Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 11, SPECIAL COMMEMORATIVE ISSUE
Ven. Bhikkhunī Gunasari was born in Myanmar in 1932 and after becoming a physician, immigrated to the United States in 1961 to work in medicine with her husband. After raising five children, she started practicing meditation in the 1970s under the tutorship of the late Taungpulu Sayadaw, the late Sayadaw U Silananda, and the late Sayadaw U Pandita. For nearly thirty years, through many retreats with these teachers, she has developed the practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and Vipassana meditation as taught by them.
In 2002, by then a grandmother, she entered into monastic life as a samaneri (female novice) at the age of seventy at Dharma Vijaya in Los Angeles, ordained by Venerable Bhante Pannyaloka Mahathera and Venerable Bhante Dr. Walpola Piyananda, Chief Sangha Nayaka Thero of the Sri Lankan Sangha in North America.
In the year 2003, Venerable Gunasari and Venerable Saccavadi became the first two Burmese women in modern times to receive full ordination as bhikkhunīs in Sri Lanka in accordance with the Theravada tradition via dual ordination by Venerable Dhammaloka Nayaka Thero of the Sri Lankan Amarapura Sect.
In 2008 Ayya Gunasari was invited to become abbess of Mahapajapati Monastery in California where she currently resides. In 2016, Ayya Gunasari was appointed and served as a bhikkhunī preceptor for the first time, and appointed Ayya Vimala as Mahapajapati assistant abbess.
Ayyā Medhānandī Bhikkhunī, a native of Montreal, is the founder of Sati Sārāņīya Hermitage, a Theravada Buddhist training monastery for bhikkhunīs in Perth, Ontario, Canada. After years of meditation study in India and malnutrition work in UN and other aid programs, in 1988 she took ten-precept nun’s ordination with Sayadaw U Pandita. In search of training in the West, she joined the nuns’ community at Amaravati Monastery, UK, and lived there for ten years before moving to New Zealand and later Penang. She has taught retreats in Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the West.
In 2007 she was ordained as a bhikkhunī in Taiwan, and returned to Canada the following year to establish Sati Sārāņīya Hermitage. She is the guiding teacher of the nuns’ community and leads retreats and meditation courses, including programs for hospice volunteers and staff in the Ottawa area. Her Dhamma reflections, Gone Forth, Going Beyond, were published in 2007.
Ayya Jayati Bhikkhunī was born in England in 1974. She first encountered the Buddha’s teachings at the age of twelve while attending a retreat with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. She felt a deep sense of resonance with the teachings on metta and made a commitment to cultivating this in her life. Since 1986 she continued attending retreats and developing a meditation practice which increasingly became the most important reference point in her life. This eventually led to her decision to ordain as a novice nun at Amaravati Monastery in 2007, in order to fully devote her energy to the practice.
After spending three and a half years in training at Amaravati and Chithurst Monasteries she decided to join Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta in the work of developing a Theravada Buddhist monastic community for women. Having respectfully taken leave of the Siladhara Sangha, she moved to the US in June 2012. In 2014 she was given bhikkhunī ordination at Aloka Vihara with Ayya Tathaaloka Theri as preceptor.
I started meditating with Sayadaw U Silananda, who stayed in California. For the first few years, I was not so good with meditation. During the walking time, I liked to sleep—I was a bit lazy you know. When I was young, I knew there were thilashins, eight- and ten-precept nuns. As much as they were quiet and meditative and doing what they needed to do, they didn’t get the respect they deserved. If a woman wanted to become a thilashin, people thought it was because she had no financial support, or because she was old, or because her husband had died—that sort of thing. Young girls rarely became thilashins unless they were orphans or from financially deprived families. I only remember one thilashin in our clan, a distant relative, whom we supported. At that time, thilashins weren’t highly regarded, so becoming a thilashin never occurred to me. So even though I wanted to be some kind of serious practitioner after meeting Sayadaw U Silananda, becoming a thilashin was never in my mind.
