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.
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron (who acted as the spokesperson for the nuns): I will begin with a brief introduction explaining what occurred at Life as a Western Buddhist Nun. Then, depending upon the time, we have some questions we would like to ask you.
In recent years, Buddhist women—nuns and laywomen from Tibet, the West, and all over the world—have become more active in meeting each other. We are working together to improve our situation, to obtain better education and conditions for Dharma practice, and to increase our ability to be of benefit and service to others. Our program, Life as a Western Buddhist Nun, was an educational program which emphasized the study of the Vinaya. There were also Dharma discussions and the sharing of experiences among the nuns. The idea for this program began in the spring of 1993, after Ven. Tenzin Palmo gave a presentation to you at the conference of Western Buddhist teachers. You responded so much from the heart to her presentation. The idea for this program began after that.
There were about one hundred total participants in the program. Of these, the majority was from the four Tibetan traditions. There were three Theravada nuns and two Zen priests with us, as well as a number of lay women. Twenty-one Tibetan and Himalayan nuns were among the participants. Two excellent Vinaya masters were the principal teachers: Geshe Thubten Ngawang, a bhikshu from Sera Monastery who now teaches in Germany, and Ven. Wu Yin, a bhikshuni from Taiwan. We also received teachings from Ling Rinpoche, Dorzong Rinpoche, Bero Khentze Rinpoche, Geshe Sonam Rinchen, Khandro Rinpoche, Khenpo Choga, Ven. Tashi Tsering, and others. In the evenings, a number of the elder Western nuns gave talks, as did Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh. On the new moon, the sixteen bhikshunis present did sojung together in English, while the sramanerikas attended the Tibetan sojung at the Tibetan Temple in Bodhgaya.
Life as a Western Buddhist Nun was unique in many ways. First, there was a variety of women from different countries, different backgrounds, different practice experiences, different ages. Second, we had an excellent teaching program, with concentrated Vinaya teachings. Such a program has never happened in this way for Western nuns before. We also received teachings on the bhikshuni precepts.
His Holiness: Based on which school of Buddhist Vinaya?
BTC: The Dharmagupta. Ven. Wu Yin, the Chinese bhikshuni, taught this. We received feedback from an evaluation form from the participants, most of whom are here today, although some could not come to Dharamsala for our audience with you. On the evaluation form, the nuns said that their understanding of the Vinaya and their ability to practice it was greatly enhanced by the program. They enjoyed very much being together with other nuns, talking, discussing, and living together with other nuns. Because many of the Western nuns live alone or in centers with lay people, there was a very positive response to being together with other nuns. They also benefited from the evening presentations by the Western nuns in which they shared their experience of living as a Western nun. Many of the nuns commented on how valuable it was to have female teachers—Khandro Rinpoche and Ven. Wu Yin. Some nuns said they felt the teaching program was a little too full and they needed more time to think over the teachings, because we received so many hours of teaching each day. Other nuns said they would have liked more teachings, specifically from the Tibetan viewpoint of the Vinaya. So you can see that a wide variety of people who had different needs attended the program: some older nuns who knew the Vinaya well, some younger nuns who were just finding their footing as nuns. In spite of this variety, the group coalesced.
There were two discussion groups each day and a number of interesting points were brought up in these. In addition, Ven. Wu Yin asked the discussion groups to perform skits which showed through drama our situation as Western Buddhist nuns. This was a new way to learn, and many points came out in this format that would not have come out otherwise. The skits were lively and funny, yet people spoke from the heart, and everyone was touched by this.
Some of the points that came up in our discussion groups were:
- the purpose of living in nuns’ communities, the difficulties entailed by not living in community and by living in community,
- how to support ourselves financially in a culture that sees religious people as useless and unproductive,
- the necessity of educating lay people to support the sangha and the necessity of making ourselves worthy of their support,
- the importance of being non-sectarian,
- how to relate to and rely upon our spiritual masters,
- how to care more for each other, and how to communicate better with each other although we live in different places,
- how to practice Vinaya in our daily lives in the West. Many questions arose about how to keep particular vows,
- the necessity of screening candidates for ordination, preparing people better for ordination, and training and caring for them better after ordination,
- lifestyles: living in Dharma centers, living alone, living in community,
- the bhikshuni ordination, and how taking it had transformed people’s practice,
- developing management and leadership skills,
- how to increase our abilities as teachers and counselors, and how to be more involved in offering service to society,
- how to work with our emotions and the need for affection,
- how to encourage women to practice and to become Dharma teachers in their own right,
- how to live simply and to share our resources, and ways to help each other financially and by giving moral support.
