Buddhist education for nuns in Western countries
Buddhist education for nuns in Western countries
A paper presented at the 2009 International Conference for Buddhist Sangha Education Taipei, Taiwan.
Buddhist education for women in Western countries1 is a very broad topic and differs according to the culture of the particular country, the Buddhist tradition that is being followed, and the type of institution that is educating women—monasteries, temples, Dharma centers, and so forth. To make this topic a little more manageable, I will focus on education of Buddhist nuns, do a brief review of the situation in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, and then highlight the program at Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington, which is one of the very few training monasteries in the USA for Western monastics.
Before speaking of the education of Buddhist nuns in the West, we have to look at how they become nuns and what ordination options are available to them. In the Theravada tradition, there are several options. Women in the Thai Forest Tradition receive the ten precepts as well as what is called siladhara ordination. The siladhara or “holder of ethical conduct” ordination was compiled by Ajahn Sucitto and sanctioned by Ajahn Sumedho, the abbot of Chithurst and Amaravati Monasteries2 in England. A collection of select bhikhu and bhikhuni precepts, this ordination is found only in the Western branch of the Thai Forest Tradition and enables women to keep very strict ethical conduct without having the bhikhuni vow. The great majority of Thai monks say the bhikshuni lineage has become extinct and cannot be revived until the coming of Maitreya Buddha. A group of lay followers in California, called Saranaloka,3 plans to begin a vihara of siladharas in California in the near future, which will be in addition to the siladharas in U.K.
However, a small number of Western women have taken the bhikkhuni vow from Sri Lankan masters,4 since the bhikkhuni lineage has been revived there in the late 1990s. The Western bhikkhunis in California have been living in community for some years in the Berkeley/Oakland area and are now beginning a vihara outside of the city in northern California. All the bhikkhunis and siladharas keep vinaya very strictly. Their studies include vinaya and sutta texts. Their communities are contemplative, with an emphasis on meditation.
Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese Mahayana
Nuns following the Mahayana tradition in the West are often Asian-Americans or Asian immigrants who have established temples in the West that serve primarily their respective ethnic communities. Most of them are ordained and educated in Asia, following the well-established procedures and studies programs there. Some Euro-American women have joined these temples and centers, primarily those in the Buddha Light International Association5 originating with Fo Kuan Shan in Taiwan, the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association6 (DRBA) originating with Master Hua from Taiwan, or the mindfulness communities established by Thich Nhat Hanh. Those in the DRBA learn Chinese and conduct their studies and practice in Chinese as well as in English. They give the bhikshuni ordination to members of their organization at their branch, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, in northern California. The Buddha Light International Association gives bhikshuni ordination at their branch, Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, and accept candidates from other Buddhist traditions. Both of these organizations have established Dharma universities in the USA.
Many Westerners are attracted to the mindfulness practice taught by the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh, and many have received bhikshu and bhikshuni vows under him. He has a broad network of practice groups, called the Community of Mindful Living,7 in which lay followers practice. He has also established several monasteries, including the renowned Plum Village in France and Deer Park in California. They give bhikshuni ordination to members of their organization. They study and practice mostly in English, and they learn some Vietnamese since a large number of their sangha are first- or second-generation Vietnamese in the West.
The Order of Buddhist Contemplatives,8 founded by the late Zen Master Jiyu Kennett, has two monasteries (Shasta Abbey in California and Throssell Hole Buddhist Abbey in the U.K.) and a network of priories. These monastics keep celibacy and the bodhisattva vows of the Japanese Zen tradition, but do not have Pratimoksha monastic ordinations. The idea of adopting the vinaya has been briefly discussed in recent years. However, many members are not currently interested in doing this, since their monasteries have both women and men and they value gender equality.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the great majority of Western nuns are sramanerikas, since higher ordination is not available in this tradition. A few Western nuns have received bhikshuni ordination from Chinese or Vietnamese masters, but practice in the Tibetan tradition. I am amongst this group, having taken sramanerika ordination according to the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya in India 1977, and bhikshuni ordination according to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya in Taiwan in 1986.
While His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very supportive of introducing bhikshuni ordination in the Tibetan community, he has repeatedly stated that he cannot do that alone. He would like consensus amongst the international bhikshu sangha to do this, but first, the sangha of each country needs to agree to it. While the situation has changed rapidly in Sri Lanka, leading to many women receiving bhikshuni ordination, there is much opposition in Thailand, Burma, and the Tibetan community.9 Although some conferences of Tibetan monks have discussed bhikshuni ordination in recent years, they have not reached agreement over an ordination procedure. The Tibetan nuns themselves do not know much about bhikshuni ordination, and at present, most are not keen to receive it, as they do not see the benefits. They have been told that since they have the sramanerika, bodhisattva, and tantric vows, bhikshuni ordination is not essential for their practice. The nuns are also concerned that they will not be able to keep the extra bhikshuni precepts very well. In addition, when the possibility of bhikshuni ordination has been discussed, the Tibetan nuns have universally said that they would like to take it in the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya tradition, from the Tibetan bhikshus. However, until now the Tibetan bhikshus have not concluded that it is possible according to the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya for the bhikshu sangha alone to give the bhikshuni ordination.
Western nuns who practice in the Tibetan tradition have views that are similar to their Tibetan counterparts. After the initial wave of those of us who received the bhikshuni vow in the 1980s, few other Western nuns have taken full ordination. Of those who have, several later disrobed for a variety of reasons.
Western Nuns in the Tibetan Tradition
Understanding the situation of Western monastics who practice in the Tibetan tradition is very helpful. For those of you who have grown up in Asia and ordained in the well-established monasteries there, the situation of Western monastics, especially the nuns, may be rather surprising for you. When Buddhism and the sangha first come to new locations and cultures, the situation is very different from places where it has been well-established for centuries. This is apparent in many areas: ordination, financial support, places to train, education, meditation and retreat, and social engagement.
Tibetan refugees, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is the temporal and spiritual leader of the Tibetans, poured into India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against the communist takeover of Tibet and the forceful incorporation of Tibet into China. Thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were destroyed after the communist takeover and during the Cultural Revolution. Even now the monastics in Tibet lack religious freedom. Tibetans in exile have re-established their monasteries and nunneries in India, while at the same time longing for Tibetan freedom and the ability to return to live in their homeland. Western monastics are the disciples of these teachers who live in exile. Most of them are monks, while some are lay teachers. The priority of these teachers is the reestablishment of their monasteries in India and Tibet and the education of the monks. There were nunneries in Tibet and new ones have been in established in exile, but the nuns’ education has been very poor until recent years. Now, due to the effort of H.H. the Dalai Lama, the nuns’ education has vastly improved, although many Tibetan and Himalayan nuns still lack adequate education. There were very few female teachers in Tibet and only a few Tibetan women (nuns and lay) teach the Dharma to Westerners. Thus, Western women are primarily the disciples of Tibetan monks who are refugees and whose priority is the sustenance and education of their Tibetan monk disciples.
