On this episode of Spirit Stories we have as our guest, Ayya Tathālokā from Aranya Bodhi Awakening Forest Hermitage in California. Ayya Tathālokā was born in Washington, DC in 1968 to environmentally-minded scientist parents. In 1988, at age nineteen, ur...
On this episode of Spirit Stories we have as our guest, Ayya Tathālokā from Aranya Bodhi Awakening Forest Hermitage in California. Ayya Tathālokā was born in Washington, DC in 1968 to environmentally-minded scientist parents. In 1988, at age nineteen, urgently inspired by the sudden death of an associate, she left her Pre-naturopathic Medical studies in university and made her way first to Europe and then on to India, entering monastic life as an white robed anagarika and then two years later undertaking ten-precept nuns ordination. Wishing to connect with the ancient lineage of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, she sought and found her female mentor in Buddhist monastic life in South Korea, the most venerable bhikkhuni elder Myeong Seong Sunim (和法界 明星), who gave her the name "Tatha-alokā", and went on to train under her mentorship for ten years.
Returning to the United States in 1996, with her bhikkhuni mentor's blessings, in 1997 in Los Angeles, with an international gathering of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, Dharma teachers and supporters in attendance, she received bhikkhuni higher ordination from the Sri Lankan bhikkhu sangha led by her preceptor, the Venerable Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara Nayaka Mahathero. Since then Venerable Tathālokā has focused on meditation, and on both the study and practice of Dhamma & Vinaya. Her meditation training in Theravada Buddhism has been largely with the masters of the Thai forest traditions stemming from Ajahn Mun Buridatta: Ajahn Maha Bua Nyanasampanno and teachers of the Ajahn Chah tradition, together with the Burmese mindfulness and insight masters of Sayadaw U Pandita's tradition and meditation master Pa-auk Sayadaw. Overall, her practice and teachings are profoundly influenced by the Buddha's own advice and injunctions as contained in the Early Buddhist suttas.
Recognizing the growing number of Theravadin bhikkhunis and samaneris in the United States and the true value of coming together in harmony, Ayya Tathālokā proposed and participated in the founding of the North American Bhikkhuni Association (NABA) in 2004. Several months later, she also participated in founding the first residential community for bhikkhunis in the western United States named "Dhammadharini”. Ayya Tathālokā is the first Western woman to be appointed as a Theravada Bhikkhuni Preceptor, and she has contributed to the going forth and full ordination of more than 50 women as nuns in the USA, Australia, India, and Thailand.
Ayya Tathālokā’s primary role is as the founding abbess and preceptor of both the Dhammadharini Monastery at the western foot of Sonoma Mountain in Penngrove and the Aranya Bodhi Awakening Forest Hermitage on the Sonoma Coast in Northern California, where she provides Dhamma and meditation teaching and guidance, and monastic mentorship. And since 2021, she has been actively invovled in the United Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha International working group together with other international bhikkhuni preceptors and leaders of Theravada traditions.
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Welcome to Treasure Mountain, the podcast that inspires and guides people to find the treasure within human experience. I'm your host Sol Hanna. On this episode of Spirit Stories, we have as our guest Ayya Tathaloka from Aranya Bodi Awakening Forest Hermitage in California. Ayya Tathaloka was born in Washington DC in 1968 to environmentally minded scientist parents. In 1988, at age 19, urgently inspired by the sudden death of an associate, she left her prenatropathic medical studies in university and made away first to Europe and then on to India, entering monastic life as a white robed anagarica and then two years later, undertaking ten precept none coordination. Wishing to connect with the ancient lineage of the bhikkhuni Sangha, she sought and found her female mentor in Buddhist monastic life in South Korea. The most venerable bhikkhuni elder Miangg Xiyanggsiim, who gave her the name Tata Loca and went on to train under her mentorship for ten years, returning to the United States in 1996 with her bikuni mentors blessing. In 1997 in Los Angeles, with an international gathering of Baku's Biki Dharma teachers and supporters in attendance, she received bikuni higher ordination from Sri Lankan Baku Sanga, led by her preceptor, the venerable doctor of Anapola Ratnasara Naika Mahartro. 1s Since then, venerable Tatalouka has focused on meditation and on both the study and practice of dummy and VINEYA. Her meditation training in Terravada Buddhism has been largely with the masters of the Thai forest traditions stemming from Ajan Manbouri data, Ajan Mahabhua and teachers of the Ajanchar tradition together with Burmese mindfulness and insight masters of Sayador Upandita's tradition and meditation master Park Sador. Overall, her practice and teachings are profoundly influenced by the Buddha's own advice and injunctions as contained in the early Buddhist suttas. Recognizing the growing number of Terravada, buccoonis and salmonaries in the United States and the true value of coming together in harmony, ayattaloka proposed and participated in the founding of the North American Bikini Association in 2004. Several months later, she also participated in finding the first residential community for coonies in the western United States named Damodarani. 1s Ayatta Tarloca is the first west woman to be appointed as a terrified bikini preceptor, and she has contributed to the going forth and full ordination of more than 50 women as nuns in the USA, Australia, India and Thailand. Ayatta Taloka's primary role is as the founding Abbas and Preceptor of both the Damodarani Monastery at the western foot of the Sonoma Mountain in Pengrove and the Aranya Body Awakening Forest Hermitage in the Sonoma coast in Northern California, where she provides dharma and meditation, teaching and guidance, and monastic mentorship. And since 2021, she has been actively involved in initiativewata. Bukuni Sango International Working Group Together with other international bikini preceptors and leaders of Terravada traditions, ayattatalka has been blazing a trail in various other ways. I left a list of more of achievements in the description below, and right now we are so fortunate to have Ayattaloka here on this podcast to learn about her spiritual journey, which has been pivotal to opening up the path to higher ordination for women across several Western countries. I'm so glad you've chosen to join us to hear this inspiring story. 2s Bye. 3s Welcome to Tricia Mountaineer. How are you today? 1s Greeting, Soul. It's nice to be here with you. And 1s it's a beautiful afternoon with sunshine in mountain forest in the redwoods here at around your body. Awakening Forest Hermitage thank you for inviting me. 2s I believe that you're about to go on a meditation retreat, personal meditation retreat. Is that so? 3s Yes, coming up soon. I'll have some time of silence secluded personal meditation retreat here in the forest. 