Buddhism in the modern world
article and photo (below) by Becca Stine
At age 52, she wakes up every morning at five to meditate. She gardens and plays her own music. She has no car and rides a small bike. Yesterday she wore pants for the first time in 15 years. She continues to wear her beautiful deep maroon colored robes, and keeps her hair short enough that most would not question it. The soon-to-be non-profit organization she founded pays her rent, and without a job for now, she buys her groceries with gifted money. She opens her service and teaching to the community, but cannot receive payment for any work she does. Her reality is complicated, but Dhammadhira continues to survive as a Buddhist nun in Colorado Springs.
Her path to Buddhism was not a predictable one. She lived in southern California for 24 years, where she began her life as a teacher, before moving to Mt. Shasta in Northern California two years later. An American life, normal enough. She began teaching elementary school and middle school. She moved to Montana with her husband to continue teaching for eight years, before travelling to a village in Alaska called Crooked Creek—population 105—to try and make better money as a teacher. “We loved nature,” she says, reflecting on her year there, but it was in the Alaskan outdoors “when things got kind of rocky.” She was married until she wasn’t, and decided to come back to California.
Dhammadhira describes a commotion inside: a strong wind circling within her that began to push her away from her own sense of self, making it hard to feel at ease in her world. At that time, Dhammadhira was surrounded by friends who were reading into Buddhism and practicing yoga and meditation. “I thought that would be a good way to look into my mind and understand…I had all of this emotional turmoil,” she explains. In an attempt to begin to rediscover herself, spirituality led Dhammadhira to an intentional community where she worked as their first permaculture intern for the next year of her life. She knew she wanted to work with community, nature and ecology, but “had no idea of being a nun…oh my god.” As she began her process of“finding the eye of the storm,” meditation became her tool to find peace within, and spirituality became a powerful way of dealing with the “madness inside.” “Meditation,” she says, “allowed me to sit with it.” The need to resolve a “madness inside” carried Dhammadhira to Buddhist retreats and communities where she began the process of reconnecting with herself, and with the world around her.
Interested in a community with shared values, she followed a widely admired monk to a monastery in England. “It was kind of an island,” she says, a place of deep practice, where Dhammadhira spent 11 years of her life. She was ordained as a novice nun within nine months of her stay, and continued to learn the rules of Theravada Buddhism in an environment that could feed her practice. At first, she says, “It was so idyllic…the little nuns’ cottage made of stone, with a small stream running beside it.” She speaks of the ease of living on the island. “
Your day was kind of prescribed…we ate better than a lot of people…we never worried about how to make ends meet.” Dhammadhira describes the monastery as a “Golden Cage.” She speaks of never holding a leadership role in her 11 years living on the island. She quickly noticed a certain hierarchy among the monks and the nuns in the monastery. “It was obvious from the beginning,” she says, “but it didn’t affect me personally until the end, especially the way that the nuns treated those who were ‘junior.’” She felt a certain dominance from other nuns who were taking out their suppressed anger at higher-ups, “like when the big brother kicks his little brother who then kicks the dog…but the Buddha didn’t make it that way.” “It was like a glass ceiling,” the monks sitting above, “the bosses,” while the nuns stood below constantly gazing up. There were restrictive gender and power politics at the monastery, and some of the nuns became so upset they left. Dhammadhira’s island began to shrink, and eventually she felt as though she was shrinking with it, or simply floating in the shallow waters around it. She was ready to embrace more diverse experiences than those available in a monastery. “It’s like if you were playing Monopoly,” she says, “the money works in the game, but when you go out it’s no good.”
Soon Dhammadhira too, left the island and returned to California where she was ordained as a Bhikkhuni to practice the highest and strictest form of Theravada Buddhism. She went to stay with a friend from a previous retreat in California “I had met the nun before…she was like a grandma…she was really flexible,” she says as she describes the 84-year-old woman she lived with for the next three years. She sets the scene: 80 acres of land, topped with a big beautiful house. The nuns lived a life of luxury. “She would buy and cook the food,” Dhammadhira says, touching on the older nun’s need to adapt to the environment, “I’m doing what I can to support this,” she would say.
Dhammadhira admired the “spaciousness and the silence,” but she wanted to do more than just meditate and study. “I didn’t find it challenging,” she says, “sometimes missing connections with people…no engagement with the larger community…that was the real island.” In the quiet of the monastery, she began to notice ways to improve infrastructure and farming. “I had ideas of how to do it more sustainably,” she says, “permaculture ideas…but no one was into it.” The problem, says Dhammadhira, was that “the sun came in too much from a direction that heated the building up...The windows faced west! And then they’d have to cool them with air conditioning.”
Much like at the other monastery, Dhammadhira had lost her voice. Change was not welcome in either community. The rules of the practice became barriers, two hands holding a world together, but also keeping it contained and still. As she pushed against these heavy hands, Dhammadhira felt no movement and no creativity. She was stuck in a world of convention that seemed to ignore a central Buddhist principle: accepting that everything is subject to change. As the monastery continued in its stagnancy, however, Dhammadhira subjected herself to change. She was drawn to Colorado Springs by a nun who felt similarly silenced by life in the monastery. This nun’s name is Amma, a woman who stood before the hand of the monastery and pushed back against its arcane traditions. Amma left the monastery to re-entwine her faith and practice with the real world and really begin to enact change. Recalling her excitement over hearing about Amma, Dhammadhira says to me, “This nun rides a bike! And gardens! And she pays rent! I gotta go there.” So Dhammadhira left the cramped buildings of her monastery and moved into a small tent in Amma’s garden. This tent was home for three months before the cold arrived and she moved into Amma’s small meditation room.
