How Western Nuns and Buddhologists are Transforming Tibetan Buddhism’s Male Face
by Elizabeth Swanepoel
This essay investigates the contribution which has been made by Western women in an effort to transform gender bias in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhist nuns have long been involved in a struggle for the reinstatement of full ordination for nuns. To this effect, various significant conferences have been convened and two noteworthy organisations have been established in the struggle for gender equality in Tibetan Buddhism, mostly through the efforts of Western female Buddhists. The essay highlights in particular the efforts of four prominent Western Tibetan Buddhist nuns. It also draws attention to four lay Western female academics who have contributed significantly to the process of the elimination of gender asymmetry in Tibetan Buddhism.
Introduction The research for this essay was stimulated by the tail-end of a televised interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.2 I was fascinated by this bald, eloquent, British woman who spoke so calmly about living in a cave high up in the Himalayas in complete isolation for a period of twelve years. She often described those twelve years as some of “the happiest years” of her life.3 When I began researching Palmo’s biography, I discovered that there were quite a number of Western women who had become ordained Tibetan Buddhist nuns.4 I also became aware of the intense debate surrounding the issue of full ordination for Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Full ordination for Buddhist nuns is currently only available in the
1 Elizabeth Swanepoel is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies and Arabic at the University of South Africa. E-mail: <email@example.com>. 2 Jetsunma is an honorary title, and Tenzin Palmo is the monastic name of Diane Perry. 3 L. Thompson and E. Cox (Producers), Cave in the Snow: The Official Film on the Extraordinary Life of Tenzin Palmo, (Sydney: Firelight / Tiger Eye Productions / TVF International, 2003). 4 The term Western in this context refers to Europe and North America in particular. There are according to Venerable Kelsang Mila currently only three Tibetan Buddhist nuns resident in South Africa. They are Westerners and belong to the controversial Kadampa order of Tibetan Buddhism.
Chinese schools of Buddhism in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong,5 in the Korean school of Mahayana Buddhism,6 and in the Vietnamese Zen tradition,7 but nuns in the Tibetan and Theravada traditions of Buddhism can only undergo novice ordination.8 Many of the Tibetan Buddhist nuns therefore seek full ordination in the Chinese tradition. The ordination remains valid even though they continue to practise as Tibetan Buddhist nuns. What is of concern is the belief by some Buddhist monks that enlightenment is not possible in the female form. It is well-known and inspirational therefore that Tenzin Palmo has vowed on various occasions to attain enlightenment in a female body.9
Gender Discrimination in Tibetan Buddhism Gender discrimination is enshrined within the ecclesiastical ranks of Tibetan Buddhism, since Bhikshuni ordination (i.e., full ordination) and its accompanying access to more advanced teachings are not available to nuns. Despite this, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism and one of its most knowledgeable scholars has made it clear on various occasions that he fully supports the establishment of the Bhikshuni Sangha in the Tibetan tradition.10
His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, second in importance to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has been equally outspoken. In 2010, he 5 Jitindriya Thanissara and Elizabeth Day, “The Time has come,” Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, (Summer 2010),
<http://www.thebuddhadharma.com/>, [Accessed 22 February 2011]. 6 Sang-Lee Han, “Korean Bhikkhunis: Creating a Culture of their Own.” Korean Times, (02 September 2010), <http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/common/printpreview.asp?category Code=293&newsIdx=72424/>, [Accessed 19 January 2015]. 7 Alexander Berzin, “Summary Report of the 2007 International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages,” (2007), <http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/%20archives/approaching%20buddhism/world%2 0today/summary%20report%202007%20international%20c/part%204.html%20/>, [Accessed 04 January 2012]. 8
A controversial ordination of four Bhikṣhuṇis/fully ordained Theravada nuns took place at the Wat Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia on 22 October 2009. It was performed under the auspices of an Australian monk, Ajahn Brahmavamso. It was done without the approval of the elders of the Theravada monastic community, an action which led to the expulsion of Ajahn Brahmavamso from his order. See, Punnadhammo Ajahn Bhikku’s Blog, “The Bhikkuni Controversy,” <http://bhikkhublog.blogspot.com/2009/12/bhikkuni-controversy .html/>, [Accessed 19 January 2015]. 9 Vicki Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman’s Quest for Enlightenment, (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), 5, 125, 208. 10 Tenzin Gyatso, “International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha:
Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages: ‘Statement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Bhikshuni Ordination in the Tibetan Tradition,’” <http://www.congress-on-buddhistwomen.org /index .php?id=142&L=0&%20type%20=1/>, [Accessed 04 January 2012]. Transforming Tibetan Buddhism’s Male Face 103
announced to an international audience that he is willing to take the first step in ordaining nuns as Bhikṣhuṇis.11 He pointed out that the majority of Buddhists in the West are women and furthermore that the status of women within Tibetan Buddhism affects the entire body of Buddhist teachings. However, he did caution against expecting quick results, asking the audience to be patient. The support of both these prominent Tibetan Buddhist leaders gives rise to the question of what, or who, is then holding back the process?
