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Western Buddhist nuns in the Tibetan tradition

Past, present, and future

A paper presented at the 2022 International Conference on “Buddhist Nuns’ Saṅgha Around the World: Present and Future,” Hanmaum Seonwon, Seoul, Korea.

Recently, I was a guest speaker in a religious studies class at Smith College in the USA. One student raised her hand and asked, “What’s it like being a Buddhist nun?” I enthusiastically replied, “It’s wonderful! I have so much freedom to think about new ideas, observe how my mind works, and cultivate good qualities. This type of life isn’t for everyone, but it’s great for me.”

Although we didn’t have time for further discussion, she surely wanted to know about the challenges and the benefits of monastic life, as well as the circumstances of Western1 Buddhist nuns. To speak about the present and future of Western Buddhist nuns in the Tibetan tradition, we must first delve into the past to understand the causes and conditions that have shaped the current situation and how it might evolve in the future. I will thus begin with a brief account of how I became part of the first generation of Western women to ordain in Tibetan Buddhism, followed by a historical sketch of the nuns’ order in Tibet. After looking at some of the historical and cultural forces that have produced the unique situation of Western Buddhist nuns in the Tibetan tradition, I will explore some of the adaptations and movements that have emerged to address them. I conclude with the case study of Sravasti Abbey, the monastery where I live, and our community’s joyful efforts to root the Dharma and Vinaya in the West.

Western Hippies Meet Tibetan Refugees

Born in 1950, I was interested in religion as a child but none of the theistic religions made sense to me. After graduating from UCLA, I traveled in Europe and Asia, and then went to graduate school in Education. In 1975, when I attended a meditation course near Los Angeles led by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche,2 the Dharma touched my heart. I left my teaching job and went to Kopan Monastery in Nepal to continue studying with them. In 1977, I received śrāmaṇeri (novice) ordination from His Holiness (HH) the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s senior tutor, Yongzin Ling Rinpoche. Because bhikṣuṇī ordination was not given in Tibetan Buddhism, I went to Taiwan in 1986 and received it there.

In 1959, after an abortive uprising against communist Chinese control, tens of thousands of Tibetans became refugees in India. Thus began the unprecedented meeting and surprising relationships between Western spiritual seekers and Tibetan Buddhist masters. Our Tibetan teachers were impoverished refugees, struggling to reestablish their monasteries while longing for Tibetan freedom. Having experienced tremendous hardship, they remained kind, compassionate, and optimistic—a testament to the strength of their Dharma practice. When asked about becoming a refugee, Lama Yeshe put his palms together and said, “I must thank Mao Zedong for teaching me the true meaning of Dharma practice by forcing me to become a refugee. Only by experiencing the suffering of leaving everything I once knew did I understand the four noble truths and learn the benefits of cultivating compassion and bodhicitta.”

For Western social activists and hippies looking for peace and love, Tibetan lamas embodied the answers we were seeking. We were inspired to ordain because we wanted to become like our teachers, who were living examples of the good qualities we admired. We aspired to engage in intensive study and meditation and become enlightened in this lifetime. While we were like sponges thirsty for the Dharma, we knew very little about what Buddhist monasticism entailed and the centuries-old Tibetan monastic institution we were entering.

Buddhist Nuns in Tibet

Buddhism first entered Tibet in the seventh century and took root in the eighth century when the king invited Śāntarakṣita, abbot of Nālandā Monastery in India, to teach in Tibet. The king also sponsored the building of Samye Monastery, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. At Samye, Śāntarakṣita ordained the first seven Tibetan monks in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya.3

A nuns’ order was also established at this time. The first Tibetan nun was a wife of the king. Thirty noblewomen ordained with her, but it is not clear what level of ordination they received.4 Most Tibetan scholars maintain that a bhikṣuṇī lineage was never established in Tibet as there is no evidence of Indian or Chinese bhikṣuṇīs making the journey to confer it. Nowadays, nuns in the Tibetan tradition receive śrāmaṇeri ordination from Tibetan bhikṣus. Subordinate to monks in terms of ordination status, most Tibetan nunneries are headed by an abbot and receive teachings from monk-scholars.5 This situation began to change in the late 1980s under the direction of HH the Dalai Lama.

