Bhikkhuni Community-Building: An Interview with Ajahn Chandako

Bhikkhuni Community-Building: An Interview with Ajahn Chandako

By Jacqueline Kramer, June 10, 2009

[This is an edited version of the original transcript of this interview. Ajahn Chandako requested that the original interview transcript be changed prior to publication.]

On the land at Dharma Creek.

On the land at Dharma Creek.


It was a nippy June morning when my granddaughter, Nai’a Rose, and I drove down the Sonoma coast to Dharma Creek. Dharma Creek is a beautiful piece of wild land tucked away in the mountains that press up against the Pacific Ocean. The land is owned and operated by Jill Rayna, who has been a Buddhist practitioner for over 30 years. Trained by Ruth Denison in the Burmese U Ba Kin tradition, Jill has been teaching dharma on the land for years. The Bhikkhunis planned this June community building meeting on a portion of the mountain that was cleared and prepared for this purpose. Ajahn Chandako, a Western monk trained in the Ajahn Chah forest tradition, kindly offered to come support the Bhikkhunis. I was invited to interview Ajahn Chandako for Present magazine, published by the Alliance for Bhikkhunis.

Ajahn Chandako is the Abbot of Vimutti Buddhist Monastery near Auckland, New Zealand. He traveled all the way to Aranya Bodhi to support the bhikkhunis by offering training in monastic discipline and etiquette. Although the gravity of this historic event was not lost on me–the first training of this kind for Bhikkhunis in the West–at the onset I felt skeptical as to why any woman would want to follow such strict and seemingly archaic rules. The Western individualistic personality is prone to view these rules as repressive and even dangerous to true freedom. The fear many Westerners hold is that archaic rules may lead to blind obedience rather than true inner discovery. I drove up to Aranya Bodhi with the question, what exactly are these rules and why would a woman choose to take them on?

There were five women in robes of various shades gathering on the land that week in June. They came from all over the United States. Ayya Tathaaloka and Suvijjana Samaneri came from Fremont California where they reside at the Bodhis House, a women’s monastic residence and the in town annex to the Arnaya Bodhi Hermitage. The hermitage project, as well as the monastic residence at the Bodhi House, is supported by the religious non-profit Dhammadharini – aka the Dhammadharini Support Foundation together with the Western, Thai, Sri Lankan and multi-ethnic Buddhist community. Ayya Tathaaloka was the senior-most of the bhikkhunis at the hermitage and it was at her request that this training came about. Ayya Sudhamma, the chief incumbent (or resident teacher) of Carolina Buddhist Vihara, came to the gathering from Greenville, South Carolina, a strongly evangelistic Christian region. Ayya Satima was born in Sri Lanka and has been living in Minnesota since 1973, the only bhikkhuni in the five state area. Ayya Maduka started in the Zen tradition and now lives as a Theravadan bhikkhuni in Athens, Ohio. Given that there are few, if any, other female monastics in their tradition where they live, this gathering was an opportunity for these women to share support with one another. Jill Rayna, Ruwinie Delgoda and Kemanthie Nandasena put in an enormous amount of time and energy feeding and taking care of the monastic’s needs. They supplied the support that has traditionally been shouldered by an entire lay community.

We gathered together in a tepee deep in the folds of the northern coastal mountains. There we sat in a close circle, drinking tea and talking. The tepee created an atmosphere reminiscent of the Native American council, which seemed to ground our discussion in an Earth-based sensibility. It brought to mind the earliest Buddhists living simply on the land, a sense of something ancient and bigger than any one of us, moving through this important meeting. As the interview progressed, I watched as many of my questions about the wisdom of protocol were answered. The wisdom of the Vinaya, under sincere inquiry, became clearer and my respect for the bhikkhunis, and the Buddha’s teachings, deepened.


JK: Can you tell me about the bhikkhuni training and what you are doing here? What inspired you to offer this training?

