AMERICAN BUDDHIST WOMEN

Quarterly Electronic MagaZine from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 15 Summer 2017

We began the 2600-Year Anniversary of the Bhikkhuni Sangha & the Buddha’s Fourfold Community with a special commemorative issue of Sakyadhita USA’s American Buddhist Women. We now bookend the end of this anniversary year which spanned the 2016 to 2017 September full moons. We revisit events and developments of this past year, and what has been learned and observed of the “State of the Bhikkhunis” in the author's international travels during this time.

From Revival to Renaissance

“State of the Bhikkhunis” at the end of

the 2600th Bhikkhunī Anniversary Year

by Tathālokā Therī

The doctor of Chinese Traditional Medicine in the San Francisco South Bay said: “your body tells me that you have touched back into the source of your lineage.” I could only laugh, as I had traveled the globe this past year—more than planned!—with a unexpected and unprecedented side trip from Australasia to the “Dhamma Isle” of Sri Lanka for helpful traditional indigenous medical treatment that had been offered.

Saṅghamittā Therī’s arrival in Sri Lanka with the sacred Bo tree (still living in the Sacred City, Anuradhapura). Wall mural, World Fellowship of Buddhists headquarters, Bauddhaloka Malwatta, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

While most people would consider India to be the homeland of the Buddha and thus the source of our Buddhist lineage, the “Dhamma Isle” off its southeastern coast has in fact preserved a vital link to our ancient Buddhist heritage, which is just beginning to be seriously revived in India, but is palpable in so many ways and places in Sri Lanka—not the least of which, the ancient “Sacred City” area of Anuradhapura  and Mihintale.

Entrance to Mihintale - statues of Saṅghamittā Therī, Mahinda Thero, Emperor Ashoka (foreground: on the Indian side) and King Devanampiyatissa, Anulā Devī and the minister Ariṭṭha (behind: on the Sri Lankan side) show the transmission of the lamp of the Buddhadhamma and Saṅgha from India to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE.

On breaks between the courses of Sri Lankan indigenous medical treatment, dedicated friends of the Sangha offered and joined me and my Sri Lanka-Australian bhikkhunī companion, Ven. Kāruṇikā, on a very special  pilgrimage  to these ancient sites of Buddhism, including the place where Emperor Ashoka’s bhikkhuni daughter Saṅghamittā Therī brought and planted the southern branch of the Mahā Bodhi tree and established our bhikkhunīs’ lineage and saṅgha nearly two and a half millennia ago. Everywhere I went, I saw reminders of Saṅghamittā and the sacred Bo tree she brought.

(Left) Author viewing great wall mural of Saṅghamittā Therī’s arrival in Sri Lanka at Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, Kelaniya, Sri Lanka.

Sitting beneath that ancient tree itself, touching my face to the stone base of her stupa, meditating on the ancient and well-worn rocks of the millennium-old monasteries there, I felt a sense of the depth of that connection pass through the body into the feelings, heart, mind and consciousness.

Sunrise at the feet of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, the southern branch of the tree under which the Buddha gained complete awakening, brought by Saṅghamittā Therī to Sri Lanka, in the Sacred City, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

Happy to be in this very special place on earth—touched by sunrise through the leaves of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, with bhikkhunī companion, Ven. Kāruṅikā, from Dhammasara Monastery in Australia.

There  may  be  nearly  as  many  as  three  thousand  Theravada bhikkhunīs in Sri Lanka today—more than anywhere else in the world—with the revival of our lineage and bhikkhunis’ community having begun 30 years ago in 1987-8 and gaining major ground 20 years ago in 1996, 1997 and 1998 with the ordinations in Bodhgaya, India (the site of  the Buddha’s great awakening), which were directly followed on by a revival of bhikkhuni ordination in  Sri Lanka itself. Women now come to Sri Lanka from around the world to train and ordain as bhikkhunis—from places in Asia like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, and from places farther away both in distance and culture like USA, Australia and  Europe.

Ven. Sobhanā Therī (left of alter) and Ven. Tathālokā Mahā Therī (right of alter) at the new Dhammadharini Monastery (Dhammadharini Sonoma Mountain Bhikkhuni Arama) in Sonoma County, Northern California — pictured here with Ven. Suvijjanā Bhikkhunī (second right of center) and Sāmaṇerī Niyyānikā (third right of center). Day of Vesak 2017.

