Birken Upāsikā Program



For over 2500 years, the four-fold assembly of Buddhist monks, nuns, laywomen and laymen have closely supported each other on the Buddha's path to liberation.  The Pali term "upāsikā" (laywoman) or "upāsaka" (layman) can be translated as “one who sits close by”.  It has come to refer to dedicated lay Buddhist practitioners who join with monastics in the practice of the Dhamma and who commit to follow the Three Refuges and Five Precepts.  

Building on the models established at other Western monasteries in the Ajahn Chah Thai Forest Tradition lineage, Birken Forest Monastery ('Sitavana') established the Birken Upāsikā Program for Dedicated Lay Practitioners in 2015 to provide a formal training structure for lay people to practice and study together, under the mentorship of Ajahn Sona and in close relationship with the monastery.  After completing an initial year of formal training as new initiates, upāsikās may then choose to join an ongoing upāsikā "alumni" program.

Program Description:  

In the 2018-19 Upāsikā Training Program for New Initiates, teachings will be provided by Ajahn Sona at three mandatory Upāsikā gatherings at Birken (dates listed below), and through monthly Dhamma talks, assignments and discussion on a password-protected website. 

The central teaching theme of the first year of the program is a systematic study and practice of The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, using a core text by Bhikkhu Bodhi ("The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering") and corresponding Dhamma talks by Ajahn Sona.  Beyond this central theme, monthly assignments and gatherings will deal with the broad topics of meditation, sutta study, chanting, forms and conventions of the Thai Forest Tradition, and the symbiotic relationship between the monastic sangha and lay practitioners.  Meditation instruction will focus on Ajahn Sona’s methods for meditation on the breath (anapanasati), death (maranassati), loving-kindness (metta) and walking meditation.  Ajahn Sona will also spontaneously weave in other essential teachings and relevant aspects of Buddhist history, with an emphasis on understanding samatha and vipassana practices in a historical context.    

Participants will be encouraged to foster a close relationship with Ajahn Sona as their spiritual mentor during the first year of the program, and to seek personalized spiritual advice from Ajahn Sona by way of interviews at the monastery and asking questions in the online discussion forum.  A core component of the program will be to foster kalyāna-mittatā (wise spiritual friendship) between upāsikās who are affiliated with Birken, by way of regular gatherings both at the monastery and in the virtual realm of the online discussion forum.  
Between and beyond the mandatory gatherings at Birken, upāsikās will be encouraged to establish or join existing regional upāsikā groups that are affiliated with Birken (including many that are now well established by “alumni” from previous years).

Program Objectives:

  • To provide dedicated lay practitioners with a formal spiritual training structure that will aid in the deepening of individual practice and self-discipline
  • To deepen lay practitioners' conceptual and experiential understanding of the Teachings of the Buddha, as well as the forms and conventions of Birken Forest Monastery and the Theravada Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah
  • To strengthen the symbiotic relationship between Birken's ordained Sangha (Ajahn Sona) and affiliated lay practitioners (upāsikās)
  • To foster a supportive community of ‘kalyānamittas’ (spiritual friends) for like-minded lay people affiliated with Birken Forest Monastery

Eligibility and Requirements:


This program is not designed for absolute beginners or newcomers to Birken, but rather for experienced practitioners who wish to deepen their practice under the tutelage of Ajahn Sona and to strengthen their affiliation with Birken Forest Monastery.  Therefore, to be eligible to apply for the Birken Upāsikā Program, you must have visited Birken for a period of at least ten consecutive days in the recent past.  Priority will be given to those who have been regularly visiting the monastery regularly over the last two years.

2018-19 Mandatory Gatherings:

This year, we will be accepting a maximum of 12 participants due to space limitations at the monastery.  All participants will be required to attend the three mandatory gatherings (dates outlined below), without exception, and will be guaranteed overnight accommodation at the monastery.  Please be sure that you can attend all mandatory gatherings before applying for the program.  There will be no "remote" option to the program this year as we have found that regular gatherings at the monastery during the first year of training are an indispensable component of this program.

  • Upāsikā Group III Opening Gathering:  Sept 7 - 9, 2018 
  • Silent Upāsikā Winter Retreat Week: Feb 20 - 27, 2019
  • Upāsikā Group III Closing Gathering: July 26 - 28, 2019

The Upāsikā Commitment:

By committing to the Birken Upāsikā Program, participants will aspire to:

  • Take the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts as the foundation of their spiritual life
  • Take the Theravada Thai Forest Tradition (Ajahn Chah lineage) as the focus of their Buddhist practice
  • Commit to Ajahn Sona’s teachings, modes of practice, and personalized guidance for the duration of the program
  • Commit to practice formal meditation daily
  • Designate one ‘Day of Observance’ per week, on which a heightened importance is given to their spiritual practice (e.g. following the Eight Precepts and making more time for meditation on the weekly lunar days)
  • Commit to attend all three scheduled Upāsikā gatherings at Birken Forest Monastery
  • Actively engage with the online monthly assignments (recorded Dhamma talks, assigned chants, assigned readings and online discussion forum)
  • Provide support to the Sangha, according to their means and abilities
  • Commit to complete the full first year of upāsikā training (participants will then have the option to join the alumni group)

Taking the Three Refuges and Five Precepts:

Three Refuges:

1. To the Buddha, I go for refuge.

2. To the Dhamma, I go for refuge.

3. To the Sangha, I go for refuge.

Five Precepts:

1.  I undertake the precept to refrain from taking the life of any living being.

2.  I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

3.  I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.

4.  I undertake the precept to refrain from false and harmful speech.

5.  I undertake the precept to refrain from consuming intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.


Registration Details:

Registration for the 2018-19 Birken Upāsikā Training Program for New Initiaties is now OPEN!

Please ensure you have read all the details above and then submit your application online:

REGISTRATION DEADLINE:  We will be accepting applications until JUNE 30, 2018.  
​We will endeavour to respond to all applicants by July 15th.
Space is very limited this year (12 spaces) and there is no remote option.  
Please be sure that you can attend all three mandatory gatherings (listed above) before applying for the program.

Contact Info:  If you have any questions about the Birken Upāsikā Program, please email Upāsikā Sobhanā at