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Some words on being a College Member and a Public Preceptor
This year, after much consideration and consultation, I decided, for health reasons, that I needed to retire from the College. I am in my early 70’s so it also felt timely from that point of view. I attended a few days of the recent November College meeting for my farewell, which involved a delicious meal followed by very fulsome and moving rejoicings in my merits.
I was appointed as a Public Preceptor in January 1998 and joined the then College in March of that year, and performed my first Public Ordination at Tiratanaloka in June.
I had no idea that I would be asked to be a Public Preceptor. I had been involved in the women’s ordination retreat centre project since 1990, which involved fundraising and searching for a property. We moved into Tiratanaloka in 1994 and I was appointed as a private preceptor in 1996.
The College was founded in 1993, and one of the reasons that I and the Tiratanaloka team joked that we wouldn’t be asked to be Public Preceptors was that all of the existing members names began with ‘S’! More seriously the ordination team had heard that there was likely to be a new woman Public Preceptor, but she wouldn’t be from Tiratanaloka as our team was still quite small, and Public Preceptors were expected to live in Birmingham.
So I was really surprised when at the beginning of 1998 I was invited to ‘have a cup of tea’ with Srimala and Sanghadevi, our two women Public Preceptors, whilst they were visiting Tiratanaloka for an ordination team meeting. My memory is that they said something like; ‘you are our new Public Preceptor’! It didn’t occur to me to ask for time to decide, or to say no. I felt a mixture of surprise, shock, and a deep sense of gratitude that they, and Bhante, thought me capable of such a responsibility. I wanted to do my best to fulfil that responsibility and to serve Bhante and his vision of the Order and to help more women to join our Order.
Although I was told in January, it wasn’t officially announced until March and between those dates it was supposed to be confidential. However, during that time I was on retreat and sharing a room with Vimalachitta who is a close friend of mine, and I needed to tell her. I trusted her to keep my confidence. She was overjoyed and bounced on my bed, saying; “that is fantastic, it is a big thing, you will be stepping into Bhante’s shoes”, at which point I just fell asleep! Later, if I was finding it difficult to get to sleep, I would say to her; ‘can you say that thing to me’!
Padmavajra was appointed at the same time as me, and we attended our first College meeting in March 1998. I knew from working closely with Srimala and Sanghadevi that they were very stretched, so I wasn’t surprised when, before the tea break, ‘they gave me Europe’! I would be the Public Preceptor overseeing ordination processes for women in the UK and Europe. Also before the first tea break Subhuti mentioned that he was thinking of passing on some of his presidencies to me. I think I turned white, and he said maybe that was too much for now!
I also remember someone, who I later ordained privately, sitting in my room in Tiratanaloka, and asking what did it mean to be a Public Preceptor, and I said that I didn’t really know and that I was sure that I would find out. She pointed me to the page in the then booklet ‘What is the Order’, which outlined the responsibilities as at the top of the pyramid of responsibility! Help!
One of the things that happened almost at the same time as my being appointed was that my widowed mother, who already had a heart condition, took a turn for the worst. I had acquired a big, new, many faceted responsibility. I needed to be involved with the Tiratanaloka team, Going for refuge retreats, and Ordination retreats; to be in Birmingham for Preceptor College Council and College meetings for two months of the year; and I wanted to care for my mum. This was a stretch. The upside of looking after my mum was that if I had had any tendency to get caught up in status, to her and the many doctors, nurses and carers I came in contact with, I was just her daughter.
During this period I received a letter from Sangharakshita, asking me how I and my mother were. He concluded the letter by writing, ‘No doubt you are still trying to do justice to your responsibilities at Tiratanaloka and your duty – inadequate word! – to your mother. You are obviously both a very good Buddhist and a very good daughter. The two seem to go together.’
This was very encouraging as often those two responsibilities as a daughter and as a Public Preceptor, felt in conflict, especially in terms of time and space. The only way I could cope with the conflict was to find deeper resources within myself, to go for Refuge more deeply, and to call on my yidam, Green Tara. In this way, my responsibilities as a Public Preceptor and my love and duty towards my mother, arose from the same ‘place’. I think my effort bore fruit in the emergence of a deep sense of faith and inner contentment. I wrote more fully about this in an article for Madhyamavani called a Good Buddhist and a Good Daughter.