By 1989, I was very serious about meditation, going on longer retreats totaling three months each year. I would make time for my meditation even while I was still working. I read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s work on Samaññaphala Sutta and Brahmajala Sutta. My mind changed totally at that time. I was sure that there had to be something besides a thilashin. I knew that during the Buddha’s time there were bhikkhunīs but I had never heard of bhikkhunīs while I was in Burma. I was determined that I would ordain somehow, although I didn’t know how.
One day I went to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in Los Angeles and saw Venerable Lekshe Tsomo’s book on bhikkhunīs. On the cover was Daw (Guruma) Dhammawati from Nepal. I recognized Daw Dhammawati because she was very well known and loved by the Burmese people. She ran away from Nepal at age fourteen, following an old monk into Burma. At first, she didn’t know Burmese, but she learned when she became a nun, and eventually earned her Dhammacariya (Dhamma teacher’s) degree. When I saw that picture of her, my mind was shaken up. Although she was still wearing the thilashin robes, Dhammawati had become a bhikkhunī. I also saw in that book that there was a bhikkhunī association started by Venerable Lekshe Tsomo, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, and Ayya Khema. That made me determined to find out more.
While working and meditating, I researched this topic. I recall speaking with Sayadaw U Silananda about what I had discovered. He told me that the lineage of bhikkhunīs had been cut off and that the Burmese monks believed that it couldn’t be re-connected. I said I would continue to do the research anyhow. That’s when I saw Ashin Adiccavamsa’s and Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw’s story. Jetavan Sayadaw was the teacher of Mahasi Sayadaw, but after he wrote Malindapañha Atthakatha, he was criticized by the monks for wanting to help the bhikkhunīs.
In 1934, Ashin Adiccavamsa’s disciple, U Thittila, become the first Burmese monk to come to America and England. But even though Ashin Adiccavamsa was famous, still he was forced to disrobe because of what he wrote about bhikkhunīs. I showed my research to Sayadaw U Silananda. He said he knew about these older sayadaws who supported the bhikkhunīs but even so, he couldn’t help me at this time or he would suffer the same fate as them. He said that it was not the right time to go ahead on this matter. He did not say that I should ordain or that I shouldn’t ordain; rather he left the decision up to me. He only asked me one question: “What would you do if you didn’t have someone to give you these precepts? I answered saying that I would do as the lay disciples and go in front of the Buddha statue and take the precepts myself. Knowing that he could not help me anymore (at that time he had already suffered a minor stroke), he picked up the phone and called Bhante Piyananda, asking him to help me to become a samaneri. In this way, he helped me while remaining in the background.
After I decided to go ahead with the samaneri ordination, many of the monks who knew me came to try and dissuade me from doing so. They told me that I would starve, that there wasn’t enough support, and that there would be no place for me to stay. They felt that it was not even possible to be a thilashin in the West, let alone a bhikkhunī. Instead, they recommended that I wear the white clothes and determine for myself how I would live and practice. I decided to ordain anyhow, even if I would starve. I was really determined that just like in the Buddha’s time, women should have the opportunity to live as bhikkhunīs.
Finally, the monks left me alone. In 2002, before I ordained as a samaneri, I was still practicing at Tathagatha Center in San Jose when Sayadaw U Silananda suggested I spend four or five months in Burma continuously. I had known Sayadaw U Pandita since 1984 when he started teaching in the states, so I applied to stay at his place in Yangon. It went smoothly at first because I was a layperson. Then I became a samaneri with Bhante Piyananda. I had to write back to Sayadaw U Pandita and let him know about the change. He did not tell me not to come, so I went there in my rusty-colored robes. Only after I got there and met with Sayadaw in person, did he say, “Oh, the monks will be shocked. Please, for my sake, will you listen to me?” He requested that I take off the robes I was wearing and replace them with the robes of a thilashin. I was heartbroken, very upset, but I had no choice. I had applied to be part of this retreat for two and a half months. I have never been back to Burma since.
