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Karma Lekshe Tsomo: Buddhist nuns in the global community

Communities of nuns have been a feature of life in Buddhist societies since early times. Buddha Sakyamuni recommended the renunciant path as the most effective means for achieving liberation and many women were attracted to this path, beginning with the Buddha’s own stepmother and aunt, Mahaprajapati Gautami. Like other renunciants in the Buddha’s day, Buddhist monks and nuns lived a simple celibate life, limiting desires, attachments, and worldly distractions in order to focus on spiritual practice. Free of mundane involvements, Buddhist renunciants were able to concentrate wholeheartedly on achieving liberation and enlightenment.

The Beginnings and Diffusion of the Bhiksuni Sangha

The order of Buddhist nuns began when Mahaprajapati asked the Buddha to admit women to the Sangha. Despite some initial hesitation, the Buddha acknowledged that women are fully capable of realizing the fruits of the path and achieving liberation. With the Buddha’s approval, the Bhiksuni Sangha was established just five or six years after the founding of the Bhiksu Sangha. Under the able leadership of Mahaprajapati, the community of nuns flourished and thousands of women became arhats, purifying their minds and liberating themselves from suffering and rebirth. The ancient Buddhist texts record the names of many of these early Buddhist nuns, who were recognized by the Buddha for their special attainments: Khema for her wisdom, Dhammadinna for teaching abilities, Nanda for her meditation, and so on.

The Buddha taught a path of mental cultivation that is equally effective for women and for men, and theoretically women have equal potential to achieve liberation. But, perhaps due to the patriarchal nature of Indian society, the standards of monastic discipline for nuns are more stringent than those for monks. According to tradition, Mahaprajapati was required to accept eight special rules (gurudharmas) that technically made the bhiksunis (fully ordained nuns) subordinate to the order of bhiksus (fully ordained monks). As the Bhiksuni Sangha evolved, nuns were required to follow almost one hundred more precepts than monks.

In everyday life, however, the nuns managed their own communities, made their own decisions, and selected who and when new members would join their ranks. Monks offered the nuns advice twice a month, stayed nearby for protection during the three-month rainy season retreat, and participated in the formal induction of new members of the Bhiksuni Sangha, but otherwise Buddhist nuns functioned independently of outside control, which represented a new and very welcome form of social liberation for women at that time. For women of the Buddha’s day, the renunciant life was not only a means of achieving spiritual liberation, it also freed them from the constraints of family life, which at that time required obedience to their husband and in-laws, the sufferings of repeated childbirth, and endless household drudgery.

There is historical evidence that the order of Buddhist nuns survived and thrived in India for fifteen centuries. During the third century BCE, the daughter of Emperor Asoka, who was named Sanghamitra, was invited to Sri Lanka to conduct the ordination of Queen Anula and hundreds of Sri Lanka women who wished to become nuns. Arriving from India with a sapling of the bodhi tree, she established the Bhiksuni Sangha that continued to exist in Sri Lanka until at least the ninth century CE. The lineage of full ordination for nuns was transmitted to China in the fifth century CE, when a bhiksuni named Devasara set out on a two-year journey to Nanjing. In the year 433 CE, she and her companions conducted a bhiksuni ordination ceremony for hundreds of Chinese nuns. This was the beginning of the Bhiksuni Sangha in China that spread to Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan, and continues to the present day. In the past few decades, Buddhist women from Sri Lanka and other countries have begun to revive the Bhiksuni Sangha in their own traditions by receiving full ordination from the bhiksuni lineages that have continued in those countries over the centuries.

Like the Colors of the Rainbow

The lives of Buddhist nuns today vary widely, depending on the tradition, the country, the monastery, and the person. These nuns wear robes of many colors, speak different languages, devote themselves to a variety of Buddhist practices, and live different lifestyles. The common threads of their lifestyle are a shaved head, monastic robes, and codes of ethical discipline. The central ethical principles they live by are the precepts common to all Buddhists: to refrain from taking life, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants. In contrast to lay Buddhists, who are enjoined to abstain from sexual misconduct, however, Buddhist nuns (and monks) make a commitment to refrain from sexual activity entirely. Their celibate lifestyle means that they do not marry or have intimate relationships, a voluntary decision that frees them from many of the typical responsibilities of household life.

