The oldest lineage of Buddhism, Theravada is known for sharing the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha. Building on this ancient lineage, Theravada today is innovative and diverse. Derek Pyle reports on the tapestry of communities that make up American Theravada.
In the United States, there is a rich and varied range of Theravada teachers, practices, and communities. There are hundreds of Theravadin temples, monasteries, centers, and communities.
To better understand the landscape of American Buddhism, I interviewed more than two dozen senior Theravada teachers in the US. I wanted to draw a more comprehensive map of American Theravada, but I likely omit many important teachers and communities. I hope others will pick up where I leave off.
Theravada is considered an orthodox Buddhist tradition. It emphasizes adherence to the teachings of the Pali Canon — the earliest recorded teachings attributed to the Buddha — and its commentaries. Theravada is most common in Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia.
In North America, Theravada is often seen as focusing on meditation. In truth, meditation is one aspect of the tradition, which also includes important components, such as:
- the cultivation of generosity alongside moral precepts and ethical training;
- an understanding of karma and its laws;
- study of the Pali Canon and its commentaries and sub-commentaries;
- a range of community services, including outreach and social welfare programs;
- support for immigrant and refugee communities;
- and much more.
To many traditional Theravadins, this larger framework is important. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a leading American Pali scholar and translator, is wary of practicing meditation “without sufficient appreciation of the context in which these techniques are set and [without] the principles and auxiliary practices that should accompany and support meditation practice.”
In America, “Theravada” is also often equated with Insight Meditation and the “vipassana movement.” This is, in part, a racially-informed oversimplification, as both of these communities are predominantly white. Media coverage of American Buddhism often marginalizes or outright ignores Asian-American Buddhists.
While practicing in alignment with the Buddha’s original teachings of liberation is a common goal in Theravada, between various teachers and practitioners there are nuanced and often heated debates about how this is best achieved. My intention was to survey this range without holding any single perspective as “authoritative.” To ensure the range of teachings were adequately represented, I relied on interviews and direct quotes whenever possible.
The Vipassana View
Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, is the meditative form most often associated with Theravada. It is also the inspiration behind many secular mindfulness teachings, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
Vipassana is often thought of as a tightly-defined meditation technique. In truth, it is not a homogeneous teaching or technique but can refer to a wide array of practices, generally geared toward understanding the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Noble Truths, the three marks of existence, dependent origination, and the eightfold path, with the goal of liberating the heart and mind. Some teachers emphasize particular systems or methods of practice, while others do not.
The sociological implications of what Mahasi Sayadaw did were enormous — returning the possibility of liberation to lay people.
Three particularly popular vipassana lineages emerged in Burma during the 20th century. Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw and U S.N. Goenka are well-known in the United States for their systematic approaches to intensive meditation practice. The third teacher, the late Venerable Mogok Sayadaw, is hugely popular in Burma but his teachings are not as well-represented in the US.1
The Satipatthana Sutta is held by many as the most comprehensive overview of traditional Theravadin meditation practices, yet these same practices are subject to an array of practical and technical interpretations. For instance, a well-known framework of Theravada meditation distinguishes between two basic types of practice, insight meditation (vipassana) and calming or tranquility meditation (samatha). But in a more traditional and canonical understanding, vipassana is not a type of meditation at all. “Vipassana actually refers to the direct seeing of the real nature of phenomena,” says Bhikkhu Bodhi, “thus what a person would practice are meditation techniques that lead to vipassana.”
Mahasi Sayadaw’s Revolution
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982) was a great Burmese monk. At a time when most Burmese meditation techniques were taught to monastics only, Mahasi Sayadaw and his students also instructed thousands upon thousands of lay practitioners. Sharon Salzberg, a well-known convert Buddhist American lay teacher authorized to teach by Mahasi Sayadaw, explains, “The sociological implications of what Mahasi Sayadaw did were enormous — returning the possibility of liberation to lay people.”
Many of Mahasi Sayadaw’s senior monastics have taught in the United States, including the late Sayadaw U Pandita. Some of these monks immigrated to the United States, often overseeing multiple Burmese-American and multiethnic communities. Mahasi Sayadaw’s teachings have also become popular in some traditionally Mahayana communities; for instance one of the country’s most senior monastics, Bhante Khippapanno – also known as Hòa thượng Kim Triệu – often teaches the Mahasi Method to his Vietnamese-American students.2
Mahasi Sayadaw’s method of teaching is known today as the “Mahasi Method.” It includes mindfulness of breathing focused on the abdomen, mental noting, and a very slow style of walking meditation. This system is outlined most clearly by Mahasi Sayadaw in his book The Progress of Insight. Well-known within this system is Mahasi Sayadaw’s formal map of awakening, which corresponds to commentarial Visuddhimagga explanations of the path.
