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The Kindness of Tigers - Buddhist women

Kerry Stewart

In this Encounter we ask the question: Can women embrace the divine as well as men? We'll hear from Buddhist women in Asia and the West who are fighting governments, monks and established social conventions to prove they can. Their Dharma claws are sharp and their minds are gentle as they examine the negative images of women in the texts, the Buddha's hesitation to admit them into the monastic community and centuries of repression. We'll also hear the stories of important women from the past and enlightened women today, which are fortifying them on the path to equality.



Kerry Stewart: Welcome to Encounter on ABC Radio National; I'm Kerry Stewart. This week: Buddhist women.

Chi Kwan Sunim: There is one old nun who I've travelled with, who had actually lived quite a lot of her early life surrounded by tigers. She was a nun from the age of 16 and she had just lived in a very small hermitage with one or two other nuns. And these tigers were very common in the mountains, and this would have been so up until the Korean War. But they never ever would touch the nuns, you know, the nuns could go to the Buddha Hall and come back, and they would walk out and they would see them, but never ever did they ever come and bring fear to the nuns. And so she grew up without this fear because she wasn't frightened of tigers, she didn't have a fear of people. And she also realised at a very young age, that her own mind was like a tiger mind, that her own mind had the capacity to pounce on fear, or devour fear, and to be fearful, to reject that which you would see as weak, and herself to be weak. She also saw that a tiger could be extremely kind and it had a capacity to really probably have more compassion than the human heart at times, because it only really devoured when it needed to or kill when it needed; most of the time it was in her mind, was an extraordinary being. So she saw the tiger as actually one of these beings which was her teacher.

Kerry Stewart: In this Encounter that I've called 'The Kindness of Tigers', we'll find out about the challenges women face as Buddhist teachers, nuns and the lay community in Asia and in the West. In parts of Asia women are fighting governments, the media, monks and established social conventions to become ordained nuns. One way they're fortifying themselves on the path to equality is to tell the stories of important women from the past, like the story we just heard of Chi Kwan Sunim's encounter with the Korean nun who lived with tigers.

Vicki Mackenzie is a British author who became interested in Buddhism in the 1970s when she went to Nepal on a Buddhist meditation course. She was very impressed by the Tibetan Lamas and wrote a book about one of them, Lama Yeshe, but realised something was missing.

Vicki Mackenzie: And as I put the last full stop on the book, and sat back exhausted and relieved at having finished the book, I thought this man was wonderful. Then I thought, but where are the women? Why are there no women in this pantheon of fabulous teachers. So I began to research and look for women within the Buddhist hierarchy, and I couldn't find any. And then I realised that actually within the whole feminist movement, and I was not a feminist as such, although of course I acted out, I mean I was one, but I wasn't politically a feminist, I didn't think. But I thought, well this is the last bastion of the whole women's lib movement in the realm of spirituality, it had become so patriarchal because they were the holders of the truth, and there'd been no female holders of the truth in an acknowledged way. And then it all came down to the fact that from the great patriarchal religions, the female body had been deemed as being unworthy as holding the absolute essence of the excellent. Women had been regarded as inferior beings, in fact the word for 'woman' in Tibetan is 'inferior being'. Well of course it's outrageous, and I discovered that, not within Tibetan Buddhism, but within other schools of Buddhism, women had to sit outside the door; the most junior monk had to take precedence over the most senior nun; and on it went, this tremendous hierarchy. So that's when I began to look at it, and of course there have been the most fabulous women within Buddhism, the most extraordinary female practitioners. But nobody ever wrote about them because all the myth-makers have been male.


Karma Lekshe Tsomo: Well I grew up in the United States with a Southern Baptist mother and a materialist aeronautical engineer father, but our family name was Zen, which sounds just like Zen Buddhism. So when the kids at school started teasing me about being a Zen Buddhist, I went to the library, and this is the '50s, and found two books on Buddhism. And the minute I read those books, that was it. I went home and said 'Mommy, I'm a Buddhist'. She was horrified, I was 12 years old.

