My daughters and I just returned from a 6 day retreat at Aranya Bodhi Monastery in the forest of Northern California. We were immersed in the beauty and tranquility of the forest, taken away from our usual distractions, and had the incredible honor of being in the presence of some of the Buddha’s noble disciples – bhikkhunis who are practicing well each and every day.
I was both excited and nervous to receive the invitation from Ayya Sobhana to visit the monastery AND bring my children with me. I worried about how they would manage without the comforts and distractions of home. But it turns out that the kids were more flexible than I ever imagined. Our daily schedule was: breakfast at 7, puja (chanting) at 8:30, lunch at 11, dhamma talk after lunch, errands, outings and art in the afternoon, puja at 6:30pm, bedtime for kids and meditation time for mom at 8pm. We were free from the distractions of TV and internet. We took the five precepts. We had long walks on the forest path back and forth between the kuti (small cabin) that we stayed in and the hermitage grounds. We picked flowers for the Buddha. We heard Jataka stories (Buddhist fables). We learned about how to be happy through the Noble Eightfold Path. We visited the ocean. The girls collected rocks in the creek. The girls drew beautiful pictures with crayons and markers and created beaded bracelets with some craft supplies their Grandma had sent them.
This was the first family retreat held at Aranya Bodhi. None of us (the residents nor I) really had a plan or knew what to expect, but I have to say I think it was a huge success. My 7 year-old daughter especially enjoyed the dhamma talks and puja and is looking forward to practicing at our meditation center community on Sunday. My 5 year-old daughter was crabby and disinterested at times, but she seemed to enjoy resting her head on my lap during puja and lots of hugs and love. They both greatly benefited from the quiet and natural beauty of the forest. They were more imaginative and creative all week than I have ever seen them. And there is no doubt in my mind that they will never forget this experience.
I will not forget either. The experience has inspired me in many ways. I have so much admiration for those that have dedicated their life to following the way of the Buddha.
The Buddha said that both men and women are equal in their capacity for enlightenment. This was said at a time in history where this point of view was unpopular. Even now, more than 2500 years later, there are still so many who hold the view that a woman cannot become a fully ordained monk. But against common views at the time, Buddha established both the order of bhikkhus (male monks) and order of bhikkhunis (female monks).
The Theravada tradition has held true to the most simple teachings and practices of the Buddha in the original Pali language in which they were taught. It is considered “the oldest surviving Buddhist school.” Its strongest roots are in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. In the Theravada tradition, the order of Bhikkhunis ended in Southeast Asia and there are many that claim the order cannot be revived.
Since then, women have settled for practicing as siladharas, who undertake 100 precepts. But for those women who want to take the practice to the highest level with 311 precepts, practicing in the same way that the men do, opportunities have been limited and not without obstacles. There are very few places in the world where a woman can train to become fully ordained in the Theravada Buddhist tradition as a bhikkhuni. I had the incredible good fortune to be invited to visit such a place at Aranya Bodhi.
Why bhikkhuni? Why not be content to practice as siladhara? Here is an excerpt from Bhikkhuni and Siladhara: Points of Comparison FAQon the web site for the organization called Dhammadharini, which supports Aranya Bodhi:
“There are many in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism, both leading monastics and laypeople, who have said that the full ordination and keeping the precepts of the bhikkhuni discipline is just too hard and strenuous for women who are by nature softer and weaker. They may also suggest that, especially in this degenerate age, 8 or 10 precepts are much more comfortable and conducive to a woman’s nature and practice. However, we are left to wonder then, if this is true, why it is that women such as the Siladharas most willingly undertook greater discipline. And why the Buddha himself said nothing of this sort, but rather suggested that the bhikkhunis should train themselves related to the precepts as the bhikkhus train themselves. Or why the Buddha would have instituted precepts for the bhikkhunis at their behest. We are led to the conclusion that there are those women, just as those men, both ancient and modern, sincere in the monastic discipline, who have found a thorough and complete monastic discipline supportive, beneficial and conductive for their practice of the path as well as for the short-term and long-lasting welfare of the Sangha.”
Essentially, women are up to the challenge of a rigorous spiritual discipline and deserve the opportunity to practice it. The Buddha said that this discipline leads to happiness and well being for ourselves and for all beings. Women deserve the chance to test out these teachings and find out for themselves if this is true. Not to mention that there is a real need for women teachers and leaders to pass on the teachings of the Buddha in a way unique to women. As a laywoman, I need strong women teachers of the Dhamma that I can really relate to. I need a model for how to practice. I need to see what is possible. I have seen the peace and love that is possible with this path in the bhikkhunis I have had the good merit to encounter.
The Aranya Bodhi monastery is in its infancy and is extremely “rustic,” to put it nicely. Generators for electricity are only turned on when absolutely needed, they have wood stoves, outhouses, propane for cooking and heat only when necessary. The trailers on site are very old and barely functional. The trailer that was being used for the kitchen had to be abandoned due to extreme mold and mildew making it unsafe. At the moment, they are doing all their cooking outdoors under a tent. They have one water heater that they use for washing and showers in a tent outdoors. I don’t mind living that way for a week, but these women live this way every day! And they do not complain. They are dedicated to living pure lives according to the teachings of the Buddha. They are beautiful.
Please support the women of Aranya Bodhi and help set the stage for a future for women in Buddhism and the Bhikkhuni path. Dana (generosity) to support the monastery can be made with the Dhammadharini organization through Network for Good.