Ashin Pyinnya Thiha teaches the Mahasi Method at the Mahasi Satipatthana Meditation Center in New Jersey. “I teach mindfulness meditation based on Mahasi Sayadaw’s way according to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta,” Bhante Pyinnya explains. “If the student follows the Mahasi Method or way of practicing,” says Bhante Pyinnya, “[they] can get the progress of sixteen kinds of insight knowledge through the seven stages of purification.”
The center where Ashin Pyinnya Thiha teaches is a part of the America Burma Buddhist Association (ABBA), the U.S. affiliate of the Mahasi Meditation Center of Burma. Like most monastic traditions in the U.S. and Asia, the ABBA community is sustained through donations, while all ABBA activities including residencies and retreats are offered free of charge. This model of teaching is fundamental to the traditional Theravadin framework: the Dharma is considered priceless; therefore, there can be no cost associated with it. Thus monastics freely support the community in a variety of ways, including teaching. In turn, monastics are deeply dependent on the generosity of lay community support – Theravadin monastics cannot handle money, cook, or even store food.
In this way, monastics and lay practitioners alike cultivate the parami of dana, which is translated as generosity, giving, or charity. Dana is not simply a financial or economic practice but rather a way of cultivating the heart, and cultivating communities, through an ethos of mutual interdependence and responsibility. While many American lay centers have modified this understanding of dana in a variety of ways, there are a few notable exceptions including the communities maintained by Santikaro, Gil Fronsdal and Andrea Fella, and the centers in the tradition of U S.N. Goenka, all of which operate solely based on dana.
U S.N. Goenka, Global Teacher
U S.N. Goenka (1924-2013) and his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971) were Burmese laymen who emphasized ten-day intensive meditation courses (retreats), primarily for lay practitioners. There are numerous centers around the world offering courses in the tradition of U S.N. Goenka (respectfully known as Goenkaji) and Sayagyi U Ba Khin, including twelve centers in the States.
“Sayagyi U Ba Khin and Goenkaji wanted the Dhamma to reach as many people globally as possible… and Goenkaji prided himself on teaching exactly what his teacher taught,” says Barry Lapping, the head teacher at the Dhamma Dhara Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
“The teaching is presented via audio and video recordings of Goenkaji in order to maintain the consistency of the technique worldwide,” explains Lapping, while “the conducting teachers run the course, give guidance to the students, meditate with the students and answer their questions.” While the centers do not track specific demographics of their students, “there are courses for different communities based on language, including Khmer, Burmese, Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Thai.”
In keeping with the traditional Theravadin emphasis on dana, all centers are supported solely by donations. “An important principle in this tradition is that no one should have to pay for the teaching, and no one should profit by it,” explains Lapping. Course teachers and volunteers do not receive any financial compensation; students understand that everything they receive is from those who previously sat courses and they, in turn, have the opportunity to donate so others can receive the same benefits in future retreats.
At the beginning of each course, students take the five moral precepts and then develop a base of concentration (samadhi) through anapanasati or mindfulness of breathing. On the fourth day, students begin vipassana practice. “They learn to move their attention systematically through the body,” says Lapping. Cultivating equanimity in response to all sensations is key to the method.
“To experience the body, you must be aware of what is happening in the body — that is, vedana — sensations,” says Lapping. “Similarly, whatever happens in the mind — any thought, emotion, recollection — is reflected by sensations in the body. Vedana is the key that allows us to observe the entire mental-physical structure and develop equanimity.”
If you watch the breath — or anything else you might be noticing — then you can also know that there is the mind that’s watching the breath. And when you’re watching the breath, you can also know everything attendant to the breath, like your feelings and your thoughts.
While U S.N. Goenka was his best-known student, the late German-American Ruth Denison was also a disciple of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, although she eventually modified her teachings in ways that diverged from her teacher. Her women’s retreats were particularly popular among LGBTQ women. “She offered a gateway, an open door to the Dharma, to lesbians who might not otherwise have chosen to enter into Buddhist practice,” explains biographer Sandy Boucher. Boucher adds that Arinna Weisman, a student of Denison, was one of the first teachers to offer LGBTQ-specific retreats, co-taught by Eric Kolvig.3
U S.N. Goenka was a major influence on many Insight Meditation Society teachers. “The Buddha did not teach Buddhism, he taught a way of life,” Salzberg recalls U S.N. Goenka saying, a perspective which is now key for many in mainstream as well as secular Buddhism.
