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A bhikshuni’s view

Spiritual Sisters: A Benedictine and a Buddhist nun in dialogue – part 2 of 3

A talk given by Sister Donald Corcoran and Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron in September 1991, at the chapel of Anabel Taylor Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. It was cosponsored by the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University and the St. Francis Spiritual Renewal Center.

  • Buddhist monasticism
  • My experience
  • Bringing Buddhism to the West

A bhikshuni’s view (download)

Part 1: A Benedictine’s view
Part 3: Comparing and contrasting views

I would like to start by briefly describing the history of Buddhist monasticism and then relate my own experience as a nun. Some people might find it interesting to know how somebody who grew up in America ended up with a hairdo like this! Finally, I’ll discuss the challenges of Buddhism coming to the West.

Buddhist monasticism

Buddhist monasticism began about 2,500 years ago in ancient India, during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha. The monks and nuns–sangha as they are called–were wandering mendicants, as this was the life style of religious practitioners at that time. Hindu ascetics still follow this tradition today. The sangha depended on the public for their support, going from home to home to receive offerings of food from householders. In turn, the sangha taught the Dharma–the Buddha’s teachings–to the lay people. During the heavy monsoon rains the sangha would stay in simple dwellings instead of wandering from place to place as they did during the rest of the year. After the time of the Buddha, these communities grew more stable and eventually became permanent residences for monks or nuns.

The lineage of nuns’ ordination exists from the time of the Buddha. The first nun was his aunt, who raised him after his mother’s death. Although the nuns were subordinate to the monks in terms of institutional power, their spiritual capabilities were recognized. The Therigatha contains teachings from some of the nuns who were highly realized, direct disciples of the Buddha.

From India, Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C.E. Southeast Asia also became Buddhist, as did present-day Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Buddhism spread to Central Asia and to China from there, as well as from India by sea. From China, Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan. In the seventh century C.E., Buddhism entered Tibet from both China and Nepal. Now it is coming to the West.

There are three levels of nuns’ ordination: bhikshuni, siksamana and sramanerika. To receive full ordination, that is to become a bhikshuni, one needs to be ordained by both ten bhikshunis and ten bhikshus (fully ordained monks). Giving the lower ordinations does not require as many people. As a result, the situation of ordained women differs in various Buddhist countries due to the level of ordination available to them there.

The daughter of the great Buddhist King Asoka brought the bhikshuni ordination from India to Sri Lanka. From Sri Lanka it went to China and then afterwards to Korea. Although the full ordination for men (bhikshu) spread to Tibet, that for women did not because it was difficult for so many bhikshunis to travel over the Himalayas. Thus only the first level of ordination, the sramanerika, spread to Tibet. In later years, the bhikshuni ordination died out in Sri Lanka due to political repression of Buddhism. Currently, Sri Lankan women can take the ten sramanerika precepts. In Thailand, Cambodia and Burma, the men can become bhikshus, yet the female ordained practitioners are in a kind of limbo situation. While they are not really lay people because they have taken celibacy vows, they have not taken the ten precepts of the sramanerika (novice).

The lineage of full ordination, bhikshuni, is flourishing in Chinese and Korean Buddhism, and there has been a resurgence of interest in it among women of all the Buddhist traditions. Some of us have gone to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea or the USA to take the bhikshuni ordination because it isn’t presently available in our own Buddhist tradition, and people have begun to discuss how to make it available in these traditions in the future. Introducing the bhikshuni ordination has to be done slowly because it involves major shifts of thinking in the traditions that haven’t had the full ordination of women for many centuries.

The external form of Buddhism has changed and adapted to different cultures as it went from one country to another. However, the essence of Buddha’s teachings has not changed. For example, at the time of the Buddha, the robes were saffron in color. In China, only the emperor was allowed to wear that color, so the robes became a more subdued gray or black. Also, according to Chinese culture, exposing one’s skin was not polite, so the Chinese robes now have sleeves. The Tibetans didn’t have saffron-colored dye, so the color of the robes became a dark saffron, or maroon.

