Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 15 Summer 2017
Bhikshuni Thubten Damcho
Riding on a train in India after attending teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I happened to sit across from a Tibetan Buddhist nun from Taiwan. We struck up a conversation in Chinese, and she was happy to learn that I aspired to become a nun.
“Who’s your Lama?” she asked.
“Her name is Venerable Thubten Chodron,” I replied.
“Is he Tibetan?”
“No, she’s an American woman.”
The Taiwanese nun looked puzzled. I explained that my teacher, Venerable Thubten Chodron, was a Western nun who had founded a monastery named Sravasti Abbey in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, where Western monastics live and train in community. That was where I was headed after my pilgrimage in India, and where I intended to ordain.
“Okay,” said the nun, “but who’s your Lama?”
This was the first and certainly not the last time I’ve encountered questions like these from Asian monastics, for whom the idea of a community of Western monastics is a novelty, and a monastery founded and headed by an American nun probably unthinkable. Stranger still is for them to encounter a person of Chinese ethnicity, born and raised in Singapore, choosing to ordain in the Wild West instead of at a traditional Chinese or Tibetan monastery headed by a Chinese Master or Tibetan Lama.
My initial reaction to such questions was surprise. The last I checked, nationality and ethnicity are not on the list of qualities of a qualified Mahayana spiritual mentor that are outlined in the lamrim (graduated stages of the path to awakening). I had first heard of Ven. Chodron from a Chinese nun, who pointed me to the monastic life section on ThubtenChodron.org when I shared with her my interest in taking ordination. After reading Ven. Chodron’s clear and compassionate writings, I made many prayers to be able to meet and study with her in person.
To my delight, I learned that this wasn’t too difficult; at the invitation of her long-time students, she gives teachings every year in Singapore. Through attending Ven. Chodron’s talks, I made a connection with Sravasti Abbey, and after serving as her lay assistant on a teaching tour and observing her way of life first-hand, it became clear to me that I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I quit my job, left my boyfriend, and traveled halfway around the world to attend the Exploring Monastic Life course at Sravasti Abbey. After training at the Abbey for about a year, I took ordination in the fall of 2013.
My primary motivation for ordaining at Sravasti Abbey was thus to be close to a teacher who spoke to my heart, and to live and train in a monastic community—two factors that I feel are crucial for transforming and purifying my mind. While there are many Dharma centers in Singapore, there are few residential monastic communities due to the lack of land space, and being a stone’s throw from my family home (it takes about an hour to drive across the city) did not seem conducive for working with one of my strongest attachments. Further, I perceived that Asian monastics who live in urban settings are often called upon to minister to a large lay community very early in their monastic life, often at the expense of their need for sustained monastic training and Dharma study.
With these concerns in mind, ordaining at a monastery in rural America where I could receive a good Dharma education, where the community spends three months of the year in silent retreat, and where the residents are deeply committed to living and practicing together, was an ideal situation.
From a more secular perspective, I would also say that my decision to ordain in the West has been a function of the Singapore government’s decision to use English as the main language of instruction in all schools shortly after the nation’s independence. As a result of this policy decision, I grew up speaking and writing English as a first language, and perhaps also as a result of past karma, I have often felt more at home in Western culture and resonate with concerns that are typically identified as “Western values.”
I care about civil and human rights, freedom of speech, gender equality, and respect for sexual and racial minorities, issues that are often politically touchy in Singapore and demarcated as being outside of the purview of the religious community. It matters to me that my teacher and the Sravasti Abbey community care deeply about these issues as part of our practice of ethics—Ven. Chodron often reflects on current events from a Dharma perspective, and monastics in our community participate in local advocacy events and are dedicated to social engagement as well.
Although I was first drawn to Sravasti Abbey due to these external factors—the teacher, the community, a rural setting, and the American culture—over time I have been amazed by the incredible confluence of Dharma lineages coming together at this place, that could only be possible in a globalized age.
As an independent monastery in the West, our nuns have had the freedom to go to Taiwan to take the full ordination without drawing controversy or ire, primarily because we are “outsiders” in the Tibetan Buddhist community. Our Western community is therefore in a unique position where we not only have access to the full ordination in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya lineage, but also live and train as fully ordained monastics, engaging in monastic rites that have been passed down since the Buddha’s time. At the same time, we practice in the Tibetan Buddhist lineage and have access to rich philosophical, thought training, and lamrim teachings, plus the practices of deity yoga and analytical meditation.
The incredible thing is that we study and practice entirely in English, as Ven. Chodron is especially skilled in differentiating the Dharma from Asian culture, and transmits the Dharma in a language that is accessible to Westerners. Sravasti Abbey might be the only place in the world where you can train in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, study Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and practice tantra without having to master an Asian language.
While I had moved to Sravasti Abbey in part to focus on learning the Dharma in a language and culture that I felt at home with, ironically, I now find myself in the position of learning Asian languages (Chinese and Tibetan) to support translation work. This is how past karma ripens, and I have learned to stop questioning how a virtuous Dharma motivation and aspirations can unfold in terms of the appearances of this lifetime. I pray in every lifetime to be able to meet a qualified spiritual mentor as quickly as possible, to recognize and have the conditions to be close to my teacher, and to always receive the full ordination so as to dedicate my life to the Three Jewels. May I always use this body and mind to help the Dharma to flourish in this world, for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Bhikshuni Thubten Damcho
Singaporean by birth, Ven. Thubten Damcho met the Dharma in the US through the Buddhist Students’ Group at Princeton University, from which she graduated in 2006. On her return to Singapore, she took refuge at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See (KMSPKS) Monastery. Struck by the aspiration to ordain, she began attending retreats in the both the Theravada and Tibetan traditions. After meeting Ven. Chodron in Singapore in 2008, Ven. Damcho was further inspired to pursue a monastic life. She visited Sravasti Abbey in 2010 and was shocked to discover that monastics did not live in blissful retreat, but worked extremely hard! Confused about her aspirations, she took refuge in her job in the Singapore civil service, where she served as a high school English teacher and a public policy analyst. Offering service as Ven. Chodron’s attendant in Indonesia in 2012 was a wake-up call. After attending the Exploring Monastic Life Program at Sravasti Abbey, Ven. Damcho quickly moved to the Abbey to train as an anagarika in December 2012. She was ordained on October 2, 2013 and received full ordination at Miao Fa Temple in Taiwan in 2016. At the Abbey, Ven. Damcho manages Ven. Chodron’s schedule and website and the Abbey's video archives, translates vinaya materials from Chinese to English, and supports the care of the forest and meadows.