Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 15 Summer 2017
One morning last summer, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta, co-founders of Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery, each received a letter by email. Adorned with a golden lotus and Chinese characters at the top, the letter began, "This is to inform you that you have been selected by a committee of distinguished Buddhist women masters as a recipient of the Global Bhikkhuni Award."
"It came out of the blue," Ayya Anandabodhi laughed. "At first, we thought it was a hoax!"
But the letters were genuine. To commemorate their 20th anniversary, the Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association (CBBA) of Taiwan established the award to honor "bhikkhunis the world over who have made significant contributions to the Buddhist community."
The CBBA recognized Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta for founding Aloka Vihara, a training monastery for women to ordain as Buddhist nuns in the Theravada tradition, located in Placerville, California. In addition, Ayya Anandabodhi's letter cited "your consistent patience and perseverance in your personal cultivation, which shines forth in your Dharma teachings."
For Ayya Anandabodhi, that "personal cultivation" began as a teenager in Wales, UK. "I was in a bit of a mess," she recalled. "I was quite depressed and looking for something that would help me to survive life. Some intuition came that I needed to learn to meditate."
The future Anandabodhi spread the word that she was looking for someone to teach meditation, but rural Wales was not heavily populated with meditation instructors. However, someone lent her a book on Buddhism. "It had a couple of chapters on meditation practice," she said, "which I had absolutely zero understanding of how to apply. But when I read the teachings, particularly on the Four Noble Truths, it was a complete revolution and revelation. From then on I had confidence in the Buddha and a strong wish to understand the teachings more." She was fourteen.
She was twenty when Ayya Anandabodhi first learned about monks and monasteries in Thailand. "I immediately knew that's what I wanted to do—to be a Buddhist nun. I wanted to live the teachings." Four years later, she visited Amaravati Monastery in Hertfordshire, England. That was it. Ayya Anandabodhi trained at Amaravati and at Chithurst Monastery, in the lineage of Ajahn Chah's Thai Forest Tradition, for 17 years.
Although she had the instinctive wish to become a Buddhist nun, the status of nuns in the Thai Forest Tradition was not clear. "I was aware, even before I went to the monastery, that there was a huge discrepancy between monks and nuns," she said. "We learned straightaway that it was impossible to be a bhikkhuni in the Theravada tradition. So, I believed and accepted that. That was just the way it was." In fact, the opportunity for the Chithurst and Amaravati women to train in the monastery at all was unique in Theravada Buddhism.
Long ago, India's great King Asoka, responding to an invitation from the King of Sri Lanka, dispatched his bhikkhu son and, later, his bhikkhuni daughter to found the sangha there. Both lineages flourished. However, around the turn of the first millennium, the Chola Dynasty invaded from India, nearly wiping out Buddhism and the monastic orders. In the later Sri Lankan Buddhist revival, only the bhikkhu sangha was reinstated. From then on, throughout Southeast Asia, the possibility of ordination was lost to women. This was the situation when the Thai Forest Tradition came to the West.
Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah, with his senior Western disciple, Ajahn Sumedho, founded Chithurst Buddhist Monastery in 1979. Women as well as men were attracted to the contemplative life of the Thai Forest Tradition.
"It became clear in England that something had to be done for the women," Ayya Anandabodhi explained. "They had men coming into the community and going into the white robes of an anagarika trainee and then, after a couple of years, becoming bhikkhus (monks). In contrast, there were women coming in and going into white robes and that was it. There was no future ordination. They remained in that position of servitude without a chance to go forth."
"After four years," she continued, "that clearly became untenable in the UK." Ajahn Sumedho went to Thailand seeking permission from specific sympathetic elders to give nuns the ten novice precepts. "At that time in Thailand, it was illegal to give novice ordination to a woman, so it was controversial."
Having secured permission, Ajahn Sumedho gave the ten precepts to four women in 1983. Over time, Ajahn Sucitto, the monk charged with training the nuns, devised a body of rules that drew from the bhikkhuni and sramanera—novice—precepts, thus creating the new siladhara form of ordination for women.
Ayya Anandabodhi said, as a training, it was a very good form. "We had good training, support of the requisites, and access to teachings. To me it was amazing and wonderful that I was able to live like that—to get my life on track, to deepen my practice and hear from other teachers, and to live in a community of nuns. It was everything I wanted. It was great for a long time."
