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Restoring an ancient tradition

The life of nuns in modern Mainland China

From Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun, published in 1999. This book, no longer in print, gathered together some of the presentations given at the 1996 Life as a Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India.

Portrait of Bhikshuni Ngawang Chodron.

Bhikshuni Ngawang Chodron

Few people know about the lives of the nuns in Mainland China, and I was fortunate to learn about it from direct experience. As bhikshunis, one of our precepts is to follow our upadhayayini—a senior bhikshuni who trains a new bhikshuni and acts as her role model—for two years. In 1987, when I became a bhikshuni, no one in the Tibetan tradition could fulfill that role where I lived. Thus I went to Hong Kong where I met a bhikshuni from China whom I admired. Although I could not speak Chinese and she could not speak English, I asked her through an interpreter if I could be her disciple. She modestly replied that she had learned nothing, but I took this as a sign of her humility and my respect for her grew.

In 1994, I went to her temple in China for the summer retreat. Later I went with her to Jiu Hua Shan, the holy mountain of Kshitigarbha, for a large ordination ceremony where she was the chief instructor for the 783 bhikshunis ordained at this time. When we consider the extensive harm that the communist regime has inflicted on Buddhists and Buddhist institutions in the last four decades, it is remarkable and wonderful that so many women in China now want to be ordained.

The first year I spent in China was difficult because I did not know Chinese. Although I tried hard to do everything with the nuns, I could not keep up. To learn Chinese I would write a Chinese character and ask someone to tell it to me in pinyin, the phonetic system for Chinese. In this way, I learned the characters for some key words and was able to follow the text when they chanted. Unfortunately, the weather was so hot that I became ill and could not study Chinese regularly.

In 1995, I spent the summer retreat at my master’s nunnery in Guangzhou. Following that, we attended another large ordination at Wu Tai Shan, the holy mountain of Manjushri, where three hundred bhikshunis and three hundred bhikshus joined the order. My stay in China then was easier because I knew some Chinese, and interestingly, I did not feel like a foreigner. I wore Chinese robes and felt very comfortable with the nuns. Sometimes the Chinese nuns wanted to try on my Tibetan robes and asked me to take their pictures when they did!

The beauty of monastic discipline

Early in their training, the nuns are taught to stand like a candle, walk like the wind, sit like a bell, and sleep like a bow. Chinese people are concerned that things look good, and some of my actions, which seemed fine to me, provoked reprimands. As a foreigner, it was very difficult to know what looked good and what did not, especially when it came to minor actions such as how to wash one’s clothes. I had some trouble with these cultural differences, until I learned what we were supposed to do.

Quite a number of women came to my master’s nunnery in Guangzhou to ask to become nuns. First they were interviewed by the abbess, and if she thought they had the necessary qualifications, she would take them in. They then spent two years as lay devotees in the nunnery. These women—most of them young—came with long hair, which was cut short, and wore the long black robe during the chanting services. They usually worked in the kitchen or in the garden because the nuns are not allowed to dig the ground or weed as this could harm insects.

One of the first things told to young women entering the nunnery is, “You have to ting hua,” meaning, “You have to obey.” This is very important, and the new nuns diligently follow the instructions of their seniors. After they have been at the nunnery for at least two years, have studied the sramanerika precepts, and are well trained, they are allowed to receive the sramanerika ordination.

Later, when they are ready, they attend a triple ordination platform, at which time they receive the sramanerika, bhikshuni, and bodhisattva vows. This program includes a rigorous three-week training period. The smartest nuns, who know proper behavior, are put in front and lead the other novices. Everybody is taught how to wear their robes, walk, eat, stand in line, bow, use the sitting mat—all that they need to know during the ordination and during their lives as nuns. They also learn how to live the Vinaya in daily life and memorize verses to recite when they awake in the morning, put on their robes, tie their belt, go to the toilet, and so on. In those weeks all kinds of individuals from all parts of China and every walk of life learn the same basic monastic behavior.

My master’s nunnery is well known for its study. Everyone attends morning prayers that begin at 3:30 A.M. Afterwards we study until breakfast, which according to Vinaya must be eaten after it is light enough to see the lines on our palm. We wear our full, formal robes in the dining room and eat in silence. After breakfast, we recite a sutra, do necessary work at the nunnery, and attend a class on the precepts. Before lunch we make offerings to the Buddha in the main hall, and then file into the dining room for the main meal of the day. After lunch, everybody rests, this afternoon nap being very sacrosanct! In the afternoon we chant the sutras, make another offering to the Triple Gem, and then attend another precept class and small study groups.

The Chinese nuns have a strong sense of community, fostered by an atmosphere of equality and respect. For example, everybody, including the abbess, receives the same amount of the same food. Everyone also does some sort of work for the communal well being. One group takes care of the grounds and the temple. Another does kitchen duty, which is a lot of work and no fun, but everybody works together. Of course, in any group of people, factions exists, but the nuns are very generous and not possessive of what they have.

