Karma Lekshe Tsomo came to Buddhism because of a typo: years ago, her family name had mistakenly been changed from Zinn to Zenn. “I suppose it began at conception,” she told Tricycle. “With this name, I was on track to discover Buddhism.” When she was 11, Tsomo’s classmates started teasing her about being a Zen Buddhist, so she turned to the library to find out what Buddhism was all about. After reading all the books on Buddhism she could find, she was instantly sold and declared to her mother that she was a Buddhist.

At 19, Tsomo took her surfboard and traveled from Malibu to Hawai’i and then Japan by boat, determined to learn more about how Buddhism is practiced around the world. During her travels, she had a vivid dream of herself in monastic robes, after which she resolved to become a monk. With this aspiration in mind, she traveled to Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka, searching for a monastery that would accept women. When she didn’t find one, she returned to the US to study Japanese at UC Berkeley and eventually found her way to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala. There, she found what she had been looking for.

“When I was a child, I had all of these questions about death, and I could never get any satisfactory answers,” she says. “When I arrived in Dharamsala, there was a lama sitting on a cushion with his hand pointed in the air saying, ‘And at the second stage after death, you will see a faint smoke.’ I was so impressed that I sat at his feet for six years and learned all that I could from him.” From there, Tsomo went on to attain full ordination as a nun, and she has since devoted her life to advocating for women’s education and ordination around the globe.

In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tsomo spoke with Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg about her work establishing study centers for Buddhist women, how she integrates spiritual practice and political activism, and her hopes for the future of women’s ordination. Read an excerpt from their conversation, and then listen to the full episode.

James Shaheen (JS): In 1987, you organized a conference in Bodhgaya for nuns from around the world, and out of that conference grew the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women. Could you tell us about Sakyadhita? What were your aspirations in founding it?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo (KLT): In the beginning, we just wanted to have a conversation because a number of us started to recognize that women really weren’t getting a fair shake. Their living conditions were substandard—a lot of nuns were living in wooden boxes with plastic on top. They weren’t getting sufficient nutrition. They were getting no education. Now, the circumstances in all countries are not the same, but gender inequality persists throughout the Buddhist world.

I organized a conference with Ayya Khema and Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now Venerable Dhammananda, and we thought it would be just a small gathering, but then when His Holiness Dalai Lama kindly agreed to give the opening address, 1,500 people showed up. Mostly, we were sitting in a circle on the ground in Bodhgaya asking, Where can we go with this? We all agreed that we needed to focus on education. Without education, we really couldn’t do much. So that’s where we began to work. We also realized that we needed some kind of an organization in order to take this work further. Now, I’m not a joiner, believe it or not. The only thing I had joined up to that point was Malibu Surfing Association. But in this case, we realized that forming an organization was necessary.

We started from small beginnings and decided to organize the next conference in Thailand. Every two years we’ve organized a conference in a different country, and we’ve just concluded the 18th Sakyadhita International Conference in South Korea, and on some days, 5,000 people showed up! It’s all beyond our wildest dreams, and we’ve learned so much in the process.

The nuns have been very enthusiastic in embracing this movement, and we’ve been ignored by most media until very recently. But we’ve just kept plowing along, and it’s worked out beautifully. The conferences have transformed the lives of so many women, both laywomen and nuns. When they go back to their communities, then they can share what they experienced, and they can feel inspired that they can share their story too. This has been beautiful to watch.

Sharon Salzberg (SS): Over the years, Sakyadhita has grown significantly, and the most recent conference was the largest in the organization’s history. Can you say more about what you’ve noticed as the organization has grown and evolved?

KLT: Sakyadhita started out with great aspirations, but we never dreamed that we would be able to accomplish what’s occurred since then. And it has been full of struggles from the beginning. For the first ten or twenty years, we would start every year with no money in our pockets, and we would have to somehow raise enough money to send out the newsletter. We have all worked as volunteers from the beginning. None of our expenses to go to these conferences have been paid by the organization. Each of us has contributed completely from our own resources to make this happen because we’ve gotten so little external support. And yet we just decided to continue because we were so avidly convinced that this was transformative—not only for women, not only for the Buddhist traditions, but also for the world.