Another example of how the form of Buddhism adapted to different cultures regards how the sangha—the monastic community—receives the material requisites for life. In ancient India, the monastics humbly went from door to door to collect alms from the laity who considered it an honor to help religious people in their practice. The Buddha set up the relationship of sangha and laity as one of mutual help. The people who wanted to dedicate their lives fully to spiritual practice wouldn’t spend time working, farming, cooking and doing business. They could have more time to study and meditate by receiving support from the people who preferred to live and work in the world. By concentrating on their practice and developing their qualities, the monastics would then be able to teach the Dharma and be an inspirational example to others. Thus the Buddha set up a system of mutual help with one party giving more materially, the other more spiritually. Each person could choose how to help the society.

The tradition of collecting alms continued as Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and the vow not to handle money was strictly kept there. But in Tibet, this wasn’t practical. The monasteries were outside the towns, and to walk in the freezing weather every day to go on almsround wasn’t practical. Thus, the Tibetans started bringing food to the monasteries, or they would offer money or land so the sangha could get their own food. In China, the Ch’an (Zen) monasteries were far from towns, so the monastics worked the land to grow their food. Thus the economic situation of the sangha differs from country to country, depending on the culture and specific circumstances in each place.

My experience

I didn’t grow up as a Buddhist; my upbringing was in a Judeo-Christian environment. My family was Jewish, although not very religious, and the community I grew up in was Christian. As a child, I asked many questions, “Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life?” Because I grew up during the Vietnam war, I wondered, “Why do some people kill others if they all want to live in peace?” I grew up during the race riots, so I wondered, “Why do people discriminate against others on the basis of their skin color? What does it mean to be a human being? Why can’t we live together?” I didn’t find answers forthcoming in the community I grew up in. In fact, often my questions were discouraged. I was told, “Just go out with your friends, have a good time and don’t think so much.” But that didn’t satisfy me.

After graduating from UCLA in 1971, I traveled in Europe, North Africa and went overland to India and Nepal to learn more about the human experience. I then came back to Los Angeles and worked in the L.A. City Schools, teaching in an innovative school. One summer I saw a flyer in a bookstore about a three-week meditation course taught by two Tibetan monks, Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche. It was summer vacation, so I went. I wasn’t really expecting anything—in fact, I didn’t know what to expect—and maybe that’s why the experience was very powerful for me. The course was set up so that we listened to teachings and meditated on them afterwards. We examined them logically as well as applied them to our own lives.

As I did this, pieces began to fall into place and I began to get little twinklings of answers to the questions that had been with me since childhood. In addition, Buddhism provided many ways of working with situations that happen in our daily life: it gave techniques to transform destructive emotions like jealousy, clinging attachment or anger. When I practiced these, they affected my life in a very positive way. As time went on, the wish grew to become a nun in order to have more time and a more conducive life style for practice. This was my own individual choice, and it’s not the one everyone should make. Many people meet Buddhism, practice it and don’t get ordained. But when I did some close introspection, it was clear how deep-rooted my selfishness, anger and clinging were. I needed some clear discipline to break the old mental, verbal, and physical habits. Becoming a nun would give me the framework in which to do this transformation, and this in turn, could positively influence others.

In 1977, I took sramanerika vows in Dharamsala, India, and spent many years studying and practicing in India and Nepal. As Buddhism began to spread to the West, my teachers were asked to open centers in other countries, and they sent their older students to help set these up. So, I spent nearly two years living in Italy, and three years in France, going back to India in between. In 1986, I went to Taiwan to take the bhikshuni ordination, which was a very powerful and inspiring event in my life. Later my teacher asked me to go to Hong Kong and then Singapore to teach. And now, I’m in the midst of an eight-month teaching tour of the States and Canada. So I have been a wandering, homeless nun, just like those at the time of the Buddha; only now we travel by plane!

What was it that attracted me to Buddhism? There were several things. In the first course, Zopa Rinpoche said, “You don’t have to believe anything I say. Think about it, check it logically and through your own experience before believing it.” I thought, “Whew, that’s a relief,” and listened because there was no pressure to believe anything. In Buddhism it is very important to reflect on the meaning of the teachings, to examine them deeply. This gives rise to faith, but not in the sense of undiscriminating faith. Faith, in Buddhism, is confidence that comes from learning and understanding. This inquisitive approach fits in with my upbringing. I like discussion and debate, and appreciate the freedom to ask questions and challenge what is said. This is possible with Buddhism.

