Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 15 Summer 2017
Bhikshuni Shi Zhiru
Photo courtesy Bhikshuni Shi Zhiru
A Really Cool Professor
Bhikshuni Shi Zhiru
Scholar, author, Professor of Religious Studies, Pomona College, Claremont, CA
2016 Global Bhikkhuni Award
Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award 2010
A student Facebook post announces, "Come learn from Pomona's Religious Studies professor Zhiru Ng about meditation! She is a really cool professor so all questions are welcomed." For Bhikshuni Dr. Shi Zhiru, a recipient of the 2016 Global Bhikkhuni Award, the scholarly life of a college professor is the best expression of her monastic commitment to "live by the doctrine of emptiness," as she puts it.
"Emptiness is not saying there is nothing," Ven. Zhiru explained in a Pomona College Magazine interview, "but rather that the essence of things and of our lives themselves and the events in our lives seem to have a fixed nature, but the nature is really never, ever fixed. It is in constant change, even though the naked eye can’t see it.” For Ven. Zhiru, to live with this awareness is living in the Dharma.
Ordination and the Scholar's Life
Ven. Zhiru: Why do people ordain as monks and nuns? Ideally, the catalyst should be a firm conviction that you want to spend all your energy, time, and every breath in the Dharma. Of course, “in the Dharma” will be redefined and expand as you grow as a monastic.
In Taiwan there are big monasteries—like Foguang Shan and Dharma Drum—with large monastic communities and many more smaller temples and centers with only a couple, or even one monastic(s). Ultimately, the monastery is more a conducive habitat than an absolute necessity. Still, it’s very important to have a monastery where you can go to and return for monastic communal life. I really wouldn’t want a Buddhism where monastics all become college or university professors. Indeed, it’s best that the majority of monks and nuns live and function within the monastery, their natural habitat. My life as a scholar nun and college professor is more of an anomaly, although Venerable Heng Ching (professor emeritus, National University of Taiwan) and Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo (professor, University of San Diego) are notable precedents on this less walked path.
Born and raised in Singapore, Ven. Zhiru completed her B.A. (Honors) degree in English Literature at the National University of Singapore. She ordained shortly after graduation and her teacher, Venerable Hou Zhong of Singapore's Mahaprajna Buddhist Society sent her to Taiwan first to receive bhikshuni ordination, and then to undertake monastic training at the center of her grand teacher, the eminent scholar-monk Master Yinshun (1906–2005). Subsequently, he sent her to the US for graduate work. She studied Sanskrit and Indian Buddhist literature at the University of Michigan, where she earned an MA, then completed her PhD in East Asian religious history at the University of Arizona.
Ven. Zhiru: Because of my teacher's background, and what he sees to be the problems endemic to Chinese Buddhism, he believes higher education for monastics is extremely important.
I was not exactly thrilled at the prospect of going to the US after my monastic training. I thought I was done with academics when I took up the robes and thought, even if I must take up academia again, shouldn’t I go to Sri Lanka or India? Or maybe I could just stay in Taiwan. North America sounded so remote and so not Buddhist. But my teacher was quite firm, so to the US I came. I don't think at that time either of us expected that I would stay in the States to teach.
People often assume that I chose the U.S. as a place of political and academic freedom, but it was really more karmic causal conditions than a deliberate decision. Since donors from the ten directions had supported my academic training, I felt I should put it to good use in gratitude for their support. National University of Singapore, in those days, wouldn’t have hired a Buddhist nun on their faculty, so I applied to three academic positions here in the States, thinking I’d let causal conditions determine where to go next. Pomona College offered me a tenure-track assistant professorship. After teaching for a couple of years on a visa status, I had to apply for permanent residency in the States. As I was filling out the application, I remember stopping short when I came to the category “immigrant.” I felt a little startled. “Ah, is that what I’m doing?”
When my students ask me where I consider as my home, I typically respond, “The Four Seas are my home.” The line translates a Chinese monastic adage that underscores both the rootlessness of the renouncer’s life and their acceptance of wherever they happen to be. I regard Taiwan as my monastic home, the US my intellectual home, and Singapore, my natal cultural home. My academic training here in the States gave me the tools to be a modern academic, whereas Taiwan was where I met Master Yinshun, who exemplified a serious Buddhist intellectual who remains equally committed to his faith. And how can I shake off my ethnic cultural roots in Singapore? It would be hard for me to say which is my home if I indeed have one. Monastics are, after all, homeless people.