Eventually, however, the inequality between bhikkus and siladhara nuns began to chafe. "There was a strong difference in the hierarchy with the monks being senior to the nuns," Ayya Anandabodhi recalled. "After a few years, I began to feel that the nuns needed their own space to find out how they would do without being with monks."
Land of the Free
Abhayagiri is a branch monastery in the Ajahn Chah lineage founded in California in 1995. From time to time, senior siladhara had visited Abhayagiri to teach in the nearby communities. American women, arguably more assertive about equality than their British counterparts, had enjoyed learning Dharma with the monks, but they also wanted to learn from nuns. An enthusiastic group of laywomen took action, founding Saranaloka Foundation in 2005, a nonprofit stewardship organization. Later, they invited the Amaravati and Chithurst siladhara to establish a training monastery for nuns in the U.S.
At first, the siladhara were skeptical. "America wasn't number one on the list of any of the nuns, “Anandabodhi said, "but we realized that America was where the door was open to us." Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta became the two nuns to step through that door.
With members of the Saranaloka Foundation as their hosts, the two nuns traveled the West Coast seeking a place where there would be sustained support for a monastery. They found it in the San Francisco Bay area. "Some of the people there had helped to set up Abhayagiri Monastery, so they had experience," said Ayya Anandabodhi. "Also, their hearts had been really touched by seeing female monastics. These two things told us that that was the right place."
The nuns happily agreed to settle in California in the future, but upon returning to England, they found their world turned upside down. In the larger realm of the Theravada Tradition, voices had grown louder and more insistent to establish a Theravada bhikkhuni lineage.
In 2007, His Holiness the Dalai Lama called a conference in Hamburg to look into the possibility of reestablishing bhikkhuni ordination in the Tibetan and Theravada traditions. This brought scholars, Vinaya experts, and practitioners from all parts of the world to discuss the topic. Although the results of the conference were not conclusive, it did break the silence around bhikkhuni ordination, and Theravada bhikkhus such as Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bhikkhu Analayo, and Bhikkhu Sujato spoke clearly of their support for the reestablishment of bhikkhuni ordination.
Meanwhile, the UK passed a bill making discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, disability/ability, and sexual orientation illegal in the work place. Religious orders were exempt from this law, but it brought to light the paradox of having a monastery principle that would be illegal in the secular world.
In reaction to the growing push for equal status for nuns, bhikkhu elders of the European and American Ajahn Chah monasteries introduced the infamous Five Points, which unequivocally declared the monks' authority over the nuns and denied the siladhara any access to full ordination. To maintain their residency within the monasteries, all siladhara were required to adopt and sign the Five Points.
"There was a big explosion and a lot of fallout over those Five Points," Ayya Anandabodhi said. "It was very destructive. Also, the news was out about Ajahn Brahm being cut off from the Ajahn Chah lineage for giving the bhikkhuni ordinations in Australia. People were very much up in arms about that right when we were coming to the US in 2009."
"We were a little bit in shock over what happened," she continued. "Still, at the beginning, we didn't come to start a bhikkhuni monastery. We came with the intention to start a branch monastery that the other nuns could come to."
Soon, however, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta concluded they couldn't go forward with the original branch monastery plan. "Partly, we realized the monastery wouldn't receive the support it needed without us taking the full ordination. Also, we were living too close to other women who had taken bhikhhuni ordination and were living the lifestyle. Women like Ayya Tathaaloka, Ayya Sobhana, and Ayya Gunasari down in Southern California were really putting themselves out on a limb to bring full ordination to the world, so it seemed wrong for us to stay in our siladhara situation. Further, we couldn't have passed on those Five Points to other women. That was one of the key things. For those reasons, we decided we had to leave the lineage and take full ordination."
It took a while to find someone who would give it to them. Their decision to leave the Ajahn Chah tradition was controversial and potential preceptors were reluctant to get themselves in a contentious situation. Courageously, Ayya Tathaaloka finally agreed to be the preceptor for their ordinations, for which both nuns are deeply grateful. Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta each received full ordination in 2011.