With this strong commitment in mind, we’ve carried on, and the organization has grown in scope. It has attracted more enthusiasm and support. The publications have reached tens of thousands of people, hopefully clarifying the history of Buddhism and bringing women’s history to the fore, including all the stories that weren’t told before. People have been doing amazing research, often on the ground, to recover the stories of Buddhist women in different Buddhist cultures—and not just nuns but laywomen, too, because laywomen’s contributions have also often been overlooked.

One big factor in our work is to inspire others on the path to liberation and to make options available for both men and women. Buddhism can offer people an alternative path in this chaotic, marauding world that’s consumed by consumerism and misery—it can help people make the most of this precious human opportunity. Buddhist women are now taking highly visible roles in social welfare and politics and education and economics and spiritual direction, positions that were not open to them when we began our work. This has been very heartwarming, inspiring, and encouraging. I think the future looks bright because women are becoming more independent.

SS: You’ve also been vocal in advocating for nuns around the world, and it seems like that movement for women’s ordination has been gaining momentum in recent years. Can you tell us about the current state of women’s ordination? What do you see as the major challenges facing Buddhist nuns today?

KLT: The movement has definitely been gaining momentum. Women now have more opportunities for getting fully ordained than they have since the time of the Buddha—but not in all countries. Opportunities have opened up, but it’s not a done deal. It’s a very complicated issue, and Buddhist traditions are all diverse. There is no Vatican to dictate policy from on high. Even the different traditions don’t necessarily have a single figure or council that makes decisions for the tradition as a whole. And so it varies enormously from country to country, but let’s take Sri Lanka as an example because it has been a real model of progress. 

In Sri Lanka, there were a number of women who were determined to become fully ordained. When sixteen women came from Sri Lanka to Bodhgaya in 1987, they told me they’d never heard the word bhikkhuni, but the minute they did, they had to have it. They went off to figure out a way that they could make full ordination for women available, and they did. Now, there are more than 4,000 nuns in Sri Lanka, and at least half of them are fully ordained.

In the beginning, there was terrific opposition—you should have seen the press reports. The opposition came not only from the highly placed monks but also from their disciples, from the government, and even from some nuns who followed the advice of their teachers and said “We don’t need this.” It wasn’t easy, but they persevered. In fact, they had to go to another tradition to get ordination because ordination in Sri Lanka was discontinued in the 11th century, but fortunately some Sri Lankan nuns in the 5th century took the lineage to China, where it has flourished ever since. That meant that women today could receive ordination from either Chinese or Korean bhikkhunis, because from China, the lineage went to Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

The women took ordination in Sarnath in India from Korean nuns and monks, and then they stayed there for a year because they were really worried about the reception they would receive when they returned to Sri Lanka. It was a time of civil war, and they were afraid that they would be greeted by rotten tomatoes or even bombs. But in the intervening year, many Sri Lankan pilgrims were coming to Sarnath, and the nuns were ready to tell the story of the first turning of the dharma wheel, so those first Sri Lankan nuns became very famous.

A year later, when they thought it was safe to return to Sri Lanka, they were greeted not with rotten tomatoes or bombs but with golden parasols, the royal umbrellas that monks are greeted with. Things got off to a good start in Sri Lanka. Of course, there are still obstacles and challenges with monastic law. But the nuns have persevered, and now, more than half are fully ordained.

In other traditions, where they’ve never even had novice ordination, like in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Bangladesh, nuns keep the eight precepts that lay people keep on the new moon and full moon day, but they keep them for life with celibacy. They have no status in the tradition. For example, in Thailand, if they want to ride the bus, they’re not considered nuns, so they have to pay. But when it comes time to vote, they can’t vote because they’re nuns. So there’s a contradiction in terms there.