I conducted my first Public Ordination at Tiratanaloka in 1998 at the end of a Mythic Context Retreat. Unfortunately none of the other Public Preceptors could attend as support so they suggested that I invite some close friends, which was good advice. Usually, I am confident with a big audience and but on this occasion, though I didn’t feel particularly nervous, my palms were really sweaty. It seemed like a very big thing to conduct the ceremony and bestow the Kesa on those two women. Once I had given my talk and performed the Seven Fold Puja, I was fine. Between 1998 and 2004 I publically ordained 114 women in various situations. I would have ordained another 18 in 2000, whose processes I had overseen in had I not been called away because of my mum. I did my most recent public ordination with Parami at Taraloka in 2014, and in contrast to my first experience, I felt totally relaxed.
The early College meetings were quite small and I remember them as being pretty unstructured. We would meet and see what issues arose rather than having to have a huge agenda. I learned so much from my more experienced brothers and sisters as to what the responsibility involved and especially how to delve back into the principles that underlay the issues arising. Also there was often wonderful Dharma study, often led by Subhuti or Padmavajra, and one memorable retreat where we focused on Vasubandhu’s 30 verses, and the six element practice.
At the end of 2002 we realised that various College members were feeling stretched and we needed to think about expanding the College. We moved from more informal discussion into talking about how that would work and what structures we needed in order to be in good communication whilst being in different geographical areas. This was exciting, but early the following year the Order received Yashomitra’s letter and the Movement went into a period of re-appraisal. Nevertheless we proceeded and by the end of 2004 we had appointed about 16 new Public preceptors, who had all been through a consultative process, rather than just being appointed. We were also committed to expanding the pool of private preceptors also via consultative processes. This was a good initiative but added quite a lot of administrative work, as the processes needed to be thorough and can be time consuming. I have acted as correspondent to numerous such processes.
Becoming a Public Preceptor and College member obviously increased my responsibilities. It involved getting to know women coming up for ordination deeply, reading all their letters and making the final decision as to their readiness for ordination. Some of the work was, therefore, administrative. But it all took place within what was for me a mythic dimension. I thought of Tiratanaloka as a mythic space and I spent much of my time there on retreat. Many of the ordination retreats that I was involved in occurred in Il Convento in Tuscany. The ordinations took place in the midst of intense retreats and we created many rituals in the old cloisters there.
My involvement with Tiratanaloka took quite a dramatic and unexpected turn in 2005. At the end of 2003 I had contracted a bad dose of pneumonia, and throughout 2004 I continued to have a stream of infections. I had thought that I would take a 6 month sabbatical anyway in my 60th year, but I realised that I needed longer to recover, and that I should leave and have some open-ended time.
I moved back to London, and had 18 months of unstructured time, which was very nourishing. Since then my involvement in the College has been different. I don’t live at Tiratanaloka though I did become their President. I haven’t been involved in the Akashavana retreats or conducted many Public Ordinations, but I continued to go to College meetings, oversee the consultative processes, be involved in final decisions for ordination, and in the training of private preceptors.
Being a College member and a Public Preceptor has been a big part of my life. Of course, though I am no longer in the College, I will always be Public Preceptor to those that I ordained. It has been a great privilege to witness so many women entering the Order, and to have worked so closely with my fellow College members and the team at Tiratanaloka when I lived there and with the present team.
Subhuti once said that when you take on a responsibility it is not just an add-on, but involves a change in consciousness and I agree with him. In terms of having the final decision in someone’s ordination, I felt that I needed to develop a greater sense of perspective, objectivity, and a willingness to take in all the factors, to ask the questions needed and to take the time that it takes, and not to give into any pressure, however well meant.
Of course the most wonderful aspect of this level of responsibility is conducting a Public Ordination Ceremony. There is nothing quite like bestowing a Kesa on someone and welcoming them into the Order, on behalf of the Order. I think it is one of the most positive acts, vis a vis other people, that I have been able to do.