Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 15 Summer 2017
A packed Jhong Jheng Stadium in Kaohsiung, site of the Global Bhikkhuni Award ceremony. Photo courtesy of Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery.
Four of the US-based Global Bhikkhuni Award recipients: Bhikshuni Sudarshana, Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, Bhikshuni Pannavati, and Bhikshuni Anandabodhi. Photo courtesy of Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery.
Procession of award recipients. Front to back: Bhikshuni Sudarshana, Bhikshuni Pannavati, Bhikshuni Anandabodhi, Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron.
Eight US-based Buddhist nuns were among those honored with the Global Bhikkhuni Award, presented by the Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni1 Association (CBBA) of Taiwan in November 2016, in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Over six days the CBBA lauded 50 nuns from 12 countries, recognizing their achievements in spreading the Dharma, charity work, medicine, and academia, as well as vital contributions to their local communities.
Bhikshuni Pu Huei, Chairperson of the CBBA, proclaimed, "Bhikshunis around the world are working diligently in leading people to practice the Buddhadharma, and this we want to recognize and celebrate!” And celebrate they did—with speeches, bands, and a fireworks display—along with a crowd of 15,000.
U.S. based Global Bhikkhuni Award recipients include:
Five of the award recipients joined their colleagues in Taiwan for the award ceremonies. Some of their stories appear in the following pages.
Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association
Most of the Western Global Bhikkhuni Award nuns had never heard of the Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association (CBBA). With a little research, however, they soon learned that CBBA is well respected in Taiwan. With over 300 members, the organization is comprised of accomplished Buddhist nuns, mostly teachers and abbesses of Taiwan’s numerous monasteries and temples. Chairperson Bhikshuni Pu Huei, a nun for more than 50 years, explained their work. "Our Association stands upon a solid reputation in Taiwan of promoting social harmony, supporting Buddhism, uplifting and cultivating bhikshunis’ special talents, working alongside women’s organizations, hosting international exchange programs, and developing friendship." The Taiwanese government has recognized the Association for excellence in service to society.
The CBBA was founded in 1996 when 24 Taiwanese bhikshunis came together in a cooperative venture of mutual support. As they approached their twentieth anniversary, the group's leaders wondered how best to honor their legacy. "We decided on positive, supportive, public recognition in the global arena," Ven. Pu Huei said, thus establishing the Global Bhikkhuni Award, which will now be given every three years.
"We acknowledge that Buddhism is international, expanding, and possesses various lineages, and that women are at the forefront in many aspects," Ven. Pu Huei continued. "As such, we are pleased to share our loving-kindness and Dharma joy with other bhikshunis who are relieving the suffering of sentient beings by spreading Dhamma rain."
To select the award recipients, CBBA organizers made multiple overseas expeditions to inquire about the beneficial work of specific nuns, finally identifying 50 outstanding bhikshunis from South Korea, the United States, Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Austria and Taiwan.
On the night of the official award celebration—held outdoors in a Kaohsiung stadium —a marching band procession led the 50 Global Bhikkhuni Award nuns to the stage. Several Buddhist and civic leaders addressed the crowd. Although the nuns’ precepts generally prohibit attending displays of entertainment, this event was as much for the enthusiastic lay people as for the monastics. One Taiwanese newspaper likened it to the "Academy Awards for global bhikshunis."2
The program was well planned and executed, and the US-based nuns were touched by the support and generosity of the Taiwanese Buddhist community. Of course, Buddhist monastics are not seeking awards on the path to awakening. As Ven. Thubten Chodron noted in her acceptance speech, "On a personal level, the Global Bhikkhuni Award doesn't mean a lot to me. I do what I do because I think it benefits sentient beings and the Dharma, no matter whether people praise or criticize me. However, the award is significant in that it recognizes the contribution that women in general and bhikshunis in particular make to the Dharma and the welfare of beings."
A History of Service
Long before the Global Bhikkhuni Awards, Taiwanese Buddhists have been involved in international service. Perhaps best known among the 2016 award recipients is Ven. Master Cheng Yen, founder of the Tzu Chi Foundation, an international humanitarian organization celebrated for their disaster relief work. Taiwanese bhikshunis operate many other charities, too, and are involved in programs that reach out to help others in both practical and Dharma ways.
