Born in the Czech Republic and ordained in Sri Lanka, Venerable Bhikkhunī Visuddhi is the abbess of Arama Karuna Sevena in Prostejov, the Czech Republic. Daily Mirror interviewed this pioneering Bhikkhunī at Sumathipala Na Himi Meditation centre in Kanduboda. This meditation center is headed by her teacher Ven. Mahanayaka Pemasiri Gampaha Hamuduruwo, who is one of the most respected modern meditation teachers in Sri Lanka. Bhikkhunī Visuddhi who was in Sri Lanka for a short visit is a devoted practitioner of metta and satipatthana meditation. She has lived in Sri Lanka for many years and regularly visits the island. She spends most of the time in the Czech Republic in her monastery teaching meditation to adults and children. The following are excerpts of an interview done with Bhikkhunī Visuddhi.
You were born in the Czech Republic which is a former communist state where one would hardly practice Buddhism. Could you tell us how you first got to know about Buddhism being a Czech citizen?
I started practicing when I was fifteen years old. Then Czechoslovakia was still a communist country and it was very hard to find spiritual activities. There was only yoga, which was regarded as a physical exercise, but spirituality was absent. My country has one of the least religious populations in the world. Our people have been historically characterized as ‘tolerant and even indifferent towards religion.’ Roman Catholicism is the major religion and about 10% of the population practice it. I was seeking spirituality and after starting with yoga I studied a little bit of Buddhism. Back then there were not many Buddhist books. I was very impressed with and inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi, Italian Roman Catholic friar, a deacon and a preacher. He stayed in a forest and associated with animals and preferred the natural environment. I wanted to live the same way. I got serious about practicing Buddhism when I was twenty years old. My first Dhamma teacher was able to visit our country because we broke away from communism and were making a transition to democracy.
Are you talking about the Burmese Ven. Rewata Dhamma Sayado?
Yes, Ven. Rewata Dhamma Sayado was, at the time, the head of a Buddhist Centre in Birmingham, England. He was a prominent Theravāda Buddhist monk and Abhidhamma scholar from Myanmar. He obtained his PhD in 1967 in Vāranasī and became a university lecturer and published works in Pāli and Hindi. He travelled around Europe to spread the Dhamma and lectured at several universities. He taught Buddhist subjects. The Czech Buddhist Association invited him to the Czech Republic to lead a meditation retreat. I came to the seclusion to practice and learn Dhamma from him. But first, I met him in a public Dhamma talk and I was very impressed with the teaching of the Dhamma. I really understood that this is my path and I found Buddhism through him. He inspired me by his clarity in understanding the Buddha’s teaching (Dhamma), by simple and direct speech, compassion, equanimity and non-attachment. To be in his presence and to learn from him was like meeting a true student of the Buddha, who fully accomplished and realized the ultimate truth and became enlightened.
What kind of Dhamma training did you receive under Ven. Rewata Thera?
After I met him, I immediately asked him if I could join his meditation retreat. He spoke a lot about practice and focused mainly on meditation, mostly on Satipatthāna and the practice of Mettā. It was very easy to understand his teachings. Ven. Rewata Thera spoke directly to my heart; very clearly and simply. It was a very big step for me to have such a great teacher and learn Dhamma through him.
When did you know that you wanted to become a nun and why did you choose Sri Lanka for that purpose?
Ven. Rewata Thera behaved with such ease. I was inspired by how pure he was in his mind and I had never seen anyone with so much compassion before. I came to a conclusion that I wanted to be like him, live the holy life, go this far, become a nun, follow the Buddha’s teachings and study. However, it was not possible, at the time, to ordain in my country, since there was no Buddhist monastery. I started a search in other countries and found a nunnery in Germany led by Ayya Khema. I made an appointment and came to her monastery, but there were visa issues that prevented me from staying. I searched more and came to know of another Theravāda monastery which was in Switzerland. Since I started living and working in Germany I went to visit the Swiss monastery when I had a free time. This is about the time I entered deeper into my practice. After that I waited another 7 years to ordain. I was 33 then. All this wait was because I took care of my very old grandmother in the Czech Republic. I read about Bhikkhunīs in the Tripiṭaka and wanted to be a part of the bhikkhunī lineage and follow the vinaya. Sri Lanka is a place, where the Dhamma teaching of the Buddha still prevails and I think that my past kamma was in Sri Lanka. I decided to ordain here.