Dhammadharini Sangha’s three teaching bhikkhunīs remembering the Buddha’s awakening beneath the Bodhi tree with a seed child of the Maha Bodhi tree in India at Dhammadharini Monastery: (l-r) Ayyā Suvijjānā, Ayyā Sobhaṇā, Ayyā Tathālokā.

More than twenty years ago, it was a Sri Lanka bhikkhu saṅgha led by my late preceptor Ven. Havanpola Ratanasāra that offered my own full ordination as a bhikkhunī here in USA, with the support of first generation Sakyadhita USA member Ven. Karuna Dharma. More than ten years ago, the vice-abbess of my own Dhammadharini community in California, Ven. (Ayya) Sobhaṇā Therī, was sent to Dambulla in Sri Lanka to train and ordain by her teacher Ven. Henepola Gunaratana Nāyaka Thero (the famous “Bhante G” of the classic, Mindfulness in Plain English and it’s sequel, and founder of the Bhavana Society’s forest monastery in West Virginia), who himself has been such an important groundbreaker and luminary in the bhikkhunī revival.

 

The founding Sakyadhita Conference 30 years ago in India played a very important galvanizing role, and the subsequently founded Sakyadhita - Sri Lanka played and continues to play a very important leading role, offering bhikkhunī ordinations in India since 1996, and developing the first International Bhikkhunis’ Training Centre in Sri Lanka not long after. While other bhikkunī training centers are  arising, the sīmā of the Sakyadhita Center continues to be one of the main places where bhikkhunīs from around the world, including Thailand, Burma, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as now also the newly re-established bhikkhunī saṅgha of Bangladesh, come and ordain.  Nowhere in the world can one so clearly feel the heritage of our Theravāda Bhikkhunī Saṅgha as in Sri Lanka in modern times.

Visiting Sakyadhita International Training Center, Sri Lanka. Pictured with Sakyadhita chief bhikkhunī Ven. Vijithanandā (right) and Ven. Kāruṇikā Bhikkhunī from Dhammasara Monastery in Australia (left).

The sīmā where so many international bhikkhunī ordinations have occurred at Sakyadhita International Training Center, Sri Lanka. Pictured with Sakyadhita chief bhikkhunī Ven. Vijithanandā (second from right), the late Ven. Bhikkhunī Shantanandā (first on right), Ven. Kāruṇikā Bhikkhunī from Dhammasara Monastery in Australia (dark brown robes), the author (rust saffron robes), and bhikkhunīs from Thailand (center left orange robes, and resident bhikkhunī (left).

Still, the situation for bhikkhunis on the Dhamma Isle is not without challenges. Although widely accepted in society and with many leading bhikkhu supporters, there is no formal legal acceptance of bhikkhunīs yet at the top levels of institutionalized, State-connected Bhikkhu Saṅgha hierarchies. With that come challenges at the government level as well, with bhikkhunīs not receiving various government supports  that bhikkhus are regularly provided. This results in a kind of gendered discrimination in Buddhism both antithetical to its empowering and inspiring ancient heritage and also not normally present in other spheres of contemporary Sri Lankan culture, such as equal access to education, medical care, and freedom of travel, which are freely equally available for women and men in society, but not equally available for Buddhist monastic women as compared to men in monastic life. It is of concern when adaptations which may have been made within a more flexible Buddhism in the past in order to be legal and accord with past society and culture, are carried into and inflexibly held in present societies and cultures that do not legally require such gendered discrimination. In such cases, rather than Buddhism offering the very best opportunities for women possible within a culture (as I believe we see in past), the dynamic changes and becomes a restrictive one, where Buddhism itself becomes a cause and a upholder of discrimination, within societies and cultures that have evolved and now offer far greater opportunities.

 

A further complication is that of parallel movements based on the ambiguity mentioned above. While the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha has been revived, at the same time, the status of the dāsa-sīla-mātas (ten-precept-nuns) has also been upgraded. In theory this seems good. And yet, many people do not know or understand the difference between  the two, both among the lay populace and even among the women’s monastic communities. Ten precept nuns have in some cases adopted wearing the patchwork saffron monastic robe (originally not allowed for those who have not legally “gone forth” to the Sangha), making the ten-precept nuns impossible to visually differentiate from bhikkhunīs and sāmaṇerīs.  This has led to a measure of ongoing confusion and unclarity in Sri Lanka not shared with other countries such as  Thailand, where the eight-precept maechees wear white un-patched  robes which are easy to visually distinguish from saffron-patchwork robe wearing sāmaṇerīs and bhikkhunīs. Because of this, in contemporary Thailand, people can understand the distinction between the different forms of women’s renunciation and their male parallels much more easily.

