Ven. Dr. Pannavati, a former Christian pastor, is co-founder and co-Abbot of Embracing-Simplicity Hermitage in Hendersonville, NC. A black, female Buddhist monk ordained in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions with Vajrayana empowerments and transmission from Roshi Bernie Glassman of Zen Peacemakers, she is both contemplative and empowered for compassionate service.
An international teacher, she advocates on behalf of disempowered women and youth globally, and insists on equality and respect in Buddhist life for both female monastics and lay sangha. She was a 2008 recipient of the Outstanding Buddhist Women’s Award.
In 2009, she received a special commendation from the Princess of Thailand for Humanitarian Acts and she ordained Thai Bhikkhunis, on Thai soil with Thai monks as witnesses.
In May 2010 she convened a platform of Bhikkhunis to ordain the first 10 Cambodian Samaneris in a Cambodian temple, witnessed by Cambodian abbots including Maha Thera Ven. Dhammathero Sao Khon, President of the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks of the USA.
Ven. Pannavati continues to visit Thailand each year, ordaining, training, offering support for the nuns and assisting in their projects. In 2013 she arranged for 500 books to be sent to both elementary and secondary schools in Rayong. She is also raising funds to improve security at the compounds, as this is an utmost concern in some areas of Thailand.
Pannavati is a founding circle director of Sisters of Compassionate Wisdom, a 21st century trans-lineage Buddhist Order and Sisterhood formed by Ani Drubgyuma in 2006.
In 2011, Venerable adopted 10 “untouchable” villages in India, vowing to help them establish an egalitarian community based on Buddhist principles of conduct and livelihood, providing wells, books, teachers and micro-loans for women. Approximately 30,000 people live in these villages. She has sent funds to complete their first educational center.
Ven. Pannavati founded My Place, Inc. in Hendersonville, NC, which has housed more than 75 homeless youth between the ages of 17 and 23 over the past 4 years. That effort has evolved into a separate 501(c)(3) which has its own academic platform, jobs training program, residential program and social enterprise, My Gluten Free Bread Company.
She remains committed to advocacy for the homeless, sick and disenfranchised, those who are marginalized, abused, neglected and unloved. She loves the Dhamma, lives the Dhamma and teaches the Dhamma internationally.
Note: Following is a transcript (not word for word) of the podcast interview.
Interview with Ven. Pannavati
What brought you to where you are today?
She’s asked that question a lot since she used to be a Christian pastor. There didn’t used to be much meditation in Christian practice, but now there is some contemplative time in the Christian diaspora. She didn’t have a problem with God or Jesus, but she did have a problem with you.
She found a disconnect between the heart and her mind.
There were modes of being that she wanted to abandon.
The short version is that she began to pray and ask for guidance on what she needed to do. And the answer she got, was that she needed to look outside of Christianity. That there was another way to find or come into a place that she was seeking.
It took her some 15 years, before she found the Dharma. She loved the reading.
She needed to rely on herself to come into the fullness of who she is. If she did this work, then she could transform and do what she wanted to do. Learning meditation was easy for Pannavati. But she used to sit in silence waiting for an answer from the Lord, but now she could become aware in silence of pure presence.
With presence she found a certain wisdom comes with that. She learned that she could enter into a space where everything becomes clear. There is a settledness and clarity of heart. She could just simply see. And in that seeing she’s informed, what’s happening, and what her role is in it, and what’s required.
So its’ in the doing of meditation that it becomes clear and it becomes apparent. There’s a settling down that occurs, there’s a stilling of thought. And in that stillness there is a certain vastness of consciousness. An expansion of insight, understanding, and awareness.
And if you immerse yourself in it, you come out with a different view.
It’s like the scientists who are trying to find a solution to a problem, and after laying down, and wake up, and they get it. Meditation is like that for wisdom.
Tuition is information coming from the outside, but there is also intuition, that which rises from the inside. But we have to go there to tap and access that faculty to be better and more present.
What do you think of the difference between waiting and being present?