The Streams of IMS and Spirit Rock
In 1975, the founding of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts catalyzed an extraordinarily popular and influential current within mainstream American Buddhism. Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Jacqueline Mandell (née Schwartz), all of them Jewish converts to Buddhism, were the center’s founders and early core teachers. Today, IMS — along with the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies,4 the Forest Refuge, and its de facto sister center Spirit Rock in California — serves as a hub for dozens of formally and informally connected teachers, centers, and practitioners. Spirit Rock, in particular, has grown to become a major player in the Buddhist world in its own right since its founding in 1987. As Lion’s Roar reported in a 25th-anniversary profile of Spirit Rock, the center was by that time serving 40,000 visitors a year.
Blending Theravada lineages is a hallmark of IMS and Spirit Rock. Important early teacher-lineages included Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw; Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, students of Mahasi Sayadaw; Sayadaw U Pandita, a successor of Mahasi Sayadaw; Venerable Ajahn Chah; and U S.N. Goenka. “Munindra was extremely open-minded in his approach,” says Goldstein. “I think that’s where I derived that basic framework of openness for my own practice and understanding.”
For Salzberg, the master laywoman Dipa Ma was “hugely important… She was the person who told me to teach.” A close student of U S.N. Goenka, Jacqueline Mandell was encouraged to teach in the States by Venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw and Dr. Rina Sircar. “Taungpulu Sayadaw taught by temperament,” says Mandell. “He individualized the practices.” The late Taungpulu Sayadaw and Dr. Sircar were also important teachers in Burmese-American communities. It was Sayadaw U Pandita who taught Sharon Salzberg the metta practices that would later become a fixture at IMS and Spirit Rock retreats.
Unlike Mahasi Sayadaw and U S.N. Goenka, Venerable Ajahn Chah did not offer students a systematized or standardized map of practice. In his book Bringing Home the Dharma, Jack Kornfield summarizes Ajahn Chah’s teachings as “using every experience as your practice… opening up to each experience to see what is happening… learning to let go… [and recognizing] the one who knows how to rest in wisdom and equanimity.”
Both centers maintain connections with monastic communities, and many IMS and Spirit Rock teachers also train in outside traditions, including Advaitin, Dzogchen, and Western psychotherapy. In February 2019, IMS changed their mission statement to reflect that the center is aligning themselves with “Early Buddhism” rather than Theravada — a change that could herald Theravada reforms in the 21st century.
In recent years a handful of IMS and Spirit Rock teachers, organizing themselves under the auspices of the Wisdom Streams Foundation, have practiced and taught under Burmese monk Sayadaw U Tejaniya.5
Moushumi Ghosh, Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s English translator, explains one of Sayadaw’s central teachings: “If you watch the breath — or anything else you might be noticing — then you can also know that there is the mind that’s watching the breath. And when you’re watching the breath, you can also know everything attendant to the breath, like your feelings and your thoughts.”
Expanding the Refuge
In 1983 Jacqueline Mandell formally left the Theravadin tradition. Prompted by the historical as well as contemporary gender inequality in Theravada Buddhism, Mandell wrote about her decision in the first issue of Inquiring Mind.
“It needed to be said from a place of leadership,” Mandell reflects now. “I realized I had an ability to say something and maybe it would make a difference.”
Mandell’s push toward equality heralded an important turning point in the development and expression of the Dharma at IMS and, later, Spirit Rock. To this day, both institutions strive to address inequality, diversity, and inclusion.6 The organizations are now focusing on addressing racism and increasing leadership opportunities for people of color and LGBTQIA people.
“Our lessons learned will increase the rapidity at which we can integrate and bring about transformation in other areas,” explains DaRa Williams, one of the African-American teachers at the helm of these initiatives.
Many white teachers at IMS and Spirit Rock, says Williams, are also working to understand how intersectionality informs their own life experiences. “It’s been hugely rewarding, for me personally,” says Joseph Goldstein, “and also for the institution, to see all the work being done — it’s been tremendous.”
In recent years, the growing number of POC and LGBTQIA practice communities associated with IMS and Spirit Rock have attracted more and more young people to the practice. The Against the Stream (ATS) communities — often overseen by hip, tattooed and streetwise teachers — were also popular among younger practitioners until allegations of misconduct by founder Noah Levine surfaced in 2018 and the community disbanded. Some of the teachers from ATS have started a new socially-minded Buddhist group under the name “Meditation Coalition,” which also promises to attract a younger demographic. All in all, there is an increasing focus on making teachings more accessible to young people.
Yet the cost of IMS and Spirit Rock retreats remain prohibitive for many, although both centers offer some significant scholarships, and formerly incarcerated persons can sit IMS retreats at no cost.