Buddhism is open to scientific investigation. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has participated in several conferences with scientists and is eager to learn about research. He has even given permission for scientists to run EEGs and other tests on meditators in order to explain from a scientific viewpoint what is happening during meditation. His Holiness has also said that if science can definitely prove something, we Buddhists must accept it, even if it contradicts what is said in the scriptures. I find the openness to scientific investigation refreshing.

Buddhism and science are similar in explaining the universe in terms of cause and effect. That is, things don’t happen without cause or by accident. Everything happens due to causes. The present is a result of what has existed in the past, and we are now creating the causes for what will exist in the future. This isn’t predetermination by any means; rather, there is a link between the past and the future and things don’t exist as isolated events in space. While science deals with cause and effect in the physical domain, Buddhism explores how it functions in a mental one.

When applied to our human existence, cause and effect becomes a discussion of rebirth. Our consciousness doesn’t exist without causes. It’s a continuation of the conscious experience that we had prior to this birth. Similarly, our consciousness will continue after our death. In other words, our body is like a hotel that we temporarily live in, and death is similar to checking out of one room and into another. Just as we don’t cling to hotel rooms because we know we’re just there temporarily, we don’t need to fearfully cling to this body as a permanent personal identity.

I found this discussion of rebirth very stimulating. Although I wasn’t convinced about it at first, as I examined it logically and listened to stories of people who remembered their previous lives, it began to make more sense to me. Although I don’t remember my previous lives, when I look at my own experience, the theories of rebirth and karma can explain it. For example, Buddhism accepts the influence that genetics and the environment have upon us. However, the influence of genetics and the environment alone doesn’t suffice to explain my experience. Why did I become a Buddhist? Why did it strike such a deep chord in me that I decided to become a nun? Genetically, there are no Buddhists in my family tree. Environmentally, there weren’t any in my childhood. I grew up in a middle class community in southern California and had very little exposure to Buddhism except in social studies class. Yet somehow when I came in contact with the Buddha’s teaching, something clicked, and it did so strongly that I wanted to dedicate my life to the path of spiritual transformation. It seems that one possible explanation would be that there had been some familiarity with Buddhism in previous lives. There was some imprint, some connection with Buddhism that lay dormant in my youth. When I was twenty, if someone had told me I would be a Buddhist nun, I would have told them they were completely crazy. I had no intention to be religious or to be celibate at that age! When I later met Buddhist teachers, this interest came out, much to my own surprise.

Another thing that sparked my interest in Buddhism was its psychological dimension, especially the discussion about the disadvantages of self-centeredness and the specific techniques to develop love and compassion. As a child, I heard people say, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” But I grew up during the Vietnam War and didn’t see a lot of love in society. Nor did I understand how we were supposed to love everybody because there seemed to be a lot of obnoxious people around! Buddhism explains a step-by-step method to diminish anger, to see others as lovable, and to let go of the fear of opening ourselves so that we genuinely care for others. I was very attracted to these qualities and to the systematic way to train our mind along these lines.

I was also attracted to Buddhism because for over 2,500 years people have practiced the teachings—the Dharma—and attained the results the Buddha described. In this day of the American spiritual supermarket, when there are so many self-declared teachers of a myriad of spiritual paths, Buddhism is one that was tried and true for centuries. The fact that the teachings have been preserved, practiced and passed down purely is important.

The practice of meditation also appealed to me. Buddhism describes specific techniques for quieting the mind and for getting to know ourselves. In Buddhism, there isn’t a split between intellect and feeling or between intellect and intuition. They can help each other. In other words, if we use our mind astutely, if we employ reason to examine our experience, an inner transformation of our feelings, of our mental state, will come about. Experience and intellect can be combined instead of seen as a dichotomy as we so often see them in the West. This enables them to complement each other and produce internal growth, rather than conflict.

