Amma Thanasanti Bhikkhuni (the name means “Foundation of Peace”) is an American Buddhist nun who teaches meditation at a number of centers here in Denver. Her meditation career began when, as a student in the late 1970s, she took a course on the Religions of India at UC Santa Cruz.
“It felt like somebody had thrown a match on a bonfire and doused it with kerosene,” she said. “I was on fire with the possibility of dedicating my life to ending suffering.” It was during that course that she resolved a) to learn to meditate, and b) to someday take a pilgrimage to India.
She began going on retreats where she learned Mindfulness Meditation, an awareness technique in which thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations are noted with precision and care. After graduation, she moved in with her high school sweetheart and went to work as an analytical chemist. Seven years later, she was ready to take the pilgrimage.
She quit her job, bought a one-way ticket to India, and said goodbye to her boyfriend. But after a couple of months in India, during which she’d continued her mindfulness training with some of the country’s more illustrious teachers, she started feeling homesick. “This was my first time out of the US, and my first time travelling alone,” she said. “I was feeling a little disoriented, and I missed my boyfriend.”
Hoping to ground herself by spending some time in the out-of-doors, she headed for the mountains of North India. At the Tibetan Guesthouse in Dharamsala, she met a Brit named Bryan whom she asked to join her for a spot of hiking and camping. They walked into the hills, and camped out under a full moon. The next morning, Bryan climbed to the top of a large rock, while she remained below, looking into the mouth of a cave.
And that’s when her world turned upside down. She heard “a roar, a growl, and a snort,” and out of the cave stalked a very large, very angry, Himalayan black bear. “It took him a split second to reach me,” she said. “I screamed, jumped backwards, landed face down on a low-lying tree branch, and blanked-out from sheer terror.” When she came-to, the bear was straddling her and had her head in his mouth. “I could feel his teeth in my scalp,” she said. “He could have cracked my skull like an egg.”
But then something quite remarkable happened. Her years of meditation training kicked in. There was terror, and the “knowing of terror,” and then a total surrender of body and mind, which in turn gave rise to “a state of joy, and rapture, and interest, and curiosity at how this whole dying process was going to occur." Inexhlicably, the sound of “Om” arose in her mind, and at that very instant the bear jumped off and ran headlong down the mountainside.
“Bryan was in a state of shock,” she said. “For him it was a total nightmare. But I was in a state of bliss. I had deep gashes on my head and neck, but for some reason, not a lot of blood.” Bryan patched her up, and helped her negotiate the four-hour walk back to civilization.
Later that day, after the bliss wore off, the pain set in. “There was no place on my body that didn’t hurt,” she said, “and the tears were streaming down my face.”
Needless to say, the experience marked a turning point in her life. “Before the incident I would not have been able to tell you why I was able to survive,” she said. “Afterwards, I knew quite clearly that the reason I was still alive was directly due to the mindfulness training I had done. Knowing ‘terror’ meant that I was free of terror, which in turn enabled me to transition into surrender. For me, the blessing was not that I lived, but that at the moment of the attack I was totally at peace.”
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