While Tibetan masters are happy to ordain Westerners, they assume that their Western disciples can support themselves and even aid in the fundraising for Tibetan monasteries. Thus they do not emphasize the establishment of monasteries in the West. In the West, their attention goes to setting up Dharma centers, which are primarily focused on Dharma studies and practice for lay people. Western monastics often study at these Dharma centers, and in some cases, form the staff of these centers. Some monastics follow teachers who are lay followers,10 and thus they must find information about ordination on their own. While many teachers have international organizations composed of many Dharma centers in urban areas and retreat centers in rural areas, there is a dearth of monasteries for Westerners. For example, in North America, while there are several small pockets of a few Western monastics living together, the only communities that focus specifically on monastic education and practice are Gampo Abbey11 in Canada and Sravasti Abbey12 in the USA. Furthermore, in my observation many Western candidates for monastic ordination have not been sufficiently screened and prepared for ordination. In the Tibetan view, it is more beneficial for an individual to be ordained one day in this degenerate age than for their entire lifetime at the time of the Buddha. As a result, they give ordination freely to almost whomever applies. Many of these Westerners know very little about monastic life, the precepts, the importance of living in a monastic community, and training in the vinaya. Some of them have mental problems that are not detected by their Tibetan teachers because they speak different languages and do not have much contact outside of the formal teaching situation. With a few exceptions, the Western sangha, who could more easily detect those with emotional problems, are not consulted. One light in this area is the pre-ordination course13 held annually at Tushita Retreat Centre in Dharamsala, India, prior to the ordination His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives each year. Bhikshuni Jotika from Spain has been instrumental in establishing and teaching this course. In addition, the booklet Preparing for Ordination: Reflections for Westerners Considering Monastic Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition 14 gives prospective candidates useful information. However, it is up to candidates to seek further guidance, and those who do not understand the value of the sangha community and the benefit of following the guidance of senior sangha neglect to learn more about monastic life prior to ordaining.
Another factor contributing to the lack of proper screening and preparation is that the Western sangha in general do not give ordination. Tibetans usually refer their students to well-respected Tibetan masters for ordination. While Westerners often act as the preceptors in the Theravada and general Mahayana ordinations in the West, with the exceptions of Gampo Abbey and Sravasti Abbey, Western monastics in the Tibetan tradition are not the preceptors or instructors during ordination ceremonies.
Most Western monastics, but especially the nuns, are independent-minded. To choose such an unusual lifestyle in the West, one has to be independent-minded to counteract the family and social pressure to live a “normal” life with a family and job. In addition, they are well educated, most having some college education. They turn to Buddhism because they seek a path that will help them live their lives better, make their lives meaningful, and fulfill their spiritual yearnings. While they want a good Buddhist education, they do not seek intellectual knowledge alone; they want a path of practice and meditation that will touch their hearts. Inspired by their teachers’ wisdom and compassionate action, they want to become like them by practicing the Dharma as they did. Thus Western monastics seek their education from teachers who are monastic (and sometimes lay) Dharma practitioners. Only a few Western monastics have studied Buddhism at a Western university after they ordain because they would rather study with practitioners who have experience of the Dharma than with Western scholars who are often not even Buddhists.
Furthermore, like the Tibetan nuns, the vast majority of Western nuns are sramanerikas. Following their teachers’ advice, they will not become bhikshunis until the Tibetan monks have the wish and find a way to introduce bhikshuni ordination into the Tibetan tradition. While they are eager to receive a good Dharma education, most of them do not understand the value of practicing as bhikshunis.
Tibetans masters expect their Western disciples to support themselves financially and, in some cases, to help raise funds for the Tibetan monasteries in India and Tibet. Some Western sangha work as staff in Dharma centers where they receive room and board. This enables them to live near a teacher and near other monastics, even though they do not function as a monastic community or receive monastic training at Dharma centers.
In recent years, more and more Western monastics live on their own and work in a job in the city after they ordain. This makes keeping their precepts difficult. In addition to wearing lay clothes and growing their hair, they spend their time primarily with non-Buddhists and lay people. Thus there is no chance for them to learn the precepts and monastic behavior by living in a monastic community. They must instead think about paying the rent, buying groceries, and doing everything else that having a job and living on one’s own entails. In addition, they often do volunteer work at a Dharma center, helping to organize its various teachings and functions. Needless to say, many new monastics living in this situation disrobe within a few years.
In the USA, obtaining health insurance and health care is a major preoccupation. Western monastics who do not hold a job either have to purchase health insurance on their own or go without because they lack a benefactor to sponsor it.
Western societies are overwhelmingly Christian. People know little about Buddhism and thus support their local churches and other charitable organizations. Many lay Westerners who become Buddhists have been repelled by the emphasis on tithing in their previous religions and have been disillusioned by misuse of finances in religious institutions. Many Western lay Buddhists do not see the benefit of having sangha. Seeing the distinction between sangha and lay people as hierarchical, they wish for sangha-lay equality. Still others come from Protestant backgrounds, where ministers are married and have families and are employed by the churches they serve. They consider celibacy unnatural and believe that everyone should work for a living, not rely on donations.
Thus many Western Buddhists are reluctant to get involved in Buddhist religious institutions or to donate to support monasteries and the sangha. Many of them choose to donate to other worthwhile recipients such as Tibetan monastics who are refugees in India and their monasteries, or to Tibetan monasteries in Tibet that are rebuilding after the destruction due to the Chinese communist takeover of Tibet. Most Western Buddhists support the local Dharma centers where they attend teachings, and many support the special projects of their Dharma teachers, such as building statues, stupas, and supporting monasteries in Mongolia, Tibet, and India because they see these people as being needy.
Western lay people often assume that Tibetan masters support their Western monastic disciples financially, which is generally not the case. They also assume that Western monastics have more access to finances than do Tibetan and Mongolian sangha in Asia. However, this, too, is not the case. While some Western monastics may have had some savings when they ordained, this is quickly depleted. Some of them have to pay to stay in the few Western monasteries that exist in the West; they also need money for travel, health insurance, medical and dentalexpenses, Dharma books, and so on. In some instances, Western sangha must pay fees for attending Dharma courses at Dharma centers. A few organizations will sponsor some of their monastic members to study or do retreat,15 and monastics who staff retreat centers are generally given room and board and a small stipend.
This results in an interesting “class division” of Western monastics—those who have financial resources and those who do not. Those who have resources, either due to family support, savings, or income from working at a job, have the opportunity to travel to receive Dharma teachings and to participate in retreat. Those who do not have finances do not have these opportunities to the same extent.16
The financial difficulties of Western sangha are not due entirely to external factors. There is an element that rests in the attitudes of some sangha members as well. Many people who ordain are independent-minded. They have not been educated in the importance of living in a monastery and the benefits they accrue by doing so. They think more of what can help their personal Dharma practice and not what they can do to contribute to Buddhism’s endurance and spread in this world. These people prefer to live on their own and, in some cases, see living in a sangha community as restraining their freedom. While some lament their financial ails, they do not wish to give up their independence to live in a monastery, which entails following the schedule, working for the community, and so on.
Various other factors are at play as well. First, while the sangha is seen as a field of merit in Tibetan Buddhism, there is much greater emphasis on one’s teacher as a field of merit for the creation of good karma. Thus many lay followers will make offerings to their Tibetan teachers, who give the donations to their monasteries in India and Tibet.
Second, in general, Western monastics in the Tibetan tradition are not as well respected as Tibetan monastics. Some of this involves Western monastics living independently, which means they don’t receive the rigorous monastic training found in Asian monasteries that leads to refined external behavior, proper etiquette, and living within the precepts. Another factor is the lack of Western sangha communities where lay followers see monastics studying and practicing well. A further element is the lack of proper screening of monastic candidates, which leads to people with mental problems receiving ordination. These people then act in unbecoming ways, which leads to lay people not being inspired by Western monastics and thus not seeing them as worthy of respect and offerings.
