A Dhamma Journey From Laos to the UK

February 28, 2024 Annie

By Casey

The idea of ordaining had already been playing around in my mind the first time I heard about bhikkhunis. I had been living in the heavily Theravada but bhikkhuni-less country of Laos for about five years when I mentioned this aspiration of nun-hood to my boss offhand. My boss, a young-at-heart Thai gender equality advocate with a Western-leaning belief in the right to self-determination, was unsurprisingly supportive.

“Would you ordain in white or in orange?” she asked.

I was confused by the question and wondered if I had misunderstood my boss’s Thai-accented Lao.

“Women can only ordain in white..” I said tentatively, but she quickly jumped in.

“Not anymore! In Thailand there are women who are starting to take full ordination in orange robes, just like men. If you want to ordain, you could become an orange-robed nun!”

It took me a moment to process this new information. Orange-robed nuns! It seemed strange and almost impossible to my Lao-influenced mindset. I admitted that it was an interesting option, but since it didn’t exist here in Laos, it felt irrelevant. Over the past several years and through the pandemic, Laos had become home, and the idea of crossing over the Mekong to unfamiliar Thailand just for some orange robes felt excessive. It seemed to me that orange-robe wearing must be little more than a surface-level statement on the part of a handful of activists. It was interesting to know about, but not something I needed to be a part of. There were plenty of white-robed nuns practicing the Dhamma right in Laos, and it didn’t make sense to me to seek opportunities any farther away than that.

I mostly forgot about the conversation until a few months later when I stumbled upon a talk on YouTube given by one of the strange orange-clad nuns my boss had told me about. There on the screen was a Western woman, a monastic wrapped in orange with a stylish beanie sitting in front of a Buddharupa teaching. I didn’t realize until that moment that I had never heard a woman teaching the Dhamma before. Yet as the bhikkhuni spoke, pulling me ever deeper into the subtle Dhamma, answering questions with centered confidence and profound compassion, it was clear to me that she was one of the most skilled teachers I had ever listened to, and was possessed of a deep understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. A strong sense of respect and admiration for this nun, the Venerable Canda, arose in me, yet still I did not think very much of it. If the bhikkhunis in Thailand felt far away, then how much farther was England! I was content to keep practicing right where I was.

As I practiced, thoughts of ordaining continued to increase instead of diminishing and eventually I decided to leave my job, immediately taking a month-long temporary ordination as a white-robed 8-precept nun, or mae khao, at a forest monastery outside of Vientiane. The other mae khaos there were all semi-permanent monastery residents, and averaged about three or four decades older than I was. These tough, bald-shaven grandmas had spent decades developing their qualities of generosity and virtue before retiring into the monastery in their old age, and now that they were free of the burdens of family life, they dedicated themselves with joy and zest to making as much merit as they could. Sweeping the leaves! Cooking for the monks! Distributing water during puja! Sharing their soy milk! Every day was a merit-making festival, and no source of merit went unexploited. When the monks came to teach the Dhamma twice a day the merit festival continued with teachings, stories and suttas about the beneficial results of making merit and the fruits of a virtuous life.

As much as I rejoiced in the skillful actions and beautiful service that surrounded me in this community of monastics, I also found myself starting to feel isolated and even guilty when I snuck off to meditate during our free time while the rest of the mae khaos were sweeping, cooking and cleaning. And although the other mae khaos commented positively on my interest in sitting in meditation so often, the fact that I was the only one doing so made me feel like it wasn’t appropriate, as if meditation was something that was better left to the monks. Indeed I got the sense that the mae khaos saw their role as one that enabled the monks’ practice, and to take time for my own practice somehow felt selfish and disrespectful of the privileges the monks had earned through their ordination and diligence. I started to wonder what my life would look like if I did ordain at this temple or a similar one. Would I always be sneaking off from the other nuns as they were working to steal extra time for meditation? Would I be able to access the teachings directly, or would I have to rely on what the monks chose to share with us? And what would happen if I wanted to study Pali and sit in meditation in a quiet kuti like the bhikkhus did instead of sweeping leaves and cooking?

One Uposatha night, two mae khaos, one white-robed layman, two monks, and I stayed up late into the night in a flooded shrine room chanting and meditating by turns. I envied the white-robed layman for how easily he could access the monastics. He sat just to their side, while the other mae khaos and I sat behind a large puddle at the back of the room. While he was free to be alone with the monks, it was not proper for me to stay and continue meditating with them if my female companions decided to leave. But as we listened to the monks’ beautiful Pali chants that night and observed their still, peaceful meditations, another kind of envy arose in me. Envy for the same orange robe I had once dismissed. As I watched the senior monk stand from chanting and arrange his robe around himself for a standing meditation, it struck me all at once how much he carried in that orange robe–227 precepts, access to close guidance from monastic teachers and companions, the opportunity to study the teachings in multiple languages, the guarantee of time for practice, the right to teach and to lead, the respect and honor of the lay community–it became quickly and immediately clear to me that this piece of cloth that had once seemed to me like nothing in reality carried gifts far more meaningful than I had given it credit for. I thought back to the video of Venerable Canda that had so reached me, and decided that when I left the temple, I would seek it out. I was sure there must be wider Dhamma opportunities somewhere out there, and was determined to learn more about Buddhism in the West and about these orange-robed bhikkhunis I had initially dismissed.