In the Tibetan tradition, nuns do have access to novice ordination and are considered part of sangha, but the road to opening up full ordination for women has been very slow. We’ve been researching it for over forty years, but so far full ordination has not been accepted. The Dalai Lama strongly supports the idea of having bhikkhunis in the Tibetan tradition, but he says he as a single monk cannot make that decision. It needs to be a decision of the senior sangha council, which is all male, and so far they have not agreed.

That’s where we stand. There’s been big progress in some parts of the world, as well as underground—in Thailand, it’s said that there are forty monasteries and around 400 fully ordained nuns, but they’re just keeping a low profile, practicing quietly, and gaining the respect of their community. Little by little, things will change.

JS: We recently had the scholar and writer Vanessa Sasson on the podcast, and she spoke about the story of Mahapajapati Gotami’s request for ordination. Can you tell us about the story of Mahapajapati? How has this story shaped how you understand movements for women’s ordination today?

KLT: Well, I think it’s remarkable, first of all, that we have this history because, of course, history was not written down at that time. It was orally transmitted for centuries, so we’re fortunate to have her story because she was really a trailblazer, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was determined to become a renunciant, and she would not settle for being a renunciant at home. She asked the Buddha three times. In my reading, he did not give her a flat no. He said, “Please don’t ask.” Then, she and 500 women decided to trek across northern India to ask again.

These 500 women shaved their heads, put on robes, trekked barefooted across the northern plains of India in the sun and the rain, and arrived to ask once again for admission to the sangha. At first, the Buddha hesitated, but his cousin, Ananda, friend of women, asked him, “But didn’t Mahapajapati nurture you and nurse you as a child? Wasn’t she enormously kind to you?” “Oh yes, she was. Definitely she was.” “And do women have the capacity, the potential for liberation from the wheel of birth and death?” “Oh yes, Ananda, certainly they do.” “Well then, wouldn’t it be well if they were allowed to join the sangha?” And the Buddha agreed.

By her perseverance in what I believe was the first Buddhist liberation movement in the world, Mahapajapati got what she thought was right: equality in the Buddhist community. She went on to be a leader of the nuns’ community until her death at a very ripe age, and we know that thousands of women became liberated at that time because we have their stories.

JS: Vanessa Sasson departs from academic style and fictionalizes the account of these women, and it reminds me of something you wrote in Eminent Buddhist Women about narrative and how stories are told. You write, “Footnotes and prescribed page lengths do not necessarily deem stories to be authentic. Who decrees that footnotes are necessary for telling women’s stories? Who demands uniform page lengths for legitimacy? Perhaps it is time to liberate women from those artificial constraints. I have chosen to allow the authors to tell the stories as they wish.” Could you say more about this?

KLT: First of all, history is written by the victors, and throughout history, men have had a monopoly on the tools of the trade. If women were not allowed an education, then they really didn’t have access to how their stories were told. Does that invalidate their stories?

“This may be one of the most important contributions of Sakyadhita: we have been encouraging women to tell the stories of eminent women in their own traditions, women that they’ve known and loved and studied with and even lived with.”

On the other hand, if we have no historical evidence, how do we know that it’s true? We don’t have any sort of historical documents to document the stories of the first Buddhist women. We simply have the legends that have passed for hundreds of years. And there’s no way to verify them at this point. But then the same would be true of early Christian history or Muslim history or Hindu history as well. And yet by telling the stories, I think they gain legitimacy and are valuable for inspiring other women on the path.

This may be one of the most important contributions of Sakyadhita: we have been encouraging women to tell the stories of eminent women in their own traditions, women that they’ve known and loved and studied with and even lived with. That’s as valid as it gets, as far as I can see.

SS: What are your hopes for the future of Sakyadhita and the future of Buddhist nuns?

KLT: I hope that Sakyadhita will grow, that more people will support it, and that more women will work together to bring their ideas and energy to this movement. I hope that women will be recognized as leaders and thinkers and practitioners. I hope that ordination opportunities will open for women in all traditions peacefully, with the support of the male sangha and with the support of other women.

If we can get full ordination for women in all Buddhist traditions, then I can check out. [laughs] My work will be done.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

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