Monday, February 17, 2014

The Road Less Traveled: A Nun Who Carved Out Her Own Niche in the Slums of India

Ayya Yeshe Bodhicitta

Ayya Yeshe

I discovered Buddhism whilst in India at the age of seventeen on the hippie trail in search of the meaning of life. My father died when I was fourteen, sending me into a deep depression. I left home at fifteen, thinking there must be more to life than paying off a house for the rest of my life.

I fell in love with Tibetan Buddhism as it thoroughly intellectually convinced me of the truth of life. The truths of the Dharma were experiential and for the first time in my life I found a deep, heart-opening happiness. After doing “meditation on the kindness of the mother,” it was clear to me that practicing for awakening and working for the benefit of all beings is the point of life, and that all other things—possessions and power—were superfluous. I saw how sophisticated my own society was, yet how little happiness we possessed, so time-poor and lost in a net of our own complexity and consumerism. I also knew from experience how wonderful and yet ultimately unstable relationships could be.

I became a nun in 2001. On the same day I put on robes, I had to take them off to go to work in lay clothes because the institution I ordained with only supported Tibetan men. This is how ordination and training stands for Western monastics in my small tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (Sakya), unless they are proficient in the Tibetan language and can become “Tibetan” enough to do the nine-year Loppon program and live on white bread and watery dahl for twelve years . Most people I know who have tried this have ended up with hepatitis, chronic fatigue, severe loneliness, and subsequently disrobed. Fortunately, things are much better for me now, as I chose to follow my own path.

I studied five years part-time with my lama and offered very dedicated service. When I ordained I did so with a mind full of faith and a sincere wish for enlightenment. I am eternally grateful to all those in the past who have kept the Dharma alive—the lineage holders, without whom all true happiness would have eluded me and I would have wandered indefinitely, lost in samsara. I believe keeping alive the tradition (teachings and practices) and traditional training is important. But what can you do if your own culture, values, sexism, and marginalization mean that there is no place for you in your own tradition?

When I ordained I naively thought I would be as happy and well trained as the jolly Tibetan lamas I knew and cherished. Little did I know that Tibetan society is deeply patriarchal and hierarchical. Like so many of the women of my generation I never gave much thought to sexism because I had experienced very little gender discrimination, and took it for granted that women were equal to men.

Retreat for Indian Buddhists
When I ordained I found that I was totally unprepared, because I had nothing to compare the Buddhist form of renunciation to within my own culture. Suddenly people no longer saw me; they saw a nun. They asked about Buddhism and they asked me to counsel them. I was really thrown into the deep end. Along with the other monastics I ordained with, I was busy from morning till night with the demands of the lay people. We had very little time or peace to develop our own practice, and our lama had little time to teach us the vows or rituals, philosophy, or other traditional subjects of training.

People somehow assumed that there was a big organization taking care of us. They did not know the 2,600-year-old tradition of lay people supporting the practice of monastics in order to promote enlightenment. Instead, the lay people’s practice and needs were the center of our life, but there was little reciprocity. A visiting Rinpoche told all the middle-aged women in the room that they could not get enlightened as a Buddha in a woman’s body. I debated this with the examples of many women such as Yeshe Tsogyal, Machig Lapdron, Jomo Memno, and many others who have become enlightened. No one else in the room questioned it. A woman said to me, “Well, if Rinpoche said it, it must be true.” I have since read the Dalai Lama’s statement that in the Kalachakra Tantra it is possible for women to become Buddhas. The visiting Rinpoche told me I should focus on cleaning and making good karma, and that I would never be equal to him or my teacher.

In Tibet, women are called “kyemen” which means “low-born.” Nuns are referred to as “Ani-la” which means paternal aunty, whereas monks are “Kushola," venerable sir. Traditionally, monks were educated and some lived in luxury, while nuns were largely illiterate and served the monks or did manual labor for their families. My experiences helped me wake up and question blindly believing anything a lama says without investigating for myself. Of course my root teacher didn’t agree with such denigrating views of women, but he still was not prepared to support nuns, which I felt was contrary to the enlightened tradition of Buddhist contemplation. If monastics have to work, as well as teach and counsel people, they neither have the benefits of being a contemplative, with time to develop a deep practice (an essential prerequisite to be a qualified teacher and practitioner), nor do they have the benefits of a worldly life, such as money and family. No wonder 75 percent of Western monastics disrobe. I feel that this high rate is not because they are Western, but because they have no support, and are not regarded with care and respect, as they would be in some Asian societies. Instead, they are often regarded as a drain on resources, or as simply “weird.”

Of the thirteen people I ordained with, only three others are still ordained. They are all over fifty years old and have their own money. All the young people except myself have given up. Seven Western monastics have left the center where I ordained.

