With their bright saffron robes, shaved heads and mild demeanors Jotipalo and Kassapo, monks at the Abhayagiri Monastery of Redwood Valley, stand out a bit, even in Willits. On Thursday, June 12, 2014, they were found them peacefully strolling down Main Street from the MacDonald’s to Commercial Street, alms baskets slung over their shoulders, silently waiting to receive alms in the form of food, engaging with anyone who might have questions, offering traditional Buddhist blessings, and generally making their presence known to the community.
Jotipalo, originally of Indiana, speaking with his soft Midwestern accent, explained that the monks have only recently begun making their alms walk through Willits, though they have been active in Ukiah for more than 10 years, “The first couple times no one knew what we were doing, but last time maybe 12 people gave us food.”
The monks, who belong to the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhist, have been doing a bi-monthly alms walk through Willits for about two months. The alms round is an ancient tradition brought over from Thailand, where monks make daily walks through local villages begging for alms to support themselves. Here in Mendocino County, with longer distances and different traditions, the monks only make their alms walk on the new and full moons in Willits, and on the new, full and quarter moons in Ukiah and Redwood Valley. They are not allowed to touch money and depend on the donations of laity to support themselves. All food that is collected on these alms rounds is brought back to the monastery and shared among the members.
The Abhayagiri Monastery, which means “fearless mountain” in the ancient Pali language, a dead language used in Buddhist scripture, was founded in 1995, at the invitation of the local Buddhist community. Steve Keyes, a local lay resident, has been active with the monastery since its creation and was integral in bring the alms rounds to Willits, giving the monks rides, and organizing.
At Mariposa Market a few people stopped to look curiously at the monks, and a few more stopped to give them food. Maluma of Willits placed food into their baskets then bowed to receive a traditional blessing. Asked about the new presence of the monks in Willits she said, “I love it. It’s just a reminder of the spiritual path, of my own spiritual path.”
Not being able to handle money obviously creates certain difficulties for the monks, Jotipalo, by far the more talkative of the pair, explains, “It’s very restricting in some ways, but freeing in others.” One obvious hang up is paying for gas. As a result the monks generally accept rides from lay members of their faith.
Judy Truong of Houston, Texas, and originally of Vietnam, was acting as the brother’s chauffer. She had flown in to San Francisco the previous day, renting a car and driving up to monastery specifically to take part in the monthly full moon ritual, which involves a tea, chanting, informal discussions on the nature of meditation and their faith, and sitting and walking meditation in the forest until 3 a.m., when the monks do their morning chant. Truong, who wore a simple and practical outfit reminiscent of hospital scrubs which she had sewn herself as part of her devotion, has tried various different forms of Buddhism and before dedicating to the Thai Forest Tradition.
She explained that the simplicity and directness of their message appealed to her, saying, “The way he teach, he doesn’t use fancy words.” She continued, “For people who don’t know anything about Buddhism this monastery is a good place to get to know.”
The monks see their rounds not primarily as a way to support the monastery, which receives much support from the larger lay community, with many people coming up from the Bay Area. Instead the walks serve as part of a lesson in humility for the monks, and a sign to the community of their presence, “It’s been very successful, even if we don’t receive any food, just friendly smiles.”
The monks will be continuing to walk for alms in Willits every morning of the new and full moons.
Adapted from an article posted on Willits News on June 18, 2014.