Kerry Stewart: As a teenager, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, as she is now known, went to Japan for a surfing competition, and reignited her interest in Buddhism while she was there by meditating at a local monastery. Later she travelled around Asia on a spiritual quest and after 13 years became a Tibetan nun. But her path wasn't easy.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: It required a lot of searching to find a monastery for women. I was looking everywhere, all over Asia, and there were plenty of monks, but I didn't see any nuns. In those days, in the '60s, nuns were practically invisible, so it took many years to seek them out. In fact when I was younger I wanted to be a monk. It took many years to reconcile myself to becoming a nun. And when we look at these two words, in the States a lot of women call themselves monks, but then we'll never find men wanting to call themselves nuns, will we. So it shows that these two terms conjure up very different images. Why, why is that?

In any case, it took a long time to get to the monastery but in fact in the Tibetan refugee community there was no monastery that would take western nuns. In the end I had to start my own, so that was the beginning of Jamyang Foundation. And now we have about 15 monasteries all over the Himalayas.

Kerry Stewart: Can you describe the Foundation, Jamyang Foundation?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: Jamyang Foundation is a project, an educational initiative to offer equal access to Buddhist education for women. So in the past there has always been a preference for monks, for men, and women have often lacked access to very basic Buddhist education. Just over the last 20 years we've been trying to rectify that and address this gender imbalance within Buddhism. So personally I'm working both on the international level trying to raise these issues amongst Buddhists of all the different traditions, and then personally, on the local level, I've been working in the Himalayas to provide equal educational opportunities for women, and young girls. Also we have three schools in Bangladesh amongst the Buddhist tribals.

Kerry Stewart: And so how are the local community reacting to this change in status of women?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: Well in the Tibetan community, it was something rather novel in the beginning, and I must say there was some resistance through it. It was assumed that monks study, women chant "Om mani padme hum" and the resistance was not only among the community, even among the nuns themselves, they would say 'Oh you Western nuns go and learn to read, I'll just recite Om mani padme hum, I'm too stupid to learn.' It took me quite a while to talk them into it, but we started on a literacy project and within two months, this whole first group of nuns was reading. Imagine not having access to the texts to which you've dedicated your entire life. That's the way I got the nuns, to say: imagine what you can read, and learn what the text means, you'll be able to understand His Holiness the Dalai Lama'. That was it, and then they were right with me. Within two months even the one who was 63 years old, these are nuns who'd walked out of Tibet for three months, and they were able to just come up speed like that; and they're still in India, still practising; wonderful, wonderful women.

Kerry Stewart: There are three Buddhist traditions: Theravada, which is the oldest, Mahayana and Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism. Dr Yifa is a Taiwanese Buddhist nun in the Mahayana tradition.

Dr Yifa: So right now one would refer to Mahayana Buddhism, many would refer to the country, like China or Taiwan, Hong Kong, that area of practice, we can call Chinese Buddhism. And then Korea, and Japan, and also Vietnam. I think the Vietnamese Buddhism, because it's geographic location, you also have a big influence of Theravada. So Theravada right now will be Sri Lanka and Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand and some parts of Vietnam, and Vajrayana will be Tibet, and of course also includes the Dalai Lama's exiled government in India.

Kerry Stewart: So how are women treated differently in these different traditions, or in these different countries?

Dr Yifa: In Taiwan, what we call the Bikkhuni, or nun's, position is amazing. It's very extraordinary because the majority of a monastic in Taiwan are nuns. That means that the number of nuns are more than monks, and they also are in the leadership as well. So for example, in Fo Guang Shan and that is the order I joined, the temple has about 1,500 monks and nuns and among this number, 1,200 are nuns. And 95% of the institute, the head of the institute, are nuns. Korea also the nuns are very dynamic and very powerful, very capable, and they are very active as well.

Bikkhuni Dhammananda: You have to understand that in Taiwan the Chinese nun came out before the monks, so they were well established. When the monks came out because of the communists in China, they didn't have any root. So they had to flee the country and they were very much helped by the Bikkhunis, by the nuns, to get established. So this historical fact make the monks always look at the Bikkhunis in a very compassionate way, they have very good relationship, more than other countries where the men tend to be more established than the women's sangha.

