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Where is your sky?

Where is your sky?

A monk standing on a big rock looking at the sun and the sea.
Where is your sky? What space can you move in and grow into? In space, there are no limits. There is no brick wall in the sky that stops us. (Photo by Hartwig HKD)

On June 2, 2009, after the 2009 International Conference for Buddhist Sangha Education in Taipei, Taiwan, Luminary Temple offered a two-day temple tour to the presenters. One of the stops was Luminary Temple in Chia-I County, Taiwan, where the resident nuns and the foreign nuns gathered to learn from each other. After talks by two of the foreign nuns, Venerable Bhikshuni Master Wu Yin addressed all in a question-and-answer session.

Venerable Jampa Tsedroen: I would be very interested to learn more about your study program here in the Institute. How many years do the nuns spend studying? Does everyone study the same topics or is there a choice of classes? What is the content of the studies and the training?

Venerable Master Wu Yin: In the past it took five years to complete the education at our Institute, but we have now shortened it to four years. But if you really want to know the difficulties and challenges we face in educating the new nuns, I will tell you. All the students have a college education, but when they come to the temple and ordain, they have to clean the floor and do all the chores necessary to keep the monastery functioning. There’s no space for bargaining, everyone has to join in and help to do the hard work.

Everyone must go through this training. From one perspective, you may think, “This is a waste of talent! These nuns are well educated and could be doing so many important things.” But now we are talking about spiritual practice, the inner development of an individual so that she will have love, compassion, humility, and the wish to benefit others. As sangha, you came here for spiritual practice. From one viewpoint, you have a college degree and you may have been a teacher or professional before joining the sangha. So you may wonder what I can teach you. How can I teach you what you need to know to be successful as a monastic? I do not know what is inside your mind. I just do the way I do. This is how I learned, this is how I grow, and this is how you will grow too.

Venerable Thubten Chodron: How do you practice patience when your disciples don’t act properly?

Venerable Master Wu Yin: When they come to the temple, they already have a certain level of discipline. Everyone wants to grow and progress. The issue is how to do it. So I make a figure of two lines that intersect. One line represents time, the other represents space. This describes our inner mental transformation.

When the senior Korean bhikshuni Venerable Bongak spoke, she addressed how to strengthen our determination in order to continue our practice. She went through many difficulties in her life and used them to strengthen her determination on the path. Since her relatives put her in a temple when she was a child and she grew up there, she did not need a lot of training about how to behave in a temple. As an adult, she already knew the procedures, details, and the reasons behind monastics’ activities. We heard from Venerable Norzom that those of you in the Tibetan tradition spend many years learning the Dharma and debating and discussing it. In both cases we see nuns transforming their minds.

To be effective nuns, to benefit from our practice, and to be beneficial in teaching others, we have to expand our knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings. We must expand our internal knowledge; that is, to learn about our own mind, to analyze ourselves. In our academic study, we learn each topic and explore it deeply. In our practice, we integrate it with our minds.

Many years ago no one in Taiwan society talked about bhikshunis’ history or their education. Even though the nuns themselves were very devoted, they didn’t discuss or plan their education very much. One of the major contributions of this conference, the 2009 International Sangha Education Conference, is that we bhikshunis examined our past and began to plan for our own education in the future.

We are a bhikshuni sangha. [Writing on chalkboard] The first word is “bhikshuni,” the second is “sangha.” The third word is “sky.” The bhikshuni’s sky. Where is your sky? What space can you move in and grow into? In space, there are no limits. There is no brick wall in the sky that stops us. Part of our exploration as a practitioner is to ask, “What hinders me?” So I ask you, “What hinders you? Who hinders you? What is it that interferes with your mind expanding in space?”

We all live in society and are surrounded by other people who have their beliefs and ideas. We were born into our parent’s family, which is a type of society. We are educated in school, which is another society, and later our workplace is a society. We learn how to behave in these societies. We learn certain limits and rules. But there is still space. You have space. You have your own sky. How do you break out of unnecessary restrictions and raise your head? How are you going about finding your sky?

I’d like to tell you a story that I also told in 1996 when I went to Bodhgaya, India, for the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun Conference. Sometimes monks criticize women, saying they are dirty because they have menstruation and give birth. Many nuns work on the operational level, taking care of the temple, organizing events, preparing for ceremonies. Sometimes the nuns engage in decorating the temple and arranging the altar prior to a large ceremony. In doing that we may have to climb up high to clean, to hang decorations, or to set up offerings. Many nuns hesitate to do this when they have their period. They think they are dirty and are not allowed to be near the altar at that time. I wonder: do you have this problem?

In the past, the nuns who had their period would ask monks and laymen to do this work, excusing themselves by saying, “I have a stomachache.” The monks and laymen would help the nuns for awhile, until they eventually figured out what was going on. Then the next time a nun would say “Oh, could you do this? Please climb here, and while you’re at it, also climb over there,” the monk would say, “Sorry, I also have a stomachache.”

So I always say, “Each of us has to know how to operate at a practical level. We need to know how to do things and be confident in doing them.” My teacher Venerable Tien Yi often said to me, “Nuns have to know how to do everything! You need to drive, you need to teach Dharma, you need to teach meditation, you need to write official documents.”