2s This is actually one of my favorite times of the year to have this time here. And I feel immensely fortunate due to the gift of use of this several hundred acres of forest land, that it's possible to have this time here, just with this rescued, regrowing redwood forest and all the animals and 2s safe from humans practicing in the way that the butt had taught with regards to our own bodies and minds. And then also we have mountain lions and rattlesnakes, maybe a bear or two. 1s So working with fear and dread and these kinds of things, loving kindness in the forest. It's a great opportunity that we have here and I'm glad to have it personally and I'm glad to be able to share that with all the other members of our monastic community here. The bequines and seminaries and aspirants and those who have drawn near during this time of the vasa this year. 3s It's wonderful to see that you're continuing that very old Buddhist tradition of preserving 1s natural forest and animals that live there, but also, of course, engaging in that at Meditative tradition as well. And I have to say, when I was looking through your list of things that you're engaged in, I mean, I read the list, and I felt tired just reading it. So I'm so pleased that you're getting the chance to have a retreat. 6s Well, you know, that Lucy is over a few years time. I've been in monastic life for more than 30 years. So 1s when you spread out activities over that length of time and then list them out, then it can add up. But I'm really glad in this time of life that it is absolutely interspersed with so much time of quiet and seclusion. 2s Please, go ahead. 5s Well, I just thought it would be a great place for our conversation to start, to go back to the beginning of your spiritual journey in this lifetime, at least, what was the spark that set you on this journey as a young woman, which ended in new, up to inordinating? 3s Well, you know, 1s it's really hard to say. People have asked me that question many times before, and 1s even as a young person, as a kid, when I heard things saying that were attributed to the would have, 1s I remember many times really just stopping, like it wasn't just the same old ordinary that I heard all the time, like, stopping, pausing to look into that and feeling that there was something special there. And I know even as a very young teenager then, I heard about somebody who had gone forth from their personal experience, an associate of my family who had gone to Thailand to work, I think, with the Peace Corps, some kind of water irrigation project, then afterwards took the opportunity to. 1s Ordain for three months, which was still really widely practiced in Thailand at that time. And, you know, he said that that was better than anything else, to have that opportunity to really just devote himself to the 3s higher ethics, moral virtue and adi, chita, meditation and aripana, to really be learning and studying and contemplating the Buddhist teaching. So then, even as a young teenager, when I heard about that, I felt like, Can I go? 1s I asked, like, that's what I want to do. I just thought straight off. And during that time, one of my favorite TV shows was called Kung Fu with David Caradine. And just the paradigm of living life as a seeker and meeting every opportunity and all kinds of challenges, reflecting back on the wisdom of the Buddhist teaching and then applying that in the situations of life as a wandering seeker, there was something that I just felt really strong affinity with. But in that conversation with a friend of the family when I said, I want to go, then not only did my parents say, we think you better finish high school first, but also he said, 1s but I'm sorry to say that opportunities available for the guys, but I didn't see it being available like that for the girls or for women. And that was really kind of profound and turning moment for me, I think, because. 3s I had read books. I got all the books on Buddhism that I could out of my local library, which is maybe like three or four of them, 1s and I'd read some old text that somehow made their way into a family library from the polytech society. And then I had the strong, clear idea that I felt sure was correct from the ancient texts that the woodhead did have women disciples who were completely enlightened and who were part of his monastic community and who were teachers and leaders and who 1s were just a part, an essential part of the early Buddhist community founded by the Buddha himself. And so when I had heard about this experience in Thailand and that this was not like Zen Buddhism, but this terravada is like a branch of the early Buddhist teachings, and living, like, close to the way of the Buddha, that's what it was all about. Then I had these profound moments of cognitive dissonance, and then the question came up, so say what? 1s So, like, how do these things connect? If this is the early, goodest way? But you're saying this 2s so you know, then to understand why. 2s Like, what happened loomed large in my mind. And I think that's one of the things that then led me later on to really get into studying 1s Buddhist monasticity history or history of the bikini sunka. Which is something I worked with in graduate school. One of my main focuses. And compared to Be Quinn III. And just to try to understand. Like. What happened and what is going on here. But not so long after that. 1s Then we got news about another friend of the family or friend of a friend who ordained as a Buddhist monk. She ordained as a Buddhist monk at Shasta Abbey, which was south of where I was living and north of where we're at now. And when I heard that, like, she ordained as a Buddhist monk, then again I said, what? Right? That's my Buddha, right? 2s So then I realized that in some traditions, there were these opportunities. When I found out more about that, and in some traditions not, 1s but I really felt, I'd say, like, allied 1s with the Buddha in a way, with the places where the traditions had passed down. These opportunities for women and let's say for girls, whether a young teenager would be called a woman or a girl, I don't know, but 2s a teen, 3s that was quite a turning moment in terms of my own, like, orientation and trajectory and intention. And that's been active up till now. 3s It wasn't, though, until a few years later, during monastics and 2s having a direct experience, direct encounter with monastic and encountering the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, especially, that I really got Galvanized to action, that is, to entering monastic life. 2s And what was that path? So you were in school in the United States. You had contact with other people. You had a lot of interest, but what was the path to ordination? I believe you went through Europe and some time in India. What was that past like until you finally did ordained? 