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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 siladhara: Thanissara

The peel of the fruit

Thanissara considers her experience entering the robes and leaving
them in her continuing commitment to a Buddhist path

It is 25 years since the 14th of August 1983, when the first ‘Going Forth’ into alms mendicancy was undertaken by four women at Chithurst Monastery inspired by the Buddha’s dispensation. I was one of those women. The four years leading up to that ceremony involved us in powerful processes, galvanized by the integration of a 2,500 year-old tradition from Asia into contemporary Britain. Part of that integration revealed the incongruity of the historic placement of women within Theravada alongside the feminist awakening within the West. These are my personal reflections on this experience, which I frame within the profound appreciation I have for the Buddha’s teaching and the Forest Sangha.

I met Luang Por Chah during his first visit to the UK in 1977 – he walked into a retreat I was attending in Oxford. Ajahn Chah’s presence communicated the power of freedom. Soon after entering the meditation
room he went up to a Buddha statue in the corner and bowed. I had never seen someone get down and bow before. It struck me as a perfect response to life and this teaching of Ajahn Chah has stayed with me. Later I travelled to Thailand and was graced with a few hours in his presence at a small monastery on the Mekong River in early 1979. I was 22 at the time. The course of my life was mysteriously influenced from the impact of Ajahn Chah’s well-known ‘stab to the heart’, his uncompromising dedication to awakening those who came into his presence.

In the same way a river inevitably takes its course, I found the flow of my life taking me back to England and Chithurst Monastery which at that time was still a tumble-down house. On October 28th 1979, alongside Rocana, Sundara and Candasiri, I took the eight-precept ordination. We were called maechees, as nuns are called in Thailand, and with faith we began the journey into uncharted waters. We were inspired by the teachings of Ajahn Sumedho and the dedication of a group of young monks. Those early days were heady, challenging, inspired and enthusiastic. I had no doubt I would spend my whole life devoted to this path and, even though I am not currently in robes, that sense of dedication has not changed.

The 1983 ordination, shaped around the Ten Precepts which the first four of us took together, firmly placed the nuns as alms mendicants and set a template for a training forged out of Vinaya observances. This was a significant step towards validating a place for women within the order. Before that it was considered absolutely out of the question that women could receive higher ordination, wear ochre robes or carry an alms-bowl. This view was framed by the teaching that one’s place within the monastic hierarchy was just a convention, the peel of the fruit. The point was to use the teaching to transcend the form. Transcendence was the ‘fruit’. To chew on the peel without tasting the fruit would be a bitter experience. This I subscribed to. However, inevitably I entered a very difficult struggle around this issue. I couldn’t accept the ‘transcendent’ response to the ethics of women’s place in the order and found myself challenging the attitudes that got shaped by that very form.

In those early days nuns weren’t considered part of the Sangha. Within the tradition this view still holds true for many. I was shocked as I awoke to the discrepancy in how monks and nuns were historically viewed: monks as holders of spiritual power, teachers and vessels of merit; nuns, for the most part invisible and not respected. In Theravada, monks are natural heirs to the lineage; the traditional role of women is as enablers and supporters of the monks’ aspirations, which gives a clear (though questionable) place for laywomen but an ambiguous place for nuns. A real low point came when I realized some women were motivated ‘to make merit’ by the wish for rebirth as a male, and how unchallenged this view is within the tradition.

In retrospect, I realize that I had tried to be a monk at first. Ashamed at having breasts, I wore a tight bodice as though my whole body were somehow wrong. Not being welcomed on equal terms was psychologically confusing and painful. Eventually it generated sickness and emotional turbulence. Feeling dispirited and rebellious I remember one evening secretly putting on a monk’s robe. As I looked at my reflection in the mirror I saw back through two and a half thousand years of patriarchy that had denied so much value to women’s spirituality. I felt that my inheritance was of a seemingly impenetrable wall.

