One way to practice dana is by giving money, and another is by giving time. This article was written in 2014 when Mindy Zlotnick became the Pavarana Coordinator for the Alliance for Bhikkhunis. Her story is an inspiration and an example of the dana of volunteering. Margo Mallar, another volunteer for the Alliance for Bhikkhunis, wrote this article following her interview with Mindy and portrays the dedication of a life committed to dhamma.
Directing a program for deaf preschoolers in Singapore in the mid-eighties, Mindy Zlotnick was assigned three staff members and 25 volunteers to train and schedule. People in Singapore were expected to volunteer. She remembers thinking “This is very nice but don’t these people have anything else to do?”
She chuckles and explains, “I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how important it was for them to give like that and how much they were receiving.” After she left Singapore, she went to Thailand, where she was introduced to the Buddha’s teachings. “It was very transformational for me, a really different way of looking at the world, but it took a long time of practice for me to really get it.”
Mindy’s career has always been in social service but she maintained a strong boundary between what she was paid for and what she volunteered for. “Slowly over the years of practice that has morphed,” she says. “My practice has opened my heart enough to let that boundary down, so that I can be of service.” Currently on staff at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, Mindy is AfB’s new Pavarana coordinator.
Mindy began a meditation practice in 1986 and by 1991 she and her partner were full-time foster parents. “That was a huge shift; my practice was being more embedded,” she notes. A year after the death of a child they had parented for 3 years, Mindy stopped fostering, and eventually left for a year and a half long trip in Asia. She attended a number of retreats, including a long retreat in 2000, spending two months in Burma. Upon her return to San Francisco, she got involved with the Saranaloka community, sitting small, intimate retreats throughout the year and many annual 10-day retreats over Thanksgiving given by Abhayagiri in Redwood Valley, California.
When the siladhara from Amaravati were invited by Saranaloka Foundation to come to San Francisco in 2009 to establish a Buddhist monastic residence for women, “Something in my heart just said this is what I want to be involved in” she says. A split with her partner of almost 18 years provided another opening to deepen her practice; she joined the committee to find housing and offered her apartment as a meeting space for supporters to gather. “There’s a big difference between the idea and the invitation and the actuality of how this is going to work,” she explains. They needed a place for planning sessions.
When the nuns decided in 2011 that full ordination was something they wanted to be able to pass to the next generation of Buddhist women, Mindy postponed a three month retreat at IMS in order to be there. She volunteered to help organize the ceremony at Spirit Rock. “It was a really wonderful opportunity to be of service to people I really cared about, who I felt were in a position to change the flavor of the monastic world. It was an honor to serve them and support the work they’re doing in the world,” she says.
“I think that I really began to understand service at a deeper level after spending time with the sisters; I have a deeper understanding of the relationship between monastics and laypeople,” she explains. Most significantly for her own practice, she learned the importance of continuity of practice and taking responsibility for her own practice.
Mindy lived at Aloka Vihara for a few months prior to the ordination of the bhikkhunis. One of her responsibilities was providing meals. Sometimes people would drop off prepared meals, sometimes they would just drop off the ingredients for her to cook. If a recipe called for garlic or onion and it hadn’t been given she would simply go to the corner store, thinking that it was her dana. But then she began to understand that she was cooking to support their practice not to support her ego. “It was good if the food was tasty and looked good but that it really didn’t matter to the sisters what they ate, as long as their bellies were full and they could continue to practice,” she recalls. “It was an amazing experience. I decided to l just cook with what’s offered and trust that what’s needed would appear… and it did. What was most important was the love and care that was put into it, that was the real nourishment. I learned to cook without ego.”
By the time of ordination in a ceremony at Spirit Rock in October 2011, Mindy had reduced her life to the contents that would fit into a car. She left San Francisco that November. “I’m not making decisions anymore, “ she explains. “Decisions are being made. I have to stay open and do my part and research what I want to happen next, what the possibilities are, but each step along the way since I left San Francisco my path has crossed with the things that I need. It’s really worked out for me. It has really helped sustain my trust in this process.”
This is something that she partly attributes to her experience with the sisters. “When they left Amaravati they really stepped out into the unknown,” she recounts. “They didn’t even know if Saranaloka was going to be supporting them because the bylaws at that time were just to support Siladhara and not specifically bhikkhunis. They didn’t know if the board would change the bylaws in order to support them. They just knew that full ordination was something that they needed to do. That amount of trust was amazing to witness. And everything worked out. The board broadened the bylaws to include siladhara and the bhikkhunis of Aloka Vihara. There were a couple of months there where there were a lot of unknowns but they just knew that something would work out…and it did.”
As profound as her experience was with the bhikkhunis, she does not seek to become one herself. “I like to dance too much,” she laughs. I’m a good supporter. There is a symbiotic relationship between the four groups of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laywomen and laymen. Monastics have to accept help with the four requisites of shelter, clothing, food, and medical care and thus stay engaged with the world and not become hermits. This relationship is an important part of the practice. Laypeople get the opportunity to practice generosity, the first foundation of all of these teachings. In turn, the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis can teach lay men and women.”
She points out that while it was sad for many people that the Thai Forest Tradition did not allow the ordination of the Siladhara nuns, necessitating that they leave their community of 20 years, the sisters emerged with a solid foundation of living in community, something that is not an easy thing to do. This history and the habits of communal living will help them formulate something new for women in the West.
Although she doesn’t see the sisters as often as she did in San Francisco, she still feels very connected to them. “They really encouraged me to follow my own path,” a path that has led her eventually to Yogaville, an ashram in Virginia. Her experience cooking for the sisters inspired her to learn more about cooking for large groups. She set that intention and found herself in an internship program in the kitchen at Yogaville. She did a three month retreat at IMS in the Fall of 2012 and has been on staff there since December 2013.
“I don’t think that a path of renunciation is necessarily the only way to support bhikkhunis. It’s just my path at this particular point in my life. I’m 64 years old and it’s inevitable that I’ll settle down in some sort of home situation. But right now this is what’s suiting my practice. I’m here at IMS until December 1st and then I don’t know what is going to happen,” she smiles. “It will unfold.”
Mindy will be coordinating communication between Bhikkhunis around the world and the Board of AfB. Last month a letter was sent out to every known bhikkhuni explaining the Pavarana process and inviting them to submit a list of their needs. Mindy’s role is to follow up on these requests and to communicate them to the Board. She then communicates Board decisions to Bhikkhunis.
About the Author
Margo Mallar lives and practices in Barre, Massachusetts. She has two daughters, a black lab and a fondness for the ocean.