Image, respect, and prestige underlie the very nature of Buddhist monasticism.12 The Buddhist monastic community was envisioned particularly as an example of the best religious way of life. However, its continued existence depends on the generosity and support of the lay community, provided that the lay community is convinced that the monastic community is “maintaining its purity and the highest standards of behaviour and wisdom.”13 Taking cognisance of the women’s liberation movement and the number of Western women who have already been ordained as Buddhist nuns, “the best path and the best values in the world [therefore] favour gender equality and the elimination of patriarchy and misogyny.”14
Furthermore, one needs to consider the Buddhist concept of ‘enlightenment,’ perhaps better translated as ‘awakening.’15 The Dalai Lama defines enlightenment as embracing three principles, namely the determination to be freed from samsara,16 the correct view of emptiness (awakening), and the altruistic mind of enlightenment.17 In Tibetan Buddhism there is an extensive array of spiritual practices intended to transform “the afflicted and ordinary mind into the pure and omniscient mind of a Buddha.”18 Fundamental to all spiritual practice is the selfless
11 Llundup Damcho, “I Will Do It,” Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, (Summer 2010), <http://www.thebuddhadharma.com/>, [Accessed 15 August 2011]. 12 Janet Gyatso, “That Was Then, This is now,” Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, (Summer 2010), <http://www.thebuddhadharma.com/>, [Accessed 15 August 2011]. 13 Gyatso, “That Was Then, This is now.” 14 Gyatso, “That Was Then, This is now.” 15 I. Fischer-Schreiber and M. S. Diener, The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications 1994), 102. 16 Samsara: The state of cyclical existence wherein the circumstances of beings are determined by their past actions and habitual mental patterns. 17 Tenzin Gyatso, Kindness, Clarity, and Insight, (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2006), 137. 18 Don Farber, Tibetan Buddhist Life, (London: DK Publishing,
motivation to attain enlightenment for the advantage of all living beings.19 If this is so, does the altruistic enlightened mind of the male monastic exclude altruism towards nuns? If not, why has the instatement of full ordination for nuns become such a complicated political and ecclesiastical affair?
