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Seeds in the Bay

At the beginning of April the siladhara community received the final go ahead from the Elders’ Council to establish a place for nuns in California. This will be the first nuns-only monastery in the tradition of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho outside of the UK.

Ajahns Anandabodhi, Metta and Santacitta, three senior nuns from Amaravati, have been invited by the Saranaloka Foundation to come to California by the end of this year.

How did this all come about?

Ajahn Santacitta: For over 20 years nuns from Amaravati and Chithurst have been travelling and teaching in the US. This led to the creation of the Saranaloka Foundation in 2004. ‘Saranaloka’ means ‘refuge in the clear light of awareness’, a powerful reminder of what really matters.

Ruth Denison, a well known Dhamma teacher in the U.S., intuited many years ago  how crucial it is that nuns have their own basis of support. She wanted to help establish a trust and approached Jill Boone, who is now president of the foundation.

Ajahn Metta: About two years ago we received an email from Jill asking if any of the senior nuns at Amaravati or Chithurst were interested in starting a nuns' monastery in California

Three of us at Amaravati, Ajahns Anandabodhi, Santacitta and myself came together and looked at this possibility. Having each lived in the Sangha for more than 15 years we felt interested in taking a new step. We shared our dreams and visions and thought, well, it might be possible for this to manifest, somehow. It felt worthwhile to put our energy into this, and a vision started to form.

A place where women can train as anagarikas and siladhara and where we can live together and see how it works without the presence and support of the monks. As a community we came to the point where it felt important to put our focus into something new and to see how community life would unfold in a separate nuns’ community. There are so many monks’ communities around the world and they seem to flourish, why should we not give this a try?

Having met and discussed this together, we introduced the idea to the whole siladhara community. Until now the siladhara have lived only in the UK. This felt like a big step forward. After some consideration the nuns agreed.

We met with Luang Por Sumedho and were encouraged by him. He was very supportive and rejoiced in our idea of establishing a monastery for nuns in California. Without his support, teachings and guidance during all the years of our monastic life, we would have never even considered to begin a monastery for siladhara in the US. His encouragement and support for this new project is very uplifting for all of us.

Later in 2007 I went to co-teach a retreat with Ajahn Amaro. While in California we had our first supporters’ meeting at Abhayagiri. Our vision seemed to fall onto fertile ground. By meeting people who were inspired, it started to take more shape and colour.

    

Sisters at the Golden Gate
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay




Almsround and the Train




On almsround in San Francisco
On almsround in San Francisco




Ajahns Santacitta, Metta, Anandabodhi
From Left: Ajahns Santacitta, Metta and Anandabodhi




Sisters at the Shrine

Ajahn Anandabodhi: In January 2008 Ajahn Santacitta and I spent two months travelling up and down the West Coast, visiting groups and supporters. Within a short time it became clear to us that there was real interest in having women teachers and strong support for a nuns’ training monastery to be established in the near future. Already at that time it looked like it would be in California.

Ajahn Metta: In January and February this year we went back to California, with Sr Sumedha joining us in February. It was amazing to see the enthusiasm and support for what we were doing wherever we went. I felt deeply touched to see how people responded to our presence. It went far beyond any expectation I had … in fact it was astonishing and humbling. Saranaloka had rented a beautiful house for us in San Francisco, close to the ocean, that turned out to be an ideal temporary vihara. We were given dana meals frequently and generously, and our supporters offered us transport to go for teachings, etc.

Ajahn Anandabodhi: The warmth and welcome we met was far beyond my expectations. Very quickly the rented house took on the atmosphere of a vihara. Visitors often thought it had been a vihara for years. Once a week we went on almsround to the local area and our bowls were filled with peoples’ generosity.

    

On almsround in San Francisco

Often people would come unexpectedly at meal times, bringing food offerings and staying on afterwards to speak about Dhamma. Even our most simple evening pujas were graced with people, local and not so local, who would come just to sit together in silence. It was truly heartening to see how our presence as samanas was valued.

