Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 15 Summer 2017
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron teaches the Dharma around the world. Photo by Marc Sakamoto.
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey.
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron snips the last hairs as she confers anagarika precepts to Christina Manriquez. Photo by Gen Heywood.
A video celebrating Sravasti Abbey's 10th anniversary opens with the voice of Tibetan Buddhist master Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche. One of Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron's first teachers, Rinpoche is commenting on her founding of the first training monastery in the US for Western students in the Tibetan tradition. "Venerable Chodron (has) had this vision to establish (the) Abbey for so many eons," he chuckles. “I think it's wonderful."
While Ven. Chodron doesn't recall previous life aspirations, she nurtured a vision for decades in this life to found a Western monastery, bringing the dream to fruition in 2003. Last year, the Chinese Buddhist Bhikkhuni Association (CBBA) of Taiwan gave her the Global Bhikkhuni Award for her efforts.
In selecting Ven. Chodron, the CBBA wrote,
"You are being honored for preserving, protecting, and promoting Tibetan Buddhism by establishing and being the Abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Washington, USA and for offering teachings, both oral and written, which reach the hearts and are widely received by the American people."
Of the 50 nuns who received the 2016 award, only Thubten Chodron and well-known teacher and author Ven. Pema Chodron practice in the Tibetan tradition.
On Being a Nun
Ordained in March of 1977, Ven. Chodron recently marked her 40th year as a Buddhist nun. She balances the responsibilities of abbess, world-renowned teacher, and prolific author (her 28th book came out in August) with dedication to her own practice. Despite a full public teaching and travel schedule, she still corresponds with prison inmates, advocates for homeless teens, engages in interfaith dialogue, personally directs the training of the Abbey's growing monastic community, and joyfully joins in the manual labor to keep the Abbey's nearly 300 acres of forest and meadows healthy.
Ven. Chodron: I am doing exactly what I want to do with my life. I ordained because I wanted to dedicate myself to the Buddhist path. The idea of bodhicitta—of becoming a Buddha to benefit sentient beings—was the most wonderful, noble thing I could ever think of doing, and I wanted to devote all my energies to it. What else are we going to do? Within samsara, we've done everything and been everything. We've cycled from one rebirth to another since beginningless time. There's no sense doing that again. Being of service and benefiting sentient beings on the way to full awakening is the best thing for me to do, and becoming a monastic was the best way for me to cut distractions and devote myself fully to what is important. I've never regretted it.
Born in Chicago and raised in Southern California in a culturally Jewish family, the future Thubten Chodron was full of questions.
Ven. Chodron: I wanted to know why, if God was so loving, he allowed so much suffering. People told me, “God wants us to learn from our suffering,” but that didn't make sense. If God was all-powerful, why didn't he make us smarter so we wouldn't have to suffer to learn?
The political climate of the 1960s, particularly the senselessness of the Vietnam War, intensified her doubts.
Ven. Chodron: Why do people fight and kill each other if they want to live in peace? So many things in society just made no sense to me.
Pursuing her quest to understand life's big questions, Ven. Chodron studied history at UCLA, graduating in 1972. She worked a year, married, then traveled with her husband through Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia for 18 months. Returning to the States, she taught elementary school in inner city Los Angeles and entered graduate school in education. Somehow, none of these things satisfied her search for meaning.
Meeting the Dharma
A summer course in 1975 offered in California with two Tibetan Buddhist monks, Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, changed the direction of her life.
Ven. Chodron: One of the first things the Lamas (teachers) said was, “You don’t have to believe anything we say. Listen to the teachings, think about them logically, and test them out in your own experience.” That was a relief and made me receptive.
As I listened to the Lamas describe Buddhist ideas, everything finally came together. I had been looking for something that made sense and explained my own experience. Buddhism hit the nail on the head, especially the way the Buddha talked about the cause of suffering, referring it back to our own mind. I had always thought happiness and suffering came from outside, and I struggled to rearrange the world to get what I wanted. Buddha explained that's a useless pursuit. When I checked my own experience, I knew the Buddha was right: the main causes of happiness and suffering were right there in my own mind.
Within a few months, Ven. Chodron had left her career and marriage and moved to Nepal to study with Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche. From there she studied with many of the great Tibetan teachers of our time, masters who had followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile when the Communist Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959. His Holiness is one of her principal teachers.
It Wasn't Easy
Ven. Chodron: I was part of the first generation of Westerners who ordained in the Tibetan tradition. There was tremendous fortune in that. Our teachers were extraordinary, and they were so generous in teaching us. Conditions were primitive in the Tibetan monasteries—living mostly on rice and dal, sharing the meditation mats with fleas, getting dysentery and hepatitis A—but we were so happy to learn the Dharma. Besides, difficult situations were very good for applying the Tibetan thought training teachings!