I found myself doing more social work in order to be part of the community. I volunteered to teach meditation in drug rehab centers, prisons, schools and HIV hospices. In Australia, I found that there are many socially isolated people who are in need of a friend and some unconditional love.

Ayya Yeshe with new hut for orphan Vicky
and his brother Pandu
I then went to India and tried to study Tibetan. I quickly realized that I would never be a scholar or be able to master the ancient Tibetan language that the texts were written in. I saw that in many Tibetan monasteries people don’t meditate as a group. The monasteries are often similar to high schools, orphanages, or refugee centers. However, there were many impressive masters who were meditating in caves or heading monasteries. I didn’t find the debating method to be a suitable method of study for me. An illiterate Tibetan village girl and a forty-year-old Western woman with a PhD might need different methods of training, even when the same basic texts are being used. I never felt accepted by Tibetans, who seemed to view me as a potential sponsor (even though I could hardly pay the rent on the slum house where I lived) rather than as a fellow community member. Tibetans were very focused on establishing their community-in-exile and on maintaining their own hierarchies and culture. Whenever funding for Western monastics (who run these centers) was discussed, it was vetoed. I found this extremely disheartening.

I did not want to spend the next twenty years of my life debating topics I found extremely dry, or remain removed from a suffering world poised on the eve of self-destruction. I wished to maintain my meditation and monastic contemplative practices, but also to be involved with the world. After all, the Buddha met with lay people every day, went to villages, and didn’t have an academic degree. He did praise solitude, however, and if a person has the merit to spend a lifetime in retreat, that is probably best.

I don’t presume to be a great master or to tell others the way to live. I am just a simple follower of the Buddha, but here I honestly set forth the path I have followed and the choices I have made in order to remain ordained and to fulfill my bodhisattva aspiration.

I have always been impressed by Saint Francis of Assisi. I love the stories of his life, his honesty, simplicity, and social engagement. Perhaps he was a little extreme, but he was obviously someone unafraid to follow the call and truth of his own heart, even if that meant he would be a social outcast. This seems to be the pattern of heroes, saints, and visionaries. First society tries to subjugate them, then it criticizes them, and then exiles them. Later on, it worships them for accomplishing something more brave, inspiring, spiritual, or virtuous than most humans can achieve.

I felt it was important to help preserve and continue the original full ordination for women that had been given by the Buddha. In many countries where it does not exist nuns are servants of monks, just cooking and washing their robes. At one point during these years I stayed at Plum Village in France. The monastics there embraced me like family and didn’t charge me to stay, unlike Tibetan centers. This was a very special time for me as I learned so much from Thich Nhat Hahn, who virtually invented “Socially Engaged Buddhism." After a wonderful time in Plum Village where I took full ordination as a nun (bhikshuni), I returned to India.

Children in the Bodhicitta Foundation Food Program
After a patchwork of study for several years, I found myself with a sincere wish for a more simple, meditative, and applied Dharma existence. I didn’t want to read one more exposition on compassion; I wanted to live it. I had seen some truly terrible things in India—a child four months old sold into slavery and dying due to apathy and greed, women in moldy nunneries praying to be born as men in the palatial monks’ temple next door, refugee nuns who were raped and then disrobed out of shame, children with leg irons being forced to beg, brothers who raped their sisters, and children who were sold into poverty and dying of starvation. But I also saw incredible beauty, love, selflessness, kindness, and community that I had never seen in my own country.

I could not turn my back on all these human sufferings. They changed me. How can you see a dead body on the train platform and then continue to do nothing to help the poor? That person died alone and unloved, homeless. How could I do nothing? When I was in Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha got enlightened, I saw that in the sacred site of the leader they worshipped, the international Buddhist community was building million-dollar golden temples with six-foot-high barbed-wire fences to keep out the poverty stricken locals. The gap between the haves and have-nots was truly shocking.

I saw girls in Bodhgaya who were half the size of Western women, married at thirteen without a choice to a man of equal poverty and illiteracy, beaten, subjugated, and uneducated. They would have seven or so kids, spend their life in an animal-like struggle for survival and be dead by forty-five. What have we given descendants of the Buddha’s followers to repay what this great man gave the world? As I was thinking about this, an Indian man came up to me and asked where he could find Buddhist teachings. It was then that I found out about the Ambedkarite movement—people from the ex-“untouchable” community who were basically slaves for thousands of years, forced to do the most degrading jobs, since 1956 had shaken off the shackles of slavery and discrimination and converted to Buddhism to escape the oppression of the Hindu caste system.