Before that had you ever visited Sri Lanka?
I have not been to Sri Lanka before. I read about the history and knew that Sri Lanka has a bhikkhunī saṅgha with nuns living in the community. The system allowed me to feel connected and I wanted to meet them and learn. I was excited about seeing the country where Buddhism is alive. I was young and I had just decided to go and see if I can practice Buddhism there.
When did you start practicing here?
After I arrived in 2003, I went to Horana, Olaboduwa where I met several Sinhalese senior bhhikkhunīs: Ven. Bhikkhunī Vijitha and Ven. Bhikkhunī Dharshika. Ven. Bhikkhunī Kusuma also lived close by. I was very lucky because my āchariya (teacher) Bhikkhunī Vijitha is a teacher of Abhidhamma, Pāli and Sanskrit and also a mentor in Pirivena school for young nuns. I received very good guidance and training, which are given to sāmaṇerīs. I felt very comfortable with her, so I remained in Olaboduwa under her guidance from 2003 until 2009 and practiced the Dhamma-vinaya. I learned from her how to be a ideal nun, how to wear the robe or how to live peacefully in the community. I received the same education as any local Sri Lankan nun and was trained in; pronunciation (which is important when chanting) and doing Amisa Pūja. I also learned the Sinhalese language which was really important to me.
What kind of work did you engage in after your ordination here? (social work etc?)
There is a difference in the practice of monks and nuns and also in the expectations of Buddhist laymen in Sri Lanka. The local people, men and women, come and listen to the Dhamma dāna from the monks and raise Dhamma questions. It is more common that nuns are devoted to social services in the community. And it is given due to natural reasons because women are more open to talk about their private and intimate problems with us, nuns. And they come and ask for help for themselves and their families. Therefore at the beginning my monastic life was more focused on helping people from the villages, the poor, sick and those who were suffering. I ordained one year before the Tsunami, and there was also a war going on.
After the Tsunami you helped a lot of children who were displaced, didn’t you?
Yes I did. After the Tsunami we were very involved in helping people rebuild their lives and also busy with poor children and the children from an orphanage who had lost their parents. Ven. Bhikkhunī Vijitha determined that I was very natural with kids, so I started giving Dhamma classes and taught in Daham Pasal (Sunday School). While I was living in Sri Lanka, even during the war and Tsunami, I did not have a problem to adapt to the same lifestyle as the other local nuns: they slept on the floor, I slept on the floor, they ate once a day, I did the same. When we had enough rice, we ate more, when we had less rice, we ate less. I never tried to get something from the West, just for me because I have roots there. I was living in the same way and accepted the life of the Saṅgha. I did not keep any back door open thinking I would return to Europe or elsewhere. That was out of question. It was important for me to be a part of the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha and Saṅgha’s problems were also mine, there was no difference between us. We were one community. My Bhikkhunīs treated me the same way.
Currently you are the only Bhikkhunī to run a Buddhist monastery in Czech Republic. How is the situation in other European countries?
There is a bhikkhunī monastery in Germany. Just recently they started a bhikkhunī Saṅgha in Belgium and there is a bhikkhunī monastery in England. There are four maybe five bhikkhunīs. We are few. And there are not many senior Theravāda bhikkhunīs in the world in general, since bhikkhunī Saṅgha is still very young since its revival.
How did you find the response of your country’s people to your temple? Do you have many followers?
Buddhism is not historically common in the Czech Republic. Many local people don’t understand the concept of the monastic, how to support them, take care of them and give respect; a behavior that is normally common in Sri Lanka. I sometimes face animosity while walking on the street or misunderstanding in general and therefore there is lack of support.
Has it in any way helped even a few women in your country?