Kerry Stewart: In Thailand where Bikkhuni Dhammananda lives, the Theravada monks are so well established that even the king bows to them. In comparison, a nun's sangha was never developed but Dhammananda is at the forefront of change. She was the first Thai woman to go Sri Lanka for full ordination.

Bikkhuni Dhammananda: I was teaching in a university so I took early retirement. I left my family, my sons by that time they were grown, so I didn't have any guilt conscience, that I left them when they were young. So then started my life as an ordained person.

Kerry Stewart: Can you describe what your life was like before you became a nun?

Bikkhuni Dhammananda: Well I was a Professor, teaching Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy, and I travelled a lot, attending international conferences in various countries. I did seven years in television. It's on dharma talk that comes every Sunday. So I led a very busy life, to the point that I thought, well it's like a push button system and the important thing is that I am not the one who is doing the pushing. Somebody else, you know, society is pushing it, and No, that couldn't be my life, so I needed time to step out and really search for something that is meaningful, truly meaningful to our own existence. So that was when I decided to step out.

Kerry Stewart: And as a woman in that very busy life, womanly things like make up and beautiful clothes were part of that life. Can you describe that for me?

Bikkhuni Dhammananda: Yes, I loved putting on make-up and every morning when I looked at myself in the mirror once it's done, then I kind of smile, you know, in the mirror, 'Ah, this is going to be a good day, with a beautiful face'. Then one day suddenly I thought, you know, how long do I have to do this, putting on make up again and again you know? Then just like two sheets of paper that has been glued on, and suddenly when the glue became, how do you say, came apart, you know, just two sheets of paper just fall apart, and it doesn't mean anything for you any more. Now it's becoming a burden to put on make up, that's enough. So I thought that was enough. And it was then when I had enough of the lay life, only then when I start thinking, 'How can I live the rest of my life meaningfully?' then I searched for ordination.

Kerry Stewart: Part of the life of an ordained monk or nun is to go on an alms round to collect their daily meal. So how did the Thai people react to Dhammananda when she went out for the first time?

Bikkhuni Dhammananda: Thai people in general, they are very generous, and they like to make offerings, that's their way of leading a religious life, giving lots of offeringa to the temples, to the monks and we women are always the ones who provide. We always make the best dishes and then take it to the temple. And now when I am walking the line, going out for alms round, some women who followed me, some of them are so moved that they never thought that a woman would be in this role, you know, women have always been in the role of putting things in the bowl, but now we are a receiver, so it's a great impact on women, bringing about the understanding that men and women, likewise, we are equal in our potential to be enlightened. That is the Buddha's statement. So I think we are bringing the fullness of Buddhist practice for both genders.

Kerry Stewart: But not everyone in Thailand saw it that way, and particularly some monks, and the government, so can you describe that difficulty that you had to rise above, and sometimes fight?

Bikkhuni Dhammananda: Fight, if there is a fight, it is a fight against ignorance, and this fight against ignorance has no gender. It cut across male and female, and the fact that the government has not recognised us is because the government is basing the responsibility on the sangha, but the sangha also cannot make a decision because they set a definition of the word 'sangha' to mean only the male sangha. So when female sangha comes into horizon, they don't know where to place us. So we are not illegal by constitution, we are protected by law, yet we are not legally recognised. So we are in a very strange stage and the fact that we are in this limbo, I think it's a good practice for our own self, to really know that things are impermanent, the fact that we have no recognition, even furthers our practice. We should not lead our lives simply because we are recognised. We can also lead our lives practising very well without being recognised too.

Kerry Stewart: And what is the need for fully ordained nuns in Thailand? Isn't it good enough to be a novice?

Bikkhuni Dhammananda: Well you know, as I see it, this is a heritage that the Buddha laid down for us. It is our responsibility that we as a second pillar of Buddhist group to be established, so that we can strengthen Buddhism. Because the Buddha said that it is Bikkhu (monks), Bikkhunis (nuns), laymen and laywomen, who will either make Buddhism prosper or decline, depending on these four groups of people. So I see that as my responsibility, as an individual, in order to bring about a community of women who are like-minded and are willing to sacrifice that clinging to self, but now we can dedicate ourself our work, our energy for the progress of Buddhism.


