By Nissara Horayangura, Bangkok Post
Two little girls, sisters aged around four and six, perch quietly on the special kiddie-sized meditation cushions provided for visitors. Leaning forward, they listen intently as Ajahn Sister Vayama, the abbot of the Dhammasara Nuns Monastery in Perth, Australia, tells them the tale of how the place came to be.
Once upon a time – that is, in 1998 – a wealthy local couple had just had their first child, a girl. The new parents decided to give a large donation and purchase land in order to build a Buddhist nuns monastery, so that if one day their daughter should want to become a nun, she would be able to do it close to home, without having to go to Asia.
As she smiles down at the girls, Ajahn Sister Vayama says, “Now, you may not want to become a nun when you grow up. Not everyone wants to. But it’s important that you have that choice.”
Who knows what the future holds? But it would certainly be poetic if they do choose ordination, for the girls are of Sri Lankan descent. In a sense, they are latter-day daughters of Sanghamitta, the great arahant bhikkhu (fully-ordained Buddhist nun) who in 250 BCE brought the lineage of ordained women from India to Sri Lanka, where it flourished until the historical happenstance of war and famine led to its discontinuation around 1100 CE. Prior to that, the Buddhist society in Sri Lanka had exemplified the original four-fold structure established by Buddha, composed of male and female monastics and male and female lay devotees.
Guided by Buddha’s model, the Buddhist Society of Western Australia (BSWA) has – since its inception in the early 1970s – held as a central aim of the establishment of monastic facilities for both monks and nuns. Today, this lay organisation supports the Bodhinyana Monks Monastery, established in 1983 by monks who trained in the Thai forest tradition under Ajahn Chah, and Dhammasara Nuns Monastery, established in 1998, which is considered an associated monastery.
The original vision the BSWA had for Dhammasara was to provide a place for women to be ordained and trained as monastics, as well as for laywomen to practise in a monastic setting. At the time of the monastery’s founding, there was no prospect of bhikkhunis being recognised by the Thai tradition, so the form of ordination provided at Dhammasara was that of ten-precept nuns wearing brown robes. Ajahn Sister Vayama, an Australian who had been ordained as a ten-precept nun and spent 10 years in Sri Lanka, followed by a year at Amaravati Monastery in Britain (a branch monastery in the Ajahn Chah lineage), was invited to take up the position of abbot in late-1997.
There was a deliberate decision made to set up Dhammasara as a physically separate and wholly independent nun monastery. Ajahn Sister Vayama explained, “This meant not relying on the bhikkhu sangha for teaching, financial support, and any kind of agenda setting of how things should be. The nuns make all the decisions and are fully responsible for building and running the monastery. There was always a great sense of support and cooperation from the monks, especially Ajahn Brahm [abbot of Bodhinyana]. But it had to stand on its own feet.”
Its independence is a distinguishing feature of Dhammasara. In most cases, both in the West and in Thailand, nuns live in the same monastery – albeit in their own section – as bhikkhus, and often defer to them, especially if the abbot is a highly respected bhikkhu. In the West, independent hermitages and viharas, or monastic residences, where one or two nuns live, do exist. However, Dhammasara is the only place so far that has been purposely established as a training monastery for Buddhist nuns.
Although it was not always easy, requiring hard work and fortitude for over 10 years, Dhammasara has proven it can indeed stand on its own and find its way. In the early days, Ajahn Sister Vayama was the lone pioneer nun, camping out in a caravan in the wild Australian bush. Today, the monastic community has grown to include four (and at one time five) nuns, three anagarikas (eight-precept postulants) and a fluctuating number of lay guests as well as visiting monastics. With the helping hand (literally) lent by lay supporters, roads, kutis (huts), a central multi-purpose building and other infrastructures have been built. However, the vast majority of the sprawling almost six-hectare property has been conscientiously preserved in its pristine natural condition as befits a forest monastery.
Walking on the dirt paths, one can hear the sounds of bird calls and mysterious animals rustling in the bush. Less mysterious are the kangaroos that scamper around the grounds and sometimes come brazenly close – especially in the kitchen area in search of scraps. Meanwhile, the widely-spaced kutis are surrounded by the dense greenery of towering trees and spiky Australian grass plants. Simply being immersed in the natural atmosphere magically brings the mind to peace.
It is rare to find a setting like this for women, where they can have the same physical conditions for practice that men receive in a forest monastery: living in seclusion and surrounded by nature – both highly beneficial supports for meditation. The nuns each stay in their own individual kutis, and depending on availability, even long-term lay guests can as well. Unlike at male monk monasteries, where laywomen are restricted to public areas and a designated, often small, women’s zone, at Dhammasara resident women are able to move freely amidst the vast grounds.
Another difference in the experience laywomen have staying at Dhammasara, compared to a male monastery, is the opportunity to participate more fully in the community and, thus, have a more authentic experience of monastic life.