Dhammadhira left the monastery when she asked, “why just stop with me? It’s about everybody, it’s about the whole.” It’s not just about the hands of the monasteries, but about how they can work to improve society. The isolation of the monastery felt contrary to a central part of Buddhism—a practice of interconnectedness and interdependency. Dhammadhira began to consciously define herself within her faith and to establish a synergy among the two. She wanted to morph two images of life, monastic and modern, in an attempt to reach the core: interdependency.
The monastery had been a steady hand: one that reached out daily to place food in an alms bowl, provided cover when it rained, and cupped Dhammadhira within its warmth. There, she was allowed to be completely immersed in her practice on the monastic island. Colorado Springs, however, is an island of a different nature. A Buddhist lifestyle is deeply strange to most people in the Springs. In fact, Colorado Springs in 2016 is about as far removed as one can imagine from the ancient context in which Buddhism was born. In Thailand, on the other hand, some ancient traditions have been preserved. Before the sun rises each morning in Thailand, many people, both young and old, are found seated on the sidewalks. Weaved bamboo baskets filled with warm sticky rice are placed before them. The light that begins to soak the streets as the sun rises is suddenly illuminated by the deep orange robes of the trail of monks who begin to march down the streets, golden alms bowls in their palms. The Thai people fill their hands with hot sticky rice and place it into the bowls of the passing monks—every morning—two worlds morphed into one. Dhammadhira talks about her experience as a nun in Thailand, whose populace shares the tradition of alms-giving: “There is a feeling like, yeah, everyone understands…it’s affirming.”
Dhammadhira has considered the possibility of living a more authentic Buddhist existence in a world like Thailand, but she realizes how difficult it would be to make a difference as a Western woman, “and that is what it is about.” Colorado Springs, a small conservative island in America, is a place where a Bhikkhuni Buddhist practice can only fit between the small cracks in the sidewalks. “You question it a lot,” she says, reflecting on her monastic lifestyle. “Is it really necessary…and how can I connect more with people?” The challenge of Colorado Springs shifted meaning, practice and rule for Dhammadhira.
In a place so foreign to Buddhist monasticism as Colorado Springs, many of the 311 rules of Bhikkhuni became burdensome for Dhammadhira, hindering her ability to connect with the modern American world to which she was returning. “The situation has changed from how it was 2600 years ago,” Dhammadhira says. “We need to adapt.” And adapt she has—Dhammadhira has begun to push back on the strict rules of her practice, tracing the dogma back to its conception. She now looks to the original purpose of Buddhist rules in order to begin to adapt them to modern life.
Take a rule: I am not supposed to harvest anything because that’s killing. At first, Dhammadhira respected this rule, and for some time had people come over to harvest for her, but then, she saw that she was just inconveniencing those people and not actually doing any good. This rule was created in a context in which there existed a shared agreement as to how food would be provided to a monk or a nun. But in Colorado Springs there are few generous hands to fill an alms bowl. “People here can still be generous, they just don’t share that convention or understanding of how food is to be provided,” she says. “There is an overall sense in our society that everyone fends for themselves…no special privileges.” Gardening is a means of survival for Dhammadhira, and the alternative, since buying “imported goods from the store,” is “worse for the environment.” Sustainability and interdependency have become one and the same: living and breathing with the flow of the surrounding environment is the real core of Buddhism.
A particularly foreign rule of the monasteries was that “music wasn’t allowed… it was considered a distraction,” she says. “The chanting was very plain…I liked my sounds.” She saw creativity as essential and as a means of bringing people together. So this rebellious nun began to create her own sound with an instrument called a Dulcimer that she had uncovered back in California, from her life before ordination. “I knew that Amma wouldn’t mind, because she knew how music helped me to connect with my heart,” she says.
“We can become very identified with an image…with a form,” she says, as she looks down at her maroon robes. Owning two sets of robes is supposed to eliminate the ego—part of living a life of total simplicity. To own and express oneself through a variety of clothing is thought to be a manifestation of ego. But now, as she peddles her bicycle two hours from her home to meet with a pastor at the United Church of Christ to speak about mindfulness, pants are the only practical option. Dhammadhira found it strange when conventional robes began to hinder her essential core practice— long robes are simply not conducive to hours of work in the garden and biking long distances. Dhammadhira expresses other doubts by talking about a soccer player and a cheerleader: “they don’t walk around in their uniforms all day every day. Wouldn’t that be egotistical? I want people to notice me because I have a kind heart, not because I dress differently,” she says, touching on the way the robes say something before she can, hindering her ability to connect with certain people. “Buddha said it could be let go of…the minor rules,” she says, as she again looks down at her new maroon-colored pants.
When Amma, who welcomed Dhammadhira to the Springs, moved away weeks ago, Dhammadhira was left alone, with neither the monastic companionship nor the support that was generated by Amma’s following. But Dhammadhira also became free to grow her own philosophy, one that incorporates monastic and modern elements. She talks about Amma’s departure leaving a kind of void in her life, but one which she is working to fill. She talks about using her love for creativity, ecology, working with kids, teaching and spirituality, to form workshops and classes on mindfulness in the Springs. She wants to work with the wider community around pressing issues in the world today. “We can build bridges,” she says. “I’m having to step up and do more than I was doing…for the benefit of others.” As Dhammadhira wakes every morning at five to meditate, she no longer needs someone else to offer her a meal. Instead, she makes a small breakfast on her own before tending to her small garden. “I feel like I’m growing up now,” she says. Breaking the rules brings her deep into a truer Buddhist practice.
Dhammadhira has become as much a part of the system of modern American life as she needs to be in order to survive. But she has joined modern life only insofar as becoming part of it allows her to better understand the modern world. Ultimately, so that she can better heal it. “As long as there is value in what I’m doing, I’ll stay,” she says.
Visit Dhammadhira's website here.