I began watching videos of Venerable Canda’s teachings as soon as I left the monastery, and from then it was not long before I had gone from watching to joining the Zoom sessions in person. Within weeks, I booked myself in for an in-person visit to the vihara in Oxford. The deeper I got into the community, the more my feeling of awe grew at the strong, committed group of Dhamma followers that had sprung up around the Anukampa project. Each individual I met in connection with the project carried with them deep roots of Dhamma practice, probably developed over many lifetimes. Without fail I found the supporters of the project to be diligent practitioners of virtue, peace, generosity, and learning. But what struck me most of all was their saddha, their confidence or faith. It looked very different from the kind of saddha I was used to seeing in Laos, where the phrase “people with saddha” has come to mean “people who donate”, and even those with a deeper sense of the teachings tend to interpret saddha as referring to unquestioning acceptance of everything the Buddha taught. Although every expression of saddha is beautiful, and accepting all the Buddha’s teachings inevitably leads one towards great benefit, there was something deeply moving to me about seeing people who expressed their faith in every aspect of their practice and life–through service, study of the teachings, kindness, meditation, and so many other ways big and small. It was more nuanced and felt truer to me than any of the expressions of saddha I had seen up to that point. The people in this community joined together for the truest and purest of reasons–because in Anukampa they had found a community that embraced and supported them in their highest aspirations, and one that they could depend on to lead the way out of suffering. 

I imagine that the kind of community surrounding Anukampa is similar to what the Buddha’s Dispensation looked like in the early days of his teaching, before he had gained renown across the subcontinent and was surrounded by the countless masses of Savatthi, Rajagaha, and beyond. In the early days, those gathered around him were not there to hear a famous Master speak, but because they saw the Blessed One’s flawless practice, heard his deep-cutting words, and could tell that what the Buddha revealed to them was the pinnacle of all paths to be followed. They came for the Dhamma, not for the renown, not out of tradition, but out of deep confidence in the teacher and the practice. That is the beauty of starting something from scratch, something that is clearly evident among the followers of Anukampa. The people who come to places like this do so for no other reason than because they have Dhamma rooted in their hearts.

But just as happened when the Buddha’s teachings gained renown 2,500 years ago, as the true teachings and good practice of skillful teachers and supportive Dhamma communities reach the ears of more and more people, they bring in growing amounts of followers and support. Expansion becomes inevitable. In quick succession, the first bhikkhuni residence in the UK became the first vihara, and now the first vihara is on the cusp of blossoming into a full forest monastery for bhikkhunis! Just a year or two ago, the idea of a thriving Early Buddhist monastic community led by women, with women studying suttas, teaching the Dhamma, running the monastery, and following the full set of precepts prescribed in the Vinaya would have been unfathomable to me. Now it is very likely that I’ll be able to see it in person on my next journey to the UK! 

So much rejoicing arises in me when I consider the opportunities this new monastery will open for women practicing the Dhamma. As Anukampa and its sister-projects that support bhikkhunis continue to flourish and grow, the frustrations I’ve experienced trying to access male teachers and eke out a space for practice in a world where so many of the Dhamma-spaces available to women only emphasize a limited portion of the full Eightfold Path will become a thing of the past. Having a front-row seat to the blossoming of the Anukampa Project has made me feel unfathomably fortunate to have been born as a woman in the human realm in this time and place. It is a taste of what the Buddha’s own community must have felt like in the early days of the Dispensation–like watching the slow unfolding of the most beautiful lotus imaginable. If I do decide to ordain, I would want to be surrounded by exactly this kind of community, bound together by wholesome qualities and confidence in the teachings and the bhikkhuni Sangha. 

Every woman with thoughts of ordination should have the opportunity to picture a future in robes of the kind Anukampa can offer. In a worldly sense it may be true that a colour is just a colour, but what I didn’t know when I started this journey is that a bhikkhuni’s robes are coloured with a dye thicker than saffron–the priceless dye of the Dhamma-Vinaya, and the path to cessation that the Buddha and his predecessors have been setting out for women not only for the past 2,500 years, but for countless world-cycles of beginning-less history. With the opening of Anukampa’s first bhikkhuni monastery, a timeless inheritance is being returned to women and to visitors of all colours, genders, abilities and backgrounds, across the UK and the world.