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Walking the Path: Buddhist Nuns in the West

by Kathy Cheney, Spirit Rock Retreat Manager

Nuns in the front row during the retreat       The monastics walk down the hill with their alms bowls for the noon-time meal

The annual monastic dana retreat was held in June at Spirit Rock, and was co-taught this year by Ajahn Sucitto, abbot of the Chithurst Monastery in England and a maha thera (great teacher in our tradition), and Ayya Medhanandi, the guiding teacher of the Sati Sarinaya monastery in Ontario, Canada, and a Bhikkhuni elder. 

In addition to Ayya Medhanandi and her attendant Ayya Nimmala, we had the pleasure of hosting nine Theravada nuns, (seven of whom are fully-ordained bhikkhunis), who attended the retreat as yogis. This was a first for Spirit Rock, in large part because the bhikkhuni (fully ordained nun) community is just beginning to set down roots in the western world.

Although Spirit Rock staff is well practiced in how to care and provide meals for 80-90 lay yogis, hosting the nuns was a whole new experience. We learned much about monastic life and the rules that surround and contain it, and it was a joy to hold the space for all the retreatants, lay and monastic, as well as the teachers. It was quite beautiful to see how Spirit Rock staff, both above and below the gate, supported each other to ensure that the retreat ran smoothly for all and that the nuns were fully-supported - as retreatants and as monastics.

The nuns sat in the front row in the meditation hall and provided inspiration to the lay retreatants sitting behind them. Many people attending the retreat were familiar with monastic protocol and the rest intuitively followed along. A simple example is respecting the monastic form by allowing the teachers, their attendants, and the sitting nuns (as we called them), to leave the hall before rising from one’s seat.

Mealtimes were another area in which monastic rules was observed. Theravada monastics must eat their last meal of the day before noon and they cannot prepare or store food. In addition, food must be offered directly into their bowls or their hands. The Spirit Rock kitchen lovingly prepared sumptuous meals for the retreat and every lunch period organized lay yogis to offer a dish to the monastic sangha (community) as they came through the meal line with their alms bowls and then gathered together for a chant of reflection and gratitude.

The new moon fell on the last full day of the retreat and we learned from the bhikkhunis that when five or more of them are gathered in one place at the time of new moon or the full moon, their training requires them to hold a Patimokkha recitation. 

The Patimokkha is a recitation of the training rules of a fully ordained monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni). There are 227 training rules for a bhikkhu and 311 for a bhikkhuni and the recitation can take up to two hours. In an article called 'Turning Back Towards Freedom' in the Bhikkhuni Alliance newsletter, Ayya Tathaalokka, one of the trailblazer bhikkhunis in the west, says: “Patimokkha literally means to make an 'about face' or to 'turn back towards freedom or liberation.' She explains that the Patimokkha is a container to “keep us within what is correct in living a monastic life and what is conducive to liberation.” For the period of the recitation the gathering is private and in a protected and sacred space. The space allows for the bhikkhuni community to come together and in Ayya Tathaalokka's words, “acknowledge conflicts” and “address any potential sources of discord.” 

Most people who come to Spirit Rock know that the Buddha was a monk who lived 2,500 years ago and that after his awakening he was inspired to teach people a way to peace and freedom that was not based on people, places and things, or the “conditioned phenomena” of our human life. The Buddha taught that anyone — regardless of their gender or race or status — could free their heart from the shackles of fear, uncertainty and a sense of inner lack. For the time and place this was a radical social/cultural model of awakening. People delighted in the Buddha’s teaching that there is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

The Buddha’s great skill as a teacher was that he knew how to offer the teachings in a way that would most benefit those coming to learn from him. Many people learned how to live life as a householder in a way that brought inner harmony and benefit to family and society. For those who could attune to the call, the Buddha also taught a monastic path. Many wanted to follow the Buddha and step away from the dusty road of worldly life and were ready to ordain as monastics.

The Buddha knew, and taught, that anyone could attain liberation but according to many interpretations of the texts was reluctant to ordain women as bhikkhunis, in the lifestyle of renunciation, simplicity and community that was believed to be most conducive to achieving the ultimate goal of liberation. The Buddha was aware of the societal outcry that would arise if the new developing sangha provided a way for women to leave their traditional prescribed roles and enter the path of a renunciant. The Buddha also had great concern that women entering this path would leave the conventional protection of their home and family. 

Venerable Analayo, a contemporary Buddhist monastic scholar, has written on the topic of the Buddha's attitude towards female monastics. He found in his studies that the Buddha actually supported the ordination of women as part of the 'four-fold sangha' - bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, male lay followers and female lay followers. The Buddha praised a disciplined four-fold sangha saying "these are reckoned the good assemblies, like the light of the sun, they shine on their own." You can read more of Venerable Analayo's paper here.

Pajapati was the first great elder of the Buddhist nun’s order. Pajapati was also the young Buddha-to-be’s aunt who raised him after his mother died just seven days after his birth. The Buddha denied Pajapati’s request for ordination three times and only consented, after his attendant Ananda spoke up on her behalf and the many woman seeking ordination. The Patimokkha training rules were set down by the Buddha 2,500 years ago for the first Buddhist nuns led by Great Teacher Maha Pajapati.

One of the nuns present for the retreat and Patimokkha recitation at Spirit Rock in June expressed her gratitude for the entire experience:

“In general, because the Theravada bhikkhuni monasteries worldwide are still in their beginning stages, a lot of energy and time needs to be put into building them up, whether in terms of physical infrastructure or lay support/understanding about bhikkhuni sangha, so retreat time is not easy to come by. To have Spirit Rock extend so generously a fully-supported retreat opportunity is therefore a really precious and wonderful gift for us nuns.”

In a letter of gratitude to Spirit Rock, the nuns as a group shared that, “We nuns gained yet another benefit from your skillful, insightful decision to consciously bring together Theravada mendicant nuns as a group. Among the eleven of us, five communities from far-flung locations were represented, along with three monastics who are loners or in transition. These communities never before had representatives gathered in one place. Some of the nuns had never before even met. We reached out and supported each other throughout the retreat, gladdening our hearts, strengthening old, warm friendships, melting away past differences in this atmosphere of great good will, and forging strong new friendships.”

There are many ways to help support the growing bhikkhuni communties: Locate a monastic community in your area  and offer dana (donations) for their requisites (daily needs) - the Bhikkhuni Alliiance lists sanghas from around the world (in the Bay Area three local bhikkhuni communties are Aloka Vihara, Aranya Bodhi Hermitageand Karuna Buddhist Vihara); celebrate International Bhikkhuni Day September 14 - 26; or save the date for a bhikkhuni-led retreat in May 2014 'Listening to Natural Law' with Ayya Anandabodhi and/ Ayya Santacitta.


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