Excerpted from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s teaching at CHENREZIG CENTER, AUSTRALIA, 2015
When I was asked by the lamas of my monastery to start a nunnery for Himalayan nuns I set off around the world trying to elicit some interest in the subject of nuns. This was more than 20 years ago now. Basically the reaction in both the East and West was—‘Nuns? Oh yes, nuns… You don’t hear much about nuns. Lamas talk about monks.’ Since that time the situation of nuns from Tibet and the Himalayan regions like Ladakh, Spiti, Bhutan and Nepal has vastly improved.
At that time, they were not educated, they often lived nunneries which bore more resemblance to cowsheds or women’s prisons than they did to monastic settlements , and nuns were generally overlooked. So now, through the efforts of many people, that situation has radically changed.
One of the the reasons why nuns at that time were neglected, apart from the cultural and social context, was because after 1959 when the lamas came out from Tibet to India and Nepal, of course their country had been devastated, their monasteries uprooted and they were very poor. They were refugees. So the lamas put so much effort into rebuilding their monasteries, reclaiming their traditions and retraining their monks to uphold the dharma again in India and Nepal. That was almost 60 years ago.
The monks now have magnificent monasteries, are well trained and self-sufficient. Likewise the lay Tibetan refugees are on the whole doing well. They mostly live in colonies with well built houses and all facilities. So, this is good. The Tibetan community has prospered thanks to their own efforts and the kindness of all the thousands of sponsors around the world who were moved by their plight and came forward to help and support and fund.
When lamas visit the East or the West, they give empowerments and dharma talks, so people make offerings. Lamas take their donations back to India and use them to support their monasteries. Wonderful.
However, perhaps it is time to look at another section of the sangha community which has been overlooked up to now. That is the situation of women from the West or Asia who ordain into the Tibetan tradition. Who supports them? How do they get funding?
The answer is that usually they don’t get funding. At present there are hundreds of what we are calling non-Himalayan nuns living around the world. The name is a little clumsy, but it is intended to include everybody who is not a Tibetan or from the Himalayan regions. So it means both Australians, Americans, Europeans, plus all those nuns from Asia, from Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam or Korea, who lay aside their own tradition – where they would be supported by the lay people – and join the Tibetan tradition, where they are not supported by anybody.
The fact is that all these hundreds of nuns are usually not maintained by any organization, unlike the Catholic Church or the Himalayan monks and nuns back in India and Nepal. Nobody looks after them. They receive ordination, then basically they are on their own.
Of course some nuns do live in communities and receive some training. But even then they often are expected to pay something for their board or medical expenses and also to do a lot of volunteer work for their monastery. Those who are teachers or are running some kind of centre may receive a small stipend but often they themselves have to raise the money to pay bills for their Lama’s centre. They have to supply the rent, pay the taxes and the electricity bills, do the teaching and in general run the whole show themselves, and then maybe they are instructed, ‘Oh, now, you should help sponsor a huge stupa and make merit. You only need to raise about $600,000.’ These women hardly have enough to eat.
But many nuns do not even have a Dharma centre. They are completely on their own. There are many nuns who have to take off their robes and go out to work every day. Just to survive. Who is going to look after them?
When we receive monastic ordination, traditionally it is said to be the going forth from home to homelessness in faith. That’s the idea. We give up everything. We renounce our family. Give up our career. We give up everything for the sake of the dharma. However traditionally, there is a safety net. There are the lay people who will take care of the basic needs of these monastics so as to allow them the opportunity to devote their lives fully to the Dharma through pure conduct, study and practice. The laity will give food and there will be a monastic dwelling to stay. They might offer robes at the appropriate times.
In the Theravadin monasteries in the West, the abbot is Western and the monks and nuns are also Western. The lay people make offerings which are used for their own sangha. These offerings are not sent back to Thailand. But when Tibetan teachers come here, whatever donations they receive, they usually don’t share with the dharma center nor to the monks or nuns here. They take the money back with them to support their monasteries in Asia. So the sangha here have no support.
People continue supporting monks and nuns back in Nepal or in India, most of whom are nowadays already well taken care of. So perhaps now is the time to start looking with appreciation at the non Himalayan sangha who have all made a genuine renunciation of their former lifestyles. They have given up a lot. Most of the foreign nuns are highly educated. Often they had successful careers. They didn’t have to become monks or nuns. They did so out of faith because they wanted to devote their whole life to practicing and studying dharma. But so many of them are caught in this trap, that they have to spend most of their lives just trying to maintain themselves and maybe running dharma centers.
In fact many of these women have such potential as dharma teachers if only they were better trained and given the opportunity for further study and meditation retreats.
There are so many tired and disheartened nuns. They work so hard yet they are rarely appreciated. They are overlooked because the focus is always on the Lamas. Usually people are not looking at who actually organizes the events which allow the Rinpoches to travel so widely in spreading the Dharma. The Lamas may go around the world starting dharma centers, but they themselves do not support those dharma centers. In fact they expect the dharma centers to support them.