There were many ideas for future plans. While volunteers have not stepped forward to actualize all of them, specific nuns have committed to the following:
- to publish the Vinaya teachings given in Life as a Western Buddhist Nun, in order to make them available to nuns who could not come as well as to future generations of nuns,
- to prepare a booklet for Westerners who are considering ordination that would help them contemplate the meaning and purpose of ordination,
- to organize a six-week course studying a Vinaya text,
- to establish a training program for prospective nuns and for newly-ordained nuns,
- to print a booklet describing Life as a Western Buddhist Nun for the nuns who were not able to attend the program, the benefactors, and Dharma centers, in order to let them know what happened at the program.
- to do yarne—the rainy season retreat—together in the West. Or, if it is not possible to meet in the summer, we would like to have a retreat at another time of the year when we could stay together and study Vinaya together.
- Ven. Wu Yin will edit the audio tapes of her teachings and make them available.
Your Holiness and the Private Office have continuously supported us in the entire process of our organizing and preparing this program. We are very, very indebted and grateful to you for this. I do not believe this conference could have happened without your blessings and support.
Unless you have some comments or questions for us, we have some questions to ask you.
His Holiness: I am very happy to meet all of you here. I congratulate you on the success of your conference. I am deeply touched and impressed by your enthusiasm and your eagerness to practice Dharma and to facilitate other people interested in Dharma practice. This is very good. No matter how difficult or complicated it may be at the beginning, if we keep up our spirit and determination, with wisdom eventually any difficulties or obstacles can be overcome. I am quite sure that so long as the interest and spirit remain, you can make great contributions for the Buddhadharma and for the benefit of sentient beings. From our side, whatever we can contribute in making your activities successful, we are happy to do. Now questions…
Q. When the Buddha first ordained monastics, there were no precepts. The precepts were gradually made afterwards, when certain monks and nuns misbehaved. Thus there must have been a deeper meaning or purpose that he had in mind for monasticism, beyond the keeping of precepts. Please talk about the deeper essence or meaning of being a monastic.
HH: First, on the individual level, there is a purpose in being a monk or nun. The Buddha himself was an example of this. He was the prince of a small kingdom, and he renounced this. Why? If he remains in the kingdom with all of the householders’ activities, those very circumstances compel one to become involved in attachment or in harsh attitudes. That is an obstacle for practice. With family life, even though you yourself may feel content, you have to take care of your family, so you have to engage in more worldly activities. The advantage of being a monk or nun is that you do not have to be entrapped in too many worldly engagements or activities. If, after becoming a monk or a nun, as a practitioner you can think and develop genuine compassion and concern for all sentient beings—or at least the sentient beings surrounding you—then that kind of feeling is very good for the accumulation of virtues. On the other hand, with your own family, your concern and wish is to repay your family members. Perhaps there are some exceptional cases, but generally speaking, that burden is a real burden, and that pain is a real pain. With that, there is no hope of accumulating virtue because one’s activities are based on attachment. Therefore, becoming a monk or nun, without family, is very good for the practice of the Buddhadharma because the basic aim of Dharma practice is nirvana, not just day-to-day happiness. We seek nirvana, permanent cessation of samsaric suffering, so we want to pacify the seed or the factors that bind us in the samsaric world. The chief of these is attachment. Therefore the main purpose of being a monastic is to reduce attachment: we work on no longer being attached to family, no longer being attached to sexual pleasure, no longer being attached to other worldly facilities. That is the main purpose. This is the purpose on the individual level.