4s Well, 1s as you mentioned in my bio, there was a time when I was in university and I was studying prenatopathic medicine, 3s the premed part 1s and the naturopathic medicine part. It brought up a lot of ideals, and it brought up a lot of questions like, where does suffering come from? And is there any way to really deal with it effectively in human life? Is it all really just Band AIDS, or is there anything more deep that can be done? So my fellow students and teachers and colleagues, we had discussions about these things, and it was in this context that someone mentioned the Four Noble Truths. And having read quite a lot of books related to Buddhism before, it's kind of surprising that it's only then that I really clearly heard the For Noble Truth. But it was absolutely addressing this very question and issue and in such a way that felt like, for some moments, like my world, whole world stopped. 1s And just centered on that. And there was so many things that I heard during that time from medicine and philosophical discussions that you just really have to, like, kind of hold it a distance and feel, you know, so much like credulous, so much doubt about and wonder, is that true? Is that really possible? 2s So many things of doubt in question. And I never in my life until that point heard something that I actually felt so deeply, so much confidence in. I just felt like, as I heard it, like, this rings true. 1s And then my credulous mind, of course, came up and said, all right. 2s But I felt like if it could be true, even from my intellectual mind, that it was worth it to give my life to the methods taught by the Buddha to prove it, to see, does it really work like this? And if so, I felt like, what could be more important? This is like the jackpot in a way, 2s I'll say. Also, at that time then, I was doing some research work with regards to my schooling. My education and my research then was on 1s the cases where people received 1s a false fatal diagnosis. 2s Or people who should have received a fatal diagnosis and didn't. And, you know, there just a surprising number of cases at that time, the things weren't all computerized where people received a fatal diagnosis wrongly and they died. And so I just studied these cases, and it just really 1s made me very interested in the power of the mind and how what we're thinking is determining our experience of the world, not only mentally, but, like, what the impacts of what we have going on in our mind are on our bodies as well. So 2s that study really led me to believe that the mind is really important, much more so than was generally thought at that time. 6s I can imagine it would do. And when you're doing, like, medical studies, often the focus is on saving the body and the mind doesn't exist. But here you are finding these huge anomalies that point to the, I guess, the importance of the mind, not just the existence of the mind, but the importance of the mind. 1s I'd like to skip ahead a little bit. One of the things that I find really interesting about your story, as far as I know it, is that 1s you are now a Teraban baconi, but you spent quite a lot of time with a teacher in Korea, 1s Xiu. 3s This is really interesting. 2s How did it come to be that you were in Korea in the first place? What was training in Korea like? 2s Well, thank you for asking. Interesting. 1s Yang Song means bright star 2s and my venerable bikini mentor yang Songs name is still alive. She's elderly now. She's actually exactly the same age as 2s Meghan went to visit the monastery where I trained with her. And 1s she always remembered that she's the same age as him. 2s So 2s during the time I was in Uni in the United States, there were a couple of really powerful women down the teachers who were teaching here in the western United States. One of them was Ayakima 1s and another was Ruth Dennison. 2s And so I have to say that those two who have both passed away now, you know, their example was really important for me. And as you may know, then Ayakima, after being a ten precept none for a number of years in the Sri Lankan traditions, then chose to fully ordain in 1988 here in the US west coast in California. And so that was a really big deal at that time. The senior BKU who was later not my intention, but who was later to become my own preceptor for my bikini ordination, actually was a big part of bringing ten precept nuns from Sri Lanka and also from Nepal, and then also Ayakima, and there are two from Germany who came for, I think, a total of twelve 1s terabyte nuns who then received full ordination in 1988. 2s I'll just say there are things that were happening during that time that were really strong and, you know, we're experiencing the benefits of those initiatives even now very much. And one was the founding of Shekyo Dita international Buddhist Women's Association 2s in India, and the other then was that first full bequini ordination and the attempts to try to figure out, like for the revival of the Terravada bequini sunka for the methods available, how to do that. And 1988 was a big first step, a big first try. 2s So 1s those things were live and happening at that time that I myself then went forth first as an Anagarica White, and with a few years in Europe and then going to India, I have to say that. 2s Before Internet. Just remembering back to that time before being able to do a Google search, that things were just so different. So I had read old books about Buddhism in India, but I didn't actually really clearly know or understand what the state of the Sunka was in India at the time that I went there. I was learning about that on the ground. 2s So that was really quite surprising and shocking in a way, because we'd heard from teachers about, like, Buddhist masters in India, and I'd heard about diploma. I then tried to go see, but she had just passed away just before that. 1s So wow. Things were really different at that time. But by the time I made my way to India, there were still, like, waves from the first Shakydi To conference, which were spreading out in the world and spreading around in India. So I understood that there was a strong call at that time. I heard I got the message that there were senior Buddhist masters, leaders of traditions like His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, cambodian International patriarch, Pramahago Sononda, who later became a teacher of mine. 3s Like, calling for research and to go to the places where there were ancient bikini sunkas that still existed, and to do the research and to see if there are ways reconnect these traditions where they were lost. And so I myself was one of those who picked that up. I heard at that time about the challenges that scholars faced that sometimes to research inside the Be Quinnies communities for scholars at that time is, like, practically impossible. But I felt for myself as a monastic, they were saying what it really would take is somebody to go in and just enter monastic life there from the beginning and just learn from the inside on the ground over, you know, a decade, right? 