So, this is the situation which has grown up because of the refugee status of the Tibetans at the beginning. However now the Tibetans are prosperous as a community. Perhaps it is time that people became more aware of the situation for Western sangha and other Asian sangha. I have been a nun now for over 50 years and on the whole the situation has not improved. So, we have to do something. This is an issue which is usually not looked at, and like any problem, if we don’t acknowledge it, we won’t look for a solution. Now we are searching for a solution.
Some time ago in India we had a meeting with about 20 Western nuns and an Indian nun to discuss what to do about this situation because all of them were feeling the same, that not only are we not materially supported, but also we are not trained properly. Often when we ordain we put on robes, shave our head, we are given a new name, and then out we go. Now we are representing the Three Jewels and yet we haven’t got a clue what to do. There is no guidance.
Also there is not the emotional encouragement, there is no appreciation of how hard many nuns are working at Dharma centres for no reward. Then, when the nuns get old or sick , they are told to leave – thrown out. I met a nun who had worked for 20 years in her dharma center. When she got too old, they told her to leave. So, we have to think about this situation. How are these nuns being supported? Many nuns say how they had first worked for many years to save up enough money in order to able to become ordained. They worry now for the future as they see their savings dwindling. These concerns were not the Buddha’s intention when he started the monastic sangha and they do not occur in any traditional Buddhist society.
So we decided that we would form an alliance. It’s called the Alliance of Non-Himalayan Nuns (NHN) which has various objects. First of all to create an awareness so that people should understand that these monastics cannot live on air, and they yet do not receive support from their Lamas or organizations.
If they do get any material assistance it is still minimal and not enough to live on. So we are creating a website to let people know about the situation. We will collect stories of these nuns and their experiences. Perhaps the problem for Western sangha is that we are not seen as romantic or exotic. People look at Tibetan monks and think they are very special, very esoteric and exciting. But a western nun? Boring….and probably neurotic. So there is this lack of appreciation of our own home-grown sangha, because we are not encouraged to look and to recognize their good qualities. Of course these western monks and nuns are too modest to let you know much about themselves and their accomplishments.
In addition they are not going to explain that they have nothing to eat or have problems paying their rent or would love to come to the center, but can’t afford the fare and the cost of the teachings. But nonetheless that is often their situation, so please think about it.
We are trying to raise awareness among all the lay followers. We are not saying do not give donations to the Lamas, but also think about your native sangha. This is the first time in Buddhist history that the sangha is not supported by their own lay people. Why?—because the lay people are very generously supporting somebody else’s sangha and not looking at their own.
Of course this situation also applies to western monks but our primary concern here is for the nuns. Usually the monks fare better. We want to encourage nuns to come together – either physically or through cyber space – and recognize there are many nuns sharing their situation. So we want the nuns to connect with each other. One of the problems apart from the lack of support, is that these nuns often feel so lonely, because they are isolated and cut off from the sangha community. Many nuns are alone in their home town. Even if they are running a dharma center, it is mainly directed for lay people with their own troubles. Nobody is much concerned with the poor nun who is struggling to keep the center going, give teachings and raise funds. Even when the students give offerings, these are expected to be sent over to some monastery in Nepal or India. People usually don’t look at the need that is right in front of them.
Also we want the Lamas to understand that now is their opportunity to widen their activities. They have done such fantastic work to re-establish their monasteries and their traditions. They have worked day and night for that and have been very successful. It is not that in any way we are criticizing their activities. It is wonderful what they have accomplished all around the world. Also in Nepal, India, Tibet and even China, everywhere the dharma is rising again. These lamas go selflessly around the world giving such profound dharma teaching and raising interest in their monasteries. This is brilliant. But now it is time to look at another section of the monastic population which has up to now been neglected — ‘unintentionally overlooked’, is how it’s put.
One problem is the general assumption that all foreigners – West or East – are naturally affluent and do not need financial support. Mostly Tibetans only see others in the role of sponsors so they do not understand that many people are actually quite poor and need help. In addition of course people hesitate to discuss these issues so there is a lack of recognition of the problems.
We would also like to request the Lamas to undertake more training for the foreign monastics whom they ordain. We are currently engaged in exploring this possibility with the help of sympathetic Rinpoches.
We are not expecting to be financially supported by the Tibetans, but we are hoping that the lay people, both in Asian and in the West, will understand that they have a wonderful sangha of their own right in front of them that needs help, that needs support, that needs appreciation and encouragement.
It can be a very lonely life. Most nuns are living in a non-Buddhist country where they do not fit in and are perceived as weird. There is usually no monastic community. They need support, not just financial but also psychological. Emotionally, these nuns need some encouragement and a sense that they are appreciated; that all the sacrifices which they have made is somehow appreciated. This situation involves hundreds of people and so perhaps it is time that we wake up and recognize there is a problem. Hopefully, there will also be a solution.
See www.nonhimalayannunsalliance.com for more details