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A Bush Monastery

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A Bush Monastery

By Aleisha Orr

The room is filled with the calming sound of chanting as Janaki Chandraratna pours water from a gold vase into a smaller gold cup sitting on a tray. Her husband and sister touch their hands to the vase to help in the process. The chanting almost like vibrations in the background continues as the water overflows from the cup and out onto the tray. The overflowing water is said to represent happiness, the happiness of those still here for having been able to have had the departed in their lives for a period. 

Today Janaki and her family are sharing their overflowing happiness with Janaki’s mother who passed away in the last week. Although there have already been tears this morning, Janaki says this process is a way of making good karma. She and her family have travelled from Mount Claremont out to a property a few kilometres from Gidgegannup, a half hour drive from Perth, which is the only Buddhist Monastery in Australia run autonomously by nuns.

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Janaki usually visits the monastery three or four times a year. She regularly visits the Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in Kenwick but a trip to the monastery is a bit more of a special occasion.

Janaki and her family are not the only ones who have driven from Perth today.

There is a group of about 15 Buddhists who have come to the monastery for the daily proceedings. They have all brought food, or dhana, an offering to the four nuns, Venerable Nirodha, Venerable Seri, Venerable Hasapanna and the head nun or abbot, Venerable Ajahn Vayama.

The offer of refuges and the five precepts have been read, one of the nuns spoke to the group in what is referred to as reflections and the water pouring ceremony is now complete, so it is time for anyone who wishes to talk with the nuns privately to do so.

While the nuns give guidance and advice, those who are free as well as the nuns in training make sure everything is ready for the meal.

The nuns emerge from the room just before 12 oclock, they must eat before noon, this is just one of the rules that guide the lifestyle of a nun.

The four nuns are the first to collect their food. They take what they need and place it in their large bowl before leaving to eat in silence.

These four women have only been full nuns since last year, when they were ordained, meaning they agreed to live their life following 311 precepts or rules.

It was not a sudden decision for these women to live such lives.

Their personal journeys towards full ordination have taken many years and so has the process of creating the Dhammasara Monastery.

 There was nothing here when venerable Vayama first came here in 1998.

“No dams, no electricity, we had everything we needed brought in and constructed everything we needed,” she said.

Ven Vayama said the location was perfect for their uses.

“It’s a place of natural beauty, it’s the biggest private acreage in the area zoned and it couldn’t be subdivided or redeveloped.”

She said it was also well situated for the purpose of a monastery.

 “Privacy from the road allows us to live quite secluded,” she said.

These women have given up all their worldly possessions and any assets they once had, they now keep their heads shaved and wear brown robes and live a quiet simple life in the bush, but they insist they are not so different from you or me, they are still people and still accessible and still question themselves every now and then.

“Often people don’t come to the monastery because they think monks and nuns are too advanced for them, even though they are interested.”

Ven Seri said this was simply not the case.

She said she often dealt with struggles within her mind.

“Initially it’s difficult to surrender,” she said.

“Sometimes I might think, oh I can’t eat the food I want to eat or to go shopping, but basically, no one here does those things.”

Ven Seri faces reality and deals with her frustrations simply.

“You talk to your teacher and they tell you, go for a walk in the bush,” she said.  “I love to chant, I can’t sing but I chant very loudly.

“After all I can’t go to Dome for a coffee like I used to, I have no money.


Ven Seri said she has a variety of chants she likes to recite. “I chant loud, go to the creek, walk up and down, one or two hours, three hours, really loud.  I stop to chat to the echidna or the kookaburra and I enjoy it. For me chanting loving kindness is helpful for my mind when I’m irritated.”

Ven Vayama said having a monastery run autonomously by nuns was very rare and gave nuns a great opportunity to train to be teachers in their own right as well as providing something different to the Buddhist community of Western Australia.

She admitted nuns are second in hierarchy to monks.

“Most monasteries have monks and nuns together, constantly monks are leaders and we follow their leadership. But here, nuns themselves run the monastery. Teaching independently is very important; people who come here are coming here because we are women. They want to be taught by women. They can talk more frankly with us.”

Ven Vayama said the majority of supporters who visited Dhammasara were women themselves.

“With monks there is a degree of intimacy they can’t go beyond.

She said that some men also enjoyed visiting the monastery to get a female take on things.

Strength despite controversy

In 2009 these four women, who have been practising the Buddhist ways for many years, decided to make a greater commitment to their Buddhist beliefs and were ordained as Theravadan Buddhist nuns at the highest level.

Bhikkhuni is the term used to describe these nuns who abide by 311 precepts or life rules.

 

Their ordination saw Western Australia’s best known and most respected Buddhist, Ajahn Brahm excommunicated by the monastery where he trained and other high ranking Buddhists shunned.

Theravadan Buddhist monks and nuns from USA, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and the eastern states made their way to the Bodhinyana monastery in Serpentine in October 2009.

They joined Ajahn Brahm in an ordination ceremony, where the four women were elevated to the position of fully ordained nuns.

The issue that has caused controversy is the differing beliefs within Thervadan Buddhism whether this level of nuns are a part of this discipline or not.

Some say the tradition of nuns had died out.

When asked if the tradition of fully ordained nuns in Theravadan Buddhism had died out previous to the ordination of these four women, abbot Venerable Vayama said it depends how you define a nun.

“When I was first looking around, I was told the nuns order had died out, but many Theravadan women were living the life of a nun, but weren’t recognised formally. The ten precepts they were keeping were equivalent to novice ordination. Higher ordination wasn’t available for 311 precepts. Only since 1997, formal ordination was reintroduced in Sri Lanka.”

When asked about what she and the other nuns thought of the controversy that has erupted since their ordination, the abbot said she found it very strange and was surprised.

“We knew it wouldn’t be supported by everyone, but didn’t realise there would be so much opposition. We’ve always practised at the same level, now it’s just been formalised.”

Ven Seri said nuns in Buddhism were nothing new.

“The tradition of nuns was established by Buddha himself 2600 years ago.”

Ven Nirodha said she could not understand the opposition to their ordination.

“We were asking to do more precepts, asking to provide a higher standard, the whole behaviour pattern, the whole mentality to deny that, I cannot understand,” she said. “I could understand if you wanted to do less people would be upset.”

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