1s Then they would be able to say what's really going on in there. And I heard that, and I felt like, yes, 1s I can do that. Other people who are scholars and have families and things like that, not sure. But that was just a movement in my heart, in my mind, thinking like that. But when I was in India, then there were teachers, as also there were in Sri Lanka, who were giving, like, ten precept ordination and then saying like this for you will be your full ordination, and you can study between avenue and practice as much as you can, but this is what we can do. And so I received ten precept ordination at that time, and I actually didn't clearly understand, as many people still don't like, what's the difference between being a ten precept nine and being a seminary or being a bequini? Is there really any difference? When I started to study bikini vinaya, though, I could tell that without being a b queenie and without having bikini's communities, that there's just so much of the vinaya teachings and training that's there that you're not able to practice unless you're actually ordained and you're part of of a community of those who are ordained. But, you know, I got. 2s Offered the chance of one or another of two cheap tickets out of India. As the way things go, sometimes it just ends up determined by, like, somebody who shows up as a donor and offers something thing and that turns your whole world in your life for the rest of your life 2s has happened so many times like that. So somebody offered a ticket either to Bangkok or to Hong Kong. 1s And from what I'd heard about Thailand at that time, I felt like I heard things about great forest masters 1s and 1s really admirable things about opportunities for practice, for men. And I was told for myself, going 1s as a female, it was suggested that I could go for six months, and then I could go back to the US and work for six months, and then I could come back and put on white robes again for another six months, because I would be expected to be not only supporting myself, but also supporting the monastery and making offerings. 1s And at that time, I felt like I had already entered into the renunciate path, and the idea of going back to working for six months and practicing for six months just did not sit right with me. I felt like that would be taking ten steps backwards, and I had already left home life, 2s then that was real kind of game changer for me. And so I took the ticket to Hong Kong. 2s And then I used Hong Kong as my base with month by month visas for two years to go and travel around to these various places where communities throughout East Asia and to check them out and to see what was going on there. That's what eventually then led me to South Korea, 2s because I went to Taiwan and I went into China and I went to see what was going on in Japan and Macau. 7s Then when I finally got an invitation to go to visit Korea. When I 1s heard about and saw the mountain forest meditation traditions in Korea. That just seemed so much more in line with where my heart was at in Taiwan. There was a lot of bowing. A lot of repentance. A lot of emphasis on vegetarianism. A lot of chanting of Buddhas and bodhisattva's names and bright colors and playing of monastic instruments. And just for me, that wasn't the type of culture that I was really interested in. But mountain forests, hermitages, meditation, 2s that seemed much more like a cup of tea. Plus I heard on what we then called the Dama Bum circuit when I was on a ferry actually between Japan and somewhere, I was on a ferry 1s and then just talking with some other met, some dumb people, some meditators who are traveling there. And they told me about in Korea, they said at that time, they said that that was the place where there was like the best opportunity for women for training, ordination, meditation, teaching, any kind of project that you might like to have in Buddhism that was just all open there in that circumstance. And they told me they had gone to a dumatok. This is a guy, he told me he had gone to a dumbatok it's a main temple of the Jogue order in Seoul in the capital, and that there was a bikini up on the high seat in the main temple of the whole order giving Adamatok. And he had in all his travels around the world in Buddhism, he had never seen anything like that before. Just wow. So impressed. So I did not find out until years later. 1s Maybe even ten or eleven years later, that Be Quinnie in that story was actually the Bequini Bright Star Young Songs name who became my venerable Bequini mentor. I didn't know that was her when I met her. I connected with her and something very deep happened. I bowed nine times without even thinking about why am I bowing nine times? And then she just asked me, you want to ordain don't you? 1s And then she told me what her requirements would be for doing that. 1s She really wanted me to learn everything from the ground up. She felt like 1s if there was a chance as a Westerner, then I might be able to do something for Westerners or for the greater situation. She was really aware of what was going on, like in Thailand and Sri Lanka and 1s in Terra Buddhism, as well as in Tibetan or Himalayan Buddhism and ordination. She was very much aware of that. And she did not want to have it be just like hit and run ordination to just come in and get ordained and then be out there. She wanted me to be able to learn everything from 2s the bottom up, to be able to know all of it. And she thought that could really help with putting down the root if it were possible to revive these Be Quinnies traditions, which she was very much in support of. She felt like it needed to have a deep root, to not just be like, superficial, like just with the patchwork robe and the ordination ceremony, but that it needed to go deep. And so I took on that commitment with her. Bye. 2s That's really an amazing story. And it just tells us so much about so much about the obstacles that were faced. Because it seems to me like you had a very sincere wish to be part of a Buddhist meditative tradition. Not just the obstacles, but also the opportunities. But I also find it interesting. It seems to me like that connection with Brightstar, 3s that seems to me like almost because I was going to ask what's the difference between the practical difference between this Mahayana tradition in South Korea and with Terravada? In some ways I'm getting the feeling the superficial question, would you agree with that? Like when it comes to a meditative tradition, it's almost like the superficial differences 1s disappear or blend away. What's your perspective as someone who has lived these different medical meditative traditions? 2s Thank you for asking that. I absolutely agree that in some ways, all these things are very much superficial, and in another way, not 7s for myself, although I had very much appreciation for living in the mountain forest, hermitages and monasteries, and 1s for this tradition in which meditation is so strong, the type of meditation is actually quite different, or it was these days. There's so much more early Buddhist teaching being taught in practice in Korea, I know, 1s and that was already coming to be so ten years after I had entered into monastic life there. When I returned again, there was just so much interest. And, you know, there's also the language of names and forms which really dominates in the consciousness of, I think, the vast majority of the human beings. So there's the very deep part that transcends all of that. And also, 2s in a way, what we wear or what name we have or which tradition we're allied with is something that people hold as being really important in the world of names and forms. 