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The Move to Chisago City
On the side of Lofton Avenue, a sign marks the turn off for the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara. It is the day the community is celebrating the Burmese New Year with children running around throwing water on each other during the warm and humid Minnesotan day. During our first meeting, Aung Koe speaks about the changes following the vihara’s move from Maplewood to its current location.1 Since coming to Chisago City in July of 2014, Sitagu Dhamma Vihara is now well underway with its plans for new buildings on the 23.8 acres of land. Koe is preparing for a weekly Sunday meeting with an architect to discuss the construction of a new meeting hall, a pagoda, and a residence house for the monks to live.
Currently, the site only has a modest two-story house, which contains the shrine to the Buddha, a meeting room for community leaders, and the living quarters for the resident monks. There is also a makeshift meeting hall and a play structure with swings for the children. The property is still primarily undeveloped land, some of which is already cleared and prepared for construction to begin and the rest of which is still covered in long grass and prairie weeds. The vihara purchased three contiguous plots of land that the community now looks upon proudly.
Dr. Ashin Osadhasara, the abbot, described both the vihara’s future plans and current life.2 With a community composed of approximately 80 families, none live in Chisago City. Instead, they are widespread throughout Minnesota, with laypeople coming from as far as Rochester to the monastery for the abbot’s spiritual guidance. However, a majority of community members live in St. Paul.
As of yet, they do not yet have a suitable place for guided meditation. The shrine room can only comfortably fit around 15 people and although the meeting hall can hold more than 50 people, it is more of an empty barn converted into a makeshift communal center that is not a very comfortable space. However, it is sizeable enough to house gatherings for festivals, meals, special events, and the only scheduled community activity, the summer Sunday school for the children beginning in June.
Sometimes the laypeople make the journey to the vihara to see the monks for “Buddhist teachings, meditation, and help with problems of the mind,” but the abbot makes house calls to home shrines and to spend time with the community members more often. During these visits, there is always a formal beginning as everyone present takes the precepts. However, the rest of the visit becomes more relaxed as the host family feeds the monks present, who sit to one side of the room and generally give a dhamma talk after eating or leading chants. Attendees to these house visits can range from a small number of families and friends to large groups of up to 60 people squeezing into houses and even apartments to pay respects to the monks and listen to a dhamma talk.
This community, in turn, supports the vihara in donations to pay for utilities, upkeep, and the monks to live there. However, because much of the community is lower-middle class according to the abbot, the vihara must depend on the larger Theravada Dhamma Society of America as well as the Sitagu Missionary Society to support the construction of its new buildings, which may end up costing more than half a million dollars. This money comes from donations from Burma or private donors.
The reason Abbot Osadhasara is here in Minnesota is to “support the Burmese” and offer “spiritual guidance and cultural learning,” as well as “spread peacefulness to others.” The Sitagu Dhamma Vihara is not yet a large community, but they are very welcoming to Americans among other communities in Minnesota who wish to learn more about Buddhist teachings, philosophy, and meditation. The abbot explicitly stated that he is not here to proselytize, but to teach people peacefully who express their interest.
As we speak, the only nun in the community, Nun Dhammasari offers us water. Dr. Osadhasara informs me that she comes every Sunday to the vihara and will live there once the new residence hall is built. However, for the time being only he and Ashin Anirudda, the other 38-year old resident monk, live at the monastery. During the week, Anirudda takes classes in St. Paul to work on his English and study math, which is a subject he does not enjoy as much but is still enthusiastic to learn.