This October, exciting steps are being taken towards establishing a monastery for bhikkhunīs (fully ordained Buddhist nuns) in the UK. Ajahn Brahm, abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia, will be lending his support to Anukampa Bhikkhunī Project and Venerable Candā through a jam-packed schedule and an unprecedented UK teaching tour entitled ‘Buddhism in the 21st Century’.
Compassionate actions and intentions
The aspiration of Anukampa Bhikkhunī Project, anukampa meaning 'empathic compassion', is to help people grow in the Dhamma; in spiritual qualities such as contentment, compassion, wisdom and peace. Anukampa's aims are to build a community of like-minded people wishing to practise the teachings of the Buddha and support women in the monastic life, to establish a bhikkhunī presence in England by responding to teaching invitations and offers of support, and primarily, to found and develop a harmonious training monastery for bhikkhunīs dedicated to the goal of awakening.
The visit of Ajahn Brahm, who is also Spiritual Adviser to Anukampa, is the first major fundraising project towards accomplishing these aims, providing the rare opportunity to welcome Ajahn Brahm in his homeland, benefit from his teachings and get involved in this exciting monastery project.
Reviving and strengthening an ancient lineage
The history of ordained women in Buddhism dates back to the time of the Buddha himself, when his own aunt and step-mother Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, requested bhikkhunī ordination directly from him and thus founded the order. From the very early days of the Buddha’s ministry, bhikkhunīs played an important and prominent role in the dissemination of the teachings and formation of the monastic community. Not only was there relative parity between bhikkhu and bhikkhunī worldly status but the Buddha also declared that women were just as capable of attaining awakening, or nibbāna, as men. At a time in India when women were advised that in order to progress spiritually, they needed to aim to be reborn as a man in the next life, the Buddha’s assertion that the path to spiritual awakening was open and available to women here and now was revolutionary!
Based on historical records, however, the various Bhikkhunī Sanghas of separate Buddhist countries died out at different times throughout history. This can be viewed not only as a setback for the spiritual aspirations of Buddhist nuns, but also for the future continuation of the Dhamma. The Buddha taught seven things that are essential to the longevity of the Dhamma, and each one rests on having an inter-related community of bhikkhunīs, bhikkhus, laywomen and laymen, known as the fourfold assembly. As Bhikkhu Anālayo points out:
“A passage in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta also shows that the bhikkhunīs were considered integral to the Buddha’s dispensation. The passage reports the Buddha’s declaration that he would not pass away until he had accomplished his mission of having disciples from each of the four assemblies—including bhikkhunīs—who were competent, disciplined, self-confident and learned.” It is pertinent to the bhikkhunī cause however, to bring attention to the fact that the Bhikkhunī Sangha may have continued right up to the 19thcentury in Burma. If this is confirmed by national records, there may be less distance between the modern Bhikkhunī Sangha and their earlier counterparts than is commonly believed. Whilst many will be aware of the 10 precept ordination lineage of siladhara nuns established by Luang Por Sumedho, there has been a shift in perspective towards a more equal platform in terms of ordination status and there are three main reasons why bhikkhunī ordination is so important.
In 1996, through the efforts of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, the Therāvada bhikkhunī order was revived when eleven Sri Lankan women received full ordination in Sarnath, India in a procedure held by Dodangoda Revata Mahāthera and the late Mapalagama Vipulasāra Mahāthera, with assistance from monks and nuns of the Jogye Order of Korean Seon. The first Theravādan bhikkhunī ordination in Australia was held in Perth on 22nd October 2009, at Bodhinyana Monastery. Four nuns from Dhammasara Nun's Monastery, Ajahn Vayama, and Ayya's Nirodha, Seri and Hasapanna, were ordained as bhikkhunīs in full accordance with the Pāli vinaya (the training rules for monks and nuns). Despite this, these ordinations stirred controversy and met with substantial resistance within the more conservative sectors of the monastic sangha, highlighting how far we have to go before the equality the Buddha worked hard to establish in terms of ordination and practice opportunities for female monastics, becomes a living reality in the modern day.
Ven. Candā’s journey towards bhikkhunī ordination
At present, there are many monks’ monasteries worldwide, but very few for women and far fewer for those who wish to undertake training towards bhikkhunī ordination, which plays a large part in Ven. Candā's motivation. Her personal story testifies to the complexity of the situation for women seeking the fully renounce the householder's life and train according to the guidelines set down by the Buddha, in the same way as monks.