2s So. 2s If I think about the time that I returned more than ten years later to Korea at my venerable bequeni mentors request an invitation this is after my full ordination as a bee queen 1s with Sri Lankan Baku Sanka 2s and returning. Then I met quite a lot of bequines 2s in Korea who had strong interest and affinity in the early Buddhist teachings and their practices, as I did. And some of them had gone to Burma and wearing the robes of, say, quote unquote, Mahayana Bikuni, then they could go to Burma and practice together, and some people would accept them as a bequini and some not. But in a way, it's like being in the guise or being in the disguise of a Mahayanambikuni was what gave them the opportunity to do that. For those who really wanted to dedicate their lives completely to living and practicing in the way of the early Buddhist traditions or the way that the teachings have been passed down and were being taught in Burma or Sri Lanka or Thailand. I know I heard again and again that for them. There came to be a point where they felt like on the outside. It's like they're being supported by a community that's supporting Mahayana Buddhism and wearing the robes that are associated with Mahayana Buddhism. But that's not what's going on with their hearts and minds and their practice and the way that they're living and feeling a kind of a, you know. 2s Like something doesn't jive there. And then even sometimes feeling like, you know, needing to be like, hush hush for the support of the community because of being supported by these communities and, like, don't talk about what you're doing because the people are thinking they're supporting something. Mahayana and then that starts to feel even like maybe dishonest, right? And so I think there's a wish that I see in a lot of monastics for congruity, for where their hearts and minds are and the way that they wish to be living and practicing, for that to be well aligned with the forms. And then what you see outside. Then for those who seem to be doing that. At least for me. Then I would see what I felt allied with than was being expressed. 1s It seemed like. With congruity in alliance or in harmony by those who were ordained in Terravada traditions and wearing the robes of the Terravada traditions and with the names and. You know. The sense of belonging associated with those traditions. And so there's a point in our regular chanting 2s in Pali that says, satan sabjanjana koala pari Punyang Paris. 3s And so this is talking about, then, a special quality of the budha. This is speaking about the, you'd say, like, salient qualities of the Buddha and how he established his Sanka. And so it's talking about both the essence and also the particulars as being like, 2s Very much allied in harmony and like, fully manifest and being fulfilled. So not being at disparity with one another. So not like essence is one thing and form is something else. Of course, that's again, that's true in a way. But the vision is that what the Buddha was, how he lived and how the early Buddha Sangha lived, it's about as close as you can get in human life to having both the form and the expressions and all of the particulars and that essence aligned with one another. And so I felt that myself. And I saw so many others who felt like that. And they said if the opportunity was there, they were seeing in South Korea then, some of them we were seeing some of those who were there, iku brothers then when they felt like, this is where my heart lies, this is where my practice lies. This is what I want to teach, they just go for alicama ceremony or reorination, and then they're just accepted by the bikusanka, and then they live in that way. But for those women who were bequenies, then that path was not clearly open to do that like that. So it's like the Beiquis were able to follow their hearts. And that seemed like they had integrity. And those than be queens who also had hearts for such integrity and congruent in their lives. And the way was not clear at that time. So it seemed like, if possible, let's open that back up again. 1s Because for what's healthy and wholesome and even liberating, if the way is blocked and you can open it, then open it internally and externally in the forms in the world. 4s Absolutely. That's a really interesting story. 1s And I guess the next question would have to be, well, you were very much a part of opening that blockage and furthering the cooni ordination. Now, obviously there were some that came before you, but I'd like to focus on how you went back to the United States 1s and the circumstances surrounding your higher ordination as a bikini. 5s Yes. So 1s I had been accepted and I undertook the training in South Korea. And so then the plan was that I would be fully ordained there. And then, as it turned out, I accidentally broke visa law. 3s So then when I went to renew my visa in South Korea, they said no and the expatriate me back to the United States. 1s This was after I had received you. 2s Yeah. So funny. 2s But anyway, in a way, like, so much investment 1s in this initiative, right? 1s And so I went back to the beginning and then I don't to the Korean robes. And then I was accepted for Papaja with my venerable bikini mentor Young Sangsnim and her community, and then went for the seminary, national seminary training, education and training and receive the seminary precepts and all of that. And then 1s within a year after that, then 1s I went to the immigration office in Daegu, and they were just not having any of it. 3s And this is kind of just, in a way, the luck of the draw. At that time, if my local immigration office were in Seoul, then there were plenty of Western monks and this wouldn't have happened. But in Daegu, there weren't any other Western Buddhist monastics who are trying to get their visas there. And at that time, the office was staffed by people who were kind of fundamentalist Christians mostly, and then who believed that, like, Buddhism is like the work of the devil and thought that at that time, like, the US. Is the Christian Western Pure Land. And so for a Westerner to be like there in Buddhist monastic robes, they felt was something really horrific. So much so that the officer who saw me turned white, started shaking, left his desk and did not come back 1s because he was just so incredible and so upset. So 2s eventually they were able to get somebody to come back. But then the thing about discovering, seeing that I had accidentally, accidentally broken the terms of my visa, they were just not going to consider about that. That was the end of it. And I found myself then heading back to the United States. 1s And so this was an enormous situation then of letting go because I had invested so much of my hopes and dreams and efforts 1s into this. And then I'm on a flight back to then I got sent back to California, which is not my hometown, and then being a solo. 2s Female novice arriving in a state. It's not my home state. Like, okay, I'm back. What do you do? It's crazy. My dream is crushed. 