feature 201 

Driving north on the road to Birken, there's a place on the left side of the road just past Poole Creek — the address is Number 10 Downing Street. Peer through the trees and you might catch a flash of red paint on the front of the garishly decorated house. You probably won't see the Prime Minister of Britain, but if you cross the railroad tracks, you may see two monks clad in brown robes walking in the snow. Number 10 Downing Street is a funny address for a Buddhist monastery, but for Venerable Sona and Venerable Piya Dhamno, the Forest Monastery has been home since last May. Nestled between the railroad tracks and the picturesque Birkenhead River, it’s a six-acre, evergreen Shangri-La. Being a monastery is only the latest chapter in the long tale that is Number 10 Downing Street, so named because the original inhabitant of the property was the area's census taker in the late 1800s. After riding his bicycle along the railway tracks from the Prairies to Poole Creek, the census taker prodded the lives of the local residents every day. Not overly impressed with his nosy tendencies, mischievous neighbours stole over to the house in the night and painted the address Number 10 Downing Street on it — implying the census taker was so nosy he thought he was the Prime Minister. In contrast to the weathered Number 10 Downing Street is the colourful house adjacent to the railroad tracks. The entire front of the house is painted in a primary colour scheme and the names of famous battles of World War I adorn the fascia boards. Ab Gramson, a veteran of the First World War, settled on the property in the 1920s and painted the house as a visual testament to his life's experiences, which ended in 1979. Amidst these two icons of Western culture Venerable Sona and Venerable Dhamno have founded the Forest Monastery in the Theravada tradition, The Way of the Elders, one of the two great schools of Buddhism. The modest spread is a regular refuge for Buddhists from as far away as the Lower Mainland. It's Christmas Day, the holiday fervour has wrapped Whistler in its icy clutches for the past two weeks as frantic shoppers, frenetic drivers and crazed vacation-seekers swarm the valley in search of rest, relaxation and a little bit of solace. Driving toward the monastery, it becomes apparent the holidays have granted Whistler little solace, yet Number 10 Downing Street is a sanguine world. Originally from the Lower Mainland, Venerable Sona, AGE????, says his background is typical of Buddhists — married at 21 to his high school sweetheart — he followed life's path all the way to Berkeley in Boston, Mass., where he acquired a Master's Degree in classical music. Then, at the age of 28, something happened that made him drop everything in his life and follow the path of the Buddha. Venerable Sona calls it an "indescribable spontaneous revelation." After that it was off to a Zen Buddhism monastery in Toronto and then to a Sri Lankan monastery in West Virginia, where he was ordained in the Theravada tradition. Following a stay at that monastery, Venerable Sona travelled to Thailand where he met Venerable Piya Dhamno. As monks go, it would be safe to say Venerable Sona is somewhat animated. With a sharp sense of humour, birdlike hands and a quick wit, Venerable Sona seems prepared to discuss anything, from Lucien Bouchard and the flesh-eating disease to the pursuit of pure asceticism. Venerable Sona says he has closed the circle on another part of his life with his return to Number 10 Downing Street. A decade ago, he spent three-and-a-half years in a cabin at the back of the property the monastery now occupies, studying the ways of the Buddha and living the life of a hermit before making the decision to jump to the monastic lifestyle. Venerable Dhamno, AGE???? of German descent, came to Number 10 Downing Street after seven years in a monastery in Thailand. He is more reflective, slower to speak and has very strong looking hands — those of one accustomed to physical labour. On this Christmas Day all of the discussion will be with Venerable Sona as Venerable Piya Dhamno is out in the bush surrounding the monastery meditating. "We were looking for a place to go and we had contemplated Africa or India and then I remembered this place and we made the decision to come to the West Coast of Canada," says Venerable Sona. Since arriving eight months ago, Venerable Sona has left the monastery a couple of times a month to hold mediations in the Lower Mainland. Venerable Dhamno has only left once, for a trip to the dentist. They have been receiving guests every day since they moved to the Forest Monastery, holding meditations and having discussions which range in scope from Albert Camus to The Simpsons. As the monks cannot handle money or prepare or store food, all their food must be given to them. The daily ritual of alms still takes place in many areas of the world. Monks wander with their alms bowls through villages, eyes downcast, and villagers put food in the bowls. If Venerable Sona and Venerable