In 1991 Ajahn Thanasanti Bhikkhuni ordained as a siladhara, a unique form of nuns’ training formulated ten years earlier by the Ajahn Chah–Ajahn Sumedho Forest Tradition in England. The siladhara order has thrived in England on a small scale despite remaining unrecognized by the larger Buddhist community. The creation of the siladhara community has served the noble intent to support Western women’s aspirations to practice as nuns.
A bhikkhuni, unlike a siladhara, is a fully ordained nun whose status in the Buddhist sangha includes the authority to ordain other women. While established by the Buddha, bhikkhuni ordination died out in Theravada Buddhist countries over a millennium ago. In recent years, however, it has been reestablished in a few countries, stirring hope among many, alongside controversy and even condemnation by some.
In 2009 the elders of the Ajahn Chah–Ajahn Sumedho lineage in Thailand reaffirmed its conformance with the Thai Sangha governing council’s position that bhikkhuni ordination had ceased to exist and could not be legitimately revived there. Likewise, the council of elders in England reaffirmed that the siladhara order should not be seen as a stepping stone to full bhikkhuni ordination for women, and the council required members of the order to acknowledge this in writing. Being asked to sign such a statement threw the siladhara community into turmoil. Numerous siladharas, including Ajahn Thanasanti, left the community in England, with some giving up the nuns’ life entirely.
It’s late August 2010. After a beautiful three-hour drive up the Sonoma Coast, I arrive with both delight and resignation at the Aranya Bodhi Forest Hermitage. I am here to witness the first full Theravada bhikkhuni ordination in the northern hemisphere but will not be taking part in it.
About two years ago it became clear to me that the gender inequity between the monks and the nuns of our community was nonnegotiable, and I realized I could no longer participate in a monastic community that compromised the core Buddhist principles of harmlessness and nondiscrimination. With deep conviction and a grief-stricken, despairing heart, I had no choice but to leave my sisters and the community that had been like an extension of my body for twenty years. I was not alone. In the last few years, due both to the placement of women in the tradition and the recent decree by the elders, half of our nuns—most of them quite senior and representing hundreds of years of experience and leadership in our lineage—had also decided to leave the community.
Since formally taking leave from my community in England, I have been on my own in Colorado, still living as a nun and maintaining the siladhara code of conduct, making adaptations as needed. I came with the vision of forging a new path and creating a new community, bringing the essence of the Buddhist teachings into the modern world. But as a solitary nun without the support of a monastic community, cohesive lay community or benefactor, I have been excruciatingly vulnerable and have had to make adaptations to my siladhara training rules. I have been asking myself, How can I survive as a nun without any sisters, much less create a training monastery for new nuns without the authority to ordain them?
This was my situation in March 2010 when I first met with Ayya Tathaaloka, abbess of Dhamma-dharini Vihara in Fremont, California, and Aranya Bodhi Hermitage. Her community is not part of the Ajahn Chah–Ajahn Sumedho lineage and thus not bound by the same gender restrictions. We spoke about my ordaining into the emerging worldwide bhikkhuni order, of which she is a part. But I didn’t see how I could do so at that time. The bhikkhuni code of conduct is more restrictive than that of a siladhara, and I didn’t yet have the level of community support in Colorado to maintain that code. For instance, I had no attendant who could offer me food every day. So, with a feeling of resignation and forced numbness—and because the despair was so big I couldn’t touch it—I thought bhikkhuni ordination would not be available to me until sometime in the far distant future. I expected it would take many years for the conditions to ripen for me in Colorado.
Now visiting Aranya Bodhi in California, after a difficult transition year and with so much isolation from other monastics, I feel such abundant joy being with other sisters. It feels like I am reconnecting with my tribe. This is my first time with sisters since I left the U.K. Even though I haven’t met most of these nuns before, our joint purpose, the stillness of the environment, and the attention to living by monastic standards means that I immediately feel at home.
Soon after arriving at the hermitage, I meet with Ayya Tathaaloka, who will be the preceptor for tomorrow’s ordination. She asks me why I haven’t responded to two emails she’d sent in the past couple of months. “I didn’t receive either,” I say. One of them, she explains, contained an invitation to be ordained this weekend as a bhikkhuni with the other new sisters. In my wildest dreams I never imagined this happening for me right now. Every fiber of my body and mind go into pandemonium and hot tears run down my face. I don’t know what to say. I need time to reflect on this critical decision—and I have just one hour until the rehearsal begins.
I go to sit in a fairy ring of redwood trees to meditate and tune in to what is present. The confusion of the years of concerns, doubts and the way forward for women—and for me—is the energetic morass I first encounter. When I inquire what is underneath, I very quickly drop into a silent, clear, peaceful and joyous state and stay there for the rest of my meditation. I pull myself back into a place where discernment is operating and check all my concerns and doubts against my intuition. To my surprise, there are no obstacles. I sense that there will be the support to deal with whatever consequences result from taking on the stricter bhikkhuni rule.
My answer is yes, and suddenly unburdened, I shed tears of joy. It’s as if a huge weight is lifted and the clarity of my original intention to be a nun is now allowed its full reign, unhindered. Finally I am freed to live my life entirely committed to realizing the end of suffering. This has been my aspiration since 1979, when I was seventeen. The joy is almost too much to bear.
In the simple invitation Ayya has extended to me, years of conundrums, doubts and unmanageable community dynamics are given an opportunity to shift in an instant. Yet what appears to be a spontaneous change is also the culmination of an internal process going on under the surface in me personally for twenty years—and for Buddhist nuns in general for millennia.