The mind was changed since I became a samaneri. Ever since the day my head was shaved, I thought, “This is it. I will never take any other position in life. This is what I want to do.” With each stroke as the hair went down, I felt a coolness in my heart. I knew I was in the right place. Even more than when I became a bhikkhunī, becoming a samaneri was very striking for me. I was really happy as a samaneri and was so eager to learn about monastic life, but my preceptor Bhante T. Dhammaloka, head of the Amarapura sect in Sri Lanka along with Bhante Piyananda, decided that due to my longtime experience as a meditator, I should take my bhikkhunī ordination before two years elapsed. So, on February 28, 2003, I became a bhikkhunī in Sri Lanka.
My first year as a bhikkhunī in Sri Lanka, I spent learning Pali at Kelaniya Post Graduate studies and with Dr. Lily de Silva at her home.
In 2004, I planned to go to Birmingham, U.K. to study Abhidhamma under Sayadaw Rewata Dhamma. Unfortunately, right after I bought the ticket, the Sayadaw passed away. Since I was already prepared to go, I went to Birmingham, but I wasn't allowed to stay or study there because I was a bhikkhunī. The board members at his organization decided it was improper to accept a bhikkhunī at the monastery.
As I was stranded in the U.K. with no place to go, a friend of mine, Dr. Leo Kyawthinn, searched for a monastery where I could spend the rains retreat. Luckily, I was allowed to stay at Ajahn Khemadhammo's forest monastery in Warwick, and my time there went very well.
During the period of 2004 to 2007, some kind Burmese sayadaws quietly taught me Pali and Vinaya, and, at the same time, my friend Ayya Uttama and I attended the University of the West to study Pali under the late Dr. Ananda Guruge. Despite this helpful instruction, these years were unstable and hectic. Without a permanent monastery to live in, I was moving frequently: I moved from Riverside, to Monterey Park, and to Joshua Tree. Finally, I was able to settle at Mahapajapati Monastery in 2008, after it was established by Therese Duchesne, and I have been the abbess there since October 2008.
Even with a stable location, my life was not stable. Setting up a new monastery is challenging. I looked for suitable bhikkhunīs to come and live and work with me, but as there are not many bhikkhunīs in the United States, they were hard to find. So in addition to looking for women who were already ordained, I tried to support others in their wish to train in monastic life at Mahapajapati Monastery. However, as is to be expected when people are exploring a whole new way of life, anagarikas came and went. In addition, those who became samaneris (novices) did not always stay either. And one bhikkhunī who I ordained as a samaneri, and who lived at the monastery with me for several years died suddenly of cancer. The Buddha admonished monastics that we should live together “like milk and water,” which blend seamlessly when mixed. Of course, this is not always easy. However, I now have another bhikkhunī, two samaneris, and an anagarika at the monastery, and we are working to develop our community. As it is the eighth year of growing Buddha's daughters at Mahapajapati Monastery, hopefully these precious seeds will sprout and mature in the near future, through effort, courage, confidence, and loving kindness.
In addition to working to develop the community at Mahapajati Monastery, beginning in 2008, I started to support the ordination of other bhikkhunīs. I arranged for one bhikkhunī ordination to take place in South Carolina in 2008. Then in 2010, I helped arrange for the ordination of five bhikkhunīs and was one of the chanting bhikkhunīs who question and support the candidates during the ceremony. In 2012, I did the same thing for four bhikkhunīs. Finally, in 2016, as I had the twelve vassas required to act as a preceptor, I was the preceptor for two bhikkhunīs who were ordained at Bhante Piyananda's temple, Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara. It has been my greatest joy to help other women to become bhikkhunīs--something that I myself struggled so hard to do.
First of all, they have to be very honest with themselves. If it is an attempt to escape difficulties in relationships—husband, boyfriend, parents—this will not work. They need to have a genuine interest in Buddhism.
