Ajahn Anandabodhi and Ajahn Santacitta, two senior nuns from Amaravati Monastery in Britain, visited and offered teachings in Portland and the Seattle area in February as part of a two-month tour of the western United States.
One of the objects of the sisters' visit was to assess interest and support for the idea of establishing a community of nuns in the Theravadan lineage of Luang Por Sumedho and his Thai teacher, Ajahn Chah, in either California or the Northwest . The nuns' trip was sponsored by the Saranaloka Foundation.
In Portland, the sisters conducted puja, silent meditation, and a Dhamma discussion with Portland Friends of the Dhamma. They participated in evening meditation and discussion with the Eastside Meditation Group at the home of Steve and Ellen Wilhelm in Kirkland, WA and offered a half-day meditation retreat, "New Beginnings," in Seattle. Janice Clark of Saranaloka was the principal coordinator of the nuns' visit in the Northwest.
Amaravati Monastery, sister house to Cittaviveka (Chithurst House), took root in 1979 when Ajahn Sumedho, an American monk trained by Ajahn Chah in Thailand, and several other western monks and novices received the support necessary to begin an experiment in Theravadan monasticism in England. With Ajahn Sumedho's consent, four women soon joined them, taking eight-precept vows and diving into the strenuous work and practice schedule of the fledgling community.
Within a year or two, the women felt the importance of going beyond the community service inherent in eight-precept status. Ajahn Sumedho, with encouragement from the lay sangha, sought permission to give the ten renunciate precepts to the nuns. Ten-precept monastics relinquish the use of money, the preparation of food, and other activities. In 1983 Ajahn Sumedho received permission from the Thai Sangha to give the women the "Going Forth" ceremony allowing them to wear robes (though of a darker color than the monks'), carry alms bowls, and go on alms rounds. Thus the Order of Siladhara (ten-precept nuns) came into being. Several "generations" of Amaravati nuns celebrated its 25th anniversary this past autumn.
Ajahn Anandabodhi and Ajahn Santacitta both began their training at Amaravati in 1992, receiving siladhara ordination in '95 and '98, respectively. Along with two other senior nuns of this lineage, their hope is to transplant the order of ten-precept nuns to this region and to do so with greater independence from a community of monks than has been the case in Britain.
At present the opportunities for women seeking Theravadan ordination are severely limited. One motivation for establishing a new monastery for women is to meet the needs of those unable to find places elsewhere. In doing so, the Amaravati nuns will be able to apply the fruits of their many years of experience and training in practicing the Dhamma in a community of women. It's a community that can be "a pressure cooker," as Ajahn Santacitta puts it, but one that allows its members to be held safely as they explore deeply.
With support from the lay donors the nuns' hope is to locate a residence in a rural setting–"perhaps a farm or a disused camp"–with sufficient acreage for the eventual construction of expanded group housing plus a half dozen kutis for solitary practice. The community would “start small” but might eventually aim to accommodate 30 residents, including novices, guests and occasional visitors. It would not be a retreat center, but would offer teachings and ceremonies to the lay community from time to time.
Ajahns Anandabodhi and Santacitta, together with Ajahn Thanasanti and Ajahn Metta, plan to return to California or the Northwest in January and February of 2009 to take up residence in a temporary vihara where they will practice and offer instruction to lay visitors. Ajahn Thanasanti and another senior Amaravati nun, Ajahn Upekkha, will visit the Northwest this year in May for a Dharma talk in Seattle and a ten-day retreat at Cloud Mountain.
The Saranaloka Foundation coordinates and supports retreats and teaching visits by western Theravadan nuns in North America. Recognizing the special requirements of nuns traveling outside their monasteries, Saranaloka provides financial, organizational, and logistical help as needed. Establishing a community of nuns on the West Coast is a high priority for the Foundation. ⊕
For more information, please visit www.saranaloka.org.
Contributor: Julie Welch
Photos: Janice Clark