Bringing Buddhism to the West

As a first generation Buddhist nun in the West, I face many challenges and my “upbringing” as a Buddhist nun has been different from that of Asian nuns, who have long-standing Buddhist traditions and institutions in their cultures. They take ordination, enter the monastery, and pick up what it means to be a nun by osmosis, through living in the community. They receive instruction in their own language and have the support and approval of the society around them.

The situation is very different for Western nuns. Western society doesn’t understand what people like me are doing. “Why do you shave you head? Why do you wear funny clothes? Why are you celibate? Why do you sit on the floor with your legs crossed and eyes closed?” There aren’t monasteries in the West for us to move into where we can get a good Buddhist education. Although many Asian teachers have established Dharma centers in the West, they are primarily designed to suit the needs of lay Buddhists who work and have families. So many nuns go to India to receive teachings and to practice, thus encountering the bureaucratic, financial and health-related difficulties associated with living there.

Financial support for Western nuns has not been readily forthcoming. People in the West usually think that we’re already taken care of by a large umbrella organization like the Church, so they don’t think to make donation for our sustenance. Another difficulty for the nuns is lack of role models. For those following Chinese Buddhism, this is less of a problem because the Chinese nuns are active and educated. However, for those of us in the Theravada or Tibetan traditions, there are few living role models, although there were many great female practitioners throughout history. In my instance, I am a Western woman, while the majority of role models in the tradition are Tibetan men.

These difficulties have led me to look deep inside and gradually to accept the situation, instead of wasting time wishing it were different. Buddhism contains methods for transforming adverse circumstances into the path, and in this way I’ve discovered advantages to being a first generation Western nun. First, in Asia, it is easy to rely on the Buddhist environment all around to give one the energy to practice. In the West, the environment is often the opposite; it tries to convince us that material possessions, sex, beauty, prestige, but not religion, bring happiness. To survive in this environment, we have to look deeply within ourselves to find inspiration and spiritual energy. This forces us to understand the purpose and methods of religious practice, because it’s either sink or swim. I’ve had to accept that what I experience–the opportunities as well as the obstacles–is the result of my previously created actions, or karma. Knowing that what I think, say and do now will create the causes for future experiences, I must think carefully and be mindful in the present.

Bringing Buddhism to the West is a challenge, because we’re trying to bring the essence of a religion or a spiritual path from one culture into another. Buddhism in Asia is mixed with Asian culture, and sometimes it is difficult to figure out what is Buddhism and what is culture. When I first became a nun, I wasn’t aware of the difference between culture and essence, between form and meaning. In my mind, it was all Buddhism and I tried to adopt it the best I could. Thus, I tried to act like the Tibetan nuns, who are meek and quiet. They would never think of speaking to a group like this or of writing a book or of challenging what has been said. Tibet is a very patriarchal society. Although in the family and in business men and women are more or less equal, in Tibet’s religious and political institutions they aren’t. The Tibetan nuns’ shyness could be a sign of their humility, which is a quality to be cultivated on the path, or it could be a reflection of lack of self-confidence or the social expectations regarding how they should behave. I can’t say. In any case, I tried for a few years to be quiet and unobtrusive like them, but a certain tension developed until I had to say, “Hold on, something isn’t working. This isn’t me. I was brought up in the West, have a college education and have worked in the world, unlike the majority of the Tibetan nuns. It doesn’t make sense for me to act like them; I have to act according to my culture.” Coming to terms with this was a major turning point. I came to understand that spirituality is a process of inner transformation; it’s not about squeezing myself into an artificial image of a good nun. It is okay to have an outgoing and straightforward personality, but I need to transform my motivations and internal attitudes.

In 1986, I went to Taiwan to take bhikshuni vows, and stayed in Chinese monasteries for two months, which was a wonderful experience. Again, I was faced with the question, “What is Buddhism and what is culture?” I had “grown up” as a Buddhist in the Tibetan culture, and suddenly I was in a Chinese monastery, wearing Chinese robes, which are very different from the Tibetan ones I was accustomed to. Chinese culture is formal and things are done in a precise way, while Tibetan culture is much more relaxed. The Chinese nuns continuously had to fix my collar and adjust how I held my hands in prayer. In Tibetan monasteries we sit down during communal prayers, while in the Chinese monasteries, we stand up. My legs swelled because I wasn’t used to standing hour after hour; I was used to sitting hour after hour! There were many changes like that: instead of prayers in Tibetan, they were in Chinese. The way of bowing was different, the etiquette was different.