Encounter with Buddhism
Ven. Zhiru was raised in a Chinese household steeped in popular Chinese practices, and she even dabbled with Christianity when she was growing up.
Ven. Zhiru: Singapore was once a British colony, so Christianity is widespread in the culture. As a teen going to school, the "cool" kids always seemed to be the Christians, and the best academic institutions were quite often Christian missionary schools. I tagged along with my friends when they attended Bible Study groups, but I couldn’t quite accept the Christian view that holds up hell as the fate for all non-believers. That would mean almost my entire family and a good half of my friends are to end up in hell. Too harsh a plight!
Just as the future Ven. Zhiru was completing high school, her maternal grandmother passed away. The granny had been a vegetarian for much of her life and faithfully attended chanting sessions at Singapore Buddhist Lodge. Naturally, the family did Buddhist rites frequently during the grandmother's illness and after her death.
Ven. Zhiru: One of the chants we recited mentions being born from lotuses. My interest was piqued. Chinese children are culturally bound to the Confucian duty of performing filial piety to their parents. Growing up, I always questioned if I would be capable of measuring up to that deep, self-sacrificing devotion my mother has for all her children. Birth on a lotus implies that you wouldn't have parents, which sounded pretty radical to me then. I wanted to find out what it really meant. Later I learned that the imagery comes from Pure Land Buddhism, which promises that the faithful will be born on lotuses in Amitabha Buddha’s Land of Bliss.
On account of the death rites for their grandmother, she and her siblings got very interested in Buddhist chanting. She recounts them going to the temple regularly for ritual services. While they loved the rituals, they also soon felt the urgency to find out more about Buddhist texts and teachings. Eventually, a friend took them to a Dharma talk by a Taiwanese Buddhist monk.
Ven. Zhiru: The sermon was on emptiness. Of course I didn’t understand it all, but I felt a sense of exhilaration and a quiet conviction that someday, I would understand and live out this teaching.
That monk became Ven. Zhiru’s teacher, Master Venerable Hou Zhong, and she was one of the members who assisted him in founding his Mahaprajna Buddhist Society, a lay Buddhist education center, which still flourishes in Singapore today. Mahaprajna means "great wisdom," and in Buddhism, the mind of wisdom is what realizes emptiness. That concept is the guiding principle of Ven. Zhiru's life.
Teaching in the U.S.
Ven. Zhiru relishes sharing her wisdom with the students at Pomona College, a private liberal arts college where she has taught for 17 years. We wondered how the students feel about their professor being a Buddhist nun.
Ven. Zhiru: They mostly love it and find my lifestyle and worldview challenges their normative thought patterns. They always question how you can become successful people—worldly successful—if you live by Buddhist teachings of no-self and compassion. Some of them are curious that although I keep a low profile on campus, I seem quite “successful” (by their terms!), since I have full professorship at a respected North American liberal arts college and am active in both academic and religious circles.
For example, when I went to Taiwan for the Global Bhikkhuni Award, I didn’t tell my students about it. They thought I was off to an academic conference. An Asian-American student, who runs the campus Buddhist society, saw a video of the awards ceremony online. He got quite excited –– so I heard –– and circulated it around the students. When I got back to class after the award ceremony, several students had already seen the video. They seem excited to be “indirectly” witnessing part of Buddhist women's history in action.
Ven. Zhiru teaches the courses you would expect to find in a Religious Studies curriculum, which cover history, philosophy, and culture of Eastern religions. She also teaches a course titled “Death, Dying, and the Afterlife in East Asia,” and another on “Nourishing Life: Mind, Body, and Environmental Health in East Asian Writings." She even teaches a full-credit course on meditation.
Ven Zhiru: In the Buddhist meditation course, students have to study meditation in scholarly terms during the twice-weekly class meetings. We examine different cultural practices and their roles in Buddhist societies, including how the recent global mindfulness trend is shaped by modern consumerist culture. But I also add a 50-minute meeting for weekly meditation, which most of them really enjoy. The meditation itself is pass/fail –– how do you grade meditation? –– but I do take attendance for the meditation meetings. I want to impress on my students that when you make a commitment, you make a commitment! Meditation isn’t something you do only when you feel stressed or low; it’s about inner transformation and requires commitment like all things in life. The course was very over-enrolled, and I had to turn away students.
