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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

What supports waking up?

Ajahn Thaniya, the senior nun at Cittaviveka,
looks at how things have been….

Taking a retrospective look at the nuns’ community at Cittaviveka
and my time here isn’t easy.

As with anything, what you see depends on the time and place you look from – a different mood equals a different reality, different people means different realities. And, even if there is some consensus on ‘what happened’ or even ‘how things are now’, writing a few paragraphs reduces it to crude statements. Trusting you’ll bear this in mind, I offer just a few comments.

Twenty-five years – almost nothing in terms of the sasana – isn’t long enough to reveal all the aspects of development specific to our nuns’ community. Living in a shared context with the monks’ community there are obviously aspects related to both. But one obvious difference is the absence of a historical ‘mother community’ with experienced nuns to refer to. A consequence of that being that there wasn’t an experienced Senior to lead the community in England from the beginning, as the monks had in Luang Por Sumedho. From the outset the sisters have had to be more cooperative; which was a challenge given the hierarchical leadership style that was being modelled. Ajahn Sucitto helped with the initial establishment of the Vinaya training. I entered the community in England just when that phase was about to change. The sisters were clearly ready to be more self-referencing. Naturally it takes time to gain the skills required to work well together as a community – it seems to be one of the marks of the years since then, letting that take shape.

Virtually since Cittaviveka was established there have been sisters benefiting from its conducive environment – apart from the few years when all the sisters went up to help establish Amaravati. Until last year we had been based around Aloka Cottage (‘the Nuns’ Cottage’) in the valley by Hammer Wood. Given physical and planning limitations, the community numbers fluctuated around a limit of six shaven-headed sisters, with three guests; so making up around a quarter to a third of the larger community. With the advent of Rocana Vihara – which we were delighted to name after Sister Rocana, one of the first four nuns – we have the capacity to have more sisters based at Cittaviveka. I was moved by the response to the possibility of purchasing Rocana Vihara. Given its cost it seemed such an unimaginable thing – walking past it, knowing it was for sale, I never even speculated about it. Yet on hearing it was on the market the English Sangha Trust was immediate in their wish to do something that would support the well-being of the sisters (and the wider community as a consequence). So much support, from the monks, from the lay community, has flowed in its wake.

One of the advantages of increased numbers is that we can look at new models of leadership. Ajahn Candasiri was the ‘Senior Nun’ when I arrived at Cittaviveka; she filled that role for seven years until returning to Amaravati to take up the role there. After her departure I stepped in. Now, too many years later, thanks to the blessings that Rocana Vihara brings, the sisters can experiment with a model that may better serve the community, and which acknowledges the strengths of the particular individuals involved. Before the vassa the theris now resident here happily shared out the duties that have traditionally fallen to the ‘Senior Nun’. A team approach has been growing over the years; it feels suitable to frame it more clearly.

This shift in leadership is one manifestation of a larger inquiry we sisters find ourselves in: as women what supports our waking up? Being women within a largely male monastic tradition necessitates this consideration. Obviously it’s complex – biological factors, gender conditioning, and the spuriousness of a binary system at all…. Waking up involves a journey out of ignorance: practical realities must be handled. Over the years, like many of the sisters, I’ve found my relationship to the inquiry changing. It has moved from a more ‘ultimate’ view of ‘just practise contentment’, to a more ‘immanent’ orientation which is interested to tease apart what is actually going on, on a personal and collective level. Since our conditioning has usually been different from the monks, it can require different Dhamma medicine to understand and release it. Being in a leadership position has necessitated my opening into this difficult inquiry – that’s one of its blessings.

Aloka Cottage was an intense experience given the number of women orbiting around it. A visiting friend said it took them back to living on a submarine. Only with the advent of Rocana Vihara was I aware how intense it was; we’d become partly inured to it. The sisters living there shared it with a flow of lay-guests – some there for a day, others for much longer, some matured in their Dhamma cultivation, others new, women in crisis…. All moved through the tiny kitchen cum laundry cum meeting place. That meant particular aspects of Dhamma cultivation were essential, others weren’t supported. What was glaringly obvious was how permeable many of us were; we were affected by those around us, sensitive to the needs of the collective field.

Differentiating out of the group to listen inwardly was difficult – and still can be. This is commonly ascribed to our feminine conditioning. What can be a strength, in a boundaried context, can be a challenge when too much contact can’t be avoided. It was something we had to learn skills around. What Rocana Vihara supports is finding a balance with that. When we first moved in it felt like we had space to breathe: not only were we in a less congested living space, but we had enough space to experience ourselves as a distinct community. We could settle out of the displaced experience many of us had felt with constantly transiting between Chithurst House and our dwelling place – there was space to have breakfast, meet informally … and one of the first marks of those early days was how playful it all felt. This question of our permeability is still something many of us contemplate; how to come into Right Relationship with others, with duties … to keep energetically upright within the flow of life; neither leaned overly forward nor withdrawing back; the mind embodied and upright so it can’t be knocked over.

Many sisters have lived here. Everybody has done their bit, offered what they can in their different ways to our development. This community has arisen through a web of support, so much bringing it into being and sustaining it. I’m gladdened to see our maturing community supporting Dhamma cultivation and valued in the wider context.






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