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Nun’s Education and Conduct in Modern Times

On October 18th, 2008, His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa was invited to preside over the second all-night debate session of the fourteenth Jamyang Guncho for nuns, which was held at Jamyang Choling Institute in Dharamsala. Over two hundred nuns from seven different nunneries were present. The following presents the main points of the remarks which His Holiness gave on that occasion.

These days many friends from abroad with a modern viewpoint are giving help and direction to Tibetan nuns and laywomen and I would like to thank them for their help. But I think we need to begin from within our own Tibetan society to find a particular Tibetan way of being modern. The reason for this is that other viewpoints and Tibetan culture are sometimes incompatible, and as Tibetan culture is already endangered, insisting too strongly on imposing other ways of doing things could very well weaken what we are working hard to preserve.

There are quotations in the scriptures and treatises which say that ordaining women as nuns will make the Buddhist teachings disappear five hundred years earlier than otherwise. Some people cite these passages to scare you. Others try to explain them away, saying they should not be taken literally. In any case, I don’t think it is necessary to do either. The reason is that the Buddha himself not only decided to ordain women, he also granted women all the vows in the vinaya. If people cannot accept this, they should go and complain directly to the Buddha. Our responsibility is to keep the vows we have taken purely and to practice listening, contemplation, and meditation to the best of our ability. If we do so, there is no need to worry that being a nun will bring any harm to the Buddhist teachings. For men who take ordination as well, there is no better way to serve the teachings than to maintain their vows and to study and practice.

Indeed it was the Buddha’s wish that the members of the sangha coexist in harmony and joy without any discord. To explain the Buddha’s teachings with one-pointed concentration and speaking together with one voice like milk and water mixed together is to pay true respect and devotion to the Buddha. This is what the Buddha’s own aunt Mahaprajapati said.

These days many people say that Tibetan Buddhism does not give Tibetan nuns all the rights they are due, that there is no equality between the sexes in Tibetan society, and other such things. When they say this, they are looking outside themselves. When we look outward, we blame society for our own failures and are at each other’s throats the moment a conversation begins. Actually, because we lack courage and self-confidence, we hold ourselves back, and that is what brings us harm. It is not a question of a lack of external conditions and opportunities.

Once after the Lord Buddha had attained enlightenment, he returned to his homeland and taught the dharma to his father King Shuddhodana and the other Shakyans. The Shakyan Mahanama who was so delighted after hearing the teachings that when he returned home, his wife asked him, “What happened?”

“Today the Buddha taught the Dharma to many hundreds of people,” he said. “From hearing these teachings, thousands of beings will develop amazing, excellent realization!”

His wife replied, “It’s true that the appearance of the Buddha is meaningful, but it helps you, not us. The Buddha came into the world for men’s sake, not women’s.”

Mahanama responded, “That’s not how it is. The Buddha loves and wants to benefit all sentient beings. You should go and listen to the teachings.” Because he encouraged them, his wife and all the Shakyan women gained the opportunity to receive dharma teachings. As this story shows, if women lack courage and are too shy, it will be difficult for them even to receive teachings from the Buddha unless others help them, so we must increase our courage and self-confidence if we are to do great things.

This is why now is not a time to argue and protest; it is a time to improve ourselves. When I say that we should improve ourselves, you might think I’m putting pressure on you and you might sigh in despair. But if you look at the whole picture, the situation is different.

When you go on a journey, the goal may seem to be a long way off even when you have traveled a long time. Only when you look back can you see how far you’ve come. Twenty years ago there was only one nunnery in Dharamsala and most of the nuns were older women. Now there are several nunneries, and many enthusiastic young nuns have joined them. They are studying hard and making great progress in their education. You are the first generation of nuns to study the great texts; for this reason you must be totally committed—you are paving the way for future generations.

You should not let your study and good conduct diverge from each other. The way any monastic, whether male or female, carries themselves and speaks has a great influence on the teachings for good or ill. Nowadays many people are taking especial interest in nuns, so many people are watching you study. Therefore you nuns should have high expectations for yourselves and take care to value yourselves highly. You are not simply students, but must be dignified and give a good example to show what a nun really is.

The word geshe is a contraction of the Tibetan word for spiritual friend. If you have all the qualities of a spiritual friend, you automatically become one. The tradition of giving the title geshe developed in Tibet. When you have completed your education, it is up to His Holiness the Dalai Lama whether to grant the geshe degree, so you should not lose sleep worrying about whether you will be a geshe.

In the Vinaya, the bhikshunis’ teacher is considered important, so we need to take interest in the quality of instructors. It is not appropriate to regard instructing nuns as a lower status or pointless job. If the instructors are dedicated, their students will achieve good results. The Jamyang Guncho is a sign of this. I don’t think that nuns would have even dreamt of such an event in the past.

The Vinaya tells that when the bhikshuni Mahaprajapati passed into nirvana, Nanda, Aniruddha, Ananda, and Rahula carried her body to the cremation ground, the Lord Buddha himself supporting it with his right hand. I think that the Buddha’s compassionate hand always supports you nuns, never letting you down, so all of you should go joyfully and at ease down the path to liberation and bring great benefit to wandering beings.

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