Monastics in the West | Thubten Chodron The Thubten Chodron Teaching Archive Wed, 18 Jan 2017 00:20:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Buddhist women in the West Wed, 20 Apr 2016 20:20:15 +0000

  • Three stages of experience as a Western nun in Tibetan culture
  • The ways in which there is more freedom as a Western Buddhist nun
  • The challenge of adapting Buddhism to the West without altering the teachings
  • Gender equality—the Buddha didn’t want only half the population to gain awakening
  • The role and importance of the monastic community
  • The importance of the lay community
  • Book launch for the German translation of Living with an Open Heart

Buddhist women in the West and book launch (download)

Sangha in the West Tue, 07 May 2013 23:44:13 +0000

YouTube Video

Chinese bhikshunis visit Sravasti Abbey Sat, 19 Jan 2013 07:00:22 +0000

  • Motivation for long-term monastic life
  • Cross-cultural experience of practicing Buddhism
  • Advice on following a particular Buddhist tradition
  • Need for Westerners to gain knowledge of karma and its effects
  • Personal experiences shortly after becoming a monastic
  • Talking with parents and sharing Dharma with family

YouTube Video

Supporting monastics in the West Wed, 02 Nov 2011 06:00:25 +0000

  • Why we need to support monastics, who hold and disseminate the roots of the traditional teachings
  • Differences between living at the Abbey as a monastic or as a lay person
  • Difficulty of getting out of the self-centered hallucination
  • What an Abbey lay resident does to support monastic training in the West
  • Opportunities to visit and give service to the Abbey for lay supporters
  • Daily schedule and some of the activities at the Abbey
  • Questions and answers


You’re becoming a what? Sat, 18 Jun 2011 06:00:40 +0000

When people ask me to talk about my life, I usually start with “once upon a time….” Why? Because this life is like a dream bubble, a temporary thing—it is here and then gone, happening once upon a time.

I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, doing everything most middle-class American children do: going to school and on family vacations, playing with my friends and taking music lessons. My teenage years coincided with the Vietnam War and the protests against racial and sexual discrimination that were widespread in America at that time. These events had a profound effect on an inquisitive and thoughtful child, and I began to question: Why do people fight wars in order to live in peace? Why are people prejudiced against those who are different from them? Why do people die? Why are people in the richest country on earth unhappy when they have money and possessions? Why do people who love each other later get divorced? Why is there suffering? What is the meaning of life if all we do is die at the end? What can I do to help others?

Like every child who wants to learn, I started asking other people—teachers, parents, rabbis, ministers, priests. My family was Jewish, though not very religious. The community I grew up in was Christian, so I knew the best and worst of both religions. My Sunday school teachers were not able to explain in a way that satisfied me why God created living beings and what the purpose of our life was. My boyfriend was Catholic, so I asked the priests too. But I could not understand why a compassionate God would punish people, and why, if he were omnipotent, didn’t he do something to stop the suffering in the world? My Christian friends said not to question, just have faith and then I would be saved. However, that contradicted my scientific education in which investigation and understanding were emphasized as the way to wisdom.

Both Judaism and Christianity instruct “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” which certainly makes sense. But no one said how to, and I did not see much brotherly love in practice. Rather, Christian history is littered with the corpses of thousands of people who have been killed in the name of Christ. Some of my schoolteachers were open to discussing these issues, but they too had no answers. In the end, some people with kind intentions told me, “Don’t think so much. Go out with your friends and enjoy life.” Still, it seemed to me that there must be more to life than having fun, working, making money, having a family, growing old and dying. For lack of a sensible and comprehensive philosophy or religion to guide my life, I became a devout atheist.

After graduating from UCLA, I traveled, married, returned to school to do graduate work in Education and taught elementary school in the Los Angeles City Schools. During summer vacation in 1975, I saw a poster at a bookstore about a meditation course taught by two Tibetan Buddhist monks. Having nothing else to do and not expecting much, I went. I was quite surprised when the teachings by Ven. Lama Yeshe and Ven. Zopa Rinpoche proposed answers to the questions that had been with me since childhood. Reincarnation and karma explain how we got here. The fact that attachment, anger and ignorance are the source of all our problems explains why people do not get along and why we are dissatisfied. The importance of having a pure motivation shows that there is an alternative to hypocrisy. The fact that it is possible for us to abandon completely our faults and develop our good qualities limitlessly gives purpose to life and shows how each of us can become a person who is able to be of effective, wise, and compassionate service to others.

The more I investigated what the Buddha said, the more I found that it corresponded to my life experiences. We were taught practical techniques for dealing with anger and attachment, jealousy and pride, and when I tried them, they helped my daily life go better. Buddhism respects our intelligence and does not demand blind faith. We are encouraged to reflect and examine. Also, it emphasizes changing our attitudes and our heart, not simply having a religious appearance on the outside. All this appealed to me.

There was a nun leading the meditations at this course, and it impressed me that she was happy, friendly, and natural, not stiff and “holy” like many Christian nuns I had met as a child. But I thought that being a nun was strange—I liked my husband far too much to even consider it! I began to examine my life from the perspective of the Dharma, and the Buddha’s teachings resonated within me as I thought deeply about our human potential and the value of this life. There was no getting around the fact that death was certain, the time of death was uncertain, and that at death, our possessions, friends, relatives and body—everything that ordinary people spend their entire life living for—do not and cannot come with us. Knowing that the Dharma was something extremely important and not wanting to miss the opportunity to learn it, I quit my job and went to Nepal where Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche had a monastery and Dharma center.

Once there, I participated in the community life of work, teachings and meditation. The Dharma affected me more and more deeply as I used it to look at our present human situation and our potential. It was clear that my mind was overwhelmed by attachment, anger and ignorance. Everything I did was grossly or subtly under the influence of self-centeredness. Due to the karmic imprints collected on my mindstream through my unrestrained thoughts and actions, it was clear that a good rebirth was extremely unlikely. And if I really wanted to help others, it was impossible to do if most of my attitudes were self-centered, ignorant and unskillful.

I wanted to change, and the question was how? Although many people can live a lay life and practice the Dharma, I saw that for me it would be impossible. My disturbing attitudes—ignorance, anger and clinging attachment—were too strong and my lack of self-discipline too great. I needed to make some clear, firm ethical decisions about what I would and would not do, and I needed a disciplined lifestyle that would support, not distract me from, spiritual practice. The monastic lifestyle, with the ethical discipline its precepts provide, was a viable option to fulfill those needs.

My family did not understand why I wanted to take ordination. They knew little about Buddhism and were not spiritually inclined. They did not comprehend how I could leave a promising career, marriage, friends, family, financial security and so forth in order to be a nun. I listened and considered all of their objections. But when I reflected upon them in light of the Dharma, my decision to become a nun only became firmer. It became more and more clear to me that happiness does not come from having material possessions, good reputation, loved ones, physical beauty. Having these while young does not guarantee a happy old age, a peaceful death, and certainly not a good rebirth. If my mind remained continually attached to external things and relationships, how could I develop my potential and help others? It saddened me that my family did not understand, but my decision remained firm, and I believed that in the long-run I would be able to benefit others more through holding monastic vows. Ordination does not mean rejecting one’s family. Rather, I wanted to enlarge my family and develop impartial love and compassion for all beings. With the passage of time, my parents have come to accept my being Buddhist and being a nun. I did not try to convince them through discussion or with reasoning, but simply tried as best as I could to live the Buddha’s teachings, especially those on patience. Through that they saw that not only am I happy, but also that what I do is beneficial to others.

My husband had ambivalent feelings. He was a Buddhist, and the wisdom side of him supported my decision, while the attachment side bemoaned it. He used the Dharma to help him through this difficult time. He has subsequently remarried and is still active in the Buddhist community. We get along well and see each other from time to time. He is supportive of my being a nun, and I appreciate this very much.

Taking ordination

Venerable Chodron in the early years of her ordination.

Having vows is not restricting. Rather, it is liberating, for we free ourselves from acting in ways that, deep in our hearts, we do not want to.

In the spring of l977, with much gratitude and respect for the Triple Gem and my spiritual teachers, I took ordination from Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. People ask if I have ever regretted this. Not at all. I earnestly pray to the Triple Gem to keep my ordination purely and be able to be ordained in future lives as well. Having vows is not restricting. Rather, it is liberating, for we free ourselves from acting in ways that, deep in our hearts, we do not want to. We take the vows freely, nothing is forced or imposed. The discipline is voluntarily undertaken. Because we endeavor to live simply—without many possessions, entangled emotional relationships or preoccupation with our looks—we have more time for the inner exploration Dharma practice requires and for service oriented activities. If I had a career, husband, children, many hobbies, an extensive social life and social obligations, it would be difficult for me to travel to teach or to receive teachings as much as I do now. The vows also clarify our relationships; for example, my relationships with men are much more straightforward and honest now. And I am much more comfortable with my body. It is a vehicle for Dharma practice and service and so must be respected and kept healthy. But wearing robes and shaving my head, I am not concerned with my appearances. If people like me, it will have to be because of inner beauty, not external beauty. These benefits of simplicity become evident in our lives as we live according to the precepts.

Our vows center around four root precepts: to avoid killing, stealing, sexual relations, and lying about our spiritual attainments. Other precepts deal with a variety of aspects of our life: our relationships with other monastics and lay people, what and when we eat and drink, our clothes and possessions. Some precepts protect us from distractions that destroy our mindful awareness. My personal experience has been that much internal growth has come from trying to live according to the precepts. They make us much more aware of our actions and their effects on those around us. To keep the precepts is no easy job—it requires mindfulness and continuous application of the antidotes to the disturbing attitudes. In short, it necessitates the transformation of old, unproductive emotional, verbal and physical habits. Precepts force us to stop living “on automatic,” and encourage us to use our time wisely and to make our lives meaningful. Our work as monastics is to purify our minds and develop our good qualities in order to make a positive contribution to the welfare of all living beings in this and all future lives. There is much joy in ordained life, and it comes from looking honestly at our own condition as well as at our potential.

Ordained life is not clear sailing, however. Our disturbing attitudes follow us wherever we go. They do not disappear simply because we take vows, shave our head and wear robes. Monastic life is a commitment to working with our garbage as well as our beauty. It puts us right up against the contradictory parts of ourselves. For example, one part of us feels there is a deep meaning to life, great human potential and has a sincere wish to actualize these. The other part of us seeks amusement, financial security, reputation, approval and sexual pleasure. We want to have one foot in nirvana (liberation), the other in samsara (the cycle of constantly recurring problems). We want to change and go deeper in our spiritual practice, but we do not want to give up the things we are attached to. To remain a monastic, we have to deal with these various sides of ourselves. We have to clarify our priorities in life. We have to commit to going deeper and peeling away the many layers of hypocrisy, clinging and fear inside ourselves. We are challenged to jump into empty space and to live our faith and aspiration. Although life as a monastic is not always smooth—not because the Dharma is difficult, but because the disturbing attitudes are sneaky and tenacious—with effort, there is progress and happiness.

While Catholic nuns enter a particular Order—for example, a teaching order, a contemplative order, a service order—Buddhist nuns have no prescribed living situation or work. As long as we keep the precepts, we can live in a variety of ways. During the nearly nineteen years I have been ordained, I have lived alone and in community. Sometimes I studied, other times taught; sometimes worked, other times done intensive, silent retreat; sometimes lived in the city, other times in the countryside; sometimes in Asia, other times in the West.

Buddhist teachers often talk about the importance of lineage. There is a certain energy or inspiration that is passed down from mentor to aspirant. Although previously I was not one to believe in this, during the years of my ordination, it has become evident through experience. When my energy wanes, I remember the lineage of strong, resourceful women and men who have learned, practiced and actualized the Buddha’s teachings for 2,500 years. At the time of ordination, I entered into their lineage and their life examples renew my inspiration. No longer afloat in the sea of spiritual ambiguity or discouragement, I feel rooted in a practice that works and in a goal that is attainable (even though one has to give up all grasping to attain it!)

As one of the first generation of Western nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there are certain challenges that I face. For example, because our Tibetan teachers are refugees from their own country, they cannot support their Western ordained disciples. Their primary concern is to rebuild their monasteries in exile and take care of the Tibetan refugee community. Therefore, Western monastics have no ready-made monasteries or support system. We are expected to provide for ourselves financially, although it is extremely difficult to maintain our vows if we have to put on civilian clothes and work in the city. If we stay in India to study and practice, there are the challenges of illness, visa problems, political unrest and so forth. If we live in the West, people often look at us askance. Some times we hear a child say, “Look, Mommy, that lady has no hair!” or a sympathetic stranger approaches us and says, “Don’t worry, you look lovely now. And when the chemo is over, your hair will grow back.” In our materialistic society people query, “What do you monastics produce? How does sitting in meditation contribute to society?” The challenges of being a Buddhist nun in the West are many and varied, and all of them give us a chance to deepen our practice.