The centers’ underlying economic models are a modified form of the traditional Theravadin ethic — the retreat fees contribute to the centers’ annual operating costs, while most teachers and some staff do not have fixed incomes but are dependent on additional donations (dana) offered by students and retreat attendees. Subsequent to the widespread influence of IMS and Spirit Rock, this model has been adopted by many of the country’s lay residential and nonresidential centers.
Changing Landscapes in Asian-American Communities
Sri Lankan-American monk Venerable Bhante Seelawimala, of the American Buddhist Seminary, says he is concerned about decreased engagement in younger Asian-American Theravada Buddhists. The ABS website writes that many monastics “lack sufficient background in developing communication skills with these immigrant children who are growing up in America… mainly due to the language and cultural gaps between the monks and the younger generation.”
Conversely, researcher Chenxing Han is studying the nuanced experiences of young Asian-American Buddhists. While not specifically focused on Theravadin communities, Han highlights how many Asian-American Buddhists do not fit into easy typologies of experience or cultural background. In her Buddhadharma article “We’re Not Who You Think We Are,” Han writes, “The young adult Asian Americans I spoke to are both evidence and upholders of American Buddhism’s multivocality.”
Many monastics who immigrate to the U.S. also hope to teach outside of their specific ethnic communities but are unable to do so, explains Ayya Tathaaloka, a white American bhikkhuni (a fully-ordained female monastic) who spent many years practicing in predominately Asian-American communities. “Especially amongst the younger monks, many of them come wishing to share the Buddha’s teachings more broadly,” says Tathaaloka, “but in so many places the connections are not in place.”
Stalwarts of American Jhana
Jhana practice is an important set of traditional teachings not generally found in mainstream mindfulness communities. Jhanas can roughly be understood as very deep and particular types of samadhi, or concentration — though there are many nuances and important debates about the nature of that concentration. In the United States, only a handful of teachers specifically teach jhana practice.
Students sitting the annual IMS and Spirit Rock rains retreats, or practicing at the Forest Refuge, may receive jhana instructions from individual teachers. While these instructions vary based on the teacher’s own training, Joseph Goldstein says, “a number of us learned a particular method from U Pandita Sayadaw, which we have also taught on an individual basis to many meditators [and fellow teachers] over the years.” In this method, metta practice is often used to develop jhana.
Burmese monastic Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw’s teachings on jhana are largely systematized, corresponding to the classic treatise Visuddhimagga and sutta maps of practice. In the States, Pa-Auk Sayadaw has many Burmese-American as well as Malaysian-American students, says Tina Rasmussen, one of Pa-Auk Sayadaw’s senior students. Pa-Auk Sayadaw has spent considerable amounts of time teaching in these communities and at the Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts. “Sayadaw Pa-Auk’s teacher told him that part of his dharma, his life’s truth,” says Rasmussen, “was to plant the seeds of the samatha practice in the West.”
In years past, Tina Rasmussen and her husband Stephen Snyder served assistant teachers during some of Pa-Auk Sayadaw’s residencies here, and they continue to teach independently in the States. Since the depth of absorption required by Pa-Auk Sayadaw is quite difficult for many, Rasmussen says, “Sayadaw and his students encouraged us to write Practicing the Jhanas to outline the method of first obtaining jhana.”7
Leigh Brasington was a student of the late Venerable Ayya Khema, a German-born pioneer of the modern Bhikkuni Sangha.”Anybody who studied with Ayya Khema was struck by her clarity,” says Brasington. Ayya Khema learned jhana practices through the study of the Pali canon and commentaries and was later encouraged to teach jhana by the Sri Lankan monk Most Venerable Matara Sri Nanarama Maha Thera.
While following a clear map of jhanic progression, also outlined in his book Right Concentration, Brasington allows students a range of methods for developing concentration. Likewise, when moving from jhana to insight practice, Brasington encourages students to use whichever insight method they prefer. “I figure it’s not so important how you examine reality,” he says, “but that you examine reality.”8
Venerable Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, founder and abbot of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, also teaches jhana practices. Bhante G, as he is known, was born at a time when meditation practices were largely suppressed in Sri Lanka due to colonialism. Thus Venerable Gunaratana learned meditation through experience, using his knowledge and understanding of the texts as a guide. Known also for his teachings on mindfulness and loving-kindness, his books The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation and Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English outline his teachings on jhana.