Kerry Stewart: Stories that the Buddha had doubts about including women into the monastic community or sangha, have abounded in Buddhism. So what do we know of these early times? Ajahn Sister Vayama is the Abbess of the only Theravada Forest nun's monastery in Australia.

Ajahn Sister Vayama: What we have is an account of his foster-mother's request, her name was Maha Prajapati Gotami, to be ordained as a nun, and we have in the records that the Buddha initially refused that request. But on the third request, which is the traditional way in the scriptures of people making important requests, they requested it three times before the final decision was made, the Buddha agreed to give Maha Prajapati Gotami the ordination, the going forth, and she became the first fully ordained nun.

I don't think if he were the Buddha, he would have in his heart anything but compassion for the safety of women. I'm sure the Buddha, as an enlightened human being, would be beyond the great discriminatory ideas that, you know, male are superior to female, which is sometimes outlined in the text. So the Buddha was concerned about women's ordination for many reasons. He would have been concerned within that culture; how can women travel, because you have to think it was a nomadic community, and how can women be protected when they're travelling? Women's physical health, women's menstruational health and things like this, these were all things that would have been concerned relating to a time in India at the time of the Buddha.


Kerry Stewart: Australian Zen nun Chi Kwan, who trained for 19 years in Korea.

In her book, 'The Cave in the Snow', Vicki Mackenzie quoted the Dalai Lama as saying:

'Of course a woman can become a Buddha. In the texts of the Vehicles of Perfection, and those of the first three classes of the Tantras, it has been said that Buddhahhood is generally attained in the masculine form. But according to the 4th class of Tantras there's no distinction between masculine and feminine, enlightenment may come about just as easily in a woman's body as in a man's.'

The Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tenzin Palmo set about to prove him right, as Vicki Mackenzie found out when she met her.

Vicki Mackenzie: I met her actually in Italy when I was on a Buddhist course there, and I saw this nun glowing, absolutely radiant. And she was always surrounded by people especially women, and someone said to me, 'Well that is Tenzin Palmo, and she's just spent 12 years meditating in the cave in the Himalayas.' And I thought, wow, both as my own sort of interest in Buddhism and women and enlightenment and also as a journalist, I thought, wow, that's an extraordinary, extraordinary story, because she had vowed to attain enlightenment in the female body, no matter how long it took, because she'd also been of course subjected to this terrible prejudice in her own quest. So out of that came 'Cave in the Snow'. And I think it's like the last wave, almost like the last and the most important wave of gender equality, because until we can see that women approach the divine as much as men can, then we're not going to have real equality in the world.

Kerry Stewart: Tibetan nun, Dr Karma Lekshe Tsomo teaches at the University of San Diego.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: We have to realise that these texts were transmitted orally for several hundred years. Those who were transmitting them orally had prodigious memories, no problem there, but they were all male. So it's not impossible that certain sexist attitudes might have influenced the way they remembered the teachings. The basics are quite clear: that when we talk about the mind, we're talking about getting rid of greed, hatred and ignorance. Women can do that just as well as men, there should be no barrier there. Sometimes you find references to women being more jealous, emotional, there are also images of women as temptresses of men, and so forth. I don't think we need to take this very seriously.


Kerry Stewart: The Bodhisattva Kuan Yin is often portrayed in sculpture and paintings as a woman in celestial white robes with a vase in one hand, which holds the nectar of compassion and wisdom, and a book or scroll of prayers in the other, representing the dharma or teaching. It's believed that Kuan Yin appears in the sky or on the waves to save those who call upon her when in danger. During World War II when the United States was bombing Japanese-occupied Taiwan, there are stories that she appeared in the sky to catch and cover the bombs with her white garments to prevent them from exploding. Today, in countries that practice Mahayana Buddhism, there are many altars dedicated to the female figure of Kuan Yin, who is said to hear the cries of the world. Chi Kwan is a nun in the Korean Zen tradition.

