|Female monastics and laypeople at the 12th International Sakyadhita Conference |
held in Bangkok, Thailand in 2011
by Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Until 1987 most Buddhist women lived isolated lives in their own communities, without even meeting Buddhists of other traditions. The 300 million Buddhist women in the world constituted a significant silent majority. If the uncounted millions of Buddhist women in China and North Korea are added to that figure, this silent majority becomes even more significant. One big change in the last 20 years is that Buddhist women are no longer isolated. The electronic revolution has made organizing women much easier than before. Since 1987 Sakyadhita has put new technologies to work to ensure that Buddhist women can no longer be ignored.
The Genesis of the Conference
In 1986 I was admitted to the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, due to the kindness of H.H. the Dalai Lama. As a result, my own educational goals were furthered, but I realized that the majority of nuns in India did not enjoy the same opportunities I had. Nuns generally lacked the family support systems of laywomen and also lacked the monastic support systems afforded to monks. It was hard for me to reconcile the Buddha’s egalitarian social philosophy with the stark contrast between the living conditions of monks and nuns that I saw all around me. Most nuns were living in poverty, without adequate nutrition, healthcare, education, or psychological support. Some were homeless, living in makeshift shelters built of packing boxes and discarded tin.
In the early 1980s, some friends and I began to discuss this sad situation. We had all noticed a vivid discrepancy between the living conditions, respect, and community support for monks and nuns. As I talked with women in Dharamsala and traveled to other countries, I found that the same discrepancy in living standards and opportunities prevailed in other Buddhist countries, too.
From among the many letters I received from abroad, those from Ayya Khema in Sri Lanka and Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh in Thailand seemed especially concerned. Discussions with people traveling through Dharamsala revealed that the gender imbalance was not limited to India, but existed in other Buddhist societies, too. Over tea one day in my mud hut in Dharamsala, an American nun named Kunchok and I discussed the idea of bringing Buddhist women together to discuss these problems. We thought that Bodhgaya, the legendary site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and a popular place of pilgrimage, would be the ideal location. I wrote to Ayya Khema and Chatsumarn about the idea of a gathering and they asked me to organize it, since I was living in India.
When I began to organize, however, I was totally clueless. I had never attended a conference in my life, so I really had no idea what one was supposed to look like. In fact, I had zero interest in organizations. The only organization I had ever joined was the Malibu Surfing Association. Nevertheless, because of the urgency of the situation, I agreed to take on the task. On an ancient Brother typewriter, I began to laboriously type the addresses of people who might be interested onto index cards and arranged them alphabetically in a shoe box. These were the beginnings of the Sakyadhita mailing list that is still being used today. In Kotwali Bazaar in lower Dharamsala, I printed up invitations and began to send them out all over the world. The mail from India in those days took about a month in each direction and often got lost. As replies started to trickle in, we realized that people around the world were concerned about the situation of nuns and eager to discuss what could be done to help them. When I sent out the invitations, I thought that a few dozen people would turn up for an informal gathering where we could chat and compare our experiences. I never dreamed that over a thousand people would attend the opening ceremony.
From the very beginning, we decided on an inclusive approach for the gathering. We were clear that everyone should be invited to the conference, regardless of gender, social status, or religious affiliation. Ayya Khema was adamant that the main topic of discussion should be Buddhist nuns, since the situation of the nuns was so pathetic at the time. She was a courageous supporter of bhiksuni ordination and received full ordination herself in Los Angeles the following year. We agreed that this first gathering would be open to everyone, but focus on Buddhist nuns, and subsequent gatherings would address the many other concerns of Buddhist women.
One evening as I was meditating, I heard a distressed voice in the forest peal out in a deep Texan accent, “Help! Help me! I’m lost!” I grabbed a flashlight and went outside into the dark night to find the source of this urgent call for help. Floundering in the darkness was an American woman who had lost the path on the way back to her hotel. Although I was night blind, I somehow managed to guide her back to the Bhagsu Hotel, but thought nothing about it.
The next day, I met the woman again in Macleod Ganj. She told me her name was Elda Hartley and she was a filmmaker from Connecticut. When I told her about the conference we were planning, she said she would like to make a film about it. Then she asked, “How much money do you have for organizing the conference?” I answered sincerely that I didn’t have a cent. “Well, where are you going to get the money?” she asked, to which I replied, “I honestly have no idea.” Elda responded by offering to loan me $5000 for the conference expenses. I had been struggling even to pay $5 a month for rent at that time and such a huge amount of money was beyond comprehension. “But you don’t even know me!” I protested. “I know you,” she said. “But what if we don’t recoup our expenses?” I asked. “Then it will be a donation,” she replied. After the conference, she produced a film called In Search of a Holy Man that told the story of the conference.