Ten minutes before the rehearsal begins, I calmly walk to Ayya and tell her of my decision. Her beaming response is unforgettable. She welcomes me into the sima, the ordination platform, and I quietly take my seat alongside the other candidates, with the practice chanting sheets in my hands. I feel the depth of their acceptance.
Despite all this, on the morning of the ordination, lingering concerns haunt me. I go back to Ayya to talk things through at the first possible opportunity. I can’t go forward with the ordination unless I am sure that she understands a number of points. Does she support my intention to move out of patriarchy and all that is harmful that seems embedded in the institutionalized aspect of monasticism? She agrees this is necessary. How will she handle it if she and I have differences of opinion over interpreting the rules that govern the bhikkhuni lifestyle? She says she will welcome it, that what is important is the friendliness and flexibility that allow diversity. Again I feel at ease.
Soon I am getting my new robes together, tying them on, memorizing the chants. Once again, just before the procession to the sima, I go into doubt. It’s all so quick. Have I made a mistake? Can I go through this ceremony without having learned by heart the chanting or carefully studied the many new precepts this ordination will require upholding? And I haven’t been able to talk through the ramifications of becoming a bhikkhuni with the laypeople in Colorado who have been supporting me. Will they be able to help me maintain the stricter rules around the daily food offering or the required protocols for a female monastic when in the proximity of men? There are so many questions. A mental and energetic pandemonium sets in again.
After about fifteen minutes of internal chaos I turn my attention back to my time in the redwood grove the day before. I return to that still place from which my initial decision arose. Taking bhikkhuni ordination isn’t about the chanting or being in control; it’s about surrendering into a flow, a huge benevolent river or ocean current. The ordination requires trusting the goodness that is present and finding a way to live a life for the benefit of all beings. I am stepping out of isolation and coming home. Quiet and calm again, I walk back toward the trailer where the other candidates are waiting.
Then I see Ajahn Pasanno, the most senior monk from my former Ajahn Chah–Ajahn Sumedho community in the United States. I feel his presence as both a tremendous blessing and a healing. He catches my eye and gestures in anjali, joining his palms in front of his heart. “Congratulations,” he says, his voice and countenance conveying only support, encouragement and friendliness. I mention to him that he had been the abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat monastery in Thailand when I visited in 1988 and first decided to become a nun. He remembers.
When the time comes, we process up to the sima as the lay community throws flower petals and chants “Sadhu! Well done.” In spite of having memorized the chanting earlier, I have now forgotten it. The chanting achariyas lovingly cue me when needed. I feel something deep shifting and my body accommodating that shift by opening and relaxing as my cognitive functions fade. I feel joyous and deeply peaceful; I am doing something completely natural. Again I am unburdened and relieved as I hear the monks chanting their ebullient confirmation, rejoicing in our becoming bhikkhunis.
Just after the ordination, I celebrate with Ajahn Anandabodhi and Ajahn Santacitta, two other sila-dharas who are attending from Aloka Vihara in nearby San Francisco. I have known them for seventeen years from our time together in England. We affirm how simple and natural it all is. (I will learn months later that they have announced their own intention to leave the Ajahn Chah–Ajahn Sumedho lineage and to take bhikkhuni ordination in the fall of 2011.)
The next day I wake up feeling at ease. All the way down to breakfast, I keep repeating, “It is over, it is over, it is over.” During the past few months, I had been feeling increasingly like someone in deep space without a spaceship and with all my life-support systems running out. The year before, I had formally left the only monastic community I’d ever known. Even though I didn’t fully realize it, my sense of identity was still interwoven with the dwindling siladhara order. I had lived in it for nineteen years, and as I continued to hear of even more of my sisters deciding to leave, I felt like “I” was disintegrating. I see this now with a new understanding: I had taken it personally. But truly, “I” wasn’t falling apart; it is the siladhara vehicle itself, beneath and around me, that seems to be disintegrating.
Now my unsustainable situation as an isolated siladhara is over. Now I am part of a burgeoning order of sisters who share the same monastic rule. Now I can visit numerous places and be “one of the group.” Now, without having to formally affirm the seniority of monks to nuns, I can see a path to realize my vision of a training monastery for women based on nondiscrimination and harmlessness. I feel like sizzling, flaming rice being submerged in a spring-fed, cool reservoir.
Immediately my new community begins to welcome me. My new sisters invite me to other bhikkhuni monasteries around the world, giving me access to the infrastructure they are creating and which can support me in living a nun’s life with integrity. Confident in the interest and support from laypeople in Colorado Springs and elsewhere, and with seasoned bhikkhunis with whom I can talk about knotty aspects of our shared monastic rule, I sense that my future may be less arduous than I have been imagining all these years.
I look at where I came from only two days ago and where I am now. I am reminded of what can happen when women are in right relationship with themselves and each other. When as sisters we are empowered and have the skills to lead our own communities, when our internal reality has external validity in the broader sangha, we have ground. When we feel that we belong and are supported, we have a place to be.
I have no regrets over all the difficulties I’ve overcome to get me here today. I feel blessed with the opportunity to wake up and to use my entire life for awakening. I can see my internal journey as the place where clarity emerges, and appreciate the potency of the transformation that happened in the redwoods. I think about the autonomy of the sisters, together with the blessings and wholehearted participation of the monks. I recall the joyous support of the extended community of lay teachers as well as the many laymen and laywomen present. I feel deep appreciation for this fourfold sangha—of nuns and monks, laywomen and laymen—and a visceral joy that there is now a way forward.