Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 15 Summer 2017
Bhikkhuni Pannavati. Photo courtesy Ven. Pannavati.
Ven. Pannavati is a social activist and Buddhist teacher. An often-quoted phrase describes how she walks in the world. "It is fine to sit in temples and meditate and pray when things are good," she says. "When they are not, we are compelled to get off our pillows and do something."
A Theravada nun who deliberately walks the way of the bodhisattva, she is co-founder and co-abbot of Embracing Simplicity Hermitage and co-founder of Heartwood Refuge, a new intentional community and residential retreat and conference center in Hendersonville, NC.
Ven. Pannavati's work with homeless youth in the US, Dalit communities in India, and bhikkhunis in Thailand has brought international recognition. Recipient of the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award in 2009, she was one of the first 50 nuns to receive the Global Bhikkhuni Award from the Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association of Taiwan in 2016 and now serves as a US Vice President for the newly established World Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association.
A one-time Baptist minister and real estate developer, she has master’s degrees in education and business, and a doctorate in religion. She now teaches the Dharma throughout the US and beyond. She is likely the world's first African American bhikkhuni of the Theravada tradition.
Ven. Pannavati brings the rich diversity of her experience into a single focus: to walk the path laid out by the Buddha. She and her community aspire "to study hard, practice well, and pour our hearts out to the world."
measure of his stature,' and I wondered why that wasn't happening. Jesus said, 'I'm the light of the world,' and he toldhis disciples that they were too. I wondered at what time does this mature and blossom in us? When was I going to start becoming the light of the world?"
After years of questioning, Ven. Pannavati had a vision where Jesus revealed the doors she needed to open to fulfill her quest. "That was all I needed," she said. "The next morning, I took my congregation to a friend's church and I left them there. I said, 'I cannot take you with me, because I don't know where I'm going, but the one in whom I believe told me to walk through that door.' And that was it."
After the vision experience, the first person Ven. Pannavati met gave her a book on dependent origination. The cover showed the Tibetan iconography of a fierce-looking Lord of Death holding the wheel of life in its mouth.
"I looked at that book and held up the sign of the cross," she laughed. "I said, 'I'm not even opening that book! It's the devil's book!' And I missed my opportunity. It took 15 years for the Dharma to come back around to me again. But that was okay. In that time, I touched almost every spiritual tradition you can think of, and so I was ready. When the Dharma came again, I jumped in with both feet."
Ven. Pannavati's spiritual search led her to Taoism and after several years of practice, she had the opportunity to spend time with her master's master in China. Although she was offered a hermit's cave by the Taoists, her grandmaster announced that Buddhism was "for" her. After performing a special paper burning ritual to cut the family cords, he took her to a Chan nunnery where she took novice precepts.
The Chan nuns instructed Ven. Pannavati to return to the US and enter a Chan monastery for training, but she couldn't find an English-speaking Chan temple in the Washington, DC area. However, there was a Tibetan Buddhist center nearby, where she began to study the lam rim—the graduated path—teachings.
"Then a monk gave me a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya, the Middle Length Discourses in the Theravada tradition," she recalled. "Reading them I felt like I could literally eat the pages out of the book, it was so sweet for me. Even now, I have goose bumps just reading those original suttas. All three practices—Chan, Vajrayana, and Theravada—roll together seamlessly with me. However, coming out of a charismatic Christian experience, the Theravada suttas gave me the grounding I needed, and I loved it."
Meeting the Need
Ven. Pannavati speaks of her humanitarian or social service work as simply "meeting whatever need is in front of me." With that view, she provided food and shelter for 85 homeless youth in Hendersonville until they graduated from high school. Then, to help train them for jobs, she opened a bakery and created a state-certified training program for the culinary arts.
She was also invited to help the Dalits in India. "I got an email from a Dalit activist leader asking me to come. He had Googled 'black Buddhist nun,' and I'm the only one that came up. They wanted a woman, because they felt their greatest time in history was under a matriarchal society. And so I went."
"Dalits" is the name adopted by the lowest caste of Indian society, the Untouchables. Historically, people born into that caste are considered unclean by nature. To this day they face discrimination and even violence. Since India's democratic independence in 1947, Dalit activists have worked to carve out a place in society, and many Dalits have converted to Buddhism because of Buddha's teachings on the equality of the classes.
In India, Ven. Pannavati discovered the wretched physical conditions of the Dalit people. “They literally were drinking, cooking with, and bathing in the waste water that came from the village upstream," she said. So with her builder's background, she raised funds and helped build wells, provide toilets, and support schools, eventually adopting 10 Dalit villages.
Ven. Pannavati also teaches the Dharma. "It's a lot to establish the Dharma among the Dalits," she said. "The Dalit activists have focused on how the Dharma supports their advancement in society, and while that is important, it does not offer the true refuge that the Buddha intended."
"For example," she continued, "they might be taking a positive action, but doing it in an unwholesome way. I had to teach them that however much we strive, we have to strive in accordance with the true Dharma and live within the precepts. And that teaching has made a difference. Now, the villagers understand things like not stealing or not even having it in your heart to kill someone who rapes your wife or daughter."
"The tricky part is this: When people are living in such awful conditions, how do you talk to them about turning the other cheek or having compassion for those who appear to be your enemy?"