At the time of the Buddha, initially there were no monasteries. Buddha with his own followers went making friends with all the rich people (laughs). Wherever there was an available place or food, they stayed there. For the time being that was the monastery!! While eating here, they look for the next place (laughs). I cannot resist (joking about this)!! Lord Buddha (His Holiness mimics looking around for good things and we all laugh). Then eventually, due to old age or physical weakness of the monastics, he felt it was better to have a permanent place where monks and nuns could stay. In this way, the monastic system developed. However, the main purpose or target was still nirvana, detachment from samsaric suffering and its causes. Unfortunately, sometimes monastics make the monastery their own new home and develop attachments there. This is exactly the wording used in one text which says that one was freed from the bigger household life, but got entrapped in the smaller household life. Still, comparatively, remaining in the monastery or nunnery, there are more facilities and more advantageous circumstances for Dharma practice.
Q. You brought up the topic of communities, and we discussed this at the program. We see the value and purpose of living in a nuns’ community, yet our Western culture makes us very individualistic: we like to do things on our own and we have our own ideas. This sometimes makes it difficult to form a community, yet another part of us wants to live with other nuns in a community. Could you please speak to how we could work with our individualistic tendencies so that we can form nuns’ communities. Thinking beyond just our own practice, how important is it to have nuns’ communities for the continuation of the Dharma and the existence of the Sangha for generations? Related to this, what are the advantages of group practice versus individual practice?
HH: What do you mean by community?
BTC: To have a nunnery.
HH: Nunneries are very important. In most places it seems that spiritual faith among women is stronger than among men. I noticed this in Himalayan areas such as Spiti. There, very few men show genuine interest in Dharma, but a great number of women do. In general in the West also, among the followers of Christianity or any other faith, there seems to be a greater number of women showing deep interest. This is one reason. Another reason is: as far as the Tibetan Buddhist community is concerned, I think we neglect the rights of women practitioners. There is great potential, genuine interest, and sincere wish to practice among women, but due to lack of proper facilities, many sincere women have had no opportunity to do so. I think we have to take special care. So because of the number of sincere women, I think nunneries are at least as, if not more, important than monasteries.
I think you may not have to be too concerned about Westerners’ having some special kind of individualistic attitude. Do you really think there is a big difference from Tibetans?
BTC: I do (Many nuns nod in agreement).
HH: Sometimes I think this is your own imagination!! [laughs]. Tibetans are also individualistic! In every field, certain things can be achieved more easily and quickly with the effort of a community—a group of people—rather than individually. Also, ultimately we are social animals. If there is a community, you feel, “I belong to this community.” So we are individualistic, but at the same time, we are also social animals. It is human nature to have a sense of community, to feel there is a group to which I belong and which looks after me. Sometimes there is tension between the two: to concentrate too much on community benefit and sacrifice individual rights is one extreme. To put too much emphasis on the individual and neglect the welfare and concern of the community is another extreme. I think the Buddhist concept of Pratimoksha is individualistic!! Pratimoksha means individual liberation [laughs], yet as a monk or nun, we have a sense of community. If we know the reality of things more clearly, there is not much problem. What do you think?
BTC: I keep thinking about your saying we need to have a lot of determination, courage and enthusiasm. You are right. If we have that, we can make it happen.
Q: Please speak about the advantage of taking higher ordination as a bhikshu or bhikshuni. Why did you chose to become a bhikshu rather than to remain as a sramanera? Please speak from your own experience and in general. Also, if Western nuns wish to take bhikshuni ordination, please give some advice on how they could prepare to take it.
HH: Generally, in our tradition, with higher ordination, all your virtuous activities become more effective, more powerful, more forceful. Similarly, the negative activities are more powerful (chuckles), but we usually tend to look more on the positive side. The teachings of the bodhisattva vehicle and tantric vehicle, for example Kalachakra, express great appreciation for the bhikshu vow. We feel it is a great opportunity to take higher ordination. A bhikshu or bhikshuni has more precepts. If you look at them point by point, sometimes you may feel there are too many precepts. But when you look at the purpose—to reduce attachment and negative emotions—then it makes sense. In order to reduce our negative emotions, the Vinaya puts more emphasis on our actions. So Vinaya contains very detailed and precise precepts about physical and verbal actions. The higher vows—the bodhisattva vow and the tantric vow—put more emphasis on the motivation. If we look at the main purpose, how they work, then you get a better understanding of the purpose of the 253 bhikshu precepts and the 364 bhikshuni precepts.
