What follows describes the context and events that led to my unexpected participation in the recent Bhikkhuni ordination at Aranya Bodhi Forest Monastery on August 27, 2010.
In March this year I met with Ayya Tathaaloka en route to my mom’s 80 birthday party. I had met her over the years on many occasions. On this occasion, her warmth, welcome, and kindness were particularly noteworthy. We talked about a number of topics and one of them was Bhikkhuni ordination. I said that I felt clear that was the only way forward for me in particular and the nuns in general, but my concerns still were about navigating out of the prejudice in the vinaya and having sufficient support so that the vinaya could be lived with a level of integrity that I felt comfortable with. At the time of meeting her I had no confidence that the community in Colorado Springs could support me to live with the Bhikkhuni vinaya with the level of integrity that I felt was needed. The Bhikkhuni rules about storing and handling food are more specific than what I was living with as a Siladhara and certainly required more support than the accommodations I had at that time in Colorado Springs. After that meeting with Ayya in March, I didn’t think further about Bhikkhuni ordination. In my mind it was something that I would need to navigate in the distant future.
I received a number of emails from, and had a few conversations with, Ayya over the ensuing months, each of which revealed her openness and sensitivity. With all that has been happening on the global scene for nuns these last few years, it seems like we have all been through the meat grinder. From her, I was increasingly aware of her interest to support nuns in whatever way she was able.
I knew that the Bhikkhuni ordination was occurring. I was glad that there was agreement for me to be able to go as an observer.
My friend and supporter Terry Mandel picked me up from the San Francisco airport. The next morning we drove up the coast to the Aranya Bodhi Forest Hermitage, driving continuously through a parade of pink naked ladies. ‘Pink naked ladies’ is the name of a lily that blooms abundantly in Northern California. They are so named in part, because of their color and the fact that the foliage comes out at another time of year. The last many years I lived in California, they were my favorite flower. The day was sunny and clear and I arrived feeling well and happy.
Knowing that Ayya and Sr. Suvijanna, the sameneri that had been training with Ayya for the past several years, had been very unwell, I came with tent, sleeping bag, and work robes so that I would be as self-sufficient as possible and able to help with preparations. We arrived just in time for the meal. The delight to be with sisters was tangible, in the way that reconnecting with your tribe would be. This was the first time with sisters since I left the UK. Even though I hadn’t met most of these sisters before, the joint purpose, the stillness of the environment, and the attention to forest monastic standards cleared the path from needing to navigate the situation on a personality level. Immediately I felt at home.
After a warm welcome and finishing the meal, Terry and I went to pay respects to Ayya, who had taken her meal separately. It was a relaxed and friendly conversations and I felt at ease talking with her. She mentioned I hadn’t responded to two emails that she had sent 1-2 months ago — one about Ajahn Pasanno, abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery, attending the ordination and the other, an invitation to be among the sisters ordained! I said that I hadn’t received either of them. She described the various reasons that the sisters were supportive of my participation in the ordination and why the candidates wanted me to be ordained before them. She assured me that was still the case. My thoughts went into pandemonium and hot tears ran down my face as I heard Terry weep next to me. The trust, respect, compassion, flexibility, and inclusion were overwhelming. I said I needed time to consider this possibility.
I had exactly one hour before the rehearsal was scheduled to begin, so I went to sit in a fairy ring of redwood trees to tune in to what was present. The pandemonium of the years of concerns, doubts, and the way forward was the energetic morass I first encountered. When I inquired what was underneath, I very quickly dropped into a silent, clear, peaceful, and joyous place and stayed there for the rest of the meditation. I pulled myself back into a place where discernment was operating and checked all my concerns and doubts against my intuition. There were no obstacles, and it seemed clear that whatever consequences might occur, there was support to deal with them. I realized my answer was “yes” and suddenly unburdened, tears flowed.
Ten minutes before the rehearsal was to begin, I calmly walked to Ayya and told her of my decision. Although I don’t remember what she said, I’ll never forget her beaming response.
Ayya sent emails to Ajahn Pasanno and the Saranaloka sisters to let them know it was likely I would be participating. Terry went to call my mom, Gwyn Waterfield, my recently-arrived attendant, and Kathryn Turnipseed, the Awakening Truth board president, to alert them of the news. With no cell phone reception and no landline, she had to leave the premises to do so. I heard later, to my delight, that Mom was going to be able to come.