Computer training course, part of the
Women's Job Training Center
When I came to Nagpur and met the Ambedkarite Buddhists, I found a group of warm, friendly, and motivated people who were ready to fight and help themselves get out of poverty—it was a bodhisattva's paradise. For so long in Australia and with Tibetans I had been excluded. If I had tried to live on the generosity that non-traditional Buddhists had given me, sadly, I would be dead by now. But in the slums of India I was embraced as a monastic, and my two great passions—social justice and Dharma—came together.

Nagpur is a city of approximately three million people in central India. That is small by Indian standards. It’s dirty and industrial, but it’s fast growing and has a kind of optimism about it. No foreigners know about it, because there is nothing historical to see. It is 48 degrees Celcius in summer (that’s around 118 degrees Fahrenheit), and has slums with quite disturbing conditions. The majority of people in the slums are tribal or Dalit (former untouchables or low caste). People in the Nagpur slums are generally not social misfits, but rather simple village folk who have moved to the city in search of a better life.

In the beginning of my stay in Nagpur I went to many people's houses for food generosity (dana) and to offer prayers and teachings. Indians love to feed people and believe their house is blessed if a holy person comes and eats there. Over the years many people have tried to “capture” my blessing. I was moved by people's kindness, but I started to see that I wasn’t really making a difference in changing people’s minds, deepening their Dharma practice, or alleviating their poverty. I was just a curiosity and a prestige symbol—a white elephant. People would come to the temple with significant problems like malnutrition, dying children, disabilities, unemployment, domestic violence, depression, soul-destroying poverty, learning disabilities, and alcoholism. They wanted some chanting and a magical cure for a very significant problem. How could I hold in my arms a child dying of a curable disease and just chant over it? How could I, as a nun, see the poorest Buddhists in the world and do nothing? Some people have told me that social work is not the real job of a monk or nun. But I would ask how monks and nuns can do nothing while the world is in such a state.

Raising awareness of domestic violence
After one and a half years of visiting Nagpur and coming to understand the community I was working with, in consultation with them I started to develop social work projects. Basically I saw several key issues for them—quality employment, food security, healthcare, water, and education.

I have seen people die in a government hospital because the staff (who are paid little) have stolen the oxygen tanks to sell. Women give birth two to a bed and are given unnecessary caesarians because the doctors make more money that way. People with incurable diseases are bled to bankruptcy and then told they can’t be cured. Teachers collect names on their roles and then don’t teach the seventy-odd children in a class. Slum children who have been beaten by their teachers begged me to start a school for them. In short, the need far outstrips the supply.

We are a grassroots charity that provides free tuition to slum children as well as food to malnourished or underweight kids. We have a women's job-training facility and we take poor people to hospital. We also counsel people (mostly women) suffering from domestic violence.

Payal, age eleven, receives sponsorship
that helps pay for school
The thought that half the world lives on $1.25 a day and doesn’t have proper education, food, or drinking water and that 80 percent of the world's resources is in the hands of 2 percent of its population, or that someone would spend $1,000 on a handbag while people starve boggles my mind. I think there's nothing wrong with people being happy or having a good life, but I think we need a bit of perspective about what true happiness is and the difference between need and want. How can we be happy when 40,000 children die every day due to poverty? How can a man be happy when his wife has a black eye from his hand? How can we guzzle food and resources while others starve and then say it’s their own tough luck or that it’s because of their corrupt governments (when it’s often our own corrupt governments who have sold them weapons or propped up dictatorships)?

I believe happiness is not a personal matter; it’s a communal matter. Ultimately enlightenment is the only end to suffering. But if people's stomachs are empty they can’t reach their human potential for enlightenment; they can only fight like dogs. Humans shouldn’t have to live that way when there is enough for all of us.

At Bodhicitta Foundation we try to help people reach their human and spiritual potential. We address suffering holistically—emotionally, physically, and spiritually—and we try to “sweep away the dust” of negative emotions and delusion to reveal the deathless, whole and transcendent in everyone.

This has been my path as a nun. Who knows where the road ahead will lead.

For information on how to help, contact moondakini@hotmail.com or check out the Bodhicitta Foundation online.

Ayya Yeshe Bodhicitta: Bhiksuni

Shittal Nilima with Sister Yeshe
Ayya Yeshe Bodhicitta is the director of Bodhicitta Foundation, a grassroots charity alleviating poverty that works with some of the poorest and most oppressed Buddhists in the world—the Ambedkarite ex-“untouchable” community in central India. Born in Australia, at seventeen she discovered Buddhism while traveling in India. She trained in the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and has been a nun for thirteen years. In 2006 she took full ordination as a bhiksuni by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hahn.

Photos courtesy of Ayya Yeshe and the Bodhicitta Foundation

1 comment:

  1. Ayya yeshe.that was an amazing story and im so proud of your determination to succeed.i hope when im well enough to come and help in someway.teaching or councilling etc or just helping in anyway.much llove.sadhuuuuu:)