A Role Model and Torch Bearer Tenzin Palmo has become a role model and torch bearer for spiritual women the world over.20 She has risen to legendary status. “She is an icon.”21 Younger Western nuns are in awe of her, and her words of wisdom are an inspiration to lay and ordained people alike.22 Palmo is a woman who has proved many conservative male counterparts wrong: she survived in a cave, all alone, for twelve years, practising strenuous meditation without breaking down or losing sight of her purpose—to gain enlightenment.23 She lectures all over the world in order to raise money to sustain the
nunnery, Dongyu Gatsal Ling, which she established in the Kangra district in northern India. Neilson states that Palmo “is a dynamic incarnation of the emerging and powerful feminine principle in Buddhism.” She embraced the gender issue in Tibetan Buddhism right from the start. Mackenzie quotes her as saying that Buddhism, not just Tibetan Buddhism, was “testosterone heavy.”24 She was enormously frustrated after she was ordained as a novice nun by the difficulty in obtaining the same training as the monks: “Really, it was such a maledominated situation. It was as though I had entered a male club. The monks were very kind to me, but on a deeper level there was resentment.”25 The ultimate in women’s liberation would therefore surely be an enlightened woman, a female Buddha.26
Evidences of Gender Inequality A Buddhist community consists of both lay and monastic practitioners. Both are essential for the continuation of Buddhism. A Buddhist community is often characterised as a house with four pillars: monks,
19 Farber, Tibetan Buddhist Life, 117. 20 Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 206. 21 Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 206. 22 Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 206. 23 Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 206. 24 Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 6. 25 Palmo, in Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 53, 54. 26 Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 7. Transforming Tibetan Buddhism’s Male Face 105
nuns, lay women, and lay men.27 Without one of these pillars, the community is, strictly speaking, not a Buddhist community. Many of the nuns therefore argue that in order for a Buddhist community to call itself truly a sangha, all four pillars should be intact. With reference to this analogy and in harmony with the nature of Buddhism, many nuns, especially the Western ones, as well as the Dalai Lama and the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, therefore express themselves strongly in favour of restoring full ordination for Buddhist nuns in a spirit of patience and compassion.28 Despite the reverence and respect accorded to Tenzin Palmo and other highly spiritual and enlightened female Buddhist practitioners, gender equality has not yet been attained in Tibetan Buddhism. This is evident in the following situations.
Hierarchical Structures Since Tibetan Buddhist monasticism is highly hierarchical, seniority, respect, and privilege is dependent on one’s rank. Without Bhikshuni ordination female monastics will remain inferior to their male counterparts.
The Geshe degree is the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist philosophy. Until 2013, with the exception of Venerable Kelsang Wangmo, nuns were excluded from earning this degree. The opportunity for nuns to take the examinations to earn the Geshe degree has now been made possible by the continuous support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the perseverance and dedication of the nuns, and the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration. Furthermore, The Tibetan Nuns Project, spearheaded by the German nun, Venerable Jampa Tsedroen, has made a significant contribution in making this ground-breaking achievement possible, working for the past twenty-five years to create opportunities to increase the educational level of nuns. The higher-level educational opportunities that nuns have today were not available before 2013, which created a substantial difference between the education of monks and nuns, thereby delegating the nuns to inferior positions within the ranks of Tibetan Buddhism.29 Venerable Kelsang
27 Thubten Chodron, “A Tibetan Precedent for Multi-tradition Ordination: Support for Giving Bhikshuni Ordination with a Dual Sangha of Mulasarvastivada Bhikshus and Dharmaguptaka Bhikshunis,” (2007). <http://www.thubtenchodron.org/BuddhistNunsMonasticLife/a_Tibetan _ precedent/>, [Accessed 08 February 2011]. 28 Damcho, “I Will Do It.” 29 Tibetan Nuns Project, “Milestone: Geshema Exams for the Tibetan Nuns,” (2013), <http://tnp.org/tag/geshema-degree/>, [Accessed 10 January 2015].
Wangmo became the first woman as well as the first Western nun to receive the Geshe degree from the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics (IBD) in Dharamsala, India, in April 2011, after seventeen years of study.30 However, now that it is possible for nuns to engage in this study, the degree remains inferior to the one awarded to monks as novice nuns do not have access to the full Mulasarvastivada Vinayasutra31 texts, which are only available to fully ordained monastics.32
