I was fortunate to pass through a crack and become ordained as a bhikkhuni. Finding myself nearly alone—there being very few other fully ordained women in Theravada Buddhism—I wondered how I got so lucky. An image came to me of a bodhi seed dropping down through a crack in a rock. As that bodhi seed sprouted and grew up, the crack opened. As the sprout grew bigger, the crack got a little bit wider and more seeds fell in and also began to grow.
The Buddha described the sangha as sukhett a-bhyati-khett a-sannito, or “the most fertile ground for cultivation.” Since it is hard to practice the Dhamma and to align one’s mind to the teachings, practicing within the sangha is meant to provide fertile ground—not a hard place, but one that offers support for the practice. If we were farmers, we would want to take out the rocks, till the soil, add water and nutriment, and pull the weeds.
The Buddha used this analogy over and over again with regards to the sangha, without distinction by gender. He didn’t say that all the male fields are to be really well-cultivated but the women’s fields should be left alone. In a group of chants called “Sanghanusati,” or “Recollection of the Sangha,” we recall the many men and women, reaching back to the time of the Buddha himself, who realized awakening. The Buddha called them “great trees” because of their growing up and offering many fruits to all living beings. They passed on those seeds, those fruits, into a well-tilled ground. Such an inclusive recollection of the sangha is important for giving encouragement and vision.
I deeply hope that the renaissance of the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha is creating fertile ground for cultivation, full of opportunities for all women who have the aspiration to experience the fruits of the path and to share those blessings back out into the world. Our world really, really needs this. We should be giving all the care, encouragement and support we can to those who wish to develop wisdom and ethical integrity, peaceful meditation and insight.
Some have questioned the value or purpose of monastic life in the contemporary world, and in particular, of women in monastic life. In response, I point simply to the aspiration for this way of life in women’s hearts. The same is true for artists or writers or whichever path people may aspire to. If there were no women who aspired to monastic life, then there would be no reason for it. The same is true for men. As long as this aspiration exists in a human heart and there is the Buddha’s teaching being practiced in the world, the greatest thing we can do is affirm and support that aspiration, giving it nutriment so that it will naturally manifest.
And now, no longer a single sprout in a tiny crack, and after having ordained a number of women who’ve come after me, I am finding great joy in recommending others to serve in the role of preceptor for new women monastics. There are an increasing number of qualified bhikkhunis who are excellent teachers with dedicated hearts. We can now do a bit better than just pushing open a few cracks. I see our communities growing into the next generation. The world is becoming cultivated, the seeds are bearing their fruit.
Ven. Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka Theri, originally from the Pacific Northwest, entered monastic life as an anagarika at age nineteen. After time in Europe and India, she trained for ten years under the guidance of an elder bhikkhuni mentor in South Korea and the U.S. In 2009, she became the first contemporary Western woman to be appointed a Theravadan bhikkhuni preceptor. Ven. Tathaaloka is the founding abbess of Dhammadharini Vihara and Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, places for bhikkhunis, aspirants and their friends in northern California’s Sonoma County (www.dhammadharini.net).
This essay was drawn from interviews conducted by Dennis Crean, former managing editor of Inquiring Mind (1998–2011) and Martha Kay Nelson, also an editor of the Mind (2011–2015).
From the Spring 2015 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 31, No. 2)
© 2015 Ayya Tathaaloka