Buddhist nuns live in many different countries around the world today, from Cambodia to Mongolia, Sweden, and New Zealand. Their robes range from white, orange, and brown in the Theravada countries, to grey, black, and purple in East Asia, to maroon and yellow in the Tibetan cultural region. Their languages range the gamut, from endangered tribal dialects in Bangladesh to contemporary English slang in London. Their lifestyles range from the mendicant practice of daily alms rounds in Sri Lanka to vegetarian feasts in temples in Taiwan. Some Buddhist nuns make a lifelong commitment not to handle money, while others have nine-to-five jobs and mortgages. Some Buddhist nuns focus on solitary meditation practice, while others run busy temples or keep international teaching schedules. Some are strictly vegetarian, refraining from eggs, onions, and garlic, while others eat whatever they are given, including meat. Many are illiterate, while others hold PhDs. All this variety enhances the richness and complexity of modern day Buddhist nuns.

Nuns of the Theravada Traditions

Nuns practicing in the Theravada tradition live in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, with smaller communities in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Vietnam. These nuns strive to live a lifestyle similar to that of the early Buddhist nuns. They dress in simple cotton robes, live on alms food donated by the lay community, and refrain from taking solid food after midday. The dasasil mata of Sri Lanka wears orange or brown robes, the tila shin of Burma wears pink and brown, while the donchee of Cambodia, the maekhao of Laos, and the maechee of Thailand wear white. It is estimated that there are 2,000 nuns in Sri Lanka, 60,000 in Burma, 900 in Cambodia, 400 in Laos, and 20,000 in Thailand. These nuns observe eight, nine, or ten precepts. In addition to the lay precepts mentioned above, they refrain from wearing ornaments, singing and dancing, using high beds and seats, and eating solid food after midday. Nuns with ten precepts also refrain from handling silver, gold, or money, but even so, are not recognized as sramanerika (novice nuns), due to the lack of bhiksunis to ordain them.

Nuns in the Theravada tradition chant Pali suttas and meditate for an hour early in the morning and an hour in the evening. In addition, they typically practice vipassana meditation daily and go for periodic teachings and meditation retreats. Some live a quiet, contemplative lifestyle, consciously separating themselves from the distractions and temptations of mainstream society. Others live in villages, towns, or urban centers, where they serve the spiritual needs of the laity by reciting paritta (protective chants), and receive material support in return. Many also serve as counselors and Dhamma teachers, especially to women and children, and offer valuable support to large temples and monasteries.

Until recently, full bhikkhuni ordination was not available to nuns in the Theravada tradition. The tradition of full ordination for women begun by the Buddha with the ordination of Mahaprajapati, died out in some countries (such as Burma, India, and Sri Lanka) and was never established in others (such as Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand). Without full ordination, nuns are not considered members of the Sangha (monastic community) and therefore receive less material support, fewer educational opportunities, and less respect than monks. They may live in independent communities or in communities attached to monks’ monasteries. In recent years, some have also become active in social work and, since 1988, some have also begun to seek full ordination. The largest community of Theravada bhikkhunis today is in Sri Lanka, where nearly 500 nuns have sought full ordination and helped reestablish the Bhikkhuni Sangha, thus restoring Sanghamitra’s ancient legacy.

Nuns of the Mahayana Traditions

Nuns of the Mahayana tradition practice in lineages derived either from China or Tibet. The lineage of nuns that was transmitted to China from Sri Lanka in the fourth century CE subsequently spread to Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and to the Chinese diaspora in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and around the world. Nuns in these traditions live a lifestyle that was adapted to meet the different living conditions in colder climates and cultures quite different from India. Instead of going for alms, they receive donations of vegetarian food which they cook for themselves and often supplement their diet with vegetables they grow themselves. Nuns in these traditions wear robes in somber shades of black or grey sewn in a style derived from a Tang-dynasty scholar’s robe. It is estimated that there are 20,000 nuns in Korea, 2,000 in Japan, 20,000 in Taiwan, 14,000 in Vietnam, several thousand in China, and hundreds more in the overseas Chinese communities.