Compared to Tibetan monastic universities, which were huge complexes housing tens of thousands of monks, nunneries in traditional Tibet were small and the nuns mostly performed rituals and meditated.6

After the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Buddhist institutions were destroyed and monastics were forced to disrobe, work, and marry. Many Tibetan nuns braved the journey from Tibet to India on foot, enduring great difficulties to establish new nunneries and reestablish old ones in exile. Buddhist nuns from the Himalayan areas have also started nunneries, some with the support of Western nuns. Some nuns live in the remote mountainous areas of India and continue to live with their families and work as household helpers.

Pioneering Western Nuns

The first Western nun in the Tibetan tradition, Venerable Kechog Palmo (née Freda Bedi) from Britain married an Indian and lived in India, where Prime Minister Nehru requested her to help Tibetan refugees. She founded the first Tibetan nunnery in exile, the Tilokpur Nunnery, and established a school for incarnate lamas. It was there that many young lamas learned English.

Freda received novice ordination from the sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa in 1966 and received full ordination in Hong Kong in 1972, becoming the first bhikṣuṇī in the Tibetan tradition in the modern era. She taught the Dharma and later became the Karmapa’s secretary and translator.7

Venerable Ngawang Chodron (née Marilyn Silverstone) was an American photojournalist who ordained in 1977 and helped to finance the building of Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery, founded by her teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Nepal.8

My teachers Lama Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche established Kopan Monastery in Nepal to ordain and educate Nepali monks. Their first Western student, Zina Rachevsky convinced them to teach Westerners and together with her friend Max Matthews, they financed Kopan in the early days.9 Both Zina and Max ordained. These first Western nuns worked hard to support their Tibetan teachers in establishing monasteries for Tibetan and Himalayan monks, since this was the primary and urgent focus of monastic refugees.

The First Western Monasteries in the Tibetan Tradition

Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings inspired many young Westerners to become monastics. Initially, Westerns nuns and monks lived at Kopan. We studied and meditated together but lived in different quarters. When we had difficulty obtaining long-term Nepali visas, we traversed India in the pre-monsoon heat to live in mud-brick buildings known as “Ingie Gompa” in Dharamsala, India. What we lacked in comfort, we made up for in joy and enthusiasm for the Dharma.

Westerners requested the lamas to establish Dharma centers in the West, which they did under an umbrella organization, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahāyāna Tradition (FPMT). As more centers were established in the West, Lama Yeshe asked learned Tibetan geshes10 to teach there. Western monastics were also sent to the Dharma centers to study, lead meditations, and help run the centers, which chiefly served lay followers. The saṅgha who worked there as directors, program coordinators, and so on received room, board, and a small stipend. They received a good Dharma education, but little training in the Vinaya.

The first monastery for Western saṅgha in the FPMT began with the purchase of an old farmhouse in France in 1981. Initially meant for nuns, the farmhouse was given to Western monks and named Nalanda Monastery.11 The nuns, of which I was one, lived in the horse stables next to Institut Vajra Yogini, the nearby Dharma center. There, we established a nuns’ community, Dorje Pamo Monastery.12 We worked for Institut Vajra Yogini in exchange for room and board and attended Dharma teachings with the monks at Nalanda Monastery.

I loved living in a nuns’ community, but aspects of our organizational structure were challenging. We followed Tibetan culture in that our decision-making process depended predominantly on our Tibetan teachers who told us where to live, what to study, and what to do. Ordination was in the hands of our Tibetan teachers, and we had to accept everyone they ordained into our community, which presented problems when they ordained people with mental health issues.

Dorje Pamo monastery declined in 1987 after almost all the nuns were sent to India to receive teachings or to serve in Dharma centers worldwide. Still, the experience of living in a nuns’ community left a deep and wonderful impression on me. In recent years, Dorje Pamo monastery has been revived.13 A geshe now teaches there, and the nuns also study at nearby Nalanda Monastery.

Early on, neither Tibetan nor Western nuns could engage in the rigorous, traditional philosophical studies taught at the large monasteries in South India, which were only for men. Western monks at Tharpa Choeling in Switzerland had a philosophical study program for monks. The monastery, which was founded by Geshe Rabten and sponsored by another nun, Anne Ansermet,14 was like a Tibetan monastery. The Western monks became fluent in Tibetan and did the traditional Tibetan philosophical study program. After Geshe Rabten passed away, however, most of the Western monks returned to lay life. It seems that replicating the life and study program of traditional Tibetan monasteries did not fully meet their spiritual needs.

