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  • Writer's pictureKaruṇā Sevena

The Spiritual Path of Venerable Bhikkhunī Visuddhi

Early age

When I look back, I realize that from the age of about 13 I felt that I was missing something, even though at the time I did not know what it was. I then began an intense search to find out what my life needed. I couldn’t even imagine that what I was missing was spirituality.

I grew up in socialist Czechoslovakia. I was never tempted to start a family; I never pictured myself committing to another person for life; I could make no promises on that matter. I distinctly remember that any discussion with my friends about romantic relationships made me feel sad. I somehow lacked the vision of freedom in relationships in general, I was bothered by the idea of attachment. Even as a teenager, when I was expected to be planning my own wedding, marriage still seemed like a prison to me; I felt that I did not fit into society. As I grew up, I became more and more introvert, and I often went to seek refuge in nature.

The beginning of a spiritual practice

My spiritual life began when I was 15. I started attending Catholic church, and I felt good about that. I remember sitting there and meditating. It was an amazing spiritual environment. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the mendicant order, was an incredible inspiration for me. I was particularly attracted to his simple and ascetic life in communion with nature.

However, the mystical feelings I had at the beginning started to change all of a sudden, when one day I had an unpleasant incident. I was standing in a church in the queue for communion, and when my turn arrived, the priest loudly refused me, saying: "you were not at the holy confession, you will not receive this communion”. That moment was intense. It deeply hurt and discouraged me from officially following the Catholic masses.

Despite that displeasing event, I loved Jesus Christ and I moved forward in my search for spirituality. I gradually became very interested in Christian mysticism. In Prague, during the totalitarianism period, I was lucky enough to find a teacher. Everything was unofficial and the teaching was conducted secretly. I read books by Květoslav Minařík and I could say that I found my way to Christianity and to God. However, many questions remained unanswered.

There, it was when yoga and Hinduism (through the Hare Krishna movement) dig their way in my path. While I admit that yoga was fine despite being more a physical exercise than a spiritual activity, I immediately knew that Hinduism was not my path.

At that time, some Buddhist literature was starting to be published in English.

The first step into Buddhism

When I was about 20 years old, an eminent Theravāda monk, meditation teacher, and Abhidhamma expert Sayadaw U Rewata Dhamma came to Bohemia. He was the abbot of the Buddhist meditation center in Birmingham, England. I decided to pay him a visit. In his presence I felt at home. I was calm and settled.

He fascinated me, how he performed, how he acted, how he was impersonal and filled with love. I was mesmerized to see someone so full of compassion and love, free from self-pride, free from self (anatta). I breathed real freedom. That state of mind of his became my true inspiration. It felt like meeting a real disciple of Buddha. That trip was crucial for me. His Dhamma teachings fulfilled me in my being. He answered my questions by expressing himself directly and very simply. I liked the ultimate goal of this practice: detachment.

A lay Buddhist life

In the following years, I lived in Germany. It was quite a busy time, I was working hard to earn a decent income and at the same time, I was renovating my grandmother's house. During my time in Germany, I regularly visited the Swiss Dhammapala Monastery in Kandersteg, in the Alps, at an altitude of 1,200 meters above sea level, where I met monks of the Theravāda tradition.

There, everything seemed to be just in the right place; every hard feeling, worry, the heavy weight on my shoulders, seemed to be magically taken away. I was free. I practiced diligently and deepened my knowledge. Gradually, I began to realize more and more that worldly life did not fulfill me. I had nothing against partner and family life, I just knew that it was not for me and that I would rather become a nun.

Over the following seven years. I never stopped practicing Dhamma, and I became a lay Buddhist teacher while taking care of my old beloved grandmother in Prostějov.

Once, the monks told me that they perceived me differently from other lay practitioners who came to the monastery to practice, they saw that I was "at home" in the monastery. While typical lay practitioners used to go to the monastery to rest, to shut down, to relax, which is fine, I was constantly looking forward to taking care of the monks and the monastery. I wanted to be part of the monastic community and monastic life. From that moment, my youth was oriented towards my spiritual path. The practice of Buddhism fascinated me and, unlike the lay life, it made me truly happy.

The big step towards ordination

The death of my grandmother was a great blow to me, I loved her immensely, and she meant a lot to me. My job and life seemed to me just empty, so I decided to go to Sri Lanka, where my heart was drawn. It is difficult to explain rationally what exactly brought me specifically to Sri Lanka. I had often had dreams of that country, I am convinced that my previous kamma was there.

That was an important turning point in my life. I discovered that there was an order of fully ordained nuns in Sri Lanka, and I felt I couldn’t miss the chance to go learn from them.

Although friends in Europe discouraged me from going to Asia, saying that I was still too young, that there was a civil war in Sri Lanka (it started in 1983 and ended in May 2009), that I would not understand anything there, I moved to Sri Lanka in 2003, a year before the devastating tsunami (26. 12. 2004 in the Indian Ocean, the largest natural disaster in modern history). I was welcomed into Sinhala senior nuns despite the fact that I didn't speak the local language and the nuns didn't speak English. I became one of them when I was 33, and the head nun of the monastery led me with everything I needed to go through that period.

We lived simply, we lived thanks to the gifts from the lay community, we washed in the well and washed the laundry by hand. The nuns gave me a room in the ārāma (Srī Gotamī ārāma in the southwestern part of Sri Lanka). I lived with them, shared everything with them, including all their joys and worries. I felt at home and safe. They were and are advanced spiritual beings filled with compassion and love, who do not talk much, do not judge, do not create unnecessary conflicts. In the community of nuns, there was an atmosphere of immense comfort, I felt a pleasant relief after an incredibly long time. I finally began to live a peaceful and fulfilling life.

