A Special Emphasis on Nuns 2014: A Retrospective
This year’s winter programme in Bodhgaya witnessed two major developments for the nuns of the Karma Kamtsang. Cham, dancing alongside monks. The second was the First Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering for Nuns.
The closing ceremony of the conference took place in the afternoon of 2nd February, 2014, and both demonstrated what the nuns had achieved in a very short time and pointed out the way ahead.
The first item in the varied programme was a demonstration of debate given by a group of nuns from two nunneries. The start was delayed because of technical difficulties, and the two defenders wearing tsesha and three contenders with their prayer beads slung over their left arms, waited with some trepidation. However, His Holiness gave them a reassuring and encouraging smile and, though the nuns began rather hesitantly, as their confidence grew the debate became more and more vigorous, with hands clapping loudly, feet stamping, and firm calls. The Karmapa watched intently, nodding approvingly as points were scored or a thorough answer was given.
Short speeches from some of the nuns’ debate teachers followed. First, Geshe Rinchen Ngodrup detailed how the difficulty of women taking full ordination in Tibet was rooted in social customs rather than any problem specifically related to women. There had been gelongma in Tibet and Karmapa Mikyo Dorje had ordained gelongma. In his experience as a teacher, he had found that women have the same capacity in intelligence and wisdom as men, but that they often lacked confidence. Now, however, because of the support for women coming from His Holiness and the Khenpos, he had great hopes for the future.
Then came Khenpo Khandro from Thrangu Tara Abbey in Nepal who spoke of his impressions. First he spoke of the compassion of the Gyalwang Karmapa in organizing this first ever gathering for the nuns. He felt that the nuns had really appreciated their good fortune and had put as much effort as possible into pursuing each and every opportunity to study, learn and participate.
A group of nuns then came forward to present an unplanned request for gelongma ordination to be re-established in the Tibetan tradition, so that they could complete the three trainings and assume their position as the fourth pillar of the house in Tibetan Buddhism.
In his closing speech the Gyalwang Karmapa admitted that he had not known the nuns would ask for the gelongma ordination vows. However, he confirmed: “whether the teachings of Buddhism are present or not depends upon whether the Dharma Vinaya is present or not, and that primarily comes down to whether the three foundational rituals of the Vinaya are practiced or not”, meaning that, in order for Tibet to qualify as a Buddhist ‘central land’, there have to be both male and female fully ordained practitioners. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had argued the need for gelongma ordination for many years and there had been investigations and discussions by various scholars and leaders. But the Vinaya contained the instructions of the Buddha, so that even a great Arhat could not change them, he explained, and then summarised the options for establishing gelongma ordination in Tibetan Buddhism:
“The first is that there is a way for the male gelong sangha on its own to confer the gelongma vows. This is because in the past many Tibetan scholars and great practitioners have given gelongma vows with the male sangha alone.
The second method is to confer the gelongma vow through the dual male and female sanghas. However, there is no gelongma community in Tibet, so for the gelongma sangha, gelongmas from another tradition—primarily the Chinese Dharmaguptika tradition—would be invited. They would assemble along with a sangha of Tibetan gelongs from the Mulasarvastivada tradition and confer the gelongma ordination. So this is the second option.
The third option is for a dual male and female sangha from another tradition— the Chinese Dharmaguptika tradition—to confer the vows. So that is another option.
But, to put it in a nutshell, fundamentally there are only two options: conferring the vow with a single sangha or with a dual sangha…many people think it would be good for there to be a lineage of the Mulasarvastivada gelongma vows because the Tibetan Vinaya is from the Mulasarvastivada tradition. Thus it would be good for any gelongma sangha or community of nuns to be from the Mulasarvastivada tradition. If we were all the same tradition, the teachings would not be divided into different parties…
I don’t think that this would present any particular difficulties. The reason is because if the ordination were conferred by the male sangha, it is hardly necessary to say that the lineage of the vow would be from the Mulasarvastivada, because the bhikshus themselves would give it. Even if the vows were conferred by a dual sangha, if the male sangha were from the Mulasarvastivada tradition, the lineage of the vow that the supplicants would receive at this time would be from the Mulasarvastivada tradition. The reason is because the actual vow is received from the sangha. In the dual ordination, there are two sanghas, the male and the female. Since there are two, the actual vow is received from the male sangha. This is extremely clear in the Buddha’s words as well as in the treatises of the Indian masters. Thus the lineage of the gelongma vow that is received in that situation is the Mulasarvastivada lineage…”
His Holiness emphasized, however, that if it were to be successful, it could only be done ‘at the right time’. He promised to ask His Holiness the Dalai for his advice and opinion and to consult the senior lamas from the different lineages as well as the senior lamas of the Kagyu lineage and spiritual masters inside the Karma Kamtsang lineage. He felt it was his duty as Karmapa to do as much as possible to fulfill the wishes and aspirations of the nuns.
This was the first ever nuns winter gathering in the 1000 years of the Karma Kamtsang, the Gyalwang Karmapa continued, and praised the enthusiastic support of the tulkus, khenpos and teachers who had even helped move furniture when preparing the shrine room, but it was just a beginning. Now they had the task of establishing good study centres for nuns with experienced and high quality instructors. However, he warned, whatever plans people might have were subject to change because of the law of impermanence.
Thus, in Bodhgaya this year, the stage was established for the nuns of the Karma Kamtsang to move forward with hope, confidence and determination, fully supported by the Gyalwang Karmapa, the Kamtsang Rinpoches, and the Khenpos, with the promise of a second Arya Kshema Winter Gathering for Nuns to be held in Bodhgaya in 2015.