Acceptance by society
In Asia, the society at large knows Buddhist monastics exist and recognizes their robes. This is not the case in the West. In general, the person in the street does not associate our robes with Buddhism. Instead we are greeted with either stares or remarks such as “Hari Krishna.” Monks are chided for “wearing skirts” and nuns are often mistaken to be men and greeted with, “Hello Sir.” Many well-meaning women have come up to me with a comforting smile and said, “Don’t worry, dear. When the chemo is over, your hair will grow back.” Once in a while I receive compliments on my “outfit,” and once a flight attendant commented, “Not everyone can wear their hair like that, but it looks good on you.” Sometimes born-again Christians approach us in public places and begin the conversation by telling us we’re going to hell if we don’t abandon our heathen faith.
Most Westerners who wish to ordain face opposition from their parents, many of whom think that their children are members of a cult and have been brainwashed to give away all their possessions. While some parents are supportive of their child’s spiritual vocation, most do not understand it.
The United States is primarily a Protestant country. Since the various Protestant faiths do not have monastics, most people (Catholics are the exception) do not understand what a monastic is. The Protestant work ethic is strong in the States, meaning that people are expected to work for a living and not depend on non-family members for their livelihood. Thus Buddhist monastics who do not receive a salary but offer their services are an anomaly in their eyes. They see our living dependent on donations as being a parasite on society. In addition, they view celibacy as unnatural and do not understand why we do not want to marry and have a family.
It is only when we are able to articulate our lifestyle choices and explain them well to individuals that people begin to see the reason and purpose for a monastic lifestyle. For these reasons, Western monastics have to have a clear purpose in order to ordain. They must be able to endure the questions of well-meaning individuals as well as the derision of those who think what they are doing is strange.
Places to train
As mentioned above, for Westerners in the Tibetan tradition, monasteries are few in number.17 Most live in Dharma centers, in retreat centers, or live on their own in cities. This happens due to a combination of the aforementioned circumstances: their Tibetan teachers being concerned more with the welfare of Tibetan monasteries in Asia, lack of financial support, lack of knowledge of the importance and benefit of living in a monastery, and some Western sangha being independent-minded. In my eyes, this also occurs due to a lack of leadership. One of the reasons for this is that most Western sangha follow their teachers’ instructions, and if their teachers do not ask them to establish a monastery, they do not think to do so on their own. They also are aware of how much they do not know about the Dharma and the vinaya, and so they do not think they have the capacity to begin monasteries.
This was my attitude for many years. It was only during a conference of Western Buddhist teachers with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1993 that my mind began to change. Here, Bhikshuni Tenzin Palmo gave a moving presentation on the situation of Western monastics. In the discussion that followed, His Holiness told us not to wait for our Tibetan teachers to establish monastic institutions for us, but to take the lead and do it ourselves. Personally speaking, this gave me confidence that had previously been lacking.
Now several Western nuns and lay women are taking leadership positions and establishing monasteries for Tibetan and Himalayan nuns and for Western nuns as well as assisting already established Tibetan nunneries. Bhikshuni Tenzin Palmo has set up Dongyu Gatsel Ling18 in Tashi Jong, India. Here about fifty young Himalayan and Tibetan nuns, aged fifteen to twenty-five, study and practice and are in the process of reestablishing the Togdenma lineage of female tantric practitioners. Sramanerika Tenzin Sangmo has established Thosamling Nunnery19 in Sidpuri, India for Western nuns in a beautiful and peaceful area not far from Dharamsala. Many lay women also stay there. Their educational program is that of a traditional Tibetan nunnery, and the nuns therefore learn Tibetan language. This nunnery is non-sectarian and nuns from any of the Tibetan traditions as well as from Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and other places can reside there. Dr. Elizabeth Napper and Ms. Philippa Russell have been instrumental in working together with Tibetan nuns and Tibetan lay women to form the Tibetan Nuns Project20 which has established and assisted several Tibetan nunneries in India. Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo founded Jamyang Choling Nunnery21 and established the Jamyang Foundation,22 an educational program for Himalayan women. Sramanerika Tsenla assisted in the establishment of Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery.23 Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen has offered much assistance to the nuns of Jangchub Choeling Nunnery24 in south India.
In the West, Bhikshuni Pema Chodron is a renowned Dharma teacher in the Shambhala tradition. Under her guidance, Gampo Abbey was established in 1974. During the “yarne” progam, the traditional rains retreat done in the winter at Gampo Abbey, many monastics from various Tibetan traditions as well as from other Buddhist traditions gather for six weeks to practice together and learn vinaya. They also have an annual youth dathun where young adults take ordination and live as monastics for a month. Bhikshuni Khenmo Dolma has established Vajra Dakini Nunnery25 in Vermont, USA. You will hear more about Sravasti Abbey, the abbey I have founded, later in this paper.
Having received ordination, what education, training, and practice opportunities are open to Western Buddhist nuns? Those in the Thai Forest Tradition, focus on vinaya studies (according to the siladhara precepts they received) and do sutta studies as well. They focus on meditation and community life as a way to train the mind. The Western Theravada bhikkhunis study the Pali Vinaya as well as suttas. They are few in number and are scattered around the USA. However, they have a good network amongst themselves, meet to give sramanerika ordination and to do Uposattha, and are beginning to establish communities.
Asian-born nuns living in the West follow the training programs of their home temples in Asia, including doing the Posadha ceremony and so forth. Some of them attend Western universities and receive graduate degrees in various fields.
The Western bhikshunis in the Chinese and Vietnamese Mahayana traditions do extensive sutra study as well as learn the Pratimoksha precepts and vinaya. Some of them attend the Dharma schools and universities set up by their organizations, and some of them have become teachers in their own right.
Tibetan teachers have been most generous in sharing the Buddha’s teachings with Westerners, both monastic and lay, male and female. In contrast to the situation of the Tibetan nuns, some of whom are just recently able to have similar education to the monks, Western nuns have pretty much the same challenges and opportunities as Western monks (although the nuns cannot yet become geshes, while the monks can).
Western monastics in the Tibetan tradition have diverse levels and types of education. Almost all begin by studying the stages of the path to enlightenment (lamrim) and thought training (lojong) teachings. Some go on to do extensive study of the great Indian and Tibetan treatises. Some deepen their understanding and practice of the stages of the path and thought training. Most will receive tantric empowerment at some point and do some study of tantra, but to varying degrees.
One obstacle to vinaya education for Western nuns is that the original Dharmaguptaka and Mulasarvastivadin vinaya texts have not been fully translated into Western languages. Nor have the lengthy Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan commentaries on the original vinaya texts been translated. Fortunately, the Pali vinaya can be found in English26 as can the Dharmaguptaka and Mulasarvastivadin bhikshuni precepts.27 There are several unpublished transcripts of oral teachings given on the Mulasarvastivadin sramaneraika precepts by Tibetan teachers, and some short commentaries have also been published.28 Venerable Bhikshuni Master Wu Yin’s book, Choosing Simplicity,29 is essential for any Western nun who has received bhikshuni ordination. There is also a variety of shorter articles about the Pratimoksha precepts, monastic life,30 and vinaya on the web.31 Thich Nhat Hanh’s nuns also have transcripts of Dharmaguptaka Pratimoksha teachings.
Study of the stages of the path and thought training
Almost all Westerners who become Buddhists are introduced to the Dharma through the teachings on the stages of the path and thought training. The stages of the path teachings begins with the cultivation of the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma:
- Precious human life, its meaning and purpose, and its rarity and difficulty to attain
- Death and impermanence
- The functioning of the law of karma and its effects
- The disadvantages and miseries of cyclic existence.
