Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 15 Summer 2017
On a warm evening last November, 15,000 people gathered in Jhong Jheng Stadium in Kaohsiung, a large city in southern Taiwan. They weren't there for a soccer match or a political rally, two types of events that typically draw large crowds. The enthusiastic audience came, instead, to cheer the accomplishments of bhikshunis—fully ordained Buddhist nuns. For the handful of Western Buddhist nuns in attendance, the roar of support was astonishing.
The occasion was the first ever Global Bhikkhuni Awards ceremony, sponsored by the Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association of Taiwan (CBBA). Fifty fully ordained nuns—bhikkhuni in Pail and bhikshuni in Sanskrit1 —from twelve countries received the commendation that recognizes their efforts in a number of fields. Just a month later, in South India, there was rejoicing as the first 20 Tibetan and Himalayan nuns received Tibetan Buddhism's highest scholastic attainment, the geshe degree. Taken together, these and other achievements made 2016 a great year for Buddhist nuns. Their stories inspired this issue of American Buddhist Women.
The Four-Fold Assembly Revives
Sutra tells us that before Buddha even began to teach, he had a clear vision of how his doctrine would be carried forward through the ages by the four-fold assembly—fully ordained monks and nuns and male and female lay practitioners.
In the Pali Mahaparinibbana Sutta he says,
I will not take final Nibbana until I have bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men and lay women followers, who are accomplished, trained, skilled, learned, knowers of the Dhamma, trained in conformity with the Dhamma, correctly trained and walking in the path of the Dhamma, who will pass on what they have gained from their Teacher, teach it, declare it, establish it, expound it, analyze it, make it clear, until they shall be able by means of the Dhamma to refute false teachings that have arisen, and teach the Dhamma of wondrous effect. (3. 34-35)
We are fortunate that the lineage of the Buddha's teachings has carried forth to this day, but the composition of the four-fold assembly has had its ups and downs, particularly with regard to nuns.
From the very beginning, it has not been easy. Perhaps you know the story, as told in the Pali scriptures, of how the Buddha's stepmother, Mahapajapati Gotami, asked the Buddha to allow her and 500 women to go forth into the homeless life, just as his bhikkhu sangha had done. Three times Mahapajapati Gotami made her request, and three times the Buddha replied, "Do not ask this." Reading this, I can't help but flinch at the women's frustration and admire their determination, as they then shaved their heads and walked to present-day Vaisali to silently continue their plea.
Their tears of disappointment had power, moving the Buddha's attendant, Ananda, to intervene on their behalf. He asked if, indeed, women have the capacity to attain liberation and full awakening.
The Buddha's answer was clear. As recorded in Cullavagga 10 of the Vinaya basket of teachings, he replied "Women, Ananda, having gone forth, are able to realize the fruit of stream-enterer or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or arahantship.“ In other words, yes indeed, women can attain liberation and awakening.
Maybe the question had to be asked so the Buddha could go on record with the answer. In an article on the history of the bhikkhuni sangha, Bhikkhuni Dhammananda (formerly Dr. Chatsumarn Kabalsingh) writes, "This statement opened a new horizon in the world of religion in general at that time. Previously, no founder of any religion had proclaimed men and women to have equal potential for enlightenment." 2 According to tradition, he also laid down eight "heavy rules" as a condition for ordination, ensuring the nuns' subordination to the monks.
Contemporary scholars question aspects of the texts that describe the founding of the nun's order and speculate about why the Buddha initially rejected Mahapajapati Gotami's request.3 The indisputable result, however, is that the Buddha ordained his stepmother, establishing the lineage of fully ordained nuns. And regardless of their authenticity, these stories have defined the paths of ordained Buddhist women throughout the millennia.
While communities of fully ordained nuns have flourished in some Buddhist countries, they disappeared from others long ago. In others—notably Thailand and Tibet—it is generally believed that a bhikshuni lineage was never established.4
Still, women have followed their hearts, followed their karma, followed their passion to live the Buddhadharma and carry out the Buddha's clear injunction for the four-fold assembly to spread his teachings. Some have enjoyed the privileges and responsibilities of fully ordained nuns; others have had to fashion a religious life out of whatever pieces of doctrine their societies would allow. Most others have practiced as laywomen. Inspired by the clarity of the Buddha's teaching on the nature of reality, moved by his example to penetrate their own minds in order to free themselves from cyclic existence, and—in some cases—inspired by the aspiration to free all beings as well, women have persisted through millennia to practice the Buddhadharma.
Today, as readers of this magazine know, there is a worldwide movement to bring monastic women practitioners to the full status that the Buddha intended for them.
I believe it is important to insist that full ordination for Buddhist women is not only a women's issue; it's about the flourishing of the Dharma for the welfare of all beings—men and women, ordained and lay, human and non-human. When women have equal opportunity for full ordination and Dharma education, the Buddha's four-fold assembly is complete. When fully ordained nuns take the sangha's full responsibility to practice and propagate the scriptural and realized Dharma, they enrich the entire society, as we can see from Buddhism's influence in Taiwan.
