Monday, October 5, 2015

The Great Theris

by Roshi Joan Halifax

The Theris, or First Nuns, have long been a mystery to Buddhist women. They stand like a lovely mountain range covered in mist, not visible but their presence is felt. As Buddhism has met the modern world, more and more women are practicing. So also are women taking great responsibility as the heads of monasteries, as Dharma teachers and scholars. And many of us wish to know and express our gratitude to our women ancestors.

Photo 1: Artist Mayumi Oda with Upaya's
Mahapajapati Statue
It is in our generation that more is being learned about the women who joined the Buddha’s Sangha 2500 years ago. Their presence in early Buddhism created a revolution in social values that only now is beginning to come to fruition in our modern cultures.

I am a Western woman, a Dharma teacher, and the founder and abbot of a monastery in the United States. I went to Thailand in February 2002, to attend the Aryavinaya meeting inspired by the Thai social activist Sulak Shivaraksa. Prior to my journey to Thailand, I had learned about a brave woman and scholar who had been recently ordained as a Samaneri (novice nun) by Bhikkshunis in Sri Lanka. Her name was Samaneri Dhammananda. This was the first such ordination of a woman in Thailand in 1000 years as the nun’s line had died out a millenium ago. I asked one of the conference coordinators if I could possibly stay with the Samaneri after the meeting. I wanted to meet this courageous person, to practice with her friends, and learn more about her journey.

I met the Samaneri at the meeting and was very moved by her presence. She spoke with profound conviction about the importance of allowing women to become fully ordained. After the meeting, I made my way to her nunnery to take a deep retreat. While there, we discovered we had much in common. We took refuge in each other, as I was weary from many problems in my country and community, and she was weary from the active resistance to her ordination. We realized that we both felt quite isolated, had few peers accessible to us, and we gave each other great support as we explored ways in which we could renew ourselves and as well continue our work in and for the world.

As I began to learn more about the situation in Thailand as well as other parts of Asia concerning the rights of women in the Buddhist community, I began to think about the icons of Buddhism that reflect our values. I realized that there were few images of women, especially in Southeast Asia. At that time, I knew of no statues of Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s stepmother who bravely became the first nun.

Photo 2: Bhikkhuni Dhammananda at Sakyadhita Conference in Indonesia in 2015
I was to learn from Samaneri Dhammananda that in fact there was a small temple in the middle of Bangkok where there was a collection of statues of the first nuns. She had never visited the temple, and we both decided this was the time for such a visit. But before we went, we stopped by a sculpture studio to explore commissioning a statue of Mahapajapati, if that seemed appropriate.

We made our way to Wat Rajnaddarama, and found the guard who opened this sanctuary for us. This little temple was built by King Rama III for his niece on the occasion of his birthday. On entering the temple, we stood in front of the most wondrous sight of 53 Theris, each uniquely carved. At the head of this retinue of diverse beauty was a larger statue of Mahapajapati. This was an overwhelming and beautiful sight for us, one that moved us to tears.

The two of us then traveled back to the sculpture studio and met with the artist. We were very excited about the project. So much of our work in the world has been about inspiring women. We realized that the creation of the statue might be of benefit to those who practice deeply and are supported by inspiration from the feminine, particularly the courageous nuns of the time of the Buddha.

We wanted Mahapajapati’s face to be mature. After all she became a nun when she was nearly 60, and she had endured much suffering. We also wanted her hand gestures to reflect the interconnected aspects of courageous and generous action and profound contemplation. So her right hand is in the mudra of giving no fear, and her left hand is in the mudra of meditation. We wanted her robes alive, soft, and realistic and the contours of her body to reflect her motherly qualities. We wanted the sculpture to be in the Gandharan style as we felt that this period of sculpture radiated compassion, beauty and reality.

This project took more than a year: it took time to help the sculptor to mature her face and refine the details of her hands, body, and robes. Fortunately, Bhikkshuni Dhammananda (as my good friend is now fully ordained) was the guide through this long process. She sent me photos along the way so I could make recommendations. And now, Mahapajapati is here in our midst.

Photo 3: Mahapajapati statue at Upaya Zen Center

She was brought to Upaya by Pairin Jotisakulratana, who lived here that fall and winter at the recommendation of Bhikkshuni Dhammananda. We opened her eyes during a large women’s retreat at the end of July where women from all over the world gathered to renew their commitment to social action and health.

I am so grateful to have had this precious opportunity to be part of seeing the birth of Mahapajapati in our time. May she guide us all home, as she guided her sisters and friends 2500 years ago.

This article is originally published at https://www.upaya.org/2015/03/great-theris-roshi-joan-halifax/

Photo courtesy:
Photo 1: courtesy of Upaya Zen Center
Photo 2: courtesy of Olivier Adam
Photo 3: courtesy of Roshi Joan Halifax

Joan Halifax Roshi: Founding Abbot of Upaya Zen Center

Joan Halifax Roshi is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and author. She is founder, abbot, and head teacher of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She studied for a decade with Zen teacher Seung Sahn and was a teacher in the Kwan Um Zen School. She received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh, and was given Inka by Roshi Bernie Glassman. A founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order, her work and practice for more than three decades has focused on engaged Buddhism. She is a frequent participant in dialogues with His Holiness the Dalai Lama exploring the intersection of modern science and Buddhism. 

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