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Daily Connect: A (Rebel) Buddha in North Carolina

I had the great good fortune to attend a teaching with Venerable Panavatti Karuna, a Buddhist monk ordained in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, a former Christian pastor, a Taoist monk and an initiated yogi, who holds a doctorate in religion (!).  Venerable Panavatti is the Abbot of Embracing Simplicity Hermitage and is a member of Roshi Bernie Glassman’s Zen Peacemakers organization. 


Venerable Panavatti teaches the importance of cultivating integrity through practice, and encourages her students to really question Buddhist methods and rules, as the Buddha himself suggested.   She cautions against Buddhism getting caught in a “spiritual caste system” whereby people are discriminated against by gender, or by suggesting lay people are lower than monastics, or by calling certain schools “higher” or “lower” schools (as in the label of Hinayana versus Mahayana). 

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.

When she became a Bhikkhuni (female monastic with equal status to male monastics), she quickly apprehended the patriarchal nature of many Theravadan schools, which prevented the full ordination of nuns into Bhikkhunis.  Venerable Panavatti began arranging for nuns to become ordained, and in 2009, she went to Thailand, and ordained many nuns, although it is forbidden in that country. (Later, the Princess of Thailand gave her a special commendation for doing so). 

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.

Soon after her hermitage opened in North Carolina, it became a place of refuge for troubled young people, who Venerable Panavatti refused to turn away.  In order to support them, Ven. Panavatti founded My Place, a local non-profit dedicated to the advancement of opportunities for homeless and at-risk youth.  It provides housing and educational assistance to the community, though it is not without its detractors.  

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.

At her talk on Friday, Venerable Panavatti cautioned students to really find out who they are and not just who they want to be.  She said that many western Buddhists are actually in a “state of aloofness”, which is not the same as equanimity, but rather an avoidance of reality.   She said that really looking at our minds and asking how (not why) we believe what we believe and feel what we feel will enable us to discover who we really are.  And sometimes we discover we are simply letting go of a story that someone else told us about who we are.  She said that peeling back the stories is like removing skins from an onion, and ultimately we discover we are the light, and learn to dwell in that light.  







Venerable Panavatti, May your lotus feet be stable and your activity flourish and may you be protected from harm!


Next week, Venerable Panavatti is visiting India with Roshi Glassman and other Peacemakers to provide spiritual and practical assistance to five Dalit (“untouchable” caste) villages.   You can follow her on Facebook or at the Embracing Simplicity Hermitage
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