Being a Western nun in the Tibetan tradition

A great part of Buddhist practice is concerned with overcoming our grasping at an identity, both our innate feeling of self and that which is artificially created by the labels and categories that pertain to us this lifetime. Yet I am writing about being a Western nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a phrase that contains many categories. On a deeper level, there is nothing to grasp to about being Western, a nun, a Buddhist, or from the Tibetan tradition. In fact, the essence of the monastic lifestyle is to let go of clinging to such labels and identities. Yet on the conventional level, all of these categories and the experiences I have had due to them have conditioned me. I wish to share with you how these have influenced me and in doing so, will write more about my projections and disturbing attitudes than comment on the external circumstances I encountered. As limited sentient beings, our minds are often narrow, critical and attached to our own opinions, and this makes situations in our environment appear difficult. This is not to say that external circumstances and institutions never need to be challenged or changed, but that I am emphasizing the internal process of using difficult situations as a chance for practice.

Being a Westerner means I have been conditioned to believe that democracy and equality—whatever those two terms mean—are the best way for human beings to live together. Yet I have chosen to become a monastic and thus in others’ eyes become associated with an institution that is seen in the West as being hierarchical. There are two challenges here: one is how I relate to the hierarchy, the other is how I am affected by Westerners who see me as part of a hierarchical institution.

In many ways the hierarchy of the monastic institution has benefited me. Being a high achiever, I have tended to be proud, to want to add my opinion to every discussion, to want to control or fix situations that I do not like or approve of. Dharma practice itself has made me look at this tendency and to reflect before acting and speaking. In particular it has made me aware of when it is suitable to speak and when it is not. For example, as part of receiving the bhikshuni ordination in Taiwan, I participated in a thirty-two day training program, in which I was one of two foreigners in the five hundred people being ordained. Each day we spent about fifteen minutes filing from the main hall into the teaching hall. A quicker, more efficient method of moving so many people from place to place was clear to me, and I wanted to correct the waste of time and energy I saw. Yet it was also clear that I was in the role of a learner and the teachers were following a system that was tried and true. Even if I could have made my suggestion known in Chinese, no one would have been particularly interested in it. I had no alternative but to keep quiet, to do it their way and to be happy doing so. In terms of practice, this was a wonderful experience for me; one which I now treasure for the humility, open-mindedness, and acceptance it taught me.

Hierarchy in Buddhism manifests differently in the West. Sometimes race, ethnicity and culture are the discriminating factors. Some Westerners feel that if they adopt Asian cultural forms, they are practicing the Dharma. Some assume that Asians—being from far away and therefore exotic—are holy. Meanwhile, other Westerner practitioners grew up with Mickey Mouse like everyone else, and seem ordinary. I am not saying that Western practitioners are equal in realizations to our Asian teachers. There is no basis for such generalizations, because spiritual qualities are completely individual. However, fascination with the foreign—and therefore exotic—often obscures us from understanding what the path is. Spiritual practice means that we endeavor to transform ourselves into kind and wise people. It is not about idolizing an exotic teacher or adopting other cultural forms, but about transforming our minds. We can practice the Dharma no matter what culture we or our teacher come from; the real spiritual path cannot be seen with the eyes for it lies in the heart.

As a Westerner, I have a unique relationship with the Tibetan Buddhist religious institution. On one hand, I am a part of it because I have learned so much from the Tibetan teachers in it and have high regard for these spiritual masters and the teachings they have preserved. In addition, I am part of the monastic institution by virtue of having taken ordination and living a monastic lifestyle. On the other hand, I am not part of the Tibetan religious institution because I am a Westerner. My knowledge of Tibetan language is limited, my values at times differ from the Tibetans, my upbringing is different. Early on in my practice, when I lived primarily in the Tibetan community, I felt handicapped because I did not fit into their religious institutions. However, over the years the distinction between spiritual practice and religious institutions has become clearer to me. My commitment is to the spiritual path, not to a religious institution. Of course it would be a wonderful support to my practice to be part of a religious institution that functioned with integrity and to which I felt I really belonged, but that is not my present circumstance. I am not a full member of the Tibetan religious institutions and Western ones have either not yet been established or are too young.

Making the distinction between spiritual path and religious institution has made me see the importance of constantly checking my own motivation and loyalty. In our lives, it is essential to discriminate Dharma practice from worldly practice. It is all too easy to transplant our attachment for material possessions, reputation and praise into a Dharma situation. We become attached to our expensive and beautiful Buddha images and Dharma books; we seek reputation as a great practitioner or as the close disciple of one; we long for the praise and acceptance of our spiritual teachers and communities. We think that because we are surrounded by spiritual people, places and things, that we are also spiritual. Again, we must return to the reality that practice occurs in our hearts and minds. When we die, only our karma, our mental habits and qualities come with us.

Being a woman in the monastic institution has been interesting as well. My family believed in the equality of men and women, and since I did well in school, it was expected that I would have a successful career. The Tibetans’ attitude towards nuns is substantially different from the attitudes in my upbringing. Because the initial years of my ordination were spent in the Tibetan community, I tried to conform with their expectations for nuns. I wanted to be a good student, so during large religious gatherings I sat in the back of the assembly. I tried to speak in a low voice and did not voice my views or knowledge very much. I tried to follow well but did not initiate things. After a few years, it became obvious that this model for behavior did not fit me. My background and upbringing were completely different. Not only did I have a university education and a career, but I had been taught to be vocal, to participate, to take the initiative. The Tibetan nuns have many good qualities, but I had to acknowledge the fact that my way of thinking and behaving, although greatly modified by living in Asia, was basically Western.

In addition, I had to come to terms with the discrimination between men and women in the Tibetan religious institution. At first, the monks’ advantages made me angry: in the Tibetan community, they had better education, received more financial support and were more respected than the nuns. Although among Western monastics this was not the case, when I lived in the Tibetan community, this inequality affected me. One day during a large offering ceremony at the main temple in Dharmsala, the monks as usual stood up to make the personal offering to His Holiness. I became angry that the monks had this honor, while the nuns had to sit quietly and meditate. In addition, the monks, not the nuns, passed out the offerings to the greater assembly. Then a thought shot through my mind: if the nuns were to stand up to make the offering to His Holiness and pass out the offerings while the monks meditated, I would be angry because the women always had to do the work and the men did not. At that point, my anger at others’ prejudice and gender discrimination completely evaporated.

Having my abilities as a woman challenged by whatever real or perceived prejudice I encountered in the Asian monastic system, and Asian society in general (not to mention the prejudice in Western societies) has been good for my practice. I have had to look deeply within myself, learn to evaluate myself realistically, let go of attachment to others’ opinions and approval and my defensive reactions to them, and establish a valid basis for self-confidence. I still encounter prejudice against women in the East and in the West, and while I try to do what is practical and possible to alleviate it, my anger and intolerance are largely absent now.

Being a Buddhist monastic in the West

Being a monastic in the West has its interesting points as well. Some Westerners, especially those who grew up in Protestant countries or who are disillusioned with the Catholic Church, do not like monasticism. They view it as hierarchical, sexist, and repressive. Some people think monastics are lazy and only consume society’s resources instead of helping to produce them. Others think that because someone chooses to be celibate that they are escaping from the emotional challenges of intimate relationships and are sexually repressed. These views are common even among some non-monastic Dharma teachers and long-time practitioners in the West. At times this has been difficult for me, because, having spent many years living as a Westerner in Asian societies, I expected to feel accepted and at home in Western Dharma circles. Instead, I was marginalized by virtue of being part of the “sexist and hierarchical” monastic institution. Curiously, while women’s issues are at the forefront of discussion in Western Buddhism, once one becomes a monastic, she is seen as conservative and tied to a hierarchical Asian institution, qualities disdained by many Westerners who practice Buddhism.

Again, this has been an excellent opportunity for practice. I have had to reexamine my reasons for being a monastic. The reasons remain valid and the monastic lifestyle is definitely good for me. It has become clear that my discomfort is due to being attached to others’ approval, and practice means subduing this attachment.

Nevertheless, I am concerned that a variety of lifestyle options is not being presented to Western Buddhists. While many people believe the monastic model is stressed too much in Asia, we must be careful not to swing the pendulum to the other extreme and only present the house-holder model in the West. Because people have different dispositions and tendencies, all lifestyles must be accepted in the panorama of practitioners. There is no need to make one better and another worse, but to recognize that each of us must find what is suitable for ourselves and recognize that others may chose differently. I especially appreciated the perspective of a non-monastic Western Dharma teacher who said, “At one time or another, most of us have thought of becoming monastics—of creating a lifestyle where we have less commitments to work and family and more time to spend on practice. For whatever reason we decided not to take that route now, but I treasure that part of myself that is attracted to that lifestyle. And I am glad that other people live that.”

In contrast to those who depreciate us for being monastics, some people, both Western and Asian, have very different projections on monastics. Sometimes they think we must be nearly enlightened; other times they liken us to the strict authority figures they encountered in religious institutions as children. Being simply a human being, I find it challenging to deal with both of these projections. It is isolating when people expect us to be something we are not because of our role. All Buddhists are not yet Buddhas, and monastics too have emotional ups and downs and need friends. Similarly, most of us do not wish to be regarded as authority figures; we prefer discussion and the airing of doubts.

I believe other Western practitioners share some of the challenges that I face. One is establishing a safe ambiance in which we can talk openly about their doubts and personal difficulties in the practice. In general this is not needed for Asian practitioners because they grew up in a Buddhist environment and thus lack many of the doubts Westerners have because we have changed religions. Also, Westerners relate to their emotions differently and our culture emphasizes growth and development as an individual in a way that Asian cultures do not. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage in spiritual practice. Being aware of our emotions enables us know our mental processes. Yet we are often aware of our emotions in an unproductive way that increases our self-centeredness and becomes a hindrance on the path. There is the danger that we become pre-occupied with our feelings and forget to apply the antidotes taught in the teachings to transform them. Instead of meditating on the Dharma, we meditate on our problems and feelings; we psychologize on the meditation cushion. Instead we must contemplate the Buddha’s teachings and apply them to our lives so they have a transformative effect.

Similarly, the Western emphasis on individuality can be both an asset and a hindrance to practice. On one hand, we want to grow as a person, we want to tap into and develop our potential to become a Buddha. We are willing to commit ourselves to a spiritual path that is not widely known or appreciated by our friends, family and colleagues. On the other hand, our individuality can make it difficult for us to form spiritual communities in which we need to adapt to the needs and wishes of others. We easily fall into comparing ourselves with other practitioners or competing with them. We tend to think of what we can get out of spiritual practice, or what a spiritual teacher or community can do for us, whereas practice is much more about giving than getting, more about cherishing others than ourselves. His Holiness the Dalai Lama talks about two senses of self: one is unhealthy—the sense of a solid self to which we grasp and become pre-occupied. The other is necessary along the path—the valid sense of self-confidence that is based on recognizing our potential to be enlightened. We need rethink the meaning of being an individual, freeing ourselves from the unhealthy sense of self and developing valid self-confidence that enables us to genuinely care for others.

As Buddhism comes to the West, it is important that the monastic lifestyle is preserved as a way of practice that benefits some people directly and the entire society indirectly. For those individuals who find strict ethical discipline and simplicity helpful for practice, monasticism is wonderful. The presence of individual monastics and monastic communities in the West also affects the society. They act as an example of people living their spiritual practice together, working through the ups and downs in their own minds as well as the continuous changes that naturally occur when people live together. Some people have remarked to me that although they do not wish or are not yet prepared to become a monastic, the thought that others have taken this road inspires them and strengthens their practice. Sometimes just seeing a monastic can make us slow down from our busyness and reflect for a moment, “What is important in my life? What is the purpose of spiritual paths and religions?” These questions are important to ask ourselves, they are the essence of being a human being with the potential to become a Buddha.

Western Buddhist nuns Sat, 18 Jun 2011 06:00:03 +0000

Years ago at an interfaith conference in Europe, I was asked to speak about the lives of Western nuns. Thinking that people would not be interested in what was ordinary life for me, I instead gave a Dharma talk about how we trained our minds in love and compassion. Afterwards, several people came up to me and said, “Your talk was very nice, but we really wanted to hear about the lives of the Western nuns! How do you live? What are your problems and joys?” Sometimes it is difficult to discuss this: when speaking about the problems, there is the risk of complaining or of others thinking we are complaining; when speaking about the joys, there is the risk of being too buoyant or of others perceiving us as arrogant. In any case, let me say that I will speak in general statements from the viewpoint of being ordained in the Tibetan tradition—in other words, what is written here is not universal to all Western Buddhist nuns. And now I will plunge in and talk about the experiences of we Western nuns.

A group of nuns standing together under a tree.

Some of the nuns from the 2013 Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering. (Photo by Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering)

Plunge in … that’s what most of us did. The Dharma spoke deeply to our hearts, and so, counter to all expectations of our cultures and our families, we quit our jobs, parted from our dear ones, were ordained as Buddhist nuns and in many cases, went to live in other countries. Who would take such radical steps in order to practice the Dharma? How are we unlike the Asian women who are ordained?