Ven. Pannavati, an American Global Bhikkhuni Award recipient who has had previous connections with CBBA said, "Something like this Bhikkhuni Award—a large scale activity that benefits many people—is not new for the Taiwanese. For many years the nuns have reached across their borders to promote the bhikshuni line and life."
In Thailand, several bhikkhuni communities have taken root in spite of being forbidden by law. "A few years ago, when arsonists burned down the bhikkhuni nunnery in Rayang, Taiwanese nuns rebuilt it," Ven. Pannavati said. "They also brought as many Thai nuns as wanted to go to Taiwan, where they had a chance to mingle with hundreds of nuns. The Taiwanese bhikshunis honored the Thai nuns for their courage and encouraged them not to give up. 'Even if you have to go underground,' they said, 'you must stay the course. And look at what could happen. Thailand could be like Taiwan.' They assured those Thai women that their work and dedication would not be in vain."
Ven. Thubten Chodron also cites the support of Taiwanese Buddhists, especially the bhikshunis, in opening the door to full ordination where it does not exist for other nuns. Twenty years ago Ven. Chodron organized the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference in Bodh Gaya, India, where Ven. Master Wu Yin, founder of Luminary Institute in Taiwan (and another recipient of the 2016 Global Bhikkhuni Award), gave Vinaya teachings for Western nuns, particularly of the Tibetan tradition. Since then, Ven. Wu Yin and her disciples have actively supported Tibetan Tradition, Theravada, and Western nuns, as has Ven. Heng Ching3, who serves on the Committee for Bhikshuni Ordination in the Tibetan Tradition. Taiwanese bhikshunis have also taught Vinaya and helped give ordinations at the monastery Ven. Chodron founded, Sravasti Abbey.
“The bhikshuni ordination is not available in the Tibetan tradition because the ordination lineage never spread to Tibet," Ven. Chodron said as she accepted the Global Bhikkhuni Award. "I am grateful to Chinese Buddhists—monks and nuns—for sharing this precious ordination with qualified Western aspirants so that we, too, can become full members of the sangha and help shoulder the responsibility of preserving the Dharma and Vinaya for future generations."
Buddhism in Taiwan
How did the small island of Taiwan—a quasi-independent democracy that is still claimed by China's communist government—become such a powerful force for developing Buddhist nuns?
About 40% of Taiwan's 23 million people are Buddhist4, practicing in the Chinese Mahayana tradition where the bhikshuni lineage has flourished for more than a thousand years. Further, of 30,000 monastics in Taiwan, over 75% are nuns.5 Bhikshunis are well-regarded contributors to Taiwanese society, as evidenced by the attendance at the Global Bhikkhuni Award ceremony. Taiwanese nuns seem uniquely poised to influence and support female monastics around the world. Their sphere of support has included helping bhikkhunis in Thailand, ordaining Western nuns of all traditions, and even supporting His Holiness the Karmapa in his effort to establish a bhikshuni lineage in Tibetan Buddhism.
In her book Taiwan's Buddhist Nuns, Elise Anne DeVido gives an overview of Taiwan's Buddhist history and suggests a few key factors that may have contributed to the thriving bhikkhuni sangha.
For one, Taiwan has a long history of women involved in the popular sects called zhaijiao, "vegetarian religion." Followers of these sects kept a partial or total vegetarian diet, and were often devoted to worship of Kuanyin, Buddha of Compassion. Some practitioners lived in celibate communities, while others practiced at home. It appears that these were not Buddhist sects, but they did establish a form of practice for female religious.
In 1949, when Communists defeated the Chinese Nationalist Government and took control of mainland China, millions of Chinese fled Mao Tse Tung's government including Chinese monks. Taiwan's numerous female Buddhists gave them support, protected them from danger, and became their disciples and Taiwanese translators. "Turning to 'skillful means,' DeVido reports, "some monks realized the necessity of developing the nuns’ order, and over time, came to emphasize the Buddhist teachings on equality and have invested time and resources in Buddhist women’s education and training."6
Since that time, many strong female leaders have established temples of their own, while other have been instrumental in developing Taiwan's extensive Buddhist organizations founded and led by monks.
