Tag Archives: nun

Stepping into a New Stream

I had the pleasure of giving the Saturday morning Dharma talk at Hartford Street Zen Center about a week ago.


I spoke that day about the teaching of “no self” and the way it has arisen in both Eastern and Western culture. The nun Vajira, Greek philosopher Heraclitus, monk Nagarjuna, visionary Mahatma Gandhi, and Episcopalian priest Rev. Charles Freer Andrews all get a mention.

If you’d like to listen to the talk, you can hear it here:


Breaking with Tradition to Uphold Tradition

cave buddhas

There is a global movement toward re-establishing the full ordination of women in the Theravada, and Aloka Vihara is part of that movement. These bhikkhunis and the people that support them are Theravadan practitioners who are willing to acknowledge the shared heritage of all Buddhist lineages, rather than emphasize their differences. However, there is also global resistance to change, and a powerful monastic and political hierarchy that enforces a centuries old form of oppression. Studying the history of the origins of Buddhist women’s ordinations, and the forms that came down through the centuries does not provide complete clarity. There seem to be doctrinal inconsistencies and the basis for arguments on both sides of this debate. It may take generations to arrive at a consensus and, in the meantime, sincere women practitioners leave home and follow the Way.

Read about these sincere practitioners in the attached article, “A Sima on Northern California Land,” by Abiding Practice Leader Konin Cardenas.

A Sima on Nor Cal Land


Turning Toward Radiance

I recently paid a visit to the nuns at Aloka Vihara. They are ordained women in the Thervadan Buddhist tradition who are starting a new monastery in the northern hills of California. While I was there they spoke about their home and so many unknowns in their future. So when I was asked to give a talk, I chose to speak about the unknown, and how to practice with the uneasiness that might arise in those circumstances. Deep bows to the nuns for their warm hospitality and sincere practice, and for being willing to be pioneers of the ancient Way.


cave buddhas

Using the “R” Word

Renunciation is a bad word in America. It carries many connotations, subtle meanings like denial, poverty and withdrawal from society. It is thought of as a hardship, even if it is willingly taken on. It is something that many people avoid doing and even avoid thinking about.

This is not a surprise, given that many people in America today hope for a better life. Some might think, “I am not going to give anything up. I came here with nothing, and now it’s my turn to have more.” Others feel, “Life is fine just as it is. Why give up anything?” Some might think, “I grew up here and I deserve at least as much as my parents had.” Others think, “I don’t have enough love in my life, so I can’t renounce any of it.”

However, this is not the kind of renunciation that is most helpful on the path. IMG_0225 In Buddhism, the teaching is that there is really only one kind of renunciation that leads to liberation. This one thing that we are truly asked to renounce is our fixed view. That is, if you are willing to entertain some doubt, some skepticism, some inquiry about all the thoughts and feelings that you experience, then you have the opportunity to discover something completely different. You grant yourself the opportunity to experience things as they are, and relinquish things as you think they are, things as you want to force them to be, things as they might one day be if only everyone were to accept your understanding.

This mind of inquiry enables you to transform your fixed views of self and your fixed views of other. It sheds light on the dark shadows of your mind where the fiercest of the fixed views live. It loosens your grip on the things to which you have been clinging, preventing the “rope burn” that comes from holding tightly onto that which cannot remain the same. And if there is anything that is obvious, it’s that things cannot stay the same.

Then, with presence in the moment, having engaged the mind of inquiry, you will begin to experience your oneness with all things. You can begin to see the way in which you are actually interconnected, and not a separate entity governed completely by your own thoughts. Seeing this interconnectedness, you naturally begin to have compassion, for yourself as a changing being and for everything else, because it is also related to you. Just as described in the koan, wherein the monk asks another monk, “What is compassion?” The reply is, “It is like groping for the pillow in the dark while you are sleeping.” That is, it is something so natural you are not even conscious of it. However, this is true only when you are grounded in the truth of interconnectedness. Otherwise, you operate from the sense of scarcity, feeling that more for someone else means less for you, and less for you means you are less than them.

It reminds me of a nun who was the teacher of my dharma brother. She came for a visit to the monastery and, having heard what a wonderful teacher she was to him, I decided to give her a gift. It was tiny present, a glass monk less than 2 cm tall. I wrapped it in tissue paper and presented with a smile and a bow. The nun also smiled and bowed, and thanked me profusely. This is typical Japanese graciousness. The lesson came later. The following week I received a package from the nun, who had sent a beautiful tea cup and some candy. Then another month later, another package with sweets and cards. A few months later, a pretty handkerchief. And the gifts kept coming for many months to come. The lesson was quite clear. Even the smallest bit of generosity was returned many times over in this teacher’s form of renunciation. Truly this was a great teacher! Harada Roshi summed it up saying, “The person who gives a gift is practicing non-attachment.” Her renunciation was so profound that she could practice non-attachment over and over at the slightest prompting.

But how can we practice this in every day modern life, where we are dealing with plenty of people who are not on the same page? Really, it starts with questioning the ways we think and holding them up to the light of the Dharma. When we begin to relinquish the idea that we have to defend our thoughts, or even hang on to them, then a new, more peaceful way of being can begin to unfold. A friend of mine revealed his renunciation the other day, as we were sitting at the dinner table. He told me about his job in the technology industry, where he sits in front of computer most of the day and earns a pretty good living. “But,” he said, “one day I hope to give that up, and have a job where I can help people.” That would have been fine, but my friend had to chuckle at himself. Then with a wry smile he said, “It is a luxury for me even to be able to say that.”indianworkers You see, he is from a place where most people will only ever have one job, and they have no choice about it. They will tolerate any conditions just to have the job, and they will do that job their whole life. So, for him, it was a luxury even to express the desire to change jobs. What a wide view he had!