Most of my time at the college is spent teaching my students how to be critically aware of and to question their deep-seated cultural assumptions through the study of Asian culture, religion, and thought. In this regard, Buddhism lends itself to this kind of “de-conceptualizing” that can be quite self-transforming. My favorite compliment for my teaching came from a student who was in a class where I showed a video on Zen monks in a Japanese monastery. There is a scene where dozing monks get whacked with the incense stick during a meditation sitting. I reassured my students that the incense stick isn’t regularly used in North America, since no monastery likes to be caught in a lawsuit for abuse! At the close of the class, one student came up to me and said, “But, Professor, you do whack us up here,” pointing to his head. "You do it almost every class!”
Perspectives on Buddhist Nuns
Practicing in the Chinese Mahayana tradition, where the bhikshuni lineage still flourishes, Ven. Zhiru had no obstacles to taking full ordination. It was expected. As both a scholar and a bhikshuni, she has followed the discussions about bringing full ordination to nuns in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions with great interest, and she teaches a unit on the topic in her Buddhism course syllabus.
Ven. Zhiru: When I was in Thailand for the Outstanding Women in Buddhism awards in 2010, I met nuns with varying views on the ordination issue. One of the organizers of those awards is Bhikkhuni Lee, who does terrific work toward the full ordination for Buddhist women in Thailand. The Thai nun Dhammananda (a.k.a. Chatsumarn) has also made invaluable contributions. And then you also have all these wonderful maechis —women who don white robes, shave their heads, and live a celibate religious life, but have no legal standing as nuns. Not all of them are interested in full ordination or getting bhikkuni status. At that award ceremony, one Thai maechi, a long-time meditator, spoke movingly about her journey. From her account, it is evident that far from being subordinated, she had walked out a viable path for herself and also had support from monk meditators who helped train her.
We certainly want gender equality, but we also need to think and discuss in greater depth what exactly gender equality means in terms of Buddhist ordination. What is it about the bhikshuni ordination that makes it critical to our functioning fully as “daughters” of the Buddha? This needs to be discussed, not so much by the scholars but by the nuns themselves. We should be careful not to adopt unquestioningly the secular norms, or even methods, of the broader feminist movement, granted that they could be very effective sometimes. As Buddhist nuns, we have different priorities and are guided by different codes and models of living
Also, there are the alternate cultural female institutions that have evolved as norms in each Buddhist society that we have to be careful not to dismiss too quickly. Asian Buddhist women were never just submissive, but knew how to give voice and negotiate their paths under inequitable social conditions. The question is what is the most skillful method to bring about social and religious equality for the female sangha? If we want to persuade the male sangha and the laity to accept and support bhikshuni ordination, then it’s all the more critical to find the most effective means to convince them. I’m uncertain concepts like “empowerment” borrowed from the broader feminist movement are the ideal ways to get at this, because they reiterate a dualism and make religious politics the focus, rather than the female Buddhist spirituality. Instead, let’s ask what can we draw from Buddhist history and resources to help us address and frame pressing social issues.
Ven. Zhiru's awards are many, and she has published several articles on Chinese Buddhist history, art and devotion, including a monograph book, The Making of a Savior Bodhisattva: Dizang in Medieval China, a historical study of the Chinese Jizō, the most popular deity in Japan. She has also contributed book chapters on religious diversity and human rights in Chinese Buddhist history.
Still, her greatest joy seems to come from touching the lives of her students. They respond to her teaching with gratitude. Student class reviews give her high marks for scholarship and discipline. They also say "She's the real thing!" Her class "totally changed my worldview." And "Zhiru Ng is not only one of the best professors I had in college, but one of the kindest individuals I have ever met in my life."
For Ven. Dr. Sri Zhiru, living in emptiness, living every breath in the Dharma, means sharing her gifts with college students. "Very cool professor" is high praise and ranks equally with her global achievement awards.
1See Rate My Professor online.
2Maechi are Buddhist laywomen in Thailand who have dedicated their life to religion, live an ascetic life, and hold eight or even ten precepts, including celibacy. They are still considered laywomen, as their form of practice does not follow the Vinaya, the monastic code laid out by the Buddha.