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Going Forth and Reaching Back

Sangha & Inclusion, Service & Engagement, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment
Ven. Dhammadipa (also known as Konin) kneeling on left, Ven. Cittananda kneeling on right

Ven. Dhammadipa (also known as Konin) kneeling on left, Ven. Cittananda kneeling on right

On May 11th, I formally took the eight precepts of an Anagarika in the Theravada tradition. Though I have been practicing eight precepts for some time now, wearing the white robes felt very light. It also made for a clear and appropriate transition from my black attire as a Zen priest. This step marked my intention to wholeheartedly take up the Theravada way, and during the ceremony I took dependence on Ayyas Santacitta and Anadabodhi as my teachers in this tradition. I can honestly and joyfully say that it is their commitment to demonstrating the path of practice of the early Buddhist teachings that enabled me to aspire to this practice myself.

Then, on Saturday, May 12th at Buddhi Vihara in Santa Clara, California, I went forth in the Theravada tradition, after many years of practice in the Soto Zen tradition. Going forth is an outward, conventional expression of an enigmatic evolution that is happening within. Having known the Ayyas for six years, and having visited Aloka Vihara a few times in the past, I came to live here in October of 2017. At that time, I was in search of a place where the practice would support turning inward, where practice would support a transformation of mind, heart, and body toward its natural clarity and peace. For me, the practice of monastic renunciation, the practice of Vinaya, is just such a support. It allows me to set down, again and again, those things that are unessential. It allows me to commit my entire life’s effort to the activity of being an instrument of Dhamma. And, it is like reaching back all the way to the beginning of the Zen lineage in which I was ordained 11 years ago, integrating the practice of the Original Teacher Gotama Buddha and the earliest disciples. I received the name “Dhammadīpā,” which means light or lamp or island of Dhamma.

The day of the Pabbajja was a shining example of blending like milk and water, as the more than eight sanghas that were involved joined together to make the day’s events both memorable and easeful. In particular, Ayya Sudinna, the Pavatinī (Preceptor) who came all the way from Carolina Buddhist Vihara in Greenville, South Carolina was so joyful. It was a day full of mudita (empathetic joy), not just for me, but also for Ayya Cittananda who received her bhikkhuni (higher) ordination. It seemed to me that everyone shared such heartfelt caring for each other. The beautiful sunny weather was reflected in our hearts, and the great generosity of the dana revealed how deeply sangha members are moved by the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. My heart is full of gratitude and joy for everyone who is playing some part in making it possible for nuns to go forth into this life. Anumodana! I rejoice in your good works!
 

Not By An Act of Will

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

Reading the teachings of Buddhism, one encounters a lot of discussion about the nature of a human being, of a human life. It has been viewed from various perspectives, described according to various systems and frameworks, and explored in meditation and in the daily lives of millions of practitioners. Some say it's pure. Others say it's impure. Here’s how I practice with it.

A human life is a precious thing because it is so fleeting. It is the coming together of countless conditions, acted upon by the energetic principals of impermanence, karma, and dependent co-arising. Each moment is a unique transformation into one particular state of these conditions and energies, as they harmoniously arrive at resolution, at completion. Having come together, the state of the universe, and a human being within it, is so momentary that there is no way to pin it down. There is nothing that can been seen as wrong or right, pure or impure, about this state because it includes everything as mere instantaneous phenomena. It holds all things as mere conditions relating to other conditions in a flux of transformation. This is one way to express the ultimate or absolute perspective of a human life.

Image: NASA Hubble

Image: NASA Hubble

However, simply saying such a thing is like a painted rice cake. It doesn't satisfy our hunger. It doesn't satisfy our thirst. For that reason, the historical Buddha got up from the seat of enlightenment and spent the remainder of his life explaining that one can only find one's peace with life by seeing its principles all the way to the bottom. He gave teachings from both the absolute and relative (or subjective) perspectives. He said that "tanha" or "thirst" is the reason for fundamental pervasive dissatisfaction or "dukkha." And he taught that meditation and an ethical life are necessary to have a firsthand experience of how and why this is so. Having seen it and experienced it clearly for oneself, one is no longer willing to engage in a life that creates dissatisfaction and is dominated by thirst.