In general, Asian women receive ordination when they are young, malleable girls with little life experience, or when their families are grown, they are elderly and seek life in a monastery for its spiritual and/or physical comforts. On the other hand, most Western nuns are ordained as adults. They are educated, have careers, and many have had families and children. They bring their talents and skills to the monastery, and they also bring their habits and expectations that have been well polished through years of interactions in the world. When Asian women are ordained, their families and communities support them. Becoming a nun is socially acceptable and respectable. In addition, Asian cultures focus more on group than individual identity, so it is comparatively easy for the newly-ordained to adapt to community life in a monastery. As children, they shared bedrooms with their siblings. They were taught to place the welfare of their family above their own and to respect and defer to their parents and teachers. Western nuns, on the other hand, grew up in a culture that stresses the individual over the group, and they therefore tend to be individualistic. Western women have to have strong personalities to become Buddhist nuns: their families reproach them for relinquishing a well-paying job and not having children; Western society brands them as parasites who don’t want to work because they are lazy; and Western culture accuses them of repressing their sexuality and avoiding intimate relationships. A Western woman who cares about what others think about her is not going to become a Buddhist nun. She is thus more likely to be self-sufficient and self-motivated. These qualities, while in general good, can be carried to an extreme, sometimes making it more difficult for these highly-individualistic nuns to live together in community.

That is, if there were a community to live in. As first generation Western Buddhist nuns, we indeed lead the homeless life. There are very few monasteries in the West, and if we want to stay in one, we generally have to pay to do so because the community has no money. That presents some challenges: how does someone with monastic precepts, which include wearing robes, shaving one’s head, not handling money, and not doing business, earn money?

Many Westerners assume that there is an umbrella institution, similar to the Catholic Church, that looks over us. This is not the case. Our Tibetan teachers do not provide for us financially and in many cases ask us to raise money to support their Tibetan monk disciples who are refugees in India. Some Western nuns have savings that are rapidly consumed, others have kind friends and family who sponsor them, and still others are forced by conditions to put on lay clothes and get a job in the city. This makes keeping the ordination precepts difficult and prevents them from studying and practicing intensely, which is the main purpose for which they were ordained.

How does one then receive monastic training and education? Some Western nuns opt to stay in Asia for as long as they can. But there too they face visa problems and language problems. Tibetan nunneries are generally overcrowded, and there is no room for foreigners unless one wants to pay to live in a guestroom. Tibetan nuns do rituals and receive teachings in the Tibetan language, their education beginning with memorizing texts. The majority of Western nuns, however, does not speak Tibetan and needs an English translation to receive teachings. In addition, memorizing texts in Tibetan is generally not meaningful to them. They seek to learn the meaning of the teachings and how to practice them. They want to learn meditation and to experience the Dharma. While the Tibetan nuns grew up with Buddhism in their families and culture since childhood, the Western nuns are learning a new faith and thus have different questions and issues. For example, while a Tibetan nun takes the existence of the Three Jewels for granted, a Western nuns wants to know exactly what the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are and how to know they actually exist. Therefore, even in India, the Western nuns do not fit into the established Tibetan religious institutions.

Many Western nuns are sent to work in Dharma centers in the West, where they receive room, board, and a tiny stipend for personal needs in return for working for the center. Although here they can receive teachings in their own language, for the newly-ordained, life in Dharma centers can be difficult because they live amongst lay people. The curriculum in the center is designed for the lay students and the resident lama, if there is one, is usually too busy with the lay community to train the one or two Western monastics who live there.

Transforming difficulties into the path

Difficulties such as those described above are also challenges for practice. To remain a nun, a Western woman needs to implement the Buddha’s teachings in order to make her mind happy in whatever circumstances she finds herself. She has to meditate deeply on impermanence and death so that she can be comfortable with financial insecurity. She has to contemplate the disadvantages of attachment to the eight worldly concerns so that praise and blame from others do not affect her mind. She must reflect on karma and its effects to accept the difficulties she encounters in receiving an education. And she needs to generate the altruistic heart that wishes to remedy these situations so that others do not have to encounter them in the future. Thus, her difficulties are the catalyst for her practice, and through practice her mind is transformed and becomes peaceful.

One of the biggest challenges is to live as a celibate in the West, where sexuality spills from the soap boxes and the soap operas. How can one be emotionally happy when the media and societal values pronounce romantic relationships as the be-all of life? Again, practice is the secret. To keep our precepts, we have to look beyond superficial appearances; we have to understand deeply the ingrained emotional and sexual patterns of attachment that keep us imprisoned in cyclic existence. We must understand the nature of our emotions and learn to deal with them in constructive ways without depending on others to comfort us or make us feel good about ourselves.

People wonder if we see our families and our old friends and if we miss them. Buddhist nuns are not cloistered. We can visit our families and friends. We do not stop caring for others simply because we are ordained. However, we do try to transform the type of affection we have for them. For ordinary people in worldly life, affection leads to clinging attachment, an emotion that exaggerates the good qualities of someone and then wishes not to be separated from him or her. This attitude breeds partiality, wishing to help only our dear ones, harm the people we don’t like, and ignore the multitudes of beings we don’t know.

As monastics, we have to work strongly with this tendency, using the meditations on equanimity, love, compassion, and joy to expand our hearts so that we see all beings as lovable. The more we gradually train our mind in this way, the less we miss our dear ones and the more we feel close to all others simply because they are sentient beings who want happiness and do not want suffering as intensely as we do. This open-hearted feeling does not mean we don’t cherish our parents. To the contrary, the meditations on the kindness of our parents open our eyes to all that they did for us. However, rather than be attached only to them, we endeavor to extend the feeling of love to all others as well. Great internal satisfaction arises as we develop more equanimity and open our hearts to cherish all other beings. Here, too, we see what seems to be a difficulty—not living in close contact with our family and old friends—to be a factor that stimulates spiritual growth when we apply our Dharma practice to it.

Some conditions that may initially seem detrimental can also be advantageous. For example, Western nuns are not an integral part of the Tibetan religious establishment, whose hierarchy consists of Tibetan monks. Although this does have its disadvantages, it also has given us greater freedom in guiding our practice. For example, the bhikshuni or full ordination for women never spread to Tibet due to the difficulties of having the required number of bhikshunis travel across the Himalayan Mountains in previous centuries. The novice ordination for women does exist in the Tibetan tradition and is given by the monks. Although several Tibetan monks, including the Dalai Lama, approve of nuns in the Tibetan tradition receiving bhikshuni ordination from Chinese monastics, the Tibetan religious establishment has not officially sanctioned this. In recent years, several Western women have gone to receive the bhikshuni ordination in the Chinese and Vietnamese traditions where it is extant. Because they are part of the Tibetan community and more liable to its social pressure, it is much more difficult for Tibetan nuns to do this. In this way, not being an integral part of the system has its advantages for the Western nuns!

Receiving ordination

In order to receive ordination as a Buddhist nun, a woman must have a good general understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and a strong, stable motivation to be free from cyclic existence and attain liberation. Then she must request ordination from her teacher. In the Tibetan tradition, most teachers are monks, although some are lay men. There are very few women teachers in our tradition at present. If the teacher agrees, he will arrange the ordination ceremony, which in the case of the sramanerika or novice ordination, lasts a few hours. If a novice nun in the Tibetan tradition later wants to receive the bhikshuni ordination, she must find a preceptor in the Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese tradition. She then must travel to a place where the ordination ceremony will be held, and go through a training program which last from one week to one month before the actual ceremony. In my case, I received the novice ordination in Dharamsala, India, in 1977, and nine years later went to Taiwan to receive the bhikshuni ordination. Going through the one-month training program in Chinese was a challenge, and after two weeks, the other Western nun and I were delighted when the preceptor allowed another nun to translate for us during some of the classes. However, the experience of training as a nun in both the Tibetan and Chinese traditions has enriched my practice and helped me to see the Dharma in all the Buddhist traditions despite the externally diverse, culturally conditioned forms that each uses.

After ordination, we need to receive training in the precepts if we are to keep them well. A new nun should request one of her teachers to give her teachings on the meaning of each precept, what constitutes a transgression and how to purify transgressions should they occur. While a Western nun can usually receive teachings on the precepts without too much difficulty, due to the lack of monasteries for Western nuns, she often misses out on the practical training that comes through living with other nuns in community.

As a nun, our first responsibility is to live according to our precepts as best as we can. Precepts are not a heavy burden, but a joy. In other words, they are voluntarily taken on because we know they will help us in our spiritual pursuit. Precepts liberate us from acting in harmful, dysfunctional, and inconsiderate ways. Novice nuns have ten precepts, which can be subdivided to make 36, probationary nuns have six precepts in addition to these, and fully ordained nuns (bhikshunis) have 348 precepts as listed in the Dharmagupta school of Vinaya, which is the only extant bhikshuni lineage today. The precepts are divided into various categories, each with its corresponding method to deal with transgressions. The root precepts are the most serious and must be kept purely in order to remain as a nun. These entail avoiding killing, stealing, sexual contact, lying about spiritual attainments, and so forth. If these are broken in a complete fashion, one is no longer a nun. Other precepts deal with the nuns’ relationships with each other, with monks, and with the lay community. Still others address how we conduct ourselves in daily activities such as eating, walking, dressing, and residing in a place. Infractions of these are purified in various ways according to their severity: it may entail confession to another bhikshuni, confession in the presence of the assembly of bhikshunis, or relinquishment of a possession obtained in excess or in an inappropriate way, and so forth.

Keeping the precepts in the West in the twentieth century can be a challenge. The precepts were established by the Buddha during his life in India in the 6th century B.C.E., in a culture and time clearly different from our own. While nuns in some Buddhist traditions, for example the Theravada, try to keep the precepts literally, others come from traditions that allow more leeway. By studying the Vinaya and knowing the stories of the specific events that prompted the Buddha to establish each precept, nuns will come to understand the purpose of each precept. Then, they will know how to adhere to its purpose although they may not be able to follow it literally. For example, one of the bhikshuni precepts is not to ride in a vehicle. If we followed that literally, it would be difficult to go to receive or to give teachings, let alone to live as a nun in a city. In ancient India, vehicles were drawn by animals or human beings, and riding in them was reserved for the wealthy. The Buddha’s concern when he made this precept was for nuns to avoid causing suffering to others or generating arrogance. To adapt that to modern societies, nuns should try not to ride in expensive vehicles and avoid becoming proud if someone drives them somewhere in a nice car. In this way, the nuns must learn about the precepts and traditional monastic lifestyle, and then adapt it to the conditions they live in.

Of course, there will be differences of interpretation and implementation among traditions, monasteries in the same tradition, and individuals within a monastery. We need to be tolerant of these differences and to use them to motivate us to reflect deeper on the precepts. For example, Asian nuns generally do not shake hands with men, while most Western nuns in the Tibetan tradition do. If they do this simply to conform to Western customs, I do not see a problem. However, each nun must be mindful so that attraction and attachment do not arise when she shakes hands. Such variations in observing the precepts can be accepted due to cultural differences, etiquette and habit in different countries.

Daily life

The precepts form a framework for further Dharma practice. As nuns, we therefore want to study and practice the Buddha’s teachings and share them with others as much as possible. We also do practical work to sustain ourselves and benefit others. Western nuns live in a variety of circumstances: sometimes in community—a monastery or a Dharma center—and sometimes alone. In all of these situations, our day begins with prayers and meditation before breakfast. After that, we go about our daily activities. In the evening we again meditate and do our spiritual practices. Sometimes it can be a challenge to fit several hours of meditation practice into a busy schedule. But since meditation and prayers are what sustains us, we make strong efforts to navigate the demands made on our time. When the work at a Dharma center is especially intense or many people need our help, it is tempting to take the time out of our practice. However, doing that exacts a toll and if done for too long, can make keeping ordination difficult. Thus, each year we try to take a few weeks—or months if possible—out of our busy lives to do meditation retreat in order to deepen our practice.

As Western nuns we encounter a variety of interesting events in daily life. Some people recognize the robes and know we are Buddhist nuns, others do not. Wearing my robes in the city, I have had people come up to me and compliment me on my “outfit.” Once a flight attendant on a plane leaned over and said, “Not everyone can wear her hair like that, but that cut looks great on you!” A child in a park opened his eyes wide in amazement and said to his mother, “Look, Mommy, that lady doesn’t have any hair!” In a store, a stranger approached a nun and in a conciliatory way said, “Don’t worry, dear. After the chemo is finished, your hair will grow back again.”

When we walk on the street, occasionally someone will say, “Hare Krishna.” I have also had people come up and say, “Have faith in Jesus!” Some people look delighted and ask if I know the Dalai Lama, how they can learn to meditate, or where a Buddhist center is in the town. In the frenzy of American life, they are inspired to see someone who represents spiritual life. After a series of glitches on an airline trip, a fellow passenger approached me and said, “Your calmness and smile me helped me get through all these hassles. Thank you for your meditation practice.”