So in addition to learning the Dharma and progressing in our inner transformation, we must learn how to handle practical concerns as well.

When I send my disciples overseas to study, the main purpose is not for them to obtain doctorate degrees. I want my disciples to live in a different culture without being frightened. I want them to learn to survive and thrive in different situations. As Venerable Chodron said in her talk, “We cannot expect that things will always turn out the way we want them to. We cannot expect that we will receive everything we like or that what we want will happen.” So although we may explore the entire Tripitaka in the library, read many sutras, the vinaya, and the commentaries, we still have to return to ask ourselves, “Where am I?”

So I ask you, “Where are you?”

In the picture of the two intersecting lines of time and space, you are at the point they meet. But both of these lines are in motion, sometimes moving left, sometimes right, sometimes up, sometimes down. So the question is, “Do I have a choice?”

Because we are still breathing, all of us here are fortunate to have this precious human body. You still have the monastic mind of renunciation in you. The fact we are still alive means our monastic mind or our renunciation still sustains us; it is still with us. To whom will you complain, “I don’t like this.” To whom can you say this?

I want you know that being a nun is a lifelong journey, it’s an education for an entire lifetime. Not only are the nuns busy learning, so are the lay women here, who are sometimes even busier than us. Is that true?

Do you need to practice? All nuns need to practice. When you move from the East to the West, do you need to practice?

The point where the two lines of time and space cross is the point where we keep ourselves balanced. You need to find a way to express yourself, and also you need to learn how to adapt yourself to each new situation.

Regardless of whether you are in the Chinese tradition, Theravada tradition, or Tibetan tradition, regardless of whether you are from Malaysia, Thailand, or elsewhere, when you evaluate your mind, an external situation, or whatever, sometimes you use the Tripitaka—the Buddha’s word—to find the answers you seek. Thus today in Taiwan you see bhikshunis who can stand up and speak up. This is not a new phenomenon: it can be traced back to the Buddha’s time.

I believe you must feel very confused about what I’m saying.

I often make a comparison between Buddhist monks and nuns and Catholic nuns and priests. In Catholicism, all the power is in the men’s hands. The nuns are not allowed to perform Mass; they cannot listen to people’s confession or conduct many of the Catholic rituals. But we Buddhist nuns are able to give refuge and precepts to people. When people die, we perform rituals in which we sprinkle the water of compassion and pray for them. Although you may feel your practice is not good enough to do these things, that is something you need to work on.

I went to many countries to visit Catholic churches and talk with priests and sisters. Although the words in the Bible are fixed and cannot be altered, its message can be repeatedly reinterpreted. In future monastic education conferences, I think it’s important for us to do a comparative study on religious education in different religions. In addition, we should explore various topics from a Buddhist perspective. We still need further studies on such subjects as Buddhist chanting, Buddhist music, and Buddhist art. Once people under stand Buddhism better in all its richness, then there’s the possibility for Buddhism to spread more widely.

Is it necessary to finish nearly 20 years of study before starting to serve the community and the broader society? I don’t think so. We should be able to know and express well our unique talents and good qualities. To do this, we need to strengthen our abilities: our speaking ability, writing ability, listening and reading abilities. We need to increase these abilities as they relate to study of the Tripitaka, and we need to use these abilities to study ourselves—our practice, our devotion, and our history. Regarding devotion and faith, there is no so-called “standard version” that we have to comply with. Examining our ordinary experiences can also be meaningful in discovering our unique abilities.

Every time I read Venerable Chodron’s books on how to practice, in the back of my mind I use the four characteristics found in the Buddha’s teachings—impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, emptiness, selflessness—to verify that what she says is in accord with Buddha’s teaching. I pay more attention to “What is she telling me now?” I’m quite impressed. In her books you can see the detailed analysis of one’s mind. That is unique.

The Buddha allows us to use our language to explore and express Buddhism. In terms of the ultimate purpose of learning Buddhism, there is the path to individual liberation and a path to Buddhahood. When we practice, we don’t impose whatever is in the Tripitaka on ourselves. Rather we use it to know ourselves better. The purpose of reading the scriptures and writing them is to know ourselves. This self-knowledge is like a bridge that links us to others and links us to the Tripitaka.

Catholic nuns are not allowed to conduct all their religion’s ceremonies and teachings, but we Buddhists nuns have no such restrictions. We can teach. We can also conduct rituals and chant during Dharma events, although senior Chinese practitioners of the past often warned us that ritual performances and chanting are not the real practice of Dharma.

Think about this; it will help us discover where we are in our journey to individual liberation and enlightenment. It will help us learn where we are in terms of how our communities function. This helps us to see where we are in the bigger picture.

Both of the bhikshunis who just spoke talked about our need to transform ourselves inside, to make profound changes insides of ourselves. I wonder: How do you start doing that? I give the same message to my students and encourage them to transform themselves from the inside. What does it mean to transform ourselves from inside? While internal transformation applies to all of us, how each of us goes about it will differ, depending on our education, training, spiritual aspirations, and many other factors.