AC: Last year Ayya Tathaaloka and a group of visiting bhikkhunis came to see me where I was camped in the Santa Cruz mountains. We discussed their situation here in North America, and it didn’t take long to see that what I thought would be most helpful for them would be to develop a training community here in the U.S. This would benefit both their individual practice as well as the bhikkhuni order as a whole. Once ordained and wearing robes, one becomes a representative of the Buddha’s teachings; one’s behavior reflects on the entire Sangha, so it is good to have proper training. Also from my experience in the bhikkhu Sangha, to live a monastic life for decades, alone, without being part of a monastic community is very, very difficult. The number of bhikkhus who have been able to survive on their own are very few. Even if they have a good Asian teacher, are dedicated and inspired by the Dhamma and they’ve got some talent in meditation, there are very few who can go it alone. There is just something about the support of a community that is very important for the long haul, especially outside the context of a traditional Buddhist society.

So part of the reason why we have come together, in this tepee and on this land, is for community building, and one of the practical aspects of community building is doing things in the same way. Following the monastic discipline, the Vinaya, is of course indispensible, but in addition to that there are many, very ordinary, things that can help to create a sense of sisterhood: basic things like having the same type of monastic requisites, and having the same standard of relating to those requisites. And there is the very important training in attitudes of respect, deference to elders, true humility and service and how these manifest in relationships within the monastic community.

So far the Bhikkhuni Sangha has mainly been comprised of individuals scattered here and there with no consistent standard. They have had to be very strong people in order to get where they are, but the next step is to take these strong individuals and form a community. That’s not always so easy. Strong individuals tend to be very individualistic and like to do things their own way. But for the long-term health of the Bhikkhuni Sangha some bhikkhunis will have to sacrifice some of their personal preferences and attachments to views and work together. Being a fully ordained bhikkhuni is not just about one person for five, ten or twenty years but it is about creating a tradition that takes root. To accomplish that, forming a community that lives together harmoniously is essential, and when you look for ways to do that, monastic training is one very effective way.

We’re focusing on all aspects of daily life. Some of them are relatively mundane, but even though they’re just small details, the cumulative effect is a feeling of bonding. With much of the training it doesn’t matter necessarily whether you do things this way or that way, but is very helpful if there is one agreed way to do things. We are talking about conventional reality here, but conventional reality has its place and has its effects.

In Thailand, Ajahn Chah has over 300 monasteries. Although he died seventeen years ago, there’s still a thriving Ajahn Chah tradition in Thailand. Even if you show up at a branch monastery that you have never been to before and don’t know anybody there, there’s almost always an immediate sense of connection. We’re all part of the same family. You can just see it in the ways little things are done, the way the robes are folded or the ways juniors relate to the seniors. Because there is a common training, these details create a feeling of community that extends around the globe. I think this is very helpful psychologically. Even if you are living in solitude, you feel part of a larger web. There is real strength in that. You don’t feel that you’re totally alone. Although physically you might be the only monastic in the whole state, mentally you feel connected because you are part of a greater family. The Buddha said that since bhikkhus and bhikkhunis have left our home life, we need to look out for each other as if we were family.


JK: That’s a very interesting perspective. I think it would be helpful for people to hear about this. Is this true for monasteries besides Ajahn Chah’s monasteries, do bhikkhus share the same rules?

AC: All bhikkhus, whether in the Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana share a nearly identical monastic discipline, the Vinaya. However, the question is whether they are willing to follow it or not. It’s not a matter of childishly sticking to or childishly rebelling against rules. The Vinaya was established by the Buddha, and he placed great emphasis on its importance. We follow it as a matter of respect but also because it facilitates the full blossoming of the Dhamma in the heart. Although there will be some minor variation of interpretation in different traditions, if bhikkhus or bhikkhunis are following the Vinaya, the training will be very similar wherever you go. Now in addition to that, there is an extensive tradition of refined monastic etiquette in the Thai Forest Sangha. Ajahn Chah, his teacher Ajahn Mun and their contemporaries placed great emphasis on this training as a practical way to wear away and uproot mental defilements. A lot of ego and self has to be given up.

