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On growing a Theravadan Nuns' Sangha in Britain

(Sakyadhita Newsletter, Spring 1997, vol.8, no.1)

In 1979 four women arrived simultaneously at the newly established Chithurst Monastery (Cittaviveka) in West Sussex, England to live and practise Dhamma with the developing monastic community of monks there. Two years earlier, the Venerable Ajahn Chah had sent four of his Western disciples, headed by Ajahn Sumedho, to live in England and before long there was much interest and a growing number of people wishing to undertake the monastic training and lifestyle.

Wishing to undertake the nuns' training, those first four women lived within the eight-precept discipline, modelled on the white-robed maechee of the Thai Theravadan tradition. But before long, it became obvious that a more detailed and comprehensive training was required to help the women's community live together and grow spiritually.

Within the Theravadan tradition there is presently no Bhikkhuni ordination available to women -- but the ten-precept form of the samaneri was possible, so from that, with the help of a designated senior monk, a way of training appropriate for Western women began to take shape. Eventually, the new training code would draw from both the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Vinayas, and has resulted in what we have called the Siladhara Vinaya training -- a body of some 120 rules and monastic observances based on the ten precepts.

As alms-mendicant nuns we are supported in the traditional way and so are able to train in respect of the four requisites. We observe the traditional Vassa (rains retreat) season and fortnightly Uposathas, reciting our training rules regularly (when there is a sangha of at least four nuns living together).

In our particular tradition, the Vinaya training is afforded great significance. It forms an essential counterpart to the practice and understanding of Dhamma. It serves to create a kind of boundary which can mirror kilesa (mental defilements), creating the opportunity for relinquishing or transforming such afflictive mind-states. Without such a boundary or container, the force of habit will tend to hold sway. In the Pali scriptures, the Buddha, just before his parinibbana, emphasised to Ananda, his long-term attendant:

Ananda, it may be that you will think: "The Teacher's instruction has ceased, now we have no teacher!" It should not be seen like this, Ananda, for what I have taught and explained to you as Dhamma and Discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher." (Digha-Nikaya 16)

It was in 1984 that Amaravati Monastery was established in Hertfordshire with the intention of functioning more as a Dhamma centre, accommodating the growth of interest in both the monastic and lay Buddhist lifestyles. As well as providing a training centre for the growing nuns' community, it provided more facilities for guest accommodation, a retreat centre and a large library.

The Nuns' Order has been established for 14 years now, and as can be expected of any new venture of such import, it has been through its ups and downs as we learn through experience (as opposed to ideals) just what actually works, what is supportive, and what is not. This rocky process of birth and coming to maturity is a natural one it seems, and one of essential learning experience too. Many women have come and gone over the years, testing the waters for various periods of time and adding their own unique ingredients to the developing form. We are still a relatively small community, with thirteen siladhara and eight anagarikas (*), and perhaps the rocky waters are not entirely passed, but the base now feels quite strong -- with a growing sense of stability, maturity and ever-deepening commitment.

It is largely through the benefit of the Vinaya training that a forward-moving growth can take place. When a guiding principle is agreed upon and honoured by the group, then there is the possibility of growing beyond the limitations of individuals' whims and ways, beyond the restrictive and constrictive structures of self-view, to the liberating freedom from "me" and "mine".

The development of our community is now entering a new phase. Since the beginning, the nuns have lived and trained in the double communities of Amaravati and Cittaviveka, sharing the burden of the various duties and teaching responsibilities both inside and outside of the monasteries. Over the years, the monks and nuns have learnt a great deal from each other, gradually developing skilful means of fostering and supporting a mutual respect and spiritual friendship within the brahmacariya life.

Now we have the opportunity to reside for the next two years in one of our branch monasteries in south England and experiment with a small nuns' community living alone there, while still maintaining a Nuns' Sangha at both Cittaviveka and Amaravati. This may spread the community a little thinly for a while, but it seems that a worthwhile commitment to make. It brings into focus aspects of our training that will now need further clarification and definition and as an experience will certainly create some new dynamics to work with as well. But the timing of such a move seems right.

To be able to cultivate the Path of the Buddha in such times and places and with supportive conditions seems extremely fortunate. The way forward is not always easy to discern, but if we continue to allow the guiding principles of Dhamma-Vinaya to effect the transformation of our hearts and inform our actions, then we can trust in the unfolding of the process, with the Triple Refuge as both an inner and outer support.

(*) Note: "Anagarikas" are eight-precept nuns who commit themselves for at least two years before deciding on higher ordination.

From: Sakyadhita Newsletter, Spring 1997, vol.8, no.1