This forced me to ask, “What is Buddhism?” It made me also acknowledge that I am not a Tibetan although I have spent years in that tradition; I’m not Chinese although I spent time there too. I am a Westerner and have to bring the essence of this religion into my own cultural context. That’s a huge challenge, and we have to proceed slowly and carefully. If we discard everything we don’t feel comfortable with, there’s the danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water, of discarding or distorting the essence of the precious teachings in our attempt to free it from cultural forms which aren’t our own. We are challenged to go beyond superficial discriminations to deep examination of what is spiritual practice.

It has become clear to me that spirituality isn’t the clothes, the prayers, the monastery, the form. Real spirituality has to do with our own heart, our own mind, how we relate to people and how we relate to ourselves. It doesn’t have color, shape or form, because our consciousness is without form, and this is what practice transforms. Nevertheless, since we live in society, we will evolve ways of sharing our internal understanding with others in ways fitting to our culture.

Western culture will influence Buddhism as it’s practiced here. For example, in the West democracy is valued, while in Asia, society is more hierarchical. If one is old, one’s opinion is valued; if one isn’t, one’s opinion doesn’t have much weight. In fact, it would be considered inappropriate to challenge elders’ authority and wisdom. In the West, we are encouraged to express our opinions and we run organizations on a more democratic basis. As Buddhism comes to the West, I believe many of the hierarchical ways of thinking and acting will be left behind. On the other hand, anarchy isn’t beneficial. We certainly need leaders; we need guidance from those with more wisdom than we have. The Buddha set up the sangha community on a democratic basis with the monastics meeting and making decisions together. Yet, those who participated in the decision making were those with experience, not those who were new to the practice and lacked clarity about the path. Hopefully, our way of working together in Western Buddhist organizations can be similar to the Buddha’s original intention.

In addition, the movement towards gender equality will influence Buddhism in the West. For example, in general, the Tibetan nuns don’t get the same education as the monks. Due to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s influence, this has begun to change in recent years, although is is still not equal. On the other hand, Western nuns and monks study in the same classes together, and my teachers give both nuns and monks positions of responsibility in Dharma centers. Women will be leaders in the Western Buddhist community. They will receive the same education as the men, and hopefully, the same respect and support. Although gender bias still exists in the West, we have the opportunity to establish new Buddhist institutions here that are more appreciative of women. In Asia, this will take longer because people’s values are different and reforming existing institutions is sometimes more difficult than creating new ones.

Western Buddhism will also be influenced by social activism. During the Buddha’s time, monastics were not encouraged to become involved in social issues or social welfare projects. Instead, they were to study, meditate, and by gaining realizations of the path, help society. But our social structure is different now as are the problems facing us. In ancient India, if one had a turn for the worse, the family would help out. One wouldn’t wind up in the streets. Nor was there nuclear threat or danger from environmental pollution. Also, due to the Christian influence here, people expect monastics to be involved in charitable work. Therefore, His Holiness the Dalai Lama encourages us to learn from the Christians and to offer direct benefit to the society. This doesn’t mean that all Buddhist monastics should run hospitals and schools. Rather, if it is suitable for one’s practice and personality, one has the freedom to do that.

In the West, the relationship between monastics and lay followers will change. Western lay people aren’t content simply to offer support and services so that the monastics can practice. They want to study and meditate as well. This is excellent. However, I hope that they will continue to support monastics, not because monastics are an elite, but because it helps everyone when some people devote their entire lives to study and practice. If we can help some people practice more diligently, then by gaining experience in the path, they’ll be able to guide and teach us better.

The subject of Buddhist monasticism and Buddhism in the West is large, and this is simply a little taste. I hope it has been helpful.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.