So it is with this heart and mind of renunciation that I invite you to take up the path of relinquishing that which you do not need and cannot hold on to anyway. Maybe then you will find your pillow in the dark.

Going Beyond the Rainbow

Last night I attended the dharma talk at SFZC City Center. The speaker was an invited guest, Ayya Anandabodhi. As one of the first nuns to be ordained in America in the Theravadan tradition she, and Ayya Santacitta, have received quite a bit of attention. Myself, I’d been inspired by their vision of starting a practice place for women, and had been meaning to visit the Vihara for a while. It’s just down the road a piece, near the ocean at the edge of San Francisco. But, this nun’s life was full enough that I never quite made it there.

Still, as sometimes happens, our paths crossed. What a lovely, unexpected arising. I’d gone down to visit another nun, Sister Santussika, who has even more recently begun a nunnery, this one in Millbrae. When I arrived, I found that the Ayyas were there, as well as Anandabodhi’s attendant and other women who give generously of their time to the two sanghas. I was quite pleased to make all of their acquaintance. As it happened we, together with Ajahn Guna, Santussika’s son who is also a monk, gathered together in front of the main altar and chanted a bhikkhuni blessing for the new temple. We chanted in both Pali and English, and despite the fact that it was all a new form for me, I felt comfortable and integrated.

A Visit to the Karuna Buddhist Vihara
August 2012

So it was with a sense of anticipation that I went over to City Center, to visit with a new friend, in way. And a truly fascinating thing happened. I’d had a late dinner due to waiting on another friend. When I went up to Blanche’s apartment to change into my robes, I noticed that Anandabodhi and Maria, her attendant who will soon be ordained sangha too, were waiting in the usual place to go down to give the talk. Stepping past them into Blanche’s room, I became aware that the sky in the window seemed to be a bit more colorful than usual. I pulled back the curtain only to find a broad, wondrous rainbow arching over the entire city, framed by a rose-colored sky. It was stunning, and I motioned to the nuns to come have a look. Then, the most amazing thing happened. Ayya Anandabodhi looked at the rainbow and said, “Oh, it’s for a woman we know. The rainbows seem to come out for her.” Even though it had just appeared, even though it could be seen in this place where she was waiting, even though, as Maria pointed out, there hadn’t even been any rain that day and it was nearly twilight, Anandabodhi didn’t think that the rainbow was for her. Her first thought was that it was for her friend.

Rainbow 6 c. Entheos

Rainbow 6 c. Entheos

This was, for me, a teaching in generosity and selflessness – a way of seeing the world that didn’t being with “me” or “mine.” She saw the world as a gift for others and smiled in gratitude for my having shown it to her. Reflecting on this moment, I’m reminded of the 10 Oxherding Pictures, wherein the practitioner, represented by a boy growing up, goes through two phases of realization about his relationship to the world. In one phase, he experiences the joy of releasing the deluded view of the world as being about him or related to him. Later, that same practitioner sits down to ponder the stillness of releasing the sense of himself as defined by the world. For me, Ayya Anandabodhi demonstrated at least the first and maybe also the second when she, in a fleeting instant, declined to accept the rainbow as a gift to herself. Beautiful!

Who needs monks anyway?

In a country that prides itself on a secular orientation, there are many people who have questions about the role of religion and of monastics. For Buddhist monks in particular, there is often a lack of clarity about how the lay community can or should interact with them. And in fact, within some American Buddhist communities, particularly in today’s Zen sangha, there are lots of questions about the role of a monk even within the temple or monastery environment, as well as outside of it.

For one thing, in Zen, the term “monk” can be applied to any person of any gender or no gender who has received ordination, and thereby taken the 16 foundational ethical precepts. Or the term “priest” can  also be used for them, though it sometimes has the additional connotation of someone who has completed dharma transmission, a milestone which usually indicates someone who has the authority to ordain others. Or the term “nun” can be applied to the ordained sangha who are female. Or the title of Reverend is often used. But, for our purposes, all of these terms are interchangeable ways of speaking about those ordained in Zen. They all have basically the same vows, the same responsibilities and the potential for the same roles.Their activities may differ, but their basic vows do not. Personally, for myself, I prefer the term “nun” or one day if I am a full-fledged teacher, maybe “acharya.”

Takuhatsu in the snow

Practicing in Japan I learned that it’s possible for a monk to simply be the presence of the Dharma in the world. This was particularly obvious when we went on takuhatsu (alms collection walks), a weekly activity at the monastery where I lived for a year and a half. We would go to small towns and villages, dressed in our traditional robes and other monk-type gear, and visit each and every house. No matter the reaction – good, bad or indifferent – the town folk recognized us as monastics. This is important because it is an opportunity for them to encounter the teaching and to notice whether they feel inspired, enraged or something in between. Then, for me, this sense of presence extended to other activities outside the monastery, rituals within the monastery, and finally to everything in my life. I found that my having taken up this life made it possible for others to consider their own responses to the monastic life, either by making it possible for them to feel inspired to practice, generous and giving of their resources and time, or by sparking a sense of separation and difficulty, or some other response. But the critical point was the clarity and authenticity of the interaction. There was no mistaking that we were monks, and that meant that the laity could make clear choices about how to respond to us.

Three Zen Nuns

So it seems to me that the point, then, is not that everyone who wants to practice Zen in America should be a monk, but rather that a strong monastic community helps to sustain a strong lay community, and vice versa. A clear role for the monastic makes it more possible for lay people to take up their own practice. And that is the true meaning of sangha.