Chi Kwan Sunim: So Kuan Yin is actually one of my main deities. We say Kwan Seum Bosal in Korea. But with the Kuan Yin and her ability to hear the suffering, it is said that through the sounds of suffering, the sounds that she was able to deeply listen to and deeply become in tuned with, she was emancipated, she was liberated through the sound of hearing. So Kuan Yin is one of these deities or you could say real equalities of Buddhism. She represents a quality of Buddhism which is that which is willing to face all suffering. And by facing all suffering become the emancipator of it, become one with it and free it.

Kerry Stewart: So do women on the earthy plane have particular qualities that they bring to teaching and practice? Tibetan nun, Karma Lekshe Tsomo.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: Well this is a tricky question because if we say that women bring special things, if we're going to say that women are different from men, I mean intrinsically, that's a slippery slope philosophically, and I'm not sure we want to go there. I mean are women fully human, or are they a different species? So if women are fully human then they would have exactly the same capabilities as men. They just simply need to realise that they possess those capabilities, those potentialities and go for it.

Kerry Stewart: But with their cultural conditioning do you accept that they perhaps would have learned different skills and therefore they would bring different things to the practice?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: Well because of women's social conditioning, I mean after all we're conditioned to be caring, loving, selfless and so forth. Now these happen to be qualities that Buddhism prizes, so if women are already inclined toward those things, because of our upbringing, because of our training to think of others before ourselves, well, well and good. So there could be some advantage in that. On the other hand there are others things such as leadership skills that we have to consciously cultivate because they aren't necessarily inculcated in young girls, certainly of my generation. I think things are changing a bit in that regard.


Kerry Stewart: You're with Encounter on ABC Radio National. I'm Kerry Stewart, and in this program, called 'The Kindness of Tigers' we're exploring the ways women practice and teach Buddhism, and the reactions of both Asian and Western societies to their growing presence.

Australia is an important innovative place for Theravada nuns and lay women from all over the world. In Asia, nuns are struggling to be recognised, but here, a forest monastery has been built specifically for nuns by the Theravada Buddhist community. Kanthi and Pohlien are dedicated practitioners in that community and Ajahn Sister Vayama is the Abbess.

Ajahn Sister Vayama: Dhammasara nuns' monastery is situated in bushland about 45 minutes drive outside Perth, in the hills of Perth, and it's actually a property that's 583 acres in total. Most of it is covered by bush, and in the valley we have a series of buildings which are the focal point for the monastic life here. One central building which we call the nuns' cottage which is where we have our shrine room and where our lay disciples come every day to offer our food and also the other things that we need, material things we need for the running of the monastery. And they also receive teachings, and this is a very important place for women and for Buddhist women because it's the first time that nuns have been given the same sorts of facilities for their practice as the monks.

Kanthi: It's good to have nuns nearby and also have a nuns' monastery here because I think it's much easier for women to have a place to go to where they can be free, and not that they can't be like that with the monks, but there is a sort of a distance with the monks.

Pohlien: Yes, I feel the same. The monks, there's still a physical difference and a distant as well because of the practice. We can't go too close to them and they try to distance themselves from you because of the rules. But with the nuns, you can still respect them as a teacher but you're more open.

Kanthi: I think we're dealing with women they would know really how the women are feeling, especially now let's say in the Thai tradition, when a woman offers something it has to be kept on a yellow cloth, they don't take anything from you. But in Sri Lanka it's not like that, I don't think in Burma it's like that, but in the Thai tradition. And I used to be quite taken aback because when I came to Perth, the first time that happened, and I was quite freely telling a monk that we really feel, but I don't think they seem to understand, how we feel a bit inferior, because we are dirty or something, and the cloth is kept.

Kerry Stewart: And is it different with the nuns?

Kanthi: Oh yes. With the nuns they just give it to them.

Kerry Stewart: And how about the lay community of women, is that important for the sangha?

Kanthi: I think it's important we have to cook.