Exhilaration in Bodhgaya
Months of flurried correspondence ensued, as registrations trickled in and we struggled to book accommodations and make other arrangements by post. The minute classes ended for winter break, I traveled to Bodhgaya in a third-class sleeper with four nuns from Tilokpur, about a month ahead of the opening date. Karma Dechen led the group and made sure we found seats and refreshments on the forty-eight-hour marathon journey. Thousands of miles of wheat fields passed by the window, as we mindfully watched over all our kitchen equipment and conference supplies.
Arriving in Bodhgaya, we appealed to Bhante U Nyaneinda, abbot of the Burmese Vihar, to provide shelter for the participants. At that time, the idea of a Buddhist women’s conference was quite radical. In some quarters, it was even perceived to be threatening. Covertly, by the hand of monk messengers, I received several anonymous notes: “Why are you doing this?” “Are you trying to compete with the monks?” “What is your motivation?” Apparently there were fears in some quarters that we had a strong “feminist agenda” that might harm Buddhism. Fortunately, without hesitation, full of wisdom and compassion, the abbot gave us the run of the monastery.
Straightaway, we set about painting banners and making jam. This was my first experience of working with volunteers and I was naive enough to be surprised when people failed to do what they agreed to do. In hindsight, I admit this was my first full realization that people have different gifts. When we needed someone to paint the banners, a woman told us she was an artist. We gave her the paints, brushes, fabric, and instructions on what to paint, and went off to tend to other tasks. When we returned a few hours later, we were astonished to see an abstract painting reminiscent of Chagall! Picking up the pieces, we hurried off to buy new fabric. We were crushed at the blow to our budget, but the conference must go on!
When the team of painters finished their work, we rounded up some fellows to help hang the banners all over town. We hardly had time to breathe a sigh of relief and grab a cup of tea before we discovered that some of the fellows had not hung the banners at all, but had made off with the fabric. Meanwhile, we noticed that some Tibetans were shaking their heads, visibly disturbed at the sight of the banners. When we asked why, they said that the nun’s robe was on the wrong shoulder! By this time, it was too late and costly to paint them all again, so we figured they could step behind the banner and view the nun’s robe in reverse from the other side.
One night during the preparations, I was suddenly awakened by a knocking on the door and turned on the flashlight to discover that it was 3 a.m. Opening the door, I saw a a nun dressed in white and a Gandhian figure holding a small cloth bundle. As I wandered into the night to rustle up some accommodations for them, I realized that the figure was the highly esteemed monk Maha Ghosananda, patriarch of the Cambodian community in the United States. He had flown this American novice nun all the way from the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Massachusettes, to attend the conference. Clearly, it is much more valuable to have monks as allies than as adversaries!
Somehow we got the bright idea to offer a sanghadana (meal offering to the Sangha) for all the abbots in Bodhgaya, along with their entourages and the nuns attending the conference. On the first day, we wanted to offer lunch to the Sangha just before the opening ceremony. The Mahabodhi Society offered a large room as the dining hall and people happily made monetary offerings to buy the food. The next decision was what kind of food to serve. My first thought, of course, was Chinese vegetarian, so I went to the Chinese temple and requested the women there to cook for the sanghadana. The women, mostly from the Chinese community in Calcutta, were delighted to help and said they would organize all the shopping and preparations. As the big day approached, the excitement was palpable.
Wendy Barzetovic agreed to be in charge of catering and worked tirelessly with the Tilokpur nuns to beautify the hall. Together, they arranged the seating for monks and nuns in one hall and seating for laypeople in another. This was the first time many Theravada monks had ever taken a meal in the same room with nuns. Moreover, they were seated at tables of the same height as the nuns, an experience most of them had never had.
The Tibetan nuns and the Chinese laywomen labored tirelessly to prepare a sumptuous lunch with many courses, fit for royalty. The sun was beating down and I remember carrying a big case of chilled soft drinks on my back to provide some relief. White-clad Sri Lankan women served the dishes to the monastics flawlessly, in traditional style, with respectful curtsies all around. As the piece de resistance, Wendy and her catering team had prepared offerings for each monk and nun—toothbrushes, handkerchiefs, soap, toothpaste, and so on—and placed them artistically at the side of each person’s place at the table. Later, we discovered that the security guards had pinched all the offerings they could carry!