It also includes the cultivation of the three principal aspects of the path:
- Renunciation of cyclic existence (the determination to be free from samsaric suffering) and the aspiration to attain liberation
- The altruistic intention of bodhicitta which aspires to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings
- The wisdom realizing the ultimate nature, the emptiness of inherent existence of all phenomena
As well as the six far-reaching practices (paramitas):
- Ethical conduct
- Joyous effort
- Meditative stabilization
Thought training is a genre of teaching developed in Tibet that is rooted in the sutras and draws especially from Shantideva’s Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicharyavatara). Thought training includes instruction on seven principal points:
- The Preliminary Practices (the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma)
- The Main Practice: Training in the two bodhicittas (conventional bodhicitta, which aspires for enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings and ultimate bodhicitta, which realizes the ultimate nature)
- Transforming Adverse Circumstances into the Path: How to transform conflict, suffering, illness, and other hindrances so that they aid our practice of the path to enlightenment
- Elucidating a Lifetime’s Practice: Practicing the five forces during our life and at the time of death (white seed, prayers of aspiration, destruction, motivation, and familiarity)
- The Measure of Having Transformed One’s Mind: How to assess if our practice of thought training is progressing
- The Commitments of Thought Transformation: Practical advice that helps us get along better with others as well as to cultivate bodhicitta
- Instructions of Thought Transformation: more practical instructions to implement in daily life
Becoming well trained in the above teachings establishes a firm foundation in the Dharma. With this foundation, some monastics do the study of the five great topics. Others may study the five great topics to some extent as a way to amplify their practice of the stages of the path, which remains their principal interest. Still others may shift their attention to tantra.
Those nuns who attend Dharma centers in the city receive the teachings on the stages of the path, thought training, and other texts offered to the laypeople at these Dharma centers. They do meditation retreat when they have time. These nuns have a harder time receiving teachings and training in the precepts and in the monastic way of life, and they have only infrequent opportunities to do the sramanerika Posadha.
Study of the five great topics
The nuns who extensively study the great Indian and Tibetan treatises do so either in institutes in India or in residential Dharma centers32 in the West. In general, they focus on their studies, without doing service work in Dharma centers because the studies require a great deal of time and concentration. These nuns generally receive teachings on the sramanerika precepts. In addition, they study the five great topics of the Nalanda Tradition:
- The Perfection of Wisdom. Here the emphasis is on the paths and grounds of the bodhisattvas that lead to full Buddhahood. These studies are based on Maitreya’s Ornament of Clear Realizations (Abhisamayalamkara), Haribhadra’s commentary on it, and further commentaries by Tibetan masters.
- The Middle Way view which goes into detail about the Madhyamaka philosophy regarding the correct view of ultimate reality. This follows Chandrakirti’s Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s) “Treatise on the Middle Way,” (Madhayamikavatara) and its Tibetan commentaries.
- Reasoning. This topic is based on Dharmakirti’s Commentary on (Dinaga’s) “Compendium of Reliable Cognition.” (Pramanavarttikakarika).
- Abhidharma, based on Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharmakosa) and its Indian and Tibetan commentaries.
- Vinaya, based on Gunaprabha’s Vinaya-sutra and its Tibetan commentaries which explain the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya and Pratimoksha.
These five topics are preceded by the study of introductory material such as Collection of Topics (Dura), Mind and Awareness (Lorig), and Reasoning (Tarig), and Tenets (Druptha). They are supplemented with studies of Paths and Grounds (Salam).
These philosophical studies are rigorous and involve not only learning with a teacher but also thorough discussion and debate with one’s classmates. Such an education teaches one to think clearly and logically, and to identify and refute wrong conceptions about the nature of reality. In traditional Tibetan monastic education, study of the five topics could span fifteen to twenty years and leads to receiving the geshe degree,33 the Tibetan equivalent to a Ph.D. in Buddhist philosophy. In Tibetan monasteries, this study program usually begins in childhood; little boys are ordained as young as eight or nine years old and go to a monastery to be educated.
Such a lengthy study program is not suitable for all Western monastics, who have already spent years in school. In addition, not all the texts for this study program have been translated into English and only a few Western monastics have learned Tibetan to the degree necessary to engage in the debates that constitute much of a geshe’s education. Presently, one Western nun, Sramanerika Kelasang Wangmo, has completed the full course of study in Tibetan at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics (IBD) in Dharamsala, India.34 However, being a sramanerika, she is not permitted to study the vinaya fully and thus, like other Tibetan nuns who have completed the study of the five topics, cannot receive the geshe degree. While His Holiness the Dalai Lama strongly supports nuns receiving the geshe degree, until this time, the Tibetan monks have not found a way to grant it to them. To take the geshe exam, one must have studied the vinaya fully, and to do that one must be fully ordained. However, full ordination for women is not offered in Tibetan Buddhism.
Some other Western nuns have completed several of the five topics at IBD, having done their studies in Tibetan. Some have learned Tibetan at Thosamling and are now in Tibetan nunneries in India. But the greatest number of Western nuns live and study in the West. Some nuns have done comparable philosophical studies in English in the West. The English language programs are comprehensive, yet abbreviated, forms of study that place attention on the important points of these five topics. Those Western nuns who study at the Masters Programs at Istituto Lama Tsongkhapa in Italy and Chenresig Institute in Australia, for example, do the philosophical studies, although they do not have access to the full range of study materials that Tibetans have due to the lack of English translation and/or their lack of fluency in the Tibetan language.
Study of tantra
Most Western monastics receive tantric empowerments much earlier in their practice than do their Tibetan counterparts. This occurs for several reasons. Tibetans engaged in the prolonged course of philosophical studies are encouraged not to take tantric empowerments that have lengthy daily commitments in order to have more time for their philosophical studies and for debate. Westerners are attracted to tantra because it is considered a “high” teaching, and some rush into it without enough foundation. While some Westerners do not like ritual and visualization, most of those in the Tibetan tradition find it an effective means to develop their concentration and to transform their minds.
Meditation and retreat
Westerners are very interested in meditation. Being well-educated and intellectual in general, they are seeking self-knowledge and want to learn how to learn about themselves and how their own mind and emotions work. They want a spiritual practice that will move their hearts and inspire them to be better people through self-knowledge and transforming their own minds. Thus almost all Western monastics will do some period of meditation retreat each year. Others may do retreat for three months or six months every few years, and some will enter three-year retreats. While some people will do retreat on the stages of the path, most people will do a retreat that involves visualization and mantra recitation. Some will do retreats to complete the preliminary practice for tantric retreats, such as doing 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mandala offerings, and so on.
Having ordained, Western bhikshunis continue their Dharma education and gain meditation experience as well. Then, either at the suggestion of their teacher or the invitation of the lay followers, many of them begin to teach the Dharma themselves and to lead meditation retreats. In Western countries, the nuns are more visible as teachers than in Asian (with the exception of Taiwan and Korea, where many bhikshunis teach). I think the lack of female teachers in the Theravada and Tibetan Traditions in Asia is related to there not being a thriving bhikshuni sangha in those places. Becoming a bhikshuni increases one’s self-confidence and opportunity to receive an education, which in turn enables these nuns to give more to society by teaching and spreading the Dharma. In addition, the Asian lay people respect nuns who keep the bhikshuni discipline and want to receive teachings from them.
In the West, the presence of female teachers is very important. Gender equality is highly valued by both women and men, and they want to receive teachings from qualified Western women. If Buddhism were to be perceived as a religion that favored men over women, many Westerners would not be interested in it.
Both the siladharas of the Thai Forest Tradition and the Western bhikshunis ordained in the Sri Lankan tradition teach Dharma and meditation to lay followers. Many of the Asian and Westerner bhikshunis in the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, in the Buddha Light International, and in the Mindfulness Community teach the lay people the sutras as well as meditation. While I don’t believe the Theravada nuns are active in social welfare projects, many of the Mahayana nuns in the West are.
