Comments for Opening Ceremony of the Arya Kshema Nuns’ Conference
Bodhgaya: January 20, 2014
I begin by paying homage to this distinguished assembly, headed by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa and His Eminence the 12th Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, along with the eminent tulkus, learned khenpos and geshes, venerable sangha and community of lay supporters.
The Gyalwang Karmapa has convened this historical first winter Dharma session for Karma Kagyu nuns in this most sacred site of Bodhgaya, so it might be auspicious to recollect a conversation that took place here shortly after the Buddha’s enlightenment and before he left the vicinity of the Bodhi tree. At that time, Mara came and suggested that the Buddha should pass into parinirvana since he had already accomplished his aim of attaining complete enlightenment. The Buddha replied that he would only pass into parinirvana after not only his bhikshus but also his bhikshunis and upsakas had a clear understanding of the Dharma and could successfully debate with those who argue against the Dharma. This conversation is related in the Sanghabhedavastu (dge ‘dun byen gyi gzhi) and other Sanskrit texts as well, and clearly demonstrates that the Buddha intended that his female sangha also take an active role in defending the Dharma, and thereby preserving it for future generations.
Now, a very short distance from the Bodhi tree where this conversation took place, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa is creating new opportunities for nuns to develop our clear understanding of the Dharma, so that we too can debate and help fulfill the Buddha’s plan for his female sangha to also contribute to the preservation of the Dharma in the world.
To do so, as His Holiness often reminds us, we need to actively cultivate the wisdom that arises through study, reflection and meditation. We are incredibly fortunate to be under the care of such a kind and wise guru who is leading us along the path to liberation and arranging all the outer conditions that we need to complete that path. We ourselves also need to work hard to develop the inner conditions so we can make full use of the outer opportunities.
Until now, women around the world have faced two major obstacles to developing their potential: outer obstacles and inner obstacles. The outer obstacle is lack of material and educational opportunities, and His Holiness is now creating those outer conditions for us. The inner obstacle is a lack of confidence in our own ability to make use of those opportunities.
I think to many of you, it may look as if Western women have never faced any of these obstacles. But, actually, the equal opportunities that women now have in the West are relatively recent. Less than 100 years ago in the United States, women could not even vote! Over the course of just a few generations, women were offered more and more educational and professional opportunities, but many times have been held back by doubts about their own abilities. My own mother was born in a time when women could receive the same education as men, but many had not yet developed the confidence to actually use that opportunity. My mother received a good education, but becomes painfully shy in public. So many times I have heard her say, “I could never do that,” yet she never told me and my sister we could not do it. She and my father both encouraged us children to believe in our own potential, and this was an important condition for us to explore to see for ourselves what our limitations really are.
The point is that even if we have opportunities, if we think we are not really able to make use of those opportunities, this thought will limit our confidence and hold us back.
As His Holiness has said in the past, ideas about what a woman or man can do or what a woman or man should be are just ideas – they have no existence outside our mind. However, when we believe that these ideas describe our actual nature, this belief affects our experiences and limits our efforts to develop our potential. If we believe we cannot accomplish something, we definitely will not accomplish it.
We should not let the mundane views of society tell us what our capacity is, but rather we should let the wisdom of the Dharma shape our understanding of ourselves. The Dharma tells us we all have exactly the same Buddha nature. When we fully realize this potential within us, we will have all the qualities that society normally tells us are either masculine or feminine.
Even if we do not always have full confidence in our own potential, we do have full confidence and trust in our supreme spiritual guide, the Gyalwang Karmapa, and he has been telling us nuns that we do have the capacity to study seriously and practice deeply, and therefore to become qualified to take up more responsibility for the Buddhadharma. So our trust in our supreme guru and in the teachings of the Buddha can become the basis for us to develop confidence in ourselves.
This historical conference is taking place in the 21st century, at a historical moment when there is an unprecedented need for the teachings of the Buddha. Our rapid material progress has led much of the world to believe that we can find happiness by having more material things. This view creates more dissatisfaction on a personal level, and collectively our unbridled consumption is having a devastating effect on the natural environment. If we do not change our understanding about where happiness comes from, in just a few generations we may have destroyed the planet’s capacity to support this way of life. The Buddhadharma offers a blueprint for a more sustainable way of living on this planet, based on a correct understanding of where lasting happiness comes from and a more compassionate way of relating to one another and to the planet.
Therefore there is an urgent need for everyone who has committed their lives to upholding the Dharma to develop themselves to their fullest capacity, and especially for nuns to actively contribute to the flourishing of the Dharma. The Gyalwang Karmapa has also commented that we are living in an era when the world especially needs the particular qualities that women manifest more clearly. Society has long assigned to women the role of caring for others, and if we look to our own experiences, we can all see the quality in women of “sensitive listening to others’ needs,” setting aside their own wishes and allowing compassion to guide their loving actions that are represented in the figure of the mother, and that are so urgently needed in today’s world.
In his own immeasurable kindness to us, His Holiness is now providing the means for nuns to develop, so that this inherent potential of lovingkindness can become a full source of benefit to the world.
On behalf of people in Western countries whose happiness and wellbeing depends on the availability of Buddha’s teachings, I would like to request you nuns to deepen your Dharma understanding and practice, and to accept the responsibility of helping to keep the teachings of Buddha alive and available around the world, wherever they are so very much needed.