A Buddhist nun with wisdom to share

Q & A | published in Real Change on Dec. 5th, 2012
Interview with: Venerable Pannavati

Breaking bread with Venerable Pannavati, who may be the world’s only black Buddhist nun

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I grew up in Silver Spring, Md., in a world full of black women who told stories. My mother, my aunts, my grandmother, cousins, neighbors, friends: Each of these women could spin a yarn or crack a joke or just plain cut up, to use a down-home expression, with an ease that caused time to evaporate like the steam rising from my mother’s just-cooked sweet potato pie. That might explain how I spent more than two hours hanging out with Venerable Pannavati. Not only did she speak with nearly the same inflection as many of my relatives, her ability to tell a story made time disappear.

Venerable Pannavati (pronounced pah-nuh-wah-tee) has been called the world’s only black Buddhist nun, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be typecast as a black Buddhist teacher. “I’m a Buddhist teacher, you know.” And a vocal one. In previous interviews, she’s commented on the patriarchal aspect of institutional Buddhism, one similar to what she saw in institutional Christianity, which shaped her early life. In our time together, she told me her tradition of Buddhist nuns aren’t supposed to cook, which seems ironic given she started a bakery run by homeless youth in Hendersonville, N.C., where she’s the co-abbot of Embracing Simplicity Hermitage.

But Pannavati, 61, doesn’t live for irony. She said she only wants to walk a path of truth, one of investigation. She came to the West Coast to hear what Buddhists and others had to say. But in this instance, I was the one who listened. So after showing her, in her friend’s kitchen, how to turn off a radio that aired a speech Barack Obama gave days after his reelection, we sat together and talked about “Holy Roller” churches, prejudice in the Buddhist community, Buddhism’s guiding principles of the “Four Noble Truths,” the invisible children of Hendersonville and the maligned children of India.

I know what venerable means [along with being a Buddhist title, it also means renown], but what about Pannavati?

“Panna” means “wisdom,” and “vati” is “the one who has,” so it’s like “wise woman.”

The press materials said you are the world’s first black Buddhist nun.

I don’t think I’m the first, but I do believe I’m the only one.  I think there’ve been a couple of people who tried it for a few months and said, “That’s OK.” [Laughs.]

Why haven’t you?

It was just my path, you know?  Ever since I was a child I felt that I wanted a more cloistered life.  But we were Baptist, and Baptists didn’t have nuns. So it was just a natural progression for me.  Plus, I already had my loves, I had my children, I had my successes, had my education, had my business. I had done everything, good and bad, that I wanted to by the time I was about 40.  So [becoming a nun] was really like stepping into a freedom, something that was the last thing for me to do.  Or be.

You know I’m tempted to ask: What was a bad thing?

[Laughs.] Well, I was a product of the 60’s, I had my hate thing going on. I’ve done my drug thing.  I haven’t always carried myself with integrity.  And that was one reason I stepped out of the spiritual tradition I was in because [personally], it was like sweet and bitter could come out the same fountain. How can this be? I mean, you catch me on a good day, great; you catch me on a bad day… . The thing about Jesus was he and his words were one. I wanted to be like that, like a perfect correspondence between my thoughts and my words and my actions, and it wasn’t always like that.

You grew up in Maryland.

Yeah. But actually, I was born and raised in D.C. But when a sister could bust a move, you know, in those days, she left D.C. [Laughs.]

How about if you talk about the church you attended when you were young?

Well, I grew up at First Rising Mount Zion, and it was wonderful. I loved it so much. I was playing the piano and being the summer organist when I was as young as 13. It felt very comfortable. But I was very intense in my fervor and my prayer, and I began to have experiences Baptists don’t have.

Such as?

Such as speaking in tongues and having these — experiences: just abiding in heavenly realms and not being able to tell the difference between there and here sometimes. And when you have them, you don’t see mundane life in the same way. Or at least for a while. So I was praying one night at home, in my bed, and I had one of these experiences, and I was telling them at church, and they’re like “Oh no, no, no.” Then I went on to a Pentecostal church: They called those Holy Rollers in my day. There was one on almost every corner in certain areas.  We had already been told, “Stay away from those folks, they crazy!”  But after I had this experience, they didn’t seem so crazy to me.

My brother helped. I was forbidden to go to the church, but he would sneak me out.

I walked in that way for a very long time, but I found I just went back and forth between doing beneficial things and unbeneficial things, fruitful and unfruitful, selfish and generous.

I prayed for a teacher, and I ran into Ken Copeland [the televangelist who preaches the “prosperity gospel,” which professes people can become wealthy through faithful acts] and the whole world moved. I mean, we could tear up some furniture. It felt like fire. We just called it the gift of God. I encountered the Davidic praise and worship movement.

What does that mean?

Instead of people offering the blood of goats and calves and lambs, they offered the fruit of their lips giving praise. This started putting my spirituality on a track.

And then one day I’m on a plane, and this voice in my head says, “Well, now you worship in the worship.”  I said, “OK, that’s it, I give up. There’s no place else to go in Christianity.” I had an experience shortly after that, a particular vision, and it showed me the way out.

