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?
The decision not to support Western monastics was made largely because doing so is expensive; it’s hard to inspire Western laypeople to contribute to them; and the Tibetan lamas’ agenda has always been to raise funds for their own endangered refugee community. On the second point, although every Tibetan takes it for granted that monastics are an important part of their culture, Westerners do not share that cultural value and seem a little confused by lamas who are married and wear robes resembling monks. They tend to think: “If our teachers are lay Tibetans, what need is there of monastics?”
Yet Western monastics have much to offer for the future of Buddhism in the West (not to mention that most Tibetan lay lamas have been given monastic training as a basis for their religious education). They are preservers of practices and studies that few lay followers have time to do, like traditional training, which takes 10 to 20 years. And many Western monastics, especially nuns, help to create a loving space for laypeople to practice, running dharma centers and hospices, offering counseling to those who cannot afford psychotherapy, teaching introductory courses, generally serving as a symbol of the life the historical Buddha himself lived, and living according to vows praised in the texts as the ideal way to practice. They are mothers to the whole community. Just because much of the work they do is not economically valued or goes unseen does not mean it isn’t valuable.
I myself started a charity called Bodhicitta Foundation for Indian Buddhists from the “untouchable” (Dalit) caste. The organization runs a home where poor girls can avoid child marriage and receive education. We also have a food program that serves six thousand meals a year, a women’s job training center, and a school sponsorship program. Our organization helps two thousand people every year. If I were a normal layperson, in need of a regular wage, we never could have achieved the work we do. And in Australia, I previously taught meditation in jails, drug and alcohol rehab centers, and HIV hospices, all for no pay. Yet after all this people still tell me, “I don’t want to pay for your lifestyle,” or, “Get a job.”
Tibetans have preserved the dharma for over a thousand years—since the 8th century, when it was enshrined as the state religion in Tibet. There is so much value in the system they have created, and they certainly deserve our support. But right now Tibetan Buddhism is a party that Western nuns are invited to cater and clean up after but can’t actually attend. To use the money of Western women and then deny them training and support when they ordain seems profoundly hypocritical and lacking in compassion. And as far as Western practitioners are concerned, how can they say they believe that women can become buddhas and lament the lack of women teachers, but then fail to invest in female practitioners? I’ve struggled for a long time, for example, to raise enough funds for a small hermitage for training and retreat for Western monastics.
The Buddha said that Buddhism had not fully been established in a country until “the children of that land take full ordination.” Mara (the embodiment of ignorance) once appeared before the Buddha and asked him to pass from the world because too many people were becoming liberated. The Buddha responded, “I will not pass away until I have established a fourfold sangha,” understood as the male and female branches of both the monastic and lay communities. Centers, then, are letting down the future of the fourfold sangha in non-Himalayan countries when they treat Tibetan monastics there differently from Western ones. When all power and resources are concentrated in the hands of men of one ethnicity, who do not share resources equally or empower women, there can’t be a good future in store for Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Constantly relying on Tibetan lamas to hold the lineage and not training Western women and nuns is extremely shortsighted.
A more positive vision for the future is possible if we support it. Monasteries for Western monastics desperately need to be established alongside the flourishing lay culture that already exists. We also need to see smaller, sustainable hermitages, along with a return to the more original model of leadership that mixed democracy with seniority, with women leading their own communities, multi-aged members, and a strong emphasis on the Vinaya, meditation, and the elementary texts. This model, which includes periods of solitary retreat, seems to work very well for Western Theravada monastics, and we would do well to emulate them. There will never be monasticism in the West on the scale that there was in Tibet, and it is unlikely that the militaristic methods of study by rote and debate will be widely appealing to Westerners (although there is certainly value in supporting Western monastics to complete traditional training if they have that inclination).
People may ask, “How do I benefit by supporting monastics?” The reward for benefactors is not easy to quantify, unless we look at the numerous texts where the Buddha praises morality, renunciation, and the power that living by monastic rules has to guard the teachings. And, of course, generosity is its own reward: it establishes the openheartedness required to fully take in the dharma. The Buddha said in the Dhammapada, “When you see a virtuous monk, you see me, I myself abide there peacefully.” Monasteries are a haven in an increasingly violent and fast-paced world.
The fourfold sangha is like a human body. If the foot is bleeding, the hand must help. To think only of our own practice, and our own short lifetimes; of ourselves as divorced from the spiritual ancestors who came before and those Western Buddhists who will inherit the dharma after us, shows a kind of spiritual disconnect. The time has come for us to show how much we actually value the dharma by sharing our resources, helping those who are most vulnerable, and practicing the generosity and compassion so praised by the Buddha.
Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and training centers that support Western female monastics
Vajra Dakini Nunnery
Nova Scotia, Canada
Thosamling Nunnery and Institute
Dharmadatta Nuns’ Community
Kagyu Samye Ling
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