In the Tibetan Tradition, some nuns teach the Dharma and meditation to lay followers. Some do prison work; Liberation Prison Project, an international project that reaches out to inmates in many countries was founded by an Australian nun, Venerable Robina Courtin. Some nuns write Dharma books—Venerable Pema Chodron is perhaps the best known of these—and others edit the Dharma talks of their teachers, making them into books. A few nuns do translation work. Some do hospice work; some are chaplains in hospitals. Many nuns volunteer in Dharma centers or serve on the staff of retreat centers. Some actively help Tibetan nuns, raising funds for them to build their nunneries and to be used in their study programs.
A case study: Sravasti Abbey
Sravasti Abbey is a new monastic community located about an hour from Spokane in eastern Washington State, in the northwest part of the USA. It is named for Sravasti, where the Buddha spent twenty-five Rain Retreats and spoke a vast number of sutras, teaching and training the communities of monastics living there. His Holiness the Dalai Lama selected this name in 1996. We call it an “abbey” because male and female monastics train together as equals—brothers and sisters supporting each other on the Dharma path.
For many years I had wanted to begin a monastery and sought another senior Western nun to join me in doing so, but all were occupied with their various works and projects. Eventually I decided to start on my own and see what happened. I did not have the support of a large Buddhist organization or a wealthy benefactor, and began without a dime. But gradually people heard of the plan and many people contributed whatever they could. In addition, a group of Dharma students gathered together to form Friends of Sravasti Abbey (FOSA) as a lay support group. People kindly volunteered for the many works that needed to be done—publicity, bookkeeping, accounting, facilities, and so on—and in August 2003, we found a beautiful piece of land which we were able to purchase (with a mortgage) in October of that year. It had 240 acres of forest and meadows, a house, barn, garage, and a storage cabin. The winter of 2003 and spring of 2004, volunteers worked hard to finish the lower floor of the house, making more bedrooms and an office out of the unfinished space. The summer of 2004 we hired a contractor to convert the garage into a lovely meditation hall. Volunteers also aided in the construction, painting, and laying the flooring. In 2005, the students built a cabin in the garden where I live and transformed the storage cabin into a retreat cabin. We also transformed one of the bays of the barn into a community room, which is used as the dormitory for men (nuns and lay women stay in the house).
Gradually people began to move to the Abbey. Now, five and a half years later, there are six monastics and four lay residents. Many guests visit the Abbey, staying for a day up to several months. Some come for programs—courses and retreats—and others come to offer service and participate in the daily monastic schedule.
Tradition and innovation
Until now, Buddhism in the United States has been focused on Dharma centers where lay students learn the Buddha’s teachings. Now that these are well established, it is time to build monasteries where women and men can study, practice, and train in the monastic lifestyle. Sravasti Abbey is a place where monastics and those preparing for ordination can learn and practice according to the teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The Buddha’s teachings go beyond culture and historical time, and Sravasti Abbey preserves the meaning of these teachings in an unadulterated way.
Nevertheless, as Buddhism spreads from one country to another, it has adapted to new cultural customs and evolved different external forms. In this area Sravasti Abbey is innovative. For example, gender equality and social service are key elements of community life. Most chanting is done in English. By nurturing individuals’ unique talents within a traditional monastic setting adapted to the present American culture, we strive to embody the Buddhist values of non-harming, mindfulness, compassion, inter-relatedness, respect for nature, and service to sentient beings—all directed towards the awakening of all beings.
We value a simple lifestyle guided by the Buddhist monastic discipline. We cultivate happy, well-balanced practitioners and a healthy community through a balance of study, meditation, and service. A community that models good communication and conflict resolution skills and is comprised of individuals who live meaningfully and are happy without possessing great wealth is an inspiration to society at large, showing that Buddhist ethical discipline contributes to a morally grounded society.
Some people may be surprised that the Abbey has both female and male monastics. The reasons for this are many. First, Western monastics are few in number in the USA, and it would be very expensive to make separate communities for women and men, duplicating the educational program as well as all the facilities. Since there are no female geshes at this time, for residents to receive the philosophical teachings—study of which takes many years—a monk-teacher is needed. If the Abbey were only for women, this would require purchasing another residence nearby the Abbey for the geshe and translator. We do not have the finances to do this. With monks training at the Abbey, it would be possible to have a geshe live here as well. Furthermore, some monasteries and temples in Taiwan have monks and nuns, as do some Western Buddhist monasteries.
I have suffered the results of gender discrimination—this is clearly the result of my own negative karma—so I do not wish to create any more exclusionary and discriminatory karma that will lead to such results in the future. Some of my students are men, and I do not feel right refusing sincere men the opportunity to study and practice at the Abbey.
I have spent a great deal of time investigating why people disrobe, observing single sex Buddhist monasteries as well as Buddhist monasteries with both women and men. The most common reason for disrobing is loneliness, which leads to seeking a “special friend” and a romantic relationship, which leads to relinquishing the monastic vow. Loneliness occurs in both single sex and co-ed communities, and someone who is dissatisfied with monastic life will find someone to fall in love with, even if they live in a single-sex community and have very little contact with the opposite sex. In single-sex communities, people will form a close special relationship with someone of the same sex, which can equally interfere with monastic life.
On the other hand, when people’s Dharma practice is going well and when they feel supported by community life, they are not lonely; their minds are satisfied, and they are not interested in romantic relationships. Thus at the Abbey we pay attention to each person’s mental and emotional state and to cultivating Dharma friendship so that loneliness does not set in. We try to have very open communication so that if we see the seeds of a potential special relationship, we comment on it early on in order to prevent it from forming. Of course we are practical too and do not have two young people working together. Offering service is done in groups. Men and women live in separate buildings and may not enter each others’ residences. The simas for the bhikshu and bhikshuni sanghas are separate, and once there are enough fully ordained monastics at the Abbey, bhikshu and bhikshuni Posadha will be done separately.
We have regular community meetings where people learn to share what they are experiencing, ask for help when they need it, and offer support to others when they are going through a hard time in their spiritual practice. This leads to the residents feeling connected to each other, rather than cut off, and it leads to a wonderful atmosphere of friendliness.
Vision and mission
Sravasti Abbey’s mission is to nurture a flourishing monastic community where learning and practicing Buddha’s ancient teachings cultivates peace in the hearts of the residents and visitors and, by extension, in the world. Our slogan is
Creating peace in a chaotic world
Sravasti Abbey provides conditions conducive for a strong Western monastic community to study and practice the Dharma. We endeavor to live generously through dedicating our lives to the Buddha’s teachings, practicing them earnestly, and offering them to others. We trust that people will value our way of life and work and will respond generously by providing what is needed to live and to spread the Dharma in a modern society. Together with the lay community, we build facilities where all of us can study and practice the Buddha’s teaching.
Sravasti Abbey is a new monastery and so our educational program is still developing. Nuns here learn the precepts according to their level of ordination. Community life is used as the training ground for keeping the precepts and for developing a “monastic mind”—the correct attitude and outlook that monastics should have—so issues that come up as we live together are used as opportunities to train our minds. Monastics also learn the stages of the path (lamrim) and thought training (lojong) teachings, as well as some tantra. In the future we will add more philosophical teachings, but with the emphasis on applying these in our meditation practice and to our lives.