As soon as the monastics finished their meal, we ushered His Holiness into a reception room and introduced some of the leading nuns and laywomen from various countries. Gracious as always, he gave each one his full attention and a genuine, warm smile. Soon, it was time to begin the opening ceremony, so the Tibetan nuns rushed out to usher him toward the conference tent with the triumphant sound of ritual trumpets (gyaling). As he approached the platform, Wendy shielded him with a parasol, traditionally reserved for royalty in India. We had arranged for Ayya Khema to lead the gathering in reciting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, but at the last moment, she got cold feet and said it would not be appropriate for her to lead the chanting when senior monks were present. Quickly scurrying around on damage control, I invited the monks turn-by-turn, until finally the most senior monk emerged and agreed to take the mic.
The opening ceremony was a joyous occasion. The crowd of 1,500 people who gathered were delighted to hear His Holiness’s words of encouragement to the assembled laywomen and nuns. He affirmed the value of the Buddhadharma in a fearful world and the role of mothers as symbols of loving kindness. He affirmed women’s rights and said that “it is correct to struggle for one’s rights.” For a country to be considered a "central land," he said, all four pillars of a Buddhist society must be present: fully ordained monks and nuns (bhiksu and bhiksunis) and laypeople with five precepts (upasakas and upasikas). If one pillar is missing (bhiksunis, for example), then that society is incomplete and unbalanced. He affirmed gender equality from a Mahayana perspective, enumerated female bodhisattvas, and recounted the accomplishments of bhiksunis at the time of the Buddha. He also said that although it was reasonable to aspire for a male rebirth in a society where men were more highly valued than women, if women were more highly valued than men, the reverse would be true. He explained that the bhiksuni lineage was not established in Tibet due to the difficulties of travel from India, but, “Speaking personally as a Tibetan Buddhist, if an authentic bhiksuni lineage like this could be established in the Tibetan tradition, this would truly be something to be welcomed.” With typical humor, he even said that “as if by the blessing of this conference,” he did not catch cold on this trip to Bodhgaya!
The rest of the week passed like a dream. Every morning we gathered for silent meditation in this consecrated space. Morning and afternoon, Buddhist scholars and practitioners from many different countries and religious backgrounds shared their experiences, insights, and struggles. Every evening, chants from the diverse Buddhist traditions were led by nuns around the Mahabodhi Temple, a sight that had rarely been seen before.
Under a makeshift tent by the Kalachakra Pavilion, this colorful gathering of Dharma friends quickly discovered their common ground. One continually recurring theme was the need for better educational opportunities for women. The Tibetan nuns were so enthusiastic about the idea that they even wanted to add the word “education” to the name of the incipient Buddhist women’s organization. We realized that we wanted to continue the conversation and to do that we needed an organization. Thus, on February 16, 1987, we held a meeting and decided to establish Sakyadhita, meaning “Daughters of the Buddha.” Some people later questioned the name, saying that it sounded paternalistic. However, we noted that no one questions the term “sons of the Buddha” or considers it paternalistic.
On the final day of the conference, we arranged a day tour to Rajgir, where the Buddha is said to have taught the Heart Sutra, and Nalanda, site of the famous monastic university that flourished for over a thousand years. I stayed behind to clean up, settle accounts, and tie up loose ends. When the buses arrived back at the end of the day, everyone looked bedraggled and exhausted, reminiscent of Mahaprajapati after her march to Vaisali. When I asked how everything went, they said that the tour had been wonderful, but everyone was very hungry. As it turned out, there had been a communications glitch and the Thai temple had prepared lunch for only 60 people, instead of 120!
We had decided that it would be very auspicious to take the participants on pilgrimage to the Buddhist sacred sites. Because almost everyone was short on funds, I decided to organize the pilgrimage myself. In my benighted zeal to please, I arranged three types to suit different budgets: “luxury,” moderate, and economy. Those of us on the economy pilgrimage slept on the floor in temples and ate in tea stalls along the way, while those who could afford it slept and ate in tourist hotels. It is still unclear how I managed it, but the “luxury” pilgrimage was $100, inclusive, for the week, whereas the economy pilgrimage cost $50. I felt dazed when two people complained about the price!
In the midst of the conference, I suddenly got a telegram from my mother saying she was coming from Honolulu to India to visit me. The timing could not have been crazier. I was totally exhausted from a year of organizing the conference. How could I ride the conference momentum and begin organizing Sakyadhita while entertaining my Southern Baptist fundamentalist mother in the Himalayas? As it turned out, however, she was a dear and her luxury hotel became a haven for all the wonderful people who had worked so hard on the conference. Wendy became her fast friend and distracted her with lively conversation, while the rest of us slipped into her room by turns to take a warm shower.