In any good forest monastery in Thailand, you will find a very similar monastic standard, generally derived from the Vinaya and Ajahn Mun’s way of training. Mastering this etiquette has many benefits. For example, after a monk has been trained in the Ajahn Chah tradition for five years, and we then go to one of the other forest masters’ monasteries, because of our training we are very quickly accepted. We can more easily draw close to the Dhamma master, and he is much more likely to give us some great teachings.

If you’re coming from another monastery, and especially from another sect, they’ll be watching you very carefully to see if they can take this new monk seriously. It doesn’t take very long at all to clearly see how someone has been trained, where they have been trained and how dedicated they are to it. It’s dead obvious, actually. One can recognize by the requisites, the bowl, the robe, the particular shade of the robe, everything. Also by their deportment: the way they enter, the way they relate to senior bhikkhus, to junior bhikkhus, and all these little details. Those people who have been well trained are taken seriously, and very quickly there is a feeling of acceptance in the Sangha. If the bhikkhunis want to be taken seriously, this type of training helps a lot.


JK: So are you saying, Ajahn, that this training you’re doing here at Aranya Bodhi enables the bhikkhunis to have greater acceptance in the larger community? Is it taking the level of acceptance to the next level after ordination, allowing them to show their seriousness and commitment?

AC: Exactly. I see in the bhikkhuni s angha is a yearning and wish to be accepted as equals by the bhikkhu sangha. One thing that will really help in this regard is if the bhikkhunis are well trained. It is not a gender issue so much as a training issue. Certainly having a thorough understanding of the suttas, the Theravada tradition and skill in meditation are essential too, but I also know if they were able to create a sangha of well-trained bhikkhunis, it will be much easier to receive the acceptance they hope for.

Respect won’t come through pushing, preaching or theorizing, but it will come through being excellent examples of the training. Respect can be won through training, study, practice and realization. Acceptance and respect is not something that can be demanded, like, “I’m a human being just like you, so I deserve respect”. We all know that’s true, but on a monastic level it’s earned. If the bhikkhunis can form a well-trained group of dedicated bhikkhunis, I felt they would, in time, gain full respect from the bhikkhu sangha and lay communities. And even if the respect doesn’t come, that doesn’t matter. We don’t ordain to get someone else’s respect. We ordain to practice the Dhamma.

Even for the bhikkhus, if you’ve been trained in a forest monastery and then a village temple bhikkhu visits, sloppy, unmindful, baggy robes, bowl swinging back and forth on the shoulder and undeferential, you immediately know. On a personal level you may connect with them, but on the level of a serious monastic the initial response is, “Oh geez. He needs a lot of work.” If a man like that came from a village monastery and asked to join the Forest Sangha, he would be told he needs to first stay for a probationary period of three months or more. If he then seriously takes on the training, engages it fully and fits in well with the community, they would then be allowed to join the monastery.


JK: I think that’s true in any field. I know that’s true with jazz musicians. It’s just part of the initiation.

AC: And like playing free jazz, you have to first master the scales. It may take decades of playing scales and repetitive exercises for a musician to have the virtuosity to play real free jazz. Dhamma training is like that.

Another reason for my involvement is this. The proper behavior for a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni in a variety of situations is mainly picked up through observation, modeling and oral tradition, through watching seniors and learning from their example. This is a type of experiential knowledge that you won’t find in any book. A man can go to Thailand and there’s already a whole system set up. There are senior Thai bhikkhus. There are senior Western bhikkhus. There’s a whole gradual system for training people that we can plug into. Theravada bhikkhunis don’t have this. Because re-establishing this bhikkhuni sangha is new, these women have very limited access to a community of female elders who they can look up to as examples to follow. Even if they arestaying in a good forest monastery, because of the necessary separation of the sexes, they won’t have access to the informal and intimate situations of bhikkhu life where much of the training is learned.