Venerable Gunaratana also has longstanding ties with the Washington Buddhist Vihara, the country’s oldest Theravada monastic community. While the organizations are not formally linked, the Washington Buddhist Vihara and the Bhavana Society form an important nexus of American Theravada. Venerable Gunaratana has also supported female monastic ordination in the US.9
Bhante Vimalaramsi, a monastic who has reached many students via successful online outreach, also teaches jhana but as a kind of understanding rather than level of absorption.
Forest Monks of Thailand
Throughout the history of Theravada, there have been many monastics who wander the wilderness committed to solitary practice. Renowned master Venerable Ajahn Mun (1870–1949), a Theravada reformer, emphasized such a return to the roots of Buddhism through asceticism, intensive meditation, and rigorous ethical conduct. He established the Thai Forest Tradition based on those principles. Venerable Ajahn Maha Boowa (1913-2011) and Venerable Ajahn Chah (1918-1992) were two of Ajahn Mun’s best-known students.
In the US, many Thai Forest monastics are either white converts or Thai-American, but there is a wide range of community demographics. Wat San Fran serves a predominately Thai-American community and is particularly popular among millennials. On the other hand, Venerable Ajahn Maha Prasert’s temple in Fremont, California has of the most diverse congregations in the country, with Thai-Americans compromising the minority-majority.
Even the name “Thai Forest” itself is something of an ethnic misnomer. “The northeast of Thailand, where Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Mun, and Ajahn Maha Boowa were from,” says Ajahn Pasanno, “it’s an area that speaks a Laotian dialect.”
In the Thai Forest Tradition, there is less of a divide between insight and concentration practice. “Meditative concentration and wisdom may be likened to two wheels of a cart: only when both wheels work in unison can the cart move forward,” says Ajaan Dick Silaratano, a senior student of Ajahn Maha Boowa. Since various students have different capacities for absorption, Ajaan Dick says, “most of the Thai Forest masters refrain from speaking publicly about jhana, preferring to talk about samadhi in more general terms.”
In general, Thai Forest monks have great respect for the natural world. The late Venerable Luang Por Thoon would instruct students, says his student Phra Anandapanyo, to correct wrong perception through observing the natural world. “In your daily life, in the forest, in the city, there’s metaphor in the world,” Phra Anandapanyo explains. “Use that to reflect and look into yourself, make a parallel, and see: okay, perhaps what you believe is wrong and you have to let go of it.”
Convert Buddhists need to pay respects to the history we’re drawing on, not just appropriate the bits we like and then pretend we’re more advanced than Asian-American Buddhists.
Abhayagiri monastery in Northern California has played an important role in connecting many lay practitioners to the deeper monastic roots of Theravada. Ajahn Chah was hugely popular amongst Thai and international students alike, and it was important to him that his “Western” students establish monasteries in their home countries, to maintain “the traditional [Buddhist] model, of how monastic community and the lay community functions together, creating an integral part of a society or culture,” says Ajahn Pasanno.
Many Thai Forest teachers encourage self-reliance and solitary practice, and they are less likely to instruct students through formalized systems of practice. “The person has to find the technique themselves,” says Ajahn Vuttichai, also known as Phrawoody, a senior student of Venerable Ajahn Jamnian.
Thai Forest teachings often emphasize awareness and the knowing nature of mind. “It’s the ground of one’s practice, what one roots the practice in,” says Ajahn Pasanno, “but it’s also what takes one to a place of, say, liberating the heart.” Ajaan Dick Silaratano, like many Thai Forest teachers, refers to this as “citta, or the mind’s essential knowing nature.”
Thai Forest teachings on awareness have drawn comparisons to the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.10 In one method, systematized by the late Thai monk Luangpor Teean (1911-1988), the student first learns to cultivate awareness through a traditional rhythmic hand movement. Next, one “learns to ‘see’ thought, as opposed to just knowing that one is thinking,” says lay teacher Michael Bresnan. “After one is able to see thought, then we can be aware of awareness itself.”11
Along with the many American Thai Forest communities,12 Thai Forest teachings have also impacted many convert Buddhist teachers outside of the Thai Forest lineage. Santikaro, a white American lay teacher, says that his Thai Forest training was essential to his understanding of the path, but worries about cultural appropriation. He notes that convert Buddhists need to “pay respects to the history we’re drawing on, not just appropriate the bits we like and then pretend we’re more advanced than Asian-American Buddhists.”
In recent years, a Theravada reform movement with connections to the Thai Forest Tradition, called Buddhawajana, has gained momentum amongst Thai-Americans. Led by Ajahn Kukrit, a former student of Ajahn Chah, the movement is hugely popular in Thailand.
