Women have made much headway in gaining rights and achieving equality in the past century. But in the realm of religion, including Tibetan Buddhism, the tradition I am ordained in and will discuss here, the progress is trailing far behind. For female monks, especially fully ordained ones, the situation is so bad as to be perilous. Everywhere, they are struggling to survive: to find support and training, to get their voices heard, and to occupy the space the Buddha gave them as counterparts of male monks. But I want to talk especially about Western nuns, who as a small minority within Tibetan Buddhism might be out on the shakiest limb of them all. They are exceedingly vulnerable, since they are accepted neither by the Western culture they grew up in nor often by many traditional Buddhist communities.
Western lay Buddhists are often appalled when they hear about the discrimination Buddhist nuns face around the world. When they’re told, for instance, that nuns in Ladakh, India, don’t receive the same support to study that monks do, they happily sign up to sponsor nuns to empower them. But what is the situation of nuns in our own Western countries? Far from being supported, in fact, they have been largely overlooked, and they are often exploited.
I have been a nun for 16 years. In Australia, where I ordained in 2001, I took off my robes on my first day as a nun to go and work in a lay job because I was being charged rent by the Tibetan Buddhist center where I lived; all Western monastics paid, while the Tibetans stayed for free. In the evenings, we Western monastics would watch as people brought food for the Tibetan lamas but not for us. We cleaned, did administrative work, offered communal meals, and taught classes, but somehow we were always considered to be less “authentic” than the Tibetan monks, even though we took all the same vows and had often completed the very same retreats and philosophy courses. I was told also that women could not become buddhas and that I should pray to be reborn as a man; and we were repeatedly asked for money to build yet another monastery that would never admit the foreign women who supported it. When I asked a Tibetan monk why living at a temple donated by a Western nun in Nepal was free for Tibetan monks but not for Western ones, he said, “Why should we support you? You are just a tourist.” It was heartbreaking for me to realize that there was no place for me—an empowered nun and a Western woman—in the tradition to which I had devoted my life.
This is not just my own experience. Approximately 30,000 ethnically Tibetan monks and nuns in India live in lavish monasteries, largely funded by foreigners’ donations. There are less than 2,000 Western monastics in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the world, and only a few monasteries do not charge these monastics to live there. In Australia, for example, where I’ve spent a lot of time, every Tibetan Buddhist temple charges Western monastics. The assumption seems to be that if you are Western, you must have money. But one Western nun I know had to pay so much to stay at a center that she had to look through the garbage for food. A Western monk was made to live under his center’s staircase, while the head lama slept in the spacious penthouse apartment.
Never before in 2,600 years of Buddhism has it been considered acceptable to charge monastics to stay in places of Buddhist practice. This decision was made by the Tibetan patriarchy without consulting Western monastics and is damaging the continued presence and viability of the transmission of monastic life to the West. (According to surveys conducted by the Kalyanamitra Foundation, a charity I founded that is devoted to supporting Western monastics in the Tibetan tradition, 75 percent of Western monastics in this tradition ultimately disrobe. Of the 15 people I ordained with, for instance, only two are left.) Tibetan and Western monastics have taken the same vows not to work in lay jobs but to devote themselves to the study and practice of the highest goal of Buddhism. Why are the two groups treated so very differently?
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