So how do you start a tradition? A lot of the bhikkhunis have learned a bit here and a bit there, and tried to piece it together. It’s a lot harder that way. It would be preferable and easier if there was a more of a system. I would say the optimal thing would be to have an international training monastery just for bhikkhunis. If that happens here, that would be great, but it actually needs people living together. It needs bhikkhunis living on the property, at least a handful of them, so that when new women come it feels like they are joining a community. My thought was that if a bhikkhuni monastery was to be formed, a core group of bhikkhunis would first have to be trained by bhikkhus in order that they could then pass it on to others. Because of the international presence and generally good standard of the Ajahn Chah tradition, it seemed to make sense to train in the monastic etiquette of the Thai Forest Tradition. I am just here to kick start the process.

My intention is to help start something that will then gather its own momentum. Because there isn’t an existing system of elders and mentors and examples, the bhikkhunis may need a bit of help from the bhikkhus to get the ball rolling. But you don’t want the women to always be dependent on the men for training. Once a certain number of bhikkhunis have been well trained and are living it in a relaxed and normal way, then it will be their responsibility to pass it on. If I can play a helpful role in initiating the training in the bhikkhuni order, then I feel happy and honored to do that.


JK: What is it that you intend to teach at this particular training?

AC: One important quality that we are emphasizing, a quality that runs through the entire path of training is what’s called “samana sanna”. This is the perception of oneself having consciously made the decision to step out of the mainstream in order to practice the Dhamma. Samanacan be translated as a renunciate or a recluse. You can also translate it as a peaceful one. The term signifies that one has consciously chosen a radically different way of life not based on worldly values. A lot of the details of monastic life are designed to regularly remind us of that. We’re both training in the details–hold your bowl this way not that way, put on the robes this way not that way–but we’re also training in the perceptions behind that, what these things symbolize. A nun’s bowl symbolizes a lifestyle, being an alms mendicant. The robes are traditionally called the banner of the arhants, the freedom flag of the enlightened ones, a symbol of our deepest aspirations and values. Attitudes towards robes, bowls, lodgings and medicine are things we are working on every day. We try to not approach them in a worldly way. It does take some pointing out and reminding that our life is oriented around different values.

Another thread that runs through monastic training is attention to detail. The monastic etiquette can be very detailed and refined. It’s a great practice for developing mindfulness because you always have to be aware of what’s going on. Attention becomes immersed in our body, because we have to be fairly coordinated to wear the robes neatly. There’s etiquette around doing things quietly, and you can only do that if you’re in your body and being aware, not knocking things around, not being clumsy. It takes a lot of mindfulness to be neat and tidy, really paying attention to one’s environment.

It takes a lot of mindfulness to act sensibly in a group, taking in a whole scene or social situation. When we’re talking about mindfulness, we’re not just talking about awareness of our breath or meditation object. We’re talking about mindfulness which extends into every aspect of life: in a group, for example, being quickly aware of who’s there, what level if seniority they have, how formal or informal it is and immediately responding with the proper behavior. That’s a real art, because it’s constantly changing. We have to learn to respond quickly and precisely. At the same time we are watching and dealing with our mental reactions to what is happening around us. That’s a full time job. It takes energy. It takes heightened awareness. Developing mindfulness in this way then benefits one’s meditation.

In one group situation we may be the most senior, but that can quickly change. More senior monastics may arrive and we then find ourselves as juniors. So our behavior has to be flexible. Otherwise our actions and speech become very awkward. We make a lot of faux pas. We talk when we should be silent, we are slow when we should be quick or we are too formal when we should be relaxed. It’s a real art to learn how to make quick adjustments, behaving in a respectful manor towards seniors and kindly towards juniors. There are a lot of wholesome qualities which are developed in these social interactions. One is respect. In our Western culture, respect for elders, respect for authority, respect for oneself or sometimes respect for anybody, is not as highly developed as it is in other cultures. Respect is an essential quality to work on. Showing respect is beautiful, so a lot of the ways we relate to juniors and seniors is based on this quality of developing respect.


JK: That is so interesting how in any given day you can be the junior, the senior or somewhere in between in a given interaction. It’s not like you’re always on the top. That’s something for us in the West to understand. They just look like rules to us, but when you explain it this way it makes sense. That’s helpful. What benefit have you personally gotten from these teachings?