 

Returning to Sri Lanka, negative gender stereotypes and associated behavioral patterns taken in earlier from Brahmanism and later from colonial Christianity which have pervaded the different forms of women’s renunciation in Theravāda Buddhism in the absence of the ancient Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, can still be found held by many (but certainly not all) bhikkhunīs and dāsa-sīl women renunciates. These take time to be able to see clearly and to work out. The absence of luminary exemplary senior bhikkhunīs made for a dearth of excellent, noble and empowered same-gender role models for women  renunciates. However, as the years pass and the bhikkhunīs do the work of the Buddha’s path, such luminary senior bhikkhunī role models are beginning, not only to appear but, now year by year, to further deepen and grow in the exemplary nature of their practice.

 

This bodes well for the Theravāda traditions, for all of Buddhism, and for our whole world. And it is not only happening in South and Southeast Asia, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam…but in the West as well.

 

This last year’s travels during our Bhikkhunī Saṅgha 2600 Anniversary year were not only from USA to Sri Lanka, but also to Australasia, to Australia and New Zealand. In New Zealand, I found not only waiting aspirants to bhikkhunī life of all ages (from age seven to sixty!), but also friends of the Sangha, together with the first Kiwi bhikkhunī, Ven. Adhimuttī, ready and willing to take progressive steps with the newly-registered  NZ Bhikkhuni Sangha Trust towards offering the support for bhikkhunis’ practice, study and  teaching.

The author and first Kiwi bhikkhunī Ayyā Adhimuttī at Pirongia te Aroaro—“Fragrance of Presence” Forest Park, Waikato, New Zealand.

Members and advisors of the newly registered New Zealand Bhikkhuni Sangha Trust meet at Kihikihi Meditation and Yoga in the Waikato, New Zealand 2017.

In Australia, bhikkhunīs’ monasteries like Dhammasāra, established three decades ago for ten-precept nuns and converted over to being bhikkhunīs’ monasteries within the past decade with the support of Ajahn Brahm and the Buddhist Society of Western Australia, now have better facilities than perhaps any other bhikkhunīs’ training monastery in the world and are well used by a thriving bhikkhunī sangha and greater community. It is truly beautiful and inspiring to see so much support well met by so many sincere and dedicated women from different backgrounds, harmoniously united in the Buddha’s path of practice. And to see such a fine and thriving example of the Fourfold Community of the Buddha as with the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. Seeing and experiencing this, all of the troubles and rigorous efforts seem worthwhile. We see the next stage, the next generation—what we worked so hard for.

The new sālā complex at Dhammasara Monastery in Western Australia. Dhammasara is the bhikkhunīs monastery of the BSWA (Buddhist Society of Western Australia) of which Ajahn Brahm is the Spiritual Director. Photo courtesy of Dhammasara website.

Bhikkhunī Saṅgha Kaṭhina in the new sālā at Dhammasara Nuns Monastery in Western Australia. Photo courtesy of Dhammasara website.

In fact, in both Australia and in the USA, the third generation in the Theravāda bhikkhunī revival are coming to be ordained. Within three decades, the earlier pioneer bhikkhunī preceptors can see the disciples of their disciples fully entering the Saṅgha—the door not closed, but open with a “welcome” sign and therī and mahātherī bhikkhunī teachers to guide them.

Map of bhikkhunī monasteries, vihāras and hermitages in North America 2017, courtesy of Brenna Artinger {link}.

Here in the USA and North America, the number of places for bhikkhunīs and those places with senior bhikkhunī teachers has  grown exponentially. Not only is there just one place, or two, or even three, but now a variety of places and teachers to welcome the new aspirants who arrive and inquire. This is a growing strength of our bhikkhunīs’ communities, enabling a much wider variety of women with different personalities and inclinations to be able to go forth, train, ordain and flourish. It doesn’t have to be just one way! This has long been the strength of the Theravada bhikkhus’ communities, providing for a great variety of needs and personalities among those who have gone forth into the monastic life. Now too, in the U.S. and greater North American bhikkhunīs’ communities, the emphasis  begins to shift from efforts towards revival to efforts towards flourishing, from renascence  to renaissance.