The general curriculum includes:
- Study and practice of vinaya, emphasizing its practical applications and use in subduing our physical, verbal, and mental activities
- Study and practice of lamrim, the stages of the path to enlightenment
- Study and practice of lojong, thought transformation, particularly how to transform situations and how to work with emotions
- Philosophical studies of the great treatises, for those who have a solid foundation in the gradual path and in thought transformation
- Tantric practice, for those who have a solid foundation in Buddhist practice
- Daily meditation practice
- Retreat—individual and group
- Community life as practice
- Development of communication skills
- Instruction on how to lead discussions, meditations, and give Dharma talks
- Three months of retreat each winter. At this time we close the Abbey to short-term visitors so that the residential community can engage in more intense Dharma practice. Some guests attend either the first month or all three months of the retreat with us.
We pay special attention to community life and use it as part of our training. There are short verses that we read together before offering service (our term for “work”) in order to clarify our motivation. Many vinaya and Dharma discussions are held informally after lunch, and we use daily life events as illustrations of Dharma ideas and principals. We often discuss how the teachings on karma apply to a particular situation that has arisen, or we may discuss as a group the most skillful way to handle a situation. In other words, we make Dharma applicable to our daily lives.
We plan to begin an upasaka (oblate) program for lay practitioners who seek a strong connection with the Abbey while living at home. It will be a three-year program consisting of a curriculum of reading, Dharma videos and audio teachings, memorization of commonly recited verses and texts, and social welfare work.
By living a life of simplicity as exemplified by the Buddha and described by the vinaya, monastics provide a healthy challenge to society’s concepts of success, power, and consumption. They exemplify community life centered around spiritual practice, and in doing so, they have sustained the Buddha’s teachings to the present day.
Since full ordination is not available for women in Tibetan Buddhism, all monastics ordained at or through Sravasti Abbey follow the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. In that way, we will eventually be able to have enough bhikshus and bhikshunis at the Abbey to give the full ordinations ourselves. Monastics ordained in other vinaya traditions are welcome to join the community.
Living vinaya in Western countries in modern times is different than living it in Asia, even in the present. In studying each precept, we focus on the Buddha’s intention in establishing it: What mental state and behavior does a precept intend to subdue? When we cannot keep a precept to the letter due to cultural, health, and other constraints, we adapt it so that we try to keep its intention.
In addition to the Pratimoksha, we have rules and guidelines for our Abbey that cover a variety of topics that were not regulated in the vinaya. Many of these are developed over time due to events that happen within the community. For example, there are rules regarding computer use and Internet use. We have guidelines about driving, going to town, and traveling away from the Abbey.
We do not handle money except when necessary. While people may have personal money, they may use it for only three purposes: 1) medical and dental needs, 2) traveling for Dharma teachings, and 3) making offerings. We do not spend private money on any other items. Toiletries, clothes, furniture, bedding, towels, computers, office supplies, and so forth are provided by the Abbey and are generally donated by supporters.
We do not go into town every time the Abbey needs something, but wait until there is a long list of errands to be done. We do not drive unnecessarily as a way of reducing pollution. We recycle everything we possibly can and use things until they wear out or break. If we have an excess of food, we give it to the local food bank or share it with our neighbor Carmelite Sisters, and if we receive excess appliances, we give them away.
Abbey residents can only go online in public areas, and someone else must be in the room. We do not join Internet chat rooms, and do not surf the web to find interesting websites. On the other hand, people who need to have medicine meal in the evening to maintain their health, may do that. We try to be practical in our way of living vinaya.
We do Posadha on new and full moon days and also keep the eight Mahayana precepts on those days.
Social engagement and interfaith activities
Abbey residents participate in socially engaged Buddhism and cultivate inter-religious exchange and cooperation. We also contribute to society through activities such as doing spiritual counseling, engaging in prison work, teaching stress reduction classes, and accepting invitations to give talks in schools, community centers, and churches. Each year we have a one-week retreat for young adults, aged 19 to 29. We also visit a local prison several times a year, giving talks to inmates and bringing in Tibetan teachers as well.
Monastics and lay practitioners are trained in leading meditation, discussions, and rituals. We have a monthly Sharing the Dharma Day which is open to the public, as well as several two- or three-day residential retreats each year. One such retreat was for environmental activists. For several years, we have held a regular series of classes twice a year in our local town. The most recent was a six-week series on “Meditation to Remedy Stress” in the Newport Community Hospital, led by two nuns—one who was a nurse practitioner, the other who was a physical therapist. We also conduct meditation classes at a church in Spokane and have public talks twice a year at a college in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Abbey monastics also travel to teach the Dharma when requested by Dharma centers in the USA and abroad.
Over the years we’ve cultivated a wonderful relationship with a small community of Carmelite Sisters, one of whom attended a one-month retreat at the Abbey. We have also given lectures at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit-run university in Spokane.
Monastics write Buddhist books and articles and transcribe and edit our teachers’ discourses. At present we are preparing a 30-week series of Dharma talks on DVD to send to prisons.
Visiting and joining the Abbey
Adopting a monastic lifestyle requires adjustment as we learn to live with the protection of monastic precepts and to live harmoniously with others. People wishing to live at the Abbey must want to live in a community and contribute to the welfare of the group. This means that residents and long-term guests commit to full participation in the daily schedule of practice and community activities.
Sravasti Abbey is located in a rural area, ideal for quiet monastic living. To create a peaceful environment for Dharma practice, monastics and those in training at the Abbey adopt a simple and virtuous lifestyle, learning to find contentment through Dharma study and practice and service to others. Living in a rural area without access to your own car, television, music, or Internet access in your room can be very challenging for some people, as can eating a strictly vegetarian diet. Guests live by the five precepts, including celibacy.
Training at the Abbey entails a gradual process of living with the five lay precepts, eight precepts, novice monastic precepts, and then the precepts of a fully ordained monastic.
Entrance into the community is also gradual, whether someone is currently a monastic or a layperson exploring the possibility of ordaining. We recommend that people visit the Abbey for several short stays before applying for longer term visits. People who wish to stay for a week or more fill out an extensive application. We also recommend that, after a longer stay of a few months, people spend some time away from the Abbey to assess their experiences. If they find Abbey life suitable for them, they can then apply for provisional residency for a year. At this time they live with five precepts. After some time, they can request to take the eight anagarika precepts, and after keeping those for about a year, they can request sramanera or sramanerika precepts. Women are given sramanerika and siksamana ordination on the same day.35 Both men and women spend at least two years as sramaneras or siksamanas before requesting full ordination. Then we arrange for them to go to Taiwan or to a Chinese monastery in the West to receive the bhikshu or bhikshuni vow. We aspire eventually to have enough bhikshus and bhikshunis to give the full ordination ceremony at Sravasti Abbey.
The Abbey is a relatively new community and a work in progress. We cannot yet offer what a well-established monastery can in terms of convenience or a highly structured program for monastic training. In addition to Dharma teachings and classes, part of our learning comes through applying the Dharma in daily life interactions. Sravasti Abbey is growing rapidly. It is joyful to participate in the beginnings of a new monastic community and to be part of the creative process of bringing Buddhist monastic life to the West.
Values and principles in practice
Cultivating a “monastic mind” is an essential part of the Dharma education at the Abbey. A monastic mind is a heart/mind that is humble, receptive, kind, compassionate, inquisitive, sincere, eager to learn, and wise. In other words, we seek to develop monastics who not only know the Buddhist scriptures, but who also meditate on them and develop them in their daily lives. In that way the Dharma becomes alive in the world and is expressed by our body, speech, and mind in our interactions with others.
