An effort to lead one's life as a good bhikkhuni is good, as long as it lasts, but it isnot sufficient to keep Buddhism going. Buddhism must be supported by the pillars of Sangha, Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis. So, it is important for a good bhikkhuni to also live harmoniously in a sangha. As an individual bhikkhuni, regardless of how good or efficient one is, one will eventually pass away, yet the sangha must remain strong and continue on. For this reason, the Buddha always insisted things offered to him should be offered to the sangha. He emphasized the importanceof the sangha over oneself.
Why is it more difficult to live in a sangha for some of us? Living in a sangha means we have to respect others, and respect rules and regulations that are set by and for the commu-nity. There is certain etiquette that we need to learn and be consistently mindful to follow. The recognition and respect for seniority guide this etiquette. As we sit, we are mindful of priority in our sitting according to seniority. As we file infor meals, it is always the most senior bhikkhuni who would lead the line.
If the senior bhikkhuni does not respect the community, if she is not punctual at meal time, the whole line of younger bhikkhunis will be kept waiting and also the donors who are there waiting to serve the sangha.
Seniority is a status of respect, which comes not only with age and seniority of ordi-nation, but responsibility. Everyone will look upto the senior bhikkhuni as the role model, andfor advice, dhamma teaching, meditation guid-ance, etc.
It is not easy to be a senior bhikkhuni.
In the contemporary Sri Lankan tradition, at the ordination of bhikkhunis, only two senior bhikkhunis were chosen and appointed by the sangha to become Upajjhaya (preceptors). They are well versed in both dhamma and vinaya and can set a good example for other bhikkhunis. One of these two Upajjhayas, Ven.Rahatungoda Saddha Sumana, is also my Upajjhaya.
Here for easy reading, we shall call her Ven.Teacher. Ven.Teacher is in her early 60s, and in her short and plum physical frame, she kept herself always stately and graceful. Her handsand feet are tiny, we had trouble looking forthe proper slippers for her special size, extrasmall. Her eyebrows were knitted when shewas intensely trying to understand some newEnglish expression, and when she understoodthe meaning, then she readily beamed with her beautiful smile showing her healthy set of teeth. Her mood is easily detectable from her facial expression. When she tried to explain something and saw the puzzled look on my face, she would ask in a kind voice "do you understand?" Day by day her English is improving rapidly, and our conversation flows much smoother. With simple conversational English now she needs no trans-lator. Only in the Vinaya class do we still depend on Ven.Bhikkhuni Sudinna to help with thetranslation to make sure that we really understand properly. There were times when Ven.Sudinna could not get the right expression, and Ven. Teacher would actually supply her with anappropriate English terminology.
I am highly honored and privileged to live with her under her guidance this vassa (rainretreat). As a pupil, I got up at 5 A.M. to makeher a cup of hot drink. When I went up to her, she was always in sitting meditation. I placedthe cup in front of her, not too close to prevent her from knocking it down, but not too far, so that she can reach for it when she opened her eyes. This little service meant a lot to me, as Iam accustomed only to being served. To be able to serve and enjoy doing so is also a practice,I discovered. It brings me much inner joy whenI do it.
Sometimes we also conversed in Hindi, my favorite language though I could speak only little of it.
"karam cha jaye ap?" (Would you like tohave hot tea?)
"Api nahi" (not now) she replied. In a lighter mood when I brought her a cup of hot tea, I would be calling out "Cha karam" (hot tea) in the voice and tone that sounded just like a vendor on a platform at an Indian railway station.
At 5.30 A.M. the bell rang calling us for morning chanting, often I would walk behind her as we made our way toward the main hall. In the shrine room, she was seated at the far end on my right with four other bhikkhunis, my senior sitting above me.
Breakfast is usually served at 7.30 A.M. Everyone waited for the arrival of Ven.Teacher, who was always punctual and led the linegraciously. Laywomen were forever keen tomake sure that we took everything they offered, which at the time was not possible. One timeI heard Ven.Teacher, not refusing, but saying, "Tomorrow" when she had enough. She had asense of humor.
Ven.Teacher has an alert and sharp mind and is always willing to learn. I think it is beauti-ful to find this quality in an elderly woman. In a class where I taught fruit carving, she gave full attention to try her hand on a flower carved out of pumpkin. Then, on the following day, she was asking if we were going to do sculpting with clay. In this class all the bhikkhunis were enthusiastic, and we experienced much joy in learning and working together.
One afternoon, a construction worker called to say that he had left over, mixed cement, and asked if we would like to put it for good use somewhere. Quickly, I asked for permission to dismiss the class, and got the nuns and the women to prepare the ground for cement. Ven.Teacher came out wanting to observe and learn how we did our job. She watched us work with keen eyes, and appreciated the fact that we tried not to letanything go to waste. From the left over cement we could pave a parking lot, and a washing area, andwe extended the walk way to the main shrine.
At night, she led the recitation of thevarious paritta (verses of protection). The laypeople enjoyed this session and they would be waiting to hear her. On the full moon and dark moon, she prepared all the bhikkhunis for the recitation of Patimokkha, one of the most impor-tant monastic rituals. Monastics came togetherto examine their monastic code of conduct. The confession is done prior to the recitation. Ven. Teacher recited the whole bhikkhuni Patimokkha (311 sikkhapadas), while the rest of us checked with our Vinaya texts. It took three hours.
Everyday we studied the Vinaya with her for two hours ; it was a time that all the bhikkhu-nis were grateful to share. Each one of us isgenuinely eager to learn to become a good bhikkhuni. We are doing well, living together asa bhikkhuni sangha for the first time in ThaiBuddhist history.
Living with a teacher for the minimum of5 years is a requirement for the bhikkhus ; forthe bhikkhunis it is 2 years. We understand the benefit of it fully as we have an opportunity to live with our teacher.