Bhikkhunīs from Dhammadharini and Aloka Vihara in Northern California. Pictured here at the old temporary Dhammadharini Vihara. The new “permanent” Dhammadharini Monastery was inaugurated a few miles away after ten years of preparations in July of 2016.

Bhikkhunīs from many countries resident in North America gather for International Tipitaka Chanting in Berkeley, California. Bhikkhunīs pictured here are born in America, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand. In 2016, for the first time, an international group of bhikkhunīs led one of the sessions of the Tipitaka Chanting, which had previously been led by bhikkhus alone {link}.

Bhikkhunī Saṅgha gathered for the full ordination of Ven. Ahiṁsa Bhikkhunī at Buddhi Vihara in Santa Clara California in late August 2017. Ven. Ahiṁsa is from Canada, her bhikkhunī preceptor, Ven. Gunasārī Therī is from Burma and resident at Mahāpajāpatī Monastery in Yucca Valley, California, and her teachers Ayyā Ānandabodhi and Ayyā Santacittā, the co-founders of Aloka Vihara in the Sierra Foothills in northeastern California, are from Wales and Austria respectively. Bhikkhunīs gathered from around North America for Ven. Ahiṁsa’s full acceptance as a bhikkhunī.

Renascence is rebirth, while renaissance is a great flowering and florescence. Within our Theravāda bhikkhunīs’ communities there is now enough seniority and practice amongst us to be able to begin to deeply consider and begin to engage with the most serious and deepest work of this path of practice at the sangha community level as well as on the personal and inter-personal level. This work is to truly become the heirs and owners of our revived tradition and to act with full awareness and full agency, not only for ourselves but for the Saṅgha and the greater society in which we are embedded. This is the work of the next 30 years and the next century.

 

Here in the U.S.A., we do not so naturally and so easily receive the same amount of basic requisite support on the ground level that comes so easily for our bhikkhunī sisters living in the Buddhist cultures of South and Southeast Asia. Buddhist monasticism itself is not so well established here, and renunciate monastic communities where the monastics train themselves in the old precepts of gift economy (including non-possession and non-use of money) are comparatively rare even among bhikkhus. We share in this work from the ground up, but without the same level of backing and  support from highly-established transnational networks and support from Asia  as our  bhikkhu brothers enjoy. Still, slowly, with much effort and care, these networks are beginning to be grown and spread for bhikkhunīs as well, and with them, new generations of both Asian-Americans, and also Euro-Americans, (and hopefully soon also more African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Native-Americans), increasingly experience the heart-opening joys of such renunciation, presence, generosity and loving kindness—values so needed in our contemporary culture and world. Sometimes tears of joy flow where these values arise, like touching into a deep, pure spring of sweet water in the desert or coming out of a burning house.

 

Ven. Bhikkhunī Sucittā Therī reordaining in the Theravāda tradition on the August 2017 full moon at Dhammadharini Monastery in Penngrove. These days women are becoming Theravāda bhikkhunīs coming from lay life, or from being some other form of not-fully ordained Therāvada woman renunciate, or transferring from Mahāyana and Zen Buddhism.

As we are interconnected, we are growing together with one another, awakening and discovering the unfolding stages of the Path together. This is the State of our mutually-interdependent, reawakening Bhikkhunī Saṅgha.

About the Author

 

Venerable (Ayya) Tathālokā Therī is an American-born member of the Buddhist Monastic Sangha with a background in Zen and Theravāda Buddhism. Ayya Tathaloka began her journey into monastic life nearly thirty years ago, and was fully ordained as a bhikkhunī by the Sri Lanka Sangha in Southern California in early 1997, with  the late Ven. Havanpola Ratanasāra as preceptor.

 

In 2005 she co-founded Dhammadharini "Women Upholding the Dhamma" and the first Theravādan Buddhist women's monastic community  for  bhikkhunīs  in the United  States, in Northern California. Inspired by Buddhist Forest traditions, in 2008, she went on to co-found Aranya Bodhi Awakening Forest Hermitage, a rustic off-grid women's monastic retreat on the Sonoma Coast. In 2009, Ayya Tathaloka became the first Western woman to be appointed a Preceptor for bhikkhunī ordination in Theravāda Buddhism, serving in groundbreaking women's ordinations in both Australia and California.  In 2016, her community realized a longterm dream, opening an accessible "permanent" new Dhammadharini Monastery at the western foot of Sonoma Mountain in Penngrove.

 

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