Webster defines Buddhism as "a religion of eastern and central Asia growing out of the teaching of Gautama Buddha that suffering is inherent in life and that one can be liberated from it by mental and moral self-purification."

Thousands of years and thousands of miles will be bridged on Sunday, Feb. 17, when the Petaluma Dharma Friends Community hosts hosts a talk featuring Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni, the second woman in the western world to be appointed a Bhikkhuni Preceptor (teacher/mentor) in Theravadan Buddhism. Theravada is the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism and its name translates to "The Teaching of the Elders."

Venerable Tathaaloka, as she is referred to by Buddhists, has described her upcoming event as an exploration into "the challenges, trials, and glories of 26 centuries of the paths of women awakening." She began her monastic life 25 years ago in Southern California, when a multi-ethnic gathering of the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni sanghas (term for Buddhist monks and nuns) granted her "Higher Ordination." Her graduate school work in Buddhist Sangha history and the ancient traditions of the Buddhist women's monastic discipline led her to translate and write about Theri Apadana (Sacred Studies of the Women Elders).

Julia Harris co-founded The Petaluma Dharma Friends Community with Stacey Evans last year. They set about creating a local group of practitioners who could gather to meditate and to discuss their life experiences from the point of view of the practice. Harris believes Sonoma County is extremely lucky to have this rare learning opportunity so close at hand.

Harris explained, "The world is changing in a way to be inclusive to women's contribution. The western evolution of Buddhism, in this case, is happening right here in Sonoma County. There has been some controversy about the decisions involved in the change. However, when Ayya talks, she's not out to make a political agenda or proselytize. Her wholesome approach and choice of words is solely geared to bring about healing and awakening."

Harris, an energetic and smiling Boulder, Colo., native, has a doctorate from Brown University and Dartmouth College. She also has a degree in ecology and is a master of traditional Chinese medicine. She recalls that, even after all that achievement in the realm of academia; she had still not found her true calling. But her goals were clarified when she met, and began studying with, a shaman/monk from Thailand named Ajahm (teacher) Jumnien.

"In one five-minute mental exercise," Harris said, "I learned more about the nature of the mind and body than I had in all my studies of acupuncture and traditional medicine put together."

In 2005, Tathaaloka co-founded the North American Bhikhuni Association, the Dhammadharini Support Foundation, and the first Theravadan Buddhist women's monastery in the United States. In doing so, she was stoking the fires of a long-standing controversy: a segment of the tradition's followers believed that only men could become ordained. The in-fighting became extremely heated when, in 2009, four nuns were secretly ordained in Australia, by London-born Ajahn Brahm. He had been a constant force in the long fight for women's equality in Buddhism. For his unsanctioned act, he was expelled from his community and his monastery's status was revoked.

When asked about how this ancient philosophy of purity can be applied to today's culture, Harris said, "It's a practice that does not depend on having a particular belief system. A monastic life choice must seem out of reach for most, but for me the practice of meditation has brought incredible freedom and joy. And, it's reassuring to know that there are humans on the planet who devote their lives to teaching us how to be happy."

(Contact Sheldon Bermont at argus@arguscourier.com)