Thai Forest Buddhism Enters the British Columbian Forest: Building Birken Monastery in the 1990s

October 04, 2019

In April 1994, the Venerable Sona (ne Tom West), a Coquitlam, BC-born-and-bred Buddhist monk from the austere and orthodox Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism, travelled to a complex of rundown shacks on the road between Mount Currie and D’Arcy in the Birkenhead River valley near Pemberton, BC. There, he succeeded in establishing a foothold of the Thai Forest tradition, the first initiated by a westerner in North America.

In order for this strict form of Buddhist monasticism to take root a diverse group of people with widely divergent backgrounds, religious and otherwise, had to intersect, thanks to the utter dependence of the mendicant monks on the laity. Those who fed and otherwise sustained the monks included regular visitors from the Vancouver region – Thai Buddhist graduate students and domestic workers, as well as Sri Lankan and “convert” Buddhist professionals and academics – along with local people – largely non-Buddhist foresters, entrepreneurs, self-described hippies and dropouts, and a Baptist school secretary.

Our presentation will explore the depth and meaning of these intersections, which didn’t happen in the cosmopolitan environs of a Global City, like Vancouver, but rather at the periphery, in a remote and reputedly “redneck” place, where the Thai and Sri Lankan “ethnic” Buddhists who visited encountered an intensely foreign cultural and physical environment surrounding the familiar robes and rituals of a Buddhist monastery. 


Karen Ferguson is a professor in the Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University. She teaches courses on urban planning and development, as well as urban inequality. She has written two books on African-American history.

Luke Clossey is associate professor of History and director of the Global Asia Program at Simon Fraser University, where he gives courses on the global history of religion.  He previously wrote on the expansion of Christianity into Asia.

Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Clossey are now collaborating on a new research project critically examining the expansion of Buddhism into Canada.


  • David Lam Centre
  • Global Asia Program
  • Department of History

Friday, October 4, 2019

6:30 - 9:00pm

Segal Building Room 1300
Simon Fraser University
500 Granville Street, Vancouver