When Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo arrived in Dharamsala in the 60s to study Tibetan, she needed the Dalai Lama to give his blessing before she could study with the monks at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. Since then, she’s helped Tibetan nuns learn to read, supported other Buddhist women around the world, and watched as thousands of nuns in Asian countries have fully ordained.
Donna Lynn Brown spoke with Ven. Lekshe about the role of women in Buddhism at the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta in November 2015.
You were one of the earliest Western women to study in a Tibetan monastery. How did that come about?
I arrived in Asia in 1965 and met Tibetan Buddhists in Nepal. At that time, it was not easy to find teachings in English, so I studied Tibetan in Berkeley and Hawaii, and at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India. After I learned Tibetan, the only place where I could study Buddhist philosophy in depth was the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, which is a monastery for monks. I can’t say they wanted me; His Holiness the Dalai Lama had to intervene personally to get me in. Thanks to his kindness, I had an amazing opportunity to study. Since I was usually the only woman, it wasn’t always comfortable, but I studied Buddhist texts and commentaries there for six years and loved it.
Then you started helping Tibetan nuns. Why?
While I was in Dharamsala, I noticed that many Tibetan nuns couldn’t read. In 1987, I decided to start a literacy class for them. At first, I had to convince them that reading was useful. They believed they were stupid and incapable of learning, because they had been taught that it was enough for them to recite Om mani padme hum. I encouraged them, telling them that if they learned to read, they could understand His Holiness’s teachings. That did it. We engaged a lama to teach them, and within two months all of them, including a 63-year-old nun, learned to read. Then a small group of Western nuns started learning to debate and some Tibetan nuns saw them and got interested. So the literacy program had to expand. Jhado Rinpoche, who was quite young then, agreed to teach the nuns philosophy if I taught him English. Before we knew it, we had a full time study program, which turned into Jamyang Chöling Monastery in Dharamsala.
What led you to start the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women in 1987?
Just talking to other Buddhist women. When we began comparing notes, we realized how many experiences we had in common. We were frustrated at not having access to higher studies or retreat facilities, and were disheartened by the lack of encouragement. So we decided to get together to talk about it. We thought it would be just a small tea party! But it turned into a huge gathering, inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Bodhgaya, India. There were many firsts at that conference. It was the first time Tibetan nuns had publicly played gyaling [trumpets] to welcome His Holiness. It was the first time outside of Dharamsala that Tibetan nuns wore the chögu, the yellow dharma robe. When we held a sanghadana [a lunch offering for monastics], it was the first time that Thai bhikshus [monks] sat at tables the same height as bhikshuni [fully ordained nuns]. These were incredible breakthroughs. At the end of that conference, we wanted to continue the conversation. So we launched Sakyadhita, which has created a space for women to share their experiences of learning and practicing dharma.
What progress has been made since then?
Amazing progress! Now it’s taken for granted that nuns can and should study. In those days, many people assumed that women were incapable of learning. It was assumed that the nuns’ best hope was to recite mantras and pray to be reborn as male. No one says that now! Today there are a number of monasteries where Tibetan nuns study philosophy and new retreat centers for women. Young Tibetan and Himalayan women are becoming educated in Buddhism and some are becoming teachers. About half of Sri Lanka’s 2,000 nuns are fully ordained. Even in Thai Buddhism, which is very conservative, there are about 100 fully ordained nuns. It’s like a wave that can’t be stopped. In Cambodia, there used to be virtually no nuns. When I visited there a couple of months ago, I went to a monastery and saw many nuns studying the dharma. Sakyadhita was one catalyst for this vast change. In Asia, the biggest gains have been education and full ordination for nuns. In Western countries, we see more and more women emerging as teachers of Buddhism. And greater equality: in American Zen temples, monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen share tasks more or less equally. However, men still seem to predominate in academic Buddhist studies, which concerns me.
Have Buddhist women in Western countries achieved equality?