As one laywoman staying for over a month at Dhammasara says, “Feeling like I am really part of the community, not just this laywoman always careful to keep my distance from the monks, was really wonderful. First of all, I just feel more at ease. But also I feel more involved in the monastery’s activities. I have to learn and follow more community rules. All of this makes me feel that even as a lay guest I am somewhat like a ‘monastic’, which I think has been very helpful for my practice.”
In developing Dhammasara, Ajahn Sister Vayama gave a lot of importance to instituting a clear monastic form, which includes a structured monastic routine and rules of monastic behaviour. “The monastic form is really valuable because it constantly challenges you to live up to the artificial form, even though it’s not your personal preference or what you feel like doing at the time. It makes you constantly work on your defilements.”
As at all monasteries, the Dhammasara day starts before daybreak. Twice a week there are group meditation sittings that start at 4:30am, while on other days one does individual practice, which requires even more personal discipline. This is followed by a simple breakfast and a group meeting for administrative matters, and sometimes also a lively dharma discussion.
After a morning work period, lay visitors come to offer the main meal and the nuns give a short dharma teaching. After the meal, a senior nun makes herself available for laypeople to speak to. Once lay visitors leave and clean-up is finished, one is free to pursue personal dharma study or practice. A group tea-time in the evening is optional, but most avail of the opportunity to come together as a community and talk informally. Another laywoman who has stayed at both monk and nun monasteries remarked, “I like it how here you can sit and talk with the nuns. It’s important to have spiritual friends you can discuss the dharma with.”
Twice a week there is an evening group meeting for meditation, chanting and a dharma talk. There is sometimes a sutta study class one morning a week as well. The monastery also has an extensive library of books and recordings of dharma talks. The nuns and lay guests thus are given good support in their dharma education.
The teachings given are in some ways tailored especially for women. For instance, one sutta selected for close study was about arahant bhikkhuni disciples of the Buddha and how each proclaimed her enlightenment. It highlighted and offered greater insight into women’s spiritual achievement, which is rarely discussed in this much detail in monk dharma talks.
In addition, an advantage of learning from a female teacher is that “she better understands what women’s mind are like. She has worked through what I’m working through before,” pointed out Sister Seri, one of the nuns.
Laypeople also benefit from the woman-oriented teachings the nuns provide. Although the monks monastery has been established for longer, many laypeople choose to come to Dhammasara also, or only. Cherry Jackson, a long-standing supporter of both monasteries says, “We can speak to them woman to woman. We can discuss more personal things, and they can give us advice, especially on women’s issues.”
Yennie Tan, another supporter of both places, says she likes to come to Dhammasara because here she can offer more service to the nuns. “With monks, it’s very limited as to what we can do for them. But with nuns, I can do things like drive them places. And then in the car, we can talk more informally. I can relate to them more easily and feel comfortable, because women are more sensitive.”
In fact, in some ways men also find it easier to talk to nuns, even despite the requirement to have a female chaperone when speaking to a nun, just as women must have a male chaperone when speaking to a monk. Ajahn Vayama observed, “Many men feel they can speak about more personal and emotional issues with us. Perhaps they don’t want to be seen as ‘soft’ with monks, but they don’t mind exposing that side of themselves with a female teacher.”
Another significant contribution the nuns make is providing positive role models, especially for young girls and women.
Says Ajahn Sister Vayama, “One value of the nuns’ monastery being independent is that we model the behaviour of being competent and capable and legitimate teachers of the dharma. We’re not in competition with Ajahn Brahm or the monks. But being separated allows us to be appreciated in our own right, not in comparison to them.”
In so doing, the nuns give women something to aspire to in their spiritual development. But more than that, they also provide exemplars of leadership in any field, not just spiritual.
“I’ve been told that having a female up front teaching dharma and retreats, fielding questions, being bowed to, has been very positive for a lot of women and girls. Especially for the young ones who are in the final years of school and are thinking about career paths and wondering, ‘Can I really make it as a woman?’ They have said it has been really inspirational for them to see a woman, whether it’s me or anyone else, up there doing that,” shares Ajahn Sister Vayama.
The reality is, however, that in trying to “make it”, in many fields women still must contend with certain barriers and inequities due to their gender. Here, too, Ajahn Sister Vayama can offer women advice based on her own experiences in dealing with such challenges. Should a girl come across people – male or female – who do not support her, or even discourage her, in pursuing her chosen path, telling her it cannot or should not be done, Ajahn Sister Vayama offers this empathetic counsel: “You just have to keep going. Keep plugging away at it.”
So whether those two Sri Lankan girls choose to become nuns or not, the positive examples and messages they have been exposed to during their visit to Dhammasara may have left an impression on their young minds. Perhaps it has helped to cultivate the belief that they can aim high, and with determination and hard work, do well in whatever they pursue – and also seeded them with the confidence to go for it.