Santacitta Bhikkhuni

Santacitta Bhikkhuni, Aloka Vihara, Placerville, CA

Santacitta Bhikkhuni, Aloka Vihara, Placerville, CA

When I was 28 years old, my mother suddenly died in a horse riding accident. This was a very big loss for me, which turned my whole world completely upside down. I had a strong need for some guidance about what it means to be a human being, and what we are doing here. Shortly after my mother’s death, I started traveling. Because of my grief, I just wanted to get away from my life a little bit. I traveled with a friend to Thailand for 3 months. That’s when I saw the temples, and the monks and nuns, and it touched something very deep inside my heart. I felt that there was something there, which might hold an answer for me. But first I came back to Austria and went about my life. The following year, I returned to Thailand for a longer time. During this trip I met my first teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa at Wat Suan Mokkh, in the South of Thailand. At this Wat, they hold a 10-day retreat for foreigners in English every month of the year, and that was my entry into Buddhism. Although I didn’t understand much English at the time, there was something communicated from heart to heart just by seeing him, his presence and the way he was. I think he reflected my own potential back to me. I suddenly felt, yes, there is actually something that makes sense. So I kept returning to Suan Mokkh, and in the early 90s I ended up living there for 1 1/2 years. I felt a calling to be a nun, which kind of shocked me. I had never thought that I could be a nun. I didn’t think I was able to make such a deep commitment, but through living there, I changed my mind. I don’t really feel my decision to become a nun was a decision in the sense of sitting down and deciding if I should do A or B. It just evolved, I let it unfold.
I wanted to train with Westerners, not in Asia. In England there were two monasteries in the Ajahn Chah lineage with a nun Sangha – Amaravati and Chithurst Buddhist monasteries. So I registered for a retreat in the fall of 1992 and just stayed on. In 1993 I ordained as a novice nun, but when they offered me the next level of ordination two years later, I didn’t feel ready for it. I wanted to go back to Asia. I traveled with a senior nun from Amaravati to Australia and then to Thailand, where I stayed for 1 1/2 years. After that I visited America. I was just looking because when I was offered the ordination I thought the style of practice was too masculine, it was too oriented towards the monks. The nuns did not have the same opportunities in some ways, and they were to a certain extent considered to be there in support of the monks. I wanted to find something more equal. Being quite naive, I thought I could find it, but when I came back to England after two years I realized that the situation there was actually quite good compared to the other things I had seen. So in 1998 I became a siladhara at Amaravati with Ajahn Sumedho, in the Ajahn Chah Sangha. I stayed and trained there until 2009, when I came to San Francisco. We had been invited by the Saranaloka Foundation to set up a training monastery in America. Their mission was to empower the nuns in the Ajahn Chah lineage. After being here for some time, it became apparent that if we wanted to establish a monastery for nuns, we needed to get the equivalent level of ordination as the monks have, meaning we’d need to become bhikkhunis. In order for us to take bhikkhuni ordination, we had to leave the Ajahn Chah lineage behind. Together with another nun I left the lineage formally, and in 2011 we had a bhikkhuni ordination at Spirit Rock, which was supported by Ayya Tathaaloka from Dhammadaharini Vihara in Santa Rosa. Leaving the lineage was quite a big thing to do. Now we are a small community of three bhikkhunis. We have guests coming through joining in the monastic life. We also offer training for women who would like to become nuns.

My family was always very accepting of my decision to become a nun. Although I think my father would have preferred me not to be a nun because I had been trained in hotel management and then studied cultural anthropology, and I think he probably felt that doing what I am doing was a waste of education. But over the years he saw that being a nun meant a lot to me and that it really sustained me. He came to my siladhara ordination, and I felt he was supportive of it. I do have faith in this life as a vehicle for transformation, and I know that the path I have chosen is a good path for me.

I am really active in the climate movement. What we are doing with the climate movement is part of the big systems change, which needs to happen, so we can live in this world in a way which is more in congruence with nature and with the limitations of what is available. We need to figure out how we can live on this planet without completely exhausting everything in the pursuit of an ideal which can’t be arrived at because we are living in samsara, in a conditioned realm. There are limitations, and we have to take this into account in the way we live. I would like to bring the archetype of the nun into the climate movement because whenever there is any kind of social justice movement, when people of faith join in, it really speeds up the movement and makes it more powerful. We bring a certain archetype into the mix which evokes trust, it seems to give people a stamp of safety. This is why we have been organizing the Interfaith Climate March. If you meditate, you realize that we are not separate from nature, we are part of it. The word ‘Dharma’ basically means nature. If we want to continue to live on this earth and make it available for future generations, which I think is our duty, we have to raise awareness about what needs to change. We need a systems change.
Our group of nuns has many opportunities to teach in different places like Spirit Rock, IMS, SBMG, and so on. Whenever possible, I bring up the need for change in my teachings. The planet is holding up a big mirror, about greed, hatred and delusion to all of us. Climate change is happening because of the three poisons. And because we have created capitalist systems, which are unable to live in harmony with nature. We have institutionalized greed with capitalist, consumerist institutions, we have institutionalized delusion with the media, and we have institutionalized ill-will with the military system. Buddhist practice is not just about our personal enlightenment, sitting on the cushion and having a nice life afterwards. We need to bring it into everything, we can’t just stop when we get up from the cushion. It has to become a way of living. We have to make the connection between climate change and the untrained mind. The climate movement is a great opportunity to illustrate what an untrained mind produces. It’s a very powerful truth which can be understood by everybody.
I feel passionate about this, but not angry because I know I am part of the system. I use a car, I use electricity… I know you can’t change things overnight, we have to do it one step at a time. We are all in it together. My passion comes from care and a real concern about nature and future generations. When I look out of this window at the beautiful nature around us, I feel happy. I don’t think I have a right to take what I can and then not care what happens after that. The practice is not just a private issue, it’s connected with everything. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it so beautifully ‘interbeing’ because we are everything, not really a thing, we are a process, and the sunshine and everything else is part of that process which I call ‘me’. We need to take care of nature because it takes care of us, and we can’t separate ourselves from it. For me, it is a sense of wonder and possibility. Yes, I’d like everybody to understand this, we are not doomed, and we don’t know what the result will be, but if we go about it with the sense of possibility, whatever is going to happen is not the point. The point is that we try. Things don’t work in a linear manner, so who knows what will happen. If you put your heart in it, everything is full of possibility. Sometimes compassion isn’t all sweet and nice, sometimes compassion is fierce.

I feel it is a great privilege to be able to be on this land, knowing that over the years we can really work together and make something even more beautiful of it, where people can come and practice together. If I can make a difference for somebody else in their life and practice, if I can offer something useful to someone, or if I can motivate people to open up and do things they would have never done before, I feel joyful.

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