Home Thematic Reflections on the Sakyadhita Conferences

Reflections on the Sakyadhita Conferences


Le centre bouddhique tibétainKarma Lekshe Tsomo is an associate professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, where she teaches Buddhism and World Religions. She studied Buddhism in Dharamsala for 15 years and completed a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Hawai`i with research on death and identity in China and Tibet. She specializes in Buddhist philosophical systems, comparative topics in religion, gender issues in Buddhism, and Buddhism and bioethics. Her work includes research and publications in the areas of women in Buddhism, death and identity, Buddhist monasticism, Buddhist/Christian dialogue, and the western adaptation of Buddhism.

An American Buddhist nun practicing in the Tibetan tradition, Professor Tsomo has served as the president of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women and helped coordinate numerous national and international conferences on Buddhist women. She is the director of the Jamyang Foundation, an initiative to provide educational opportunities for women in developing countries, with 12 schools in the Indian Himalayas and three schools in Bangladesh.

Can you tell us about the beginnings of Sakyadhita? Who were the founding members?

In 1986, a group of friends and I realized that Buddhist women really need to get together to discuss the lack of support for Buddhist women. A few Western Buddhist women then decided to hold the first international conference on Buddhist women in Bodhgaya. The circumstances were quite interesting. One evening I was in my mud hut, up in the forest in Dharamsala, when I heard someone calling for help. I went out of the house to find out who it was. It turned out that an American woman, a filmmaker, had got lost in the forest. Therefore, I took her back to her hotel. The next day, I met her again in the village and she told me that she came to Dharamsala to make a film on Buddhism. She was Elda Hartley, a director/producer from Hartley Film Foundation.

As we were talking, I mentioned the conference we were planning. She asked how much money we had for the conference. When I said we had nothing, she said, “Let me lend you US$5,000,” and I asked, “But what happens if the conference is not successful and we can’t recover that money?” She said, “In that case, it would be a donation.” By the way, she did not even know me then!

At the opening ceremony, about 1,500 people came, because H.H. Dalai Lama was the keynote speaker. Everyday for a week, we sat in circles on the ground under tents outdoors discussing what was important for women. It was an incredible meeting, as many nuns and laywomen came from different countries and traditions around the world. The main theme of the conference was Buddhist nuns and the importance of education for women. At the end of the conference, our expenses were within budget and I was able to return the US$5,000!

At that first conference, we made a decision to start an international Buddhist women’s organization. The name we chose was Sakyadhita, “Daughters of the Buddha.” That was the beginning, in February 1987.

Some of the participants at the first conference were: Ayya Khema, a well-known German meditation teacher; Karuna Dharma, now the senior-most American bhikkhuni; Bhikkhuni Kusuma, the first nun to be ordained as a bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka in almost 1,000 years; and Ranjani De Silva, who started Sakyadhita in Sri Lanka. After the first conference, Ven. Karuna Dharma returned to Los Angeles and registered Sakyadhita as a non-profit organization.

What are the outcomes of the Sakyadhita conferences?

The most important outcome is an ever-increasing awareness of Buddhist women’s struggles and of their tremendous potential to benefit society. During the conferences, Buddhist women are encouraged to develop their potential to learn, practice, and teach Buddhism. After each conference, they feel inspired to initiate various projects: schools, retreat centers, women’s shelters, research, translation, publications, and so on.

However, I think that we can do more. We need to gather more research and documentation about Buddhist women’s achievements in Vietnam and in other countries. All too often, Buddhist women have remained in the background of religious activities. In many temples, women take care of the food and of general arrangements, but when it comes time for photos, women don’t get in the pictures. I think that it’s time to look at these patterns.

Perhaps these women thought there was no need to be in the photos – you know, the self-sacrificial nature in women?

Of course, humility is a basic Buddhist principle – sacrificing one’s own interests for the benefit of others, the bodhisattva ideal, working for the welfare of others without expectations. At the same time, it is important for Buddhist women’s contributions to be recognized. What women do is often ignored. In many societies, women work harder than men. U.N. statistics reveal that worldwide women do 60% of the work but 20% of the resources is owned by them, including 1% of the world’s land.

From my own observation and personal experience, women often hesitate to take leadership roles. Partly, this is because of their priorities in life, for example, they put their children first. In other cases, it is because women lack confidence in their own abilities. It is not always because of a lack of leadership opportunities.

It is wonderful that women are so devoted to their families. But many are also completely capable of taking leadership roles and they should be encouraged to do so. Many women seem content to play supportive roles, but the Sakyadhita conferences have helped many Buddhist women realize that they are capable of doing much more. Once women gain confidence and experience, they can become valuable leaders in Buddhist organizations to help tackle urgent social problems. Gradually, they can become more skilled at balancing family and Dharma work.

