Sakyadhfta: Daughters of the Buddha is the result of the first International Conference of Buddhist Nuns. At this gathering women Buddhist renunciates from East and West talked candidly about their lives - their joys, their problems and their future as Buddhist nuns in the modern world.
This book aims at linking and encouraging women on the spiritual path through the ideas and experience of Buddhist women practitioners from various countries and traditions. It investigates how women can avoid personal exploitation and maximize their potentialities for enlightenment as well as how to effectively help institute full bhiksuni ordination worldwide and contribute to redressing the gender imbalance as a major step toward planetary well-being.
Out of this historic meeting has grown an international organization called Sakyadhita: International 'Association of Buddhist Women.
Karma Lekshe Tsomo received a Master's Degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii in 1971 and studied for five years at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala. She received sramanerika ordination in 1977, bhiksuni ordination in 1982, and is currently studying at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala.
This book is essentially an abridgement of the proceedings of the International Conference on Buddhist Nuns, the first worldwide gathering of its kind ever to be held in history. The talks, discussions, and personal exchanges were taped during the conference in Bodhgaya, India. They were then transcribed, typed, and edited in Dharamsala, a small hill station and Tibetan refugee settlement in the Himalayas where His Holiness the Dalai Lama resides.
Nuns, monks, and laypeople from many different countries took an interest in this project, contributing their energy and talents with warmhearted enthusiasm. The transcripts of the talks presented at the conference as well as a composite of the ideas that emerged in response to those talks were written first in longhand. I, an American nun from Honolulu and one of the three organizers of the conference, then typed them out on a manual typewriter while sitting cross-legged in a forest hut. The work was completed in this pleasant ambience in good time, despite the humidity of the monsoon season and the rather primitive working conditions.
Buddhists often say that hindrances attend most worthwhile endeavors. This may be so, considering the number of disruptions that arose in relation to this publication. From the moment plans for the conference began, through completion of the book, obstacles cropped up with astonishing regularity: illness ranging from amoebas to hepatitis, thefts of type- writers, tape recorders and tapes, four unsuccessful attempts
to tape His Holiness the Dalai Lama's talk at the opening ceremony, lapses in water and power supplies, monsoon floods and leakage, rodents, scorpions, accidents, and many other interruptions of dazzling variety. Yet innumerable blessings and small miracles also came our way. From these humble beginnings, the participants at the conference and other contributors to this book aim at nothing less than the spiritual awakening of half the human race-women's liberation in the truest sense-so a few stumbling blocks can no doubt be expected.
Under the circumstances, the reader is asked to excuse any errors or flaws in presentation. Since this book is a composite of many people's viewpoints, there is a wide range of style and tone. While some of the pieces included were carefully formulated papers, the majority were totally extemporaneous talks. Speakers included laypeople as well as nuns, arriving from many countries and representing various religious traditions. Many were experiencing their primal landing on the mysterious Indian subcontinent, and were in the process of adjusting to all its wonders and inconveniences. Their approaches may differ, but the conference served a definite purpose in allowing Buddhist nuns a chance to meet and freely discuss their views. The discussions that took place revealed the need for further thought and action on issues of vital concern to Buddhist women.
Female mendicants at the end of the twentieth century find themselves literally in No Man's Land, seeking to gain their spiritual footing. Exploration of women's spiritual potential is an adventure in vaguely charted territory, on a path which transcends territoriality. As I look at the well-read books upon the window sill just now-Monastic Discipline for Buddhist Nuns, Gyn/Ecology, Meditation on Emptiness, Nepalese Women, Aikido: The Way of Harmony-it is clear that I and many of this generation are attempting to synthesize a multitude of seemingly divergent ideas and methods to apply in our personal development. My prayer beads are perched upon a Sony Walkman, prayer book atop the typewriter-classic dichotomies, yet each item serves its function in a larger scenario. People in the modern world concerned with non-material goals have more tools and knowledge than ever before. Although we are advancing headlong into a multitude of unknowns, if we proceed with positive motivation, our potential for effecting good in the world is greater than at any previous point in history.