We must also continue our bodhisattva activities, so inevitably we all have problems and we all have challenges. That’s true, isn’t it? Everyone has challenges. We have a story in Chinese about a person who had a huge mountain in front of his house. This mountain blocked his ability to reach the road. The only way to get there was to climb over the mountain. With great determination to reach the road, he sought a more effective way to do it, and so he moved the mountain. Here we see both determination and the means to actualize his aim were needed. Similarly, we bhikshunis need both of these to deal with the huge mountain of challenges and difficulties in front of us.

Nowadays we are able to have a lot of exchange with others. We observe how others do things, what works, and what doesn’t work. This helps us a lot, and through it we learn how to deal with our own challenges.

How do you deal with the challenges? You need inner strength, inner transformation, and inner development that enable you to confront and overcome it. There’s no way we can gain this inner strength and inner transformation by just taking some courses in school. If we could, then our problem would be solved. But there is no way we can solve our problems by going to a library and looking up a lot of data. Our problems aren’t Easterner’s problems or Westerner’s problems: they are universal. Since we are human beings we have the challenge, as well as the ability and talent to confront problems. In terms of removing the mountain of problems we face, technology and practical skills can be employed to help remove part of it, and education can be used to remove another part of it. Whatever approach you use, the fundamental thing is to handle the challenges without giving up. That is where your inner training comes in.

When we were born, we were born into our parents’ family. Were you ever satisfied with your parents? Are you satisfied with them now? Some of you say “yes,” and that’s wonderful. However, even if you are satisfied with your parents and your family, it will not solve all of your problems. The same thing happens when you join the sangha or go to a Buddhist institute to study. You will never be satisfied. Wherever you are, the people around you will come from different backgrounds. Having different backgrounds makes things so complicated. In the past we spoke of “ten directions,” but I would say we have eleven directions, that’s how complicated our problem is.

I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Yes, my personal practice is quite good, but the moment I’m in a community setting, my practice gets all messed up. All sorts of difficulties arise.” Do you understand what I’m talking about?

Spiritual practice is a lifetime’s journey. Actually it is not only one lifetime, but a journey of many lifetimes. So discovering your sky includes understanding, “How do I open myself up to accept the people around me?” There is no standard answer for that, and no one can answer that question for you. If, while working on this, you find the resources for your inner development, I congratulate you. Sometimes you may find the resources within the community, sometimes outside the community, sometimes in your own sky. But you need to find them.

Do we have growing pains? In terms of growing pains, let me be honest with you. I have to meet a lot of challenges given to me by the nun who was the chief organizer of the conference. Although theoretically and intellectually we can communicate, we have difficulty on the practical or technical level.

When you join the sangha and adopt this costume and the monastic form, you need to use this form to continue your education and to continue learning. There are two dimensions to learning and transforming ourselves. One is a technical or practical aspect, and the other is a theoretical or intellectual aspect. We need to understand that everyone is different. Some people are stronger in the theoretical aspect, which involves ideas and explanations. They may have many good ideas but are weak in terms of actualizing their ideas on the practical level. The opposite is true for other people. We each have our own talents, and each of us is imbalanced in a certain way. I am stronger in the practical side so when working with the nun who is the chief organizer of the conference, who is excellent in theory, I have to deal with my discomfort with theory and try to understand her viewpoint. Similarly, she has to learn not only to have creative ideas but to implement them effectively.

So one of our challenges is: how we continue learning while our situation is imbalanced? Yes, we need to pay attention and learn vinaya, and we also need to learn Buddhist philosophy. As you know, there are so many things we need to know and to learn. It’s very good to examine ourselves and review our own learning.

We all need to know the characteristics of women, the strength of women, and also the vinaya restrictions for nuns. When teaching vinaya, I explain the restrictions for bhikshunis, which includes our precepts. As bhikshunis, we do as the Buddha required of us. But many activities, such as organizing ourselves to improve our education and practice, are not prohibited, and therefore we are free to engage in these. Although some conservative monks may discourage women from having access to ordination, education, and decision-making power, the Buddha did not prohibit these and we have the power and responsibility to act upon them. Both bhikshunis and lay women have to know their strengths. Our particular strengths as women are patience, cooperation, and caring, but that doesn’t mean we completely lack other abilities. We can and should develop all our capabilities.

Catholic nuns tell me there is one priest in charge of many churches or many districts. Who takes care of all the lay people? The nuns do. Since one father is in charge of many churches, who actually looks after the congregations? Those who are in close contact with the congregation are the nuns.

In Catholicism priests and nuns do not live together. However a lot of operational power is in the hands of the nuns, although the priests will not give the power of church over to them. Similarly, I don’t think Tibetan monks will give equal power to you Tibetan nuns.

Remember: Where is your sky? Where is your sky? There’s nothing in the sky.

I wish you good health. Make sure you make yourself healthy. When you are healthy you have the patience to learn well, and you also have the patience to accept yourself. Those are very important.

The next time I see all of you I will be older than I am today. But I will be very happy to see you. Thank you so much. Amitofo.

Facilitator: Phenomena and the world are impermanent. Remember this chart, the time, and where you are in this. We thank you so much, Venerable Wu Yin, for your kind words.

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.