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Life as a Western Buddhist Nun
by Ven. Thubten Chödron

From Snow Lion Publications' 1996 Summer Supplement:

"...As Buddhist nuns, you are now participating in the evolution of a Buddhism for a new time, a time when the universal principle of the equality of all human beings takes precedence. It is heartening to observe, as your conference clearly demonstrates, that Buddhist women are casting off traditional and outmoded restraints. All of you have a great responsibility to take the essence of Buddhism and put it into practice in your own lives. Having taken ordination we must constantly remember that the primary reason for holding vows as a nun or a monk is to be able to dedicate ourselves to the practice of the Dharma. Even if only a few individuals try to create mental peace and happiness within themselves and act responsibly and kind-heartedly towards others, they will have a positive influence in their community. As well as being equally capable, women have an equal responsibility to do this..."

So reads a portion of the message that His Holiness the Dalai Lama sent for the opening ceremony of Life as a Western Buddhist Nun, a remarkable, first-of-its-kind event held in Bodhgaya, India, February 4-25, 1996. Approximately 90 women attended this educational program. Most of us were Western Buddhist nuns from the various Tibetan traditions. Joining us were four Chinese nuns, three Theravadin nuns, two Zen priests, and 20 ethnic Tibetan and Himalayan nuns, as well as some laywomen. The purposes of the program were to provide teachings on Vinaya (monastic discipline); to discuss topics which are seldom addressed directly in the traditional Dharma teachings by incorporating historical, sociological and psychological perspectives; to discuss questions and issues facing Western Buddhist nuns; to establish a feeling of community and support among Western Buddhist nuns; and to enable the Dharma to flourish in the West by training nuns, many of whom will become Dharma teachers, counselors, hospice workers and so forth.

We had a full daily schedule with meditation, three teaching sessions, and two discussion groups. Two excellent Vinaya masters were the principal teachers: Geshe Thubten Ngawang, a bhikshu from Sera Monastery who now teaches at Tibet Center in Germany, and Ven. Wu Yin, the head of the Luminary Temple in Taiwan. We also received teachings from Ling Rinpoche, Dorzong Rinpoche, Bero Khyentse Rinpoche, Geshe Sonam Rinchen, Khandro Rinpoche, Khenpo Choga, and Ven. Tashi Tsering. In the evenings, senior Western nuns gave talks.

One afternoon we went on pilgrimage to the Mahakala caves, and at the conclusion of the program we went on a four-day pilgrimage to major Buddhist sites. This led us to Dharamsala, where we had an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was pleased with our program and supportive of future activities and practice. Many of the nuns stayed for His Holiness' public teachings on the Lamrim Chenmo, and Life as a Western Buddhist Nun was one of the sponsors of the long life puja for him at the conclusion of the teachings.

Life as a Western Buddhist Nun was unique in many ways. First, there were women from a number of different countries, backgrounds and practice experiences. Second, we had an excellent teaching program, with concentrated Vinaya teachings. Such a program had never happened in this way for Western nuns before. Nuns in the Tibetan tradition also received teachings on the bhikshuni precepts. Many of the nuns noted how much they benefited from having female teachers -- Khandro Rinpoche and Ven. Wu Yin at the program. They also said how wonderful it was to be with other nuns. Many laywomen commented that the experience had increased their understanding and appreciation of the commitment Buddhist women have undertaken in being nuns.

In the two group discussion sessions each day, a number of important issues were addressed:

There were many ideas for future projects. Individual nuns committed themselves to these:

  1. To publish the Vinaya teachings given at Life as a Western Buddhist Nun and to make them available to nuns who could not attend the program as well as to future generations of nuns
  2. To prepare a booklet for Westerners who are considering ordination that would help them contemplate the meaning and purpose of ordination
  3. To organize a six-week course studying a Vinaya text
  4. To establish a training program for prospective nuns and for newly ordained nuns
  5. To print a booklet describing Life as a Western Buddhist Nun for the nuns who were not able to attend the program, the benefactors, and Dharma centers
  6. To do yar.ne - the rainy season retreat - together in the West. Or, if it is not possible to meet in the summer, to have a retreat at another time of the year when we could live together and study Vinaya
  7. Ven Wu Yin will edit the audio tapes of her teachings and make them available.

During our audience with His Holiness, we asked about the deeper meaning and purpose of being a monastic. He replied, "Becoming a monk or nun, without family, it very good for the practice of the Buddhadharma because the basic aim of Dharma practice is nirvana, not just day-to-day happiness. We seek nirvana, permanent cessation of samsaric suffering, so we want to pacify the factors that bind us in the samsaric world. The chief of these is attachment. Therefore the main purpose of being a monastic is to reduce clinging attachment to worldly pleasures...When you personally experience some deeper value as a result of your practice, then no matter what other people do, what other people say, your happiness is not affected, because through your own experience you are convinced that yes, there is some good thing there."

For more information, please contact Life as a Western Buddhist Nun secretary, Sarah Porter, 711 N 70 St, Seattle, WA 98103. Telephone: (206) 782-7873.

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