Even in Buddhist communities, we are treated in a variety of ways because Buddhism is new in the West and people do not know how to relate to monastics. Some people are very respectful to Asian monastics and eager to serve them, but see Western monastics as unpaid labor for the Dharma center and immediately set us to work running errands, cooking, and cleaning for the lay community. Other people appreciate all monastics and are very courteous. Western nuns never know when we go somewhere how others will treat us. At times this can be disquieting, but in the long run, it makes us more flexible and helps us to overcome attachment to reputation. We use such situations to let go of attachment to being treated well and aversion to being treated poorly. Yet, for the sake of the Dharma and the Sangha, we sometimes have to politely instruct people on the proper way to act around monastics. For example, I had to remind members of a Dharma center that invited me to their city to teach that it is not appropriate to put me up at the home of a single man (especially since this one had a huge poster of a Playboy bunny in his bathroom!). In another instance, a young couple was travelling with a group of nuns and we had to remind them that it is not appropriate to embrace and kiss each other on the bus with us. As a young nun, such events annoyed me, but now, due to the benefits of Dharma practice, I am able to react with humor and patience.

The role of the sangha in the West

The word “sangha” is used in a variety of ways. When we speak of the Three Jewels of refuge, the Sangha Jewel refers to any individual—lay or monastic—who has realized emptiness of inherent existence directly. This unmistaken realization of reality renders such a person a reliable object of refuge. The conventional sangha is a group of four or more fully ordained monastics. In traditional Buddhist societies, this is the meaning of the term “sangha,” and an individual monastic is a sangha member. The sangha members and the sangha community are respected not because the individuals are special in and of themselves, but because they hold the precepts given by the Buddha. Their primary objective in life is to tame their minds by applying these precepts and the Buddha’s teachings.

In the West, people often use the word “sangha” loosely to refer to any one who frequents a Buddhist center. This person may or may not have taken even the five lay precepts, to abandon killing, stealing, unwise sexual behavior, lying, and intoxicants. Using “sangha” in this all-encompassing way can lead to misinterpretation and confusion. I believe it is better to stick to the traditional usage.

Individual nuns vary considerably, and any discussion of the role of the sangha has to take this into account. Because Buddhism is new in the West, some people receive ordination without sufficient preparation. Others later find that the monastic life style is not suitable for them, give back their vows, and return to lay life. Some nuns are not mindful or have strong disturbing attitudes and cannot observe the precepts well. It is clear that not everyone who is a Buddhist nun is a Buddha! In discussing the role of the sangha, therefore, we are considering those who are happy as monastics, work hard to apply the Dharma to counteract their disturbing attitudes and negative behavior, and are likely to remain monastics for the duration of their lives.

Some Westerners doubt the usefulness of sangha. Until the political turmoil of the twentieth century, the sangha were by-and-large among the educated members of many Asian societies. Although individual sangha members came from all classes of society, everyone received a religious education once he or she is ordained. One aspect of the sangha’s role was to study and preserve the Buddha’s teachings for future generations. Now in the West, most everyone is literate and can study the Dharma. University professors and scholars in particular study the Buddha’s teachings and give lectures on Buddhism. In previous times, it was the sangha that had the time to do long meditation retreats in order to actualize the meaning of the Dharma. Now in the West, some lay people take months or years off of work in order to do long meditation retreats. Thus, because of the changes in society, now lay people can study the Dharma and do long retreats, just as the monastics do. This makes them wonder, “What is the use of monastics? Why can’t we be considered the modern sangha?”

Having lived part of my life as a lay person and part as a sangha member, my experience tells me that there is a difference between the two. Even though some lay people do the traditional work of the sangha—and some may do it better than some monastics—there is nevertheless a difference between a person who lives with many ethical precepts (a fully-ordained nun or bhikshuni has 348 precepts) and another who does not. The precepts put us right up against our old habits and emotional patterns. A lay retreatant who tires of the austerity of retreat can bring her retreat to a close, get a job, and resume a comfortable lifestyle with beautiful possessions. A university professor may make herself attractive. She may also receive part of her identity by being in relationship to her husband or partner. If she does not already have a partner who gives her emotional support, that option is open to her. She blends in, that is, she can teach Buddhist principles but when she is in society, no one recognizes her as a Buddhist, let alone as a religious person. She does not represent the Dharma in public, and thus it is easier for her behavior to be less than exemplary. If she has many possessions, an expensive car, attractive clothes, and goes on holiday to a beach resort where she lies on the beach to get tan, no one thinks twice about it. If she boasts about her successes and blames others when her plans do not work out, her behavior does not stand out. In other words, her attachment to sense pleasures, praise, and reputation are seen as normal and may easily go unchallenged either by herself or by others.

For a nun, however, the scenario is quite different. She wears robes and shaves her head so she and everyone else around her know that she aspires to live according to certain precepts. This aids her tremendously in dealing with attachments and aversions as they arise in daily life. Men know that she is celibate and relate to her differently. Both she and the men she meets do not become involved in the subtle flirting, games, and self-conscious behavior that people engage in when sexually attracted to another. A nun does not have to think about what to wear or how she looks. The robes and shaved head help her to cut through such attachments. They bring a certain anonymity and equality when she lives together with other monastics, for no one can draw special attention to herself due to her appearance. The robes and the precepts make her much more aware of her actions, or karma, and their results. She has put much time and energy into reflecting on her potential and aspiring to think, feel, speak, and act in ways that benefit herself and others. Thus, even when she is alone, the power of the precepts makes her more mindful not to act in unethical or impulsive ways. If she acts inappropriately with others, her teacher, other nuns, and lay people immediately comment on it. Holding monastic precepts has a pervasive beneficial effect on one’s life that may not be easily comprehensible to those who have not had the experience. There is a significant difference between the lifestyles of Buddhist scholars and lay retreatants on one hand, and monastics on the other. A new nun, who had been a dedicated and knowledgeable lay practitioner for years, told me that before ordination she did not understand how one could feel or act differently simply because of being nun. However, after ordination she was surprised at the power of the ordination: her internal sense of being a practitioner and her awareness of her behavior had changed considerably because of it.

Some people associate monasticism with austerity and self-centered spiritual practice. Contrasting this with the bodhisattva practice of benefiting other beings, they say that monastic life is unnecessary because the bodhisattva path, which can be followed as a lay practitioner, is higher. In fact, there is not a split between being a monastic and being a bodhisattva. In fact, they can easily go together. By regulating our physical and verbal actions, monastic precepts increase our mindfulness of what we say and do. This in turn makes us look at the mental attitudes and emotions that motivate us to speak and act. In doing this, our gross misbehavior is curbed as are the attachment, anger, and confusion that motivate them. With this as a basis, we can cultivate the heart that cherishes others, wishes to work for their benefit, and aspires to become a Buddha in order to be able to do so most effectively. Thus, the monastic life style is a helpful foundation for the bodhisattva path.

The contributions of Western nuns

Many people in the West, particularly those from Protestant cultures, have preconceived ideas of monastics as people who withdraw from society and do not contribute to its betterment. They think monastics are escapists who cannot face the difficulties of ordinary life. My experiences and observations have not validated any of these preconceptions. The fundamental cause of our problems is not the external circumstances, but our internal mental states—the disturbing attitudes of clinging attachment, anger, and confusion. These do not vanish by shaving the head, putting on monastic robes, and going to live in a monastery. If it were so easy to be free of anger, then wouldn’t everyone take ordination right away? Until we eliminate them through spiritual practice, these disturbing attitudes follow us wherever we go. Thus, living as a nun is not a way to avoid or escape problems. Rather, it makes us look at ourselves, for we can no longer engage in distractions as shopping, entertainment, alcohol, and intoxicants. Monastics are committed to eliminating the root causes of suffering in their own minds and in showing others how to do the same.

Although they try to spend the majority of their time in study and practice, monastics offer valuable contributions to society. Like monastics of all spiritual traditions, Western Buddhist nuns demonstrate a life of simplicity and purity to society. By avoiding consumerism—both the clutter of many possessions and the mentality of greed that consumerism fosters—nuns show that it is indeed possible to live simply and be content with what one has. Second, in curtailing their consumerist tendencies, they safeguard the environment for future generations. And third, as celibates, they practice birth control (as well as rebirth control) and thus help stop overpopulation!

By taming their own “monkey minds,” nuns can show other people the methods to do so. As others practice, their lives will be happier and their marriages better. They will be less stressed and angry. Teaching the Buddha’s techniques for subduing disturbing emotions within oneself and for resolving conflicts with others is an invaluable contribution that the nuns can make to society.

Because they are Westerners who have immersed themselves in the Dharma completely, the nuns are cultural bridges between East and West. Often they have lived in multiple cultures and can not only translate from one language to another but also from one set of cultural concepts and norms to another. In bringing Buddhism to the West and engaging in the ongoing process of differentiating the Dharma from its Asian cultural forms, they provide invaluable help along the path to those interested in the Buddha’s teachings. They can also help Westerners to recognize their own cultural preconceptions that block correctly understanding or practicing the Dharma. The nuns are able to speak to diverse audiences and communicate well with all of them, from American high school students to Asian senior citizens.

As Westerners, these nuns are not bound by certain pressures within Asian societies. For example, we can easily receive teachings from a variety of masters of different Buddhist traditions. We are not bound by centuries-old misconceptions about other traditions, nor do we face social pressure to be loyal to the Buddhist tradition of our own country in the same way that many Asian nuns are. This gives us tremendous latitude in our education and enables us to adopt the best from various Buddhist traditions into our lifestyle. This enhances our abilities to teach others and to promote dialogue and harmony among various Buddhist traditions.

The Western nuns offer many skills to the Buddhist community. Some are Dharma teachers; others translate both oral and written teachings. A number of nuns have engaged in long meditation retreats, serving society through their example and their practice. Some nuns are counselors who help Dharma students work through the difficulties that arise in practice. Many people, particularly women, feel more comfortable discussing emotional or personal issues with a nun rather than a monk. Other nuns work in day-care centers, in hospices with the terminally ill, or in refugee communities in their own countries and abroad. Some nuns are artists, others writers, therapists, or professors at universities. Many nuns work in the background: they are the crucial but unseen workers whose selfless labor enables Dharma centers and their resident teachers to serve the public.

The nuns also offer an alternative version of women’s liberation. Nowadays some Buddhist women say that associating women with sexuality, the body, sensuality, and the earth denigrates women. Their remedy is to say that the body, sensuality, and the ability to give birth to children are good. As philosophical support, they speak of tantric Buddhism which trains one to transform sense pleasures into the path. Regardless of whether they are actually able to transform sensuality into the path or not, these women maintain the paradigm that women are associated with sensuality. Nuns offer a different view. As nuns, we do not exalt the body and sensuality, nor do we disparage them. The human body is simply a vehicle with which we practice the Dharma. It doesn’t have to be judged as good or bad. It is just seen as it is and related to accordingly. Human beings are sexual beings, but we are also much more than that. In essence, nuns stop making a big deal out of sex.

Western nuns also have the opportunity to be very creative in their practice and in setting up institutions that reflect an effective way to live a Dharma life in the West. Because they are Western, they are not subject to many of the social pressures and ingrained self-concepts that many Asian nuns must deal with. On the other hand, because they are trained in the Dharma and have often lived in Asian cultures, they are faithful to the purity of the tradition. This prevents them from “throwing the Buddha out with the bath water” when distinguishing the Dharma to bring to the West from the Asian cultural practices that do not necessarily apply to Western practitioners. In this way, nuns are not seeking to change Buddhism, but to be changed by it! The essence of the Dharma cannot be changed and should not be tampered with. Buddhist institutions, however, are created by human beings and reflect the cultures in which they are found. As Western nuns, we can change the form that these Buddhism institutions take in our society.

Prejudice and pride

People often ask if we face discrimination because we are women. Of course! Most societies in our world are male-oriented, and Buddhist ones are no exception. For example, to avoid sexual attraction that is a distraction to our Dharma practice, monks and nuns are housed and seated separately. Since males have traditionally been the leaders in most societies and because monks are more numerous than nuns, the monks generally receive the preferable seats and living quarters. In Tibetan society, the monks receive a better education and more respect from society. There is also a scarcity of ordained female role models. The public—including many Western women—generally give larger donations to monks than to nuns. Traditionally the sangha has received their material requisites—food, shelter, clothing, and medicine—through donations from the public. When these are lacking, the nuns find it more difficult to receive proper training and education because they cannot cover the expenses those entail and because they must spend their time, not in study and practice, but in finding alternative means of income.

As Western nuns, we face similar external circumstances. Nevertheless, Western nuns are generally self-confident and assertive. Thus, we are apt to take advantage of situations that present themselves. Due to the relatively small number of Western monks and nuns, we are trained and receive teachings together. Thus the Western nuns receive the same education as Western monks, and our teachers give us equal responsibilities. Nevertheless, when participating in Asian Dharma events, we are not treated the same as men. Interestingly, Asians often do not notice this. It is so much “the way things are done” that it is never questioned. Sometimes people ask me to discuss at length how nuns in general, and Western nuns in particular, face discrimination. However, I do not find this particularly useful. For me, it is sufficient to be aware in various situations, understand the cultural roots and habits for the discrimination, and thus not let it affect my self-confidence. Then I try to deal with the situation in a beneficial way. Sometimes this is by politely questioning a situation. Other times it is by first winning someone’s confidence and respect over time, and later pointing out difficulties. However, in all situations, it necessitates maintaining a kind attitude in my own mind.