Androcentricism Insufficient androcentric record keeping divests women practitioners from drawing inspiration from female role models who have accomplished great spiritual deeds and even enlightenment.33 Although there is no doubt that accomplished women practitioners did exist, they did not have the institutional support of their male colleagues. Men’s privileged education more frequently enabled them to read and write and consequently men had the monopoly in choosing whose records to preserve for future generations.34 The need for the excavation of texts about or by yoginis35 is therefore
apparent.36 It is consequently greatly encouraging and supportive for present female Buddhist practitioners to be able to refer to the biography of a present-day yogini such as Tenzin Palmo. Her efforts to transform the male face of Tibetan Buddhism, her own spiritual achievements, and the formal recognition she has received for it from the Tibetan Buddhist religious community, the establishment of a progressive nunnery and the resurrection of the togdenma37 tradition, as well as her outspoken determination to achieve enlightenment in the female form, “have been of incalculable benefit in inspiring other women on the spiritual path.”38 Palmo’s achievement as a Western woman is
30 The Tibet Connection, “Extended Interview with Geshe Kelsang Wangmo,” (August 2011), <http://tibetconnection.org/2011/08/extended-interview-with-geshe-kelsangwangmo/>, [Accessed 10 January 2015]. 31 This is the Buddhist lineage followed by the Tibetan and Mongolian monastics. 32 Jampa Tsedroen, “Ordination of Buddhist Nuns: The Ice Seems to be Broken,” <http://www.thubtenchodron.org/BuddhistNunsMonasticLife/Tsedroen_Buddhist_Nuns_Ord ination_2013_Photos_pdf/>, [Accessed 24 July 2013]. 33 Rita M. Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism, (New York, NY: SUNY Press, 1993), 90, 91. 34 Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy, 91. 35 Yogini: A female practitioner who practises intense meditation techniques which may include either physical or mental disciplines. 36 Jessica Torrens, “The Path of the Yogini: A Quest for Spiritual and Social Freedom,” (2012), <http://www.ru.org/92torrens.html/>, [Accessed 12 November, 2012]. 37 Togdenma: Advanced female yogic practitioner of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage. 38 Torrens, “The Path of the Yogini…”
doubly significant in the development of women’s recognition within a deeply rooted patriarchal tradition, as well as further testimony that Westerns are also capable of “unwavering commitment and formidable accomplishments” on the Buddhist path.39
Misogyny Misogynistic meditation practices further complicate the outlook of some monks and their inability to agree to the full ordination of nuns. Palmo cites the example of a meditation on the thirty-two parts of the body that the Buddha gave to his disciples in order to conquer desire.40 One starts with the hair on the top of the head and then proceeds all the way down to the soles of the feet, imagining what one would find underneath if one took the skin off each part. The practitioner dissects his/her body in order to cut through the enormous attachment to the physical form and to see it as it really is. In losing attachment to our own bodies, we will also lose attachment to the bodies of others. Nonetheless, this meditation is primarily directed towards
oneself. However, Palmo points out that in the writings of Nagarjuna (circa 100 CE) and Shantideva (circa 7 th century CE) this same meditation is used and is directed outwards towards the bodies of women.41 “It is the woman one sees as a bag of guts, lungs, kidneys, and blood. It is the woman who is impure and disgusting. There is no mention of the impurity of the monk who is meditating.”42 Palmo continues to state that the change occurred because the
meditation was carried out by much less enlightened minds than the Buddha’s.43 Instead of using the visualisation as a meditation to work against attachment to the physical, it is used as a way of keeping the monks celibate. It is no longer used as a means to see the body as it really is, but instead, it is used to cultivate aversion towards women. The monks do not realise the impurity of themselves as well as everyone, male and female, around them, but focus only on the impurity of the female. Consequently, women began to be viewed as a danger to the monks, and this developed into a kind of “monastic misogynism.”44 This is borne out by a comment made by a Tibetan Buddhist monk in the film
39 Bonnie Schwab, “Into the Heart of Life: A Review.” Present: The Voices and Activities of Theravada Buddhist Women, (Winter 2012): 51-52. Available at: <http://www.bhikkhuni.net/wp-content/uploads/ 2013/06/book-review.pdf/>, [Accessed 19 January 2015]. 40 Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism, (New York, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2002), 71. 41 Palmo, Reflections on a Mountain Lake, 71. 42 Palmo, Reflections on a Mountain Lake, 71. 43 Palmo, Reflections on a Mountain Lake, 71. 44 Palmo, Reflections on a Mountain Lake, 71.
