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Fierce nuns, Feminism, and The Dalai Lama

September 30, 2009

This week, as he received the International Freedom Award, His Holiness the Dalai Lama warmed

Om mani padme hum

Om mani padme hum

hearts and bunched a few panties when he called himself a feminist.

He went on to offer that, because they bear children, women are more naturally compassionate.  I’m not up to the task of determining what it means to be a feminist or who’s allowed in that club, but I do have a few thoughts on feminism and Buddhism.

HHDL says he fights for women’s rights, which is mostly true.  He is supportive of a growing feminist movement among Tibetan Buddhist nuns, who are fighting for the right to become fully ordained and enjoy the same educational and spiritual prowess as their monkish counterparts.

Very briefly, in Tibetan Buddhism a nun may only become fully ordained (which is like going pro as an athlete — you’ve committed yourself absolutely, you’ve taken the most number of vows, you’re highly respected) if she is ordained by a fully ordained nun.  And there are no fully ordained nuns in the tradition because, mysteriously, it’s not clear if there ever were, or if the lineage died out or what.  So it’s a catch 22.  And fierce Buddhist nuns in India and Tibet have been fighting to bring this back.

It's often a lonely road

It's often a lonely road

Misogyny is buried deep within many of Buddhism’s most essential texts, and even within the story of the Buddha himself — who ordained only male disciples at first, then reluctantly his aunt in gratitude for raising him after his own mother died.

The misogyny, or rather androcentrism, of essential Buddhism has been exacerbated over millenia by the cultures and societies its grown up in: Japan, Tibet, Korea, India, Thailand, etc.  Each one offering a new take on women’s roles as Buddhist traditions mix with indigenous religious traditions.  So there you have a complex layering of gender norms and expectations that Buddhologists continue to puzzle over.

Nuns are often confused for monks since with shaved heads and billowing crimson robes they look almost identical.  Except they enjoy far fewer freedoms (I’ve seen many a monk on cell phone or motorcycle), are often respected less by their societies (laypeople tend to visit monasteries more than nunneries to have important rituals performed), and are restricted more by the vows/rules set upon them by Buddhist texts.

HHDL has been supportive in theory, but can only be so supportive in practice.  He defers to sutra experts to find out what happened to the lineage, if and why nuns can/can’t be fully ordained, and doesn’t do much to alleviate the tremendous amount of discrimination — by “laypeople” or non-monastics and male monks — nuns receive in the mean time.

Without over simplifying, I would draw an analogy between the way HHDL is “fighting” for freedom of Tibet (through non-violence, vehemently criticized by a younger freedom fighter crowd for his inertness) and the way HHDL is “fighting” for women’s rights.  And that’s women’s rights within monasticism and without.

Instead, check out these awesome groups of nuns who are making very real and very powerful inroads into the male dominated Tibetan Buddhism scene:

Tibetan Nuns Project (co-directed by HHDL’s sister-in-law): is a kick-ass nunnery and higher-education institution for refugee nuns from Tibet.  These women will be among the first “geshes” or a degree comparable to a PhD in philosophy.  And that’s Buddhist philosophy which is mind-numbingly awesome and will turn out upside down.

Ladakh Nuns Association: is a nunnery and nuns’ empowerment organization run by the fierce Ani Palmo, a traditional Tibetan healer and a well-respected nun.  High up in the forgotten nooks of the Himalayas, between Tibet and Pakistan, Ladakh is home to thousands of monks and nuns.

Dutch Foundation for Ladakhi Nuns: a Dutch organization entirely committed to raising money and providing support for Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Ladakh.  You can sponsor a nun’s education for an entire year with a donation of around $300.

Sakyadhita: An international association of Buddhist women committed to exploring, engaging and speaking out about issues of gender, feminism, women and Buddhism.

Also see, “Being a Buddhist Nun,” by Kim Gutschow.

So I guess HHDL can be a feminist if he says so, and if he wants to be, but he should do more to recognize the truly outstanding work that nuns themselves are doing on these issues, and provide clear guidance to followers on the importance and value of all women, but especially female monastics.

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