On first coming into contact with the Buddha's teachings in 1996 on retreat in India, Ven. Candā, then Lucie Stephens, was so profoundly moved that she made an inward resolution to devote the rest of her life to the path. For the next seven years she meditated and gave service on back-to-back retreats, mostly in India and Nepal, working along the way to support herself. As she witnessed inner changes, including a deepening of contentment, increased equanimity, and a growing fascination with the process of meditation itself, her aspiration to renounce lay-life intensified. However, ordination opportunities for women were so rare that she was unable to find a suitable monastery. Disheartened yet not resigned, she returned to England in 2002 to pursue a degree in Ayurvedic Medicine. Ironically, a year into her degree, she heard of a promising rural monastery in Burma which provided opportunities for women to ordain as eight-precept Burmese nuns (thilashin). After three months temporary ordination mid-degree it was tempting to stay on, but her sense of commitment required she complete her studies. After graduating she ordained for the long-term in 2006. She spent the next four years happily pursuing intensive meditation under the guidance of Sayadaw U Pannyajota and also encountered the Thai Forest Tradition through Ajahn Mahaboowa in Thailand, with whom she spent an inspiring six weeks. Thailand was more politically stable than Burma but monastery conditions for women were cramped and monastic visas extremely hard to come by for nun's, whose monastic status is not recognised by law.
Over the years, Ven. Candā became increasingly drawn to samatha practice (the development of calm still states of mind known as jhanas) as a means to developing deeper insight. By 2010, however, the ascetic lifestyle, climate and diet in Burma had taken a severe toll on Ven. Candā's health, leading to a return to the West. This happily coincided with the chance discovery of Ajahn Brahm's teachings. His emphasis on love, kindness and letting go, as a means to jhana and insight, resonated so deeply and immediately that learning directly from him became a new goal. Bhikkhunī ordination still seemed out of reach and did not really occur to her until the second time she met him:
“I had been living as a novice nun for five years, when Ajahn Brahm told me matter-of-factly about bhikkhunīs practicing in Perth. A wave of inspired joy swept through me and I knew instantly in my heart: if I had the chance for full ordination, I’d take it!” Consequently, after 2 years as a wandering nun in Europe, Ven. Candā finally had the opportunity to travel to Australia and has been living there since 2012. She joined the Dhammasara community in Perth and took bhikkhunī ordination in April 2014, with Ayya Santini as preceptor. In October 2015, Ajahn Brahm asked Ven. Candā to take steps towards establishing a monastery in the UK to increase equality in practice and ordination opportunities for women, in response to which Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project was born.
Recently, Ven. Candā has been undertaking a series of activities to raise enthusiasm and a community of supporters 'on the ground'. She was also fortunate to have the opportunity to visit America (sponsored by the Alliance for Bhikkhunis) and found it incredibly inspiring to meet other bhikkhunīs who have successfully established harmonious joyful communities of sincere practitioners. She was delighted when Ayya's Anadabodhi and Santacitta of Aloka Vihara agreed to be additional advisors to Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project!
In June, Ven. Candā undertook a very significant walking pilgrimage or ‘tudong’, from Bakewell in her home county of Derbyshire, to the city of Manchester. With the support of Laura Bridgeman en route, a former nun herself, they made their way over the lush green, and often wet, hills of the Peak District National Park sleeping in natural settings and trusting in human kindness and compassion along the way. These qualities were encountered in abundance as support came throughout the journey, culminating in a well-attended talk on the pertinent theme of ‘compassion' at the Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation, where some of the Samatha tradition's most committed long-term members warmly welcomed the pair. It was with the Samatha tradition that Ajahn Brahm took his first meditation retreat in the early 70's, so there was an added element of deep gratitude from Ven. Candā for linking up with processes begun long ago. Not only did the talk result in much lively discussion, but three new volunteers came forward to contribute their energy and skills to the project!
It is in this spirit that the bhikkhunī revival has come about. The eventual location of the new monastery very much depends on wherever there is most interest and support! Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project is in the hands of supporters as much as the organisers’, and involves a process. According to UK law, £5,000 needs to be raised through fundraising, before charitable status can be acquired. Through the upcoming tour by Ajahn Brahm, Anukampa hope to get nearer to that goal. As this is such a rare and precious opportunity to have Ajahn in the UK for both public talks and retreats, an eventful schedule has been planned for his visit, including talks on the themes of forgiveness, contentment and letting go, spiritual friendship and community, befriending inner fear, dying and rebirth. There will also be two two-day retreats in both central and west London. There are a limited number of spaces for talks and retreats so those wishing to benefit from the teachings and be of benefit to Anukampa's project are encouraged to book their tickets as soon as possible at www.anukampaproject.org/retreats and follow ABP on Facebook at www.facebook.com/anukampabhikkhuniproject
With warm wishes in the Dhamma, Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project
Written by Paul Burton & edited by Venerable Candā & Alison French
 See Bhikkhu Anālayo, “The Revival of the Bhikkhunī Order and the Decline of the Sāsana,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 20, 2013, pp115