about Tenzin Palmo’s life when he says that “females are subject to constant mental distractions. These create much negativity which could harm the doctrine. If females get more and more powerful then the monks will not be able to raise their heads.”45
Male Privilege There is noticeable institutional preference for male practitioners, for instance in the funding of monasteries, in which the lay public favour monasteries over nunneries in awarding donations, and in the rule that nuns have to sit behind monks in the temples. As Gross has commented: The bastion of male privilege is greatest in the Tibetan Buddhist practice of discovering and installing successive reincarnations of great lamas.46 No
leaders in Tibetan Buddhism are more esteemed and honoured, or hold more power and influence than these incarnations, particularly those who are heads of major lineages and prominent monasteries.47 It is taken for granted that each successive incarnation will be a male incarnation. These boys receive extremely privileged educations and indeed turn out to be exceptional people. There are currently only two female incarnations,48 while there are hundreds of male incarnations. One therefore welcomes the present Dalai Lama’s refreshing statement that his next incarnation could possibly be as a female.49
45 Thompson and Cox, Cave in the Snow… 46 Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy, 88. 47 Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy, 89. 48 Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche and Jetsun Ahkon Norbu Lhamo. Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche is a highly respected incarnation who comes from a prominent Tibetan Buddhist family and a long line of recognised teachers. She has worked tirelessly in empowering her female followers, many of whom are Western women. See, Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche, “Biography of Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche,” <http://www.khandrorinpoche. org/jetsun-khandro-rinpoche/biography/>, [Accessed 13 July 2015]. Jetsun Ahkon Norbu Lhamo is a controversial, lay American Tibetan Buddhist teacher. Her recognition as an incarnation, her subsequent career as a Rinpoche, and her questionable lifestyle is fraught with controversy, and has been well-documented in the popular press. It is therefore a subject for debate whether she has positively contributed towards the debate surrounding gender equality in Tibetan Buddhism. See, Martha Sherrill, The Buddha from Brooklyn, (New York, NY: Random House, 2000). 49 Tim Johnson, Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China, (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2011), 148.
Cumbersome Procedures Cumbersome decision-making procedures within the Tibetan ecclesiastic system demands that decisions concerning monastic law require formal consultations among senior monks of the Tibetan Buddhist community. Although the Dalai Lama has on several occasions publically expressed his support and interest in establishing the Bhikshuni ordination, he has also pointed out that it is not within his power, as a single monk, to formally recognise the Bhikshuni lineage.50
Western Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Recently, a number of Western Tibetan Buddhist nuns and prominent female academics and Buddhologists have contributed significantly towards highlighting the gender inequality in Tibetan Buddhism, and towards setting the ball rolling to transform this imbalance. Cognisance needs to be taken of the exceptional contribution of four prominent Western Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Two of these nuns are academic scholars, most of them maintain current and informative websites, and almost all of them publish prolifically.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo The most renowned and respected of this group is Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. She was the first Western woman to be fully ordained,51 albeit in the Chinese Buddhist tradition.52 She is in the unique position of being the only Westerner who is the founder and abbess of a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery, Dongyu Gatsal Ling (DGL), in India for nuns in the Himalayan regions. Tenzin Palmo has made an enormous contribution in highlighting the plight and status of Tibetan Buddhist nuns53 by her honest and fearlessly outspoken campaign against gender prejudice and misogyny within the ranks of Tibetan Buddhism.54 She is in high demand as a speaker both in India and internationally,55 has been countlessly interviewed in the popular press and by academics, and has published
50 Yuchen Li, “Ordination, Legitimacy, and Sisterhood: The International Full Ordination Ceremony in Bodhgaya,” in Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming against the Stream, ed., Karma Lekshe Tsomo, (Richmond: Curzon Press, 2000), 168-198. 51 She received novice ordination from the Eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche in 1964, and was fully ordained in the Chinese Mahayana tradition in Hong Kong in 1973. 52 Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 35. 53 Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 54, 55. 54 Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, “The Situation of Western Monastics,” (1993),
<http://archive.thubtenchodron.org/BuddhistNunsMonasticLife/the_situation_of_western_m onastics.pdf/>, [Accessed 06 September 2011]. 55 Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow, 149, 150.
