Zen Buddhist nuns getting new eco-friendly homes

Zen Buddhist nuns getting new eco-friendly homes
Zen Buddhist nuns at Deer Park Monastery help to build their new homes using straw bales. Photo by Tony Cagala

ESCONDIDO — The certain stillness and peacefulness that permeates throughout the Deer Park Monastery has lately been displaced by the sounds of chainsaws and new construction.

The chainsaws have been cutting into straw bales being shaped to fill the wooden frames and become the walls of new housing for the sisters that live at Zen Buddhist monastery.

The new housing structures will be replacing the dilapidated structures that the 20 sisters currently at the grounds are living in.

The facilities the sisters are living in now have been a part of the property since before the site was bought in 2000, according to Sister Kinh Nghiem, who has lived at Deer Park for almost four years.

But the deteriorating structures are poorly insulated and drafty and more room is needed for the increasing number of sisters coming to live there.

“Personally, in my room right now, I have carpenter ants living in the room,” Nghiem said. “We live in harmony with each other. Every time I come into the room they sort of disappear. When I leave they all come out into the floor,” she said.

The construction is in Phase II of a three-phase process, in which the planning and permitting process began in 2013. The sisters are hopeful to have the project completed by June, before an August visit from their teacher Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

The new buildings, Nghiem said, will allow the sisters to live as a community and communicate more and to embody what they teach as a monastic community.

“It means that we can actually all live together as a community of sisters,” she said.

At a cost of about $2 million, all of which has been raised through donations, the sisters are using straw bales to build their new structures, making it environmentally friendly.

Rebecca Tasker, co-owner of Simple Construct, has been overseeing the straw bale construction and the dozens of volunteers helping to build the structures along with the sisters.

There’s something so obvious in working with the straw bales, Tasker said as volunteers wheeled bales of straw into position or stuffed them into the empty frames of the homes. “Here’s this big brick and you take it straight out of the field and you stack it up and wah-lah you have a house.”

Though in her 10 years of working with the product, Tasker admits that it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.

The biggest challenge of working with straw bales, Tasker said, was the unfamiliarity of it.

“You need to make sure that the person who is designing the building understands how to design for straw,” she said.

But the benefits of straw bale homes range from being using non-toxic materials to being fire resistant and providing good sound insulation, to name a few.

For Drew Hubbell, architect and principal of Hubbell and Hubbell Architects, designing these structures was definitely familiar to him, having completed over 30 straw bale projects.

Hubbell described the housing as a nice blend of privacy and community.

Nghiem said they just wanted something simple to match their lifestyle as monastics, but also to give them their space.

A native San Diegan, Nghiem was ordained at the age of 14.

“Before that, I had no idea what meditation was, no idea what peace was,” she said. “I was just a teenager going to school, focusing on getting my grades and going to college.”

Her mother, who was a practitioner, took her to a retreat and it was there that she learned there was a different way to live a life. She had had friends at that age that were on the wrong path of society, getting involved with drugs and sex, she explained.

It’s been 17 years that Nghiem has been ordained.

Over that time, she was asked whether there was anything she missed about life before entering the monastery: “I don’t know what I’m missing out on, but I have a feeling I’m not missing out on much,” she said.

Having been working with the sisters on the construction, Tasker said that this has been a “truly unique” project.

“I didn’t know much about the monastery before this project, and I had no idea how just happy and silly the sisters are,” Tasker said. “They bring a liveliness, a joy and a genuineness to the project that’s just amazing.”

Despite the buildings not being done yet, Nghiem said she feels like she’s moved in and that she’s already at home.

With the volunteers and the contractors working together with the sisters, Nghiem said that the home has already been realized — not just as a physical building— but where there’s a community of understanding and collaborating together.

But when she physically moves in to the new housing, Nghiem said she plans in the future to just sit down and have a cup of tea and “feel the love and the energy that has been put into building these buildings.”

The monastery is still accepting donations to complete their housing project, which may be online at Thichnhathanhfoundation.org. More information about Deer Park Monastery can be found at deerparknunnery.org.

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