AC: The training we’ve been doing the last week? I feel joy when I see a well trained group of people dedicated to the Dhamma. I have been impressed with the level of interest among the bhikkhunis to take my suggestions on board. They all come from different places, from different backgrounds, so they could easily say, “That’s nice, but I don’t want to do that.” What I’ve seen so far is that they are enthusiastic and interested to improve. They see the value in having a standard of training and what it represents. It represents being connected. In fact they seem hungry for the information. It hasn’t been a vacation. We have been training from early in the morning to late at night, so that indicates how dedicated they are.


JK: Are the other bhikkhus in favor of this training?

AC: The senior Western bhikkhus I have spoken to about this training week have expressed full support. I think the majority of Western bhikkhus and bhikkhunis now consider the Theravada bhikkhuni ordination as valid. However they can see that this new phenomenon could possibly go in a few directions. Some directions would be beneficial and others possibly not. We’re hoping that it goes in a good direction, meaning that well-trained bhikkhunis are following the Vinaya and practicing the Dhamma. There are no serious obstacles coming from Western bhikkhus, as long as the bhikkhunis are independent. If you talk about having bhikkhunis in the Ajahn Chah sangha, that is another matter. There has been much discussion, and so far both the existing bhikkhuni community (siladharas) and senior bhikkhus have decided against it. In this regard, I feel it is important to consult with and follow the advice of the elders in the sangha before making any changes.

Among the Asian bhikkhus living in the East, there is generally a suspicion of the validity of the bhikkhuni order. The whole idea is very foreign to them. In our culture we’re used to change happening quickly, but in Asia they’re not. Even when I was a young monk, maybe up until 10 years ago, it was universally understood that it was impossible to have Theravada bhikkhunis, because the order died out centuries ago. These Asian bhikkhus may have some good reasons for being traditional. Although there are probably a few petty minded ones who simply don’t want to share their status with women, the good bhikkhus are trying to protect a valuable tradition. They may have done more research or have a wiser perspective than we give them credit for. Also, there’s just the cultural unfamiliarity with it. It’s strange, it’s new. When you’ve grown up in a culture where the only people who wear monastic robes are men, and suddenly you see women doing it, it is perceptually jarring. Even if intellectually and logically they may think it’s fine, perceptually it’s a difficult thing for them to embrace. Actually some of the strongest resistance to the equality of bhikkhunis comes from Asian women.


JK: These trainings would help with that I imagine. If the bhikkhunis are very well trained it adds another level of comfort for the established order. It shows that they are serious.

AC: Right. It gives them more credibility. If the bhikkhus can see that these women are serious, that they have integrity, that they’ve done their homework, that they know the bhikkhuni Vinaya and that they are willing to follow it, then they will be taken seriously.


JK: What about moving from the Asian culture to the Western culture? I would imagine that some of the Vinaya rules are culturally specific. How do you deal with wanting to stay with a tradition that was reasonable when it was set up but may not transfer?

AC: It’s very easy to say, “That’s great that you do that in Asia, because it came out of Asian culture, but you’re in America now, dude, and you can’t do that here.” What we’ve found however, over the last thirty years of experimentation in the West, is that you can do almost everything that you do in Asia. Most things do transfer. A lot of our lifestyle is based on the Vinaya. Although it was developed in India, we don’t consider it something that is alterable. If you want to make the bhikkhu’s or bhikkhuni’s life work, then you have to take the Vinaya seriously. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka or the United States. However, outside the scope of the Vinaya there are many traditional ways of doing things that canbe altered according to what seems to be the wise way to respond to a particular time and place. I have found that it is not necessary to try to create a ‘Western’ or ‘American’ Buddhism. That often comes from deluded ego. I find that when I intend to carry on the tradition in every detail, the sensible adjustments that need to be made become obvious. That’s part of the art: being both flexible and respectfully steadfast.