2s I'm separated from my teacher, my community, my commitment, all that. And yeah, like, what to do? And so I needed to really recalibrate and regroup and consider, okay, now what? And I think, in a way, if I look back like that, that seemed so disorienting, and yet I did have the Buddhist teaching. And so I felt like, okay, profound opportunity for letting go and then letting go, that I'm not going to be able to force this. I cannot make this happen with the conditions as they are. So let go and then reorient and see what happens. And so what ended up happening then is something that I couldn't, even before, really, like, dare to dream of being possible for myself. During that year that I was a novice in Korea, I got to meet who was going to become vulnerable. Bikini Kusama. 1s The first of the Sri Lankan be queens. And I got to meet the Korean Bequini leaders who are trying to support then the Sarna be Quiet ordination. 2s And my own vulnerable mentor and others who were her peers were in support of that. So venerable. Be Quinnikuzuma, then Kusama Davindra and Ranjani de Silva. Like where they were studying in Seoul. 2s So that was happening during that one year. Then after my seminary precepts in Korea, and even I had asked like, can I go for this ordination in India? I was in India, right? And 1s their understanding was this was for Sri Lankans. This is something that was being done exclusively for a hand picked group of picked, shakya, dito Sri Lanka in conjunction with the Mahabodi Society in India. And that then they were going to be in India for a couple of years studying after the ordination, if it worked out, if it went ahead, which it did. 2s So that was something that was happening at that time, that was within my awareness and I touched on. And 1s so it all seemed very iffy, like, what's going to happen with that? And as I said, that was what I heard when I asked about it, like, can I do that? 1s Was. This is for Sri Lankan. And you have made your commitment to this path, to this way here now, which is just as good and equally as good and will also work for you. And this is the commitment you made with your teacher and all that. So I was okay, yes, alright. But then the visa thing happened. And so then 2s the visa thing happened, brought you. 5s Yeah. There's so many different currents going on. It's a very complex story. 1s It brought me to California, surprisingly, which was then right where 5s Habenpola Ratana Sara Mahatero, who was to become my BKU preceptor, where he and other Sri Lankan monks, including 2s monks who were also involved in supporting the 1996 ordination, like Venerable Doctor Walpole piano that was there, offering the robes for the 1996 ordination. So what happened is somehow that underlying intention that I had, and this is my analysis now, that underlying intention that I had somehow in the moral arc of the universe, then put me right where the thing that I was really like, if we could say, what is your ideal? 1s That the closest possible thing in the world to that, unbeknownst to me, was being thought of implant. 2s And immigration. Then put me right back in the state where that was being planned and then where the invitation was put out to those women in especially those who had been like more than five years or ten years in monastic life. But who hadn't been able to fully ordain and who wish to fully ordain like the invitation was put out to apply for this ordination. Which I did. And 2s letters and phone calls with my venerable bikini mentor. Then she gave her blessings and approval to that. I think she very much sympathized. 2s And 1s so I joined in the training for that ordination and it was planned to be a dual ordination and different than in 1996 in this case, for the dual ordination, the plan was that the first part with the bikinisanca is going to be done according to the like, according to the Tarmacoptica tradition. But then the second part with the Baku sanka is going to be done according to the Terravada polytext tradition. 2s So that was a big question, like, can you do that? Can you mix the two traditions together like that? And the theory behind it was that the idea was like. That's absolutely the best that you could do. Because it's respecting the existing Bekunis and existing bekuni sankas and they have their own sangha kama and then also the Baku sanka. Terabata polytech sangha kama. They have their own sangha kama and according to the terabata polytext and pretty much. You know. All the way. All sangha come. 2s These kinds of things. Work is for ordination is like the most recent thing is considered to be the most valid thing. Right? 2s So, I mean, that's the basis for if a Korean beku goes and is reordained in Sri Lanka, the whole basis for the idea then he becomes a terabata monk is because that second, the next sangha kama with the Terravada sanka is then considered to supersede or to predominate and to become a contemporary one. So that's the doctrinal underpinnings of why that's considered to work like that. And that was their idea. That was what the plan was. So I did the training there 1s and had the wonderful opportunity to get to know venerable Dr. Ratina Sarah in what was to be the last years of his life. 1s And the bequinisanco was there and like testing and training and all of that, but on the day of the ordination and it's. Then there were five be queens who are invited, I have to say as a preceptor. Then 2s don't just invite five be queens or five be quiet. You always want to have some extras because anything can happen. Shit. And on that day, anything did happen. So on that day it turned out there was no bikini quorum because one of those bikinis got sick, seriously sick with flu and was not able to come. And another bequini was not available on short notice. And so I had gone through all of those preparations with the Bakuini Sangka and like we walked through the exam and everything like that. But then there was no Bakkuni Sangha Kama, there was just the Baku Sangha Kama for the ordination. That was 25 years ago this year. So then again, 1s what happened was not what was planned and not what we are aiming for. 1s But what happened was something that had been very seriously considered by a number of, like, great elders and bequest scholars that is like, can the BKA 1s just give? 2s And in those moments where there were. Like. 200 sunka members gathered together in the SEMA. In the Ananda SEMA Hall and Jan Begun is missing. 1s Then my late. Most venerable Preceptor. Venerable Heaven. Polarat. And Asara Nayakam Mahatiro. 1s Who was to become the Sri Lankan chief prelit for the Western Hemisphere. 2s Then he just recited from his memory. Directly from the polycannon. The Buddha's allowance for the Bequest to give bikinis ordination together with them. A number of other things. And he just in his authority in those moments. And he was extremely knowledgeable about the Buddhist teaching and just say, just absolutely incredible in terms of what he just held ready in working memory. There are few people in the world like that. And he had great presence and charisma and was enormously respected. 