The Dhammadharini Vihara

The Dhammadharini Vihara is a Buddhist community located in Santa Rosa, California.  It is a women’s monastery designed for the full monastic ordination for Buddhist women in the Theravada.  “Dhammadharini” means a feminine “holder” or upholder” of the Buddhadhamma as a “flowing” reality, teaching, and practice.  “Vihara” is a monastic residence or abode that serves as a center of practice and refuge.  Founded in 2005 by Ayya Tathaaloka Theri, it was the first women’s monastery in Northern California and it was given the Pali name Aranya Bodhi, which means “Awakening Forest.”  The land was donated to Tathaaloka Theri Ayya in hopes to make a forest meditation hermatige for Thervada bhikkhunis (fully ordained female monastic nuns).  The first step in establishing the Dhammadharini Vihara was creating an interim Bhikkhuni Vihara.  In 2009, it became a permanent community.  There are sister monasteries in North America, Asia, and Australia.  The Dhammadharini Vihara symbol is a Bodhi leaf (Bodhi meaning awakening and leaf symbolizing embodiment) supported and uplifted by three flowing currents in the stream of Dhamma: training in virtue, meditation, and wisdom.

Ayya Tathaaloka is a Theravada nun, scholar, and Buddhist teacher originally born in 1968 in Washington, D.C.  When she was 19, she began pursuing the monastic life and received full bhikkhuni ordination in 1997 at a gathering of Bhikku and Bhikkhuni Sanghas in Southern California.  She has studied Buddhism in several countries, most notably in South Korea and Thailand.  As previously mentioned, she is responsible for opening the Dhammadharini Vihara in 2005.  In 2006, she was awarded the Outstanding Women in Buddhism award at the United Nations, in Bangkok, Thailand.

“According to the Buddha’s teaching, our best chance for enlightenment is not in a heavenly realm, but here in midst of elements and aggregates, within these bodies which age and sicken, among the earth, rain, wind, fire and consciousness elements.  We wake up here, not in another ideal place. This is the ideal place.” 

 – Ayya Tathaaloka

The community aims for the full re-emergence of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in Theravada Buddhism.  The Dhammadharini Vihara has a six-fold mission: Liberation, Requisite Support, Reviving “Her Story,” Full Bhikkhuni Ordination, Recluseship/Deep Practice, and Dhamma Teaching.

By Liberation, the community aims to develop the ideal environment for liberation within the monastic life – complete in Dhamma & Vinaya, in virtue, meditation, and wisdom.  The Dhammadharini Vihara provides requisite support through food, shelter, lodging, robes, and medicines.  The community hopes to re-establish and strengthen its connections to the ancient luminary bhikkhuni leaders & communities of the past through research and teaching.  Members of the community work to achieving full bhikkhuni ordination by developing and nurturing networks to enter into full monastic life.  They support deep practice periods of intensive secluded retreat, integrated with strong mindfulness in all postures and practice of the Eightfold Path in community life.  Lastly, they aim to support the growth of bhikkhunis as Dharma teachers and Buddhist community leaders.

The Dhammadharini Vihara offers a program with enough structure, but allows for time and space for individual practice.  A typical day in the Dhammadharini Vihara monastery is as follows:

Wake-up until 6:00 AM: Personal Meditation

6:00-6:30 AM: Devotional Chanting

7:00-7:30 AM: Breakfast

7:45-8:30 AM: Studying Inspiring Pali Verses (presently Dhammapada)

8:30-11:00 AM: Mindful Work Period

11:00 AM-1:00 PM: Main Meal Followed by Mindful Clean-Up

1:00-5:30 PM: Personal Maintenance, Meditation, or Study

5:30-6:30 PM: Evening Tea and Dhama Discussion or Practice Interview

6:30-8:00 PM: Communal Evening Meditation

8:00 PM-Sleep: Personal Meditation

In addition to the daily routines, there are monthly day-long retreats; alms round in Sebastopol twice a month.  The livelihood of the bhikkhunis in the Dhammadharini Vihara follows that of the traditions of classical Buddhism, which involves training and cultivation in three main fields: virtue, concentration, and wisdom.  The goal of this training is to alleviate and ultimately eliminate greed, hatred, and ignorance.  It aims to also provide personal insight on the way to peace, clarity, balance, and well-being.

