On June 16, 2013, a large assembly gathered high up on the Abhayagiri mountainside for a ceremony that happens about once a year at the monastery – the addition of one more fully ordained monk into the monastic Sangha. However, this year the ordination area was noticeably improved. As the laity watched Samanera Sudhīro become Sudhīro Bhikkhu, they sat comfortably on a newly leveled area recently covered with 20 cubic yards of Mendocino Arbor Mulch. Furthermore, the monks seated on the platform were protected from the fierce Mendocino sun by four new cantilever umbrellas, each 11 feet in diameter. Other noticeable improvements included rebuilt landings around the wooden deck as well as a smooth circumambulation path replete with lighting.
Where did all these improvements come from? The answer involves birthdays, Buddhist traditions, and a group of laypeople organized by local supporter Dennis Crean. With his 50th birthday approaching, Dennis considered how he might include the monastery in commemorating the big 5-0. Dennis had been drawing closer to the Ajahn Chah lineage ever since attending his first monastic retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in 1995 and then the 1996 Thanksgiving Retreat with Ajahn Amaro. He began visiting the newly opened Abhayagiri Monastery soon thereafter, and by 2002 he had moved into a house within walking distance of the monastery in order to participate more fully in the life of the monastery.
Over those years, Dennis has seen various Thai people come to the monastery to make offerings as a way to celebrate their birthdays. Inspired by this tradition, he felt drawn to make a special offering for his own big birthday this year. Being a publishing professional, he first thought he’d like to edit and print a Dhamma book. Thanks to his wife Heidi’s advice, he came to his senses after realizing how much work that would be. Instead, the two of them – this year being Heidi’s big 4-0 – decided to sponsor some sort of a building project at the monastery. After consulting with abbot of Abhayagiri, Luang Por Pasanno, Dennis opted to provide the supervision and financial support for improvements to the ordination platform area.
His mind always busy concocting plans, Dennis decided to invite everyone with a big birthday this year to join the effort, and the “Born on a 3” (i.e., 1963, 1973, 1983, etc.) project was born. At the suggestion of Abhayagiri’s abbot, Luang Por Pasanno, Dennis proposed to the group that they provide the supervision and financial support for improvements to the ordination platform area. The project picked up steam as more and more people decided to celebrate their birthdays as part of the group. Eventually, nearly 20 people raised over $8,000.00 to cover all the costs of the improvements to the ordination platform area. In addition to chipping in funds, a handful of group members and others pitched in with their own labor to spread out the mulch and do the final cleanup in anticipation of the upcoming ordination ceremony.
“Born on a 3” participants’ birth years span 90 years – from 1923 to 2013 and nearly every decade in between, the youngest being the newborn Leo Ananda Bernstein. Contributors to the project include an interesting cross-section of the greater Abhayagiri community. For instance, the Thai-born Janejira Sutanonpaiboon (1973) and Nook Fitzpatrick (1983) were already familiar with this Buddhist birthday tradition, while others born and raised in the U.S. joined as enthusiastic newcomers. However, no matter their age or country of origin, a common thread for all involved has been the wish to celebrate their birthdays by giving back to the monastery. As Casey Kho (1973) notes, “Instead of thinking too much about whether to get involved, I followed my heart. I felt like a kid again. I can’t recall the last time I got so excited about having my own birthday party!”
As a grand finale, the group will gather at the monastery on August 31 to celebrate their birthdays together and to formally offer the meal and their gift to Abhayagiri. All are welcome to attend; festivities begin with the 11 a.m. meal offering, followed by a dedication ceremony afterwards. As the project winds down, Dennis hopes that it might inspire others to come up with their own ideas (maybe a “Born on a 4” group in 2014?) for ways to support to the Abhayagiri community.
(Author Thitapañño Bhikkhu was born in 1983 and recently celebrated his big 3-0.)