That’s why when women come to me, I try to help them gain a general knowledge of the teachings. There are many things that we do not know, but we should be willing to learn. It's so important to know at a deep level if this is really what they want to do. If they just get into the glory of the robe and like it when people bow down to them, this is not coming from the right place. At first, my idea was to become a recluse because I had become so disenchanted with life, but being a bhikkhunī is not only about meditating. When we become part of the Sangha, this is different than being a solitary yogi. For example, as bhikkhunīs, we need to communicate and reciprocate sanghakamma with our brother bhikkhus and our sister bhikkhunīs at other monasteries. Accordingly, we attend Kathina, Vesak ceremonies, Patthana, and Paritta chanting ceremonies, as well as Buddhist monastic gatherings and some Buddhist social programs like Bhikkhu Bodhi's Buddhist Global Relief. To fulfill our duties towards lay people, we attend funeral services, visit sick patients at hospitals, and provide inspirational Dhamma talks and chanting. I do not want aspirants to have the same misconceptions as I did. For this reason, I encourage them to visit a variety of monasteries and learn from their experiences. Every place has its strong points and weak points.
An aspirant needs to ask herself why she wants to become a bhikkhunī. She should thoroughly search inside herself to understand her motivations. I have seen monastics who have dedicated themselves to one monastery and then when something happens that causes them to feel that they can’t stay there, they have nowhere to go. Making a commitment too soon, she may find out that it isn’t what she wanted and then be left without support. This is why I try to make sure my aspirants take their time to consider carefully before they commit. We have to be realistic about things. Nowadays there are many good lay teachers. Many people are suited for lay life whereas others are suited for monastic life. We have to know for ourselves what we are best suited for.
This is why it is important to take sufficient time to try things out, first as an anagarika, then as a samaneri. It is better to take the time to find out during the earlier stages than to feel stuck in something later.
In the beginning stages, it is important to stay in one place because that is where the groundwork is developed. Community life is not easy; it requires a lot of patience. I have found meditation and seclusion much easier. It was my first choice, but somehow I found myself going down this road instead. My suggestion to younger people is to see whether they can fit into community life by practicing with patience.
Coming into monastic life as an older person is not easy either. The energy is low and many habits are hard to change. I wish I had started when I was younger. But it was my kamma to finish what I needed to do in my family life. Looking back, I could see that lay life was not for me. Although I like freedom and solitude, I also like the restraints of being part of a community. It inspires me when we all get along as a Sangha, show concern for each other, and go through challenges together. Also, I enjoy giving to others in the Sangha, including those outside my immediate community. Although we may have personality differences, we belong to each other. We are sisters; we are one. The whole thing is Sangha. It is not complete on our own.
Excerpts adapted from an interview with Ayya Gunasari conducted by Ayya Dhammadhira in May 2014. The article will be available in full in the forthcoming book, Let the Light Shine.
I live as a beggar
in the beauty of
virtue a clear
with fear or
I guard the jewels
of my heart.
Among my teachers—
pain and poverty
sorrow and impatience
and life's sweetness
poured through the notes
of each breath,
alone with the hills
and wild flowers
I walk the razor’s edge
The Hermitage, Paekakariki, New Zealand, 2004
More poetry available in forthcoming book Let the Light Shine.
From a personal perspective, bhikkhunī ordination was something which in my earlier monastic years I had not even considered as a possibility. The monasteries in England provided a very good training in many ways, and there was a strong community of committed nuns and monks living a life of renunciation. I felt very grateful to have found a place with teachings and a style of practice that provided me with the support I needed to live in a way so contrary to the culture of my birth. I felt so clearly that the conventional route to “success” wasn't the way to lasting peace or happiness. At that time I have to admit being unable to really take in the disparity between the genders. It did indeed seem to me like things were "good enough!" (an oft-used phrase in Amaravati for the practice of contentment) for the purposes of cultivating the path of Dhamma.
At the outset, monastic life was a tough journey for me, in those first couple of years especially. We often speak about how kamma ripens for people when they come to the monastery and that was certainly true in my case. I trust that what I learned through my journey will be a resource, which I hope will enable me to be of greater benefit to others who are suffering. I certainly feel very blessed by the wonderful kalyanamittas (Dhamma friends) who were around to guide me and to offer a shoulder of support on the really difficult days. I must here make a special mention for Sister Sumedha without whom I really don't think I would be here today—thank you dear sister for your boundless patience and truly noble friendship. Also Sister Thitamedha, whose kindness and tender care were truly a blessing. There are so many others I could name here, but these two stand out, both for what they did for me and by the deep impact it had on my sense of things when they, along with many other sisters, decided that the only way to maintain their deepest sense of integrity was to take leave of the nuns’ community. Some chose to return to lay life, others decided to continue to practice alone elsewhere, with the support of kind lay friends.