So you are the only black Buddhist nun in the United States.

In the world.  But that says something.

What does it say?

Says we have work to do [laughs] within the Buddhist community. [Buddhism] kind of hit these shores, and you had your upper-middle-class folk who went over to India, and they brought it back here and were sharing it. That didn’t really go that well, because you sort of had to get it to get it. So then they went and got degrees in psychology and psychiatry, and then they could take patients and show them this mindfulness thing. They founded centers, but it stayed right within that upper-middle-class container. And so here we are, 60 years later and still right there. We recognize that needs to change.

I’d go to a meditation center, and they’re so happy to see me, because, you know, they have one [black Buddhist]. Then I go and bring somebody. Well, now we have two. And I come again and bring somebody, they’re meeting us at the door: “We made this cassette for you; you could take this and you and your friends can meditate right at home.” So I had that too. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I was a product of the ’60s, I’d already been through that, not going back. So I would continue to come, if the door wasn’t locked, and [recognize] that people are the products of their environment, and then finally they move beyond the limitations society has imposed on them, and they find their true heart. Or they find someplace else to go, ‘cause I’m not leaving.

So the Four Noble Truths.

What about them?

Well the first one is often translated as “All life is suffering.” And the second is “Attachment causes suffering.” So, could you speak a little bit about suffering and attachment?

All right. But Westerners, we always think we’ve got it all, so when something’s off, we like to start right at the top. So the Four Noble Truths — I don’t teach that in the beginning because folk just can’t get it. I start with generosity and some other things.

But it talks about the truth of suffering, that it has a cause, and anything that has a cause or a beginning can have an end, or a cure, and there is a path leading to it. That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell.  And so we started asking ourselves, “This thing that I’m doing, how do I really feel about it? How lasting is my happiness with it? Why am I really mad with the guy next door? Is it something he’s really doing or is there just some deep unhappiness, and he just kind of sets me off when I see him?” That’s my favorite enlightenment factor: investigation.

Then we can see that sometimes I’m just taking something out on you that has absolutely nothing to do with you.  Or you remind me of somebody that I knew, and he did this, and when I see you, there’s this resonance just due to memory. Or that car that I wanted: Now it’s $600 per month, so why did I buy that car? So even the things that bring us some joy, we see that that doesn’t stay, it’s not lasting. That guy I thought I just had to have: Why did I do this, and how do I get out? And we start seeing, everywhere we look, something starts off good, and then somewhere along the line, something changes.

That was how I met one of my husbands. I was riding up the street, and he was there working on his car.  He looked really good, so I just pulled right over and said, “Excuse me. I think my car’s running hot. Can you check it for me?” [Laughs] So he stopped working on his car and came over and checked mine and said, “Nope, everything seems to be OK.”  I said, “You’re not from around here.”  He said, “I live right there.” Now, I was on my way to my house, which was three blocks from my mother’s house. He pointed to my mother’s house.  I said, “No, you couldn’t possibly live there.” He said, “I’m renting a room.”  That’s how we met.

But here’s this thing: I saw something, consciousness arose. “That’s a good looking man.” Good hair, nice car. So here’s this contact. It was a good feeling, a pleasant feeling. And I wanted more. But if I hadn’t liked the feeling, there would have been an aversion. So we start to see this relationship between the information we take in through the sense gates and our feeling. So these are the ways that we’re starting to learn how our life rolls out and understand the Four Noble Truths a little more deeply, so they have some relevance in our lives. I mean, when a thought comes, that means it’s not mine. It came, stays for a little while, and even if I want, I can’t keep it. Thoughts leave by themselves.

You mean it’s not your thought?

It’s just like turning on a radio. We were listening to Obama earlier. A tuner or receiver picks up a signal and pipes it in.

But where does it come from?

It came out of the ether. You know: There it is. Ever walked in an elevator and people were fighting, and then the door opens, and they’re looking up at the number to see what floor we’re on? But you know they were just fighting because you step in the elevator, and it’s charged with the energy? Or when you go downstairs and your kids, one’s sitting in this corner and one’s all the way over there in that corner, but you can feel the charge, and you know they were close a few minutes ago?  You start to find there’s this nonmaterial reality that greatly influences us. There’s some condition that exists, so we have to ask: What came before that? What came before that and before that? We start to see how our life is clipping by like frames on a film. Now I start to find out the reasons that I’m unhappy. It’s not because you did it, but it was some view that I had. That’s why two of us can see the same thing, and when we go to describe it, we saw two different things.

You talked about having a husband.

Well, I had three husbands. I mean, I had a great life! I enjoyed every one of them!  But in life, there is this truth of impermanence, and things are constantly changing. And we have an aversion to change. I mean, even when it’s a good change.

Most people will hear the term “Buddhist nun” and think: Husband? How could you have ever had a husband? Or husbands?

Well, in this country, we don’t become nuns till late.  In Eastern countries, they have very few nuns now. But traditionally, young people, they grow up as boys in the monastery, and they never marry.  But here in the West, I would say most nuns have been married, at least once.