Buddhism's importance in Taiwan did not rise causelessly. Ven. Jianyin, a Taiwanese bhikshuni trained at Luminary Temple and now living in the United States, recalls the determination of the island's Buddhist monks and nuns. "People say that Buddhism in Taiwan is quite popular, but when I first joined the sangha in 1983, the situation was not like that at all. When I first joined the sangha, the general public actually did not respect monastics."
"The reason we have seen Buddhism become popular is due to a lot of effort by the sangha members,” Ven. Jianyin continued. "They intentionally brought Buddhism to the general public and into their lives." This underscores the value of having fully functioning monastic communities of bhikshus and bhikshunis in spreading the Buddha's teachings and the necessity of establishing Buddhist monasteries in North America and the West in general.
Shining with Boundless Radiance
Many prominent Taiwanese Buddhists and civic leaders spoke at the Global Bhikkhuni Award ceremony. The nonagenarian Honorary Chairperson of the Buddhist Association of the Republic of China, Venerable Master Jingliang, was especially clear in his praise for Taiwan's bhikshunis.7
Regarding bhikshunis I can only say one thing about their contributions: the fact that Buddhism in Taiwan has been able to progress and shine with boundless radiance is entirely due to bhikshunis. Bhikshunis have laid the entire foundation of Buddhism in Taiwan. So regarding the spread of Buddhism in Taiwan, bhikshunis are the cornerstone of our progress.
There must be many bhikshunis around the world who are upholding the spirit of the Buddha, working for the benefit of Buddhism and sentient beings without seeking recognition. For the recipients, this award is well-deserved. For all bhikshunis around the world, the road to come is long and there is much to be done.
Hopefully this award will inspire a sense of honor in your heart and turn this glory into the spirit and strength to continue spreading the Dharma, spreading the seeds of Buddhism globally, to develop future pillars of the Dharma who can continue to carry on the Buddhist tradition, and spread the wisdom of Buddha’s teaching.
For the US-based nuns—most coming from traditions where full ordination for women is still controversial—Ven. Master Jingliang's words were welcomed and inspiring.
The Global Bhikkhuni Award ceremonies concluded with the founding of a new organization, The World Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association8, with CBBA's Ven. Master Pu Huei elected as its first president. The goal of the new Association is to unite bhikkunis all over the world, increase the interactions among the temples of bhikkunis, propagate the Dharma worldwide, and enhance the well being of all humankind. Five US-based nuns—Bhikkhuni Pannavati, Bhikkhuni Sudarshana, Bhikshuni Zhiru, Bhikkhuni Santacitta, and Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi—were appointed as vice presidents.
With the coming together of these nuns, there is great hope that as Buddhists reach across cultures and traditions to support one another worldwide, it will bring a torrent of Dharma rain to relieve the suffering of the world.
1 CBBA members practice in the Chinese Mahayana tradition, which is usually associated with Buddhism's Sanskrit scriptures. We could find no explanation for why they use the Pali spelling for "fully ordained nun,"—bhikkhuni—in the English translation of their name.
2 Junlin Pan, Liberty Times Net, Taiwan, November 20, 2016. Posted in English, "Taiwan Press Praises Buddhist Nuns," on SravastiAbbey.org.
3 Find more information on the issue and the efforts of the Committee for Bhikshuni Ordination in the Tibetan Tradition:
4 Wenshang Yang, "Personal and Family Religious Beliefs in the Taiwan Region," 64, article published in Taiwan, relayed by personal correspondence with Ven. Dr. Heng Ching.
5 Personal correspondence with Ven. Dr. Heng Ching, received from Taiwanese scholar Yu-chen Lee. This statistic is readily quoted by Taiwanese monastics.
6 Elise Anne DeVido, Taiwan's Buddhist Nuns, (Albany, NY, SUNY Press, 2010), 16.
7 "Bhikshunis Propagate the Dharma," Ven. Master Jianlin's speech in video with sub-titles, along with English transcript on ThubtenChodron.org.
8 World Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association website with founding statements and video of Global Bhikkhuni Award events.