Generally speaking, those Buddhist practitioners who are really determined to follow this practice according to the Buddha’s guidance of course become sramanera, then bhikshu. Then they take the bodhisattva vow and finally the tantric vow. I feel the real preparation for taking bhikshuni ordination is not the study of the Vinaya, but more meditation about the nature of samsara. For example, there is a precept of celibacy. If you just think, “Sex is not good. Buddha prohibited it, so I can’t do it,” then it is very difficult to control one’s desire. On the other hand, if you think of the basic aim, the basic purpose—nirvana—then you understand the reason for the precept and it is easier to follow it. When you do more analytical meditation on the Four Noble Truths, you gain conviction that the first two truths are to be abandoned and the last two to be actualized. Having examined whether these negative emotions—the cause of suffering—can be eliminated, you become confident that they can. You can see clearly there is an alternative. Now the whole practice becomes meaningful. Otherwise, keeping precepts is like a punishment. You cannot eat in the afternoon. (laughs). However, when we do analytical meditation, we realize there is a systematic way to reduce the negative emotions, and we want to do that because our aim is nirvana, the complete elimination of negative emotions. Contemplating this is the main preparation. Study the Four Noble Truths, and do more analytical meditation on these topics. Once you develop genuine interest in nirvana, once you have some feeling about the possibility of nirvana, you feel, “That’s my purpose, that’s my destination.” Then the next question is, “How do we reduce negative emotions step by step on the emotional level and on the practical level?” Thus, one progressively becomes an upasaka, a full upasaka , an upasaka with celibacy, a sramanera, and a bhikshu. For women, one is first upasika, then sramanerika, shiksamana, and bhikshuni. Gradually taking the various levels of precepts are the steps to liberation.
Q. We have some technical questions about the bhikshuni sojung. When there are four bhikshunis present, we can do sojung on our own. However, sometimes there are not enough bhikshunis nearby. If a bhikshuni is in a Tibetan community and she is alone or there are only two bhikshunis…
HH: I don’t know [laughs]. I already forgot that part of the Vinaya. Of course I read these things when I was in Tibet, but now I have forgotten. So I have no answer! Empty. We have to follow according to each particular Vinaya system. As far as Mulasarvastivada, the text is available and we can study and check it.
Q. This particular question was: If there are fewer than four bhikshunis, can they attend the sojung with the bhikshus if they are in a Tibetan community?
HH: We can check.
Q. A similar question that you may want to have checked is: In Western Dharma centers it may sometimes happen that there are two bhikshus and two bhikshunis. In that situation, is it possible to do a complete sojung? Or is it better that the bhikshus and bhikshunis do their separate sojung blessings?
HH: We’ll check. Please write these points down, and later the Vinaya scholars can discuss them.
Q. Some women in the West are being ordained by various lamas without proper screening and preparation. Sometimes the women have false expectations; they have financial or emotional difficulties or they are ill-prepared, but the lamas ordain them anyway. After ordination they are left to “float,” and do not receive proper training and support. Many of the Western nuns are concerned about this situation and feel that the selection and ordination of nuns is out of our control. We do not have much input into the ordination process. Many nuns are asking what can be done to resolve this situation. We have some ideas, but is there space for them to be enacted? Can we become more involved in the screening and training of Western nuns?
HH: This is an excellent idea. Of course we cannot immediately establish an organization that can issue all the orders. But if you can begin to actualize this excellent idea and start screening wherever it is possible, then gradually, if we can do this work thoroughly and nicely, people may pay due regard to this. They will recognize your work and will join in or follow. As a start, the problem of people being ordained without proper evaluation could be highlighted at certain conferences of Tibetan lamas. This would also help. When there is the opportunity, I will talk about these things to other people. Ordination being given without due evaluation and preparation of the candidates is the case not only with nuns, but also with monks. Even tantric initiations are given without sufficient consideration. It is right to say that it is not good to give these to whomever asks. We should acknowledge that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some Westerners, without proper understanding, began to come and ask for initiations from the Tibetans. The Tibetans, on their side, were not so thorough in preparing them. Because of that some mistakes were committed at the beginning. As a result, now, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we see the shortcomings due to this mistake. Now I think both sides are becoming more mature, so perhaps there is less danger. It is important to pay attention to the faults we have committed and are committing, and to give warnings to avoid their being done again in the future.
