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Western nuns: The more difficult path

by Sopaporn Kurz, The Nation, Sept 18, 2007

In California, Carolina and Hamburg, Germany, three nuns deemed 'Outstanding Women in Buddhism' by the United Nations reflect on their calling

New York, USA -- For Western women, leaving behind the worldly life for that of a Buddhist monastery is not an easy choice. Even once personal apprehension is overcome, your family's misgivings can be daunting. Unlike Thai men being ordained for brief periods, taking the vows in other countries can mean a promise never to leave.


Left to Right: Sudhamma Bhikkuni, Jampa Tsedroen & Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni

"I remember watching one mother weeping in anger as her son received his samanera precepts," says Sudhamma Bhikkhuni, an American bhikkhuni who now leads the Carolina Buddhist Vihara in the United States.

"I think my own mother nearly threw up."

Ordained in Sri Lanka five years ago, Sudhamma points out that, in the US, an individual's decision to embrace Buddhism can be a heavy shock to their Christian or Jewish families.

The devotee is in fact yielding all aspects of security, including financial and medical.

"Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis must give up their property and wealth. They stop accumulating savings and Social Security benefits. If they end up disrobing [leaving the order], they will be destitute lay people. If they become seriously ill they will be unable to pay for medical treatment and would probably die."

Also to be considered, Suddhamma warns, are the daily kilesa - the "defilements" they must face living in a society that follows a completely different path.

"The culture in the USA celebrates the idea of gaining pleasure as much as possible, and pushes the idea that everyone must have sex in order to be normal. One is swimming upstream against a very powerful current."

It's not even easy for an American woman to be ordained. Few of the hundreds of monasteries in the US accept women, and even those that bestow the orders on samaneri - novices - require them to live elsewhere.

There is only one Theravada monastery in the US that ordains women and lets them stay, says Suddhamma. Otherwise, they must seek opportunity overseas.

The Carolina Buddhist Vihara has only a handful of supporters. They have a calendar system indicating when they should take food to the bhikkhunis.

"On the rare occasions when no one comes I take my alms bowl and go to my Christian neighbours, who kindly feed me," Sudhamma says.

In contrast, the Dhammadharini Vihara in Fremont, California, enjoys ample support, says its abbess, Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni, one of the most senior Theravada nuns in the States.

Fremont has a large local Asian community - about half of it Thai - but the support comes from non-Asians and non-Buddhists as well.

"We go out into the neighbourhood for pindapata [the alms rounds] every day, and we're welcomed as a presence of peace," the abbess says.

Having so much help from lay people does create a problem in the number of requests and invitations they present.

"Bhikkhunis are particularly in demand for teaching and social-welfare and interfaith programmes because our religious life as women is seen as a good example," Tathaaloka says.

"Our problem is that our lives are so busy trying to respond to all the requests that we don't have enough time for meditation. We really need more bhikkhunis who are skilled as teachers to meet the demand caused by a radical increase in public interest in Buddhism.

"We are Theravada Buddhists," she laughs, "but sometimes we need the 1,000 hands of Kwan Im."

The Dhammadharini Vihara strictly follows the vinaya - the monastic code - of the "forest" tradition of Thailand and Sri Lanka. Bhikkhunis neither handle nor keep money, and they don't cook or store food either.

Because the monastery relies entirely on donations, it struggles to pay the rent in high-priced (and materialistic) Silicon Valley.

"We're sometimes short of funds for basic lodging expenses," Tathaaloka admits, adding that they're in good shape this year. "After that, we don't know."

The difficulties facing the Theravada bhikkhunis in the West are shared by the nuns of Tibet's Mulasarvasativada Buddhism, who are known as bhikshunis.

Germany's Buddhist nuns - there are five at the moment - are struggling to survive, says Jampa Tsedroen, a bhikshuni for more than two decades.

A Tibetan lama can bestow samaneri ordination on women, but cannot provide accommodation, so the novices don't live with nuns. They live alone, and thus don't learn how to stay together in a sangha - a community.

"And we have few Buddhist lay people around here," says Tsedroen. "Those we have can't afford to take care of us - life in the West is very expensive. So unfortunately many of the nuns still need to get jobs.

"We shouldn't have to accept this mode of living any longer. One should either be a lay person or a nun."

Tsedroen consulted His Holiness the Dalai Lama about establishing a bhikshuni monastery in Germany, but was advised to adapt the concept of Christian nunnery. That, she says, would be starting from zero.

In the meantime, Buddhist nuns are very well accepted in Germany.

"German people have a high opinion of Buddhism," she says. "Society accepts bhikshunis at the same level as bhikshus, and they're surprised to hear that it's not the same in other countries, that women are still discriminated against."

Sudhamma, Tathaaloka and Tsedroen are all grateful for having been ordained and harbour no regrets, despite the difficulties in their lives. They fully support women's ordination anywhere in the world, even in countries like Thailand and Tibet, where the conservative clergy balks at accepting them.

"It's difficult when you have an ocean of bhikkhus who for so long have had a certain view on this issue," says Tsedroen.

"But we must remember that advocating change is not for our own benefit, but for the half of the world's population who would like to take this path, to have equal opportunity to practise Buddhism."



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