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From Baptist to Buddhist: The Venerable Pannavati Bhikkhuni reflects on experience and wisdom

Kellie Kotraba, Columbia Faith & Values
The Venerable Pannavati Bhikkhuni, a Buddhist nun known for her humanitarian efforts, delivered the annual Schiffman Lecture in Religious Studies at Columbia College on Oct. 8, 2013.

Before she began her lecture, the Venerable Pannavati Bhikkhuni looked out at the people standing in the doorway. With every seat filled, the crowd spilled into the hallway, standing room only.

She called them in, inviting students to come sit on the steps leading up to the platform she sat on, or at least sit on the floor up front.

She knew it was a formal setting, she said, but she gave all that up years ago – and she likes her life better this way.

Bhikkhuni, a Baptist-turned-Buddhist-nun, was this year’s featured speaker at Columbia College’s annual Schiffman Lecture in Religious Studies. Students, faculty staff and community members filled Dorsey Chapel on Tuesday morning (Oct. 8) to hear her talk.

These days, Bhikkhuni is co-Abbott of Embracing Simplicity Hermitage in Hendersonville, NC. She’s also a founding director of Sisters of Compassionate Wisdom Buddhist Order. She’s ordained Thai and Cambodian nuns, worked with homeless youth and won awards for her humanitarian efforts. This spring, she’ll be giving a lecture at Harvard.

But very little of that made it into her talk at Columbia College. She talked briefly about the 85 homeless youth who have lived with her – she taught them to bake bread, which is now sold in grocery stores. She mentioned the nuns she ordained in Cambodia – there weren’t any there before, but there are 35 now, thanks to her.

Instead, she focused on her story – and the importance of the stories that we all have.

“Everyone here has a journey,” she said. “We need to pay attention to it – seize the essence of human life.”

Journey to Buddhism

As a little girl, Bhikkhuni went to a Baptist church. “Oh, I loved everything about it,” she said. “Oh, I still do.”

She also played the piano, and by the time she was 13, she was the church organist.

And she had a lot of questions about life.

One day, she felt a new spiritual sensation – a powerful, profound experience. She’d never felt anything like it before, and she didn’t know what it was, or what what it meant.

She asked her pastor: What could it be? It was nothing, he said – that sort of experience passed away with the apostles.

When she told her friends about it, they brought up the store-front churches full of “holy rollers. They did that sort of thing. So, Bhikkhuni tried it out

They welcomed her: “Come on in, sister.”

Before long, she was a long dress and black-hat wearing, “beat you up with the Bible” kind of person.

“I was a walkin’ talkin’ Bible,” she said. But something still wasn’t right. She didn’t want just to know – she wanted to act. To do.

She lost interest in getting so overcome with the spirit that she fell. She wanted to walk upright. There must be something else.

Then, she met the charismatics, who really “sang in the spirit.”

“So beautiful, so high-class,” she said. And she fit in with them.

Still, something was askew. She noticed the wealth all around her – the big houses, the nice cars. That seemed awfully different from the example of Jesus.

It was time for another journey.

She wanted her thoughts, words and actions to correspond with one another. There still had to be something more out there.

This time, she took a different route. Instead of going to more students, more followers of Jesus, she wanted to go to “another master” – another master who could help her understand her own. She went to Unity, and then got involved with the Unitarian Universalists. From there, she found her way to Taoism. Eventually, she moved on to Buddhism.

It seemed lofty, “up here,” she motioned with her hands above her head. But really, she discovered, it was reasonable, and “down here.”

“The Buddha was a down brother,” she said.

Journey to wisdom

Bhikkhuni quoted the Buddha: We can say what we know is true, but we can’t say that it alone is the truth.

What we know, Bhikkhuni said, comes from our own experiences.

Those experiences help in the pursuit of Panya, or wisdom.

Panya comes from “a space beyond our ordinary run-of-the-mill consciousness,” she said. But it also comes with experience, from knowing our own experience.

“Hindsight can produce foresight can produce insight,” she said. “And that, in turn, can produce wisdom.”

It can also make a difference: If we find ourself, know our story, and know our purpose “to seize the essence of our precious human life, we can one person at a time, change this human world.”

This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values (ColumbiaFAVS.com).

Kellie Moore left KBIA in the spring of 2014.