Bhikkhuni Sudhamma

Why I become a monk: Bhikkhuni Sudhamma

Why would anyone want to be a bhikkhuni? Here is my story, as an American woman. I first learned about the Buddha when I met Thai monks in California in 1993. I was an attorney (an NYU graduate), 29 years old, and married to an attorney. At that time I had been suffering from chronic fatigue, therefore I had quit my job. With a lot of free time, I meditated many hours with Thai people and learned from the monks. Then doctors diagnosed the cause of my fatigue: advanced cancer! and I held onto Buddhism like a life-raft.

The cancer was a form of leukemia in the lymph nodes, very difficult to cure. After a year of suffering extreme medical treatments for the cancer (including an autologous bone marrow transplant), I got well. But because of the cancer, my husband had left me, my money was gone, my career was over, and most of my non-Buddhist friends had abandoned me. I lost everything. (My ex-husband even took my beloved cats.) Cancer taught me anicca: impermanence. Therefore I wanted nothing more to do with household life, for it is ultimately meaningless. I wanted to follow the way of the Thai monks who inspired me. When a Thai monk gently informed me that no woman can become a monk, I was very shocked. I felt crushed, and almost turned away from the Dhamma. Many American women do quit studying Dhamma because they cannot accept the pain of sexism in Buddhist religion. Instead I decided to trust the Buddha to help me overcome the pain.

I started a new career taking care of disabled people, while continuing to meditate daily and to serve the monks whenever possible. For a long time I wept every day, because I wished to live as a monk and could not. Then, one day in 1997, I suddenly knew it was time to go. I left my job and my home, to seek a Theravada centre where an American woman could focus on Dhamma full-time. After traveling and inquiring, eventually I found the place: a large Sri Lankan monastery and retreat centre in the USA. There I kept 8 precepts for 16 months, before ordaining as a samaneri (female novice) in 1999 at Vesak (Vessakha puja); with shaven head, I wrapped myself in robes, like a monk. Four years later, I received higher ordination in Sri Lanka – ordained by 12 Theravada bhikkhus and 10 Theravada bhikkhunis of Sri Lanka. They were not Mahayana. I don’t know anything about Mahayana.

After higher ordination, my life transformed. Now I live the holy life (brahmacariya), training myself in accordance with the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. I live on alms, never handling money, and lay people fully support me. (My good Christian neighbors often kindly put food into my alms bowl.) I hope to become enlightened in this lifetime. For me, the bhikkhuni path is easier and happier than the lay-life.

While learning from Thai monks 15 years ago, I had begun to speak and read Thai language, and learned to chant like Thai people. Now I cannot remember any of that. Thailand could not help me fulfill my goal. Now I lead a small congregation of American and Sri Lankan supporters, leading Sri Lankan style devotionals, and chanting Pali with a Sri Lankan accent. Whenever people come, I feel happy to teach the Suttas, teach meditation, give counseling, hold classes for children, officiate at funerals, and more. University professors of religion send their students to me, to learn about Theravada Buddhism.

My centre is located in the southeast region of the USA (between Atlanta and Charlotte); there are no English-speaking monks trained in Theravada Buddhism within 100 miles. Respected Sri Lankan bhikkhus in various cities in the USA strongly encourage me by telephone and email, and say we need MORE American-born bhikkhus and bhikkhunis to teach Dhamma in this big country.

Sri Lankan abbots in distant cities invite me to their temples to give teachings, and to help their female supporters. The women come to me and weep while telling me their suffering: a woman says that her younger brother committed suicide – or her husband is having an affair – or she had a miscarriage – or her daughter died – or her young son converted to another religion – or she misses her aging mother in their homeland far away – We talk alone. Sometimes we hold hands. The women feel comforted. They share their secrets, and say, “I cannot tell these things to the bhikkhus!” They also say that no male monk teaches them like I do, for we are women and can understand each other. While we talk, these women begin to smile and laugh through their tears. Their healing begins.

Now my life is fulfilling and worthwhile. I would rather live a very short life as a bhikkhuni than live a long life as a laywoman. Homage to the Buddha! Homage to the compassionate Sangha of Sri Lanka who made my goal possible!