Pohlien: Generally we feed them like they still are our kids. Well we do. I mean like in winter, we always are really more thoughtful, probably we give them more soup or things like that, they need more food than summer, and more considerate, more sensitive to their needs I think.

Ajahn Sister Vayama: And one of the things which I think is a very positive aspect of the growth of Buddhism in a non-Buddhist culture, is that many people who've grown up in a Buddhist culture and taken Buddhist practice for granted, have never had to really develop a close personal understanding of the teaching, and when they are moved from their Buddhist culture into a non-Buddhist culture, they're forced to really consider what is it in Buddhism that really is important to me? What really helps me to live my life well? And similarly, people who come to Buddhism from a non-Buddhist background, being brought up in say the Christian religion or the Jewish religion, they like to know what is the heart of Buddhism, not the external trappings but what does this really offer in terms of value-adding to my life?

And because of these two things, one of the features I find is that people are more open-minded, more willing to be innovative when they look at what works and what doesn't work in Buddhism. And particularly that's relevant to us because it's the willingness of people to be innovative and to look outside the traditional cultural conditioning that's made the nuns' monastery possible. If people were not willing to be innovative, and I'm talking about the lay community, then people would say, 'Oh, we don't need nuns, we've got monks. Oh, we don't need nuns because women can't do this. There aren't any nuns in this tradition; nuns don't need to have a big property like that, they can make do with the quarters at the back of the City Centre, why do they need to be in the forest? Just let them get on with looking after the lay people doing their social work roles or any of the things which we've come to assume were the roles that women play.' And which sometimes we see even Buddhism seems to recommend as the roles that women should play, even when they go forth into the homeless life.

Kerry Stewart: But are the teachings that women give, any different from those of the monks? Thai nun, Bikkhuni Dhammananda.

Bikkhuni Dhammananda: The general teaching that is mostly given by monks are screened from male point of view, so it is very much our responsibility as women, as female teachers, to bring about the beautiful teaching of the Buddha. Just to give you an example: in the Buddha's time, there was a case of a Bikkhuni who got pregnant. The monks don't talk about it at all and the monks thought it is kind of something to hush up and put it under the mat, you know, but I kept talking about it because I thought this story showed the Buddha's compassion, true compassion, that he had for women. This nun, she was pregnant, and then she became ordained, so she didn't know that she was pregnant at the time of ordination. So her pregnancy became known when she was far advanced. Her teacher, her monk teacher wanted her to disrobe, remove her from the sangha, but she insisted that 'I didn't do anything wrong, I kept my precepts intact until the Buddha intervened.' And the Buddha, of course the Buddha must have known that she was sincere, but only Buddha knows is not sufficient. He had to make known to the community because the nun was living in the community. So he set up a committee consisting of Visakha, she's a great lay supporter, and then eventually she found out that this woman was pregnant before, therefore after her ordination she was pure she was intact, she has not transgressed any major rules. So the Buddha allowed her to remain in robe, until she gave birth to the baby, and she fed the baby for one year before giving the baby up for adoption. So being a mother, being a woman, I know how much it means to us women, so I keep telling this story.

Kerry Stewart: Dr Karma Lekshe Tsomo has written several books about important women of the past and is the president of Sakyadhita, the International Association of Buddhist Women, which compiles the stories of important women today. So can women from the past help women today?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: I think that stories of enlightened Buddhist women from the past can be very inspiring, and fortunately we have many. We have the story of the Buddha's own stepmother and auntie, who founded the monastic order for women, and then we have the stories of many realised women of the Buddha's own day We know their names, we know their special qualities, we know that the Buddha praised them, and then in every Buddhist culture we have stories of women who have gained great achievements in the realm of the spirit. And then we need to record our own stories as well. And this is part of the work of Sakyadhita, the International Association of Buddhist Women, is to encourage women to write their own stories and the stories of their teachers, and the stories of famous women throughout history, which have been virtually overlooked.