Ayya kept me outside of the sima, the ordination platform that was in the yurt while she double checked with Bhante Gunaratana, each of the Bhikkhunis, and the candidates about my current decision. Some concern had already surfaced in the lay community. They feared that the Saranaloka sisters or Ajahn Pasanno might change their plans to attend having signed the 5 points and all that had gone on with Ajahn Brahm being delisted from the Ajahn Chah samvasa for being part of the Bhikkhuni ordination in Perth. As Ajahn Pasanno was one of the candidate’s teachers, it was important that she understand the ramifications and still be in agreement in the remote and unlikely occurrence this did pan out. What the lay community didn’t realize was that having deliberately taken myself out of the samvasa a year earlier, the Saranaloka sisters and Ajahn Pasanno would not have been implicated in my impending Bhikkhuni ordination.
I was invited in. I quietly took my seat with the candidates with the chanting sheets in my hands.
Later Ayya explained to me the extensive communications that had been going on regarding my participation in this ordination since the first inception of the idea. She detailed the times when the topic had surfaced which were many, the most recent being during the preparations for arriving monastics just before the ordination itself.
She also did not want to assume that when I felt ready to go ahead that I would wish to do so with them. Ayya did not want to push me, but to let me know how welcome I was and how much the venerable Bhikkhunis were supporting and advocating for me, together with respecting and honoring my needs. For this reason, when there was no reply to this letter, not wanting to push, Ayya did not write back and enquire with me further.
Ayya explained this was the environment I walked into. When Ayya checked with Bhante Gunaratana, she was checking with him about something that she already had correspondence with him about; and when Ayya spoke with all the Bhikkhunis and novices, it was something that had already come up recently. The level of ready and sure warmth, acceptance and support from both Bhante Gunaratana and the venerables and sisters was completely steady. Even though I didn’t know all the details, I felt the warmth and the welcome. More tangible than anything else, the warmth and welcome made this step into the flow possible.
We started at 3 PM and finished at 8 PM. By the time we finished it was cold and into the last of the evening light. The sisters were cold, tired, and sore from sitting. Some sick and a few in a lot of pain. There wasn’t one instance of frayed tempers, irritation, or impatience. Ayya herself was in a lot of pain. And there were many instances of questions from Bhante Gunaratana. At every instance the question was considered and time spent until clear understanding prevailed. Not once was Ayya anything but clear, grounded, kind, and thorough. Her negotiation skills and clear command of the vinaya was apparent, as well as the fine tooth comb with which she had researched the legal aspects of the ordination. I was impressed.
After the rehearsal, two of the elder sisters stayed up and sewed together two uttarsanghas to make a sanghatti, one of the required robes for the ordination. The other sisters all offered a robe here and a robe there to make up a completely new set. (There isn’t yet a robe store at Aranya Bodhi.)
I hadn’t yet set up my tent. So with the help of two others went back in the dark to where I was staying and put it up, crawled into my sleeping bag, and began to let the impressions of the day wash over me.
Between being on a slope, being wound up, and hoping to learn a little of the chanting, I didn’t sleep very well or long, but when it was time to rise felt very peaceful.
The morning of the ordination I went back to Ayya with some concerns that had surfaced. It was important that she understand and be able to support my intention to move out of patriarchy and all that which was harmful that seemed embedded in the institutionalized aspect of monasticism. She agreed this was necessary. I asked how she thought she would handle it if she and I were at differences of opinion; she said she would welcome it. Earlier she had talked about returning to what she thought the early Sangha life was like, based on a sociocracy rather than a hierarchy; a community process that takes everyone’s concerns into account, no matter how junior, without doing away with hierarchy entirely. But she also mentioned how different Bhikkhunis have entirely different opinions on what is needed. Using the topic of hierarchy and bowing, she described the range from just the Bhikkhunis present for the ordination. She said what was important is that there is friendliness to allow diversity, and that the range of diversity in interpretations of the vinaya was both healthy and very important. Her response again eased my concerns.