Many years ago, I would become angry when encountering gender prejudice, particularly in Asian Buddhist institutions. For example, I was once attending a large “tsog” offering ceremony in Dharamsala, India. I watched three Tibetan monks stand up and present a large food offering to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Other monks then rose to distribute offerings to the entire congregation. Inside I fumed, “The monks always do these important functions and we nuns have to sit here! It’s not fair.” Then I considered that if we nuns had to get up to make the offering to His Holiness and distribute offerings to the crowd, I would complain that we had to do all the work while the monks remained seated. Noticing this, I saw that both the problem and the solution to it lay in my attitude, not in the external situation.

Being a Dharma practitioner, I could not escape the fact that anger is a defilement that misconstrues a situation and is therefore a cause of suffering. I had to face my anger and my arrogance, and apply the Dharma antidotes to deal with them. Now it is actually intriguing and fun to deal with feeling offended. I observe the sense of “I” that feels offended, the I who wants to retaliate. I pause and examine, “Who is this I?” Or I stop and reflect, “How is my mind viewing this situation and creating my experience by the way I interpret it?” Some people think that if a woman relinquishes her anger and pride in such circumstances, she must see herself as inferior and will not work to remedy the situation. This is not a correct understanding of the Dharma, however; for only when our own mind is peaceful can we clearly see methods to improve bad circumstances.

Some people claim that the fact that fully ordained nuns have more precepts than monks indicates gender discrimination. They disapprove of the fact that some precepts which are minor transgressions for monks are major ones for nuns. Understanding the evolution of the precepts puts this is proper perspective. When the sangha was initially formed, there were no precepts. After several years, some monks acted in ways that provoked criticism either from other monastics or from the general public. In response to each situation, the Buddha established a precept to guide the behavior of the sangha in the future. While bhikshus (fully ordained monks) follow precepts that were established due to unwise behavior of the monks only, bhikshunis (fully ordained nuns) follow the precepts that arose due to inappropriate behavior of both monks and nuns. Also, some of the additional precepts relate only to female practitioners. For example, it would be useless for a monk to have a precept to avoid promising a nun a menses garment but not giving it!

Personally speaking, as a nun, having more precepts than a monk does not bother me. The more numerous and the stricter the precepts, the more my mindfulness improves. This increased mindfulness aids my practice. It is not a hindrance, nor is it indicative of discrimination. The increased mindfulness helps me progress on the path and I welcome it.

In short, while Western nuns face certain difficulties, these very same situations can become the fuel propelling them towards internal transformation. Women who have the inclination and ability to receive and keep the monastic precepts experience a special fortune and joy through their spiritual practice. Through their practice in overcoming attachment, developing a kind heart, and realizing the ultimate nature of phenomena, they can benefit many people directly and indirectly. Whether or not oneself is a monastic, the benefit of having nuns in our society is evident.


  • Batchelor, Martine. Walking on Lotus Flowers. Thorsons/HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1996.
  • Chodron, Thubten, ed. Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2000.
  • Chodron, Thubten, ed. Preparing for Ordination: Reflections for Westerners Considering Monastic Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. Life as a Western Buddhist Nun, Seattle, 1997. For free distribution. Write to: Dharma Friendship Foundation, P. O. Box 30011, Seattle WA 98103, USA.
  • Gyatso, Tenzin. Advice from Buddha Shakyamuni Concerning a Monk’s Discipline. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, 1982)
  • Hanh, Thich Nhat. For a Future to Be Possible. Parallax Press, Berkeley, 1993.
  • Horner, I. B. Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Part I-IV in the Sacred Books of the Buddhists. Pali Text Society, London, 1983 (and Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd, London, 1982.)
  • The Profound Path of Peace, Issue No. 12, Feb. 1993. International Kagyu Sangha Association (c/o Gampo Abbey, Pleasant Bay, N.S. BOE 2PO, Canada)
  • Mohoupt, Fran, ed. Sangha. International Mahayana Institute. (Box 817, Kathmandu, Nepal)
  • Murcott, Susan, tr. The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991.
  • Sakyadhita newletter. Past issues available from: Ven. Lekshe Tsomo, 400 Honbron Lane #2615, Honolulu HI96815, USA.
  • Tegchok, Geshe. Monastic Rites. Wisdom Publications, London, 1985.
  • Tsedroen, Jampa. A Brief Survey of the Vinaya. Dharma Edition, Hamburg, 1992.
  • Tsomo, Karma Lekshe, ed. Sakyadhita Daughters of the Buddha. Snow Lion, Ithaca NY, 1988.
  • Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Monastic Ethics for Women. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.
  • Yasodhara (formerly NIBWA) newsletter. Past issues available from: Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University, Bangkok 10200, Thailand.

  • Wu Yin, Teachings on the Dharmagupta Bhikshuni Pratimoksa, given at Life as a Western Buddhist Nun. For audio tapes, please write to Hsiang Kuang Temple, 49-1 Nei-pu, Chu-chi, Chia-I County 60406, Taiwan.

This article is taken from the book Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women, edited by Elison Findly, published by Wisdom Publications, 2000.

Why we need monasticism Thu, 04 Mar 2010 07:00:05 +0000

Introduction by Ajahn Amaro

Many classical Buddhist texts, of both Northern and Southern traditions, emphasize that monasticism plays an essential role in the health and longevity of the religion and its dispensation. However, in the West, the vast majority of influential dharma teachers over the last forty years have been lay practitioners, or at least householder lamas and Zen priests, such as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Suzuki Roshi, Sharon Salzberg, and S.N. Goenka.

Notable exceptions to this trend include Bhante Gunaratana and Ajahn Sumedho, and the late Lama Thubten Yeshe, Master Hsuan Hua, and Roshi Jiyu Kennett. These teachers and their monastic communities have all had a profound influence in their own way, yet the numbers of those making a monastic commitment remains small.

As far as the Asian immigrant communities in the West are concerned, there is no doubt that the forms their faith took in the old country are to be preserved at all cost. However, for those who were born and raised in the West, the encounter with Buddhism—and Buddhist monasticism in particular— raises questions such as: How important is it for the monastic path to be an element in Western Buddhism? Will women ever have an equal place in the monastic order? Since Buddhist monasticism was shaped by the various cultures it was exported to in Asia, what will it look like in the West?

In Buddhist mythology, the monastic plays the role of the fourth of the Heavenly Messengers, the one that caused Gotama to leave the palace, take up the life of a monk, and seek enlightenment. In order for messengers to do their job successfully they must be faithful both to the intent and meaning of the sender, as well as to the language and mores of the ones who are to receive the message; otherwise the communication won’t get through.

Today, the challenge for Western Buddhist monastics is how to be a faithful messenger. That is, one who embodies and respects the values of the source, yet who is also faithful to the values of this time and place.

If the messenger favors the origin and doesn’t pay heed to the language of the recipients, the message can become unreadable, with no more spiritual relevance than some of the antiquated religious forms already found in the West. If they lean too far in the other direction, over-adapting to fit the dharma du jour, the message can become so twisted in relation to its original meaning that its roots become severed and the receivers are orphaned from the ground of their tradition.

Venerable Samten with eyes closed while two nuns shave her head.

Venerable Samten having her head shaved. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

The Buddhist monastic order is the oldest human institution still functioning under its original bylaws. It’s an entity ripe in years, but whether it sits in the endangered species category or that of the hardy perennial remains to be seen. Where survival and flourishing are concerned, a lot depends on the skill and faith of the individual messenger, but, in addition, much also depends on whether the society wishes to hear the message, even if it’s being conveyed in an appropriate mode.

The following discussion will explore many of these issues and, in particular, how and why the monastic messenger might still be useful in the world.

AJAHN AMARO is co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. He was ordained as a bhikkhu by Ajahn Chah in 1979.

Buddhadharma: Let’s start with our overarching question. How important is the monastic path for Western Buddhism?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Buddhist monasticism owes its origins to the life story of the Buddha himself. When the Buddha decided to set out on his quest for enlightenment, he didn’t remain a prince in the palace and practice Vipassana a few hours a day. After he became disillusioned with birth, old age, sickness, and death, he glimpsed a wandering ascetic walking through the streets of Kapilavastu. That became the model he emulated. He adopted the lifestyle of a monk, and after his enlightenment, when he wanted to make the path to enlightenment open to others, he did so by establishing a monastic sangha, so that those who were inspired by the ideal of nibbana could follow the same path the Buddha had followed.

Throughout Buddhist Asia—in the southeast countries as well as in the Himalayas—it’s been extremely important to preserve the monastic sangha. It’s taken as a representation of the third jewel, the visible manifestation of the Aryan sangha, meaning the sangha of the noble ones. Now as Buddhism comes to the West, there are many challenges that make the existence of a monastic sangha difficult here, but it is a necessity if Buddhism is to flourish in America.

Ayya Tathaaloka: When I was young and saw depictions of Buddhist monastics on television, in movies, and in magazines like the National Geographic, I felt a strong affinity with them, a call within me to monastic life. As long as there are those who feel inspired to take on the monastic life, it’s important that we make that kind of life available. I’m so glad it’s been a possibility for me, not just something historical I could read about in a book.

Earlier in my monastic life, there weren’t that many monasteries in North America. We had to go to Asia, which was hard on one’s health. Although it was wonderful in many ways, it was also challenging to learn a new language and culture. In the last decade, I’ve found that more people have been calling for monasteries to be located here in the West, so that we can live a monastic life in our home cultures.

Robert Thurman: Monasticism is critical for the future of Buddhism in America. There is a tendency in American Buddhism not to think so, and to argue that monasticism was appropriate in Asian society but not in America, where most practitioners are bound to be lay practitioners. The idea that we don’t really need monasticism here is very wrong. The source of it is an unwitting Protestant ethic that is unwilling to have people pursuing a life path that doesn’t involve producing things. But in fact, one of our problems is that we overproduce things and it would be good to have a lot of people who are not producing things.

The monastic institution was a brilliant sociological invention of Shakyamuni Buddha—something distinct from forest ascetics, who are completely out in the jungle so to speak, as he had been, and distinct from the city priests, who operate at a temple in a town. The monastics were located a short distance from town, so they could come in to collect alms and food and maintain a connection with the populace. They were also far enough away to have some retreat from the hustle and bustle, yet not be utterly isolated.

What Ayya Tathaaloka was saying about it being easy to be ordained is very important. Monasticism is a society-transforming institution that is the only institutional antidote in human history to militarism, the bad habit of most human societies. For Buddhism to really take hold in the West, society has to be slowly changed in such a way that it will support monastics as a vital part of society. And if American Buddhism turns in such a direction, we could see a renaissance in Buddhist monasticism in the next century or so.

Jan Chozen Bays: Even among my own dharma brothers and sisters, I encounter questions as to why would we need ordained people and why would we need monasteries as a place to house them or train them. In the Zen tradition, of course, people who are ordained also have aspects of lay life, so it’s not so surprising that the question would arise.

The Buddha said that the fourfold sangha of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (the ordained sangha), and upasakas and upasikas (the lay sangha) is essential. Today, we need a wide-mouth funnel that many types of people can fit into, one that makes the buddhadharma accessible and is very creative about the forms in which it’s presented. We’ve done well with that, but as a result we now need even more anchoring at the deep end of the spectrum. The danger of the wide-mouth funnel is that Buddhism will become too shallow, and therefore diluted and commodified. It will be mala Buddhism: if I wear a mala and I like the Dalai Lama, I’m a Buddhist.

Buddhadharma: If the monastic element were to disappear from Western Buddhism, what would happen?

Robert Thurman: In traditional Buddhist terms, Buddhism itself would disappear. A few years ago when Time magazine did a big thing on Buddhism coming to America, I said at the time that I didn’t think it had arrived yet, because there’s really no significant indigenous American Buddhist monasticism. There are a few traces here and there, but it’s not widely accepted.

Also, on a deeper level there would be no asylum for certain people. There would be no place for those young people who don’t want to have a family, produce, adopt a profession, or join the military. There would be no place for people who really want to devote themselves to lifelong meditative, intellectual, emotional, and psychological development, living at a very high ethical level. Monasticism creates a privileged life for someone who wants to achieve the ideals of the Buddhist path.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Whether one takes a Theravada perspective or a Mahayana perspective, the final goal of Buddhism involves the complete abandoning of all the defilements that keep us in bondage to samsara. A monastic person might not have advanced very far in the actual inner renunciation, but the outer lifestyle of the monk is designed to facilitate that inner renunciation. Through the profession of their vows, the monastics adopt a life of celibacy, a life without possessing material resources or money. It’s a life that is in principle dedicated to the inner work of completely purifying the mind.

Even though laypeople living at home, practicing the dhamma on their own, can practice very diligently, the monastic form provides the ideal conditions for the achievement of that inner state of complete renunciation. The monastic lifestyle represents in a manifest and visible form the achievement of the final goal, the achievement of that state of complete inner renunciation. Without the presence of a monastic sangha in the West, the final goal of the Buddha’s teachings will not be so visible. In that case, one can easily mistake the goals to be simply about living mindfully in the here and now, experiencing presence of mind in the present life, without seeing that there’s a transcendent goal toward which the Buddha’s teaching is pointing.