1s So he's leading up the college of what his studies very nearby at that time. And 2s so he said, 1s This is what we can do, would allowed it. And then they did it. So there were 1s four Sri Lankan Bequest who were there, and also four Thai Bikus who had been invited, who are there. So, like a Sri Lankan Bikusanka Antiquusanka, as well as the monastics of other traditions who are there. But they just went ahead with the Terravada Polytext Sangha for us. So myself and then two others, one 1s previously Bequini from Nepal and another from Sri Lanka, then we received bikini upasampada together. And then there was one Sri Lankan relative of interval, Dr. Ratinasara, who also received Beku ordination there together at that time. So again, what happened was like something that had been being considered even since, like the Mingun Jetwan Sayado and the teacher of Mahazi Sayado in Burma, when he analyzed the situation, that's what he proposed to be what he thought was the best, most authentic method for reviving the Terawata Be, Quinnisanka and 1s myself, I couldn't imagine or dream that that might be a possibility for me. And then it's just the way that's things turned on that day 1s in November, 25 years ago. That's just how it happened. 4s That is the most incredible story. Like it brings so much together about the currents within modern Buddhism which are trying to reconnect to early Buddhism, but also this powerful story of trying to 1s reassure, establish the Baconi sanga, which is, I guess part of the modern Buddhist renaissance and all these elements of chance, which that's incredible. That is an absolutely incredible story, I have to say. And I want to say thank you very much for sharing that story. 1s I am not even halfway through the question that I wanted to ask today, but I do feel like we probably ought to draw this to a close. But I really want to say that is just an incredible story and I really want to find out more. I have to ask you to come back again at the later date. 3s Well, 2s I know you have editorial power. 5s Also, I think. I know that you need to go to work later on today. So I just want to say for myself, I have time right now. I don't know the circumstances in the future, but I think we need to preserve your job. And if there's anything else that you would like to ask right now, then I have the time right now. And if you'd like to have a part two for this at some time in the future, who knows the circumstances and conditions, what they will be, but would be happy to think about that too. 3s I do thank you for that offer. I am going to have to leave, as I do have to preserve my day job. But I do want to say that that story is incredible and I hope it's one that really gets out there, because it is one of those, I think, pivotal moments that really opened up the door, not just for yourself, but for a lot of other women who wanted to take on the monastic path. What I really do would like to know more about, which is what I hope to ask was just about your work in spreading the ordination and your work both east and west, particularly in the United States. 1s That's a whole other story, but I think I will have to leave it at this point in time. 2s Yes, well, thank you for mentioning that. And, yes, that's the other story and what you just mentioned is, in fact, something that has been really, I'd say, like the guide star for me. And that is, I feel like somehow I don't think it's just by chance, actually. I feel like they're the deep, underlying kind of karmic causal conditions that are at play there. 1s And 1s I really saw, like, wow, somehow I got through this and I've been able to do what even I didn't imagine, just maybe in my own dreams, right. But I didn't really think could be possible. Somehow I've been able to do this. And is there a way I got through these cracks myself? And is there a way to bring some others through as well? Can we widen the cracks and can we even break through to the point where this is not like breaking through rock or asphalt, but this becomes like the well tilled field, the fertile ground for cultivation that the woodha is describing as his sunca. So 1s that's where that comes from. 2s Well, I just want to conclude by thanking you for having that confidence and faith to stick with it, because it sounded like it was a real roller coaster ride to get to where you are now. And thank you very much for taking the time to come on Treasure Mountain podcast today. Thank you very much. Thanks very much for the invitation, then. Yes, there have been a number of role.
Abbess of Dhammadharini Monastery and Aranya Bodhi Hermitage
Venerable Bhikkhuni (Ayya) Tathālokā Mahātherī was born in Washington, DC in 1968 to environmentally-minded scientist parents. She followed her mother’s example by observing nature for answers and for peace, and her father’s example of inquiry through scientific research and investigation.
In 1988, at age nineteen, urgently inspired by the sudden death of an associate, she left her Pre-naturopathic Medical studies in university and made her way first to Europe and then on to India, entering monastic life as an anagarika and two years later undertaking ten-precept nuns' ordination as a novice. Wishing to connect with the ancient lineage of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, she sought and found her female mentor in Buddhist monastic life in South Korea, the most venerable bhikkhuni elder Myeong Seong Sunim (和法界 明星,), who gave her the name "Tathā-ālokā" (釋如光), under whose guidance she trained for ten years. Venerable Tathālokā Theri received the “going forth” (pabbajja, 出家) and took dependency (nissaya) with her bhikkhuni mentor (nissaya acariya 恩師) in 1993, and undertook the samaneri precepts (沙彌尼戒) with the late most venerable Mountain Forest Meditation Tradition bhikkhu masters Hye Am Sunim (慧菴堂 性觀大宗師) as Preceptor and Il Tah Sunim (日陀大師) as Acariya in 1995. Her grandmaster (bhikkhuni mentor's preceptor) was the late most venerable "Compassionate Cloud" Ja Un Sunim (慈雲堂盛祐大律師), the preeminent Vinaya master who reordained in Sri Lanka, before widely serving as preceptor for the revival of the Korean monastic Sangha in the 20th century.
Returning to the United States in early 1996, with her bhikkhuni mentor's blessings, in 1997 in Los Angeles, with an international gathering of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, Dharma teachers and supporters in attendance, she received bhikkhuni upasampada from the Sri Lankan bhikkhu sangha led by her preceptor (upajjhaya), the late Chief Prelate of the Western Hemisphere, Most Venerable Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara Nayaka Mahathero. Since then Venerable Tathālokā has focused on meditation and on both the study and practice of Dhamma & Vinaya. Her meditation training in Theravada Buddhism has been largely with the masters of the Thai forest traditions stemming from Ven Ajahn Mun Buridatta: Luang Ta Maha Bua Nyanasampanno and teachers of the Ajahn Chah tradition, together with the Burmese mindfulness and insight masters of Sayadaw U Pandita's tradition and meditation master Pa-auk Sayadaw. Her Path practice has also been deeply inspired and greatly supported by the late most venerable Webu Sayadawgyi and the teachings of the most venerable Kathukurunde Nyanananda. The late Phra Mahaghosananda of Cambodia and the venerable Rashtrapal Thero of India have also been significant exemplars. Overall, her practice and teachings are profoundly influenced by the Buddha's own advice and injunctions as contained in the canonical Early Buddhist suttas.