I lived in monastic communities in Nepal, India, and France, which I loved, and in Dharma centers in Italy and elsewhere. But Western students faced a lot of problems —health problems, visa problems, financial problems, language difficulties. In those days, the Tibetans were struggling to establish their communities in exile, and they were very poor. They gave the teachings freely, but couldn't offer much in the way of requisites. Westerners either had to have their own money or figure out a way to support themselves. But how do you do that and still keep your precepts?
There were gender issues too. Just by living in Tibetan culture, I understood that there are certain ways a nun should behave. The Tibetan nuns were our examples. They were very quiet, meek, and sweet. They didn't ask questions, and they weren't leaders. I tried hard to be like them, but it didn't work. I was an educated, Western woman who had had a career. I had to accept that and at the same time not step on toes. Now the situation of the Tibetan nuns has changed somewhat since the 1970s, but you can still see the cultural imprint.
Tibetan nuns don't have full ordination, so they are not full members of the sangha. In Tibetan society, monks receive more respect and offerings, and they're more numerous than nuns. When I first went to India and Nepal, Tibetan nuns could not receive the same education as monks. Fortunately, the Western monks and nuns studied together in English, and I was able to receive a good Dharma education. However, even some Western monks thought poorly of women. One told me to pray to be reborn a man!
When I came back to the US, after spending a long time living in Tibetan culture, I realized I had lost a lot of my self-confidence. Gender discrimination wasn't necessarily overt, it was just the unspoken rule. However, I don’t want to blame or criticize the Tibetans. It was due to their kindness that I have been able to receive the precious teachings and meet extraordinary spiritual mentors. That kindness can never be repaid.
After a few years, we Western nuns began to hear that women in the Chinese tradition could receive full ordination. I longed to have the same precepts and commitments as the monks and made strong prayers for the conditions to come together for me to take bhikshuni ordination. I had the chance to tell His Holiness the Dalai Lama my aspiration and ask his permission, and he said, “Yes, I’ll pray.” That gave me the fortitude to go for it.
Ven. Chodron: Receiving the full ordination in Taiwan in 1986 was a major turning point. Until that time, my focus had been on my Dharma practice, what I wanted to do with my life. As a fully ordained nun, I now had the responsibility to preserve the Buddha's teachings for future generations and to share the precious Dharma with other sentient beings. I had to grow up and think about the long-term existence of the Dharma instead of just my own practice. Also, the ordination was my first contact with the Chinese nuns, beginning a close connection that has continued now for over 30 years.
Another turning point came in 1993 at a Western Buddhist teacher's conference with His Holiness. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo made a presentation on the situation for Western monastics and talked about the many challenges. For some people with sincere aspirations, the problems were just too big to overcome. As he listened, His Holiness began to weep. Afterward, in his concluding advice, he gave the responsibility to us. He said, "Don't rely on us to do things for you. Go out and establish monasteries and do things for yourselves. You have my permission." That was an invigorating breath of fresh air. If His Holiness says it, no one can fault you.
There was another key factor. In 1996, another nun and I organized a program called Life as a Western Buddhist Nun in Bodhgaya, India. We invited a Tibetan geshe to teach Vinaya and a Taiwanese bhikshuni, Master Wu Yin, to teach the bhikshuni precepts. We edited those teachings into a book, Choosing Simplicity. Since that time, Ven. Wu Yin and her disciples at Luminary Temple have given unwavering support, year after year, to Western nuns. Their encouragement and faith in our ability to act have been instrumental for me.
With the Dalai Lama's go-ahead and encouragement from the Taiwanese nuns, Ven. Chodron slowly moved forward with her plans for a monastery. Although she sought senior monastic partners to help manifest her vision, conditions never came together for that. A small cadre of lay students stepped in to help, and in 2003, with no major benefactor nor organizational support, Ven. Chodron incorporated Sravasti Abbey, which purchased the present property in rural, conservative, eastern Washington State. Today, there are ten bhikshunis, four shikshamana nuns, one novice monk, and two anagarikas. The community hopes for a full bhikshu sangha to someday complement the nuns' community.
Ven. Chodron: Sravasti Abbey grew out of my experience in the Tibetan community and from living in the monastery in France. I thought Westerners needed structures that correspond with our culture. In Western culture everyone shares their ideas before decisions are taken. Also, gender equality is considered important. At the Abbey, our practice lineage is the Tibetan tradition and our Vinaya lineage is Dharmaguptaka (practiced in China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, etc.). This opens the door for women to take full ordination.
We're translating the Dharmaguptaka rites into English, and adapting the traditional chanting melodies to the English text. I'm not much of a ritual person, actually, but there's tremendous power and grace when we do these ancient rites together at the Abbey. The Abbey does the main Vinaya activities of sramanera and shikshamana ordinations, posadha (fortnightly confession and restoration of precepts), varsa (rains retreat), pravarana (invitation at the conclusion of the rains retreat), and kathina (offering the robe of merit). Someday, we hope to give the full ordination at the Abbey. In English.