Below are some of the values that we articulate and discuss in the community and that guide our lives together. For those who have trained in Asian monasteries, many of these are taken for granted, but because Buddhism and Buddhist monastics are new in the West it is best to clearly express these. Familiarity with these values and principals are part of cultivating a “monastic mind” and is thus an essential part of the educational program at the Abbey. At the end of the morning meditation each day, monastics and guests recite this verse to help them cultivate a monastic mind throughout the day:
Having a “monastic mind” benefits our Dharma practice whether we are monastics or lay practitioners. A monastic mind is one that is humble, imbued with the Buddhist worldview, dedicated to cultivating mindfulness, clear knowing, love, compassion, wisdom, and other good qualities. Being mindful of the kindness I have received from all sentient beings, I will relate to them with patience, kindness, and compassion. I will be mindful of my precepts and values and will cultivate clear knowing of my thoughts and feeling, as well as how I speak and act. I will take care to act and speak at suitable times and in appropriate ways, abandoning idle talk and disruptive movements. With respect for others and confidence in my good qualities, I will be humble and easy for others to speak to. In all these activities, I will endeavor to remember impermanence and the emptiness of inherent existence and to act with bodhicitta.
Offering the Dharma
Since monastics live simply, what we have to offer is the Dharma. The Buddha said that the giving of the Dharma is the best kind of giving, because it leads others on the path to liberation. When monastics from the Abbey teach, whether at the Abbey or at Dharma centers, we do not charge a fee. We give Dharma freely from our hearts because we want to benefit all those who attend. This gives us the freedom to teach wherever we think it is most beneficial. Likewise, we do not charge for services such as private interviews for spiritual consultation. As monastics, we give all this freely. The Abbey also freely provides some of Venerable Chodron’s books to those who visit the Abbey as well as to inmates and people in other countries.
Similarly, we do not charge people to stay at Sravasti Abbey.36 We trust that those who benefit will want to help support us with the necessities we need for living so that we can continue our spiritual practice and beneficial work. As monastics, we want our lives to be lives of giving, of sharing. In addition, we want to give people the opportunity to express their kindness and generosity. When visitors give to the sangha with hearts of generosity and compassion, they create great merit which is the cause for prosperity in both a worldly and Dharma sense.
When people experience the value of the Dharma and a place like the Abbey, their hearts rejoice and they want to put their funds where their values are. People want to reach out to others—to the monastics so that they can sustain their practice and to other lay followers so that they can come to the Abbey and receive its benefits. The monastics, in turn, dedicate their virtue for the benefit of all sentient beings and in particular to the benefactors whose kindness enables them to continue practicing. The names of those who have donated to the Abbey during each two-week period are read at a puja held twice a month.
The relationship between sangha and lay followers is one of mutual generosity (dana). When the Buddha established the sangha, he set up an interdependent relationship between the laity and the monastic community based on dana or generosity. Each party shares what it has with the other and both benefit. Sangha members have given up regular jobs and dedicate their time studying and practicing the Dharma, so they share the Dharma with the laity. The laity, in turn, shares their resources, particularly the four requisites of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, with the sangha. Both share meditation and practice with each other. At Sravasti Abbey, we continue this tradition.
The monastics at the Abbey eat food that is offered to them. We do not go to the store and purchase our own. Living in dependence upon the kindness of the others benefits our practice in many ways: we practice giving up attachment to foods that we prefer and developing contentment with what is offered; we become more aware of the kindness of sentient beings and gratitude develops in our hearts; we feel more responsible to keep our precepts well and to practice diligently as a way of repaying others’ kindness.
On the part of the laity, many benefits accrue from offering food to monastics: they accumulate merit from offering to the sangha; a deep connection is made between those who offer and those who receive; the sangha dedicates and prays daily for the well-being of its benefactors; and they are helping to spread the Dharma by supporting the sangha.
When people arrive at the Abbey with food, they put some of it in a large alms bowl.
They then say:
With a mind that takes delight in giving, I offer these requisites to the Sangha and the community. Through my offering, may they have the food they need to sustain their Dharma practice. They are genuine Dharma friends who encourage, support and inspire me along the path. May they become realized practitioners and skilled teachers who will guide us on the path. I rejoice at creating great merit by offering to those intent on virtue and dedicate this for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. Through my generosity, may we all have conducive circumstances to develop heartfelt love, compassion, and altruism for each other and to realize the ultimate nature of reality.
The sangha then responds:
Your generosity is inspiring and we are humbled by your faith in the Three Jewels. We will endeavor to keep our precepts as best as we can, to live simply, to cultivate equanimity, love, compassion, and joy, and to realize the ultimate nature so that we can repay your kindness in sustaining our lives. Although we are not perfect, we will do our best to be worthy of your offering. Together, we will create peace in a chaotic world.
This little ceremony is very moving, even for people who are new to Buddhism. Many times people have tears in their eyes while reciting these verses.37
Offering service through volunteer work
Offering our time, talents, and services to the Abbey and to those in need is also part of our practice of generosity. The monastics at the Abbey offer service to the sangha community by the various jobs we do at the Abbey each day. By seeing these tasks as a practice of offering service, instead of as work, we feel fulfilled at the end of the day. Not only do we see the direct result of our efforts, we also know we have created merit which is the cause for happiness. Before the period of offering service begins each day, monastics and lay guests recite the following verse to set their motivation:
We are grateful for the opportunity to offer service to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and to sentient beings. While working, differences in ideas, preferences, and ways of doing things from our companions may arise. These are natural and are a source of creative exchange; our minds don’t need to make them into conflicts. We will endeavor to listen deeply and communicate wisely and kindly as we work together for our common goal. By using our body and speech to support the values we deeply believe in—generosity, kindness, ethical discipline, love, and compassion—we will create great merit which we dedicate for the enlightenment of all beings.
People who offer service in the kitchen recite:
We are going to offer service by preparing a meal for the community of Dharma practitioners. How fortunate we are to have the opportunity to prepare and cook this food. The food will nourish their bodies and the love we put into preparing it will nourish their hearts.
Preparing food is an expression of our kind heart. When we chop, mix, and cook, we will work with mindfulness and a relaxed mind. We will leave aside idle talk, and speak with gentle and low voices. The menu will be simple and healthy, free from the distraction of elaborate and complicated menus.
We will wash the veggies and fruits well, thinking that we are cleansing defilements from the minds of sentient beings with the nectar of wisdom. Out of consideration for those who will clean up after the meal, we will tidy up after ourselves. Let’s take joy in working harmoniously together for the benefit of all!
Reliability and consideration for others
In our volunteer work, being reliable and considerate of others is an expression of our compassion. When we volunteer to do a task, we are committing ourselves to carry it through and bring it to fruition. Through this we cultivate joyous effort and build our self-confidence by completing what we set out to do. We can rejoice because we know our efforts directly benefit others. In addition, we show our care and affection for those we work with by doing our work well and completing it in a timely manner. Our volunteer work for the Abbey is compassion in action.
Living a monastic life together as a community is part of our practice of compassion, and at Sravasti Abbey, community life is very important.
Community life has its blessings and its challenges. We receive the support of like-minded people on the spiritual path. These Dharma friends understand our spiritual aspirations and encourage us to practice by practicing themselves. Together we create a peaceful atmosphere in which Dharma is lived and people are valued.
On the other hand, we may have different ideas, preferences, and ways of doing things. By living in community, we learn to give and take. Our buttons will get pushed just by the fact that we live with others and cannot do everything the way we like. We have to give up some of our preferences for the larger group to function smoothly. We may have to soften some of our opinions and ways of expressing them to live harmoniously with others. Some people may have habits that annoy us; we must learn to cultivate tolerance and compassion for them.
Living in community makes it difficult to continue the habit of blaming others for our unhappiness. We must take responsibility for our emotions, learn to work with them skillfully, and learn to express them to others kindly and honestly. In the process of doing so, we develop “transparency,” the ability to admit our mistakes and weaknesses without feeling ashamed or guilty. We develop confidence by working through problems. We cultivate compassion for ourselves and for others.