The bhiksuni tradition is strong in most Mahayana communities. Women who wish to become nuns are trained under the guidance of senior bhiksunis, though they may learn meditation and Buddhist texts with either nuns or monks. Nuns of these communities gather every morning and evening to chant sutras in Chinese, mantras in Sanskrit, and prayers in their own languages. At specific times of the lunar calendar, they hold Dharma gatherings devoted to various specific Buddhas and bodhisattvas, chanting for several hours morning and evening, sometimes for several days. Practices devoted to Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite life and light, and Avalokitesvara (Chinese: Guanyin), the bodhisattva of compassion, are especially popular. Large numbers of laywomen from the neighboring community join the nuns for these special Dharma gatherings and offer generous donations of food, flowers, and money to support the ongoing expenses of the nuns’ communities. In a reciprocal relationship, the nuns offer Dharma teachings, meditation, family counseling, funeral ceremonies, bereavement counseling, Dharma camps for children and young adults, and classes in vegetarian cooking, flower arrangement, and so forth.

In the last few decades, Buddhism has flourished in most Mahayana countries, largely due to the devotion and hard work of nuns. With great foresight, Buddhists in these countries have established many new educational institutions that provide four- or five-year programs in Buddhist studies attended by nuns, monks, and laypeople alike. As a result of these comprehensive education and training programs, nuns have become very active in society and expanded their range of services to publishing, translation, health care, prison outreach, children’s programs, elder care, hospice work, and many other activities.

Nuns of the Tibetan Traditions

The history of Buddhist nuns in the Tibetan tradition is very long but, like the histories of women in other parts of the world, is largely unrecorded. In addition to Tibet itself, the Tibetan cultural region includes Bhutan; Mongolia; the mountain regions of Nepal; Buryatia, Kalmukia, and other regions of the former Soviet Union; the Himalayan border regions of Kinnaur, Ladakh, Lahaul, Spiti, and Zangskar; and the Tibetan community in exile in India, Nepal, and other countries. Nuns live in most of these areas, but are far fewer in numbers and influence than monks. They generally live by the ten precepts of a srmaerik (subdivided into thirty-six) and are recognized as members of the Sagha. Although there are scattered references to bhiksunis in Tibetan texts, the lineage of full ordination for women was never officially established in the Tibetan tradition. The journey over the snowy Himalayas from India to Tibet was treacherous enough for monks, let alone nuns.

There are an estimated 1,290 nuns of the Tibetan tradition living in India and Nepal. At least as many live in Tibet, despite the communist occupation, but it is difficult to get accurate numbers.The majority of these nuns are engaged in contemplative practices, including meditation and tantric ritual practices of the Vajrayana tradition. Through the practice of visualizing oneself as a bodhisattva or fully enlightened Buddha, it is believed possible to achieve all the enlightened qualities of the yidam (meditational deity). For example, by meditating upon oneself in the form of Avalokitesvara (Tibetan: Chenresig), the bodhisattva of compassion, one gradually comes to embody the quality of perfect compassion in oneself. In the tantric tradition, it is believed that a person can become enlightened in this very body, in this very life. Consequently, it is believed possible to achieve the perfect enlightenment of a Buddha in female form. Some of the most popular Buddhas and bodhisattvas, such as Tara and Vajrayogini, are female and are used as meditational deities by both women and men.

Until the 1980s, most nuns in the Tibetan tradition focused primarily on chanting, ritual, and meditation. Due to a tradition of segregating male and female monastics, the systematic Buddhist studies programs offered in the three great monastic universities reestablished in south India (Drepung, Ganden, and Sera) and the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala were not open to nuns. They could receive Buddhist teachings privately and in large public gatherings, but did not have access to the systematic study of Buddhist texts. The ideal monastery for nuns was located in a secluded spot, which limited the nuns’ contact with lay society, but also limited nuns’ access to religious education, except during Buddhist festivals. The communist invasions of Tibet, Mongolia, and Soviet Buddhist regions in the twentieth century had tragic consequences for nuns, as well as monks and laypeople. As a result, nuns rarely acquired a thorough religious education or recognition as Dharma teachers.