That is the most important part. That’s why I continue to be in the Czech Republic. There is a handful of very loyal yogis; men, women, mothers who have kids, and are very appreciative of having a Dhamma teacher, someone who lives by the Buddha example. With their help we managed to build a new monastery and it took a really long time and it was very hard. We really struggled often to recieve continuous support. Nothing works the same way as in Asia. The positive part is to be surrounded by people who are interested in the Dhamma and really want to practice. I give opportunities to mothers in my ārāma. Mothers are often omitted and don’t have a chance to come for a seclusion and practice as they are busy all the time, so I tell them “bring your kids with you” and I teach them about the Buddha, both at the same time. Mothers have great potential for progress in Dhamma as they have to learn to let go on a daily basis. But the ārāma is open to anybody.
Looking at you, they might think they need to be a nun or a Buddhist monk to follow your path, but you should let them know that that’s not how it is, it’s up to you whether you want to join, but to live your day to day life without stress, there are paths to follow. Your comments.
That is also my point. One does not need to choose the path to be a monastic. The Buddha said, if you like the worldly things and if you like the saṁsāra you should be there; have a family, kids. It’s only if you dislike saṁsāra, if you are not attached to family, if you don’t want to marry, then you can be a monastic and practice in the monastic way.
Because ultimately what I think is people at some stage will start realizing that this is not the real thing, despite you have a family and everything. You can still be unhappy and at the end of it they start following this path. At first they will not realize that this is the way to go, so maybe by addressing that you could probably make progress?
This is why we Buddhist monks and nuns teach the Dhamma, not the religion. Religion is something personal. In many cases, one has no choice as to which spiritual path one wants to take. Since you may be born in a religious family you automatically need to follow the same religion. Dhamma is not a religion. It’s a philosophy. It’s essential to practice at least the five precepts and practice the Dhamma teaching to develop your mind. If the Dhamma can help you to be a better Muslim, Christian, mother or a father then use the Dhamma. Gautama Buddha compared the Dhamma to a medicine for any sickness. If we use the Dhamma as a daily medicine, we can be healed of diseases. One does not need to become a Buddhist, just to take the medicine to be healthy. To become a better human being understand the mind through meditation and Dhamma study. Then one will move away from sorrow and suffering because all these problems, which we have, are because we don’t understand the law of kamma and the nature of things. If we understand this, our problems will reduce. By reducing problems we will also be more encouraged to practice. Whether someone wants to ordain or not is a personal decision. When you have a family you cannot ordain and so can’t if you have children and duties. You cannot just run away from them. You need to first fulfill your responsibilities before you can become a monastic. My interest is to bring those people who are interested in the Dhamma and teach them meditation and show them how to lead a happy life.
You are known for your efforts to introduce meditation among children in your country. Do you think that is important and why?
As I said, this is also something I was focusing on in Sri Lanka. I used to teach children in a Buddhist Sambodhi vihāra in Colombo and in my ārāma in Olaboduwa. I was thinking about how to teach the children in Europe. After I returned to my country the first set who came to me comprised mothers and their kids. They were very interested in the practice of meditation. If you have children, you don’t have many chances to go and join meditation courses or visit monasteries in the western countries. They asked me: “How long do I need to wait? I have another child, so now I need to wait fifteen years until I am able to practice? In Sri Lanka I see that in every temple there are children, mothers and other practitioners together. Nobody says that you cannot enter the temple if you have children.
So I was thinking about bringing this practice to Europe and allowing the kids and moms to come to my place and study the Dhamma with me. I started teaching them the way I was used to in Sri Lanka; religious rituals; how to make flowers, how to make offering to the Buddha, how to do chanting and started teaching them the Dhamma and meditation. When I deliver public lectures in the elementary schools, I understand that what is now missing in Czech education is the morality (sīla). Most teachers I visited were happy that I am bringing such topic because these days it is not easy for them. Since the children lack morality and don’t respect them, they may be rude to the teachers. It is not easy to teach them. Here in Sri Lanka everybody knows the Sigālovāda sutta, the children understand how to respect mother and father, how to respect the teacher and how to respect elders. However this is missing today in the western society. And it is a big problem.
