Bodhinyanarama monastery: more than forty years of Theravada in the heart of the Ardèche forest

- through Francois Leclercq

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Immersion in the heart of the first French monastery of forest monks.

The place was not chosen at random. It was both close enough to major highways, railways and the Buddhist study center of Montchardon (1). In addition, it enjoyed some significant advantages: a milder temperature than in the Vercors, a more affordable price than on the Côte d'Azur and unspoiled nature. This is how Janine Boitel, a disciple of Venerable Nyanadharo Visuddhinyano (2), chose to acquire these few hectares in Ardèche, carrying not only wood, but also ruins, in order to found the Bodhinyanarama monastery there. Nearly forty-five years later, the Venerable still remembers the decisive meeting with the one who built this place in his company and with whom he welcomed many students until 2008, the year in which she died.

It all started in 1976. Having arrived in France the previous year, Venerable Nyanadharo Visuddhinyano has since lived on the streets, in contact with the homeless. Jean-Pierre Schnetzler, the founder of the center of Montchardon, in Isère, hears about this Laotian monk, lost in the heart of Paris. He then makes him come to the Buddhist center, which is living its first hours. The Venerable spent a year there in contact with nature. He still remembers that winter at minus 25 degrees: “I thought I was going to die! This is where he crosses paths with Janine Boitel. This Iséroise who works in real estate practices meditation and yoga, and frequents Montchardon, whose head office is based at her home.

While waiting for his visa for England, the country where he resided during his studies, the Laotian monk took the opportunity to learn French. But the formalities between Great Britain and his country of origin are complex. “One morning, Janine suggested that I stay in France and I accepted… And that's when my visa arrived! But a forest monk does not take back the given word. The dice are cast, France therefore becomes his second homeland.

The first forest monk monastery outside of Asia

For her part, in 1976, Janine Boitel was 48 years old, had three grown children and took advantage of an economic redundancy to quit her job. His wish: to find a place where to pursue his new path, more rooted in Buddhism. One day, chance and an announcement lead them to an old hunters' house in need of renovation, in Tournon-sur-Rhône. “We looked everywhere in France for abandoned villages, lost corners, as far as Saint-Tropez, but we thought that it would be complicated to meditate in the summer… In Tournon, the walls had collapsed, there were mud, we came in boots… The house was in ruins, but there was everything, the little stream, the forest and above all, it was warmer than in Montchardon. It was easy to find with the A7 and the national. So Janine bought it in her name, with the money from the sale of her apartment. » (3)

Rumors of sects, various denunciations, supposed presence of UFOs… The alerted gendarmes investigate the monastery and discover, instead of extraterrestrials, Janine and the Venerable preparing jams… by the light of a lamp halogen!

It was only once the deed of sale was signed that they learned of Ajahn Chah's arrival in Europe. A first for this master of the Thai forest who, a few years earlier, had sent the Venerable to France. “The master joined us and told us that Tournon was to be the first monastery of forest monks outside of Asia”. Thus, on July 7, 1977, Ajahn Chah consecrated the monastery, in particular offering it relics and conferring on it its religious title, Bodhinyanarama Thera (the garden where awakening is cultivated). The life of the community then begins. But it is not gentle under the Ardèche sky and the few Theravada monks who come there leave quite quickly.

Everything is to be rebuilt, there is no heating, no hot water or bathroom. To shower, the occupants are obliged to join the public baths of Romans or Valence. However, nothing discourages the Venerable who remembers: “For three years, every morning, I went to town with my bowl for alms, and during these three years, no one ever gave me anything. Ajahn Chah had asked me to do it for three years, so I obeyed. It taught me patience and how to bear people's gazes…” Only once, a couple from a nearby village will have the curiosity to follow him to the monastery and the man will then help them restore the place. . Because, at first, mistrust prevails in the neighborhood. Rumors of sects, various denunciations, supposed presence of UFOs... The alerted gendarmes investigate the nascent monastery and discover, instead of extraterrestrials, Janine and the Venerable preparing jams... by the light of a halogen lamp !

Pursue his path as a “seeker of truth”

Today, the community is more than integrated into local life. The mayor does not need to be asked to attend the award ceremonies important, and the master of the place was able to forge links with the other religious representatives of the sector. On site, there is a temple, the dwellings of the monks, meditation huts and a place for the festivities that punctuate the year. The place, specifies the Venerable, "is not a pagoda, because in the proper sense of the term, a pagoda is not open to foreigners and the teachings are given there in the original language, which is not the case here. »

For forty years, despite the requests of several Westerners, he refused any ordination. Because, he says, "when one becomes a Buddhist monk or nun, one must cut family and friendly ties, otherwise one cannot move forward in detachment and meditation". And he did not feel ready for those who came to him. It is better, he adds, "not to change one's status, to say nothing about what one does, but by practicing and observing, letting people see the changes they bring about in themselves. “, and thus continue his path of “searcher of truth”. For the 35th anniversary of the monastery, in 2012, seven monks and one nun were ordained. Six years later, only two have pursued the religious path, the others have returned to secular life, while most often remaining close to the Venerable and the site.

To this day, Tournon remains the only monastery of forest monks in France (about twenty exist in Europe). It lives thanks to donations and is organized around two distinct structures: a religious association which has about 200 people and an association law 1901, bringing together a hundred members, which allows the reception of the public and the organization of parties. Openness to others remains one of the key words of the residents and many lay people come to learn to meditate, far from the noise and the hustle and bustle. Here, during sessions regularly offered (4), we learn to live naturally, to lay bare the mind "to understand simultaneously what is happening in us and around us", concludes the Venerable

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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