Despite these obstacles, remarkable changes have occurred in the lives of nuns in the Tibetan cultural region in the past twenty years. Nuns have enthusiastically sought teachings and guidance from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other lamas who were educated in Tibet before the communist takeover. Gaining inspiration from these teachers, and also encouraged by feminist ideas of women’s empowerment, nuns have worked to establish study programs and practice centers for Buddhist women throughout the Himalayan region. Educational initiatives have opened up new opportunities for nuns to study philosophy and debate. Beginning in Dharamsala and spreading to Nepal and the Himalayan border region, nuns of the Tibetan tradition are now training in the rigorous monastic curriculum of Buddhist dialectics and meeting annually for intermural debate tournaments. Monasteries are filled to overflowing with nuns who are eager to study these challenging texts. With increased education and encouragement have come greater self-confidence, recognition, and respect for nuns, and nuns are now able to make greater contributions to the preservation and dissemination of their ancient Buddhist heritage.

Buddhist Nuns in Modern Society

The year 1987 was a turning point for Buddhist women, and especially for nuns. In that year, nuns were the focus of the first Sakyadhita international conference on Buddhist women ever held. The decision to focus on nuns was very conscious, resulting from an awareness of the hardships and gender discrimination that nuns faced at that time. Nuns in many countries had been neglected and lacked adequate nutrition, health care, and education. The need for education was so great that many nuns at the conference advocated that education should be a central focus of Sakyadhita, the new international Buddhist women’s organization. The keynote address by H. H. Dalai Lama was a great honor for Buddhist women and his insistence on the importance of education was very encouraging. Spurred by this first Sakyadhita conference, Buddhist women became motivated to improve conditions for women, especially nuns, in all the Buddhist traditions. A major thrust of the organization has been to make available to Buddhist women of all nations the highest level of education, ordination, and commitment to Buddhist ideals.

Since 1987, many institutions and programs to benefit Buddhist nuns have begun. An international network of Buddhist women has led to exchanges of information and resources resulting in many new monasteries, retreat centers, and study programs. Donors in more economically developed countries, especially Buddhist nuns in Taiwan and other countries, have helped women in developing countries to establish literacy programs, schools, meditation centers, women’s shelters, health clinics, and orphanages. Nuns in countries that lack full ordination for women have begun to receive the bhiku precepts from Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese nuns. Since 1988, almost five hundred Sri Lankan nuns have received full ordination from Korean and Taiwanese nuns, which has led to the restoration of the Bhikkhu Sagha in Sri Lanka. Nuns from Thailand, Indonesia, and western countries have also received full ordination in this way.

Toward the Future

Throughout Buddhist history, there have been great Buddhist nuns, but the lives of nuns have generally been overshadowed by those of monks. In patriarchal Buddhist societies, where preference is given to male children in families, schools, and monasteries, female children have had to struggle for food, health care, education, and the right to live a contemplative life. Even though Buddhist women may pursue the religious life, Buddhist nuns have often been poorly supported, undereducated, and neglected. In the last two decades, a new awareness of the inequalities that exist between nuns and monks has developed and changes are being made to correct these inequalities.

With a new global ethic of social justice and equality for women, the inequalities present in Buddhist societies have been exposed as being contrary to Buddhist ideals. The Buddha is often held up as a model of social equality and Buddhism is generally regarded as a path that offers equal opportunities for all, regardless of race, class, or gender. The disparity between Buddhist social ideals and the inequalities that exist in Buddhist societies can no longer be ignored. For Buddhism to be taken seriously as a resource for positive change in society today, Buddhists must correct the social injustices that exist in their own societies and institutions, and bring social realities in line with Buddhist teachings. For women, this means gaining equal opportunities for education, ordination, and access to Buddhist teachings. The changes must not been merely token or cosmetic or occasional, but thorough and genuine, which requires a transformation of attitudes about women. To demonstrate that Buddhists are acting in good faith and that the Buddhist teachings truly have the power to transform society, Buddhist women must have an equal voice and equal opportunities to achieve well-being and enlightenment. The changes that are occurring for Buddhist women around the world today are very encouraging and can become a beacon of hope for women in other societies.

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