"Part of what enabled me to work with them,' Ven. Pannavati conceded, "is that they respect my personal journey. They respect that I am a product of the 60s Civil Rights movement. They respect my story and the things I have endured—the KKK coming to my door, for example—and just what it is like to be living black in America. With that background I could teach about ahimsa—non-harming—and karma and they couldn't say, 'Well you don't understand. You don't know what it's like,' because to some extent I do. "
In her unique role as a black Theravada nun, one might think Ven. Pannavati would attract an African American following, but it hasn't turned out that way. "It's a little bit perplexing," she said." But I'm also not invested in my blackness in that way. I don't depend on anyone 'out there' for my sense of myself and who I am. That's my message to people of color (POC). I'm not okay because white folks say I'm okay. I'm okay when I know my okayness inside." She says ninety-nine percent of her students are white.
"Although I am criticized by a few POC leaders for saying it publicly, I think the Dharma is color blind and it can take care of whatever illness we have around perceptions." For Ven. Pannavati, practicing Dharma is the most lasting and effective way to address social issues.
Nuns Helping Nuns
Naturally, Ven. Pannavati's mission to help where help is needed has led to support for nuns. She has helped to guide Thai bhikkhunis in six nunneries of the International Women’s Meditation Center based in Rayong, Thailand, and has been instrumental in ordaining nuns in Cambodia as well. She is an adviser for the Sisters of Compassionate Wisdom, a newly formed order of Western Buddhist nuns in the US.
From the time of her ordination in China, Ven. Pannavati has seen the generosity of Asian nuns, both spiritually and materially. She thinks American Buddhists can learn from their example.
"Both in the lay and monastic communities, I think Westerners need more encouragement and development around uprooting opinions and preferences. We can see from the example of the Asian nuns that people can work together and do something that really benefits humanity when we decide opinions and preferences won't be so much in play," she said.
"Of course, in Asia, they have thousands of years of building respect for the Triple Gem," she went on. "But we in the West have never had it, so it's difficult for us to understand about putting the Dharma first or above our personal preferences and views. And working together really requires cultivating and developing that kind of attitude. It's a sense of sacrifice."
"Sacrifice is kind of a dirty word," Ven. Pannavati reflected. "It appears to be something that requires so much from us. But I'll tell you, sacrifice does not. It's self-centeredness that requires so much of us. And if we could really get that on a deep level, it would change our understanding of Buddhism and the path of a bodhisattva."
"I feel a little too much of our Western Buddhism is around the self: how to be happier with our things, how to look at things so we're less stressed. But the Buddha's teaching is this: I'm less stressed when I don’t think of you as my enemy. I'm less stressed when I'm not so worried about what's going to happen to me and my and mine. I don't even have time to think about that when I'm concerned about you."
"So," she concluded, "I just love the example of the Asian nuns, as demonstrated by their support for the Global Bhikkhuni Awards. You can see how they work together to do something really grand that supports a lot of people. For example, they have offered a college education to the Thai nuns of Ven. Dr. Lee’s International Women’s Meditation Center in Rayong. All 50 or 60 of them!"
Heartwood Refuge Center
Ven. Pannavati is, herself, in the process of doing "something really grand that supports a lot of people." With co-founder Pannadipa Bhikhu, she has spent the last year restoring a derelict 90-bedroom resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains of eastern North Carolina as the home of the Heartwood Refuge Center. She says the project is 70% complete.
"Bhante Pannadipa has been an inspiration and a protection for me as a solitary nun for 15 years. Now, we are both nearing the end of our lives," she explained. He is approaching 80 and she is close 70. "We wondered what we could leave that can continue when we're gone. I thought about how, in the beginning, there was no place for me to go study and train in the US. So we thought, 'What if we could build a center, pay for it, and leave it for others to carry on?' And not just a center for one tradition, but a place where we could come to know our sisters and brothers in the various traditions within the Dharma, and also for brothers and sisters who are on some other part of the path of truth and righteousness."
"So that's what Heartwood Refuge is about," she said. "It's wonderful. But restoring these buildings is some hard work, I'll tell you."
Boarded up for 10 years, the resort was in bad shape but came at a good price. With her background in construction and business, Ven. Pannavati has the skill to lead the restoration and raise the necessary funds to complete the project. In its first year, Heartwood Refuge has already offered more than 20 retreats facilitated by respected teachers and will host the 22nd Annual Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering in October.
"We'll have a residential community—monastic and lay," said Ven. Pannavati. "And we'll train some people to go forth with missions and in service. We're bringing the four-fold sangha together—male and female, monastic and lay—who can practice together and create a container so that when people come they can enter an illuminated environment."
Ven. Pannavati's lifelong spiritual quest led her to the Buddha's path, which, for her, is the way of the bodhisattva. For all her Dharma efforts in teaching, practicing, and social service, she clearly pursues her aim to become the light of the world.
Meeting the Dharma
A deeply religious child, Ven. Pannavati was raised Baptist, experienced speaking in tongues, and worshipped with the Pentacostals before receiving the call to lead a charismatic congregation. She explained how she came to the Buddhadharma.
"I was a pastor and had been for a long time," she recalled. "I didn’t have any problems with Jesus or God or the Bible. Where I had a problem is that I believed the scriptures, where it says that we could 'come up to the fullness of the