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A monk's woman
By Candace Murphy, staff writer, InsideBayArea.com, Sunday, May 7, 2006
In Fremont, a Buddhist monk creates California's first monastic residence and retreat for women
IN the television show, the bald monk always seems to address his young scholar the same way.
He wordlessly enters the room. He adjusts his robe. He lowers himself soundlessly to a flat cushion not much plumper than a cool wooden floor. He shuts his eyelids. He purses his lips. He breathes audibly, a humming noise that calms. Then, he speaks -- a bold, barefaced and cloudlike truth. Below it, the becauses fall like raindrops.
"There is a principle about peace, that the things most valuable and precious in human life cannot have a price tag," he might say, opening with a topic sentence first, like any well-tutored English student, then following with a supporting paragraph. "Preciousness, and peace, comes not from material objects."
But this is real life. The he is, notably, a she. And it's a scene in the home of Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni, an ordained Buddhist monk who recently converted a Fremont cul-de-sac rental into California's first monastic residence and retreat for women.
The bald head, shaved twice monthly, is her own. The rust-colored robe, her own. Those words about peace, too, are her own. Yet it all seems as if it's straight from a small screen script. And for good reason.
"The first time I remember aspiring to monastic life was watching the show, 'Kung Fu,' and watching Caine and his teacher when he was a young monk," says Ayya. "Then there was 'The Lord of the Rings.' 'Star Wars.' I read those books when I was a kid. The disciple and wise master archetype is very present in all those stories, the quest for enlightenment, the overcoming of greed... I just strongly connected with that."
It makes sense that 37-year-old Ayya -- born Heather Buske -- was inspired by a fictional male role model. Despite the strides the secular world has taken in leveling the playing fields for men and women, the Buddhist world still has gender issues. Though there are bhikkhunis -- Buddhist female monastics -- most women in orders in the United States have had to travel to Southeast Asia to study in anticipation of their ordination.
Ayya studied in South Korea, after traveling through India and North Asia. Although ordination for Buddhist women dates back more than 2,500 years, any sort of women's movement effectively died out 1,000 years ago. Ayya helped turn that tide in 1997 when she was ordained in Los Angeles in a multi-national Buddhist ordination that marked the beginning in a resurgence of female monastics.
Still, such a thing is the exception.
"It's something you think doesn't happen in Buddhism," she says. "It's almost as if women are impure, whereas the men can be ordained. It seems like those ideas get in there somehow. The teaching gets twisted around."
That's why Ayya founded what she calls Dhammadharini Vihara, one of only three known female monastic retreats in the nation, in a faceless two-story home in the residential area between the Niles Historic District and Old Canyon. Though dogs bark, bass beats thump and trains relentlessly roll past the neighborhood backyards, the vihara is meant to make it easier for other women to find peace, tranquility and, eventually, ordination.
"I think of it like soil. It may be parched, but through the cracks, the hearty seeds will come through," she says. "It's not that there aren't great ladies -- there are. It's just that they're largely unseen and unknown."
Ayya is seeing the fruits of her labor. Dhammadharini Vihara (dhammadharini means upholder of Buddhist teachings, while vihara means abode) has regular visitors, and more women are reserving space at the retreat to meditate, pray and commune.
To see Ayya in action -- rising at 5 a.m., taking a silent morning walk bearing bowls for alms, meditating, having a fellow vihara dweller shave the stubble from her head, keeping house, or even battling a personal illness that she chooses not disclose but which has weakened her -- it's hard to believe that this path wasn't always hers.
The eldest daughter of two scientists who hopscotched from the Northeast to Hawaii and finally the Northwest, the then-Heather Buske was raised by parents who decided not to force any religion upon her.
When she became an adult, they said, she was free to choose, but in the meantime, she and her two sisters would respect one another and live in harmony.
"Which sounds nice," says Ayya, "but is hard to do."
It became harder when Buske was 15. Living in a town called Davenport, just outside of Spokane, Wash., Buske had a major setback. She got sick. Really sick.
It was a double whammy: Mononucleosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever accompanied by 21 consecutive days of dangerously high fever and hair-raising hallucinations. One such hallucination imprinted itself on her forever.
"It was a classic near-death experience," says Ayya. "My visual consciousness rose out of my body. I was looking down. My sister came in the room, and I could see her looking at my body. Then I looked up and I remember feeling drawn into a tunnel of light, of feeling so light and free and not having this sick body. Then, it ended, and like a belly flop, I felt the pain of being reunited with my body."
Body and soul once again united, Buske's recovery began. But she'd left something behind.
"The things we were doing as kids at the time that were so very important -- our hair, makeup, jewelry, the right-fitting jeans, applying to the right school, who you're going to the dance with, all that stuff -- it was hard for me to feel that was vitally important anymore," she says. "My sense of values changed."
Though Buske made brief detours on wildly different paths -- hooking up with a group of musicians and living what she calls a toxic lifestyle, followed by a year-long residence in a Catholic convent -- she turned to Buddhism at the age of 20, after the death of a close friend.
Buske dropped out of Portland State, abandoned a major in alternative medicine and left the country. She didn't return until 1997, seven years after her monastic journey began.
Since her ordination, Ayya has accomplished much in her own spiritual journey, as well as in the journey of others. After founding Dhammadharini Vihara last August, she earned an Outstanding Woman in Buddhism Award from the United Nations this spring.
"There's been a long time that people have been wanting this to happen," says Ayya. "I found my way through the cracks, somehow."
Letter: Many fully ordained Buddhist monastic women in Bay Area
InsideBayArea.com, Sunday, May 14, 2006
MY GREAT appreciation for all of the efforts that have gone into preparing your beautiful Sunday (May 7) feature article: "A Monk's Woman.
However, we are not the only fully ordained Buddhist monastic women in town, nor the only Buddhist women's monastery.
There are many different traditions and Monastic Orders in Buddhism, a good number of which are represented here in our greater Bay Area. It is true that the lineage and tradition of full ordination for women (or the Bhikkhuni Sangha), which was begun by the Buddha himself in his lifetime, died out in Southeast Asian Theravadan Buddhism around 1,000 years ago. I wish to publicly acknowledge and reaffirm here, that this lineage did not die out in all Buddhist traditions, but has continued unbroken to this day in China, Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia, and now in those Buddhist traditions in the West.
Our San Francisco Bay Area has fully ordained women (bhikkhunis or bhiksunis) in the Tibetan, Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese Buddhist traditions as well as monasteries, temples and retreat centers where they live, practice and teach. It is specifically in the Southeast Asian Theravadan Buddhist traditions from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Cambodian, and their Western branches, that the tradition of full monastic ordination for women lapsed long ago and is just now beginning a comeback, both in Asia and in the West.
Fremont's Dhammadharini Vihara has been the first site of this revival, for women in Theravadan Buddhism, in the Western United States and in California, and I am the first American women to receive and still hold the full Pali Theravadan Bhikkhuni Ordination here in the United States that I know of. For this, I gratefully acknowledge my Buddhist Monastic Sisters and Teachers from Korea and Vietnam who have passed down and preserved this heritage to this day.
My thanks for your helping to clear up any unintended sense of having not properly acknowledged the Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhist Women's Monastic Communities.
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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.