Kerry Stewart: Can you give some examples, just a couple of examples?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: There are many stories, for example in Tibet we have the story of an enlightened figure from the past Gelongma Palmo who was a princess who contracted leprosy, was thrown out of the house, and later went to the forest and meditated intensively and was able to achieve a direct realisation of the Bodhisattva of compassion, and to do that she overcame her leprosy.

And coming up to the more recent times, there was a figure, a Thai nun, who was an attorney, and she started the first women's shelter of Thailand, and she became a nun after the Sakyadhita Conference in 1993, and because she was so well respected in the community, she was able to really help transform attitudes towards nuns in Thailand. She went on to establish the first nun's college in Thailand. So there's so many, and it's so wonderful to read their stories, I find it greatly inspiring.

Vicki Mackenzie: There are women coming forward. It has changed a lot in the past 15 years. Women are going so fast now, they attract thousands of people, these female teachers, people like Robina Curtin the nun, who's Australian, who's done all the work with the prisoners. That film was made of her called "Chasing Buddha". There's an American nun called Pema Chodron, oh yes, and their voices are powerful, and persuasive. So it's begun, but there's still a long way to go.

Kerry Stewart: Vicki Mackenzie has practiced in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for 30 years and is the author of many books about Buddhism.

Chi Kwan is a nun in the Korean Zen tradition who lives and teaches in Victoria.

Chi Kwan Sunim: There is a lot to learn about enlightened women of the past because enlightened women of the past are really a part of ourselves today. When we look into our life now, we are looking at it through the guideline, through the teachings, the faith or the idea, that women can be emancipated. We're learning from the ancestors we have on this path. But we are also experiencing that in this very moment. You know, we only know of the past through what we are experiencing now. And when we reflect and we contemplate, and meditate in our everyday life, that is walking with us really, that is very much present there. Because if it weren't so, if they were not emancipated and enlightened, I very much doubt I would be wearing these robes and have the capacity to study the Dharma and to have studied a long time with monks and nuns, very enlightened monks and nuns.


Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here now. Let us unite with:
The Ancient Seven Buddhas, dai osho,
Shakyamuni Buddha, dai osho..... )

Maggie Gluek: These are the women of the Sydney Zen Centre chanting a dedication that occurs in the middle of our Sutra service. My name is Maggie Glueck, and I'm an apprentice teacher with the Sydney Zen Centre.

This dedication honours the important ancestors in our Zen lineage, particularly in the Soto Zen lineage, going back to the mythical ancient seven Buddhas, and the founder, Shakyamuni Buddha, Bodhidharma and important teachers thereafter. And the word Dai Osho at the end of each line, means 'great teacher'.

Speaking for myself, I had been practising Zen and chanting this dedication for many years without feeling that it was deficient in any way, and then in the early '90s, our teacher at that time, John Tarrant, added a line to the dedication: the untold women, centuries of enlightened women, who hold our zazen in their arms, dai osho.

"Hold our zazen in their arms", I think this line actually acknowledges the feminine more broadly, not just the teachers and the students who are women, but it expresses an allowingness, an embracing, an inclusiveness that supports all of us in our practice. And for all the women in the sangha, I believe, this was hugely significant. Not having realised that anything was missing, suddenly with this line, this important line, all the women who had gone before us were acknowledged. It felt to me as if a balance had been restored.


Kerry Stewart: Buddhism in Burma in relation to the military regime is a complex issue. However many Buddhists from the West visit the country for meditation courses and retreats.

When Daw Aryinani was young she went from Switzerland to Burma to study meditation in the Theravada tradition. She stayed, and is now a nun who teaches there and in Europe. So do the feminist values she grew up with in Europe conflict with traditional Burmese ways of treating women?

Daw Aryinani: In the beginning I had several times when I just felt so much pity for these Burmese women, and especially nuns, and one thing was because I was a Western nun, they paid more respect to me than they paid respect to the Burmese nuns, and the discrepancy between the respected that monks and nuns get, it was so painful for my heart to see. And so I thought I'm going to help the Burmese nuns, especially the nuns I felt connected to, and thought I have to somehow raise the standard and do something about their condition. And so when I came out of my period of intensive meditation, I still was staying in the meditation centre and with learning of the Burmese language, I got to know more about Burmese culture and social conventions, and so I came to realise that I as a single Western woman, I just could not change a whole culture, and a social structure that had been in Burma for centuries. And that made me become a little bit more realistic.

