COLUMBIA — It was so crowded in Dorsey Chapel at Columbia College that staff opened the two back doors to another room to ease the congestion.
It was so noisy that few among the 100 or so noticed a woman in a bright orange and red robe enter the chapel. Meditation beads were wrapped around her right wrist, and a blue wristband with the words "Be Mindful" enclosed her left one.
As the Venerable Pannavati Bhikkhuni walked on stage, the crowd fell silent, and she did something unusual for a guest speaker: She told people in the overflow area to come closer, suggesting they sit on the stairs next to the stage and even onstage with her if they wanted. The request caused a little confusion, but some started sitting on the ground in front of the stage and others on the stairs.
Bhikkhuni began talking about her spiritual journey of faith and her objective "to consider every man my brother and my neighbor." Her exploration started with being a Baptist, then Pentecostal, charismatic, Unitarian Universalist, Taoist and eventually a Buddhist.
Even in Buddhism, Bhikkhuni explored the sects of Mahayana, Theravada and Zen, but her takeaway was to not get caught up in labels.
She then quoted the Dalai Lama, "My religion is kindness," words she appears to have taken to heart in a life that includes helping homeless youth and ministering to the "Untouchables" of India.
Bhikkhuni received the 2008 Outstanding Buddhist Women's Award and, in 2009, was commended for her humanitarian efforts by Her Royal Highness Princess of Thailand.
Several years ago, after realizing that youths were homeless in Hendersonville, N.C., she urged her sangha — her monastic community — to help. She told her sangha, "We came here to sit on the mountaintop and meditate in the sangha, which is good, when everything is good. But when it is bad, we have to get up and do something."
Bhikkhuni tried rallying the community but when members decided not to help, she started a gluten-free bread company. Now, the company is big enough to fund the services for her organization called My Place, which offers refuge, job training and social enterprise opportunities to homeless youth.
She said her experiences have enabled her to understand more of herself. At one point, she posed a question to the crowd: "We are already mindful of something, but what are we mindful of?"
Bhikkuni encouraged listeners to reflect on how they have lived.
"This hindsight can produce foresight that can produce insight and then you will start to know the causes that produces the condition, then, we will know what to do," she said.
Bhikkuni believes that if people know their purpose, they can change the world one person at a time
Her visit was part of the Althea W. and John A. Schiffman "Lecture in Religious Studies" series. After Bhikkuni finished, a group stayed behind to talk to her. Among them, a teary eyed Kim Coke came up to Bhikkhuni and hugged her.
"I am grateful for someone who is willing to share their experience," Coke said later. "And just her bravery to do so and encourage others to do the same."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.