Even in Thailand 100-150 years ago, the prevalent opinion was that you couldn’t practice in the ‘modern’ age like they did in time of the Buddha. There was a general agreement in the sangha: “We’ll all just ignore a lot of these rules, because that was from over 2000 years ago, and it’s not practical to practice like that now in Thailand.” You still find that attitude in the village and city monasteries. However when Ajahn Mun and his generation of disciples arrived on the scene, they demonstrated that the Vinaya was still relevant. Ajahn Mun is considered to be the father of the modern Thai forest tradition. His immediate generation of disciples just decided that they were going to go back to the oldest Vinaya texts and try, as much as possible, to live their lives in accordance with the way they lived in the time of the Buddha. They did so out of a sense of faith and dedication and wanting to get back to the roots as much as possible. So a whole contemplative lifestyle grew up around the forest tradition, one which used the Vinaya as a tool for training and awakening.

We find ourselves in a similar situation when we come to the West. Obviously, it’s different in many ways, but in most ways, human beings are human beings. Monastic training is pretty much the same whatever situation we’re in. Some of the details may change. These days there’s monastic etiquette around using cell phones rather than…


JK: Where to park your Oxen?

AC: Right, or bamboo cups. But the general principles still apply. We found that, with the bhikkhu sangha, it hasn’t been a problem keeping all of the monastic rules. You see, when the Buddha described his way of life he didn’t call it ‘Buddhism’ or the Pali equivalent. He called it ‘Dhamma-Vinaya’. The Dhamma aspect are these teachings that we love. But he didn’t just call it Dhamma, he called it Dhamma-Vinaya. Vinaya is the aspect that relates to precepts and the monastic training. You can think of rules as lifeless shackles that restrict or control your life, but when you combine them with the Dhamma you find a very fertile lifestyle for awakening, a real art of life. Masters from ancient times have taught that it’s only through a disciplined moral life that true freedom is found.

In the Vinaya you have a solid framework. There are rules to follow. However, how we relate to those rules and the mind states they bring up, is where the Dhamma comes in. When our desires come up against the boundaries imposed by a rule, or a perception arises of our self or others as superior or inferior, good or bad, then that is the interaction of the Dhamma and the Vinaya. That’s the hard part. Even though there have been all these obstacles to Bhikkhuni ordination, once you have the ordination, you find out that the ordination was the easy part. The ongoing monastic training is the part that starts to seriously challenge you. It grinds away at the mental defilements. I think this type of training is just as valid here in California as it was in India.


JK: How about the 8 garudammas? [garudammas are the supposed conditions under which the Buddha agreed to allow bhikkhuni ordination]

AC: I think we need to do more research into them. The key factor with the garudhammas is determining if they actually are the words of the Buddha. If we reasonably determine that they are the words of the Buddha, then I would suggest following them. If there are good reasons to suspect that they are not the words of the Buddha, then we might consider setting them aside.


JK: I’m grateful to you for taking the time to illuminate me on this. I’m a typical American, and you have shifted my thoughts about the subject. I’m also moved by the generosity of you coming all the way to Northern California to offer this training to the bhikkhunis. It’s great that you’re supporting the bhikkhuni order like this. Thank you. Do you have anything to say about the historic nature of this bhikkhuni training?

AC: It’s very rare in history that you have the opportunity to be involved with establishing Buddhism in a new country. It is even more unique to be involved with re-establishing the bhikkhuni sangha in the Theravada tradition. In historical terms, it’s been happening at lightning speed. From the individual perspective, we’re just getting on with the training and helping each other. I am just responding to an immediate need seen in a group of sincere Buddhist monastics who wish to practice the Dhamma. But if you look at it from a perspective of 2500 years, this is actually very significant. These bhikkhunis deserve a lot of praise.


JK: Thank you for taking the time to share this with us. I know it has been a long day. 

Ajahn Chandako resides at Vimutti Monastery, NZ.

(ed. I changed each ocurrence of “monk” and “nun” to “bhikkhu” and “bhikkhuni” not to underscore a difference between the renderings as much as to draw a distinction between the commonly used “nun”, referring to a siladhara (ten-precept nuns in Theravada), and the fully ordained bhikkhuni.