The fact that the Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association reached around the world to acknowledge Buddhist nuns from 12 countries illustrates where we are today. Unique to any other time in history, cross-cultural and cross-tradition support is available to all Buddhists, and Sakyadhita International has led the way over the last 30 years. That support is a treasured resource. You will see multiple examples of it in the stories that follow. Please note, too, how these stories illustrate the essential interdependence of lay and ordained practitioners.
"If you can see it, you can be it" is a popular phrase among advocates of mentoring in education. It means that students of all ages learn best and have higher achievement when they see that someone like them has accomplished what they aspire to do. For example, only three out of 100 women who begin their college studies in science, technology, engineering, and math actually become professional in their fields.5 However, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science5 found that 100% of female engineering students who were mentored by more senior women scientists stayed in school through the critical second year of training, the time of greatest attrition.
What's true for female scientists is also true for female monastics. We present the stories in this issue of the American Buddhist Woman with the belief that as Buddhists see the possibilities for flourishing bhikshuni sanghas, more will grow. Assuming that "if you can see it, you can be it" is true, we offer these stories as inspiration for individuals who have the external and internal conditions to ordain, and for qualified monastics, working in tandem with the lay Buddhist community, to establish monasteries and communities of practice.
In this issue you will learn more about the Global Bhikkhuni Award and hear about the founding of the World Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association. We interview four of the US-based Global Bhikkhuni Award recipients and introduce you to the remaining four.
In keeping with the theme of nuns' achievements, you will meet one of the first Himalayan nuns to receive Tibetan Buddhism's geshe degree. Following the theme of cross-cultural support, you will read reflections on why a young Asian woman chose an American monastery for ordination and training as a Buddhist nun. We have also included a brief history of bhikshunis as background on the issue.
Personally, working on these article and interviews has been a huge inspiration, deepening my commitment—already strong—to support my teacher and all the American sangha in deeply rooting the Buddhadharma within the culture of our troubled country. May you, too, be inspired. Let's work together to make this the century of the four-fold assembly. Let's support one another to realize and share Buddha's teachings, thus creating peace in our chaotic world.
1 Throughout this issue, we have used bhikkhuni and bhikshuni interchangeably, depending on the practice tradition of the story's subject.
2 Kabilsingh, Chatsumarn (Dhammananda), "The History of the Bhikkhuni Sangha." In Blossoms of the Dharma, edited by Thubten Chodron, 19. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1999.
3 An excellent anthology of scholarship on this topic is published in Dignity & Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns, edited by Thea Mohr and Bhikshuni Dr. Jampa Tsoedroen. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010, from presentations at the International Congress on Women's Role in Sangha, Hamburg, 2007.
4 Recent revelations challenge the long-held belief that there were no bhikshunis in Tibet and Thailand. Read
"The Karmapa Unfolds His Thoughts about the Bhikshuni Vows,” which enumerates the record of bhiksunis in ancient Tibet and Tathaloka Theri’s article, "Glimmers of a Thai Bhikkhuni Sangha History v2.2," published on Academia.edu, which shows bhiksuni presence in the regions which are now Thailand.
5 Charlie Wood, "Can Female Mentors Patch the Leaky STEM Pipeline?" Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2017, https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2017/0606/Can-female-mentors-patch-the-leaky-STEM-pipeline and Tara C. Dennehy and Nilanjana Dasgupta, "Female peer mentors early in college increase women’s positive academic experiences and retention in engineering," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, May 22, 2017, http://www.pnas.org/content/114/23/5964.abstract?sid=cf2e3970-01fe-4b3d-a44f-cd5d214dcd27
The sangha ordains a new nun at Sravasti Abbey. Photo by Gen Heywood.
Bhikshuni Thubten Chonyi
A native of Atlanta, Bhikshuni Thubten Chonyi began Dharma study with Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron in Seattle in 1996 and has followed her teacher closely ever since. Ven. Chonyi was a founder of Friends of Sravasti Abbey, the network of lay volunteers that has helped Ven. Chodron and the Abbey since its beginning. Recognizing the extraordinary opportunity to fully immerse herself in practice, she moved to the Abbey in 2007 and ordained the following year. She took bhikshuni ordination at Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Taiwan in 2011.
Bhikshuni Thubten Chonyi. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey.
Ven. Chonyi's formal education was in theatre. Her eclectic background includes many years as a performer, publicist, copywriter, fundraiser, and producer in the performing arts; and nearly as many years as a practitioner and teacher in the complementary healing arts. In lay life she wrote in a variety of forms—songwriting to grant writing to niche magazine features—and now appreciates opportunities to share the Dharma verbally and in print. At Sravasti Abbey she oversees publicity and inviting generosity, along with the myriad daily activities of a monastic community member.