When we were fortunate enough to have an audience with His Holiness, my mother overcame her religious trepidations with valor. Palms pressed together at her heart in anjali, a gesture of respect, she smiled up at him angelically. His Holiness reassured her, saying, “Your daughter, very active nun!” and my mother quickly bobbed her head in agreement. Later, she let it be known to all and sundry that “He was a very nice man.”
After the conference was over and Sakyadhita was founded, once the pilgrimage tour ended successfully and my mother returned to Honolulu, I sat down to work out the conference accounts. To my amazement, I discovered that the conference income and expenses matched perfectly, with just enough left over to print up Sakyadhita brochures for distribution. It was a delightful moment to return Elda’s $5000 loan, with sincere appreciation and considerable relief.
Just twenty years ago, the Buddhist women’s movement began to give voice to women’s concerns and deepest aspirations. Since then, the movement has been a catalyst for change in the lives of millions of women (and men) around the world. As women link up and exchange ideas, they discover their common ground as Buddhist practitioners, as well as their diversity. Being a Buddhist in Laos or Mongolia is very different from being a Buddhist in L.A. or Toronto. But being a woman is an experience that unites women from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. At the Sakyadhita conferences, Buddhist women have developed solidarity and inspired each other to greater achievements in their practice and their work to alleviate human suffering.
After Sakyadhita was established at the conference in Bodhgaya in 1987, we set forth these objectives in our first brochure:
- to promote world peace
- to create an international network of communications among Buddhist women
- to work in harmony with all Buddhist traditions and their Sanghas
- to conduct research into Vinaya texts of the different traditions
- to provide guidance and assistance to Buddhist women aspiring to ordination
- to encourage and educate women as teachers of Buddhadharma
When we revised our bylaws in 1999, we realized that we had already achieved many of our original goals. Consequently, we crafted additional goals:
- to promote the physical and spiritual welfare of the world’s Buddhist women
- to promote interfaith dialogue
- to encourage the development of Buddhist culture and education
- to conduct research and prepare publications on topics of interest to Buddhist women
- to support the preservation of Buddhist sacred sites
- to encourage compassionate social action for the benefit of humanity
- to work toward an international Bhikshuni Sangha
Sadly, we haven’t achieved world peace yet. We all still need more training in conflict resolution, nonviolent communications, and peacebuilding. Still, Sakyadhita deserves credit for establishing a truly diverse multinational, multireligious global network devoted to nonviolent social transformation. Encouraging Buddhist women to work for social justice is certainly a major contribution to peace in the world.
If there are 300 million Buddhist women globally (and there may be many more, if Buddhist women in China and North Korea are counted), this represents a powerful force for good in the world. Buddhist women are already committed to peace, honesty, compassion, and positive human values. If all these women unite their efforts for compassionate social action, they can be a major force for global transformation.
Acknowledging that 99 percent of Buddhist women live in Asia, Sakyadhita has been very conscious to maintain a balance between Asian and Western influences. We have encouraged the active participation and leadership of all Buddhist women and have worked very hard to raise funds to enable women from developing countries to attend the Sakyadhita conferences—women who would otherwise never get a chance. To further this aim, we have held all our international conferences in Asia.
Acknowledging that Western women’s interests and priorities are often quite different from those of Asian Buddhist women, we have also held three conferences in North America and have encouraged the development of Sakyadhita branches in Europe, North America, and other countries. This year, we have worked hard to develop a Branch and Chapter Guide that will help members set up new branches and chapters.
Inspired by the Sakyadhita conferences, women have founded monasteries, schools, womens’ shelters, orphanages, and clinics. Some have gone for higher education or intensive retreats. Others have applied Buddhist mindfulness and ethics to work for social justice. Major problems still exist in the world, however, and there is much more that Sakyadhita members can do to help. If women from Asia and the West combine their skills and knowledge, we can help tackle social problems like sex trafficking, poverty, HIV/AIDS, alcoholism, religious fundamentalism, economic exploitation, and militarism. As Sakyadhita grows, we can train more women to work in grassroots social action projects to uproot these scourges. Women who have been fortunate enough to receive a good education (Buddhist or secular) and those who have developed certain skills (in organizing or meditation, for example) can help others. Together, we can help the most disadvantaged sectors of society, starting with Buddhist women and children.
