Monday, June 10, 2013

Bhikkhuni Today: The Joys and Challenges of a Pioneer

by Amma Thanasanti Bhikkhuni
Theravada prayer flags made of recycled robes with aspirations for Māgha Pūjā (Sangha Day) at
Santi Forest Monastery on February 25, 2013

This article was originally published in a different format in Present.

I am blessed to be an American-born bhikkhuni living in the United States, blessed to be part of a society that insists on equality, celebrates pioneers, and encourages living according to one's values. My vision of how laypeople and monastics can evolve as an integrated community to support each other to awaken would not be possible in many other contexts. For a variety of reasons, the US is a highly favorable container in which Buddhism can flourish in our postmodern world.

I am also aware that we live at a unique and pivotal time in history. In numerous places around the world where I have taught, I experienced a deep readiness to see women come into fullness and maturity, to find their voices and lead. This is particularly true here in the US. At a bhikkhuni ordination in northern California in 2011, the renowned scholar Venerable Anālayo remarked that full ordination for Theravada bhikkhunis is the single most important event in the Buddhist world these last hundred years. He is not alone in recognizing the inestimable value of women monastics. 

Other blessings of establishing the Dhamma in America include the opportunities produced by its entrepreneurial ethos, where hard work, clear vision, and the right contacts make projects blossom. As Americans, we know how to innovate, how to make things happen. This culture’s commitment to social justice is another precious gift. America’s dedication to equity makes it far easier to develop leadership structures that support not only women but others who have been marginalized. Perhaps even more significant is that we are free to teach what we know from our own experience rather than having to fit into a prefabricated model of how things are supposed to be. We are able to teach in a way that is applicable to the global challenges we are facing today.

Snapshots From My Daily Life

In offering the following glimpses of my life, I hope to convey a sense of what it is like to be a bhikkhuni in today’s America. As one example, I regularly, take my almsbowl onto streets and make myself available for receiving food offerings from passers-by. Recently in Manitou Springs, a small town next to Colorado Springs, a middle-aged woman came up to me and offered some food for my noon meal. I checked with her to see if she would welcome the traditional blessing. Before chanting, I asked her to place her attention on her own goodness. This simple suggestion elicited tears. Standing on the sidewalk, tears and chanting flowing together, we touched something timeless. The exquisite tenderness of the moment was accentuated by the circumstance of having only just met and being so public.

Though being moved to tears happens infrequently by those I interact with on almsround, almost always someone who has just met me and offered something for my meal leaves saying “thank you.” When I think of the reversal from our consumer-driven, greed-based society—whereby someone I don’t know and who isn’t familiar with monastics and what they bring to the world thanks me for being able to make an offering—I am touched by the power of monastic form and the way it brings out the goodness in others. Being willing to stand in my own vulnerability as an alms mendicant, I become an emissary reminding others of their own goodness.

Just last week someone invited me to her deathbed. To be allowed into the deepest intimacy of sharing without pretense, and touching what is tender and true with another is an honor and privilege. Time and again this deep intimacy is a feature of the contact I have with others.

Living with renunciation, we are trained to relinquish suffering. My hermitage was in the evacuation zone from the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado. When I realized that the hermitage was at risk of going up in flames, I felt the vulnerability of the situation and my own powerlessness to protect it. Opening to my feelings, including gently embracing my wish it were otherwise meant that I could be present with the pain of the possible loss. As I attended in this way, the ache softened and then released. With acceptance, I felt much more peaceful. As I touched my own sorrow, I felt greater compassion for others, a blessing from decades of practice.

Challenges Created by American Culture

Despite the many advantages of American culture, there are simultaneously significant hurdles to overcome if we are to anchor Buddhist monasticism here. One such obstacle arises from the fact that contemporary Buddhists in the US are taught mostly by lay teachers. Having had little contact with monastics, the average layperson lacks the knowledge of what blessings arise from close association with ordained women and does not know what monastics need to flourish. There is always much for me to explain and a great deal for laypeople to learn.

The current culture is very different compared to the time of the Buddha. We are up against the American work ethic, where self-sufficiency is highly valued. To further complicate creating the needed infrastructures that would enable bhikkhunis to thrive, we live in a society chronically over-committed, where individuals and families do not have enough time to take care of simple tasks in their own lives, let alone plan to be part of the regular support system of a monastic community. Providing daily support for monastics is often only possible if shared by a large group of lay supporters, when there are lay stewards in residence or when the monastics make accommodations for their circumstances like storing or cooking food, handling money and driving. Some monastics today are shouldering responsibilities that have traditionally been carried by the lay community.