I think of waiting more of waiting for an answer or to empower. But the waiting I speak of with meditation is different, it’s like a waiter standing not too close, not too far. He’s very present. He’s just waiting for the glass to move. There is something very pregnant in that presence. Right there, seeing deeply. Meditation is not relaxing, it’s an active type of engagement, investigating the structure of appearances.
I like the word attending to the present and paying attention to what is going on in our minds, hearts.
Yes, she likes that word too. Being a mother, she knows what it is like to attend. The connection with a baby goes beyond the gross level. Even if you’re in another room, you can sense that on an energetic level. Where do you really end? Do I end here at the end of my skin? Once you become attuned to another person, you can know how another person is thinking and feeling. Because don’t just end with our skin.
Yes, we’re so trained to think we end with the boundary of our skin bag..
And if we stop right there, then of course there is the automatic setup for me, mine, and everybody else. But if we can tap experientially into the interconnectedness that we have, it will change the focus of our thoughts, the way we think about things, and think about others. We’ll start to be able to consider others as yourself.
Just because we have such a rigid dividing line between others and myself, that we have so many problems. I don’t want to be separate from others. When I put myself in their place, then I come away with a different idea of what’s required in the way I interact and engage.
How has this progression been from prayer to meditation, and then from Mahayana to Theravada?
Pannavati actually went from Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism. She loves the devotion aspect of Mahayana Buddhism, it allowed her to open her heart. Being vulnerable, in it we find our true strength, as human beings. But then she got a copy of the Therevada’s Majjhima Nikaya the middle length discourses.
When she read it is was so clear. She didn’t have a heart problem, but her mind/understanding was not fruitful. Her mind couldn’t always live in the field of the heart. She needed something to train/tune the mind. And she found it there in the Buddhist teachings, this wonderful mind training. Learning to look inside. Learning to be an island onto herself.
While she can’t control what happens in the external world, but she can control her response to it.
And therein lies the freedom. Therein lies the liberation from the mental suffering, how I see and respond to the present moment.
And of course talk is cheap (laughs). We can talk all day long, but in the moment when I really need it to rescue me, is it there? And that is where practice of course comes in.
So we practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
We don’t know that we have it, until the moment arises where we have to live it. Then we can know that there might be more work to do in that area. No harm no fowl. No guilt associated with that, just clear seeing. Then that eliminates that whole area around falling short, missing the mark, guilt, shame, sin, etc. It has no place, it is about seeing clearly, understanding the causes and conditions. Whether I was skillful or unskillful. Volitional or not. Whether able to apply restraint, living with integrity and responding. So it’s interesting and wonderful, and so full you don’t have any time to focus on anybody else.
How has your practice evolved over time. You’re able to let go of some of those old ingrained patterns. It’s very liberating to let that go. Do you still find some of those old habit patterns peaking through?
Oh yes, everyday I find some old habit pattern that comes up. This is the work, you just keep looking. In the beginning I didn’t expect to see that many, but I used to think whatever is wrong it’s out there. (laughs). I have now accepted that maybe there is some wrong view in here. And if I adjust how I see something, than I can also adjust my response to it.
Here’s the thing, if we become OK with ourselves. But this practice also helps to not blame and shame others. Your whole life shifts into an ease dimension, where were you can go for days and weeks without a sense of crossness, getting upset, not feeling depressed, or in sorrow, anger etc. Just seeing what today brings, and handling it to the best of your ability. And then you can just reflect, I can improve on that. And endeavor to improve it.
The capacity for improvement increases in direct proportion to the eradication of guilt and shame.
There’s a certain acceptance that takes place, which I think frees up resources. instead of the barrage of self-criticism.
Yes, it’s harder because we’re such an individualistic oriented society. Achievement, being the greatest, the best, having the most. Compelling us to this neurosis. Whereas in other countries there is a more communal way of living. We’re just coming to terms with that in this young society, we’re still adolescents!
We’re having to learn this kind of coming together, that’s all this diversity conversation. I like to talk about unification of mind. A lot can be accomplished the more we see our commonalities. And engage one another. Being able to hold someone else’s view the same I hold mine. I respect my view, can I respect yours?
And if I think it is un-beneficial view, then have I developed any skillfulness to lay out an alternative way of thinking and looking at something. But if I come at you fighting.