In fact, the nuns are extremely disciplined and do not want to have possessions. For example, the abbess said I could have meals in my room, because it was difficult for me to wear the formal robes in the hot, crowded dining hall. One of the most exemplary nuns in the temple brought my food. I wanted to give her a gift to thank her, but there was nothing she wanted even though the nuns have very little in their rooms. Instead, they want to give to other people. For example, when an ordination occurs, they bring their clothes to give to the new nuns. They enjoy doing things for others, thus creating a wonderful sense of community.

When a bhikshuni shaves the head of a nun and takes that novice on as a disciple, she is responsible for that nun. She must ensure that the new nun has food, clothes, housing, and teachings in the future. When my master received special offerings from donors, she gave them to her disciples. When those things were gone and she had little left, she gave them her own clothes. The disciples are also responsible to their master and greatly respect her. They care for her, help her with Dharma projects, and practice as she instructs.

The Chinese nuns who have the opportunity to study in nunneries appreciate this very much. They follow the Dharmagupta Pratimoksa as strictly as possible, so discipline is strong. Although conditions necessitate that they handle money, which is technically prohibited in the nuns’ precepts, they recite a verse requesting purification before taking the money. They do not eat after lunch; if they need to take some medicine or liquid later, they recite a verse to another bhikshuni who responds with the verse of approval. They use the discipline in the Vinaya to strengthen their awareness in daily life activities. For example, before eating they remember that as monastics, they should be worthy of the food that the sponsors offer to them. They recall not to eat it with greed, but to regard it as medicine which sustains the body for the purpose of practicing the Dharma.

Further, no nun will go out alone. Once I had to empty the garbage two steps outside the nunnery, and one nun would not let me. Of course, since so few bhikshunis live in the West, going out with another bhikshuni is not always possible. Not many nuns can afford two plane tickets when they need to travel. In Hong Kong, when I asked a monk who was one of our ordaining masters about this, he advised that we do the best we can. If we cannot find another bhikshuni to accompany us, we should ask a sramanerika; if there is no sramanerika, we should ask a laywoman. The abbess said that these rules were made principally for the safety of young nuns, and perhaps there was not as much danger for older nuns.

Three practices are essential for the bhikshuni sangha: posadha, varsa, and pravarana. Posadha is the bhikshunis’ twice-monthly confession ceremony. Before it begins, all the nuns shave their heads, and then the bhikshunis go upstairs to do the ceremony. It is difficult to express how wonderful it is to be surrounded by many bhikshunis, doing the confession ritual that bhikshunis have done together for twenty-five hundred years, since the time of the Buddha. Varsa is the three-month rains retreat held during the summer monsoon, and pravarana is the ceremony at its conclusion. It was inspiring to be in an environment where I could do these with other nuns, taking part in traditions that nuns have found valuable for centuries.

Practice and Support

Most Chinese nunneries do the Pure Land practice of meditating on Amitabha Buddha, together with some Ch’an (Zen) practice. Others nunneries emphasize Ch’an meditation. The nunneries where I lived are called Lu-zong, or Vinaya School. Here, they learn and practice Vinaya in detail for at least five years before going on to other practices. I also visited a bhikshuni college with a strict course, run by an extremely bright nun at Wu Tai Shan. The women train as novices for two years; then, if they do well, they take the siksamana ordination and become a probationary nun. After completing that training, they become bhikshunis. About one hundred sixty nuns were there when I visited, with the college holding three hundred at the maximum. They were packed in rows of nine girls, sleeping on one large platform. Their robes and books were kept near them, but they had nothing else. They just studied and lived simply. It was very impressive.

A Tibetan lama, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, had the Longchen Nyingthik translated into Chinese, and teaches that, as well as other texts, to thousands of Chinese disciples. Many Chinese monastics want to learn and practice Tibetan Buddhism, but do not want others to know they do so. However, the nuns I knew practiced openly. Several were doing ngondro, the preliminary practices of the Tibetan tradition, in Chinese. They did the Vajrasattva hundred-syllable mantra, and one nun had finished one hundred thousand prostrations while others had just begun.

The nuns are not well supported financially. The government does not support the nunneries as far as I know. Although some benefactors offer a generous lunch from time to time, the nuns need to receive money from their families to eat well. Nevertheless, everybody gets the same food, and all the nuns are vegetarian. I stayed at a nunnery in Yangzhou that was very poor because nobody visited the neighborhood where it was located. The government had given these nuns an old, destroyed temple in a park to rebuild. The nuns had no money, so an old nun would sit outside and call to passersby in the park, “It is very meritorious to give generously.” Sometimes people would sneer at her, and other times they would give a small amount. Gradually, and with difficulty, the nuns are rebuilding the monastery.