Mindfulness entails being aware of our precepts, values, and practices and living according to them as much as we can. For example, by being mindful of our precepts, we are attentive to act according to them. Being mindful of love and compassion, we bring those attitudes into whatever situation we are in and with whomever we have contact. Being mindful of emptiness, we contemplate during our daily life interactions that we, the action we are doing, and the people and things around us are all empty of true existence, but exist on the conventional level as appearances.
To be mindful, we must slow down and be more attentive to what we are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing. We also want to cultivate mindfulness of and sensitivity to others’ needs.
Participating in community life is part of our cultivation of mindfulness and compassion. Because we care about others, we practice offering service with joy, without simply rushing through it at the last minute to get it done.
Our mindfulness and compassion are expressed by following the daily schedule and knowing that others value our energy and participation. We become mindful of how we walk and move, how we open and close doors. Mindfulness and compassion motivate us to clean up after ourselves, because we care about the people with whom we share the environment.
Speech is another area where mindfulness and compassion are important. We practice being mindful of our intention to speak truthfully, kindly, harmoniously, and at appropriate times.
Practicing mindfulness and compassion in our daily interactions at the Abbey prevents bodhicitta meditation from becoming abstract. Without too much distress, we may visualize giving our possessions, and merit to all infinite sentient beings. But caring about the few people around us when that entails giving up some of our own habits and wishes challenges our self-centered attitude much more. Because community life provides these opportunities, it enhances our mindfulness and compassion and strengthens our Dharma practice in a way that living alone cannot.
Ahimsa, or non-harmfulness, is an essential Buddhist virtue. We practice it by not harming each other or any living being physically, verbally (through unkind speech) or mentally (through malicious thought, holding grudges, or retaliating). This entails developing our capacity to listen to each other with compassion and to communicate kindly. This is the heart of practicing the Dharma with the people we live with in community.
We also are vegetarian. Hunting is not permitted on our land. Our forest management program protects the environment and the animals living there, so that all can live peacefully and in safety.
We recycle and re-use items to protect future generations from environmental pollution and misuse of resources. We conserve water and fuel. This is an expression of compassion for future generations and for the wildlife with whom we share the land.
Gratitude and respect
Cultivating gratitude for the goodness around us and respect for others’ excellent qualities opens our hearts so we can progress on the path. Gratitude is cultivated by reflecting on the kindness of the Three Jewels, our spiritual mentors, Dharma companions, parents, and all sentient beings. This naturally gives rise to a sense of appreciation for having them in our lives and a wish to repay their kindness. Respect is developed by training ourselves to recognize others’ good qualities. This not only frees us from the judgmental, critical mind, but also inspires us to cultivate those same good qualities in ourselves. Meditation on these two topics—the kindness and benefit we have received from the Three Jewels and sentient beings, and their good qualities—is part of the basic monastic training at the Abbey.
Appreciation and respect for others is shown through our behavior. We bow to the Three Jewels when entering the meditation hall. Each morning and evening in the meditation hall, we stand in a circle and do a half-bow to other members of the community.
Humility and willingness to accept instruction
Just as grass doesn’t grow on the top of a mountain but in the fertile valley below, Dharma realizations grow not in the mind of an arrogant person but in the minds of those who are humble and willing to accept instruction. We can learn a lot from our companions on the path by training our minds to accept feedback gracefully. When our teachers or other monastics remind us to be mindful of our actions, we practice listening and take in their comments with an open mind. When our mind tightens and we become defensive, we practice noticing this and remembering that others’ comments are offered with care for our well-being and are meant to help us. We remember that the goal of Dharma practice is not to make our self-centered mind comfortable or to give our ego everything it desires. If someone is upset when they give us feedback, we remember that they are expressing their suffering and give them space.
When giving feedback to others, we first check our own minds to make sure we are speaking with kindness. When another’s behavior disturbs us, it is often helpful to wait a day to comment on it. That gives time for our mind to settle and for us to clarify our motivation. People may also choose to wait and comment on it during a community meeting.
Rejoicing in our own and others’ talents, knowledge, abilities, good opportunities, and merit is essential for having a happy mind. Through it we also create great merit which enhances our practice. Needless to say, those around us benefit when we directly express to them our joy in seeing their good qualities and actions. This is a practice we try to cultivate in our daily interactions.
Many challenges and wonderful opportunities await this first generation of sangha in the West. We rely on the wisdom of our traditions and elders and think creatively about how to apply them in a new culture and historical time. Sangha education must be holistic and deal with all parts of each person. Thus study, reflection and discussion, meditation, community life, helping society, and cultivating mindfulness of our core values in our daily lives are all part of sangha education.
Some of the questions that I am contemplating in the process of establishing and growing Sravasti Abbey are: How do we teach Buddhist philosophical topics in a way that immediately relates to the students’ Dharma practice? How do we monastics live in a balanced way, serving others while having enough time and energy for our own study and practice? What are the advantages and disadvantages of small or large monasteries? How can we grow a monastic community and educate monastics without monasteries becoming so institutionalized that there is a “one size fits all” way of training? How can monastics be educated in the modern day in such a way that the preciousness and benefits of the traditional guru-disciple relationship are preserved?
See Sakyadhita for more information about international Buddhist women’s activities ↩
saranaloka at yahoogroups dot com ↩
I don’t know the exact number of Western women who have become bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka. My guess is around ten. See the Alliance for Bhikkhunis’ website Alliance for Bhikkhunis for more information about Theravada bhikkhunis worldwide. ↩
For more information on bhikshuni in general and especially in the Tibetan community, see here ↩
For example, there is a group of Western nuns living at Lerab Ling in France, who are students of Sogyal Rinpoche. ↩
This booklet is available at Thubten Chodron — Ordination ↩
The International Mahayana Institute supports some monastic members of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition to do retreat, etc. ↩
Most, but not all, places that sponsor a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama do not charge sangha fees to attend the teachings. However, the monastics must still pay their travel expenses as well as hotel and food costs. Unlike in Asia, in the West there are not huge Buddhist temples that can house many monastics during a large teaching. ↩
For nuns, there is Chenresig Nuns Community in Australia (Chenresig Australia). ↩
Rhys Davids, T. W. and Herman Oldenberg, trans. Vinaya Texts. Pts. 1-3. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1990, and Theravada Bhikkhuni Vinaya. Vol. 3 of Vinaya Pitaka. Pali Text Society. ↩
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Monastic Ethics for Women. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. ↩
Tegchok, Geshe. Monastic Rites. London: Wisdom Publications, 1985 ↩
Wu Yin, Bhikshuni. Choosing Simplicity: A Commentary on the Bhikshuni Pratimoksha. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2001. ↩
For example at Chenresig Institute in Australia or Istituto Lama Tsongkhapa in Italy, as well as various shedras (learning institutes). ↩
This is according to the Gelug tradition. The length of the program, the number of texts studied for each of the five topics, and the degree received differ somewhat in the Nyingma, Sakya, and Kargyu traditions. ↩
Western monks may study at Tibetan monasteries such as Sera, Gaden, and Drepung and some do. Nuns are not permitted to study in these monasteries. ↩
As far as I know, Sravasti Abbey is the only place in the West where women receive the siksamana training. ↩
We have found that we need to ask for a deposit, however, in order to prevent last-minute cancellations that deny other people the possibility of filling the empty place. Also, for long retreats, we ask that the participants help to gather some dana that will cover the costs of the program. ↩
This and all other verses mentioned in the paper were written by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron ↩
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.