Women who aspire to become bhikkhunis must follow the conditions of the Vinaya, but have a few more requirements in order to achieve ordination.  There are ten precepts in the ordination procedure in the Theravada tradition.  They include abstinence from the following: taking a life, taking what is not given, sexual contact, false speech, the use of intoxicants, taking food after midday, dancing and singing, using perfumes or adornments, using luxurious seats, and accepting and holding money.  The additional requirements for women include that she not be pregnant, that she not be nursing, that if she already has a child who depends upon her, that other care can be arranged for the child or children; and that if she be married she have her husband’s blessing to go forth into monastic life.  There may be slight differences in the process depending on the monastery and its location; however, it is virtually the same.

There are seven steps to becoming a nun in the Dhammadharini Vihara.  The first step is finding a suitable place to train and ordain.  In this case, it would be the Dhammadharini Vihara, which allows women to visit and stay for two weeks to see if this is the right place for them.  Once they are inclined to stay and enter into training, they are to let their aspiration be known to the teacher, or abbess at the monastic community.  From there, she is to undertake the eight precepts and shave her head (if she hasn’t already).

The third step is the postulancy stage: anagarika/ candidate.  After staying at the Dhammadharini Vihara for several weeks/months, if both the aspirant and the teacher as well as the rest of the monastic community feel amiable about going ahead, the aspirant may request ordination as an anagarika.  Anagarika means homeless one due to having left their home, sought refuge and being accepted as postulants in the monastery.  This period usually last about a year.  After about a year as an anagarika, with the approval of her teacher, she may request the samaneri pabbaja, the “going forth” as a novice in the monastic life.  They undertake the ten precepts, which include the aforementioned 8 precepts.  The anagarika aspire to become a samaneri which is a female novice samana in training.  A samana is a monastic recluse.

The fifth step is sikkahamana or probationary novice.  If they are the age of 20, and have met all requisite conditions, they can request full ordination, the bhikkhuni upasampada, from the monastic community.  It is noteworthy that, in some Thai, Korean, Chinese and Tibetan tradition monastic communities, women currently receive and complete the sikkhamana ordination and training for two years before fully ordaining, no matter what their age.  Step 6 is bhikkhuni to achieve full monastic ordination or the higher ordination.  Bhikkhuni is literally an almswoman.  After 1-2 years of sikkahamana ordination, they may request full ordination.   The novice is fully ordained with the proposal and acceptance from a bhikkhuni teacher/preceptor – pavattini or a bhikkhu preceptor – upajjhaya.  She also has an additional 4 supporting teachers from the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sanghas to guide her through the ordination process.  She is accepted as a full member of the Buddhist monastic Sangha by the Sangha itself, not by any individual, thus at least five members of both the men’s and women’s monastic community must be present to grant acceptance (4=Sangha, 4+1 teacher=5, 5 bhikkhus + 5 bhikkhunis = 10).  Theravada bhikkhunis are ordained with 311 precepts, Theravada bhikkhus with 227.  About 60% of men’s and women’s monastic discipline is held in common.  The differing numbers do not relate to any greater or lesser merit, as the Vinaya affirms the two disciplines are the same in essence. The Bhikkhuni Sangha has existed since the Buddha’s lifetime and continued into the present in China, Korea and Vietnam.

The last step is from new Bhikkhuni to Mahatheri.  A new Bhikkhuni is supposed to stay and train with her mentor for at least two vassas.  After those 2 vassas, she may be granted her independence.  After 5 years, a bhikkhuni is known as a majja bhikkhuni or bhikkhuni in the middle years.  During this time, she may continue to develop herself in her training through various experiences.  She may also, with community approval, begin to instruct novices.   After 10 years in monastic life, a bhikkhuni becomes a Theri or Elder.  It is normal, for those who have the propensity, to begin to teach within the monastic community and to the public at large at this time.  From 20 years as a bhikkhuni, a Buddhist monastic woman may called a Mahatheri, or “great Elder.”

The Dhammadharini Vihara community has strong relationships with other western and Asian Buddhist communities.  The website has a list of other Theravada monasteries all over the world.