Outside of the forest tradition, a popular form of Thai meditation is called vijja dhammakaya. The term “dhammakaya” is often associated with Thailand’s largest temple, Wat Phra Dhammakaya, but numerous temples independently teach vijja dhammakaya as a meditation method. Wat Phra Dhammakaya has dozens of branches around the world, including sixteen centers in the United States, which are attended primarily by Thai-Americans. But within Thailand, the Wat Phra Dhammakaya community faces widespread allegations of corruption, including a series of ongoing political and legal conflicts. The topic is too complex to explore in detail here, but such controversies highlight something too often neglected in the “mainstream” American image of Buddhism: the reality that sanghas — of all ethnicities, both here and abroad — must remain ever vigilant against corruption and abuses of power.
The Spread of Sri Lankan Mahamevnawa Monasteries
Mahamevnawa is a hugely popular meditation movement, originating in Sri Lanka at the turn of the 21st century. The tradition is striking particularly for its rapid growth — there are dozens of Mahamevnawa centers around the world including six in the United States, all of which emphasize orthodox yet accessible approaches to practice and textual study. The centers here mostly serve Sri Lankan-Americans, although Bhante Kachchana — a residing monk at the Mahamevnawa branch monastery in California — explains that he is interested in teaching others as well. When teaching beginners, Bhante Kachchana emphasizes traditional loving-kindness and mindfulness of breathing practices. “There are many meditation methods,” he acknowledges, “but basically those are very important.”
It can be helpful to think about the world and its suffering before beginning loving-kindness practice, says Bhante Kachchana. “You can think about how people are living in this world, what are their problems,” he says. “There are thousands of millions of people in this world, and there is a lot of suffering.”
After one is comfortable practicing loving-kindness and breathing meditation, Bhante Kachchana recommends contemplating the nature of the sense bases and their objects. The students think “true nature of eye, true nature of form, true nature of ear, true nature of sounds,” and so forth, and then turns to contemplate the three marks of existence with reference to each sense base. “This eye is impermanent, not ‘I am’, not mine, not myself. This ear is impermanent, not me, not ‘I am,’ not myself. Like that.”
Although these three practices may be particularly suitable for beginners, Bhante Kachchana emphasizes the helpfulness and importance of the full Sutta Pitaka for practice. “We have many Dhamma talks given by Supreme Buddha,” he says, “so we just follow those explanations.”
Revitalizing Cambodian-American Vipassana
Wat Kiryvongsa Bopharam in Leverett, Massachusetts is one of the only Cambodian-American temples that emphasizes meditation, and Cambodian-Americans travel from around the country to attend their annual summer retreat. I spoke to Venerable Dejapanno Phorn Pheap, the temple’s residing meditation teacher, through a translator, Sakal Kim. (Kim also assists with many of the temple’s Khmer-based media productions.)
Venerable Dejapanno was a student of the late master Venerable Keto Dhammo, who was responsible for revitalizing Vipassana Dhura throughout Cambodia until he was assassinated in 2003. Venerable Keto Dhammo had a systematized approach to teaching meditation, explains Venerable Dejapanno, which has three levels and takes twelve years to complete. The first level takes three years. The second level requires four.
The student begins by studying the Vinaya and the Triple Gem, then trains in anapanasati. “The goal here is to focus on the mind,” says Venerable Dejapanno, “make sure the mind is one.” After mastering anapanasati the student learns vipassana with the traditional forty Theravada meditation subjects. “Any one of these types of meditation you can learn to adapt or suit to your style,” says Venerable Dejapanno.
The second level is jhana practice. “Once you’re good at it,” says Venerable Dejapanno, “even people talking near you, they will not disturb you.” Venerable Dejapanno was unable to train in the third level before leaving Cambodia, but which levels you master is not important, he says. “At the end, if you’re good at it, you will receive the same merit and reach the same goal.” Meditation brings peace, says Venerable Dejapanno, and it applies to all people. “Once you get rid of desire there’s no more disputes, no war,” he says. “We can all live in peace and harmony.”
Bhikkhuni Robes, Flags of the Arhats
Bhikkhunis are fully-ordained Buddhist female monastics. In Theravada, the lineage was only recently revived; Bhikkhuni ordinations were not available to women for most of the second millennium. In the States, the Bhikkhuni revival may represent the quintessential Buddhist community; it requires a strong mix of tradition and adaptation, with support coming from far-flung schools of Buddhism, lineages, and countries.
Ayya Tathaaloka has written about the history of American Bhikkhuni ordinations in “Honoring Those Worthy of Honor,” an article published by the Alliance for Bhikkhunis. Beginning in 1987, many of the early ordinations, she writes, were organized by the late Most Venerable Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara Maha Thero (1920-2000) with the assistance of Venerable Dr. Walpola Piyananda, both Sri Lankan-American monks.
The largest of these early ordinations took place at the Hsi Lai Temple in Southern California and was coordinated on a truly international scale with a total of 200 bhikkhuni candidates, “includ[ing] twelve eight- and ten-precept nuns from various Theravada traditions,” writes Ayya Tathaaloka, “and eight getsulmas from Tibetan monastic traditions, with the remainder of the ordination candidates being from Korean, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Chinese, Indonesian, and Thai Mahayana traditions.” The bhikkhunis received simultaneous ordinations in both Theravada and Chinese Mahayana traditions, with Vajrayana monks and nuns also in attendance.
In the Sangha, you have all the colors of the Buddha’s full radiance when you gather all of these diverse teachers, multifaceted teachings and manifold paramis back together again.
While bhikkhuni ordinations remain a point of contention in some monastic communities, these and subsequent ordinations are not the product of renegade monks and nuns. Venerable Ratansara and the Hsi Lai Temple were respectively, as Ayya Tathaaloka writes, “the leading Theravada Buddhist prelate in the Western Hemisphere and one of the strongest Buddhist organizations in the world.”
When I interviewed Ayya Tathaaloka, she spoke of Venerable Ratanasara’s hopes for the Bhikkhuni Sangha, and his vision for a unified Buddhism. “It was one of the conditions for my ordination,” she explains. “He didn’t want to ordain anyone who was going to be strongly and divisively ethnosectarian, especially among Westerners.” He was inspired by the possibility of all Buddhist traditions re-converging in the United States.
“Venerable Ratanasara had this strong image of the Buddha’s time, with the colors of the Buddha’s radiance spreading through the Sangha into all these different countries, and each teacher sharing in their own unique ways aspects of the Buddha’s radiance, from their own awakening, based on their unique experiences, strengths, and paramis,” says Ayya Tathaaloka. “In the Sangha, you have all the colors of the Buddha’s full radiance when you gather all of these diverse teachers, multifaceted teachings and manifold paramis back together again; that was his view, his vision.”
This reunification of traditions typifies many bhikkhuni communities, so there is no simple way to summarize lineages or teaching styles. “People ask us: ‘what is your lineage; is it Thai? American? Sri Lankan?’” says Ayya Anandabodhi, a Welsh-born bhikkhuni who immigrated to the US. “But it’s much broader — it’s the Bhikkhuni lineage.” In Southern California there are many bhikkhus and bhikkhunis in the Vietnamese Du Tang Khai Si Mendicant Sangha, a fused Theravada-Mahayana tradition; Venerable Dr. Pannavati in North Carolina is a former Christian pastor and dual Theravada-Mahayana bhikkhuni who has received Zen transmission and Vajrayana empowerments; in Northern California, convert Buddhist bhikkhuni ordinations receive strong support from Sri Lankan-American as well as Thai- and Lao- bhikkhu communities.13
Monastic code, as found in the traditional Vinaya Pitaka, is of central importance to all Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis. Yet numerous parts of the Bhikkhuni Vinaya text are unclear, and thus subject to varying interpretations. “There are so many outstanding questions in Vinaya I’d really like to have the time to research more fully,” says Ayya Tathaaloka.
This research, and sharing its results, is the focus of the Bhikkhuni Vibhanga Project — a collaborative project overseen by a team of bhikkhunis, including Ayya Tathaaloka, and supported by the Alliance for Bhikkhunis. One important research question, Ayya Tathaaloka says, is around ordination for transgender and gender non-conforming persons. Ayya Tathaaloka has begun examining this in Vinaya, she says, and feels “hopeful about the value of deeper study with regards to this and other questions.”
In recent years “Western” lay practitioners, especially lay women, have played a large role in supporting the Bhikkhuni Sangha. One vehicle for such support is the Alliance for Bhikkhunis, a nonprofit founded by Susan Pembroke to honor her teacher, the late Venerable Ayya Khema. “To see a nun wearing the robe, a female renunciant with an aspiration to awaken,” says Ayya Anandabodhi, “this wakes something up in the hearts of women, like I could do this too.”
American Theravada in the 21st Century
The seeds of American Buddhism are sown, but if the teachings are to flourish here, we must not forget the Dharma’s deep and varied roots.
In Theravada Buddhism, it is essential to understand the interdependence of lay practitioners and the monastic Sangha — and the ways in which both groups support and illuminate the path to awakening. This interplay is something often missed in “convert” Buddhist communities.