"Coming to America was a huge leap for us," Ayya Anandabodhi said. "And starting a monastery was a huge leap. And taking the ordination was a huge leap in a different way. Imagine it. You spend your whole life being told. 'It's impossible to go through that door; it can't be crossed.' And then you go through it. You can feel the force of the taboo. So doing it was both very challenging and liberating. It wasn't an easy blissful ordination; it was quite hard."
"I have to say there was a time when I wasn't sure I wanted to take the bhikkhuni ordination," Ayya Anandabodhi confessed. “I liked to meditate. I'd gone to the monastery to have a supportive environment for my practice, not to engage in what looked like quite a political and complex situation. Now I see that my position at Amaravati was somewhat privileged and protected. That's why I was hesitant to give it up and be a part of the revival. Now I'm so glad that I did. It is political and it involves much more study and discussions about things other than awakening, but I'm glad to be part of it. It is needed."
After four and a half years in San Francisco, Aloka Vihara moved to a 17-acre forested property in the Sierra Foothills near Placerville, California. At present, it is home to three bhikkhunis and one anagarika trainee, with more women aspirants wishing to explore monastic life.
While the nuns work on the physical property, there is deeper work too. "There's the building," Ayya Anandabodhi observed, "but there's also the actual community. We're working on learning how to live as community in American culture. There's a lot to learn."
Aloka Vihara nuns teach regularly throughout Northern California and beyond, and guests come to stay for a week or longer. As for future growth, they're taking it one step at a time. Ayya Anandabodhi explained, "Growth depends on many things—on space, on what we can manage in terms of guidance and presence, and it depends on having the means to support the community. We'll grow organically. My sense is that if the community needs to grow, then supportive conditions will come about."
Strength in Diversity
In contrast to Theravada Buddhism, the bhikkhuni order has flourished alongside the bhikkhus in China for nearly 2000 years, spreading to Korea, Vietnam, and beyond, including Taiwan.
Ayya Anandabodhi's visit with the Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association (CBBA) was eye opening. "Being with confident, self-assured nuns was remarkable," she said. "The nuns have this power, strength, confidence, brightness, and a quality of motherliness. I think that's something we often don't honor. The Taiwanese nuns are tough, strong and feisty, yet they also have this warmth, gentleness, and strength."
"And their strength isn't hard or hard-fought," she continued. "It is an empowerment that is their rightful inheritance. I hadn't experienced that before. It was very beautiful. And it's welcomed."
In the CBBA, Ayya Anandabodhi also observed the strength that comes from diversity. "The CBBA is made up of different bhikkhunis practicing in different ways with different emphases. The Global Bhikkhuni Award was a celebration of their mutual support and recognition of their accomplishments over 20 years. It made me aware that there is great strength is staying connected while being different."
Western Buddhists can learn from their example. "I think it's easy to make the mistake of believing that there is one right way to do things. This is particularly so if one wants to trace back the lineage and do what is pure and right. That can get quite narrow. I learned from the Taiwanese nuns that there are many kinds of ways. Some nuns are very strong in Vinaya; some want to meditate, some want to do social action, and some of the nuns are opening schools. But it's all done with the sense that we are all together under the same umbrella."
Possible After All
Ayya Anandabodhi pours all her experiences into founding Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery. "I think we're at a turning point," she said. "For a long time we've held the intention to have monasteries where women can come and practice and train. Now that's beginning to happen—the place, the means, the people, and maybe the inner stability is a bit clearer. We can now start to invite others to come and do that work with us."
From her many years of training in community, she is familiar with monastic formation and draws on that experience as she and Ayya Santacitta form the monastery. "There's having the buildings, the intention, and the form," she mused. "Then there's having the inner development—having enough worked out internally—to be able to deal with the many complexities of living as a monastic in community. It takes time. There's no short cut."
Ayya Anandabodhi and the other nuns of Aloka Vihara are ready to invest that time with women who, like the young Anandabodhi, want to live the teachings and explore monastic life. Because of Ayya Anandabodhi and other pioneer bhikkhunis, it is now possible: women can "go forth into the homeless life" in the Theravada tradition.
Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi prepares to receive the Global Bhikkhuni Award. Photo courtesy of Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery.
Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi. Photo courtesy of Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery.