Monday, December 23, 2013

Jewels of the Sunset: Bhikkhunis Awaken in San Francisco

Mary King

Ayya Santacitta with Jill Boone, then-president of Saranaloka Foundation

I often marvel at how life is full of surprises—at how our spiritual paths have many an unexpected twist and turn.

Certainly, when my heart is open to the road of life it can turn out to be a really wondrous journey. Even the most difficult roads can turn out to be a blessing in disguise. And, I'm sure that the nuns at Aloka Vihara in San Francisco would agree with me.

After all, it was while out on the roads of India earlier this year that I got sick, changed my plans, and ended up going to the Sakyadhita conference in Vaishali. And, it was at that conference in the dusty little town where the Buddha is said to have ordained the very first Buddhist nuns that I first met Ayya Santacitta. It felt incredibly auspicious to meet her in Vaishali, and a shift on my spiritual path was made.

I went to the Sakyadhita conference hoping to offer support to the siladhara sisters from Amaravati Monastery in England. For some years now I've been taking steps towards ordaining as a novice nun at the Theravada monastery in Hertfordshire. I knew that the siladhara had attended Sakyadhita conferences in the past so I was saddened not to see a familiar face upon arriving in Vaishali. But as my eyes scanned the faces of those attending the conference, with the hope of spotting somebody else I might know, they fell on the intriguingly radiant face of a nun who seemed vaguely familiar to me. But I knew that I had never met her before, so who on earth could she be?

It eventually dawned on me that I had seen her photograph on a pamphlet hanging in the Amaravati library; that Ayya Santacitta was one of the nuns who left the siladhara community in the UK a few years ago to move to the US to set up a nuns' community. I recalled that she had taken bhikkhuni ordination, something I didn't understand much about. I did know bhikkhunis were a hot-potato issue at Amaravati and its sister monasteries, all of which come under the wing of Ajahn Chah's Thai Forest Tradition. It was another reason why I was attending the conference.

Jill Boone, Mary King and Chimey Lhatso in Bodhgaya
I was hoping Sakyadhita 2013 would fully clarify for me what the bhikkhuni problem was, if indeed it was a problem. Hopefully, speakers would address why in some spheres (including Sakyadhita or so I'm told) siladhara are considered something less, or " puzzling, " in comparison with their bhikkhuni sisters.

I wanted to understand the Buddha's stance on the issue so that I could fathom whether it was wise for me to pursue my training with a monastery that blocked bhikkhuni ordination. But, surely, aren't a nun's vows about giving up worldly aims and values? Should I even be concerning myself with hierarchy and gender rights if truly everything is empty?

But then again, should a religion that banished caste discrimination 2,500 years ago support gender discrimination in this day and age, and particularly in Western society where it is likely to face fierce opposition from those who support equal opportunities?

So with many questions whirling in my mind, I introduced myself to Ayya Santacitta and to Jill Boone, president at that time of Saranaloka, the US foundation that supports the three Aloka Vihara nuns in California.

Ayya Santacitta invited me to attend her workshop in which she showed a film about Aloka Vihara and the nuns' aspiration to set up a training monastery for women. She explained why she left Amaravati and its sister monastery Chithurst, and how she and Ayya Anandabodhi, both nuns in England for more than eighteen years, eventually decided to leave the Ajahn Chah lineage in order to ordain as bhikkhunis in 2011.

I was impressed by the courage, devotion, and determination of the two bhikkhunis and of Anagarika Maria (now Samaneri Jayati) who decided to uproot and walk a new path through unknown territory. They gave up the comfort and stability of a well-established monastery to set out alone in a foreign land (Ayya Santacitta originally hails from Austria; Ayya Anandabodhi and Sister Jayati are British).

Mary King and Jill Boone meditate at
Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya 
After the conference in Vaishali where I learned much about the bhikkhuni issue as well as other issues facing women in the Buddhist world, I traveled on to Bodhgaya and met up with Ayya Santacitta and Jill again. We spent a week together at the Root Institute, enjoying excursions into town, rickshaw rides down to Mahabodhi Temple where we offered flowers, meditated, and circumambulated the Bodhi Tree umpteen times.

It was delightful to spend time with the two of them, as well as to make friends with nuns of the Tibetan tradition. And, before leaving Bodhgaya to venture on to Thailand, Ayya Santacitta asked me if I would like to visit Aloka Vihara to spend three months as steward – cooking, cleaning, handling money, and so on. It would be an opportunity to see how the nuns lived and to see if it might be an option I would like to consider.

Ayya Santacitta also highly recommended Amaravati to me as a place for training. All three Aloka Vihara residents she said, valued the training and teachings they received there. She said a day did not pass when she did not reflect on her gratitude to the siladhara community. Ultimately, I felt I had nothing to lose by checking out Aloka Vihara and I decided to delay my ordination in the UK so I'd be able to experience life with the three sisters “across the pond.”

Ayya Santacitta explained that it wasn't clear how long they would be settled in San Francisco, that I could very well find myself moving with them to other parts of Northern California within a few weeks of arriving in the US. But that hasn't turned out to be the case.

I'm now drawing to the end of my three months with the nuns and we're still in the house on 48th Avenue, just a stone's throw away from the beach. Meanwhile, members of the Saranaloka Foundation are searching for a suitable property for the nuns in the Placerville area, not far from Sacramento. The sisters won't be packing up and leaving San Francisco until spring 2014 at the earliest. By that time I will have packed and unpacked several times myself as I'll be hitting the road again soon, first for Peru and Argentina, then hopefully out to Antarctica, before heading back to Europe and the UK.

Time certainly flies like an arrow. The weeks have absolutely shot by since my arriving on US soil, and I've had such a marvelous experience with the nuns here, one that I will be eternally grateful for.

Aloka Vihara is certainly unique for someone like myself who has spent time only in large monasteries in England and Japan. Aloka Vihara is an ordinary townhouse with easy access to shops, transport, a vibrant city, the beach, and ocean. Golden Gate Park is just a few blocks away. I feel very embedded in the everyday world here. With just the four of us, Aloka Vihara feels more like a home than a mini-monastery.

The sisters are extremely busy, much busier than they probably were at Amaravati, I feel, and certainly the pressure is on. Their days are filled with office work, preparing for retreats, teachings, visiting laypeople as well as welcoming them to the vihara. There are many demands when it comes to running a vihara and establishing yourself in a new community. But the seed has been planted and already the sapling is four years old. It's taking on a special life of its own, one that seems free to bear its own deliciously unique fruit.

Our days usually start at 5:30 a.m. with puja and end after 9 p.m. with meditation and chants. In between I find myself mainly cooking and cleaning, but I have also delighted in some very special treats, among them the opportunity to take afternoon or early evening strolls along the beach. I especially love watching the sun set over the Pacific.

Sister Jayati and Ayya Anandabodhi
on almsround
Other treats have included attending a daylong at Spirit Rock where Ayya Santacitta and Ayya Anandabodhi taught, as well as accompanying Ayya Santacitta to her teachings at a lighthouse in Montara and at the Mindfulness Care Center in downtown San Francisco. We have also recently emerged from our own ten-day retreat, a period when the vihara went into quiet time, noble silence, and laypeople only visited to bring the meal dana.

It's been particularly lovely to join Sister Jayati out on pindapata (almsround), strolling up through Golden Gate Park to the Asian area situated near Nineteenth Avenue and Irving. It's been moving to experience the generosity of an elderly Vietnamese woman and a middle-aged Thai man who bring home-cooked food for the nuns and myself to eat.

It has also been touching to share in the generosity of laypeople who come to the vihara laden down with groceries or dishes they have lovingly prepared at home. I have the fondest memories of joining the sisters for a day's main meal at the home of a dear vihara supporter who lives in the city with his partner, two cats, and two dogs. He prepared us an American breakfast (and a vegetarian one at that) of waffles and other scrumptious delights while the more extrovert of his furry friends, an enormous Turkish cat, made sure her presence was felt. Another beloved pet, a seven-year-old brown Sheltie was undergoing cancer treatment and seemed to be recovering well at the time, but within weeks took a turn for the worse and her name joined those of other loved and lost ones in our chants.

It's been an honour to work so closely with Sister Jayati in the kitchen. She's been very patient with my blunders—and there have been quite a few. I'm certainly not known for my culinary or cleaning skills, but at least I managed to make tempura without burning the kitchen down or burning myself.

Particularly I've felt honoured to join her and other laypeople once a month for the making of sandwiches for the homeless. Sister Jayati lovingly bakes her own bread at some unearthly hour of the morning so that later in the day we can prepare more than 100 tasty sandwiches and pack them up in small bags, along with fruit and other snacks. I have yet to join her and the team that goes out on the streets of central San Francisco to offer the food bags and coffee to the homeless and/or hungry, but I am heartened whenever she returns to the vihara and recounts the wonderful people and gratitude she and the team have received.

It was also with great joy that I joined the sisters on the Walk to Feed the Hungry, an event organized by Ayya Santussika of Karuna Buddhist Vihara in nearby Mountain View. More than $9,400 was raised for Buddhist Global Relief from the walk through San Francisco, which also served as a mini-pilgrimage of Buddhist sites in the city.
Sister Jayati, Saranaloka President Wren Withers,
Ayya Santacitta, and Ayya Anandabodhi
All in all, my stay at Aloka Vihara has been an inspiring and heartwarming experience. I will leave the nuns with my sincerest best wishes for their future. I also bid a fond farewell to wonderful characters like Wren Withers, the present president of Saranaloka, and those people who believe in the importance of having bhikkhunis, and who are eager to support the bhikkhunis’ spreading the Dharma, training women, and spiritually supporting the lay community.

Perhaps at some point in the future my spiritual path might lead me back to the nuns and California. I certainly haven't answered all my questions about the bhikkhuni vs siladhara path, but until I walk the path I reckon I can never know it. Let's see which way the path (and road) unravels. I can only progress along it one small step at a time.

Mary King: Journalist and Broadcaster

Mary King has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for thirty years, many of those years in Asia. She is the author of Japan on Foot, a book about a 7,500-kilometer walk she made through the country.

All photos courtesy of Mary King

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