When it comes to reconciling Asian and non-Asian communities, or otherwise creating more inclusive dharma centers, convert Buddhists, in particular, should remain cautious about forms of bridging that replicate hegemonic assimilation or colonialism. If “mainstream” Buddhist consciousness is to expand its recognition of Theravada teachings and traditions, this will require building many bridges, and each community will have its own path to navigate. May the Devas guide and protect us.
1 According to researcher Pyi Phyo Kyaw, some senior meditation teachers in the Mogok Sayadaw tradition, including Aung San Sayadaw, have taught here in Burmese-American communities.
2 Influential visiting monastics have included Sayadaw U Janaka (Chanmyay Sayadaw), and the late Sayadaw U Pandita and Sayadaw U Lakkhana. Emigrating monastics include Bhante Khippapanno, Achan Sobin S. Namto (who has since moved back to Thailand), Sayadaw Ashin Indaka, Ayya Gunasari, and the late Sayadaw U Silananda. Teaching to many Chinese-American students, Malaysian monk Bhante Sujiva is another monk who teaches in local Mahayana communities.
3 Another popular student of Sayagyi U Ba Khin was the late Burmese teacher Mya Thwin, known by her students as Mother Sayamagyi. With a similar emphasis on preserving Sayagyi U Ba Khin’s methods, Mother Sayamagyi’s students oversee a branch of her International Meditation Centre in Westminster, Maryland.
4 Guided by faculty members such as scholar and meditation master Bhikkhu Analayo, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies has also become a hub for the study of Early Buddhist Texts — for instance, comparing the Pali Canon and the Chinese Agamas for similarities and differences.
5 Vietnamese-American monk Venerable Bhante Khippapanno also trained with Sayadaw U Tejaniya, and Sayadaw U Tejianiya has taught at Bhante’s various centers around the country. Bhante Khippapanno and his students oversee the Shwe Oo Min Forest Meditation Center in Virginia, says Moushumi Ghosh, where Sayadaw U Tejaniya is the honorary guiding teacher. Bhante Khippapanno also teaches at the Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts.
6 Like most aspects of IMS and Spirit Rock, these transformations are influenced by a wide array of people, including teachers Anushka Fernandopulle, DaRa Williams, Gina Sharpe, Larry Yang, Pascal Auclair, Spring Washam, and the late Dr. Marlene Jones. At Spirit Rock, Betsy Rose and Dawn Scott have been particularly effective leaders in the family and teen programs.
7 While Pa-Auk Sayadaw does not teach many retreats in the U.S. currently, he often spends his own rains retreat time practicing in Northern California at a hermitage maintained by his students. His monastics students, including Sayadaw U Jagara, Venerable Dhammadipa, Sayalay Dipankara, and Sayalay Susila, often teach in the U.S. Additional U.S. students authorized to teach by Pa-Auk Sayadaw include Marcia Rose, Shaila Catherine, and Nikki Mirghafori.
8 Students subsequently authorized by Brasington to teach jhana include Lloyd Burton, Mary Aubry, and Jay Michaelson.
9 Ayya Sudhamma Bhikkhuni, Bhikkhuni Sudinna, and Ayya Sobhana Theri, among others, trained as novice ordinates at Bhavana Society.
10 Although there are significant differences between each teachers’ approach, the teachings on awareness taught by Ajahn Jumnian, the students of the late Venerable Luangpor Teean, and convert Buddhist lay teacher Heather Sundberg are all described as “MahaSati” practices.
11 Luangpor Teean’s systematized method for recognizing awareness is taught in the States by Thai-American monastics Achan Da Nilpant, Achan Niphen Nontamart, and convert Buddhist lay teacher Michael Bresnan as well as the Thai monk Luangpor Thong.
12 In the US, additional Thai Forest communities include Forest Dhamma Monastery, Oregon Ariyamagga Okasati Refuge, Wat Pa Colorado, the Colorado Forest Monastery, Wat Concord, Wat Ohio, Atammayatarama Buddhist Monastery, and Metta Forest Monastery. The abbot of Metta Forest Monastery, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is a prominent meditation teacher and scholar, translating many Pali and Thai texts into English. Furthermore, at least three bhikkhuni viharas — Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery, Dhammadharini Monastery, and Karuna Buddhist Vihara — also have significant connections to the Thai Forest tradition.
13 Another popular and fast-growing bhikkhuni community, generally outside of “mainstream” American Buddhism’s awareness, is Buddha Catu Parisa Maha Vihara in Alaska. The vihara is a Thai-American branch monastery of the international Sikkha Buddhavacana Pariyattidhamma 84,000 Dhammakhandha Foundation, a dual bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha that emphasizes Abhidhamma study and strict monastic code. The community is also establishing a vihara in the San Francisco-Bay Area.