Other early Tibetan Buddhist monasteries established for Westerners are Kagyu Samye Ling in Scotland15 and Gampo Abbey in Canada. Westerners may ordain temporarily or for life at both monasteries, which are guided by Tibetan abbots.16

Challenges Faced by Western Monastics

Unlike Westerners who ordained in Theravāda or Chinese Buddhism, those who joined the Tibetan Buddhist saṅgha did so in a unique situation. As refugees, Tibetan teachers were not in a position to provide material support to Western monastic disciples. They assumed that Westerners had resources to support themselves and help Tibetans as well. However, most of us were young and lacked plentiful savings. Our families were not Buddhist and did not understand our decision to ordain. When we walked on city streets in the West, people called out “Hare Krishna” and didn’t know what to make of women with shaved heads and men wearing skirts.

The Buddha said that if his disciples practice the Dharma sincerely, they will not go hungry, so I resolved not to work at a job. I lived frugally in India, but at times being poor was difficult. Looking back, I value that time immensely. It taught me to trust the Three Jewels and to persevere in my practice. It also made me appreciate the kindness of others who helped me. Lay people work hard at their jobs and offer to the saṅgha from the kindness of their hearts. The saṅgha has the responsibility to be worthy of their offerings by practicing, studying, and sharing the Dharma and engaging in projects to benefit society.

Unfortunately, gender inequality in traditional Tibetan monasteries has been replicated in centers and monastic institutions in the West. As in Asia, monks receive more donations than nuns, in part because the nuns are only śrāmaṇeris while the monks are fully-ordained bhikṣus. Monks sometimes tell nuns to pray to be reborn male. Since Tibetan monastic culture has been like this for centuries, they do not notice gender inequality.

Many Western monastics fell ill living in India and Nepal, and visa restrictions were another obstacle to continuing our Buddhist studies and practice in Asia. We had to regularly travel between India, Nepal, and other countries to renew our visas.

Most of us were sent to work in Dharma centers. There were hardly any monasteries where Westerners could live, and those that existed required Western monastics to pay. Some monastics had to get an outside job to earn money to live at the monastery. Some lay people gave donations, but since the Tibetans were refugees, they usually chose to donate to Tibetan teachers and their monasteries. Even now, many Western monastics must pay to live at monasteries in the West.

Language was another challenge as Western Buddhist monastics did not understand Tibetan, and early on there were few courses teaching it. We relied on the limited Dharma publications in Western languages. Our Tibetan teachers generally used translators, while some kindly tried to learn English. With the advent of Buddhist publishing companies and good translators, this situation has greatly improved.

Returning to live in the West as a Buddhist monastic presented its own challenges. Dharma centers were designed mostly for lay followers. Living together with lay people is not conducive to keeping precepts or getting a firm grounding in monastic life. Monastics who worked at jobs in a city grew their hair, wore lay clothes, and lived alone. This situation is hardly conducive for keeping precepts or having a robust meditation practice.

Although joining together with other Western monastics to live in monasteries would help overcome many of the challenges facing Western monastics, many monastics are unwilling to give up the independence that living alone provides. Others like the more relaxed rules at Dharma centers. Personally speaking, I have experienced much benefit from living with well-trained monastics in a monastery with guidelines that everyone follows. There are fewer distractions to studying, practicing, and benefiting others. Lay followers notice this and want to support us.

Monastics benefit themselves and society by living together. Monastic communities act as the conscience of society. We teach by example how to protect the environment. Our simple lifestyle demonstrates that it is possible to live happily without many material possessions. We develop the inner beauty that comes from pacifying the kleśas rather than the external beauty that vanishes with age. Society sees through our example that inner development and peace are more important than external wealth and power.

Buddhist Conferences and Monastic Gatherings

Buddhist conferences and monastic gatherings provide support to Western monastics and help to clarify our role in society. In 1993, HH the Dalai Lama held a conference with Western Buddhist teachers from the Tibetan, Zen, and Theravāda traditions. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo gave a heartfelt presentation about the situation of Western monastics, describing how Westerners enter monastic life with pure faith but little preparation and become discouraged by the lack of support. At the end of her presentation, HH the Dalai Lama wept.

