In the second of a three-part series of conversations, Lion’s Roar Associate Editor Pamela Ayo Yetunde talks to Sister Clear Grace about the practice of “laying it down,” and the Traveling Nunk’s continued journey.
In the introduction to the first conversation, I wondered whether Sister Clear Grace would find sustaining generosity for this mission from Buddhists and non-Buddhists. I wondered what might be gained by the non-Buddhist strangers who would be in conversation, perhaps for the first time, with a Black Buddhist monastic defying gender norms talking about racial, gender, capitalistic and other forms of oppression. Now I know and see how mutually-reciprocated generosity launches and sustains the home-leaving journey while giving rise to dreams for others to be housed with dignity. I better understand the impact and potential for an engaged home-leaving life and why the Traveling Nunk’s “laying it down” practice supports her ongoing presence with under-resourced strangers. I believe the “laying it down” practice can support all of us interested in crossing bridges of difference. Sister Clear Grace, between interviews, wanted it to be known that she had the great fortune to take up higher ordination with Venerable Pannavati as her master and preceptor and that for two years she was in a higher training under Venerable Pannavati and Bhante U Pannadipa which prepared her the journey.
—Pamela Ayo Yetunde
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: You show people, not just an image of the happy Buddha, but a real live person of color in robes, living the life of liberation that they don’t know they have the capacity to cultivate. How have you dealt with discrimination that you’ve experienced, if you’ve experienced it?
Sister Clear Grace: Yes, there have been subtle forms [of discrimination], but I want to share more importantly that the gift of this journey has been laying down, in every interaction, the discriminating or judgmental mind while receiving the huge offerings I’ve been given. I have to be pure in mind and heart.
I’ll share an example. I was with a wise mother Ms. Stephanie, last week, and she asked for some change. I didn’t have any, and she explained that for 60 cents she could buy get a can of Vienna sausages. Then I remembered that I had a few dollars on a gift card, a gift card I could share.
Giving up the things that we desire is the true gift of generosity.
We went into the Family Dollar. I’m aware of food oppression and that Family Dollars are only in certain communities. I’m aware of the risk and health factors on Black and Brown bodies and, and all bodies—diabetes, high blood pressure, the list goes on—but in her joy of having this meal of a cold can of Chef Boyardee on the bumper of the van, I realized that I have to lay these things down. I have to be present to her fullness without my judgment.
Just the other night I parked in a Walmart parking lot because finding somewhere to sleep with the van is often a struggle because I can hear noise, the police, and see their flashlights, so I Googled safe neighborhoods in Charlotte and fled for safety. Being able to flee was a privilege. There’s so much poverty, so much hunger.
The first thing I like to do in the morning is wake up and enjoy a cup of coffee and I thought that my friends who sleep outside on the streets would enjoy a warm cup of coffee too. I bought a sleeve of Styrofoam cups, and with the four-cup press in the van, I made four or five cups of coffee and served it up. So now I have this aspiration to get a school bus and turn it into a food truck and a dwelling and serve warm grits or oats in the morning with the basic, simple things that are needed—as an offering of alms for the people.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: My eyes are welling up with tears right now.
Sister Clear Grace: Ms. Stephanie still calls me. I go into certain areas and I walk every day. I don’t really have a particular plan. Whatever comes in front of me is what I address, but a lot of times, it is laundry day, and I’m doing dharma in the laundry mat. If I wasn’t in the laundry mat, many conversations wouldn’t happen. So I’m grateful.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: You’re grateful to be in the laundromat. You’re grateful to be at Family Dollar. You’re grateful for what you’re learning in neighborhoods where it’s not safe. And you’re not really interested in collecting the fruits of privilege. Is that fair to say?
Sister Clear Grace: Absolutely, this is not a collection.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: One of the things I understand about Buddhism is that the Buddha grew up in privilege and left privilege. But I don’t know if modern day Buddhism is understood that way. Can you help us understand what it means to recognize our privileges and then to move away from them? Why should we do something like that?
Sister Clear Grace: In American Buddhism, it’s the doing that we need to stop. Giving up the things that we desire is the true gift of generosity. This restraint is challenging. I see it within myself as I struggle with adjusting to a mobile monastery and van life—trying to shave my head in the van with cold water without the things I desire to make this travel and work more comfortable.
But when we create this foundation of morality, of sila, it gives rise to compassion because we have more insights. So the mind starts to settle with mindful awareness, and then we can see that I want what others want and others want what I want.
We don’t have to take on the oppressive structures laid down for us.
We all want the same thing. Some want to get a tooth pulled, and there’s no medical help for them. Some have pain and are on the street. Others just want a warm cup of coffee. There are some who would like a sleeping bag or some socks on their feet.