When I contemplated this wall I saw that there were many complex pieces that kept it in place; in particular, a loyalty to a tradition that had faithfully preserved a profound teaching and way of life. This tradition has a long history of authority invested in monks, without a corresponding valuing of nuns. In Thailand civil laws prevent the re-establishment of the nuns’ lineage. At the heart of this are the powerful effects of a tradition that holds the feminine and the place of women in ambivalent relationship to itself. I question whether this ambivalence was the Buddha’s true intention. Clearly the Buddha challenged brahmanical and other inequitable practices of that time. My sense is that it was a later concession to conservative forces that re-shaped the original template of the order.

That speculation aside, however, the reality of this historical legacy for me was a blow to the kind of inner confidence which comes with a sense of being part of the lineage. Adherence to the form offered me access to depth, clarity and direction; it also created havoc at a psychological level, with implications at a transpersonal level.

In the language of archetypal psychology, the ‘masculine’, (expressed as form), seeks to release itself into space; while the archetypal ‘feminine’, (space), seeks to fulfil its expression within the world of form. When a tradition is strongly preferential towards shaping from the masculine, transcendence tends to be seen as a movement into space, or ‘emptiness’, and within that view the world of form is often denigrated. Enlightenment when seen as a movement beyond the world ‘out there’, reflects the early Indian perspective prevalent at the time of the Buddha – and against which he posited the immanence of the Dhamma. Later, in such Mahayana Buddhist texts as the Heart Sutra, this immanence is articulated as the indivisibility of form and emptiness.

As I faced that impenetrable wall, another seed germinated in the crucible of my heart: a challenge to my understanding of transcendence. Does the realization of ‘emptiness’ imply only a movement away from the world of form, or can it translate into a noble exploration of how the world may be informed from a transcendent view? This latter perspective is how I understand the movement of compassion.

Deep insight into emptiness and interdependence opens into a non-dual consciousness, which has the taste of compassion as its underlying attribute. When the capacity for compassion is not invoked, this healthy inner dimension can get subsumed by a need for power, and this can be a shadow of religious organizations. Ultimately, it is the knowledge of ‘world as self’ – with each understood as inherently empty and co-arising – that dissolves the fear underpinning separative consciousness and its drives.

In those early days, we worked so hard to build the monasteries and bring the mendicant life to a new culture that there wasn’t a lot of space for the consideration of philosophical subtleties. It’s astonishing that in the face of so many challenges we found the creative energy to evolve a training template for women. It is a credit to the legacy of Ajahn Chah and the profundity of the teachings offered. The nuns’ life – in spite of swirling ‘issues’ – promoted access to a taste of real peace and a framework for practice. In the context of my personal struggle there was never a loss of appreciation for what we had received. However, in spite of my sincere efforts to try and transcend the
effects of the hierarchical conventions, I couldn’t trust the degree of ‘letting go’ into those conventions that seemed to be required.

By 1991, 12 years from my first ordination the river of my life took another turn when I went through the ceremony of disrobing. First I bowed to my fellow nuns and asked for forgiveness. The nuns were like my own body: we had lived inspiration, despair, tiredness, loneliness and beauty together. As I bowed I felt shame and failure. It was as if I were deserting an embattled group of warriors. As I made my offering to the senior monk who officiated at my disrobing I felt on the edge of a precipice looking out to nowhere. It was as if I’d been reading an engrossing book – the book that had been my life – that abruptly ended. Looking up from the page, I noticed a cold and dark night sweeping in. On that ‘dark night’ I left the monastery with only the clothes I stood in and with a heart shredded.

People who know my story know that I married Kittisaro in 1992. Kittisaro had disrobed in Thailand. To disrobe from the community is a death of sorts. No one does it lightly. It entails a painful inner process usually undertaken alone. The mutual support and commitment to continue the practice within our relationship is what has allowed me to recover the trust that authentic spiritual life is accessible beyond the robes. Our practice of the Bodhisattva ideal offers a template for the inner integration of wisdom and compassion, the masculine and feminine principles.

I no longer look for empowerment from outside but realize it is given when I turn to trust the inner listening, the awareness, the teaching that the flow of life reveals. This was always the encouragement of Luang Por Sumedho from whom I received incalculable blessings through the beauty of his teachings. The day I left the robes I put down one training and picked up another. It has been a different going forth, which is informed by the gift I received in the monastery carried within my heart.




Thanissara and Kittisaro






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