three books to date.56 Her nunnery serves as an example and inspiration to many Buddhist institutions due to its study programme, its administrative system, and its self-sustaining environment. The bestowal of the rare title of Jetsunma,57 has given her, and by implication, all Buddhist women, recognition for attaining spiritual advancement within the ranks of a highly patriarchal religious system.58
Jampa Tsedroen Venerable Jampa Tsedroen,59 a German nun also known as Dr. Carola Roloff, is a lecturer and research fellow at Hamburg University. Jampa Tsedroen is the principal researcher concerning the full ordination of nuns in the Tibetan tradition as embodied in the Tibetan Buddhist canon and its commentaries. She is a member of the Bhikshuni Ordination Committee of the Ministry of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, and is the recipient of the 2007 Outstanding Buddhist Women Award in honour of the United Nations’ International Women’s Day.60
Karma Lekshe Tsomo Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo61 is an American nun, and an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. She was the co-founder of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women and served as its president for many years. She is actively involved with the Jamyang Foundation, an education project for women in developing countries, sponsoring fifteen schools in the Indian Himalayas, Bangladesh and Laos. She has published widely on topics of Buddhist feminist ethics and female social activism.62
56 Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, “Biography,” “Interviews/Media,” <http://www. tenzinpalmo.com/>, [Accessed 19 January, 2014]. 57 Sherrill, The Buddha from Brooklyn, 149-151. 58 Drukpa Publications, “On the Enthronement of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Kathmandu, Nepal.” (16 February 2008),
<http://www.drukpa.com/calendars/8-tibcalendar/ images /resized/images/products/videos/2adc/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19 9:on-the-enthronement-of-jetsunma-tenzin-palmo&catid=100:gyalwang-drukpa&Itemid=50 2/>, [Accessed 12 November 2012].
<http://www.sandiego.edu/cas/theo/faculty/biography.php?ID=296/>, [Accessed 19 January 2014].
Thubten Chodron Another American nun, Venerable Thubten Chodron63 is the abbess and founder of Sravasti Abbey in New Port, Washington. She was a coorganiser of Life as a Western Buddhist Nun, and was instrumental in the creation of the 2007 International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha. She is a central figure in the struggle for the reinstatement of full ordination for Tibetan Buddhist nuns, and is a founder member of the Committee for Bhikshuni Ordination.64
Conferences and Organisations Various conferences and organisations have been established to attend to the position and role of Buddhist women within the international Buddhist community. Most of these conferences and organisations were convened and established through the initiative of Western women.
This deployment of Buddhist women was spearheaded by the First International Buddhist Women’s Conference in Bodhgaya, India, in 1987. Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women was founded in 1987 directly as a result of this conference, and has since its foundation been instrumental in promoting the status of Buddhist women worldwide with its bi-annual conferences. In 1996, a three-week educational programme was held in Bodhgaya, India,
entitled Life as a Western Buddhist Nun, which exposed many Tibetan nuns for the first time to the possibility of Bhikshuni ordination. Simultaneously, the Dalai Lama also requested the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala, India to investigate the authenticity of the extant Bhikshuni lineages in the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean traditions, and to cooperate with leading monks of the Theravada traditions regarding the possibility of reviving Bhikshuni ordination for Buddhist women worldwide.65
In 2005, on the recommendation of the Dalai Lama, the Committee of Western Buddhist Nuns, now known as the Committee for Bhikshuni Ordination (CBO), was founded. The Dalai Lama expressed a wish for Western nuns in particular, rather than Tibetan nuns, to carry out the task of researching and promoting the reestablishment of Bhikshuni ordination in the Tibetan tradition. He charged the Western nuns with the
63 Fully ordained in 1986. 64 Thubten Chodron, “About Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron,” <http://thubtenchodron.org/ biography/>, [Accessed 22 January 2015]. 65 Committee for Bhiksuni Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, “About Us,” <http://www.bhiksuniordination.org/>, [Accessed 13 January 2015].