It was during my third year as an anagarika (eight-precept novice) that there was an insistence for the nuns to agree to a mandate (the Five Points) which would cement their position as subordinate to the Bhikkhu Sangha and deny even the possibility of considering full bhikkhunī ordination. As much has been said on this matter already it is not my intention to go over it all again; I merely wish to offer a personal reflection on why I chose to make the step to join the sisters here in the U.S.
The way forward at that time seemed so unclear; I had no doubt about the clarity of my intention to continue life as a nun, but now had some serious concerns about making that commitment in a place where so many of those I had been so inspired by were stepping out in protest at what was happening in the UK monasteries. It was hard to find perspective and I felt that some time away was greatly needed. It was around this time that the possibility arose of visiting Aloka Vihara in San Francisco in December 2010. Nothing could have prepared me for the transformative effect of that visit. Seeing the nuns leading the community and offering teachings, as well as the amazing group of supporters who were being drawn to the vihara awakened something in me. I realized that to return to Amaravati was now no longer something I could do with a full heart. It was with a clarity I had not felt for some time that I requested admission to join the sisters here in the US and was accepted. Even with the many challenges of the work it takes on both the inner and outer level to establish a monastery, I still feel it's a precious offering in this world. As I was once advised: "You don't have to decide, the Dhamma will decide where you need to be." It's an ongoing lesson in trusting the process and living in accordance with what is being offered—this is so central to the renunciant life.
It has been a big adventure in many ways. It was not easy to leave my family in the UK, but I intuitively felt it would be a good exploration to step away from so many of my well-known "comfort zones" and feel the edge that could bring to my practice. I took novice ordination as a samaneri in 2012, and then made the request to take full ordination as a bhikkhunī after the required two years of novice training. It felt like a very natural continuation of a path I had been walking for several years. Even before coming to live in a monastery, spiritual life was something I felt deeply called to attend to. The Buddhist teachings have always been a support throughout most of my life, since first attending a Buddhist retreat at the age of twelve.
The meaning of taking full ordination is something I'm still discovering and learning anew each day. I am not so surprised at the bond of connection I now feel with the present-day Bhikkhunī Sangha. I had not however expected it would bring such a clear feeling of connection with the ancient lineage of women who have also taken this step. I reflect upon the journey of Mahapajapati and her unwavering determination to be granted the chance to live as one who has completely dedicated her life to follow the path of the Awakened Ones. It is inspiring for me to feel the sacred sense of responsibility that comes with keeping the way open for those who will come after me. I feel very blessed by those women who persevered with the nun’s life, even in the face of so much adversity, both in the present day and historically.
November 1st 2014 was truly a joyful day for our Sangha, with representatives from ten different monasteries in attendance. I bow deeply to all those who were able to be there—thank you for your dedication and wisdom. My heart felt full of gratitude for all the love and blessings which were given in such abundance. It is something I know will energize my practice now and in the years ahead. I wish to also offer deep bows to the Siladhara Sangha in England who hold an important role in establishing the nuns’ Sangha in the West. I will always feel grateful for their generosity in helping me find my way in those first few years and for giving me their heartfelt blessing when I took leave of the community in 2011.
As a final word, I here pay homage to my bhikkhunī mentor Ayya Anandabodhi, her patient guidance, kindness and faith have given me the strength to survive some of the most difficult internal struggles. Her and Ayya Santacitta’s work to build and sustain a training monastery for women in the U.S. is something I have long felt inspired by. None of us could have imagined all that would really entail. It truly is an unfathomable undertaking and one we are still learning so much about on a daily basis. I know this is a very rare opportunity and one I am grateful for. I experience daily life here as being both humbling and ennobling. Humbling, because I am so frequently seeing in the daily life of the community all the places within where I still have so much work to do. Ennobling because I am also learning that with practice, I have the choice to respond with compassion and a kind heart.
May all beings be safe and free from every kind of suffering
From the forthcoming book Let the Light Shine.