The original nunnery in Guangzhou was built in the seventeenth century. During the Cultural Revolution it was completely destroyed and parts of the site were turned into a factory. Afterwards, when it was returned to the nuns, they had to wait for the lay people inhabiting the building to move out. Some devotees in Hong Kong and a nunnery in Singapore donated money to these nuns, and now, ten years later, their temple, complete with a nuns’ college, is almost rebuilt.

Governmental influence

During the Cultural Revolution, most monastics in China had to disrobe and return to their families. Our abbess was told to burn her sutras and her robes. Instead, she hid the sutras, in spite of the danger, and slashed her robes, but continued to wear them, telling the officials that she had no other clothes. For many years she had to work in a paper factory and grow her hair long, but she still observed her monastic precepts. She kept a fan to hide her hands when putting them together to show respect for the Buddha. Whenever she offered incense, she put perfume around the room to hide the scent. Still people were suspicious and eventually she was called to attend a political meeting. Apparently the abbess had a special relationship with the bodhisattvas: she prayed to them for help and had a dream in which a giant Buddha put a huge candy in the mouth of the woman who accused her. When the abbess went to the meeting the next day, that woman did not open her mouth! Somehow the nuns survived: they hid; they disguised themselves; they tried to blend in with the environment around them. Their courage, conviction in the Dharma, and strength of character in these difficult circumstances is inspiring. But the minute it was safe, the abbess shaved her head again. She then traveled around Guangzhou to look for other nuns and persuaded them to shave their heads and resume their lives as nuns.

Although the Chinese government presently appears to give religious freedom, there are nonetheless many restrictions and subtle dangers. The government is terrified of anybody who might be a bit different or threaten the society’s stability. Government notices of rules it established for the nunneries are posted on the walls. These rules are often unclear and thus difficult to follow properly. At any time government officials can accuse the nuns of breaking them and cause trouble for the nunnery. Although the government allows nunneries to be rebuilt, it limits the number of people who can be ordained, and the monastics have to attend political meetings regularly. Our abbess was called to many time-consuming meetings, but in order to accomplish anything she had to please the authorities by attending them.

Becoming a bhikshuni

The bhikshuni lineage never took root in Tibet. It was hard for Tibetan women to go to India and difficult for Indian nuns to travel over the Himalayas to Tibet. However, it seems a few bhikshunis lived in Tibet, and records of some bhikshuni ordinations in Tibet were found. People are researching this. The bhikshu ordination for monks was almost lost during the time of King Langdarma many centuries ago. Most of the monks were killed or forcefully disrobed, but three who survived fled to Kham, Eastern Tibet. There they met two Chinese monks who completed the required quorum of five monks to give ordination. If Tibetan monks could enlist the aid of Chinese monks, I feel that nuns in the Tibetan tradition should be able to enlist the help of Chinese monks and nuns who now give the bhikshuni ordination.

I feel that becoming a bhikshuni is important for several reasons. First, a central land is defined in the scriptures as a place which has the four classes of Buddhist disciples: bhikshus, bhikshunis, and lay practitioners of both sexes. If a place has no bhikshunis, it is not a central land. Second, why should seventy-year-old nun still be a novice? At the time of the Buddha, the women were not novices forever; they became bhikshunis. Third, holding the bhikshuni ordination changes one in a very deep way. This is my experience and that of other women who have become bhikshunis. We feel more responsible for our practice, for upholding the Dharma, and for the welfare of sentient beings. Our self-respect and self-confidence increase. Therefore, I believe that if one is seriously going to be a nun, at some point she should consider becoming a bhikshuni.

I would like to see bhikshuni ordinations occur in India so that the nuns who cannot afford to go to Hong Kong or Taiwan where the ordination is currently given can attend. In that way, the bhikshuni sangha will return to its land of origin. Some excellent abbesses and Vinaya masters in China and Taiwan could be invited to India to give the ordination. The Tibetan monks could observe the ceremony; or if they would agree, they could perform the bhikshu part of the ordination, because within one day of being ordained by the bhikshuni sangha, a new bhikshuni must be ordained by the bhikshu sangha.

The Western Buddhist practitioners can help with cross-cultural contact in the larger Buddhist community. Because many of us have lived in diverse cultures and thus have transcended cultural differences to some extent, we have the possibility to clarify misunderstandings among various Buddhist traditions. For example, many Chinese have seen Tantric iconography and have misconceptions about the Vajrayana. Similarly, many Tibetans have misconceptions about other Buddhist traditions. It is important that as many people as possible meet and converse with those from other Buddhist traditions in their own and other countries. We need to keep an open mind and try to widen the dialogue so that misconceptions can be eliminated.

Venerable Ngawang Chodron

Born in London, Bhikshuni Ngawang Chodron was a photographer. In 1977, she received sramanerika vows from Trulshik Rinpoche and studied with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. She received bhikshuni ordination in Hong Kong in 1987 and studied under her bhikshuni upadhayayini in Mainland China. She lives at Shechen Tannyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal and is currently involved in establishing a nunnery for Tibetan nuns in Nepal.