Yeah it just escalates. I like inner disarmament.
You’ve talked about meditation, and how it affected your life, at some point you brought it out into the world as well. Maybe we can talk about how you bring your practice into your daily life. You started ordaining women in other countries that don’t allow ordination of women, how did that work out?
When did you leave Christianity and become this. For me I just kept going on the path. If I’d been a catholic I would have been a missionary, fundraising to pay off the church. I wanted to engage more with people, and found a heart for people, being a Pentecostal and charismatic. So when I became a Buddhist 15 years later. There was great understanding, but I was looking for something that became dynamic and alive, heart in it. So I started doing what I did as a Christian.
In the beginning she’d get messages that monastics don’t do this, monastics don’t do that. People are my forest. Just made herself available. You send out a beacon, and it makes that sound, and it’s the drawing from that sound. So I just made the “I’m available sound”. She got a call from Thailand from a nun. She had someone connect with her who needed someone strong, who wasn’t timid or faint of heart, of making a change to the tradition.
Ok, so she came and helped. Pannavati serves a purpose, employing skillful means to do something useful and beneficial. Being African-american, Pannavati has a view about some things. She learned that, “If you see an opportunity for your freedom, don’t bother to ask your master, just seize it”.
She didn’t really subscribe to the notion of asking so much for the monks to accept to set in a lineage again. If the council says no, she’d use another door. They were able to use our wonderful sisters in the Mahayana tradition. Both of their lineages are Dharmagupta. She’s there to represent the Therevada. We were able to ordain them. Now we have full platforms with the the Therevadins. It has now been established, as of 2014, we have 35 nuns, or female monks. She doesn’t like the way nuns/women get diminished so she prefers to be called monk.
Males are called Bhante, which means revered teacher. Women are called Anne, which means Ante, or sister. So right there that sets an idea in motion amongst all of the people of the society in terms of worthiness. So I refer to myself as a female monk. Not from prideful thinking, just being clear and validating. Otherwise they take on that role, but they still act like ante and sister.
It seems like somehow that crept in a long time ago, based on a over-emphasis on appearances?
Yes, it is. And that’s why the Buddha cautions us to set a watch, the first part of our practice to draw our gaze in. To be careful to avoid we say sexual misconduct (3rd precept), but it really means sensual misconduct. Which means, don’t take everything you see, hear as gospel truth.
Example, of someone taking something out of context, because they only heard the tail-end of a conversation. She reminded them to not take too much stock in what you hear. You have to be careful of the assumptions that we draw, from the limited information that we got.
If we get in the habit of not doing that, we’ll have more happy peaceful minds, won’t be busybodies. We can then even overlook a slight!
These are the ways we suffer, like when you made to be feel invisible. Now it’s not that important to me, I can leave it at that, let it go. It’s not just meditation, but mindfulness as well.
We talk about mindfulness. We’re already mindful, it’s always attached to something. If we forget that, we run off on tangents, we won’t have the whole picture. A sociopath is extremely mindful. But where is his attention? And what other factors form that intention. And his developmental cultivation of compassion and care.
So there’s this 8 fold path of which mindfulness is just one aspect of that. But there’s these other 7 that we have to tend to, starting with “right view”. If I’m still suffering, there is some wisdom I can tap into to become better. So you seek out one who is wise. Hear what they have to say. And don’t just accept it, put it in the cauldron of your own experience. Investigate and see.
Yes, always verify with your own experience and practice.
In terms of mindfulness, what do you think about the new mindfulness craze and it’s de-coupling from the rest of the wisdom tradition?
Yes, absolutely. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful that mindfulness has become popular. But, if you take something out of it’s container, some of the efficacy is lost. And some of the benefit is lost… Yet, there has been some exposure. So i’m happy that mindfulness perhaps has moved mainstream, but we still have work to do.
Happy to see that there are other teachers, are trying to point to the complementary practices, and the deeper teachings of the sages. So that we can be all-around better, not just better with our themes. One of the reasons why we’re opening up the Balsam mountain refuge. To make sure that a more complete teaching is introduced into mainstream society, without using a Buddhist label. Or being able to tap into this universal wisdom that come out of another spiritual tradition. Being to be with one another, and discuss things, instead of coming and going with all silence, and you come and go just with your thoughts, or empty mind back into the same environment.