We do most of our prayers and practices in English. Practitioners need to understand what they're chanting. We're also committed to social engagement and using technology to spread the Dharma.
Abbey monastics don't have private Facebook accounts, and we have guidelines that limit Internet use in general. But the Abbey itself has a huge web presence—thousands of teachings on our YouTube channel and a huge library of teachings on my website, thubtenchodron.org. It's all run by volunteers, as are the Sravasti Abbey and Thubten Chodron Facebook pages.
We offer everything freely—retreats and courses, teachings, books, counselling, and so forth. We call it an economy of generosity. The Buddha offered the Dharma freely, and I strongly believe that everyone should have access to it. If people appreciate what they receive, they will be generous in turn. That way we create merit by giving to the lay community, and they create merit by supporting us. Nobody creates merit when people have to pay for the Dharma. When I said that we would eat only the food that people offered us, people thought I was crazy, that we would starve. But we haven’t. Being dependent on others for food as well as all other necessities makes us appreciate the kindness of others more. And we monastics have to fulfill our part by keeping our precepts well and studying, practicing, and sharing the Dharma.
The main purpose of the Abbey is to be a home and support for monastics in order to preserve the Buddha's teachings. Also, a monastery provides a physical spiritual center for Buddhism. Many people, not just Buddhists, tell us that knowing we're here—living in ethical conduct and training our minds in love and compassion— helps them and gives them optimism and hope.
I think a monastic community acts as the conscience of society, especially in these difficult political times. We try to live simply, and we practice, preach, and teach kindness. We take care of the environment and don’t waste what we have. All of this is critical in today's world. We Americans especially need to get in touch with our good hearts and recognize our dependence on others.
Of course the Abbey's ultimate purpose is to be of benefit to all sentient beings, now in this life and to help people create wholesome karma that will carry them on the path to full awakening. That's why we're here.
Teaching and Writing
Ven. Chodron teaches in North and Central America, Europe, Asia (especially in Singapore), Australia, and Israel, and her books have been translated into at least 12 languages, from Russian to Hebrew to Bahasa Indonesian.
Ven. Chodron: I never planned to be a writer. When I was the resident teacher at a Dharma center in Singapore in the 1980s, people kept asking the same basic Dharma questions. I thought if I put the answers together into a book, it would be helpful. Singapore has a great tradition of publishing books for free distribution. Someone lent me a computer, and that's how the first book— I Wonder Why—came to be.
Mostly my books have come about in response to a need. Some of the books I've edited have been commentaries by my teachers on Buddhist texts. For example, last year, we published Practical Ethics & Profound Emptiness, by Khensur Jampa Tegchok, which I edited. He was a masterful teacher, and the book is his commentary on Nagarjuna's Precious Garland of Advice for a King. It's a critically important Indian text, but there are very few commentaries in English.
Right now I'm working on books with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His approach to the lam rim— the gradual path teachings—is unique and well suited to Western audiences. I love the lam rim teachings and my whole practice is grounded in them, but the texts we have were written for Tibetans, who already have faith in the Three Jewels and believe in rebirth, karma, and so forth. His Holiness presents these teachings in a way that works for science-oriented Western minds. With his instruction, I started compiling material many years ago, and now it's become a multi-volume series entitled The Library of Wisdom and Compassion. The first volume, Approaching the Buddhist Path, just came out. The second volume, The Foundation of Buddhist Practice, is in the proofing stage, and the third one, Samsara, Nirvana, and Buddha Nature, is on my computer screen right now.
On the Global Bhikkhuni Award
Ven. Chodron: I went to the award celebration with gratitude for the nuns and monks of the Taiwanese Buddhist community. They have done so much to support nuns in the other Buddhist traditions—from giving ordinations to offering Vinaya teachings to giving material support. I and the Abbey have benefitted personally from their generosity, and I know other Western, Tibetan, and Theravada nuns have too.
Being in Taiwan several times, I see what a big difference it makes when there are bhikshunis. A certain dignity comes with a full ordination. Your mind changes, and so how you behave, how you think, and how you act changes. It is evident to the eyes.
The great Tibetan scholar-yogi, Tsongkhapa wrote a verse, "Day and night, may I pass the time thinking and examining by what means these teachings can be spread in the minds of myself and others." I see this exemplified by His Holiness and all my Tibetan teachers. I also see it in Chinese Buddhist bhikshunis. They help others—especially other monastics—to spread Buddha's teachings; they support other monasteries and monastics because that's what monastics do. They have inspired me to follow their lead as best I can.
The same might be said of Ven. Thubten Chodron, whose teachings, books, and the fulfillment of her eons-long dream to establish a Western monastery have helped to spread Buddha's teachings into far corners of the world.
There is a text/audio/video library of Ven. Chodron's teachings, including a Monastic Life section, on ThubtenChodron.org, as well as extensive information on SravastiAbbey.org. Thousands of teachings can also be found on the Sravasti Abbey YouTube Channel.