From then on to the present day, sincere practitioners have received the Buddha's teachings and expressed them in fresh ways, extrapolated from them, or sometimes focused on just one aspect with great vigor. Some had profound revelatory insights and wrote breathtaking new teachings. Some walked the path adhering as closely as possible to the Buddha's own, as they understood it. Some shared the teachings of Buddhism with new cultures and countries, bringing forth those unique expressions. I don't subscribe to Buddhist elitism, claiming one form of the teachings to be the only valid form. That kind of thinking abounds, but I believe it fails to capture the incredible diversity and richness of human experience.

That said, I deeply agree with the Buddha's teachings to the Kalamas that the teachings must be lived in order to be effective, or even to be assessed for their effectiveness. And the Buddha gave us an incredible variety of tools with which to investigate the nature of mind, body, and human experience. Lately, I have been exploring many more of these early teachings, and living at a monastery where women train to put them into practice. As many of you know, for the past six months I have been in residence at Aloka Vihara, a monastery in the Theravada Forest Tradition in the West. I came here for many reasons, one of which is to fulfill a yearning that I have had for years to live only with other women practitioners.

Reflecting on my experience here, I notice shifts in meditative experience. I notice the way that the body responds with more relaxation and clarity. I notice that my life feels different than it did at other monasteries and practice centers. That it is different and quieter than, say, an urban center is to be expected. 

However, something unexpected happened to me during the extended period of silent practice that is called the Winter Retreat. As with each of the monastics, within the three months of silent Winter Retreat I had the opportunity to sit a "solo" retreat for three weeks. This meant that I lived in the forest, in rustic accommodations called a "kuti," focused exclusively on practice, with no contact with the community other than to see each other in passing once or twice per day. This is a new form of practice for me. Solo retreats are not done in Zen, a tradition that has been my path since I began practicing many years ago.

The kuti in which I stayed, March 2018

The kuti in which I stayed, March 2018

I chose to begin the solo without any specific plan about how to practice - no schedule, no particular commitment to one style of meditation, bowing, or chanting. The only thing I was sure I wanted to do was to chant "metta." Metta is typically translated as "loving kindness," and chanting metta has been my daily practice for 12 years. The chant of metta is an intention for all beings to be well, happy, free from suffering, and to realize spiritual fulfillment. It is based in the Buddha's teachings on the four sublime abidings or "brahmaviharas," together with compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. 

There is much that could be said about the practices of metta and of solo retreat but, for now, I just want to say that each of the three weeks had its flavor. I was a bit surprised at the flavors that I experienced, even after many, many years of practice. The first week had the flavor of remorse. I had feelings of remorse about big things, about small things, about things I had done or said, or things others had done or said that I had been powerless to stop. I sat, and walked, stood still, and lied down with remorse sprinkled throughout the days. However, I was also chanting metta, for myself, for those I had harmed, for those who caused harm, and for my family, students, teachers, and all beings. I chanted and chanted, knowing that this positive intention for the well-being of others and for my own well-being has helped me to cultivate compassion and loving kindness in all the other parts of my life. Slowly the remorse subsided, and I felt much happier.

Then the second week was about the body. In very noticeable ways, my body began to feel more in tune with the forest. I could smell the pines, hear more birds and deer, sense the changes in the air. And I could relax. I was literally standing up straighter, and feeling the small muscles of my face get full and soft. Even though I was sitting many hours each day, I no longer had the pain in my right hip that I had been experiencing for years. All of this also meant that I felt happier and found joy, during times I was sitting and during the other times of the day. The body was finding its own wisdom.

The third week arrived. By then I was feeling comfortable with having no particular rhythm to the days. I would sit as I felt ready, and do walking meditation at other times. Yet I began to notice a pronounced inclination to meditation on the breath entering the body at the nostril, using it as an anchor for concentration. Though I had occasionally had this feeling in the facial area before, I had not made the connection that it preceded the deeper concentration until that moment. The mind inclined itself deeper and deeper into this concentration, experiencing things never felt before.