[Laughs.] Nuns wouldn’t say that! The monks have an easier time. Monks are usually treated with respect and generosity, while nuns are still serving food. It’s a great lesson in humility, but we can’t say that women have achieved equality. Nuns have more difficulty than monks finding financial support and places to live and study. There are still not enough monasteries for nuns. If women had more places to study and train, more would ordain. If there’s no place to go, nothing to eat, and no study program, why would a woman get ordained? In the early days, many of us went to India because we could live there on $50 a month, although we had to cope with visa and health challenges. But in the West, study programs are expensive. Lack of financial support for study and practice remains an obstacle for women whether they are lay or monastic.
What can we do to encourage women in the dharma?
Sakyadhita gathers people together for conferences where women can talk and have their experiences acknowledged, and also encourages them to study, practice, and become scholars, translators, and leaders. The conferences help move issues forward. But more is needed. For example, I believe that Buddhists need gender training. NGO workers all over the world receive gender training—why not Buddhists? Buddhism can benefit the world, but if the rights of women are not protected within the tradition, what moral authority do we have? It’s embarrassing. We need to live up to our own values.
We can also encourage Asian Buddhist women. Some people think that Asian Buddhists are stuck in tradition, but there are changes afoot. Western Buddhists need to pay attention to Asian women and learn from all the sources of our tradition. By listening respectfully, we can help overturn the stereotype that Asian women are passive or submissive. We can also contribute to food, shelter, and education. Buddhist women in Asia deserve to be more than just the objects of academic study. They are the subjects of their own valuable dharma experience, and we have much to learn from them.
Also, in both Asia and the West, many Buddhist women work very hard for their male teachers. They give their lives. Men are generally the lineage holders and heads of organizations, and often their success is because of the work of women. Should we ignore contributions by women? As liberated as Western Buddhists may be, we may also be influenced by lingering sexist preconceptions. Sad to say, women have been trained to respect the accomplishments of men, but not always the accomplishments of women. It’s important to recognize our own internalized sexism. Women support unbalanced institutions. And as we take our places at the table, we must use our power wisely. For example, if there are four speakers on a panel, we can make sure that half are women, and if we give material support, we can make sure it goes to men and women equally.
How important is full ordination?
Women should have the same opportunities as men. The Vinaya—the ethical foundation of the Buddha’s teachings—has equal value for nuns and monks. Observing precepts is essential for higher accomplishments, so how can we deny women access to the precepts? Full ordination is not a bid for status or “just a Western women’s rights thing.”
What misconceptions exist about women in Buddhism?
In Buddhist texts and traditions, we find stereotypes of women as jealous, gossipy, sexually uncontrollable, overly emotional, and so on. Many people, including some women, accept these stereotypes. Even in the West, we often find women ignored, excluded, or talked over. If a woman speaks out, she may be considered arrogant or aggressive, whereas a man will be seen as confident and assertive. Western feminists are sometimes accused of exaggerating gender inequalities, but we cannot ignore the discrimination we face. Asian women certainly notice gender discrimination. They joke about it all the time.
Do you have trouble convincing people that women’s rights matter?
We don’t need to convince anyone. Once women have opportunities, their capabilities speak for themselves. That’s why we have great women teachers both in Asia and the West, such as Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Pema Chödrön, Sharon Salzberg, Marsha Rose, and Thubten Chodron. There are also many respected Buddhist scholars who are women: Anne Klein, Janet Gyatso, Sarah Jacoby, Sarah Harding, Karen Lang, Judith Simmer-Brown, the late Rita Gross, and others. Their accomplishments come from their own efforts and intelligence, but without the women’s rights movement, could they have achieved what they have?
What do you see the future bringing for Sakyadhita and Buddhist women?
Sakyadhita has been hugely successful and not only regarding women’s issues. The conferences encourage interreligious and intercultural dialogue on a range of important topics. Sakyadhita has always been concerned about social justice issues such as poverty, LGBTQ concerns, indigenous rights, the environment, and economic justice. We have pioneered education, research, and publications. Our next conference in Hong Kong in summer 2017 will integrate scholarship, contemplation, and social action. We are encouraging a new generation of Buddhist women scholars, practitioners, and leaders. I find that young women often become passionate about equality and justice when they see the challenges Buddhist women face.
You know, there are more than 300 million Buddhist women on this planet—perhaps 600 million if we include China. These women have enormous potential to foster peace, compassion, and understanding in the world. Why don’t we make sure they get the chance?
[This story was first published in 2016]