Bhavana Forest Monastery
Did you know that West Virginia is a treasure trove for yoga retreats, wellness centers and recreational activities? It must be a combination of affordable land, scenic views and proximity to Baltimore and DC that draws eclectic crowds and unorthodox communities to the area.
As I was looking for an authentic place to meditate and clear my mind, I was guided towards a real gem – a traditional forest monastery hidden in the foothills of West Virginia. The Bhavana Society is a Buddhist community dedicated to preserving the Theravada forest meditation tradition, and its doors are wide open to anyone who wishes to practice Theravada Buddhism or come for a meditation retreat.
Staying at Bhavana
Staying true to the monastic tradition, the Bhavana Society offers all retreats completely free of charge. Although the monastery relies exclusively on dana (donations), amounts are never discussed, and no money is requested upfront. Three resident monks and one cook graciously welcome, orient, house, feed and teach groups of lay people coming in for retreats.
The forest monastery is clean and well-organized. It has a beautiful meditation hall, a library, a kitchen and a dining hall. Participants are housed in dorms or kutis (small wooden houses) in the middle of the forest. Everyone gets a chore washing dishes or cleaning up, which helps run things smoothly.
Retreats are well planned and centered around meditation and mindful reflection. You are encouraged to practice mindfulness at all times – during your meals, work period and free time. During Dhamma (Theravada teaching), monks talk about the fundamentals of Buddhism. Questions are asked via written messages and answered by a monk during Q&A sessions. You also get a chance to meet with a Bhante (a polite way to address a Buddhist monk) one-on-one during the morning hours. After the retreat, you are welcome to speak with any of the monks, including Bhante Gunaratana, the monastery’s founder.
Here’s what a typical 3-day retreat schedule looks like..
4:45am Wake-up gong
5:00am – 6:00am Optional yoga
6:00am – 6:45am Group meditation
7:00am – 7:45am Breakfast
8:00am – 9:00am Work period
9:00am – 11am Group meditation/ One-on-one time with Bhante
11:00am – 12pm Lunch
12:00pm – 2pm Personal time
2:00pm – 5pm Group meditation and Dhamma talk
5:00pm – 6pm Optional yoga/ Personal time
7:00pm – 9pm Q&A and Group Meditation
Know B4 U Go
Noble Silence. Once the retreat begins, participants are discouraged from speaking to each other. Silence is a crucial part of the experience, as it allows your mind to calm down and turn all your attention inward. Some people also stop making eye contact, which may be unsettling at first, but they do it to minimize the distraction.
Meditation pain. Like any new skill you learn, learning to meditate is hard work. Without practice, your back starts aching, legs fall asleep, mind drifts off, and terrible itches attack your body (sometimes, all at once.) Thankfully, the monks are very understanding about the meditation challenges. They provide all sorts of cushions, chairs and back support. They also teach standing and walking meditation, so you can switch it up whenever your body becomes too fatigued from sitting.
No food after 12PM. Monks don’t eat after 12pm, and neither will you, as you commit to follow the monastic rules. A habitual nibbler, I braced myself for hunger pangs as I entered the monastery, but, miraculously, the environment, my state of mind, and unlimited supplies of teas offered by the monks made the experience much less brutal. Truth be told, apart from the rumbling stomach the first night, I barely felt any cravings at all.
Early rise. The first meditation is at 6am. You have an option of practicing self-guided yoga the first thing in the morning or sleeping in until 5:30.
No distractions. While at the retreat, you are not supposed to be reading, listening to music, using electronic devices or engaging in any activity that may get in the way of mindfulness and meditation. Use of make up is discouraged; smoking and alcohol are off limits.
Kiss & make up with bugs. There’s no killing at the monastery, and that includes bugs. Bring a repellant or borrow one at the monastery. It will help you make peace with flies and mosquitos for the duration of your stay.
Unlike many monasteries in the West, Bhavana forest monastery is authentic and non-commercial. The monks do not try to persuade or convert you, ask for money or insist that you come back. In fact, they encourage you to explore other monasteries and types of meditation and welcome you regardless of your religious affiliation. If you visit outside the scheduled retreat dates, it will be business as usual – monks going about their everyday routines and you adjusting to their daily schedules.
The retreat for beginners is led by Bhante Jayasara, a native from new Jersey who in his “past life” worked as a photographer and an investigator for the Child Protective Services. Bhante J. teaches with much humor and compassion, in a very relatable down-to-earth way. According to the main precepts of Buddhism, he is brutally honest — he admits when he does not have an answer and does not hesitate to voice his personal doubts about certain beliefs.
A meditation retreat in a forest monastery is a fantastic experience! It gives you an opportunity to calm your mind, shut out the rest of the world and gain a deeper awareness of yourself. If you have never tried it, check out the upcoming retreats!