With bits of copper wire still stuck in her fingers, Venerable Sister Clear Grace sat at a laptop inside her partially renovated van. “Liberation should not be ours alone,” she said via Zoom. “It should be offered to the many.” This is the mission behind her decision to convert a 2003 Chevy van into a contemplative dwelling place and meditation hall. The monastery on wheels is the centerpiece for her Traveling Nunk project, which is making dharma teachings accessible to those who would not otherwise have access because of location, time, and financial constraints. She began her travels (which are being documented on the Traveling Nunk YouTube channel) in September and has been visiting towns that, as she puts it, “are listed on Google as the top places not to visit in North Carolina.” To Sister Clear Grace, the bodhisattva vow to alleviate suffering for all beings means that she must uncover the beings who are suffering. When she sat and contemplated how to take action, the idea for the mobile monastery, which she calls “the Great Aspiration,” came to her.
Sister Clear Grace already has plenty of experience living on the road. Her mother gave birth to her at the age of 17 and while trying to survive as a single working mother often ended up with abusive partners. Looking for safety and an affordable home in an increasingly gentrified California, she and her mother moved multiple times a year up and down the state.
She learned what steps she needed to take by watching YouTube videos.
Sister Clear Grace grew up in the Christian church, to which she attributes her strong connection to religious communities. She encountered Buddhism through a good friend when she was in her twenties and began to delve more deeply into the tradition while living in Louisiana during the three years following Hurricane Katrina. Buddhism was, she said, “where I was first able to touch and understand suffering.” Seeking transformation and healing, she eventually decided to become a nun and ordained in California at Deer Park Monastery, established by Thich Nhat Hanh. It was there that she came up with the term “nunk” through riffing with another monastic on the terms “nun” and “monk”; they landed on “nunk” to escape the preconceptions associated with gendered bodies and to embrace both worlds.
As for technical building skills, Sister Clear Grace began her renovation project with virtually none. She learned what steps she needed to take and how to execute them by watching YouTube videos of other people documenting their van renovations. Sometimes, too, people have donated skills and advice to her as alms. When she was stumped about why her van’s electrical system wasn’t working and was shooting sparks, a couple in Asheville, North Carolina, near where she was based, gave her a free consultation—one that would typically cost $125.
Sister Clear Grace’s ultimate vision for the Traveling Nunk project is to receive enough alms regularly to support herself and her van and also be able to meet some of the needs of the communities she visits. Her path of practice may seem untraditional for a monastic, but she feels that her current course brings her closer to the Buddha’s teachings. Even if she doesn’t belong to a static monastery with a dedicated sangha of monastics, she is proud to walk among the people, entering communities and attending to suffering that outsiders may not be paying attention to. “That’s the vision of the Great Aspiration,” she said, “to do the work that not many can do, to contribute my capacity for understanding, to keep an unlimited heart that is always expanding, and to be creative in how I share suffering with others.”
Keep up with the Traveling Nunk here.