Her soothing and almost musical voice reverberated through the audience of the BMICH committee room when she delivered her much awaited Dhamma talk.
“I decided to give up university studies, relationships and a ‘brilliant’ career for the Dhamma and today I have absolutely, absolutely no regrets,” said the American Buddhist nun Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka.
The emphasis on the word ‘absolutely’ was well intended. She has found her peace, her Truth.
However still the scholar Bhikkhuni’s mellifluous voice and serene countenance defied the steely determination with which she crossed continents and embraced alien cultures in many faraway lands in her quest for the ‘ultimate Truth’.
The recipient of the 2006 ‘Outstanding Woman in Buddhism’ Award, the founder of Dhammadharini Vihara in Sonoma Hills California and co-founder of Aranya Bodhi Hermitage in Sonoma Coast, the story of Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka epitomises the extent to which a courageous and intelligent woman would go in pursuit of her true liberation.
Born in Washington to scientist parents in 1968 Heather Buske had the world at her feet. Young Heather was spiritually inclined as a teenager and her parents encouraged their daughter to have her independent line of thinking on spirituality.
When Heather was 20 and studying at college a very close friend of hers passed away quite unexpectedly. That shock jolted the young Heather from the American dream. It awakened her to the reality of the impermanence of life. It dawned upon her that externals would never give the stability that one longed for in life. Anything could be taken away from one any time.
Heather started questioning the meaning of existence. Strong doubts were cast over the bubble of the American dream.
She left college and went in search of the ‘truth’ of life. The determined young woman travelled through Europe and then to India and became an Anagarika, a lay person fully committed to practising Buddhism.
Further travelling saw her meeting her mentor, South Korean senior Bhikkhuni Myeong
The young Anagarika was trained under the teacher for ten long years. In 1993 she received her “Going forth” and two years later was inducted as a Samaneri (novice).
The new Samaneri returned to United States in 1996 having found what she had been looking for all the past years. The following year she received Bhikkhuni ordination in California in the presence of an international gathering of Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sanghas. The newly ordained Buddhist nun – now Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka or Ayya (Honourable in Pali) Tathaaloka, was quite determined to share the Dhamma she learnt, through research and practicing for nearly two decades, with the rest of the world so that they too could see life for what it was.
She was especially concerned about the welfare of the women, who were into monastic life. There were small burgeoning communities of Theravada Bhikkhunis and Samaneris in the United States and the need for an umbrella organization for those scattered communities was strongly felt by Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka. She proposed and took part in establishing the North American Bhikkhuni Association (NABA) in 2005. The years that passed saw her founding two monasteries for Bhikkhunis – Dhammadharini Vihara and Aranya Bodhi Hermitage both in California.
After ten years into her ordination Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka was offered the higher ordination as a senior Bhikkhuni and she gained reputation as an eminent Bhikkhuni preceptor owing to her vast knowledge on Dhamma. In the years that followed she took part in a slew of Samaneri and Bhikkhuni ordinations as a Bhikkhuni preceptor in the USA, Australia and Thailand including the much spoken about initiation in Perth in 2009 facilitated by Ajahn Brahmavamso and Bhante Sujato. Today Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka is a beacon of inspiration to informed Buddhist women, both lay and clergy, all over the world. Though a frequent traveller, for some reason the Venerable Bhikkhuni had not been able to visit Sri Lanka till late February this year. This is despite her longing to visit Anuradhapura and pay respect to Sanghamitta stupa ever since she had heard about the monument.
From the moment she landed in the thrice blessed island where Theravada Buddhism has been flourishing for more than two and half millennia, Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka had felt an overwhelming feeling of blessedness.
The eminent scholar Bhikkhuni almost ran out of words when she described what exactly she felt during her Dhamma talk at the BMICH. “I was not in the best of health when I left (US) but am already feeling better a week into my arrival here,” she said smiling.
The sight of the ever present Bo Trees and Buddha statues which are a rarity in her own land and elsewhere, the Venerable Bhikkhuni said, made her feel blessed and fortunate by the very experience. For the attendees of the talk no doubt it was a reminder of the extent to which they themselves have taken these ubiquitous symbols of Buddhism in their own land for granted.
A country with a long lineage of Bhikkhunis Sri Lanka has also spared her of confusions that she often experiences elsewhere. Laughingly the Venerable Bhikkhuni told the audience that she was not even once mistaken as a monk during her visit from “airport restroom” onwards.
Referring to Sri Lanka as ‘Dhammadipa’ Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka drew attention to the fact that Sri Lankans have been truly blessed with the wide availability of the Dhamma and the presence of good Dhamma teachers.
Following the ice breaker and pleasantries the Bhikkhuni introduced her topic -the need for better recognition of Bhikkhuni Sangha, all over the world. This means offering it the same degree of respect, dignity and recognition accorded by Buddha himself. Debunking misconceptions and misinterpretations on Buddha’s stand on Bhikkhuni Sasana the scholar nun presented a slew of examples from Pali Canon to substantiate her argument that Buddha accorded equal status to women in his Sasana.
When queried by the audience on Buddha’s postponement of ordaining her foster mother, Bhikkhuni Tathaaloka reminded that Buddha rejected his own father King Suddhodana’s request for ordination.
She requested Buddhist here to create conditions for a renaissance of the Bhikkhuni order which had gone through some challenging times as regards parity of institutional recognition. Dozens and dozens of female Bhikkhunis like Tathaaloka continue to cross continents and oceans seeking Dhamma even 2600 years after the Great Renunciation of Prince Siddhartha marked with the crossing of river Anoma.
This no doubt speaks volumes of the strength and commitment of women who aspire to be liberated through Dhamma just much as the power of Dhamma itself to stand the test of time – more than two and half millennia.
In their call for the due recognition of the Bhikkhuni Sasana these female renunciants join hands with the hundreds of Asian renunciants - Bhikkhunis and samaneris, who have committed themselves to Buddha’s teaching,
It’s high time that the relevant authorities and institutions give the much deserved attention to this matter which has been dragged on for too long.