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forest sangha newsletter

October        2007               2550                 Number  81
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

The first four siladhara at their ordination with Ajahn Sumedho,
Chithurst,August 14th 1983

The richest surprise

Luang Por Sumedho looks back at the haphazard glory –

the emergence of a nuns’ order

I remember as a young monk living with Ajahn Chah in Thailand, having what felt like a fairly clear idea of how my life as a bhikkhu would evolve. Looking back, I can only say how astonished I am. I could never have imagined the way things have developed and are developing still.

Of all the many surprises, none perhaps is greater or richer than to have witnessed and participated in the inception, growth and maturation of the Order of Siladhara, the Nuns’ Sangha. It might appear as if the nuns’ community emerged as part of some grand and sober plan for the Western Sangha, but that is not the way things have really been, in all their haphazard glory.

Having had no previous experience of leading groups of people, I must have inherited aspects of my own ‘leadership style’ from Luang Por Chah. He would always point out how senseless it is to try to control events according to one’s designs, since in fact things just take their natural course in accordance with causes and conditions. Our job is to respond suitably to conditions but, as much as possible, to stay ‘out of the way’.

Except for the short space of time when we (the first monks) lived in London, the story of the Western Sangha is really about both the monks and the nuns. I remember not having been in residence in Chithurst Monastery for very long before the first women, the women who would be the pioneers – the ‘founding mothers’, if you like – of the nuns’ order also arrived. It was Sister Rocana and Sr Candasiri who were the very first, soon joined by Sr Sundara and Sr Thanissara.

It is a tribute to the resilience and the faith of these first few that the order of nuns survived even its earliest step. Conditions at Chithurst were basic, and practice was really little more than just surviving day to day. I never had the slightest doubt as to the sincerity of these women but I never, for one moment, imagined that an order of nuns was what was coming into being. I was very happy to be in a position to provide them with a place to live and some basic instruction in the samana life, but beyond that I had no real idea what was transpiring – I don’t think any of us did.

There we were, ourselves relatively new transplants from Thailand, trying to see whether it was possible to live the mendicant life at all in the West. Our heritage was itself extremely conservative and it offered no precedent or guidance in the matter of a training for women in the Holy Life. These, and my own native caution might well have added up to a sort of fatal inertia. However, I finally saw that a much more definite form, a clearer training, was needed in order for these anagarikas to really make sense of and derive full benefit from living the monastic life. It was this that led, in August of 1983, to the ordination of the first four nuns – to the formation of the Order of Siladhara.

What was needed was a more formal structure for training and this was where – much to his surprise, I imagine, but also to his eternal credit – Ajahn Sucitto stepped in. For myself I remember often having no real idea of what I could or should do to support the nuns’ community, and I remember also some strong feelings of resentment at the sense of uncertainty that accompanied this slow, often agonizing evolution of a unified and organized Order of Nuns.

Although there are some painful memories of this time of evolution, it is quite clear to me now that the result is good. It is also clear to me that everything that the nuns now have in terms of status, recognition and respect has, in a very real sense, been earned and hard earned at that.

Over the past years, the community of nuns has become increasingly stable and self-reliant. The presence of elder nuns – home-grown as it were – has been instrumental in this process. It is a great joy to me to witness this continuing unfolding and to see the fruits – an ever-increasing autonomy and enjoyment in living the Holy Life.

Adapted from Ajahn Sumedho’s forward in Freeing the Heart: Dhamma teachings from the Nuns’ Community.





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