assignment of discussing the full ordination of women with senior monks since they will be instrumental in changing the attitudes of the other Bhikshuni.66 The Dalai Lama also established a fund, to which he donated a considerable amount, to administer the resources that would make travel and research possible for the CBO. There are currently six Western nuns on the committee, including the afore-mentioned nuns.67 The CBO is in the process of preparing three educational booklets in both English and Tibetan. The information has been compiled by experts in the field, some of whom are also Bhikṣhuṇis. These booklets explain the Bhikshuni ordination issue and justify providing an opportunity for full ordination for Buddhist nuns practising in the Tibetan tradition.68
Western Lay Female Buddhologists A number of lay female practitioners who are also prominent academics and Buddhologists have contributed substantially towards highlighting and transforming gender imbalance in Tibetan Buddhism. Cognisance needs be taken in particular of the following four academics who authored seminal books underlining the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism:
Rita M Gross69 started the process of reconstructing Buddhism with the publication of her trailblazing inquiry70 into Buddhist misogyny. Gross goes as far as to point out that the Buddha himself failed to show adequate compassion for his own family and states that Buddhism can only serve women’s interests and needs if women themselves accepted the challenge to free Buddhism of its lingering elements of patriarchy.71 In her seminal book on a feminist reconstruction of Buddhism, Gross72 states that inadequate consideration has been given to the implications
66 Fully ordained monks. 67 Committee for Bhiksuni Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, “Founding of the Committee.” 68 Committee for Bhikshuni Ordination in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, “Subsequent Meetings and Activities of the CBO.” 69 Professor Emeritus of Comparative Studies in Religion at the University of Wisconsin— Eau Claire. 70 Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy. 71 L Sutin, All is Change: The Two-thousand-year Journey of Buddhism to the West, (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), 321. 72 Gross, “Buddhism after Patriarch,” 125.
of Buddhist doctrines for gender issues, and that existing literature is deficient in its treatment of the reconstruction of the Buddhist world in accordance with feminist values. Gross, together with Christ and Plaskow,73 argue that the core symbols of a religion are not inherently sexist, misogynist, or patriarchal, but are essentially egalitarian and liberating for all human beings. However, established cultural practices and prejudices in
favour of men and against women have critically contaminated this pristine core. They conclude that if the tradition contains a pristine, but tainted, core of egalitarian teachings, it not only allows but requires reconstruction of the tradition.74 Gross therefore reasons that Buddhism is re-constructible because “its fundamental teachings and symbols are essentially egalitarian and liberating for all.” However, she poses the question whether “those currently holding positions of authority in Buddhism have the courage and the will to incorporate such reconstructions.”75
Miranda Shaw’s76 ground-breaking research77 on the role of women in Buddhist Tantra argues that lay women were dynamic practitioners who achieved substantial advancement in Tantric practice.78 She claims that women were among the creators of Tantric Buddhism, and that female Tantric teachers such as Siddharajni, Niguma, and Lakshminkara established transmission lineages that still exist today. These women often imparted their teachings only to women.79
Furthermore, Shaw points out that in Tantric Buddhism there are no doctrinal limits to women’s complete participation, and that contrary to monasticism, there are “no pronouncements of women’s disability, innate incapacity, or inferiority to men in the pursuance of enlightenment.”80 In fact, Shaw is rather critical of Buddhist monasticism, and calls it “an elitist enterprise” in which its practitioners are inclined to devalue other aspects of life, such as passion and pleasure. She states that passion and pleasure are as much primary sources of knowledge and power as the philosophical
73 Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, eds., Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1979). 74 Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy, 126. 75 Gross, Buddhism after Patriarchy, 127. 76 Associate Professor in Religious Studies at the University of Richmond, Virginia, USA. 77 Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). 78 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 198. 79 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 198, 199. 80 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 199.