I am focusing on educating children to be good human beings, to follow good ethics, have morals, so that they understand what is wholesome (kusala) and what is unwholesome (akusala). By using the Dhamma wisely they get to know what is right and what is wrong through their action. They also develop the perfections (pāramī). The little ones are our future, they form the generation which will take over after us. It’s very difficult to change minds of adults, but it’s very easy to correct the mind of a child. If I can make these small kids become better human beings, and make their lives better then it will help change the next generation. That’s why I think it is really important to educate children.
I heard that you have plans to translate and edit the Majjhima Nikaya into the Czech language. How are you planning to do this?
There were already previous translations of suttas of Majjhima Nikāya into Czech language. I started collecting them, doing corrections and editing. We have already published a book which comprises the first fifty Suttas from the Majjhima Nikāya and they are now published in the Czech Republic. I also started doing sutta classes in the Czech language because the older generation does not know perfect English and it is not possible for them to study Tipiṭaka in other languages than in Czech.
What is your message to the Sri Lankan Buddhists and Sri Lankan women, who want to practice more of the Dhamma?
I have been able to see because I travel a lot. I noticed that there are these two extremes. In the Western countries people come to Dhamma through meditation courses and Dhamma study classes. So they are well educated in it and are also well developed in the meditation practice. But there is a lack of understanding of the morality, generosity and devotion. It is reflected in the lack of support of monasteries because people don’t understand how to take care properly of the monastics. And here in Sri Lanka you can see the opposite: there is a lot of religious faith, a lot of Pūjas, people take very good care of monastics and monasteries, they are very kind and generous, but they don’t practice much meditation. Their daily lives is more focused on the religious details and one can see that Dhamma here has became more religious than the true Path to attain nibbāna (Enlightenment).
I would encourage the people here to practice more meditation. If you live in another country in the West, there is almost no Dhamma. You see how it is empty, how something is missing. They are missing the spiritual life. Here the Dhamma is prevalent, you can feel it. There is a very strong Dhamma culture, but if people don’t use what they have they’ll lose it.
My message for the beautiful people in Sri Lanka is, please appreciate The Triple Gem which you have because this is something very rare. This country is very special. I consider Sri Lanka as my home and I’ll be very sad if Dhamma disappears from here. We need to protect what we have. This is a real treasure. My message to the people and women in Sri Lanka is to use the Dhamma for the real purpose and learn more about how to practice meditation and implement it into your lives, to attain nibbāna and to be free from all suffering. This is what the Buddha taught us. Use Dhamma as a medicine, you will be cured of all illnesses. You cannot just expect to heal your sorrow by offering flowers to Buddha!
So what you are basically saying is, as the Buddha has preached more than the Amisa Pooja, the Prathipaththi Pooja is more valuable, and one must practice the Dhamma with more Prathipaththi Pooja to be really happy?
Prathipaththipūja is very important, but we need to know how to practice it wisely according to the Buddha’s teaching. In brief, before giving, have a mind that is bright and clear during the offering and be pleased with it once you have made it. This is the best way to make the donation: to be endowed with the three factors you have control over.
In Dāna Sutta in Anguttara Nikāya the Buddha once taught that there are six factors that affect the merit of an offering, three of which are determined by the giver’s mind: “Monks, the lay woman Velukandaki and Nanda’s mother, have established a donation endowed with six factors for the community of monks headed by Sāriputta and Moggallāna.
And how is a donation endowed with six factors? There is the case where there are the three factors of the donor, the three factors of the recipients.
And which are the three factors of the donor? There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright and clear; and after giving is gratified. These are the three factors of the donor.
And which are the three factors of the recipients? There is the case where the recipients are free of passion or are practicing for the subduing of passion; free of aversion or practicing for the subduing of aversion; and free of delusion or practicing for the subduing of delusion. These are the three factors of the recipients.
Such are the three factors of the donor and the three factors of the recipients. And this is how a donation is endowed with six factors.”
Venerable Bhikkhunī Visuddhi can be contacted at email@example.com