The day of the ordination was full, getting robes together, trying them on, and fielding the concerns that had come to Ayya from various quarters. I met with her and stated repeatedly that if there was any sense at all that my participation was going to diminish the blessings or auspiciousness of the event, cause harm to Ayya or to her support base, I would step down. We talked through each of the concerns. She was clear and specific in how she responded. I left feeling at ease that not only these were not Ayya’s concerns but that none of the other Bhikkhuni or candidates shared them either. Ayya Satima, the mother of Priyan, who is vice-president of the Awakening Truth board, had been in the trailer listening to this conversation and later told me she was praying the whole time that I wouldn’t change my mind and back down.
We did a Samaneri ordination before the full ordination with a number of the Bhikkhunis and Samaneris witnessing.
I memorized the first part of the chanting, got my robes together, and before the procession went into doubt. Again for about 15 minutes an energetic pandemonium set in, so I focused on connecting with the still place from which the decision had arisen. This wasn’t about the chanting, or being in control, this was about surrendering into a flow, a huge benevolent river or ocean current, trusting the goodness that was present and finding a way to live this life that was for the benefit of all beings; the land, the world and other people and finding a way out of the miserable situation I had increasingly been finding myself in. Quiet again, and calm, I went back toward the trailer where the candidates were waiting.
Ajahn Pasanno had arrived and was outside in an area that had been prepared for the Bhikkhus. He caught my eye and gestured in anjali before I could initiate it, gave me two thumbs up, and said congratulations. His voice and countenance conveyed only support, encouragement, and friendliness. I was pleased to see him, delighted that he’d come, and reminded him that he had been at my anagarikaa ordination in 1989. He didn’t remember, but it didn’t interrupt his smiling. He was the abbot of Wat Pa Nanachat when I visited in 1988. It was then that I decided to be a nun. Ajahn Pasanno remembered.
We processed up to the sima with the lay community throwing flower petals and chanting ‘Sadhu!’ as we entered the sima. Some petals stuck to me so that when I went to put my sitting cloth down, they fell on the mat.
In spite of having memorized the first part of the chanting earlier, it was gone by the time the ceremony began. So the chanting Achariyas graciously and very kindly supported me through everything I didn’t remember. Occasionally I felt nervous, but mostly a strange calm. It was really apparent after the ceremony: I felt profoundly relieved.
To have the monks chanting the confirmation with ebullience, delight, and obvious rejoicing in our being Bhikkhunis was a unique experience. Indeed!
At the first instance after the ceremony, I went to talk with Ajahns Anandabodhi and Santacitta. We had time to share and receive each other’s blessings.
People came to me after the ceremony with their faces quizzical and very concerned how I was. I said I felt grounded, peaceful, and normal.
The next day I woke up feeling peaceful. All the way down to breakfast, I kept saying, “it is over, it is over, it is over….” I had been feeling increasingly like someone in deep space without a space ship and with all my life support systems on the dregs. It wasn’t sustainable and I couldn’t see a way out with the energy I had and what complexity I thought I’d be required to navigate. The last few months the doubt, despair, and inner turmoil were very high. A few days before coming to California, I wrote to a good friend and said it was if my gaskets were about to melt. What I now realize in hindsight is that I was interpreting something in an entirely personal way that was in fact the disintegrating beneath and all around me of the vehicle I was in. Having lived in it for 19 years, I had identified with it to such an extent that it felt like I was disintegrating.
The untenable situation I’d been in was over! A path emerged: There were sisters who shared my own vinaya that I could talk to, community and resources that were available to support, places that I could visit and be “one of the group” without losing my autonomy. As one Bhikkhu wrote: “Now you have a personal direct plug-in into this lineage, not dependent on others’ power.” In a Bhikkhuni ordination, the plug in comes from the Bhikkhuni’s who give the ordination. The monks are there to confirm the ordination that the Bhikkhuni’s have conferred. Now higher ordinations would no longer be a nightmare to navigate but very simple and straightforward. I felt like sizzling, flaming rice being submerged into a spring-fed cool reservoir. “Delightful, cool, and peaceful” do not give adequate texture to the change in terrain.