All of that was fascinating and brought up lots of new areas of investigation for me, but the most important part came a few weeks after the solo retreat ended. One of the other nuns gave me the reference number of a sutta (teaching by the historical Buddha) about one type of dependent origination that can lead to liberation. This was in response to some exploration we were doing in the morning readings. Looking up the sutta, I was deeply moved to find that the 11 steps that the Buddha describes begin this way...

"For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.

“For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.

“For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.

“For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.

“For a person serene in body, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I experience pleasure.’ It is in the nature of things that a person serene in body experiences pleasure.

“For a person experiencing pleasure, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my mind grow concentrated.’ It is in the nature of things that the mind of a person experiencing pleasure grows concentrated...."    AN11.2
 

Now, I am not claiming that I have consummate virtue, or that I am half way to complete liberation, or even that I have fully plumbed the depths of this sutta. Still I found this very encouraging. It deepens my confidence in the path of practice that I am following when I can relate my experience directly to teachings that describe a path to freedom. For me, acknowledgment of the gradual nature of a path that leads to sudden moments of life-changing clarity and peace is most realistic.

Though there are others, this description of the path starts with virtue, a vast topic that the Buddha described in various ways. However, for monastics he was very clear about prescribing certain practices that he saw as virtuous, especially forgoing all sexual activity, maintaining frugality about eating and material belongings, and humility.  In my view, this doesn't mean that some other path might not be better for someone else, or even for me at some point in the future. However, for my body and mind of this time and place, this practice is extremely supportive and skillful.

fabrics in sunlight.jpg

Given this confidence and many other experiences over the past six months, I have decided to continue on the path of Theravada practice. I want to go forth as an ordained Buddhist nun in this tradition. I have found that the supports I need to walk the path of practice are right here at Aloka Vihara, in the place, the schedule, the people, and the forms. This ordination will be in addition to my precept vows in the Zen tradition, as is typical for Chinese Chan and many other Buddhist lineages.

So I have asked to stay for the long-term and the two nuns who are the founders here, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta, have been gracious enough to open the door and welcome me. They will be my Theravada practice teachers, and Ayya Sudinna from South Carolina Buddhist Vihara is kind enough to be the “pavattini” or preceptor. That is, she is the nun presiding over the ordination because she has the requisite years of seniority and a generous heart. Typically, there are two one year periods of commitment to training as a novice 10 precept nun, and then one two year commitment of training as a bhikkhuni (a fully ordained Buddhist nun), should one chose to take up the 311 training precepts in full. The 10 ethical and renunciate precepts I will take up as training rules when I go forth on this path at "pabbaja" are:

1.    I refrain from taking the life of any living creature.
2.    I refrain from taking what is not given.
3.    I refrain from any kind of sexual activity.
4.    I refrain from false and harmful speech.
5.    I refrain from consuming intoxicants.
6.    I refrain from eating at an inappropriate time (between midday and dawn).
7.    I refrain from dancing, singing, music, and going to shows.
8.    I refrain from beautification and adornment.
9.    I refrain from lying on a high or luxurious bed.
10.    I refrain from handling money.

The key difference between these precepts and the eight I am currently keeping here at the Vihara is giving up the personal use of money. It means that I become totally reliant on the relationship of mutual support, as the Buddha set it up. And I promise to live so that relationship is communicated through my commitment and my robes. There is something beautiful about the way that everyone involved in this relationship is learning to let go in a variety of ways.

There will be more to write about the precepts as training rules, and the intentions and practices related to each of these. For now, look for an ordination announcement to come soon.

With gratitude to the Blessed One, Shakyamuni Buddha, to Mahatheri Mahapajapati Gotami, the first bhikkhuni, and to my Teacher in the Zen tradition, Ven. Shosan Victoria Austin, and all the skillful Buddhist teachers with whom I have had the good karma to practice, a lifetime of deep bows of appreciation!

Impressions from the 2015 Sakyadhita International Conference

Study & Arts, Sitting & Ritual, Sangha & Inclusion, Service & EngagementGuiding Teacher3 Comments

They came in robes and in street clothes, with perfectly coiffed hair and with shaved heads, in sandals, in boots, and in high heels. They came from all over the world, on wings, on wheels, by foot. They came, the Buddhists, the Muslims, the Hindus, and the Christians, and some who have set aside all religion. They came, over 1,000 of them, in search of inspiration. And that is what they found.

The 2015 Sakyadhita Conference is the first I have attended, though it has been offered for nearly 30 years now. Organized by an ordained woman who practices Tibetan Buddhism and teaches at the University of California in San Diego, the Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo, this conference for Buddhist women was centered on the theme of compassion and social justice. It is supported by Venerable Lekshe, other nuns and monks, and dozens of women and men volunteers who gain nothing but the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped so many.

 This year's  conference was held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia where the weather was warm and damp, so that the proceedings could be held entirely outdoors under large tents and verandas. It brought together monastics, scholars, lay devotees, and even entertained a visit from the Queen Mother. 

Sakyadhita International is an organization which was formed to support women who want to become fully ordained bhikkhunis, a form of Buddhist monasticism that has been resisted by male patriarchy for centuries. So I expected that most of the more than 50 speakers would be expounding various details of monastic precepts and their associated commentaries and sutras. While there was some of that, what I found out is that the ship has already sailed.

Women are receiving "higher ordination"  in greater and greater numbers, in countries such as Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the US. In fact, a Theravadan ordination of this sort was taking place in Germany for the first time during our proceedings. While it is by no means easy for them, many women now have the opportunity to choose that form of practice. They refuse to be denied. Even the Thai Sangha Council, which has declared all higher ordination of women into the Thai Theravada invalid, is confronting the reality that these women want to practice the Vinaya (the early monastic ethical rules), and there are very reputable monks and nuns who are willing to go to jail to see that they can and do. 

Bhante Sujato, one of those courageous, reputable monks, advised conference participants not to become like the rigid hierarchy that resists the women, but also, not to define themselves in opposition to those men. This is wise counsel, and it echoes the Buddha's teaching in the Dhammapada:

"He abused me, he struck me,

he overpowered me, he robbed me."

Those who harbor such thoughts

do not still their hatred.

This progress opens the door to a new role for Saykyadhita, one of broadly inspiring women and monastics to grow Buddhist communities and to be involved in their broader communities. Thus, the 2015 conference was a call to action. Time and again the speakers exhorted the participants to take up action to improve the world. They held up historical examples such as the unnamed Arya laywoman who protected the Indian nun Sudinna from sexual harassment, and contemporary examples such as Jiyul Sunim, a South Korean nun who protests environmental destruction in the courts. These are women whose energies were and are devoted to directly engaging and alleviating suffering.

Complementing the panelists were dharma talks by globally recognized teachers such as Venerable Tenzin Palmo and Ajahn Brahm. I particularly appreciated Venerable Thubten Chodron's frank acknowledgement of self interest as a driving force in both arrogance and lack of self esteem. Her suggestion to apply our critical faculty to that aspect of mind seems helpful, but only if applied gently and with a view toward embracing a more universal interest in all beings.

The conference schedule included a daily period of guided morning meditation. On the day I offered the meditation, I began with brief comments on the classical Mahayana teaching, "Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form." This sparked some fascinating conversations. Along with chanting in as many as 10 different traditional forms, the variety of meditation instruction was one of the most fascinating aspects of the conference.

Capping off the trip was a two day tour to the temples and monuments of Indonesia. It was profound. I stood at the steps of Borodubur, in the pre-sunrise light, with tears in my eyes. The power of practice is palpable there. We sat zazen at the temple summit while the sun rose across our faces and across the shoulders of hundreds of seated Buddhas. This moving experience was followed by visits to Kalasan, reportedly the oldest temple dedicated to compassion in the form of Tara, and Mendut temple which houses an enormous image of the primordial Buddha Vairocana, the teacher of emptiness. For me these places evoke deep gratitude to all those who have practiced before us and have ensured that the teachings of Buddhism continue to thrive. Indonesia, I learned, played an important role in that continuity, as the place where renowned 10th century Indian monk Atisha traveled to study Mahayana teachings with Serlingpa Dharmakirti before traveling on to Tibet to become a revered teacher himself.

 

In the end, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to attend the Sakyadhita Conference. It is a gathering which allows us all to drink deeply from our Buddhist past, and to look ahead to a bright future of Buddhist women fulfilling their greatest vow. I hope it continues for another 30 years and more.