Those who know the gentle Ayya Jayati might be surprised to know that she first encountered the dhamma while learning Japanese martial arts. Her Aikido master taught that the right action doesn’t come out of thought but from being in touch with the present moment. It was this instruction that introduced the 9-year old British schoolgirl to the ideas that would ultimately lead to bhikkhuni ordination.
Throughout high school and her early 20s she casually explored Buddhism. From time to time she attended retreats where she learned sitting meditation and how to chant. She enjoyed the discussions that followed. “They emphasized metta; it was quite gentle and very sweet,” she recalls. While not practitioners themselves, her parents recognized that it was having a positive result on their daughter’s life. The seeds were planted and lightly watered, but the desire to live a renunciate life wouldn’t fully bloom until Ayya Jayati reached her 30s.
For years she had tried to juggle work, home and her increasing desire for a meditation practice. In 2004 she decided to devote the year to exploring the renunciate life. She began her journey by visiting distant relatives in Pune, India. When she arrived in Calcutta she was joined for ten days by her father, returning to the country of his birth for the first time since emigrating to England at the age of 12. She immersed herself in silence at a 10-day Vipassana retreat in the tradition of S.N. Goenka. “That set the tone of the whole journey for me. That’s when the aspiration for a monastic life became clear to me,” Ayya Jayati recounts. She explored ashrams and Theravada meditation centers in India and later Nepal. She returned to her seasonal gig as a chef on the Scottish island of Iona, committed to meditating twice a day and keeping an 8-precept day once a week, but longed for the support of a community.
A three month winter retreat at Amaravati confirmed for her that she was ready for full-time practice. She put her worldly affairs in order, then returned to take her Anagarika precepts. One of the biggest challenges she wrestled with was the belief that living in a monastery would soon bring a sense of lasting peace. “But no. I was eyeball to eyeball with my karma, seeing patterns and mechanisms come up without the ability to run around on the various treadmills such as drinking or working all of the time, keeping busy, to escape from my pain. You see how deep-rooted some of these things really are,” she explains. “You’re also in this big melting pot where you have to be with what you don’t like, living with people you sometimes may find difficult. Your options are much more limited and you relinquish a lot of control.”
While returning home for visits during the first year at Amaravati is discouraged, there is a guest house for family. This was very reassuring to her mother, whose Irish Catholic upbringing brought up fears that Ayya Jayati would be cloistered and cut off from family. Her father was more open to the idea of a renunciate life, having grown up in India where encounters with holy men and women was not so unusual. “Mom still has a little sadness,” Ayya Jayati reflects, “I’m not as available as I might be if I were living in a different way, especially now that I’m in America.”
The internet helps shrink the distance between California and family back in England. She Skypes regularly with her mom and her brother, who recently adopted two children. But using technology comes at a cost. Using email is a necessary part of daily operations of Aloka Vihara, something that was handled by others at Amaravati. “I feel a lot of brain drain after answering emails,” she sighs. “I think that if Buddha were here today he would have a lot to say about computers and monastic life. It really impedes the ability of mind to maintain equanimity.”
At Aloka Vihara there will soon be a respite from the nagging of the inbox. The Winter Retreat is a deeply restorative time for the women at Aloka Vihara but removing themselves from the public eye, whether teaching in person or communicating online has its own impact. Out of sight, out of mind. Over the years there has been a noticeable lull in donations during the winter retreat without the regular engagement with supporters.
Yet, year by year the bhikkhunis have seen support grow overall. “People are inherently generous and we see that they experience joy in giving,” she notes. “It’s not that we just throw it up to the universe. We have to do our part, to let people know how it works, but I have a lot of faith. We really do have a feeling not of scarcity but of abundance.”
That abundance is clearest in the recent offer to buy the house that has been rented for them since moving to Placerville. “The board put in an offer and it has been accepted so now we have a permanent home,” says Ayya Anandabodhi, Aloka Vihara’s co-founder along with Ayya Santacitta. Ayya Anandabodhi was the novice trainer when Ayya Jayati joined Amaravati. She speaks with evident joy in Ayya Jayati’s growth in dhamma, “I’ve watched how she has grown and how her understanding has deepened over the years”
When Ayya Jayati came to visit Aloka Vihara, she had no plans to become a bhikkhuni; she came simply to support her mentor’s teaching in America. Her visit proved revelatory; it opened her eyes and heart to possibilities unavailable to her at Amaravati. “It was clear that they needed someone here. With just two nuns it was very intense. My heart was touched and I wanted to support the plans to develop a monastery where women can live and train as nuns. I spoke with Anandabodhi and expressed my interest. She was very glad at the possibility of having someone already trained in the style we practiced at Amaravati,” she says.
Ayya Jayati returned to England in 2011 to spend almost a year with her father before he died, then moved to California, excited to help create something sustainable, so that women will be able to experience fully the training given by the Buddha. “It’s important to have stability in the early years, especially in cultures where it’s new. You need a stable container until you are able to build more faith and confidence.”
It has sometimes been said that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. There have been moments that Ayya Jayati has noticed distinct cultural differences between England and her new home. “Coming from an English culture that is sometimes too apologetic, it’s a little startling sometimes to have people say ‘I need this, this and this.’ I think that it affects their understanding of renunciation and simplicity. There is sometimes a sense of entitlement, an assumption that ‘I must have this thing. I need to eat this or that.’ That’s not always going to work. If it’s a serious health concern then we will accommodate it. We really encourage people to seek the Middle Way. But I’ve also seen these wants and needs open up in a very beautiful way as people see how good it can feel to experience the blessedness of simplicity and letting go.”
Another beautiful opening to the blessedness of letting go came when Aloka Vihara supporters began working with the homeless in San Francisco. People asked frequently about how to respond skillfully to homeless people, so Ayya Jayati organized a monthly outreach. Groups of anywhere from 4 to 12 took sandwiches made with homemade bread and coffee and simply walked around handing them out to people who couldn’t make it to a shelter or soup kitchen.
“It brought us a lot of joy to reach out to people, some who were in very desperate conditions,” Ayya Jayati recalls. “They’d ask us:
‘Are you going to make us pray?”
‘So what’s the deal?‘
No deal. It’s a sandwich that we’d like to give you if you want it.
‘Do I have to be homeless?‘
No. Just hungry.
‘Can I take some for my friends?’
Please take what you need, no questions asked.
“People have such outdated assumptions about the homeless, that they’re not hungry, they just want drugs or alcohol, but only two people refused food, and no one ever refused coffee,” she remembers. “Some were ravenous at moments shoveling food into their mouths, it was a bit shocking and disturbing to see how hungry they were. There are some people who really, really need food.”
This helped the supporters shift their understanding of the homeless so that they felt less afraid, less guilty. “The most important thing was the meeting itself. We had the currency of the sandwich, but what we really shared was pure presence, a moment of pure love. People have their patterns and ways of surviving on the street but if you stay for a bit and just look you can see that we are two human beings sharing a moment.”
For more than two years before they relocated to Placerville they gave out between one and a half to two thousand sandwich bags and gallons of coffee. They allied with other groups doing outreach. “At one point there was a halfway house that had been donated so much stuff from Trader Joe’s that they gave some to us to take downtown. It was this lovely circle of dana,” she smiles.
Ayya Jayati came to Aloka Vikara with a simple understanding that she was needed to support the work of the sisters. Over time the desire for ordination grew within her. This commitment was greeted by nuns and monks from 9 different monasteries on November 1st. This coming January marks her first Winter Retreat as a fully ordained bhikkhuni.
About the Author
Margo Mallar lives and practices in Portland, Maine. She has two daughters, a black lab and a fondness for the ocean.