although there are cabins available for guests as well, most visitors stay in the main building. The rooms are dressed in white, austere but comfortable. All teaching, food, and accommodation is free; it is up to the guests to donate however much they see fit. The monastery operates off the grid as well, and runs entirely on solar energy.

The monastery is silent. You are allowed to talk quietly at breakfast, but otherwise you are meant to keep your mouth shut. The daily schedule is simple: wake up at 5 am, meditate for one hour in the hall with the monks, then eat breakfast with the other lay-people. Lunch is at twelve, which is the last proper meal of the day as they practice fasting after noon. Tea time is at four, where there is chocolate available to quell complaining stomachs. The Abbott, schedule permitting, may make an appearance at tea and give a little talk. The rest of the day is yours to do with what you like. Then, finally, before an early bedtime, there is another hour of meditation.

The monks are perpetually serene and unaffected. They make meditating look easy, and it’s not. Sitting cross legged on a hard wooden floor for an hour is an exercise in pins-and-needles, muscle-aches and fatigue. The monk-in-training, dressed in white instead of saffron, told me that the mind is like weather, and to find inner-peace, one simply has to watch the clouds go by.

I was writing in my room one morning, when the silence was broken by mechanical grumblings. I looked out of the window and saw one of the monks driving a huge tractor. His facial expression was just as serene as it had been during meditation. It was like someone was moving around a cardboard cut-out of a monk.

Keeping quiet is more challenging than I thought it would be. One of the allures of this place was the opportunity to be silent with no requirement to talk, but having a friend there certainly didn’t make it any easier. It was hardest the first couple of days, but by the third day, I felt a shift, and my inner-narrator seemed to slip away, taking a backseat for the first time ever. I felt calm, clear-headed, distilled.

Tea Time with the Abbott

The Abbott, Ajahn Sona, has a Masters degree in music, but no longer played his guitar as there was a strict no-music policy at the monastery. He was intelligent and eloquent with a sparkling sense of humour. He spoke about how psychology and Buddhism compliment each other. Indeed, in recent years psychology has embraced practical aspects of Buddhism like mindfulness exercises and meditation, which have become effective therapeutic tools.

He told a story as well, and is what stuck with me most from my experience at the monastery. It didn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the talk, but I got the feeling he told it just because it was a good story, and he was a good storyteller.

In a small B.C. town, the Abbott, then just a monk, was sitting in a graveyard and meditating, as Buddhists will sometimes do. He was broken out of his reverie by the sounds of children laughing. The laughter seemed to be coming from underneath the ground. Perturbed, he went to investigate and found that the sounds were floating out of a storm drain. Some kids must have been playing near the opening of the sewer and it was carrying their voices, he reasoned. He went back to his meditation.

Ten years later, he was living in a small cabin to the far north of the province, far away from any sort of civilization. One day, a couple of hikers in their early twenties happened across the cabin and he invited them to stay the night. They agreed, and over dinner, he found himself telling the story of the kids playing in the sewer near the graveyard. The two young people gaped, and told him that they had been those kids playing near the graveyard, all those years ago.

“One of life’s little miracles,” the Abbott said, with a twinkle in his eye.

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