Ajahn Metta: Many different ‘Dharma groups’ invited us to give teachings in the Bay Area, and some of these were really large. We also had many people coming to the vihara for our Friday evening gatherings, Saturday meditation workshops and for informal gatherings over tea. It was a place to which people could easily come, even by local transport, from the city.

     Dhamma teaching

Visiting Abhayagiri
Visiting Abhayagiri Monastery, California, earlier this year



Saranaloka Board of Directors
Saranaloka board of directors
    

Ajahn Santacitta: For Magha Puja we visited Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley. The whole community received us with a lot of kindness, and the abbots, Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro, encouraged us in our intention to establish a place for nuns. It is the monastic way of life, the teachings and a living embodiment of the Buddha’s way, which people value so much. Most monastic teachers are men, and women are looking for role models, women living the samana life who can communicate teachings relevant to their lives and circumstances.

Ajahn Anandabodhi: Most of the Saranaloka Foundation board members came from near and far in February to meet with us and to experience the vihara first hand. We were then officially invited to return at the end of this year, to start a monastery for siladhara in the wider Bay Area. We are delighted to accept this invitation! The next day we met with the board and the local supporters, all of us together for the first time. We decided the next steps and how to take our vision forward.

Backyard at the Vihara

     Ajahn Metta and Jill Boone

Meeting at Aloka Vihara

    

Ajahn Metta: At the end of this year we will return for a permanent stay. We'll start again in the small vihara where we stayed earlier this year. While in California many people came to us with questions like: would it be possible to build a monastery with a closely related lay community? Would it be a place where men are also welcome? Certainly this is our intention.

In the long term we would like to establish a rural place, with land in a quiet area conducive for monastic life, where women and men can join us for shorter or longer periods of time. Our vision is for the monastery to be of benefit especially for North American women who wish to come and train with us as samanas, as well as for our own group of sisters in the UK through staying connected and exchanging our experiences.

In the redwoods

Ajahn Anandabodhi: Now that the time to return is approaching we have a sense of furthering what we have already begun. The vihara will be called Aloka Vihara, in connection with the first residence for nuns at Chithurst monastery, Aloka Cottage, now the women’s guest house. It will be rented by Saranaloka until such time when land becomes available for a more permanent nuns’ monastery. The supporters’ meetings have continued in our absence, with local people getting together to share a meal and some time of practice and to see what steps can be taken to enable the vihara to open again on a long-term basis. We’ve heard about the sense of community that’s naturally evolved among the women and men who’ve been part of these meetings; it’s wonderful to see the development of community around the wholesome intention for people to live in alignment with Dhamma.

Each new beginning invites an ending. We are handing over our duties and responsibilities to other sisters and saying our goodbyes to family and friends. People often ask us ‘Why America?’. The answer is simple. The time is ripe for nuns to begin to branch out from Amaravati and Chithurst monasteries, both of which are dual communities with both monks and nuns. The Saranaloka Foundation in the U.S. has come forward to offer the support for such a move, by stewarding donations for a nuns’ community and taking on the responsibility for providing or coordinating the provision of the four fundamental requisites for the samana life: food, lodging, medicine (health care) and cloth. It has taken a group of people, in this case women, to come together and offer their time, skills and patience to set up a charitable (non-profit) organization and to respond to what needs to be done. The welcoming local support and interest also makes this a fertile ground on which to establish a community.

Ajahn Santacitta: We are very grateful for what we have received over the years of training under the spiritual guidance of Luang Por Sumedho and the Sangha at Amaravati and Chithurst. It is a great privilege for us to use what we have learned for an endeavour that is so timely and worthwhile. §

Ajahn Metta on the beach

    

From the Saranaloka Foundation:
If you are interested in staying informed, please visit our website: www.saranaloka.org. Saranaloka relies solely on dana (donations) for its ability to support the siladhara community. The foundation also arranges and coordinates teaching engagements for the nuns.

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