The flowers seen from my window were in bloom when the idea of the conference first took shape and are in full bloom again as the words documenting it take shape-the life cycle of a dahlia, a brief but significant cycle in the life of a Buddhist nun. Writing by candlelight, sipping tea prepared on a kerosene stove, momentarily relishing the quietude of this forest retreat, I rejoice in the opportunity to share experiences born of a visionary concept -a universal congregation of spiritual friends drawn together to celebrate the potentials of Buddhist women. I hope that some of the attendant joy will reach the reader.
It is a tremendous honor and at the same time an immense responsibility to address the powerful topic of women in religion. Having spent most of the past twenty years in Asia, I admit to being somewhat out of touch with both feminist thought and Western Buddhism. Living continuously in an Asian culture, one faces a different everyday reality.
Life in an Asian village is often feared, often glamorized, but in truth it contains both the awesome and the ordinary. The age-old pleasures and struggles of humanity are enjoyed and endured, tempered by mutual social agreements and blending into the larger collage of universal joys and sorrows. As a woman, I am more in touch with the women of my community. As a nun, I am most in touch with the religious life of the community. As a foreigner, I have space, time, and a special perspective. The experience is demanding and frustrating as well as enriching and instructive.
Even after living for more than ten years as a Buddhist nun in Buddhist communities, I cannot presume to make a comprehensive survey of women in Buddhism. Nevertheless, since there are many Buddhist women these days who are seeking spiritual inspiration and encouragement, the conference proceedings and a blend of ideas formulated during and subsequent to the conference are being presented here in the hope that women on the spiritual path can learn from each other's experiences.
If ever there has been a silent minority among Buddhist practitioners, it is the nuns. Many people do not realize they exist. Even in traditionally Buddhist countries, nuns seem more or less invisible. There is a strong likelihood that they would remain that way, except that Buddhist women in Western countries have begun to take an interest in them. Increased attention has been called to the auxiliary, often second-rate position that nuns hold in relation to the monks. Now, emboldened by feminist thought, both Asian and Western Buddhist sisters gradually are beginning to see themselves in a new light.
The present volume collects the ideas and experiences of women who attended or contributed in other ways to the conference on Buddhist nuns in Bodhgaya. Here are women with new-found voices speaking from their hearts on issues that concern them deeply and immediately. These issues primarily relate to the spiritual development of ordained Buddhist women and their role in both Buddhist and secular society, but these issues have relevance for monks and laypeople also, in that they are concerned with important aspects of Buddhist life both in the East and the West. We explore the meaning and value of celibacy in spiritual development and discuss the role of women in religion during times of social and cultural change.
It is significant that the first international gathering of Buddhist puns was held in India, the birthplace of Buddhism and a land central to religious thought. At the time of the Buddha, innumerable women braved poverty, danger, and loneliness, leaving their homes to follow the path of the Enlightened One. Since that time, the goal of liberation has inspired generations of women, both in India and beyond, to lives of renunciation. Today there are barely a dozen ethnic Indian nuns practicing Buddhism, and they are scattered widely, lacking monasteries, instruction, and support. Yet communities of Buddhist nuns can be found throughout Asia, and individual nuns live in such unpredictable places as Poland, New Zealand, Norway, and Brazil.
Considering the scope of material covered, it may be helpful to set forth at the very outset the major premises upon which the ideas in this book are formulated. One supposition -is that since human beings are interested in achieving happiness, naturally they should be interested in gaining enlightenment, the liberating awakened state of mind that is free of suffering and is capable of leading others out of suffering. The next supposition is that women are equally destined, perhaps especially gifted (judging from the relative numbers of women drawn to religion and the contemplative life), to realize this enlightened mode of being. Recognizing that beings assume myriad forms in the course of their evolution, it is also important to recognize that in different lifetimes a person may make progress toward enlightenment as either a woman or a man. Another supposition is that, whether a person interested in enlightenment is a woman or a man, it generally is more efficient to work toward this goal unencumbered by the distractions of family life. Last is the supposition that those women and men who choose to lead the homeless life are entitled to full ordination, and that society as a whole will gain from their appearing in the aspect of bhiksunis and bhihsus, meaning fully ordained nuns and monks. At present, women everywhere do not have this right, though the Buddha originally granted it.