I learned from the nuns by living with them. The nuns were very busy and didn't have time to pay attention to me as we would expect in Europe. But I am an introvert; that style of quietly noticing, observing, and following suited me.

I gradually learned Sinhala. I began to study the Pāli language with my senior nun and teacher, venerable Bhikkhunī Vijitha. Although she is a fully ordained bhikkhunī and one of the greatest scholars of Dhamma, Pāli, and Sanskrit in Sri Lanka, a mentor in the Pirivena school for young nuns, she is incredibly humble. Her secrecy and private life made me appreciate her and that life even more than I could ever hope. I would also like to mention the venerable Bhikkhunī Dharsikha, who had an impact on my ordained life.

Living with the nuns was a meaningful and life-changing experience. It gave me space to work on myself even if we spent quite a lot of time in social activities, helping people from the village, the poor, the sick, and those in suffering. I was trained in the practice of Dhamma-Vinaya, I studied the monastic qualities, how to properly wear the robe, how to live skillfully in the community, and how to correctly pronounce Pāli – this was especially important for reciting. In the end, I received the same education as any other Sri Lankan nun. Despite the civil war and the tsunami, I had no trouble adapting to life in the monastic community, even if it sometimes involved sleeping on the ground or not receiving enough food. I didn't leave a back door to go back to Europe. I was part of the bhikkhunī saṅgha, and their challenges were also mine.

I greatly appreciated that people in Sri Lanka lived in Dhamma. It was fascinating to me how incredibly developed their qualities were, how they were so compassionate and generous, and how much they loved the teaching of the Buddha. It suited me that in that country it is normal that Buddhists do not drink alcohol and do not kill animals, that they honor life as such. I was very relieved to see how people there appreciate every living creature, even a small mosquito.

I knew that that was how I wanted to live, and I realized that I also wanted to move a further step in my spiritual path. I wanted to become a fully ordained bhikkhunī.

Venerable Bhikkhunī Vijjitha was my role model and I had confidence and full trust in her. For the first two years, I followed nissaya and diligently took care of her (nissaya means that the pupil is dependent on the teacher, who has full responsibility for the novice). I was glad that I could recall my Christian practice for the benefit of my current monastic life. In fact, I had already cultivated fundamental qualities such as humility, trust, and respect, which were the keys to my student-teacher relationship at the time.

The Monastery of Srī Gothamī ārāma in Olabuduwa was my home monastery for the first five years. It is a very quiet place in a small village near the rice paddies. Also, I experienced the horror that followed the tsunami, the war, and the endless carousel of social work in the field.

Later on, when the situation was a little more stable, I started teaching in a Dhamma School in the monastery and organized a lot of programs and Dhamma lessons for laypeople. Gradually, I began to cooperate with the Sambodhivihāra Buddhist monastery in Colombo, where I started teaching the Dhamma School to young children. The nuns of the Sakyadhita monastery in Colombo approached me to work with them to help them in the training center for bhikkhunīs (pirivena), which was just opening. We gradually became friends. My job was to take care of the young nuns and teach them meditation.

In 2005, I became seriously ill with tuberculosis. I'll be forever grateful and I’ll never forget how the nuns took care of me. During that period, I heard about a meditation teacher, the venerable Mahānāyaka Pemasiri Gampaha Hamuduruwo, one of the most respected modern meditation teachers in Sri Lanka, the chief monk of the Sumathipāla Na Himi Buddhist Meditation Center in Kanduboda, who practiced the practice of samaṇa (practice in seclusion). I visited him. Bhante was wonderful, he respected me as a bhikkhunī and I learned a lot from him. Since then, I've been going to his practice regularly.

A Buddhist nun in Europe

In the Czech Republic, monasticism is accepted quite differently than in Asia, where Buddhism is part of their culture and is extremely valued. Most people are not accustomed to Buddhist culture in the West, which naturally involves the care of monks. To this day, people in Europe look at me strangely when they walk past me on the street, often there are minor and major misunderstandings.

In 2012, thanks to my supporters, I established my bhikkhunī ārāma (monastic abode) called Karuṇā Sevena (abode of compassion), which is located in Prostejov in the Czech Republic. The name of the abode was chosen for me by my teacher Bhante Pemasiri. In 2015 I completed Daḷhīkamma Vinaya procedure and acceptance in the Theravāda bhikkhu and bhikkhunī Saṅgha in Sri Lanka. The following year I completed my tenth vassa and became a bhikkhunī therī (senior nun).

At the ārāma Karuṇā Sevena

The same year, thanks to several generous donations, a major renovation project took place in the ārāma Karuṇā Sevena. We were able to build a meditation hall, which allowed practitioners and devotees to visit the abode (ārāma) and to spend some time in seclusion under my guidance. Personally, I do not tend to teach meditation in intensive mass courses, so-called retreats. I find it to be not the most suitable technique for any effective meditation training. I strongly believe that every meditator is different, has a different story, has gone through completely different experiences, and comes from a different environment. Each of us is unique, and an individual approach is, in my experience, the most effective and helpful way to instruct practitioners in Dhamma and meditation.

I have to admit that we do organize some mass classes for novice practitioners, however, I advise each individual to practice in silence and seclusion in order to develop a more personal meditation experience. I also stress the importance to live in their daily lives what they learn here in the ārāma about meditation and the Buddha's teachings. Only this way can the practice have a deeper meaning, only this way can it help people.

What am I mostly focused on? As part of my study and training, I primarily focus on the cultivation of ethics and good qualities, secondly on the meditation practice of satipaṭṭhāna and mettā, and lastly, on the study and teaching of early Buddhist texts.

Translation in English by Beatrice Siviero

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