So you’re talking about young people.  Let’s talk about the work you do in Hendersonville.

It happened by — well, I say, accident. Of course, nothing is an accident in the way we think. But I went there to open a monastery, to have a place where Westerners could come and study and not have to worry about how they would pay. That’s a hardship for a lot of people, particularly people of color.

So I opened this place, and I thought a lot of people would come, but they didn’t. I have an all-Caucasian [monastic community] in ultra-conservative Hendersonville.  Half of them are Republican, so it’s not a liberal, Democratic community.  But they’re just human beings, and they still have things they’re grappling with.

Nuns don’t work, so in America, we have to figure out how to get things. I had a business that my husband and I had owned jointly, and when he sold it, I got some money, so I bought a property to renovate. I couldn’t hire first-class contractors, and I used to be a developer, so I would hire people off the street and teach them how to do different things. When they first came, they would [have a] nasty mouth, pants hanging half off and just basically disrespectful. But when they saw they could make a window frame, they started developing pride. I said, Maybe I could start a program training people who don’t have jobs.

I mentioned it to a friend, and he said, “You need to come to a meeting.” We went; there were 55 groups, social service agencies, and they were talking about the homeless population. And I’m like, “What homeless people?” And they said, “They sleep under the viaducts, in laundromats, in cars; they couch surf.” And they were talking about children: 15, 16, 17.  I began to investigate, and suddenly, I could see them. I thought they were just hanging out in the laundromat ‘cause they didn’t have anywhere to go, not because they had nowhere to live.

Well, this group had been meeting for 10 months, and nobody could come up with a solution. So I talked to my congregation and said, “We have this monastery here and nobody stays, so I’d like to open this up for the homeless kids,” and they agreed. In the first two weeks, I had 14 kids, and then it kept growing. So then I had to get another house and another house. Then I got a phone call from the community director at United Way; she was very supportive of me. She said, “Is there anybody else here who could do this besides you? You’re Buddhist, you’re black, you’re from the North, and it just doesn’t sit well. And you’re female, a real outspoken one. We just have a different way here.” I just kept on with it. After a while I got a lot of support, because everybody wanted to be on the bandwagon for taking care of homeless kids. They would bring a blanket, a pillow, a can of beans — then they’d go on back home.

Most of these kids, they left home for a reason: family incest, parents on drugs or they can’t deal with the sexual orientation of their child, they’re going to houses of worship that teach them to turn against their child out of fear of being cursed by God and going to hell. I saw all of this and [knew] they needed more than three hots and a cot. They need a way out. School represented failure, so I set up my own private high school. These kids, they’d be making D’s and F’s in school, and they come over here, and they’re making A’s and B’s. These kids are ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD [oppositional defiant disorder], bipolar, schizophrenic, socio-affective disorder, autistic: all kinds of issues.

Our center was downtown. It was called a ghetto place even though I was the only black there. We’re a tourist town — you have three blocks and that’s it — so you have this center for homeless teens, and there was no support for it.  Last year I had to close it.  Seventy-five kids had lived with me. It was just a wonderful story, but it was a story that embarrassed a very private community.

So I was thinking, I don’t want it to end like this. I was talking with one of my teachers, and he said, “You need to go about it a different way. You need to have a social enterprise.” I shared this with my supporters, and we came up with the idea of a gluten-free bakery.  I said, “A little bakery is just gonna pay the rent.” So I changed it to “My Gluten Free Bread Co.” So we have 300 and some homeless kids, and I started fundraising and in about six months, I had raised about $80,000. I could begin to buy equipment off Craigslist, eBay.  Now we can supply 10 stores; we have the first gluten-free bakery training program in the country. Our program is licensed by the Department of Labor. It’s a 600-hour pre-apprenticeship program. It’s been a long, hard battle.

And you also have a program in India to help the untouchables [members of the Dalit community, who are ostracized because they’re considered unclean]. What’s that work like?

Well, it can be dangerous work, especially if you’re brown. I got an email from a guy in India to help the untouchables. I said, “Well, how’d you find me?” He said, “I googled for a black Buddhist nun. You were the only one who came up.”

They are a people, around 160 million, who are called non-human. This is in Tamil Nadu, in southern India. I went there, and it’s something. If the shadow of an untouchable falls on an upper-caste person, they’re considered polluted, and they have to go home and wash their clothes and take a bath. So you can imagine growing up in a place where their children are told they’re filthy and unclean from the day they’re born till the day they die. And that’s just their karma. There’s nothing they can do about it.

So this community of 10 villages, they’ve been working at self-empowerment. I agreed to get involved because I saw the children. Their children are much like us in the ’60s. They said, “Enough,” and they’re starting to fight back.

You’re going to be living there?

I’m going back in January of 2013 for about three weeks or a month. And I have to finish off some things here in the States, after I set up a support base. I mean, these are beautiful, beautiful people. I didn’t think any people could feel more marginalized than African Americans, but there are.

Photo by Lucien Knuteson

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