To reiterate, the viewpoint presented here is that beings will gain happiness through seeking enlightenment, that female and male beings should have an equal opportunity to seek that goal, that the homeless state is desirable for many beings seeking that goal, and that homeless ones have a right to seek full ordination, whether they be female or male. Each of these suppositions will be addressed in subsequent chapters.
These days there are many good basic, intermediate, and advanced books on Buddhist thought and practice. This volume assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the field on the reader's part. We shall proceed to dive headlong into the topic at hand, namely, the role and future of women, especially ordained women, within Buddhist and secular society. This topic has relevance not only for Buddhist women, but for all Buddhists and for all women following the spiritual path.
Buddhism is broad enough to accommodate a wide range of ideas and attitudes. If people do not find what they are looking for in one tradition, they are free to explore others. The specter of people forsaking the Buddhist teachings on the grounds that they are sexist is alarming and dismaying. The impulse may be understandable but, especially in the West today, a vast array of approaches is available and certainly not all these approaches are sexist. Those that are sexist can be changed.
New Buddhists are not bound to one tradition by birth, but may freely choose the teacher or vehicle they wish to follow. This fact will exert an influence upon existing schools to liberalize their attitudes and their estimation of women's capacity for spiritual achievement. Those traditions that are open- minded and egalitarian will thrive. Those that cling to gender prejudices will have difficulty surviving.
The key point here is that spiritual development is essentially an individual affair. Institutions may limit women's participation in the outer sphere, but no one can limit their inner development. Spiritual transformation occurs within. This inner transformation is an intensely personal experience and does not depend exclusively on external conditions. No one can stop a person from meditating, even in prison. Many supposed limitations, both inner and outer, are of our own creation.
Nevertheless, one characteristic of the female form is often pointed out as the major disadvantage of a female rebirth' its vulnerability to pregnancy and the responsibilities of parenting which fall largely upon the mother. I cannot be denied that if a woman has children and family duties to attend to, her formal meditation practice will be curtailed, at least to some extent, for fifteen to twenty years or longer. This is true for responsible fathers, too. Real life is full of examples of women and men who have virtually had to put their spiritual life "on hold" due to these responsibilities in their personal life.
Time and freedom for spiritual practice are the chief ad- vantages of the ordained life. When we consider that in most cultures women play the greater part in the upbringing of children, we see that ordination is even more advantageous for women than for r.ien. Asian Buddhist nuns are well aware of this and candidly say, "We are so lucky to be nuns. We don't have to have babies."
Luckily, for sensible women in this day and age, mother- hood has become a choice rather than an obligation. It is a choice that spiritually inclined women need to face squarely and realistically. In practicing Dharma after having children, one runs up against many choice less situations. However much such situations may contribute to one's spiritual growth, there is no denying that family life is both time and energy consuming. It is not merely a monastic prejudice to say that one's range of options is broader before childbearing than after. The choices we make with regard to lifestyle are an individual matter; the important thing is to be clear about our choices.
One beauty of modern education is the attempt to link history and theory with contemporary social reality. And one social reality that intensely affects fully half the world's population is that of being female. It is time to deal straightforwardly with the gender issue as it relates to all facets of human experience. The topic of women's religious experience is particularly fascinating and deserves meaningful investigation, especially by those who are directly involved in it. Here we hope to explore women's past, present, and future in the Buddhist context particularly looking at what the place of ordained women has been and could be in terms of their own personal spiritual growth and their potential to benefit others.
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