By way of background, Ajahn Sumedho had asked Ajahn Sucitto to create a system of training for the Siladhara when it first started nearly 30 years ago in 1981. The ordination was going to be a 10-precept ordination, but the recitation was concocted from Bhikkhuni, Bhikkhu, and samaneri precepts and had 137 rules, though some of these rules were the amalgamation of two or three rules in the Bhikkhuni patimokkha. Initially it was inspired with a noble intent to support the women’s aspiration for liberation while at the same time circumventing the controversy of the Bhikkhuni ordination. This was meant to give the sisters sufficient support for practice of morality, meditation, and community living. And for much of the past 30 years, it did indeed serve its purpose. But it left all of the Siladhara at Chithurst and Amaravati isolated from the rest of the Buddhist community. Even though there are many 10-precept nuns worldwide, our community structure and the way we lived the life was shaped around our unique recitation. It also meant that our access to the tradition and the lineage was exclusively through the monks. In the last two years it became increasingly apparent that within the Thai Forest Tradition the Bhikkhuni ordination wasn’t possible, leaving the sisters no way of resolving the dilemma we had been placed in other than attempting to forge a new path, which I had found so formidably challenging, or disrobing, which so many sisters had done.
With the retrenchment into patriarchal values and non-participatory decision making, I left the formal affiliations of Amaravati and its associated monasteries last year in July. By deliberately taking myself out of the samvasa, (family of monastics), the sisters that I had lived with and been through so much with were no longer my “community” either. Over the last few months, what was becoming increasingly apparent was that I was on an unsustainable trajectory, like someone in deep space without a space ship: I would run out of life support. Being a Siladhara without any community of Sisters around me and no other Siladhara in the world, I was out on an edge. The recent news of four more nuns either leaving the samvasa or disrobing within a one-month period exacerbated my own sense of isolation, alienation, and doubt.
Ayya insisted that I take proper leave of her before leaving the monastery in spite of having seen her already four times that morning. She wanted to be sure that I had adequate support, extended a warm welcome to Aranya Buddha Forest Hermitage, illuminated that I would be welcome at several Bhikkhuni monasteries she knew of, talked about the organizations that I would be part of and what that meant, asked about listing Awakening Truth as a Bhikkhuni training monastery on her and other websites, and talked about ways that I could be more current with Bhikkhuni vinaya by listening to recordings she had made during the vassa. Clear, careful, and warm, she didn’t miss a beat with regard to her duties as a Pavattini (preceptor).
Gwyn is with me in Colorado and intending to train as an anagarikaa, an eight precept novice. Her support means that I am able to keep the vinaya standard to an adequate level. So the shift is manageable now, whereas before she arrived, I wouldn’t have considered it. With the increased interest and support in Colorado Springs and people stepping up to help, seasoned Bhikkhuni’s to talk with and seek intelligent responses to knotty aspects of the vinaya, it appears that the transition may be less arduous than I imagined all these years.
When I reflect on how this came about, with warmth, spontaneity, and an overriding sense of goodwill and compassion, it reminds me what can happen when women are in right relationship with themselves and each other. When we have the clarity of our own ground as a fundamental condition, energy flows accordingly. In a community where nuns do not have clear ground and autonomy, the imbalance distorts relationships. In such divisive contexts nuns’ relationships with each other can be organized by fear, competition or merging, rather than solidarity, empathy, and strength. When I consider the spontaneity and wisdom evident in the recent Bhikkhuni ordination ceremony, — the overriding sense of goodwill and compassion, as well as clear attention to detail and the effects they had on everyone — I do recognize this as what the Buddha intended as a basis of the four-fold Sangha for the blessings of the world.
The level of relief, comfort, and ease I feel is indescribable. It is also noteworthy that the first response after the ordination of Ajahns Anandabodhi and Santacitta, sisters I have known for 17 years, (now part of Saranaloka), conveyed total support, joy, and relief for the end of the difficult situation I was in. More than anyone else in the world, they understand.
One of the other sisters at Aloka Vihara in San Francisco who couldn’t attend wrote me:
“Dearest Venerable Sister,
Every cell of my being is celebrating your journey and now, finally your upasampada. How wonderful! May this step be another thread woven through the heart, bringing blessings and support in your own path of awakening and that of all beings. Sadhu!, my dear sister. I am with you in my heart.”
As a final note, I have never experienced regret for the training as a Siladhara and still feel gratitude for the years of practice opportunities and instruction Ajahn Sumedho offered. In fact his encouragement to trust myself and his repeated encouragement to rest in awareness, which I took to heart, is the ground from which this ‘going forth’ into the flow has occurred.
Blessings to each of you and your support, encouragement, and friendship all these years to make this possible.
Links for photos: