Thubten Chodron speaks about the lives of Western nuns, with their problems and joys: Dharma spoke deeply to our hearts, and so, counter to all expectations of our cultures and our families, we quit our jobs, parted from our dear ones, were ordained as Buddhist nuns and in many cases, went to live in other countries. Who would take such radical steps in order to practice the Dharma? How are we unlike the Asian women who are ordained?

In general, Asian women receive ordination when they are young, malleable girls with little life experience, or when their families are grown, they are elderly and seek life in a monastery for its spiritual and/or physical comforts. On the other hand, most Western nuns are ordained as adults. They are educated, have careers, and many have had families and children. They bring their talents and skills to the monastery, and they also bring their habits and expectations that have been well polished through years of interactions in the world.

When Asian women are ordained, their families and communities support them. Becoming a nun is socially acceptable and respectable. In addition, Asian cultures focus more on group than individual identity, so it is comparatively easy for the newly-ordained to adapt to community life in a monastery. As children, they shared bedrooms with their siblings. They were taught to place the welfare of their family above their own and to respect and defer to their parents and teachers.

Western nuns, on the other hand, grew up in a culture that stresses the individual over the group, and they therefore tend to be individualistic. Western women have to have strong personalities to become Buddhist nuns: their families reproach them for relinquishing a well-paying job and not having children; Western society brands them as parasites who don’t want to work because they are lazy; and Western culture accuses them of repressing their sexuality and avoiding intimate relationships. A Western woman who cares about what others think about her is not going to become a Buddhist nun. She is thus more likely to be self-sufficient and self-motivated. These qualities, while in general good, can be carried to an extreme, sometimes making it more difficult for these highly-individualistic nuns to live together in community.

That is, if there were a community to live in. As first generation Western Buddhist nuns, we indeed lead the homeless life. There are very few monasteries in the West, and if we want to stay in one, we generally have to pay to do so because the community has no money. That presents some challenges: how does someone with monastic precepts, which include wearing robes, shaving one’s head, not handling money, and not doing business, earn money?

Many Westerners assume that there is an umbrella institution, similar to the Catholic Church, that looks over us. This is not the case. Our Tibetan teachers do not provide for us financially and in many cases ask us to raise money to support their Tibetan monk disciples who are refugees in India. Some Western nuns have savings that are rapidly consumed, others have kind friends and family who sponsor them, and still others are forced by conditions to put on lay clothes and get a job in the city. This makes keeping the ordination precepts difficult and prevents them from studying and practicing intensely, which is the main purpose for which they were ordained.

How does one then receive monastic training and education? Some Western nuns opt to stay in Asia for as long as they can. But there too they face visa problems and language problems. Tibetan nunneries are generally overcrowded, and there is no room for foreigners unless one wants to pay to live in a guestroom. Tibetan nuns do rituals and receive teachings in the Tibetan language, their education beginning with memorizing texts. The majority of Western nuns, however, does not speak Tibetan and needs an English translation to receive teachings. In addition, memorizing texts in Tibetan is generally not meaningful to them. They seek to learn the meaning of the teachings and how to practice them. They want to learn meditation and to experience the Dharma.

While the Tibetan nuns grew up with Buddhism in their families and culture since childhood, the Western nuns are learning a new faith and thus have different questions and issues. For example, while a Tibetan nun takes the existence of the Three Jewels for granted, a Western nuns wants to know exactly what the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are and how to know they actually exist. Therefore, even in India, the Western nuns do not fit into the established Tibetan religious institutions.

Many Western nuns are sent to work in Dharma centers in the West, where they receive room, board, and a tiny stipend for personal needs in return for working for the center. Although here they can receive teachings in their own language, for the newly-ordained, life in Dharma centers can be difficult because they live amongst lay people. The curriculum in the center is designed for the lay students and the resident lama, if there is one, is usually too busy with the lay community to train the one or two Western monastics who live there.

Difficulties such as those described above are also challenges for practice. To remain a nun, a Western woman needs to implement the Buddha’s teachings in order to make her mind happy in whatever circumstances she finds herself. She has to meditate deeply on impermanence and death so that she can be comfortable with financial insecurity. She has to contemplate the disadvantages of attachment to the eight worldly concerns so that praise and blame from others do not affect her mind. She must reflect on karma and its effects to accept the difficulties she encounters in receiving an education. And she needs to generate the altruistic heart that wishes to remedy these situations so that others do not have to encounter them in the future. Thus, her difficulties are the catalyst for her practice, and through practice her mind is transformed and becomes peaceful.

In short, while Western nuns face certain difficulties, these very same situations can become the fuel propelling them towards internal transformation. Women who have the inclination and ability to receive and keep the monastic precepts experience a special fortune and joy through their spiritual practice. Through their practice in overcoming attachment, developing a kind heart, and realizing the ultimate nature of phenomena, they can benefit many people directly and indirectly. Whether or not oneself is a monastic, the benefit of having nuns in our society is evident.

Source: Excerpts from the article found in the book “Women’s Buddhism, Buddhism’s Women”, edited by Ellison Findly.

Photo: Sravasti Abbey nuns.