Jan Chozen Bays: What Bhikkhu Bodhi said about having a visible, alternative way to live is important. We’ve adopted “a career day for mystics,” which was advocated by Matthew Fox. When I first heard about this idea, I liked it because so many young people have come to us saying, “I wish I had known about this alternative when I was younger, when I was eighteen and desperate.” Now we go out to career days at colleges and set up a booth for the monastery.

Robert Thurman: [laughs] That’s great. Is it alongside the military recruitment?

Jan Chozen Bays: Yes. How did you know?

Robert Thurman: [laughs] Well, that’s the competition.

Jan Chozen Bays: They put us next to the CIA, and they were actually very friendly. When we did it at the University of Portland, many people came to the booth and said how glad they were to have us there as an alternative. Even the military people and the police said that.

Monasticism is an important alternative way of living. Although monastics interact with the outside world, the distractions, pressures, and temptations are significantly reduced. The Buddha was so practical. He was always looking at how to maximize the amount of life energy and time devoted to the pursuit of liberation. When he looked at clothing, food, and shelter, he was always looking at it with an eye to how we can devote the majority of our resources to the pursuit of liberation. We don’t have a television here. We get a newspaper once a week. So there’s not this constant obsession with what’s happening in the world. On a normal day we end up with four hours devoted to meditation, and during retreats it’s eight to ten hours, which you can’t possibly do in lay life.

Ayya Tathaaloka: At any stage along the path, when it’s in one’s heart to do something more than practice for a few minutes or hours a day or go on some short-term retreats, when one feels motivated to give body, mind, and heart to the path 100 percent, on an extended basis, the container of the monastic life is there to make that possible.

Monastics need not be solitary hermits, or paccekabuddhas, off in a mountain with no contact with anyone. Rather, they may be visible in the world and have a connection with everyone in it. The way of monastic life laid out by the Buddha in the Vinaya is not only an expression of his great wisdom but of his great compassion for everyone. The monastic life is not only an excellent way of living for people in training. It is equally so for highly accomplished practitioners. It’s a wonderful way for them to share themselves with the world.

Buddhadharma: One of my teachers said monasticism is important because it’s clean and complete. It’s like a canvas back-drop that gives us a frame of reference for complete devotion to practice.

Jan Chozen Bays: Ideally it’s clean, but not always.

Buddhadharma: Naturally, like any path, it has its own ups and downs.

Ayya Tathaaloka: It is also possible for monasticism to be done improperly, such as when monastics, or even whole monasteries, start living for reasons other than the practice or become involved with other businesses. Although the form of monastic life might still be there, something else is going on.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: We shouldn’t cherish too many romantic illusions about the monastic life. There are many monasteries in which monks misbehave and become involved with other things besides the practice, study, and transmission of the dhamma.

Jan Chozen Bays: Such as selling lucky lottery numbers.

Buddhadharma: Some people have come into monastic institutions and been disillusioned with what they found there. What ensures that the monastic container is maintained and that what happens there really is the complete renunciation you’ve been speaking about?

Jan Chozen Bays: First of all, disillusionment is part of training. Everyone comes into monastic training with illusions about what will happen, what they’ll become, what the teachers are like. To maintain the container, there has to be a monastic rule. In Theravada Buddhism, it’s the Vinaya. In other monastic traditions, there are adaptations of that, but we all have a rule and that’s vital.

I once asked Ajahn Amaro what happens when you have someone who’s so clearly enlightened, like Ajahn Chah, and then in the next generation there’s nobody who seems to have that power or that clarity. In response, he emphasized the importance of the Vinaya. As long as people are subject to living that life, it becomes a field of cultivation for enlightened beings of various grades to arise. One of the functions of the monastery is to keep the dharma wheel turning, to honor and preserve traditions that have been time-tested over thousands of years. Through how we carry our body, speech, and mind, we’re keeping the dharma wheel turning so that enlightened human beings can keep appearing.

Buddhadharma: Is a charismatic figure like Ajahn Chah needed to lead a monastic tradition?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: It seems there are two models of monastic life. One model, which is very common in Asia, originates because a monastery centers around a deeply experienced, realized, and skillful teacher. He attracts students and ordains them, or he attracts those who are already ordained. Then, he becomes the de facto leader, the decider, the one who runs and controls the whole monastery. As long as he’s a wise, accomplished teacher, the monastery will run smoothly and everybody will conform to his desires and live together harmoniously. But sometimes the person who winds up in the position of power in the monastery is obsessed with power and tries to dominate and suppress others. In that case, the monastery will often fall apart.

Robert Thurman: The Tibetan tradition is steeped in the charismatic approach. Their system of reincarnate teachers is unique among Buddhist societies. We are all a reincarnation of somebody, of course, but Tibetan Buddhism makes an institution out of it. When reincarnate lamas were brought up as monks, which was typical, that was usually beneficial. Conforming to the Vinaya kept them from becoming too powerful. But in the diffusion of Tibetan Buddhism around the world, the reincarnates are often not monks, which sometimes causes problems.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: The other model of monastic life is based more on partnership and community among the monks or nuns. Someone is invested with the office of abbot, perhaps by election. It can be a rotating position. But the one who exercises the authority of abbot doesn’t have the capacity or the authority to make decrees on their own—they are subject to control from the monastic community. Within this structure, the monks or nuns will be entitled to speak their own voice, offer opinions, and even criticize the leader. This model seems closer to what the Buddha himself envisioned in the Vinaya, but over the centuries the tendency has been for monasteries to center around one strong charismatic leader.

Robert Thurman: There is wisdom coming out of the Vinaya even for dealing with the problem of leaders who are too powerful. In Tibetan monasteries, for example, the bursar, the one who looks after financial affairs, is never the charismatic meditation teacher. In this country, I’ve seen situations where the leader has both the economic function of control of the monastery’s livelihood (either through donations or business interests) and also is giving initiations and ordaining. Combining those two is a recipe for trouble. They tend very much to be separated in Asian traditions.

A similar lack of separation occurs in Zen in this country. There’s a lot of confusion about what a monk is, and the line between a livelihood-earning person and a monastic gets blurred. I think that stems from the Meiji Restoration’s decision to make monks get married, in order to break the power of Japanese monastic institutions. For the majority of Zen history, it was much more Vinaya-oriented, and monks were celibate and renunciate. As a result of this nineteenth-century innovation, however, you have people who are called “Zen monks” who are married with two children and a job. That’s something the Zen tradition has to look at.

Jan Chozen Bays: That is true, though we do honor the distinction. We refer to ourselves as receiving monastic training because the container is a monastic container, but we call ourselves priests, not monks.

Robert Thurman: That’s good. It’s important to be clear about the differences.

Buddhadharma: What about the relationship of the monastic sangha to the large community of practicing lay Buddhists? At times it seems like there is little relationship of one to the other.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: In the American Theravada community, there seem to be two tracks. One track is attracted to monastic forms. Those on that track don’t necessarily become monastics themselves, but they’re attracted to monks and nuns as visibly representing Buddhism. They’re eager to have monks and nuns come and settle in the U.S., and they want to support them. They’re very much drawn towards traditional Buddhist teachings. They want to learn the dhamma broadly, as well as in a way that applies to their own life.

The other track is what is now called the Vipassana community. They were originally attracted not so much to Buddhism itself but to the practice of meditation, almost as a self-sufficient discipline. They follow teachers who teach Vipassana meditation. In their discourses they draw upon sayings from the Buddha, but the teachers themselves are not intent on establishing a Buddhist presence in the U.S. but rather are teaching a particular practice of meditation for the immediately visible benefits that come from that practice. Their style of teaching is usually not grounded in the doctrinal framework of Buddhism, including the teaching of kamma, rebirth, the full exposition of the Four Noble Truths, the full exposition of dependent origination. Rather, it draws selectively from teachings of the Buddha that contribute to the practice of Vipassana meditation.

Robert Thurman: Those who support monastics are generally Asian American and those who practice Vipassana are generally Euro-American, no?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Not really. Of course there’s a tendency for the Asian Buddhist population in the U.S. to center around monasteries, but there is also a significant portion of the American community drawn to the monastic way of life.

Robert Thurman: Is that so?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: Yes.

Ayya Tathaaloka: Yes, there is definitely interest in monasticism among American Buddhists. Here in northern California it’s growing tremendously. Many lay Buddhists have called for there to be a monastic presence. Before I moved to the Bay Area, when I would visit, people would ask, “Why do you have to leave? Why can’t we have a monastery for women here?”

When the number of people reached critical mass, we went ahead with establishing a monastery here. Some of the lay people also wanted to be able to train and ordain here. At that time, there was a men’s monastery, Abhayagiri, in California. But women also wanted to train in their home country. They didn’t want to have to go abroad and deal with the huge costs, the visa difficulties, and the health challenges.

When I was younger, I encountered monastics who would put down lay practitioners as if the laity were beneath them. When I returned to the U.S. and began to encounter Western Vipassana communities, I encountered people who put down monasticism as if it were a dinosaur. I do think that is beginning to change. Our model must be, as Rev. Chozen said, the Buddha’s simple notion of the fourfold sangha. I think of it as a good vehicle with four wheels. If each is steady and the whole vehicle is in balance, we can all move forward effectively, mutually supporting and uplifting each other.

Buddhadharma: Traditional monasteries were built and maintained through both citizen patronage and royal patronage. Can such institutions be developed and maintained on a large scale in the West?

Jan Chozen Bays: One big difference is that in the West we have separation of church and state. Very few here would want any one religion funded by the government. So, we will not enjoy royal patronage here. This provides the same incentive that the Buddha established for his monastics to help them stay close to the lay population. We have to educate Westerners about the difference between the more isolated form of monasticism familiar from the Catholic tradition and the more permeable approach of Buddhist monasticism.

Robert Thurman: Yes, even using the term “monastery” to describe Buddhist viharas creates some confusion. Traditionally, the Buddhist monastic sangha was not so much into being solitary—they interacted strongly with the lay community. The Buddha’s order was that you must beg for your food, so you have to interact with the lay community every day to get your lunch. It’s not about hiding from society.

Jan Chozen Bays: Also, one of the important roles of monasteries, or whatever we choose to call them, is to be available to anyone in need, to be a place where people can put away their concerns for the world. Almost every person has within them a monastic voice, a calling to step aside from life as a personality and step into the unconditioned. Then the larger community can begin to think of the monastery as an extension of itself, and may even begin to call it “our monastery,” as has started to happen around here. Grassroots support is the foundation of Buddhist practice in America. The donations may be mostly small donations, but they come from wide sources.

Buddhadharma: What about support for large institutions, with a hundred or more monastics?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: It would be difficult to support monasteries of that size here, but that is not necessarily the model we need to follow. In Sri Lanka large monasteries are not very common, except for monastic training centers. The typical vihara in one of the countless towns and villages will usually have two or three senior resident monks, a few novices, and that’s it. The temples don’t get much support from the government. They’re supported by the people.

I would say it would probably be healthier to have a larger number of smaller monasteries spread out over different parts of the U.S. than a few large institutions.

Ayya Tathaaloka: Even in Thailand, the majority of monasteries are smaller. There are larger ones that have royal support and also ones that develop around a great teacher, which is a very organic development. There are people who make offerings of a little bit of food each day or a small amount of money, but there are also wealthy people seeking out teachings, and they offer greater support. The support of wealthy patrons is something I can very much see happening in the United States and is already happening here to a degree. In the U.S. economy a few people have an enormous amount of wealth, and if those people benefit from the dhamma they may make the kind of donations that could lead to much larger endowments.

Robert Thurman: Many people may benefit from meditation, from the wide funnel that Chozen Bays talked about, and they will support that development, but perhaps a few will see the benefit of supporting the development of Buddhism itself, and will truly be generous and support people who want to devote themselves full time to the teachings.

Buddhadharma: As Buddhism has moved into different parts of the world it has always changed in some way. Can we develop alternative forms of monasticism other than lifelong ordination for people in the West?

Bhikkhu Bodhi: In Sri Lanka, where I lived as a monk, it hasn’t been customary to give temporary ordination. In this respect, Sri Lanka is different from other Theravada countries like Thailand and Burma, where temporary ordination is an integral part of the Buddhist culture. I don’t have direct experience with it, but it seems that it could be an effective way to help people who are not intending to live as monastics their whole life to acquire some experience of what it means to actually live as a monk, to get firsthand experience of living as a member of the sangha. They’ll come to appreciate the hardships as well as the benefits and pleasures of monastic life, and it could tie them more closely to the monastic sangha. It might also make them willing to throw their support behind those who want to live as monastics full time.

Ayya Tathaaloka: I have many friends who have been monastics for a period of time, whether because they took temporary ordination or because they disrobed. Some have gone on to become excellent Buddhist teachers. I appreciate what they say about the usefulness of having ordained. However, I’m not an advocate of institutionalized temporary ordination. I acknowledge the beneficial aspect of it, but I also recognize that there is a detrimental aspect. The temporariness of it can reduce the meaning and sincerity behind undertaking monastic ordination—the intention to dedicate oneself fully to the final goal of enlightenment. Without complete renunciation, ordination can become trivialized.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: A viable alternative, then, would be to have laypeople live at a monastery for an extended period of time, which we call being an anagarika.