In the discussion that followed, His Holiness told us not to wait for our Tibetan teachers, but to take the lead and start our own monasteries and training programs. This was a huge turning point for me that gave me the confidence to try some of my ideas.

In 1987, the first International Conference on Buddhist Women in Bodhgaya was held. Prior to the conference, ten bhikṣuṇīs from various Buddhist countries recited the bhikṣuṇī pratimoksha together, marking the first bhikṣuṇī poṣadha in India in over a millennium. This conference was the beginning of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, which facilitates friendships among Buddhist women and opens new possibilities for education through biennial international conferences and publications.17)

In 1993, the first Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering was held in the USA. Monastics from multiple Buddhist traditions attend these annual week-long gatherings. We form strong friendships, discuss topics of mutual interest, learn about one another’s practices, and support each other in monastic life.18

In 1996, “Life as a Western Buddhist Nun,” a three-week training program for nuns in Bodhgaya was held. Western and Tibetan nuns studied the Vinaya with Venerable Bhikṣuṇī Master Wuyin, abbess of the Luminary International Buddhist Society in Taiwan, and Geshe Thubten Ngawang, teacher from the Tibetan Center in Hamburg, Germany among others. Teachings from the program were published.19

Through these modern networks, Western Buddhist nuns have challenged traditional sectarian allegiances, as well as centuries-old limitations due to gender, race, and class. Where women were marginalized in traditional Buddhist institutions, we now have a voice.

Growth in Opportunities for Buddhist Study and Meditation

Over the years, progress has been made in nuns’ access to education and training. Compared to when I ordained, there are now more options and sometimes funding to support Western nuns’ training, advanced Buddhist studies, and long retreat.

There is now a two-week pre-ordination course held annually in Dharamsala. All Westerners who will receive ordination from HH the Dalai Lama are required to attend and to live at a monastery or with their teacher after ordination.20

Thosamling Nunnery and Institute, founded in 2000, is a non-sectarian nunnery for non-Himalayan nuns and laywomen. It offers a Tibetan language program and classes in Buddhist philosophy.21

Some Western nuns studied Buddhism at universities and become faculty in Religious Studies departments at academic institutions. Their work brings public attention to and advances research on issues related to Buddhist nuns.

Western nuns who are fluent in Tibetan can enroll in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist philosophy study program offered by the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics (IBD) in Dharamsala. A few join Tibetan nunneries in India that now offer advanced Buddhist study programs leading to the geshe degree.

Most Western monastics prefer to receive teachings from lamas in their native language and study with Dharma practitioners in a spiritual setting. New learning structures have evolved to meet their needs including FPMT’s three-year Basic Program and six-year Master’s Program.22 Western-style Buddhist universities founded by Tibetan masters are another option. Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Nepal,23 Maitripa College24 and Naropa University in USA are examples.25

Dharma centers also have education programs that are oriented to study and meditation practice. The monastics who attend these want to learn the Dharma and apply it to their lives and prefer to learn from practitioners rather than academics.

The Tsadra Foundation awards grants for translation projects, education, and long retreats.26 The Alliance of Non-Himalayan Nuns raises awareness about non-Himalayan nuns and provides a platform for them to share resources and receive financial support.27 The growth of these new study and retreat programs is welcome and wonderful.

Efforts to Revive Bhikṣuṇī Ordination in the Tibetan Tradition

Another issue concerning Western nuns is the revival of the bhikṣuṇī ordination, which, up until recently, was extant only in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage followed in East Asia. HH the Dalai Lama is in favor of this, yet he does not have the power alone to bring this about. It must be decided by the bhikṣu saṅgha.

Bhikṣuṇī ordination in the Tibetan tradition has been researched by the Department of Religion and Culture (DRC) of the Central Tibetan Administration since 1985, and several meetings of senior Tibetan bhikṣus have been held. Scholars and the Committee for Bhikṣuṇī Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition28 have suggested two options—bhikṣuṇī ordination given by the bhikṣu saṅgha alone or given by a dual saṅgha of Mūlasarvāstivāda bhikṣus and Dharmaguptaka bhikṣuṇīs. However, the Tibetan monks claim that neither of those methods result in a flawless bhikṣuṇī ordination.