Good friends in the Dharma is the whole of spiritual life. The only time that we have a time to connect is when we come together at retreats. Ex. rural areas, or just coming and going to dharma centers without real connections taking place. So we think this Dharma center will bring us more back to a middle road place.
Here we all come together in silence, and not be in communion with each other. Buddha was the exact opposite, he talked about the 10 conversations we can have together.
The other thing I wanted to ask was how you’re helping the “untouchables”, the Dalit. The caste system, where people take a teaching and twist it around, and corrupt from the understanding of equality. It looks like you’ve been helping level that playing field.
I didn’t realize that this was still going on after the anti-atrocity law (the Anti-Atrocity Act) was passed to put that to rest. But people are still in that long held custom. So the Dalits have renamed themselves to “the broken people”. And we do go there, and even though they say untouchability doesn’t exist, it still does. Like when a Brahma gets the shadow from a Dalit that he is considered polluted. Buddha tried to change that erroneous understanding back when he lived. It’s not by your virtue of birth that your status as a human is known, but by what you do in your life. So even in that day, he was working in his own way against the understanding one person being more worthy than the other just based on birth. And of course we have similar views including our own country.
Laws are for people, people are not for laws. The only way you can change that is how you relate to one another through the heart. So I get more from them than they get from me. They’re so kind and gentle, it’s a pleasure to work with them, on what they are working on.
So I take a team once or twice a year, and we do what we call “bearing witness” retreats, just showing up. Not telling what they need or teaching Dharma, but coming in solidarity with them, asking them to tell us what they need. Before we can teach anything they need water! So we’d do a well project, and then a sewer project, health program. So we have doctors that come and train on how to deal with sanitation, toilets, health and books. So one thing leads to another, but just from people touching people.
So it’s teaching dharma outside of words, in the way you’re being and in your actions…
Yes, it’s just living it (living the teaching, as opposed to just talking about it). Yes, I was in a school, and this person was suspicious of us being there (based on a disappointing experience with a group coming in to “help” years earlier). But when we came in there were 68 children, leaky roofs, and no toilets. So we started repairing, doing different things.
She wanted our help, and yet there was still that wall (based on her expectation from the past experience). And then finally last year, she said, “I just wanted to say, that the last group thought us about God, but now I see God”. What she was saying it wasn’t just talk, just doing something.
There was a heart-to-heart engagement that went beyond any physical thing we were doing, but really being One. And I think that is what we are longing for.
We don’t know it, but we try to satisfy that longing with things, from degrees to cars. When there is really something else that the heart is yearning for, that is that interconnection with all other beings.
And the sense of belonging?
Knowing who we really are. If I think I’m less than what I am, then I don’t function fully. But if I know who I truly am, I function fully. Then there is no sense of deficiency. A happiness and confidence comes with that. That life has meaning. I can seize the essence of a human, I can see the essence, and the preciousness of a human life.
And then everything becomes precious then…
Yes…And this world that is a hell realm becomes a Buddha land.
That’s another trap then. We want to get out of this world, there might be a better one after.
Yeah. The Buddha said, that whatever the seeds you plant that is the tree that’s gonna grow. So you don’t have to be striving and praying to get to heaven. Yeah, you plant good seeds and there’s going to be a good destination. That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to ask anyone can you get in, just plant the seeds and then water.
Do you have one or two more tips you want to tell people listening for the listener who would like to be more at peace with themselves and connected to the world.
Yes, you just said it….listen. If we just open ourselves up to listen to others, without crafting our response while they’re speaking. without thinking they don’t know I’m ,the one who knows. Without tearing apart how they said it, manufacturing in our minds why we think they said it, etc. If we can just learn to develop the practice of listening. Being able to hold our tongue and our thoughts for a few minutes, then our understanding can grow, and we can be better at how we respond.
That is part of what meditation teaches us. It teaches us to take that pause, have that down time, instead of that knee jerk reaction. We’ll become happier, our hearts become healthier. And we’ll be friendlier.
Thanks so much!