Birken Upāsikā Program


Overview:


The term "upāsikā" means “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 (detailed below).

Building on the models established at other Western monasteries in the Ajahn Chah Thai Forest Tradition lineage, Birken Forest Monastery ('Sitavana') established its own year-long Birken Upāsikā Program in 2015 to provide a formal training structure for lay people to practice and study together, under the guidance of Ajahn Sona and in close relation to the monastery. 

Completing its second year in April 2017, program participants have followed largely the same format and curriculum as the 2015-16 program. 

Program Overview:  

In this one-year training program, teachings will be provided by Ajahn Sona at four mandatory Upāsikā gatherings at Birken (dates listed below), as well as through monthly recorded Dhamma talks, an online discussion forum and occasional one-on-one interviews held at the monastery.  The central theme of the program will be a systematic study and practice of The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, using a core text by Bhikkhu Bodhi ("The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering") complemented by regular 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 daily lay practice in the world.  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 weave in other essential mainstream teachings as well as some aspects of Buddhist history, with an emphasis on samatha and vipassana practices in a historical context.    

Participants will be encouraged to foster a close relationship with Ajahn Sona as their spiritual mentor for the year, and to seek personalized spiritual advice from Ajahn Sona by way of one-on-one interviews at the monastery.  A core component of the group will be to foster kalyanamittata (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 (a dedicated upāsikā program website).  
Between and beyond the mandatory gatherings at Birken, upāsikās will be encouraged to establish or join existing local sitting groups that are affiliated with Birken (including those established by “graduates” of the 2015-16 and 2016-2017 programs).

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' intellectual 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 ‘kalyanamittas’ (spiritual friends) for like-minded lay people affiliated with Birken Forest Monastery
     

Eligibility and Requirements:


Eligibility:
This program is not designed for absolute beginners, 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 over the last two years.

Two Types of Participants:

Regular Participants:  This year, we will be accepting a maximum of 15 regular participants due to space limitations at the monastery.  All regular participants will be required to attend the four 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. All regular participants are encouraged to sign up for at least two one-on-one interviews with Ajahn Sona throughout the year.

Remote Participants:  For those who are unable to attend the mandatory gatherings for legitimate reasons (applicants will be required to explain these reasons), but wish to take part in the program through active participation in the online component of the program (monthly virtual discussion forum and assignments), we will also be accepting 15 remote participants.   These remote participants will not attend the mandatory gatherings listed below, but will be expected to participate in the online assignments and discussion forum and to visit Birken for a period of at least 10 consecutive days sometime between May and March of the following year. 
 

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 spiritual mentorship (by way of one-on-one interviews) 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 the curriculum of monthly assignments (recorded Dhamma talks, assigned chants, assigned readings and online discussion forum)
  • Regular Participants: Commit to attend all four scheduled Upāsikā gatherings at Birken Forest Monastery
  • Remote Participants: Actively participate in the online discussion forum and visit Birken for a stay of at least ten consecutive days sometime between May and March of the following year
  • Provide support to the Sangha, according to their means and abilities
  • Keep to the training for at least one year after having made the formal commitment
     

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 BIRKEN UPĀSIKĀ PROGRAM IS CURRENTLY CLOSED

Ajahn Sona has decided to take a break from the Upāsikā Program in 2017. Please check back here in early 2018 for further updates.

Contact Info:  Please email the Birken Upāsikā Group Coordinator (Upāsikā Sobhanā) at upasika@birken.ca if you have any questions about the Birken Upāsikā Program.