Q. Is there a different way of practicing the Vinaya for someone who is in the Vajrayana tradition? How do we integrate our study and practice of Vinaya with our study and practice of the tantra?
HH: According to our tradition, we are monastics and are celibate, and we practice the Tantrayana simultaneously. But the way of practice is through visualization. For example, we visualize the consort, but we never touch. We never implement this in actual practice. Unless we have reached a stage where we have completely developed the power to control all our energy and have gained the correct understanding of sunya (emptiness, reality), unless we truly possess all the faculties through which those negative emotions can be transformed into positive energy, we never implement practice with an actual consort. Although we practice all the higher practices, as far as implementation is concerned, we follow Vinaya. We never follow according to Tantrayana. We can’t drink blood!! (laughs). In terms of actual practice, we have to follow the stricter discipline of Vinaya. In ancient India, one of the reasons for the degeneration of the Buddhadharma was the wrong implementation of certain tantric explanations.
Q. There is a wide spectrum of lifestyles among Western nuns. For example, some keep the precept of not handling money very strictly. Other nuns are forced to go out and work at a job to earn their living, and that necessitates wearing lay clothes and having their hair a little bit longer. Is this a valid, new, alternative way to be a nun in the West? What impact will this kind of trend have on Western monasticism?
HH: Obviously, we must make every effort to follow the Vinaya teachings and precepts. Then in certain cases, if there is sufficient reason to make certain adaptations, it is possible. But we should not make these adaptations too easily. First we should give preference to following the Vinaya precepts as they are. In cases where there are enough sound reasons that necessitate an adaptation, then it is permissible.
Q. What is the source of joy in the mind? How do we maintain a sense of joy? How do we deal with doubt and insecurity that may arise, especially when we see older sangha members disrobe?
HH: When you gain some inner experience as a result of your spiritual practice, that gives you some deep satisfaction, happiness, or enjoyment. It also gives you some kind of confidence. I think that is the main thing. This comes through meditation. The most effective method for our mind is analytical meditation. But without proper knowledge and understanding it is difficult to meditate. There is no base for knowing how to meditate. To be able to do analytical meditation effectively, you should have knowledge of the whole structure of Buddhism. So study is important; it makes a difference in our meditation. But sometimes in our Tibetan monasteries there is too much emphasis on the intellectual side, and the practice side is neglected. As a result some people are great scholars, but as soon as their lecture finishes, then ugliness appears (laughs). Why? Intellectually, they are a great scholar. But the Dharma is not integrated with their life. Once we personally experience some deeper value as a result of our practice, then no matter what other people do, what other people say, our happiness is not affected. Because through your own experience you are convinced, “Yes, there is some good thing there.” Then, if some senior lama or monk goes down, it doesn’t affect you negatively. You can feel compassion for them. If we lack our own deep Dharma experiences and just blindly follow others, and if those people fall, doubt takes hold of us. Buddha himself made it very clear. Right at the beginning the Buddha said it was extremely important for each individual to make their decisions and make effort in the practice. This is a wonderful teaching that the Buddha gave. Our lamas or our teachers are not our creator. If they are the creator, and something goes wrong with the creator, then we also go wrong. But we ourselves are the creator (laughs). If they go that way (down), it doesn’t matter. If someone has given you some Dharma teaching, it is better not to criticize angrily if they fall; it is better to ignore it (in the sense of not over-reacting and being thrown off-balance by it). But there is no reason to disturb your own confidence. It seems sometimes Westerners, and Tibetans too, rely too much on the person. That is a mistake. We must rely on the teaching, not the person. Okay, finished. Very good.
(Everyone then made offerings to His Holiness, and at his request, we took a group photo.)