On August 29, 2010 at Aranya Bodhi Hermitage,
Ven. Suvijjana, Ven. Adhimutta, Ven. Phalanyani,
 and Ven. Thanasanti were ordained as bhikkhunis
The cost of healthcare and private insurance requires significant funds. An alliance that allowed separate communities to buy insurance for their committed monastic members would be very helpful. Establishing monasteries may be stressful for everyone involved. Leaders are often trying to balance and prioritize a huge number of details while they are often learning many things for the first time. In my own situation, I was regularly stretched beyond my capacity. If there are different levels of experience, the junior members may feel overextended with duties. The Board may be learning the ropes of a nonprofit and the application to monastics. The supporting lay community may also feel stretched with additional duties as well as finding needed equilibrium while the community takes shape and unfolds. It takes skill and resources to balance building a community while simultaneously developing a monastery with needed meditation and monastic training from which the Dhamma can take hold. As monastics set up places of practice, more collaboration would ease the need for each new community to reinvent the wheel.

Further, it is extremely supportive when retreat centers make accommodations for monastics to attend without charge so they can take essential time to recoup and retreat themselves. Since I returned to the US, I have had to navigate a lot of uncertainty as I wait to see how things will unfold. I also have had to live with self-doubt about my own capacity to meet the problems that arise. Grateful for the extended training in the Dhamma and Discipline, I know fundamental principles to return to. Again and again I have met what is arising. When my resistance to what I am experiencing releases, I am left with some simple truths: the joy and simplicity of living with precepts, valuing kindness, and the peace and contentment that comes from resting in awareness, the effect of living with few needs, living in a field of generosity, sharing what I know and love with others, and watching others suffer less, awaken to joy, and find genuine meaning in their lives. When I feel daunted by the demands that lie ahead, I shift to what is happening in the present. I may not have a map for the next several years, but for the next few days, I can be content with what is, living as a bhikkhuni for now.

I have had to relinquish grandiose ideas of how things should evolve. Over time, I have learned to place a priority on simply moving forward, on working with what is given to me while simultaneously trusting that future growth for my community will develop when conditions are right. I have made mistakes and have needed to learn to reflect, make amends, forgive myself, let go, and move on. I now recognize that what needs to happen for a community to take root will require the coming together of many factors that largely depend on others coming forward and getting involved.

Seeing the ways things are unfolding reinforces my appreciation that, while the blessings to live as a monastic continue, we will flourish only if our interdependent relationship nourishes the manyfold sangha,[1] the sangha that includes all genders, sexual orientations, and precept levels in the globally diverse cultural context in which we are now living. For monastics to thrive, we need to grow in ways that support all of us awakening.

The Buddha taught us to contemplate suffering and realize the end of suffering. No matter what we do, it has to come back to this. When attention rests on what’s left when things fall away, the multiplicity of our world ends and the many objects of attention shift to the awareness that knows. Attuned to the clear light of this knowing, the right questions are asked. Eventually what emerges from this awareness takes shape in ways that serves many. 

Bhikkhunis today are pioneers filled with the joy of emergence and enriched by the traditions from which we have come, while facing challenges unique to our time and place. I see a model of monasticism coalescing which has the intention and capacity to stay rooted in what is essential in the Dhamma and Discipline, embrace the best of our cultural legacy, attend to what is present, ask the right questions, and use these in the process of awakening. Where the manyfold sangha feels committed and involved, it is possible for nuns to take root and bring the awakened mind, the truth of the ways things are, and the value of community to society at large. What an extraordinary time!

[1] The Buddha described the twofold sangha as comprised of monks and nuns and the fourfold assembly as being comprised of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. In our American society where sangha is used to denote anyone who meditates, the use of the manyfold sangha seems an appropriate adaptation to our time.

The Story Project - Amma Thanasanti from PPLD TV on Vimeo

Amma Thanasanti Bhikkhuni: Teacher & Founder of Awakening Truth

(Amma) Thanasanti Bhikkhuni was born in California and first encountered the Dhamma in 1979 at UCSC. Since that time she has been committed to awakening.

In a trip to Asia she met highly accomplished meditation masters Dipa Ma and Ajahn Chah. In 1989 she formally joined the Ajahn Chah lineage and the community of nuns at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery to begin training as a novice. That began the process of intensive training, study, and meditation practice. After two years as an anagarika, she received ordination in 1991 with Ajahn Sumedho as her preceptor. She lived at both Amaravati Monastery and Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in England, staying at Chithurst for twenty years. In 2009 she left the monastery to return to the US to pursue her vision of developing a bhikkhuni training monastery integrating ancient teachings of the Forest Tradition into the modern world. She founded Awakening Truth an organization dedicated to this vision.

In 2010 she ordained as a bhikkhuni in the first all-Theravada dual-bhikkhuni ordination in North America with Ayya Tathaaloka as her preceptor. Currently she resides in Colorado Springs at the Shakti Vihara Hermitage.

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