Lacking a positive conclusion, a Tibetan religious conference in 2015 said that Tibetan and Himalayan nuns could receive the bhikṣuṇī ordination in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage according to their individual wishes. This option is not likely to be attractive to the nuns because they want to remain in the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition that is practiced by Tibetan monks. Also, their monk-teachers tell them bhikṣuṇī ordination is difficult to keep and that they don’t need it because they have bodhisattva and tantric vows.

However, Tibetan and Himalayan nuns are enthusiastic to complete the rigorous course of study that culminates in the geshema degree. Under HH the Dalai Lama’s guidance and through the efforts of the Tibetan Nuns Project, in 2012 the DRC approved the awarding of the geshema degree to qualified nuns who have completed their studies. As of 2019, forty-four Tibetan and Himalayan nuns have earned the well-respected geshema degree.29 This is a huge step for the nuns and demonstrates to society that they are capable to teach the Dharma. Many people in the Tibetan community and abroad have rejoiced at the Tibetan nuns’ accomplishments.30

Some Western nuns have received bhikṣuṇī ordination according to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya from Chinese or Vietnamese saṅghas. I believe what is still lacking for them is the opportunity to live in monasteries with other bhikṣuṇīs. While we can read about the precepts by ourselves, training in the precepts and monastic etiquette occur in a community setting. Learning the privileges, responsibilities, and what it means to be a bhikṣuṇī occurs in daily life with a bhikṣuṇī sangha. I pray this situation will come about for bhikṣuṇīs in the Tibetan tradition.

Western Buddhist Nuns’ Contributions

Tibetan nuns are more active than ever before in benefiting the Dharma and society, and with more of them becoming geshemas, this will only increase. We support our Tibetan and Himalayan Dharma sisters as much as we can; we stay with them when visiting India and they visit our Western monasteries.

In addition to engaging in study and meditation, Western nuns in the Tibetan tradition today write and edit Dharma books and teach at Dharma centers worldwide. Some are professors at universities, others are translators and interpreters. Western nuns are invited to be guest-speakers in university classes on Asian religion, as well as to speak in panel discussions at conferences on a wide variety of topics, ranging from death and dying to domestic violence and climate change. Organizations often request us to speak on ethics and compassion—two important Buddhist principles—and how to employ them in secular fields. Many nuns write articles on these topics for national and international publications.

As Mahāyāna practitioners, many Western nuns are involved in socially engaged projects such as teaching the Dharma to people in prison and establishing schools in impoverished communities around the world. They also offer spiritual counseling and support lay Buddhists by volunteering in hospices, visiting homes for the elderly, and conducting baby blessings.

Part of our role is to act as the conscience of society. By living a simple lifestyle, we show by example that people can be content without consuming more than our fair share of the world’s resources. Western nuns inspire others simply by living and practicing together in monasteries. Sravasti Abbey receives many letters from people saying they are inspired just by knowing there is a group of nuns cultivating wisdom and compassion.

Sravasti Abbey: a Western Bhikṣuṇī Saṅgha in the Tibetan Tradition

After years of observing and weathering the challenges for Western nuns described above, I decided to establish a Western monastic community to address them and support future generations of Buddhist monastics. I sought other senior Western monastics to join me, but all were occupied with their various projects. Nonetheless, in 1996 HH the Dalai Lama gave his blessing and named the monastery: Sravasti was where the Buddha spent twenty-five rains retreats and taught many sūtras; “Abbey” indicates a community of monastics who train together as equals.

No large Buddhist organization or wealthy benefactors supported the founding of the Abbey. Gradually, people heard of my plans and contributed whatever they could. A group of lay Dharma students formed Friends of Sravasti Abbey (FOSA) to help with the necessary groundwork—publicity, accounting, facilities, and so on. In 2003, we purchased beautiful land with forest and meadows in Newport, Washington State. It had a house, barn, garage, and storage cabin. Volunteers worked hard to transform these into offices and bedrooms for residents and guests, and a contractor converted the garage into a meditation hall. As more guests came and the resident community grew, we constructed more accommodations. In 2013, we built Chenrezig Hall, a two-story building that has a commercial kitchen and dining room, library, and some bedrooms.