Ven Tathālokā has conducted extensive research in Comparative Bhikkhuni Vinaya and World Bhikkhuni Sangha History, which were her dual focus in graduate school, contributing numerous articles on these subjects since, many of which are freely available on this dhammadharini.net site.
Recognizing the growing number of Theravadin bhikkhunis and samaneris in the United States and the true value of coming together in harmony, Ayya Tathālokā proposed and participated in the founding of the North American Bhikkhuni Association (NABA) in 2005. Several months later, she also participated in founding the first residential community for bhikkhunis in the United States named "Dhammadharini," together with the founding of the Dhammadharini Support Foundation. Not long after, she became a senior monastic advisor for the newly formed Alliance for Bhikkhunis, founded by Susan Pembroke. For her groundbreaking work, in 2006, Ven Tathālokā was awarded as an "Outstanding Woman in Buddhism" at the United Nations in Bangkok.
In 2007, she was invited by HH the Dalia Lama as a presenter to the First International Congress on Buddhist Women in Hamburg Germany, and participated in the First Bhikkhuni Patimokkha Recitation in North American, formally establishing the North American Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha. Later in 2007, she co-led the Buddha Vision Bhikkhuni Training in Bodhgaya, India; also offering the keynote Dhamma Talk for the International Bhikkhuni Parisad in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India for the former untouchable Buddhist community founded by Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedhkarji. In 2008, together with the assembled Bhikkhuni Sangha, Ven Tathālokā received the gift of the use of coastal redwood forested land for an off-the-grid women’s monastic hermitage, Aranya Bodhi, the Awakening Forest. Eight years later in 2016, Dhammadharini's founding vision for a "permanent" bhikkhuni monastery also began to come to fruition, with the Dhammadharini support foundation's acquiring of a property for that monastery at the western foot of Sonoma Mountain in Penngrove, which now has a Theravada bhikkhuni sangha in residence.
Venerable Tathālokā Mahātherī is the first Western woman to be appointed as a Theravada Bhikkhuni Preceptor (Pavattini-Upajjhaya), and she has contributed to the going forth and full ordination of more than 50 women as bhikkhunis in the USA, Australia, India, and Thailand. She began offering anagarika ordinations for women in 2005, Samaneri Pabbajja for women in Australia and the USA in 2008, and Bhikkhuni Upasampada in 2009/10. At the invitation of Venerable Ajahn Brahmavamso Maha Thero (Ajahn Brahm), she served as the Bhikkhuni Preceptor for the groundbreaking first Theravada Bhikkhuni Ordination in Australia at Bodhinyana Monastery in Perth in 2009, and the first Dual Theravada Bhikkhuni Ordination in North America in 2010 which was co-led by the most venerable Henepola Gunaratana Nayaka Thero (Bhante G). She has also served as the Bhikkhuni Preceptor for Samaneri Ordinations at Nirotharam Bhikkhuni Arama in Thailand, at the invitation of founder Phra Ajahn Nanthayani.
Ayya Tathālokā's advisory roles include as a Senior Monastic Advisor to the Dhammadharini Support Foundation, the Alliance for Bhikkhunis, Sakyadhita USA, the newly-registered NZ Bhikkhuni Sangha Trust, and the incipient Dhammakhema Trust of Sri Lanka.
Ven. Tathālokā has also been an active participant in Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, serving as a presenter for the Third Gethsemani Conference on "Monasticism and the Environment" and the subsequent Western Buddhist Monastic Conference on this theme, and is co-author of Green Monasticism. She is a founding participant in the San Francisco East Bay Area Tri-Cities Interfaith Council, and a co-founder of Interfaith Women of Peace, also in the San Francisco East Bay.
Ven Tathālokā Mahātherī's primary role is as the founding abbess and preceptor of both the Dhammadharini Monastery (Dhammadharini Sonomagiri Bhikkhuni Arama) at the western foot of Sonoma Mountain in Penngrove and the Aranya Bodhi Awakening Forest Hermitage on the Sonoma Coast in Northern California, where she provides Dhamma and meditation teaching and guidance and monastic mentorship in conjunction with vice-abbess and co-teacher Venerable Sobhana Theri and assisting teachers Ven Suvijjana Theri and Ven Ajahn Brahmavara Bhikkhuni. She also teaches regularly around the greater San Francisco Bay Area, in other states in the US, and internationally, most often in Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Canada. During the COVID years, she has begun to offer programs much more frequently online.
In addition to the founding of Dhammadharini Monastery (linked to at the top of this page), Ven Tathālokā's projects in recent years have included works in Buddhist Environmentalism and in "HerStory," bringing great awareness to the ancient great leading women in Buddhism, both bhikkhunīs and upāsikas. She's also furthered research into the ancient bhikkhuni monastery sites of Sri Lanka, and Bhikkhuni Vinaya studies for the Bhikkhuni Vibhanga Project.
In January of 2019 Ven Tathaloka Theri joined for the second great International Bhikkhuni Ordination in Bodhgaya (20 years after the first), in which bhikkhunī preceptors of Theravada traditions from around the world gathered. After the ordinations, during the Global Conference on “Buddhism and Women’s Liberation” hosted by the Mahabodhi Society of India in Bodhgaya, a World Theravada Bhikkhuni Council was proposed. Two years later in 2021, the United Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha International (UTBSI) was inaugurated on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the revival of the Theravada Bhikkhuni Sangha in Sarnath, India. Currently, Ven Tathaloka Theri serves as the initial regional UTBSI coordinator for North America and Europe, and Bhikkhuni Sangha History/HerStory coordinator.