In the personal view of the Venerable Pannavati Bhikkhuni, abbot of Hendersonville’s Embracing Simplicity Hermitage, what she has is just a story.
“When people around the world see what can be done, it encourages in a way that rhetoric cannot,” she tells Xpress. “I tell my story. I tell what I’m doing, working with the gender bias that seems to be inherent in most spiritual traditions, breaking down the misunderstanding regarding gender and role, showing how the two genders can work together, blending like milk and water, becoming a nonissue in spiritual matters.”
She’s taken that personal tale, as one of the few African-American female Buddhist abbots, to Mongolia, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and China. It’s not always been an easy path, and she says she’s faced prejudice because of her gender and race and as a Westerner. But for her work, this year she has been named one of the Outstanding Women in Buddhism, an annual set of awards given out to Buddhists worldwide.
“I said I accept this award not on my behalf,” she recalls. “I accept it for all the women everywhere struggling under patriarchal oppression, for all the girls in countries where they are sold to provide the means for the boys to excel, for all the African-Americans who are seen in so many spiritual traditions as lesser.”
She’s gotten reactions to her story around the world.
In Thailand just a few years ago, a nun was arrested and charged with impersonating a monk, Pannavati says. “It’s against the law to ordain a woman. So when they see it happening somewhere, when they see a precedent being set, they realize that it’s also possible for them.”
Pannavati didn’t begin her work as a Buddhist. For many years, she says, she was an ardent Christian.
“I was very engaged in the Christian church. I was a pastor for 10 years,” she says. “I reached a crisis—not in my faith, but in the walking out of my faith. I would look at our congregations, year after year. What we didn’t want to do, we still did. What we did want to do, we didn’t do. I prayed, asked how to get out of this path. I felt I had to walk a different path that put the responsibility for development squarely on my own shoulders. I began searching, and after about 15 years, I encountered the teachings of the Buddha.”
Her exposure to multiple religions has led her to believe that the world of faith needs less division and more spiritual dialogue.
“Within every great spiritual tradition there is a path of development that brings us to the highest and most beneficial ways of treating ourselves and treating each other,” Pannavati says. “No one owns the truth.”
The existing fractures between faiths, she says, include distorted views on both sides of the globe.
“It is a fairly predominant view from Easterners that Westerners just don’t get it. But we do get it. We don’t always have to look to Easterners to uncover our most superior qualities. We can find that in our own country, in our own communities.”
Info: Embracing Simplicity, 41 Wisdom Lane, Hendersonville NC (828-335-2665; www.embracingsimplicityhermitage.org).