Nineteen years later, we have a community of twelve bhikṣuṇīs, one bhikṣu, six śikṣamāṇās (training nuns), four anagārikās (lay trainees with eight precepts), and more interested applicants on the way. The next phase is building a Buddha Hall—a main temple, auxiliary meditation halls, classrooms, and library complex that will allow us to offer teachings to more people onsite and to stream more teachings online.

The Abbey does not seek to replicate a Tibetan monastery or nunnery. Our organizational structure is collaborative with our study program emphasizing applying the Dharma teachings to our lives to fulfill our mission of “creating peace in a chaotic world.” We focus on the importance of ethical conduct and have regular Vinaya classes as well as teachings on the lamrim (stages of the path), thought training, philosophical texts, and tantra. Classes are taught by our two resident teachers, Venerable Sangye Khadro31 and myself, as well as by learned Tibetan masters.

Through the Abbey’s prison project, we correspond with incarcerated people and send them Dharma books. Monastics visit prisons to teach the Dharma. We are active in Youth Emergency Services, a local organization that supports homeless youth. We engage in interfaith dialogue and give talks when requested by secular organizations. Gender equality and care for the environment are among our core values.

Sravasti Abbey has grown due to the kindness and generosity of others. The Abbey is based on “an economy of generosity.”32 Dharma teachings are freely offered like in the Buddha’s time. We do not charge visitors to stay at the Abbey or for Dharma books and materials. By our giving freely, lay followers naturally reciprocate.

We teach lay followers about the interdependent relationship between the saṅgha and laity and how generosity is part of spiritual practice. This is not only in line with the Vinaya, but also helps everyone to transform a consumerist mindset into the practice of generosity. The saṅgha supports lay followers by sharing the Dharma, and the laity support the saṅgha by offering food, clothing, shelter, and medicine.

The Vinaya forms the basis of how we organize resources; we live a life of simplicity as exemplified by the Buddha and learn to find contentment through Dharma study and practice, service to others, and outdoor work in the forest.

We do not buy food and eat only what others offer, although we do cook the food. Initially, FOSA members thought this would be untenable. However, we tried it out and have not gone hungry. The generosity we receive is deeply moving, and inspires us monastics to keep our precepts well and practice diligently to repay our supporters’ kindness.

Community life is at the heart of Sravasti Abbey, and in this we differ from residential Dharma center where monastics live and eat alongside lay practitioners and may come and go as they wish. People who ordain at the Abbey must want to establish the saṅgha in the West, live in community, contribute to the welfare of the group, and sustain the Dharma and Vinaya for future generations. All residents and guests participate in the daily schedule, which includes two meditation sessions, offering service (what others call “work”), teachings, study, and sharing the Dharma with the world.

People interested in ordination follow a gradual training process to enter the Abbey community. They grow from lay followers with five precepts to anagārikās with eight precepts to novices (śrāmaṇera or śrāmaṇeri). Nuns also take śikṣamāṇā ordination, and both women and men spend two years training as novices before going to Taiwan for full ordination as bhikṣuṇīs or bhikṣus.

Taiwanese bhikṣuṇīs have played an instrumental role in translating Dharmaguptaka Vinaya rites into English and guiding us in how to perform them. The śrāmaṇeri and śikṣamāṇā ordinations are given by the Abbey’s senior bhikṣuṇīs. We do the bimonthly poṣadha and yearly varṣā, pravāranā, and kaṭhina rites in English. Our community has found these rites very powerful in strengthening our individual and communal spiritual practice. We aspire to give the full ordination in English at Sravasti Abbey in the future.

Sravasti Abbey has hosted two training courses for Western nuns—one taught by Venerable Wuyin—as well as one Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering and three Vinaya training sessions with Venerable Hengching, a professor at National Taiwan University. Happily, a number of nuns who have attended these courses are actively engaged in establishing Western nuns’ communities in other places.

More monasteries for Western nuns are gradually arising in Western countries.33 It is heartening that more Western monastics now see the value of establishing our own communities to support the flourishing of the Dharma in the West. I hope and pray that these budding communities will blossom and open up a new chapter for Western nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.