Ayya Tathaaloka: Yes, the Buddha recommended that people take periods of time like that, which we now call temporary monastic retreat.

Jan Chozen Bays: I agree completely. Ordaining and then disrobing can become like collecting another merit badge. Our current scheme is that people have to live here for at least a year before they can even request ordination, and then they’re a postulate for at least a year. It’s a gradual entry into the life, so that they understand what they’re getting into. There’s nothing more discouraging for our lay sangha than getting very excited about someone taking ordination, coming to the ceremony, supporting the ordained person, only to have the person quickly step back out again.

Buddhadharma: How do you see monasticism evolving as it develops further in the West?

Jan Chozen Bays: The evolution we’re looking for is already happening. Peter Gregory says the marks of Buddhist practice in the West are, first, the increased role of women; second, the fact that the canon is accessible and can be studied by everyone; and third, that laypeople are not content to just be financial supporters but also want to be taken seriously as practitioners, including spending some time perhaps in the monastery practicing full time. We also need to increase the interaction of monastics with communities. For example, we need to have people in ordained clothing going into schools occasionally and interacting with children.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: A significant aspect about Buddhism in the West is not simply the ordination and greater participation of women, but that the feminine presence is going to transform the expression, understanding, and presentation of Buddhism significantly. It strikes me that the classical presentation of Buddhism has a very masculine flavor. One struggles against the defilements, to defeat them, cut them off. As the feminine aspect becomes more prominent, it’s going to soften the presentation, but not in a compromising way. It will bring to manifestation certain elements already embedded within the Buddhist tradition that have not yet come to full expression.

Robert Thurman: Shakyamuni was a little hesitant about female monastics, not because of anything against women. It was because, as a sociologist, he could see the resistance of the chauvinist Brahmins. The release of women into this kind of lifestyle would be resented. Today we have a different economy and a different type of education, and the bhikkhunis should be as developed and as honored as possible. There will likely be more of them than the bhikkhus, which will probably be a very good thing.

Bhikkhu Bodhi: There’s also going to be much greater interaction between monasticism and the world, such that monastics will take on the responsibility of functioning as what I would call a Buddhist conscience for the world. In traditional monasticism, Buddhist monastics are supposed to remain detached from the world, even though they’re interacting with laypeople to receive their alms and to preach the dhamma. But today’s monastics are going to have to be much more aware of what is happening in the world. As the gap between rich and poor widens, monastics are going to have to present a Buddhist perspective on issues such as war, poverty, and ecological destruction, reminding us that the primary values in human life should be compassion, loving-kindness, justice, and equity.

Monastics will also provide greater opportunities to lay-people to live at the monasteries, to study the dhamma extensively and in depth. In traditional Buddhist culture, specialized learning in the dhamma is considered the preserve of the monastic community, and the monks preach to lay people on a very simple and practical level. But now, because laypeople who embrace Buddhism have higher levels of education, they want to understand dhamma more extensively and deeply. Part of the responsibility of the monastic community will be to transmit high and deep dhamma, not only to other monastics but also to laypeople who have that interest. It will also be important for Buddhist monastics to relate with monastics and spiritual practitioners from other religious traditions.

Finally, in the United States we have a melding of all of the main Buddhist traditions, which you don’t find in Asia, so there’s going to be much more interaction between monastics of these different traditions. Every year we have a monastic gathering where monks and nuns from all traditions who have taken full ordination come together to discuss areas of shared interest and concern.

Ayya Tathaaloka: It’s hard for me to say how I would see monasticism evolve in the future, because I’m right in the midst of it. When people come here, they sense something. I see it in their eyes and in their demeanor. I hear it in their speech, and I see it expressed in their actions. I would have to say if you want to know what monasticism looks like in the West, then come and spend time with us. Do a temporary monastic retreat. See what it looks like. We are living the process of evolution.

ROBERT THURMAN is the Jey Tsong Khapa professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, and cofounder and president of Tibet House U.S. He was ordained in 1964, becoming the first American monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He renounced his vows of celibacy three years later. He is the author of Why the Dalai Lama Matters.

JAN CHOZEN BAYS is co-abbot of Great Vow Zen monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon. She received priest’s ordination and dharma transmission from the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi. She is also a pediatrician, wife, mother, and the author of Mindful Eating.

BHIKKHU BODHI is a senior American Buddhist monk and scholar who was ordained in 1973 in Sri lanka. In 2002, he returned to the United States and now resides at Chang Yen monastery in Carmel, New York. He is the president of the Buddhist Publication Society and chair of the Buddhist Global relief organization.

AYYA TATHAALOKA is an American bhikkhuni and cofounder of the North American Bhikkhuni Association. In 2005, she founded the first women’s monastic residence in the Theravada tradition in the western United States. She is currently the resident teacher at Bodhi House in the San Francisco bay area, and is establishing a women’s monastic hermitage on California’s Sonoma Coast. In October 2009, she served as preceptor in the first Theravada bhikkhuni ordinations in Australia.

An interview with a newly ordained monastic Thu, 07 Jan 2010 07:00:51 +0000 Awaken magazine of her decision to follow the monastic path.]]>

Awaken: Venerable, what spurred you to want to be a fully ordained bhikshuni?

Venerable Chonyi standing by Venerable Chodron in the Abbey mediation hall.

I started to reflect that I don’t have much time left before death strikes and when that happens, what sort of mind-state would I want to be in? (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

Venerable Thubten Chonyi (VTC): I aspire to bhikshuni ordination. I will be eligible for that next year. I have been a student of Venerable Thubten Chodron for many years. I went to almost every retreat and teaching she taught in the city I lived in. Over the years, I received numerous teachings—the nature of suffering, the causes of suffering, the fact that our afflictions and karma can be purified and eliminated, that Nirvana is peace and that there is a path to liberation and enlightenment. Listening to and digesting those teachings, it slowly started to sink into me that what the Buddha said was true. Turning 50, I also began to really question what my life is about. I started to reflect that I don’t have much time left before death strikes and when that happens, what sort of mind-state would I want to be in? With that thought some years back, I began to think about ordination. I was initially resistant to the idea as I enjoyed my 19 years of full-time work in Reiki healing. It only became crystal clear to me that I want to embark on this path after being a founding member of establishing Sravasti Abbey, and realizing that as a layperson I couldn’t practice as deeply or as fully as I want to. It also helped that my teacher has established a monastery in the US and said, “If you want to practice deeply, come in.”

Awaken: How did your family take it? Was your family supportive of your decision?

VTC: I’m blessed. I faced no obstacles of family or children. However, at the beginning, my 73-year old mother wasn’t too happy. Although she was supportive of me being a Buddhist for a long time, the very idea of shaving my head, giving up my career, and not having much contact with family didn’t go down too well with her. My mum always tells my siblings and me that we have to live our own lives. “I cannot dictate that for you,” she said. With that firm belief, she was trying to work out her great discomfort with me becoming a Buddhist nun. The change in mindset started for her one day when she was having a pottery lesson. She told someone in class about my plans to receive ordination, and that person broke into a huge smile and said: “Aren’t you happy? Aren’t you proud of her? That is the most wonderful thing a person could do. You should be so happy for your daughter.” That statement helped her to turn her thinking around. She then visited Sravasti Abbey with me so she could see the monastery I would be living in and also to meet Venerable Thubten Chodron. A year and a half later when my mum visited again, she went up to Venerable Thubten Chodron and told her, “I have never seen her happier in her life.” And she’s happy that I’m happy.

Awaken: How is a householder’s life different from a novice monastic’s life?

VTC: A monastic schedule is very structured. Our day starts at 5:30 am and is dedicated to practice, prayers, study, and offering service to the Three Jewels and to sentient beings. I could never achieve such structure in my lay life. Even though I had very stable morning and evening practices, they were sometimes long and sometimes short. Imagine doing just 20 or 30 minutes of sitting practice a day as compared to two or three hours of practice. I was also very socially engaged with friends and clients before becoming a monastic. But now, each day, the focus is on practicing, offering service and sharing the Dharma in outreach work such as counseling, prison work with inmates, answering emails on Dharma questions from all over the world, participating in interfaith gatherings, conducting Dharma teachings, meditation and life-skill classes in churches. I’m also absolutely clear that the benefit I’m offering in my work of sharing the Dharma is not just in this life, but in many, many lives, as we are planting seeds that would help people in the long term. My quality of life has increased significantly. Even though as a householder I enjoyed a good livelihood, did what I wanted, had good friends and relished a good relationship with a good Dharma teacher, I still experienced dissatisfactions. But being a monastic, I am working to pull away and get freed from the attachment that drives us in our lives, which is why my mum could see that I am happier.

Awaken: What have you learned now that you are a novice nun?

VTC: It’s so much more than I thought—to be able to spend my day and night just studying and working with my own mind through observing and overcoming the mental defilements. It is also an incredible privilege to be given the responsibility to share the Dharma whenever possible as much as I can. I learn something about myself, about the Dharma and what it means to be a monastic every day.

Awaken: How do you wish to contribute back to the Buddhist community?

VTC: I realize that just by assisting my teacher, Venerable Thubten Chodron, for a few days is so much more helpful and beneficial to so many more people than I had ever been able to help in my previous full-time job. I’m committed to giving the Abbey a strong footing and to devoting myself in whatever ways it takes to get this monastery going solid and strong in America. This is how I hope to contribute to the Buddhist community, to serve the Dharma and to serve all sentient beings.

Awaken: Venerable, do you have any anecdote or interesting personal experience to share after becoming a novice nun?

VTC: Well, I have a story on the impact the Abbey has had in our local community. It is a testament to the kindness of the nuns before me. I was the third nun ordained at the Abbey. At the Abbey, before receiving novice ordination, the candidate trains with the eight anagarika precepts, shaving the head and donning a grey training uniform. So the first time I went out to run errands and go to the bank as an anagarika, I was uncertain what I would encounter. But when I entered the bank with the deposit in my hand, facing the teller, who was a complete stranger, she started talking to me very warmly, “Oh, hi! It’s so good to see you,” and she continued talking as if she knew I was from the Abbey! The same thing happened at the other store. All because the previous nuns had been so warm and kind to them.

Awaken: What advice would you give to someone who is also thinking about getting ordination?

VTC: Meditate frequently on the four noble truths. I strongly believe that the only reason one should become a monastic is on the basis of a conviction that liberation is desirable and possible. We have to fully understand and deeply internalize that cyclical existence cannot provide us any true satisfaction.

Awaken: Any Dharma advice or last words to give to laypersons who would like to practice the Buddha’s teachings in this modern age?

VTC: I’m inspired by those who lead a householder’s life and yet have a strong practice, simply because it is not easy to practice in a householder’s life. So first, rejoice in the fact that you have a practice. Don’t feel guilty about being a householder but make time for practice. Then again, don’t feel guilty about not meditating if you really cannot, because that is no good either. We can practice by observing the Dharma principles in our daily life, for instance, abiding by the precepts in all that we do, practicing contentment with who we are and what we have, setting our motivation each morning when we go to school or work to benefit all sentient beings: that is practice too, everyday practice. So there are many ways to apply the Dharma in everyday life. As we let go of attachment, we will face less dissatisfactions.

The challenge of the future Mon, 01 Sep 2008 06:00:02 +0000

I will begin with some questions: If Buddhism is to be successfully transplanted in the U.S., does it need a monastic sangha as its cornerstone? Must there be a monastic sangha at all, or is Buddhist monasticism an outdated institution? Can the teachings flow entirely through a “lay Sangha,” through lay teachers and communities of lay practitioners? If monastics are necessary, what should their role be? What their duties? What changes in lifestyle and orientation, if any, are required by the new conditions imposed by the Western culture in which Buddhism has taken root?

Venerable Chodron and other monastics in the meditation hall during the 2014 Pravarana ceremony.

My personal belief is that for Buddhism to successfully flourish in the West, a monastic sangha is necessary. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

My personal belief is that for Buddhism to successfully flourish in the West, a monastic sangha is necessary. At the same time, I think it almost inevitable that as Buddhism evolves here, monasticism will change in many ways, that it will adapt to the peculiar environment impressed upon it by Western culture and modes of understanding, which differ so much from the culture and worldview of traditional Asian Buddhism. As a result, I believe, the role monastics play in Western Buddhism will also differ in important ways from the role they play in Asia. I do not think this is something that we need lament or look upon with dread. In some respects, I believe, such a development is not only inevitable but also wholesome, that it can be seen as a sign of Buddhism’s ability to adapt to different cultural conditions, which is also a sign of spiritual strength. At the same time, I also think we need to exercise caution about making adaptation. It would certainly be counterproductive to be in a hurry to make changes uncritically, without taking the long-standing pillars of our Buddhist heritage as our reference point. If we are too hasty, we might also be careless, and then we might discard fundamental principles of the Dharma along with the adventitious cultural dressing in which it is wrapped.

