Jeff Wilson visits the Carolina Buddhist Vihara, unlikely home of a reborn Theravada lineage.
"I have dreams," Charlotte Sudhamma Bhikkhuni admits. It’s a sweltering day late in the South Carolina summer, but here in the shrine room of the Carolina Buddhist Vihara (residential temple) there’s enough air conditioning to relax and imagine the future. A larger-than-life white Buddha statue sits serenely on the altar, and a mural covers the walls and ceiling, with bald eagles and elephants frolicking in a charming—if ecologically somewhat confused—scene. “I’d like to see the bhikkhuni lineage well established in the States,” she continues, referring to the order of Theravada Buddhist nuns. “Whether that can ever happen through my work or not it’s hard to say, and maybe it just won’t ever happen. Or maybe it will. It’s still a very tender little thing.”
Venerable Sudhamma didn’t set out to help change the course of Buddhist history. As she puts it simply, after encountering the dharma via some Thai monks it occurred to her that “being a monk was the best thing I could possibly do for myself.” Yet whether or not she sought such a distinction, she resides on the cutting edge of Buddhism. As a female monk, Ven. Sudhamma represents the reappearance of fully ordained Theravada nuns after their extinction more than fifteen hundred years ago. And as abbess of the Carolina Buddhist Vihara, she is a pioneer in other ways as well. South Carolina has very few Buddhist groups of any kind, and even fewer female teachers. Greenville, where the temple is located, is perhaps best known as the home of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian college notororious for maintaining a ban on interracial dating through the end of the twentieth century.
Though there hasn’t been any acrimony, race is an element in the mix at the vihara as well. Greenville’s small Sri Lankan communitY—mostly families who arrived in the area within the last few decades—established the temple at the end of 2000. For the first several years it was staffed by a succession of Sri Lankan monks. But Ven. Sudhamma, who arrived in 2003, is white, as is Venerable Sucinta, a second nun who joined the temple in 2004. In America there have been many cases of Asian monks ministering to white congregations, but few situations where Caucasian teachers headed temples with a significant Asian American population. Interestingly, it seems that Ven. Sudhamma’s ethnicity was actually counted as a bonus when the vihara invited her to leave her studies in Sri Lanka and assume responsibility for the temple. As she puts it, “I think a primary thought in the supporters’ minds was that sometimes the Sri Lankan monks have been lonely and homesick. But I was born and raised in Charlotte, so this is very close to home. This neighborhood looks much like the neighborhood I grew up in.”
It is a neighborhood of comfortable but modest-sized houses, situated in a Greenville suburb. Buddhists have sometimes struggled in the South to found permanent temples and meditation centers. Communities that don’t want temples, either out of prejudice or fear of traffic, routinely use zoning laws to exclude Buddhist institutions. The Sri Lankan community of South Carolina had to be smart about establishing a place for itself. After quietly meeting for three decades in local homes, they felt it was time for a permanent temple and found a way to skirt the legal impediments by utilizing a loophole in the local zoning code. As Ven. Sudhamma explains, “A vihara is a dwelling. This is the Carolina Buddhist Vihara, so it’s actually a monk’s dwelling. Zoning allows a dwelling at which you have prayer meetings. I’m not sure how much praying is going on in the Buddhist context, but....”
Carolina Buddhist Vihara is a one-story ranch house, with nothing more than a simple lotus painted on the front door to differentiate it from the other residences. There’s not even a sign. Buddhism doesn’t get much lower-profile than this, though, of course, that all changes when Ven. Sudhamma and Ven. Sucinta go out wearing their saffron robes. Happily, the neighbors seem to appreciate the unassuming way in which the vihara has settled quietly into the area, and there haven’t been any major incidents or disagreements. In fact, one devout Catholic family in the neighborhood has become a staunch supporter of the temple, occasionally providing the nuns with food offerings.
In a way, the unlikeliness of an orthodox Theravada temple run by a nun in South Carolina may work in favor of the permanent reestablishment of the bhikkhuni order. Buddhist monks are supported by Asian societies, but women who seek to live an ordained life in Theravada countries often encounter stiff opposition in cultures used to the idea that women do not take on such roles. In America, a Buddhist nun seems no more anomalous than a Buddhist monk. As the Carolina Buddhist Vihara’s congregation has grown, it has primarily attracted non-Buddhists, who arrive without preconceived ideas of Buddhist propriety. They don’t know that there are some who feel upset by the idea of female monks. Thus the general American populace’s very lack of knowledge about Buddhism may play an important role in the return of the bhikkhuni order to Theravada Buddhism. It’s an unexpected irony: Ignorance, usually the bogeyman of Buddhism, turns out to be a strange ally at times.
Jeff Wilson is a contributing editor to Tricycle and the author of The Buddhist Guide to New York.
Image: Ven. Sucinta and Ven. Sudhamma in front of the Carolina Buddhist Vihara's main altar; © Jeff Wilson