Sravasti Abbey marks 20th year
By Mary Stamp
Venerable Thubten Semkye of Sravasti Abbey, a monastic Buddhist community celebrating its 20th year near Newport, said her early years were like another life, growing up in Levittown, PA, a planned suburban community, and attending a Catholic school.
Now she is part of a monastic Buddhist community that focuses on ethical conduct—not harming any person or creature, relying on the kindness of others, using resources wisely and being celibate.
"Buddha gave 84,000 teachings to help us cultivate our minds to serve the world," Semkye said, noting that "when life throws us a curve, we need to see adversity as part of our spiritual path, challenging us to learn patience, compassion, generosity and love.
"Problems are opportunities to grow good qualities so we can be both strong and happy," she explained. "We seek to purify ourselves of anger, laziness, pride and confusion. In Tibetan Buddhism, we know that the mind is the source of happiness and pain."
The abbey has guidelines—based on Buddha's teachings—on what nuns and monks may own, where they go, how they spend time or when they use the car or internet.
"Our mission is to grow as a monastic community to serve the world by showing kindness, understanding and compassion," Semkye said.
Sravasti Abbey's mission and vision include environmental and social action, support for youth who lack a stable home life, emergency services, visiting prisoners and teaching Buddhism.
"We value interfaith dialogue—rejoicing in similarities and respecting differences as we seek to be the best human beings we can be. No one is left out of love. While we share Buddhist teachings, we do not say everyone needs to be Buddhist," Semkye pointed out.
"People today are overwhelmed and looking for tools to help them," she added. "People come to gain gems of wisdom. We mirror back the good in the world, the amazing things people do."
She values connecting with other faith traditions so that together the faith voice can have "the volume it needs" to have more impact.
Semkye recently shared her journey to Sravasti Abbey and its intersection with the founding 20 years ago.
After one term at a community college, she went skiing in Colorado in December 1973. At 18, she told her parents she was moving there. She fell in love with Colorado, the mountains, open spaces and the West, but also fell into the fast life of the ski world. For six years, she supported herself as a house painter and brick mason helper.
In 1979, she went to Idaho with a friend and bought land with funds from her grandfather. She built a house in the woods, learned about the environment, planted trees and gardened.
"I fell in love with the earth," she said.
After her stepmother died in 1985, Semkye returned to live with her father. During that time, she travelled to a spiritual healing center near New York City.
"That connected me with my spiritual yearning," she said.
She returned to live near her father from 1990 to 1996, continuing to learn about herself.
In 1996, Semkye moved to Seattle. There she met Venerable Thubten Chodron and found answers to the questions she had been asking. She found a spiritual home.
The name Thubten means "the able one's teachings." Venerable is a title of respect for those who are ordained in Buddhism, she explained.
Semkye also met Thubten Chonyi in the early 2000s at the Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, a Buddhist center that offered teachings and connection for the lay Buddhist community.
Chodron wanted to start a monastery, but not in Seattle, which had many Dharma centers. In 2001, she went to Missouri, hoping to start a monastery with monastics from other traditions, but the situation was not conducive. She was then invited to Idaho where she and her lay students searched for a suitable property to purchase.
"We looked for land and buildings. Every location was too far, too rocky, too desolate or had legal obstacles," said Semkye, then a landscaper in Seattle.
While Chodron was studying with one of her Tibetan teachers, a friend showed her pictures of properties in Washington. One near Newport had a building with big windows and it looked like the bow of a ship, but the price seemed too high to raise from supporters.
After offers on properties in Southern Idaho fell through, Chonyi, who was living with friends in Cataldo, arranged for Chodron to teach at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene. They booked a hall for 80, but more than 125 came, so they moved to the library.
"With that much interest in learning about Buddhism, we decided to look in this area," said Semkye.
A realtor took Chodron and a lay friend to tour the property near Newport. It was exactly what she was looking for. After the realtor left, they went from the meadow to the barn, where they met the owner, Harold Unruh. They told him it would be hard for her to get a bank loan because she did not own a home or car.
Because they would use it for a Buddhist monastery, Harold, whose father had been a Mennonite pastor in Spring Valley, talked with his wife, Vicky. They agreed to carry the mortgage.
They signed a contract, and Chodron moved in with her cats on Oct. 17, 2003.
Lay students brought furniture from Seattle and Boise, cleaned the house, took down curtains to open the view and organized Friends of Sravasti Abbey.
Chodron was on the mountain with two cats and an occasional guest to help and cook meals.
In May 2004, Semkye moved to help her take care of the garden and forest and organize lay volunteers to come and offer service.
From June to October 2004, volunteers turned a log cabin garage into a meditation hall, raising and replacing the roof, adding a new entry door, a floor and wiring.
"It was bare bones but had space for 60 cushions. We consecrated it in time for the first winter retreat," she said.
When they hosted retreats, women slept on mattresses in bedrooms in the house and there was space for men in the workshop by the barn.
When two Tibetan teachers came in winter 2005, they hosted 80 in the meditation hall.
In 2005, Janet Howell came to the abbey. She was ordained in 2006 as Thubten Tarpa. Over five years, other students of Chodron moved in and were ordained as novice nuns. By 2010, there were six ordained monastics.
Over 20 years, monastic candidates have come from Canada, Singapore, South America, Mexico, Vietnam and the U.S.
A respected teacher, Chodron has taught throughout Asia, Europe, Australia, Mexico and the U.S. She also puts talks on YouTube, does livestream events and has written dozens of books.
Buddhist monastic ordinations must be given by a qualified senior monastic, so when Tarpa was ordained in 2006, three Taiwanese nuns came to assist. The rite was translated from Chinese to English for the abbey.
"It was the first ordination in English," said Semkye.
Semkye was ordained in 2007. Taiwanese nuns supported all the ordinations until 2018, when the abbey nuns had sufficient seniority to give the ordination on their own.
"Tibetan Buddhism does not offer full ordination for nuns, so western novice nuns ordain in the Chinese tradition in Taiwan. Men who take novice ordination at the abbey also take full ordination in Taiwan.
Today there are 24 ordained nuns and monks in the Sravasti community, including three resident teachers, Chodron, Ven. Sangye Khadro and Geshe Tenzin Chodrak.
"We separate the genders," Semkye said. "Most nuns live in the women's residence. Monks and laymen live in the men's wing in Chenrizig Hall."
Sravasti Abbey can house up to 50 for retreats. Friends come from the region for weekends. Longer courses draw guests from around the world and U.S.
"We have more than 1,000 supporters around the world," Semkye said.
Because Sravasti has outgrown the meditation hall, they are building a Buddha Hall, so more people can come for retreats, lectures and monastic rituals. The goal is to complete it in 2024, Semkye said.