dialectics that are favoured by monastics. Spiritual companionship is as capable of leading one to enlightenment as is the life of a monastic.81 Ann Carolyn Klein’s complicated scholarly work82 engages in a conversation between Buddhism and feminist theory. She uses the Great Bliss Queen, or Yeshe Tsogyal, an emanation of the female Buddha Vajrayogini, as a Buddhist archetype for the successful spiritual investigator who overcomes dualistic tendencies that obstruct awareness of the self and others.83
Judith Simmer-Brown’s84 published monograph85 on her study of the dakini, the elusive aspect of the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism highlights and encourages knowledge of the revered and closely guarded esoteric86 dakini lore. According to Simmer-Brown the dakini is the quintessence of a Tantric symbol.87 She is central to the Tantric tradition as a symbol of the spiritual subjectivity of the practitioner, female or male, and her “warm breath” is the expression of the dissolving of the conceptual mind and the dawning of wisdom.88
The Way Forward To return then to the more pressing situation of the unavailability of full ordination of nuns: At the first two-day roundtable discussion of the Meeting of Diverse Spiritual Traditions of India, convened by his Holiness the Dalai Lama on 20 September 2014 in Delhi, His Holiness himself spoke several times about the need to reassess certain aspects of Buddhist practice. The conference brochure states that “with the change of time, certain practices and rituals have become obsolete in all cultures and spiritual traditions. These old customs and rituals need to be reassessed.”89 The Dalai Lama continued to describe three categories which need to be considered when contemplating the adaptation of religious practices and rituals to be in line with current
81 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 205. 82 Anne Carolyn Klein, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of Self, (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2008). 83 Klein, Meeting the Great Bliss Queen, 20, 21. 84 Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado, USA 85 Judith Simmer-Brown, Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism, Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2001). 86 Simmer-Brown, Dakini’s Warm Breath, xviii. 87 Simmer-Brown, Dakini’s Warm Breath, 286. 88 Simmer-Brown, Dakini’s Warm Breath, 291. 89 Llundup Damcho, Personal Correspondence, 23 September 2014.
times, namely faith, philosophy, and culture. The basic structure of his argument was that since culture is based on the circumstances of its surrounding environment, and since this might change with time, the cultural aspects of religious practice can be changed.90 Presumably he implied here that gender bias was a cultural affectation and fell neither in the category of faith nor in the category of philosophy. At this same conference His Holiness similarly
spoke in favour of revising the rule that stipulates that Bhikṣhuṇis must always sit behind monks, including novice monks.91 This very galling seating arrangement has in recent years already been ignored by a number of progressive-thinking lamas and other leaders in the Tibetan Buddhist ecclesiastic community, notably His Holiness the Karmapa, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, and the Gyalwang Drukpa.92 In their temples and at conferences and teaching sessions where they are the main speakers, monks will sit on one side and nuns on the other side.
The Karmapa stated in October 2014 that women’s rights are human rights.93 He continued to say that violence is not just a physical phenomenon. It is a state of mind and heart that is not peaceful. Hatred and jealousy are the two most common causes of violence. Any solution to reduce or end violence must therefore also address these causes. Finally, the Karmapa made a historical announcement at the Second Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering at Tergar Monastery in India on 24 January 2015. He stated that he will start a process next year in which he will take concrete steps towards restoring nuns’ vows
in the Mulasarvastivada tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He proposes to begin by restoring the novice/getsulma vows as well as the training/shikshamana nuns’ vows. These will be conferred on a group of specially selected nuns with the assistance of highly accomplished senior nuns from the Chinese or Dharmagupta tradition. This will lay the foundation for the restoration of full ordination or gelongma/Bhikshuni nuns’ vows in the future. The Karmapa declared that the focus at the 2016 Third Arya Kshema Dharma Gathering will be reinstituting the
90 Damcho, Personal Correspondence, 23 September 2014. 91 Damcho, Personal Correspondence, 23 September 2014. 92 The Gyalwang Drukpa is the head of the Drukpa lineage of the Kagya school of Tibetan Buddhism to which Tenzin Palmo belongs. 93 The Karmapa: Official Website of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, “Women’s Empowerment NGO Sends Delegation to Meet Karmapa.”
<http://kagyuoffice.org/?s= Women%E2%80%99s+Empowerment+NGO+Sends+Delegation+to+Meet+Karmapa%2C %E2%80%9D/>..
getsulma and shikshamana vows for nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.94 Institutionalised gender bias in Tibetan Buddhism therefore has no sound doctrinal basis in view of the fact that the Buddhist pantheon is rife with female Buddhas, goddesses, dakinis, and other highly spiritual and enlightened women, and as evidenced in the publications of Gross, Shaw, Klein, and Simmer-
Brown. Gender hierarchy and male dominance is both contradictory to Buddhist principles and to the norms of a progressive society. It is therefore refreshing when a young and liberal monk such as the Karmapa, who is second only in importance to the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan Buddhist monastic hierarchy, takes this strong stance against gender inequality and takes action, in the face of resistance from the more conservative faction, to remedy the situation after years of feet dragging in the way of conferences, discussions, dissemination of texts, and other obscure excuses.
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