©Ron Batzdorff
©Ron Batzdorff

In 1976, Venerable Karuna Dharma was the first woman to become a fully ordained member of the Buddhist monastic community in the U.S. She has continued to break new Buddhist ground by orchestrating three Grand Ordination ceremonies since 1994 for women of all Buddhist traditions. Close to fifty women have become fully ordained nuns, or bhikkhunis, in these ceremonies.

Ven. Karuna was born Joyce Adele Pettingill in 1940 to active Baptist parents in Beloit, Wisconsin. In 1969 she signed up for a class in Buddhism, where she met her Vietnamese Zen master, Venerable Dr. Thich Thien-An. She helped him found the International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBMC) in Los Angeles in 1970 and became the abbess there after his death in 1980. A recognized Buddhist scholar, Ven. Karuna is a past president of the American Buddhist Congress and current vice president of the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California and the College of Buddhist Studies.

In 1994 she suffered a serious stroke, but she regained speech and mobility that same year and managed to organize the first of three Grand Ordinations that included three major Buddhist schools: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. For each ordination she reached out to sramanerikas (novice nuns) who wanted to become bhikkhunis. Women came from all over the world to be ordained by her. This was a giant step on behalf of women in Buddhism, especially considering that in some Theravada countries, like Thailand, a nun can be arrested for wearing the robes of a bhikkhuni.

Ven. Karuna’s ordination work has been most significant for women in the Tibetan tradition who are denied full ordination in their own temples. While the Buddha ordained both men and women and the bhikkhuni lineage continued after him in Mahayana countries like Vietnam, China, and Korea, it died out in Theravada countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka, and never entered Tibet. Traditionally, ten bhikkhunis are required to ordain novice nuns. As of now—without ten bhikkhunis in any Tibetan temple—their teachers can bestow only the purple robes of a novice nun, and the students remain novices for the rest of their lives.

The First International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha will be held in Germany, at the University of Hamburg, in July 2007, and will feature Ven. Karuna as a speaker. The symposium hopes to conclude the long ongoing debate about reestablishing the bhikkhuni order around the world. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama will be participating in the conference and has publicly stated his support of the recognition of Buddhist nuns.

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