An Interview with Venerable Pannavati Karuna

Profession: Co-Abbot, Embracing Simplicity Hermitage; Founder of My Place
Age: 60
Location: Hendersonville, North Carolina

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding Maryland area.

What was your religious upbringing? I was raised as a Baptist Christian.

How did you get from the Baptist church to Buddhism? I felt the love of Jesus enter my heart when I was 6. But, when I was 13, I had an experience that the Baptist church said was not real, so I had to look outside of the church for an explanation: I began speaking in tongues, and we didn’t even believe in that in my church! I ended up going to a Pentecostal church—we called them “Holy Rollers”—against the wishes of my mother. Sometimes I would have to sneak out the window to go to services. And my faith deepened.

Eventually I became a Christian pastor, but in 1985 I had a vision that led me away from the church onto my own path, and I entered into a 15-year dark night of the soul. I was really trying to find out who I was, what the meaning of life was. What’s the world all about? Exactly who and what is God? Finally, that path led me to Buddhism.

In 2009 you went to Thailand to ordain Theravada nuns as bhikkunis. How did that trip come about? After becoming a Theravada nun I began to look around me—I could really see the patriarchal aspect of institutionalized Buddhism, and I became very disenchanted with it, I saw that this was the same system as institutional Christianity. When the masters come to the West from the East they bring what good they have to share with the world, but it’s wrapped in culturalism. I had been on a spiritual path my whole life. Still, the teachers want to take you back to grade school—“Let me dress you like me.” Why should I learn Tibetan? I’m not Tibetan. Why should I learn Chinese? I’m not Chinese. Why should I speak Pali? The Buddha didn’t even speak it. I needed to walk my own path, so I just did what I felt that I had to do, and I found support from senior Thai monks and Western nuns to convene the platform. Actually, because I did not have the “required” years to serve as a higher ordination master, Venerable Karuna Dharma gave me written permission to act in her stead so there would be no problem in the future.

I understood when these women, some of whom had lived unofficially as nuns for well over a decade, sought higher ordination, and I was asked to officiate over that higher ordination. (I had previously given them samaneri [novice Buddhist nun] vows.) I wanted very much to do it, because although it is not allowed in Thailand, ordination is an act of the heart—not the country. I was not afraid. It was really, really wonderful. And now it’s done. Nothing more to talk about. Just quietly doing what needed to be done and helping each woman who had a desire to step into the life with her whole heart and full confidence. That’s it.

Tell me about My Place—the center you founded for homeless youth in the Asheville area. I found out that there were hundreds of homeless kids in the city, and I heard that they were sleeping in laundromats and under viaducts and in cars, and couch surfing. This town is basically an affluent retirement area, and virtually no resources are available to older homeless or at-risk teens except jails. I talked to my sangha and said, “We have this monastery just sitting here most of the time—no one spends the night. Would you mind if I opened up the space to homeless youth?” And, they said “OK.”

How did the community respond to a Buddhist nun taking in homeless kids? It’s been very rough financially. We get virtually no support from local foundations or agencies. My Place is an unbelievable concept to the people who live here. When we opened in 2009, we started off with about 14 kids, ages 17 to 20 years old. Can you imagine being in the Southern Bible Belt, having youth in this age bracket living in a Buddhist monastery? Yet with the help of a few dedicated supporters Ven. Pannadipa (co-abbot of Embracing Simplicity Hermitage) and I have parented more than 60 teens over the past two years. We even have our own accredited high school! I didn’t realize the backlash that would come from it. People asked, “What are you gonna do with them? You gonna teach them Buddhism?” I said, “No, we don’t have to teach them Buddhism. We’ll just live like we live.” Some things are better caught than taught. No need to give a good teaching— just live it, and people will catch it. And that’s what happening.

What’s next for you?
Recently, My Place received $1 million in stock from the vice president of an environmentally engaged company, Reshoot Productions. We can’t trade it yet. There are conditions. One is that to continue working in this Appalachian region, the donor would like to see the buy-in of the community. So I’m trying to raise $100,000 over the next 60 days that will be matched 10 to 1 by the corporation over the next few years. We need this to stay afloat. The other condition is that he’d like us to include a formal meditation program. If we’re dependent on local funds, that may not be possible. So I’m asking the national Buddhist community to help me raise the funds. Hopefully I will be able to turn this work over to others within two years. Then, along with some other 21st-century yoginis and yogis, I’ll become more active in the mission of the Sisters of Compassionate Wisdom, an alternative to traditional lineage sisterhood that will support individual nuns’ journeys. Actually, I’ll be doing more by doing less! It will provide a place for solitary retreat, supported by the fourfold sangha, where nuns and laywomen can come in for a period of time for cloistered living and go out with skills and encouragement for compassionate service to the world. I am grateful to have found this simple buddhadharma. I understand that not clinging to anything—bad or good—is the real liberation.

—Rachel Hiles

For more information about My Place, visit myplacewnc.org

Photograph by Kaye Meckley

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