Dhamno were to walk about the Forest Monastery in search of alms they would soon be very hungry. So people who come to visit and mediate bring food to the monks. Although Venerable Sona does not read newspapers, watch TV or listen to the radio, he keeps abreast of world politics, as many of the people who come to visit him ask his opinion on political topics. This winter one of the hot questions has surrounded the Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard and the loss of his leg. "This, I understand is a man that would like to separate from Canada. Could it not follow that the separation of his leg is consequence?" Venerable Sona asks. Action, reaction. Simply put it's karma. On oft-bandied word, yet one few people completely understand. According to Venerable Sona it forms the basis of living life as a Buddhist: "Do good, get good. Do evil, get evil. It's not too difficult," he says. The Buddhist framework is shaped around a system of Four Noble Truths, outlined in the teachings of the Buddha, a man named Siddhartha Gautama, who lived from 560 BC to 480 BC. The first of the Four Noble Truths, is suffering, or duhkha. This, said the Buddha, meant not only that human existence is occasionally painful but that all beings — humans, animals, ghosts, hell-beings, even the gods in the heavens — are caught up in samsara, a cycle of rebirth, a maze of suffering in which their actions, or karma, keep them wandering. The second Noble Truth is that suffering itself has a cause. At the simplest level, this may be said to be desire; but the theory was fully worked out in the complex doctrine of "dependent origination" (pratityasamutpada), which explains the interrelationship of all reality in terms of an unbroken chain of causation. The third Noble Truth is that this chain can be broken — that suffering can cease. Buddhists call this end of suffering Nirvana and think of it as a cessation of rebirth, an escape from samsara. Finally, the fourth Noble Truth is that a way exists through which this cessation can be brought about: the practice of the noble Eightfold Path. This combines ethical and disciplinary practices, training in concentration and meditation, and the development of enlightened wisdom. For 500 million Buddhists around the world, meditation is an integral part of the Buddhist faith — and one of the hardest tools to master on the road to asceticism, says Venerable Sona. When Venerable Sona suggested it might be a good idea to try and meditate for 10 minutes, I thought, no problem. After listening to his soothing voice for a couple hours and basking in the serenity of the small, dark room, my mind perforated by the pungent incense, a few minutes meditation sounded like a nice idea. The exercise is to close your eyes, and concentrate on watching your breath at the end of your nose, feel the start of the breath, the middle of the breath and the end of the breath. Breathing is one of the things we take for granted. Trying to watch each breath takes practice — it's hard to stop your mind from looking at other things, the silence is deafening. I wrestle with the thoughts that try and cloud my mind as I try and watch my breath. A few lines from the Doors "Break on Through" sneak in. "Becoming a monk means withdrawing totally from the sensory world, you are constantly in a deprived sensory condition," Venerable Sona says. "Monasticism is the practice of getting off the drug of the sensual world." He says withdrawing from the sensory life is like a heroin junkie trying to withdraw from the drug, your mind is like a monkey on your back. It will not back off, it will not let up, it will not let you be with yourself, or out of yourself. "It's kind of like having a monkey mind." Venerable Sona can compare the monastic life and the pursuit of pure asceticism to the creation of music. "Becoming a monk is all about discipline. In music I learned a lot about discipline. One may have the perfect hands for playing music, yet the discipline is not there — they're missing some soul," he says as his hands fly about his chest, gently caressing the air. He says Buddhists aim to go out and spread loving kindness, or Metta. Stickers with the word Metta on them are stuck to every window of the Forest Monastery, a constant reminder that the loving kindness practised inside must be applied to life outside as well. Following the ways of the Buddha, says Venerable Sona, allows one to remove much of the weight from one's life. The social, economic and external pressures of the world build up, forcing down the mind, the soul — making life heavy. "Just lighten up," he says. "If you spend enough time working on lightening up — and it is work — you can actually get to a point where you feel so light you are floating. Work on it for a while and then go float through Nesters... go float through the village." Not such a bad idea, I think while braving the snarled holiday traffic on the way back from Number 10 Downing Street to Whistler Village.

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