I did a walking meditation through about 500 project homes, and they’re in good shape. But those houses were boarded up. New buildings are coming [with signs that say] to support your luxury lifestyle. We have people in the projects who are getting pushed out.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: There’s one thing you’ve said over and over again, and that is “laying it down.” You are on a pilgrimage, you are traveling, you are walking, and also you are practicing laying it down. Laying down the attachment to views. Can you break it down for us so that we know how to lay it down?
Sister Clear Grace: Well, you’ve got to catch it before it rises. Things are always there for me to pick up in daily life, whether it’s signage, bumper stickers, flags, it’s all around. The immediate craving is to cling onto that and say, “This is me” or “This is I” or “This is mine” or “This is myself” or “This affects me” or “This harms me” or “This is opposite of me.”
The views we have are our biggest destruction. Because there’s a black, there’s a white. If there’s no white, there’s no black, if there’s no black, there’s no white. If there’s no left, then no right. So when I take up a view, it is on a conventional level. We need to have full awareness, then we can see that our view is what keeps us separate. Once we lay ours down, the other can also lay theirs down.
Now I can speak to gender. I can speak to race. I can speak to all of these things that are in front of us because I’m not attached to the outcome, and I’m not carried away by what I’m seeing.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: You mentioned gender, and you are the Traveling “Nunk.” I’ve never seen nor heard that word before until I saw you express it. Would you please tell us what a nunk is and why you’re using that word to describe your pilgrimage?
Sister Clear Grace: In the monastic community I grew up in, we were monks and nuns. Men had to sit on one side. Women had to sit on the other, and while we were spending time doing this division and this separation, I was trying to figure out how we were getting close to liberation. We were stuck on keeping ourselves within these boundaries. We can have boundaries, but we should also be free to choose. When we are stuck and we make people think that they should be stuck, there’s no freedom for us to move forward.
We don’t have to take on the oppressive structures laid down for us. When we come to the fullness of the measure of our practice, all of that falls away. In our daily life, in order for us to be as one, these things fall away.
In the neighborhoods, people would ask us “Are you a monk”? At first it sounded funny. We [my monastic sister and I] just accepted it. Later, we put the two [“nun” and “monk”] together, and we said, oh, we’re “nunks.” And this just became a way of us embracing being in the robe of the gender dynamics that are within the community.
I don’t pick these [labels] up in a way to say that I am trying to make a statement, but at the same time, I don’t forget that I am in this body and this is who I am. So when we get through that, then you can see me. I can drop all of those names and be all of them, or I can be none of them at the same time. I can come to the fullness of my spirituality without those borders. They’re not necessary for liberation and the teachings of the dharma. I would like to see communities that are interested in moving forward.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: I keep going back to your path is not the path of holding onto privilege. It sounds to me that your path is the path of recognizing the trappings of privilege, noticing how that they fall on your senses, laying it down, and then a word that you’ve used often today is fullness—living into your fullness, which is beyond all these descriptors and labels that we use with each other. Do you contemplate how your dharma teaching will change as the result of this particular pilgrimage you’re on?
Sister Clear Grace: I see it in constant flux and on this pilgrimage, I have been able to dive deeper into the dhamma. My teaching has become something different already. Pilgrimage has given me just a deeper insight, a deeper understanding, a deeper gratitude for what has already been done on this path of practice and the type of freedom that I feel. We should all be able to walk in this way—noticing what we pick up, knowing we don’t have to pick up anything, recognizing when we have picked it up, having the confidence and the wisdom that we can put it down, and keep moving forward.
About Sister Clear Grace
Venerable is a Buddhist Monk who received novice ordination in 2018 as Sister True Moon of Clear Grace in the Plum Village Vietnamese Zen tradition headed by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. In 2020, she received higher ordination and carries forward both the Theravada and Mahayana lineages of her preceptor, Venerable Dr. Pannavati Karuna of whom she was transmitted the name Dayananda.
The Dharma has been her greatest source of insight and transformation to heal from injustice and suffering of all kinds. She shares these learned truths to help others unlearn deeply embedded beliefs that have kept them away from the liberation of such sufferings in daily life. She shares these integrative skills, understandings, wisdom traditions and worldviews to help alleviate suffering for self and all beings.
Formerly a successful executive managing corporate operations, key people training and systems development, she now manages her mobile monastery operations and TravelingNunk.org as she continues to provide spiritual guidance and training to lay persons and monastics in her travels across the country.
She will continue to lead retreats nationally each year that are embedded in the Dharma and sharing living truths that are deep, yet accessible and profound, Sister Clear Grace advises the cultivation of both wisdom and compassionate action. It is fine to sit in temples and meditate and pray when things are good; when they are not, we are compelled to get off our pillows and do something. Let our actions line up with our intention.