I first want to examine the traditionalist understanding of this issue, even though—and I stress this—the position to which I incline is not a strictly traditionalist one. From a traditionalist point of view, the monastic sangha is necessary for the successful transmission of Buddhism to occur because the monastic sangha sustains the continuity of the Triple Gem. We can briefly consider how this is so with regard to each of the Three Jewels individually.

(1) The Buddha: When the Buddha decided to embark on the quest for enlightenment, his first step was to become a samana, an ascetic. On the one hand, by adopting the lifestyle of an ascetic, the future Buddha was conforming to an ancient Indian paradigm of the spiritual life, a paradigm that might well have gone back centuries before his own time. But by taking up this mode of life, and continuing to adhere to it even after his enlightenment, the Buddha did something more than simply conform to the prevailing Indian convention. He conveyed a message, namely, that the renunciant way of life was an essential step on the path to the ultimate goal, to the state of transcendent liberation from birth and death, the ideal shared by many of the old Indian schools of spiritual culture. Even more: he indicated that renunciation is itself an aspect of the goal. Renunciation of sensual pleasures and cyclic existence is not merely a means to liberation; it is also integral to the goal itself. The goal is renunciation, and thus the act of renunciation with which the monastic life begins is not simply a step in the direction of the goal but also partly the realization of the goal, an embodiment of liberation, even if only symbolically so.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha created a monastic sangha on the model of the lifestyle that he had adopted during his quest for enlightenment. The monks (and later nuns) were to live in a state of voluntary poverty, without personal wealth and with minimal possessions. They were to shave their heads and wear simple dyed robes, to gather their meals by going on alms round, to live out in the open, in caves, or in simple huts. They were governed by a disciplinary code that minutely regulated their behavior, and were to undertake a training that directed their energies towards the same path that the Buddha had embarked on when he discovered the way to enlightenment.

Even though aspects of the monastic lifestyle have changed over the ages, in Asian Buddhist tradition the figure of the monk (and less often, I have to say, reluctantly but candidly, the nun) has functioned as the symbol for the Buddha’s continuing presence in the world. By his robes, deportment, and lifestyle, the monk represents the Buddha. He enables the Buddha, vanished from the stage of human events, to continue to shed his blessing power upon the earth. He draws down the Buddha’s past historical reality and sends it out into the world, so that the Buddha can continue to serve the world as a teacher, an image of human perfection, and a spiritual force—a force of grace that acts within and upon those who go to him for refuge.

(2) The Dharma. In a well-known passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha tells Mara, the Evil One, that his followers comprise monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who are “capable, well trained, confident, learned, and upholders of the Dhamma.” These four groups are known as the four assemblies. If we take this passage in isolation, it might seem as if the Buddha is assigning the four groups to a level of parity with respect to the Dharma, for they are described in the same way. However, another sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya (42:7), sheds a different light on their relationship. Here the Buddha illustrates the three kinds of recipients of his teaching with a simile of three fields: the superior field, the middling field, and the inferior field. The three kinds of recipients—compared respectively to the superior, middling, and inferior fields—are the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (taken jointly), the male and female lay disciples (taken jointly), and the monks and ascetics of other schools. This statement doesn’t imply that monks and nuns, individually, are invariably superior to lay disciples. Often sincere lay disciples are more serious and diligent in practice and more knowledgeable about the Dharma than many monastics. But the Buddha’s statement does suggest that, as a group, monastics constitute a more fertile field for the Dharma to flourish than lay persons, and that is so because they have adopted the lifestyle that the Buddha designed for those who wish to fully devote themselves to the practice and advance thereby towards the goal of the spiritual life.

Traditionally, monastics have not only been charged with the intensive practice of the Dharma, but also with the responsibility of preserving it and teaching it to others. This implies that there must be monastics who have thoroughly learned the Buddhist scriptures and mastered the body of Buddhist doctrine. In all Buddhist traditions, parallel with the exemplary practitioner, there stands the figure of the learned monk, the pandita, the dharma-master, the geshe—those who have acquired expertise in the doctrine and can skillfully teach others. In this way, too, the monastic person becomes a channel for the preservation and transmission of the Dharma.

(3) The Sangha. The monastic sangha also serves as a conduit for the transmission of the third Jewel, the Sangha itself, in the world. The Buddha did not merely confer monastic ordination on his disciples, permitting them to “go forth” from the home life. Going beyond this, he created a monastic order, a community of monks and nuns bound together by a common code of discipline, the Vinaya, and by other guidelines intended to ensure that they serve the well-being of the community that they have joined. He also established a number of communal monastic observances that bind the members of the Sangha together, the most important being the ceremonies of ordination, recitation of the monastic code, the rains retreat, and the ending of the rains retreat: upasampada, uposatha, vassa, and pavarana. Buddhist tradition—at least Theravada tradition—says that the performance of these ceremonies is the criterion for the continued existence of the Sasana, that is, for Buddhism to survive as a social and historical institution. I’m not sure whether there is any canonical basis for this idea; it might come from the commentaries or later tradition, but it is a well-established belief.

Thus, to sum up: From a traditional point of view, a monastic sangha is essential for the continuing presence of all three Jewels in the world. The renunciant monks and nuns symbolically represent the Buddha; they learn, practice, and teach the Dharma; they observe the guidelines, regulations, and rites of the Sangha; and they practice in such a way that they themselves might become enlightened beings themselves, fulfilling the ultimate intention of the Buddha.

This is the traditionalist perspective, but I question whether this traditionalist view of the sangha’s role is completely viable in today’s world. Is it sufficient simply to insist on the traditional understanding of the sangha’s task and mission, or are there forces at work compelling us to stake out new ways of understanding the role of the sangha? Do we face new challenges, never foreseen by the tradition, that compel us to renew our understanding of Buddhism and revitalize our monastic lifestyle in order to ensure greater durability for monasticism as an institution and a way of life? Are there forces at work that might actually undermine the survival of Buddhist monasticism?

Interestingly, while the Buddha speaks of forces threatening the future long life of the Dharma, we find nothing to indicate that he foresaw the kind of transformations that are taking place today. When the early texts speak about the future, they generally predict decline and degeneration—what they call future perils (anagatabhaya)—and the remedy they propose is simply to strive diligently in the present, so that one attains liberation before the dark ages arrive. The oldest collections of texts, the Nikayas and Agamas, consistently set the factors making for decline against the background of the social order that prevailed in the Buddha’s time. There is no recognition that society might undergo major social, cultural, and intellectual transformations that could stimulate the emergence of positive developments within Buddhism. There is no recognition that Buddhism might migrate to countries and continents remote from ancient India, lands where different material conditions and modes of thinking might allow the Dharma to develop in different directions from that it was to take in its Indian homeland. In general, from the standpoint of the early texts, the revolving Wheel of Time draws us ever closer to the end of the proper Dharma, and the best we can do is resist the tide sweeping over us. Change is subversive, and we must preserve the proper Dharma against its corrosive influence.

I do not like to take issue with the early Buddhist canon, but I have often asked myself whether it is necessary to take such a dark view of change or to see it as inevitable that Buddhism slides ever more rapidly down a slippery slope. I wonder whether we might not instead adopt an evolutionary perspective on the development of Buddhism, a perspective that does not oblige us to regard change in the doctrinal and institutional expressions of Buddhism as invariably a sign of degeneration. Perhaps we can see such change instead as a catalyst able to bring about a process of natural, organic growth in Buddhism. Perhaps we can consider changing social, intellectual, and cultural conditions as providing an opportunity for Buddhism to respond creatively, and thus to re-envision and re-embody the Dharma in the world, bringing to manifestation many aspects implicit in the original teaching but unable to appear until the requisite conditions bring them forth.

The history of Buddhism might be viewed as the record of an interplay between two factors, challenge and response. Time and again, change takes place—a seismic shift in cultural or intellectual conditions—that strikes at the core of Buddhist tradition, setting off a crisis. Initially, the new development might seem threatening. But often there will arise Buddhist thinkers who are acute enough to understand the challenge and resourceful enough to respond in creative ways that tap into hidden potentials of the Dharma. Their responses lead to adaptations that not only enable the Sasana to weather the storm, but which embody new insights, new ways of understanding the Dharma, that could never have appeared until the appropriate conditions called them forth, until unforeseen historical, social, cultural, and philosophical challenges made them possible and even necessary. At times these responses may veer off the proper track into the wilderness of subjective interpretations and deviant practices; but often enough they reveal the creative viability of Buddhism, its ability to adapt and assume new expressions in response to new needs and new modes of understanding implanted in people by new social and cultural conditions.

In facing the new challenges, creative adaptation has to be balanced by an effort to maintain continuity with the roots and past legacy of Buddhism. This double task points to a certain struggle between two factors in the unfolding of Buddhist history: one is the need to respond effectively to the challenges presented by new circumstances, new ways of thinking, new standards of behavior; the other is the need to remain faithful to the original insights at the heart of the Dharma, to its long heritage of practice and experience. The weight that is assigned to these two competing forces establishes a tension between conservative and innovative tendencies within Buddhism. Inevitably, different people will gravitate towards one or another of these poles, and such differences often bring conflict between those who wish to preserve familiar forms and those who think change and reformulation are necessary to maintain the vitality and relevance of the Dharma. This same tension is still very much with us today, as we will see.

In the early centuries of Buddhist history, the architects of the evolving Buddhist tradition preferred to ascribe these newly emergent dimensions of the Dharma to the Buddha himself. This, however, was just a mythical way of conferring the mantle of authority upon new formulations of the teaching. Such is the characteristic Indian way of thinking. It is an open question whether these masters actually believed that these new teachings had sprung from the Buddha himself or instead used this device as a symbolic way of indicating that such teachings brought to light previously unexpressed aspects of the enlightenment realized by the Buddha.

Let us take a few examples of this: Several generations after the passing of the Buddha, the Vedic philosophical schools took to compiling complex, systematized lists of all the components of the universe. This tendency is particularly evident in the Sankhya school, which may have already arisen before the time of the Buddha and must have been evolving parallel with early Buddhism. This fashion of the age presented the Buddhists with the challenge of applying the same style of fine analysis to their own heritage. Consequently, Buddhist thinkers set out to systematize the various groups of elements recorded in the Buddha’s discourses, and over time what emerged from this exercise was the body of learning known as the Abhidharma. This trend cut clear across the early Buddhist schools, and the result was the creation of at least three different (but related) schools of Abhidharma: the Theravada, the Sarvastivada, and the Dharmaguptaka. Perhaps to give a competitive edge to their own system, the Theravadin commentators ascribed their Abhidharma to the Buddha, claiming that he taught it to the deities in a deva world; all the evidence, however, indicates that the Abhidharma resulted from a process of historical evolution extending over several centuries.

On this basis, one who adheres to a strict conservative stance, a position that I call “sutta purism,” might reject the value of the Abhidharma, holding that the only teachings worth studying are those that can be ascribed, with a fair degree of accuracy, to the Buddha himself. This position assumes that because the Abhidharma treatises were not actually taught by the Buddha, they are useless and fruitless, a lamentable deviation from the proper Dharma. However, by taking an evolutionary perspective, we can view the Abhidharma schools as responses to intellectual challenges faced by the Buddhist community in an early stage of Buddhist intellectual history. From this point of view, they then appear as impressive attempts to incorporate all the elements of the teaching into a systematic structure governed by the broad principles of the original teaching. The Abhidharma then emerges as a bold project that proposed to establish nothing less than a comprehensive inventory of all known phenomena and their relations, subordinated to the governing concepts of the Dharma and the project of transcendent liberation.

Similar considerations apply to the Mahayana sutras, which introduce far more radical re- assessments of Buddhist doctrine and spiritual ideals than the Abhidharma. Again, if one takes the conservative stance of “sutta purism,” one might dismiss these texts as deviations from the true Dharma and even as marking a step towards the decline of the Sasana. This, in fact, is a view that many conservative monks in Theravada countries take of the Mahayana sutras, even when they are completely unfamiliar with them. However, by looking at the history of Buddhism as a process governed by the law of “challenge-and-response,” we can see the emergence of the Mahayana sutras as a result of new challenges faced by Buddhism beginning in the post-Asokan landscape. Some of these challenges might have been internal to the Buddhist community, such as a disenchantment with the rigidity of the Abhidharma systems and a narrow interpretation of the arahant ideal; also, an interest in elaborating upon the path that a bodhisattva must travel over countless eons to arrive at Buddhahood. Other challenges may have been external, particularly the mingling in the Indian subcontinent of new peoples of different ethnicities, speaking different languages, and holding different worldviews. This would have challenged Buddhism to break out of the mold imposed upon it by its Indian origins and draw out, from its own inner resources, a new conception of the universal ethical ideal already articulated in archaic Buddhism.

The importance of Buddhist monasticism in the West Sun, 29 Jun 2008 06:00:12 +0000

  • The role of Buddhist monastics and monastic centers
  • How Western monasticism differs from Eastern monasticism
  • The contribution of Buddhist monasticism

Buddhist monasticism in the West (download)