From the outset, Sakyadhita has been a coalition of women and men, lay and ordained, that welcomed people of different backgrounds and experience. Despite differences of language, ethnicity, religion, and resources, Sakyadhita is one of only a few organizations in the world that unites diverse peoples on a level that transcends difference. Buddhist women have taken the lead in developing multicultural understanding and friendships.
Globally, there is enormous interest in Buddhism and Buddhist women are becoming popular cultural ambassadors. One of Sakyadhita’s great successes has been making full ordination for Buddhist women an international issue. At the first conference in Bodhgaya, many people were under the impression that women had equal rights in Buddhism and were unaware that millions of Buddhist women lack access to full ordination. Sakyadhita brought the ordination issue out into the open. The bhiksuni issue is complex because it involves monastic law, philosophy, and the unwritten histories of Buddhist women’s ordination lineages. There is a steep learning curve, but rather than oversimplifying or distorting the issue, Sakyadhita members have dedicated years to research and education. This strategy has paid off. Inspired by Sakyadhita’s advocacy, almost 500 nuns have now received full ordination in Sri Lanka. Nuns and laywomen in other countries are also courageously and skillfully working to achieve equal rights in their countries, too. What was merely a dream twenty years ago—an international conference to discuss the revival of the Bhiksuni Sangha throughout the Buddhist world—recently became a reality. In July 2007, H.H. the Dalai Lama met with Vinaya scholars from all Buddhist traditions at Hamburg University (Germany).
Because of Sakyadhita’s years of research and networking, we expect that this conference will yield a positive outcome. Soon, we hope, we can honestly assert that women have equal opportunities in Buddhism. At the first Sakyadhita conference, we did not dare speak about equal rights. The topic was too contentious and apt to lose support, rather than gain it. Even today, in the twenty-first century, I continue to receive messages warning me not to speak about women’s rights, saying that this might offend the monks. Even a few weeks ago, I was advised not to use feminist language. Why is it is laudable to speak about human rights, but threatening to speak about women’s rights? People accuse us of having a feminist agenda, though I have never heard of men being accused of having a masculine agenda. Even though detractors have questioned our motives, I sometimes wonder what would have happened without Sakyadhita. If we had not started organizing in 1987 and nuns were still illiterate and clothed in rags today, how embarrassing would that be? Gender equity not only advances the welfare of Buddhist women, but has many benefits for men and children, too. One wonderful development has been that even in countries like Thailand where full ordination is still not available for women, conditions for nuns have improved markedly. Now that the glaring disparity between conditions for monks and nuns has been publicly revealed, nuns have begun to receive greater respect, support, and opportunities. Nuns today are far more likely to receive invitations to attend ceremonies and give Dharma talks, and far more likely to establish independent monasteries and pursue higher education than twenty years ago. Nuns and laywomen alike are leading meditation centers, receiving advanced degrees, and speaking at Buddhist conferences. Although the improved status of nuns does not represent full equality, it does reflect a greater awareness of women’s capabilities and a higher regard for women as a whole.
The Future of Sakyadhita
Buddhist women can be very proud of their achievements over the last twenty years. To be proud, in this context, is not to generate arrogance or to downplay other people’s contributions.
These sentiments are contrary to Buddhist ideals. But we can and should rejoice in all the wonderful things Buddhist women have accomplished during this short time. No single person or organization could possibly have done it alone. The changes are nothing short of miraculous and were accomplished due to the concerted efforts of numerous humble, generous, hardworking individuals, all working as volunteers. I believe that much of Buddhist women’s success rests on their compassion, dedication, and commitment to Dharma principles.
Looking back at all these positive changes, we can take great joy in the achievements of others, rejoice in their merits, and then generate the altruistic intention to move forward. Rejoicing in the founding of meditation centers where women are welcome, we can help create many more centers. Rejoicing in the excellent new research and publications on Buddhist women, we can support more research and publications. Rejoicing in the emergence of many respected female teachers, we can encourage more such teachers. Rejoicing in the revival of the Bhiksuni Sangha in Sri Lanka, we can help revive it in other Buddhist countries. In my experience, a great master is one who has overcome egotism and self-concern. The Buddhist teachings also downplay the self and advocate compassion for others instead. If we are wise, we can see the tremendous benefit that accrues from going beyond self-concern and replacing it with sincere concern for others. If Buddhist women continue to do so, there is no doubt in my mind that we can change the world.
This post originally appeared in the 20th Anniversary edition of the Sakyadhita Newsletter, Summer 2007.