Some people suggest that it might be inappropriate to impose Western feminist values on non-Western Buddhist women. For example, some Buddhist nuns in Thailand seem happy to play supportive roles and do not see the need to revive the bhikkhuni ordination. What do you think?

Thailand is a special situation. When we talk about attitudes among Thai mae chee, we must recognize that there are a range of different viewpoints. Some are keen on receiving bhikkhuni ordination and others are not. There are several reasons for the hesitation of mae chee with regards to bhikkhuni ordination.

First, in many cases, the Thai mae chee are made to feel that they are unworthy of receiving higher ordination – that observing 8 or 9 precepts is enough for them. In other cases, mae chee are told that the bhikkhuni ordination has died out. Even though there are more than 30,000 bhikkhunis in the world today in Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and elsewhere, in a society where monks are the cultural ideal, their views are considered authoritative, even when they are mistaken. This is also true in many countries.

The other reason that the nuns continue with mae chee ordination is simply tradition. If for centuries monks are robed in yellow and fully ordained while nuns wear white and observe only 8 or 10 precepts, this becomes the accepted norm. Further, if the senior nuns in a monastery are mae chee, the younger nuns may hesitate to become bhikkhuni, because then they would then have higher status than their own teachers and this would requires some changes in the monastery. The inertia of tradition, combined with gender preconceptions, works against religious equality for women.

The other question in Thailand is whether nuns who become bhikkhuni will get enough material support. Some people believe that donating to a monk is more meritorious than donating to a nun, but perceptions are changing. These days, the status of nuns everywhere is improving. Today, nuns are being invited for ceremonies and are supported by the laity. Educational opportunities for Buddhist women are improving and hopefully will set the stage for the revival of bhikkhuni ordination in those countries that do not have it.

If the bhikkhuni ordination is revived in Thailand and in the Vajrayana tradition, will that mark the end of the Buddhist women’s movement in getting gender equity? Will there ever be a state of total gender equity?

Total gender equity in this world still seems remote. Patterns take time to unlearn. We all have internalized gender discrimination in ourselves, to some extent or another. In some countries, people show respect when a Buddhist monk enters the room, but seem indifferent when a nuns enters. The different treatment that nuns and monks receive is quite astonishing.

I feel differently. I feel very comfortable with nuns because those that I meet are easy-going, friendly, gentle, and compassionate. Maybe receiving respect is not important to them?

That is a beautiful observation. But we have to be careful with over-generalization. We also find monks who are extremely compassionate and easy to talk to and some nuns not so easy to talk to. We have to recognize our own conditioning. If we are standing up more quickly for a male than a female, we have to notice that. We have to be mindful of our behavior, especially any differences in the way we regard male teachers and female teachers, whether they are ordained or not. If we offer support to them, do we offer more support to male teachers than to female teachers? And if so, why? Do we automatically assume that a person is more saintly and more worthy of support just because he is a male?

So can I say that the main issues in gender equity are the recognition for women’s capabilities and their opportunity to education? If these are addressed, I guess the rest will fall in place.

I think so. I hope that a time will come when we do not have to worry about gender in Buddhism, when our attitude is truly egalitarian. For instance, when conferences are held in the U.S., the organizers are careful to invite an equal number of male and female speakers. In Vietnam, I understand the Buddhist universities have an equal population of monks and nuns. So these are positive signs.

Do you foresee future Sakyadhita conferences having an equal balance of male and female speakers?

It could very well happen. The reason we created Sakyadhita was that, in the past, women were not invited to speak at Buddhist conferences. Therefore, we started Sakyadhita as a forum for women to talk about what is important to them and to give women a voice.

Still, the Sakyadhita conferences are open to all – men, women, lay, and ordained. All are welcome to attend and to send their proposals to speak. For the Sakyadhita conference in Vietnam, we will have male speakers, though we only received a few proposals from men. From the very beginning, Sakyadhita has been a coalition of lay people and nuns from the very beginning.

What kind of mindset should men possess to achieve a true egalitarian society?

In many societies, there is a belief that a woman’s status is that of a lower rebirth. In the Tibetan language, the word for women literally means “lower rebirth” or gyeme. So when a young girl hears that she is of “lower rebirth” since birth, she grows up believing it. But we all know that we are reborn as males and females during various rebirths. We have all been males before and we have been females many, many times, too.

Men simply need to develop a full appreciation of women and their capabilities. To see women as partners is very liberating. Old habits of wanting to suppress women should fade away and men and women should together become good Dharma friends instead. Both can practice mudita, rejoicing in the good deeds and qualities of one another.

www.sakyadhita.org (English)

www.sakyadhita.org/france (French)


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