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Years of seeking leads St. Petersburg woman to life as Buddhist nun

Sandra Steers dressed in white one recent Saturday morning and drove to Clearwater for one of the most significant moments of her life.

Hours later, the 68-year-old grandmother of five returned to her St. Petersburg home to begin a new life. If neighbors had been peeking through their windows, they would have seen a petite woman with a shaven head wearing saffron robes. Sandy, as she was known to friends, had taken the vows of a Buddhist nun and a new name — Ayya Suseela.

"This step, it kind of evolved over the last 10 years,'' the former Methodist said.

"I kind of thought about it on and off" but postponed making the decision, she said. "Maybe it was fear. I used excuses. I suppose one thing that influenced me was I went on a Buddhist pilgrimage last year to India, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Just seeing those places where the Buddha walked and talked, it brought a greater awareness to me of Buddhism. Just being there was very emotional,'' she said, her voice catching.

"After that trip, I started thinking more about my life. There's a saying, 'In order to move forward, sometimes we have to step into that scary place. I think this is it.' "

In her simple two-bedroom home, where a small altar occupies a corner of her bedroom, books about Buddhism fill a bookshelf and a Buddhist flag hangs at her door, she spoke of her spiritual journey.

She was born in Orlando but grew up in northern Virginia.

"I was brought up as a Methodist. My mother was a very religious woman,'' she said. "I was involved in the youth groups until I was about 16. In my early 20s, I got involved with the Baptist church.''

Her connection to Christianity continued with jobs as a church secretary, but "something happened" and she left the faith. "I became a little disillusioned,'' she said, declining to give details.

She began the spiritual quest that would lead to Buddhism while living in Oregon.

"Buddhism seemed to fit with my feelings,'' she said. "One of the things about Buddhism is that we are responsible for our own actions and we don't look to the outside to solve our problems. It's an individual quest, so to speak.''

At the time, she didn't explore it further. "I was busy with family and working full time,'' said the divorced mother of two adult daughters and a son.

The search with her then-husband resumed after a move to St. Petersburg in 1996. It led to Bhante Dhammawansha, a newly arrived monk from Sri Lanka who spoke little English. He gave them books to study and invited them to meditation classes. "And I've been with him ever since," she said.

At her December ordination, which was held at the Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society in Clearwater, Dhammawansha, 51, spoke highly of the woman who had invited him to live with her and her husband for several months.

"In 14 years, I didn't see any fault in her life. I never see Sandy criticize anybody in the temple," he said.

After her recent pilgrimage, he said, she wrote asking whether she was qualified or worthy to be ordained. "I know in her mind, she's already a nun.''

That morning, an hour before the ceremony that drew about 100 people to the small house where the Buddhist community meets, monks hung bunting of Buddhist flags across the property. The ordination had been scheduled during the annual Buddhist robe offering ceremony that marks the end of the rainy season in traditional Buddhist countries. It's when laypeople offer monks and nuns gifts of robes, toiletries and other necessities. Close to 20 monks and nuns from Canada, Michigan, California, Illinois, New York and Florida were present.

Holding cue cards, the nervous nun-to-be threaded through the crowd squatting on the floor to the semicircle of monks and nuns near the altar. During the ceremony, she made presentations of baskets of flowers, recited the 10 precepts of Buddhism, bowed — hands clasped together, head on the carpeted floor — and disappeared to have her head shaved.

Steers, said Bhante Muditha of Ottawa, was leaving behind all her secular belongings, her clothing, her hair. "Sandy, she is changing her lifestyle. It's not going to be an easy thing. Gradually, the person who becomes a monk or nun has to change how he acts and talks, everything.''

Away from the gathering, Bhikkhuni Sudarshana of Pinellas Park and Bhikkhuni Wimala of Chicago helped her into her new robes and the traditional begging bowl carried by monks and nuns. As the sarong-style skirt was wrapped and secured with two diaper pins, daughter Pamela Wagner quipped: "You have to remember how to do that. We can't help you with that.''

Her family is supportive. "I think that every person has the right to believe and practice as they choose,'' said her sister Pat Brisley, who flew in from North Carolina. "I don't believe that any way is the only way.'' Wagner, who traveled from Virginia, said she wasn't surprised by her mother's new vocation. "As a practicing Christian, I have lots of questions,'' the Episcopalian said. "I see that she has a calm heart and inner peace and the joy that she has been searching for so long. So, for that reason, I can totally support what she's doing.''

"I'm so proud of her,'' added daughter Susanne Wooden, who had come from Michigan.

Afterward, a vegetarian lunch was served at Unity Church of Clearwater next door. Lining the route to the church, people placed offerings of flowers, chocolate, fruit, crackers and even water into the begging bowls of the monks and nuns walking to the celebratory meal. Commenting to no one in particular, Rose Lettiere, who had come from Sarasota, noted that shaving her head would be "a deal breaker" to any personal pursuit of monastic vows.

Suseela's new life includes rising before dawn to chant and meditate. She is supposed to eat her last meal of the day before noon. "There's a lot as a novice nun that I need to learn,'' she said. "I know that there will be greater expectations. Once you put the robe on, people tend to look at you a little differently."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.

Years of seeking leads St. Petersburg woman to life as Buddhist nun 01/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 2:34pm]
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