OUT IN THE MIDDLE of the Midwest flyover zone, where cornfields part for a moment to reveal the tiny village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, a Sri Lankan monk came to spend his annual retreat last fall with a group of Western Buddhists. Bhante Seelagavesi may not have known it, but his unusual and mildly rebellious approach to teaching was a perfect match for the unusual and mildly rebellious character of the town and the liberal Antioch College that anchors it. The Yellow Springs Buddhist community did not expect it, but the initiative and support it gave to host its first three-month retreat for an ordained monk of high rank attracted more people than the twelve-year-old Yellow Springs Dharma Center had ever seen.
Seelagavesi, bald and barefoot, robed and devoted, is no run-of-the-mill monk. His path toward awareness is not blind acceptance but finding purpose in the rituals he practices. Offering food to the Buddha for merit, for instance, has no meaning for him. “I have never seen the Buddha eating this food, so why should I give him it?” he asks. Yielding as a rule to monks of highest rank he feels undermines the will and responsibility of younger monks. So he doesn’t usually do that, either.
While Seelagavesi’s ways have sometimes drawn criticism in Sri Lanka, his inclination to question everything attracted Antioch students Cindy Eigler and Alison Easter when they traveled to Sri Lanka with the Antioch Buddhist Studies Program in 2002. Seelagavesi’s take on Buddhist practice seemed to fit nicely with the academic approach students and others in Yellow Springs have taken toward the dharma.
But when the students suggested the monk spend his retreat in Yellow Springs, a village of 3,700 people, the Dharma Center board wondered whether its fifty core members could sustain such a long and committed retreat. Where could he live and be afforded the privacy and respectful accommodations he merits? Who could attend to him and prepare the food that he can only eat once a day and is not permitted to ask for? How would it all be paid for? Could a completely Western center really support a traditional monk? The answers came from the younger generation of Yellow Springs Buddhists.
Robert Pryor, director of the Antioch Buddhist studies program, co-founded the Yellow Springs Dharma Center with local resident Donna Denman, to serve Buddhists from various traditions as well as yoga and general meditation practitioners. The center has been sustained by a generation of Western Theravada and Zen Buddhists now in their fifties and sixties who have shared their practice with Antioch students. Today the younger students are challenging the sangha to engage in Buddhist activities the center has never tried before.
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