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  1. I use the term “Western” to refer primarily to people from or residing long-term in the Americas, Europe, and Australasia. These people may be racially Asian or African, but they live in the West. While people from East and Southeast Asia have ordained in the Tibetan tradition and are also considered outsiders in the traditional Tibetan monastic institution, they have often grown up Buddhist or live in countries with large Buddhist populations. 

  2. Lama” is an honorific title for a spiritual teacher. “Rinpoche” means “precious one” and is an epithet added to the names of reincarnated lamas, abbots, or widely respected teachers. 

  3. After the Buddha’s passing into parinirvāṇa, different Vinaya lineages evolved as Buddhism spread in Asia. The three extant lineages are the Theravāda followed in South and Southeast Asia; the Dharmaguptaka followed in China, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda followed in Tibet, Mongolia, and the Himalayan regions. 

  4. Pasang Wangdu and Diemberger (2000), 73; Rao, CBETA B35, no. 195. 

  5. One of the few exceptions was Samding Monastery built in the early fifteenth century, where monks and nuns were led by a female incarnate lama, Dorje Pamo. Her present incarnation has returned to lay life (Havnevik 1989, 78). Other contemporary examples include Samten Tse Retreat Center established in 1993 by Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, a female incarnate lama who serves as its abbess and spiritual guide. She is also involved in running the affiliated Mindrolling Monastery alongside the monks. Another is Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery founded by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo in 2000. See Mindrolling Monastery and Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. 

  6. Havnevik (1989), 40, 51. 

  7. Mackenzie (2017). 

  8. Hillelson (1999 

  9. Willis (1996). 

  10. “Geshe” means “virtuous friend.” In the Sakya and Gelug schools, this title is given to a monastic who has earned the equivalent of a doctorate degree in Buddhist philosophy, which requires fifteen to twenty-five years of intensive study. The equivalent in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools is the khenpo degree. 

  11. International Mahayana Institute. 

  12. Western nuns tend not to like the terms “nunnery” or “convent,” and so called their communities “monasteries” or “abbeys.” 

  13. Dorje Pamo Monastery. 

  14. Tsadra Commons. 

  15. Kagyu Samye Ling. 

  16. Gampo Abbey is unique in having Western Bhikṣuṇī Pema Chodron as its principal teacher. She is elderly and spends most of her time in retreat in Colorado, USA. She goes to Gampo Abbey for six weeks to three months every year to teach. See Gampo Abbey. 

  17. Karma Lekshe Tsomo (2007 

  18. The Western Buddhist Monastic Gathering. 

  19. The publications included Choosing Simplicity, the only commentary on the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya Bhikṣuṇī Pratimokṣa currently available in English, Preparing for Ordination: Reflections for Westerners Considering Monastic Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, and Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun. 

  20. Tushita Meditation Centre. 

  21. Thosamling Nunnery. 

  22. FPMT, “FPMT Education Courses and Programs.” 

  23. Rangjung Yeshe Institute. 

  24. Maitripa College. 

  25. Naropa University. 

  26. Tsadra Foundation. 

  27. Tenzin Palmo (2015). 

  28. Committee members are Venerables Tenzin Palmo, Pema Chodron, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Jampa Tsedroen, Kunga Chodron, and myself. Two senior Taiwanese bhikṣuṇīs, Venerable Wuyin, the Abbess of Luminary International Buddhist Society in Taiwan, and Venerable Hengching, a professor at National Taiwan University, serve as advisors. 

  29. Qualifying exams are currently on hold due to Covid. 

  30. The first female geshe, Venerable Kelsang Wangmo from Germany, studied at IBD and received her geshe degree through that institution in 2011. She now teaches the Dharma in Dharamsala. 

  31. Venerable Sangye Khadro received novice ordination in 1974 and bhikṣuṇī ordination in 1988, and was among the early Western nuns who lived at Dorje Pamo Monastery. She became a resident of Sravasti Abbey in 2019. See Sravasti Abbey. 

  32. Thubten Chodron (2021). 

  33. We do not know of all of them, but some examples are Pema Choling Monastic Community and Dharmadatta Nuns’ Community in the USA, Shide Nunnery in Germany, Chenrezig Nuns’ Community in Australia, and Sangha Onlus Association in Italy. Monasteries for Western monks already exist in France and Australia, and new Western nuns’ communities are starting up in Spain and Australia too. 

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.