But I just tried in very small ways just to bring in a little bit more respect or recognition for women, for nuns. And the fact that I am teaching meditation retreats now, it's quite unusual or not so usual in Burma that a nun gets into such kind of a teaching position. But again I think because for me as a Westerner, it has been easier to grow into this position, but now at least as a nun in the Burmese tradition, I'm in this position, so maybe, or no, I'm sure, that also helps maybe the Burmese nuns, that one day they too can be in a more respected position in a teaching position.


Kerry Stewart: In the West, Buddhism is growing at a rapid rate, and it seems to appeal to women in particular. Tibetan nun, Karma Lekshe.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: In the Dharma centres in general, at least in the States, you do find a predominance of women, in most centres, and women bring I think their own experience which is of having been typecast in particular roles and questioning identity. Now in Buddhism the idea is to question everything. It's a path of inquiry. So questioning some of the constructions of gender, for example, or construction of women's roles, I think they find it very helpful in that respect. And also in the development of compassion and understanding compassion as a value rather than as a path to victimisation, that it is highly valued. And this brings it of course, it means that from a feminist point of view, one has to re-think and question one's experience. From both perspectives it's very fertile ground for thought in fact.


Kerry Stewart: So what would it be like if women took their place, next to men, at the centre of Buddhism?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo: If women are firmly at the centre, and are able to take leadership roles on an equal par with men, then I think that the future of Buddhism is very positive, very promising, because that would be an example of a religion that actually gives full access to women. Not only for the practice at an individual level but also on a social level and institutional level, and that would be rather groundbreaking. So I hope that Western women can take the lead in opening up those pathways, not only for themselves, but also in dialogue with Asian Buddhist women, who after all constitute 99% of all Buddhist women. I mean 300-million Buddhist women in the world, that's a considerable quantity of human beings already dedicated to peace, already dedicated to ideals of compassion and loving kindness and honesty and caring and so forth. So encouraging and mobilising these women is for me an ideal, how we can learn from each other, and mutually benefit one another, as well as the world.


(Burmese chanting ...)

Daw Aryinani: This was a Burmese meta-chanting, chanting on loving kindness.

Kerry Stewart: This Encounter was called 'The Kindness of Tigers' and I would like to thank the kindness of all the tigers in this program: Bikkhuni Dhammananda, Dr Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Chi Kwan Sunim, Ajahn Sister Vayama, Dr Yifa, Daw Aryinani, Vicki Mackenzie, Maggie Gluek, Kanthi and Pohlien.

Thanks also to the Buddhist Society of Western Australia and the women of the Sydney Zen Centre. Technical production was by Phillip Ullman, and the series producer is Florence Spurling.

I'm Kerry Stewart, it was good to have your company this week.



Ajahn Sister Vayama
Dhammasara nun's monastery
Gidgegannup WA

Dr Yifa
Abbess of Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Centre,
Fo Guang Shan's affiliation in Massachusetts

Bhikkhuni Dhammananda
First fully ordained Theravada nun in Thailand
Formerly known as Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh

Vicki Mackenzie
Author, journalist
Tibetan Buddhist practitioner for over 30 years

Kanthi and Pohlien
Theravada Buddhist practitioners

Chi Kwan Sunim
Zen nun in the Korean Zen tradition
Abbess of Daylesford Buddhist Meditation Centre
Daylesford, Victoria

Daw Ariya Nani
Theravada nun in Burma

Dr Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Tibetan Buddhist nun
Assistant Professor
Department Theology and Religious Studies
University of San Diego, California
President of Sakyadhita: International Association of Buddhist Women
Director of Jamyang Foundation

Maggie Gluek
Apprentice teacher
Sydney Zen Centre


Source: Encounter on ABC Radio National, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/encounter/stories/2006/1710864.htm , 10 September 2006

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last updated: 30-11-2007