One of my Dharma buddies confided that she had a fall-out with her Lama. He walked out on her in a private conversation after she raised a point about “nuns’ unequal treatment in Tibetan Buddhism”.
I wanted to exclaim: “Welcome to the club! Welcome among the once-bitten-twice-shy-women-in-Tibetan-Buddhism!”
The girl asked what he thought about the restoration of the full ordination for Tibetan nuns which, depending on the story, either never made it to Tibet or was disrupted once it arrived there. The basic problem was that modern-day nuns in the Tibetan monastic system could not move beyond the novice stage (Getsul) to become fully ordained Gelongma (“Bikshuni”) and proceed in their studies like their male counterparts due to this procedural issue.
What’s the big deal?
I guess not being able to become a Gelongma as a nun is like not being allowed to move beyond high school as a girl in lay life - an outrage, in other words.
Some nuns found a work-around by going to China, Korea, Vietnam or some other Asian country where it’s still possible to receive full ordination. Only with this ordination can they hope to study the complete set of scriptures just like the monks. The nuns who do not go outside but decide to stay within their order live as eternal novices.
I don’t know whether my Dharma buddy was contemplating on becoming a nun but I knew her Lama was a modern and erudite person; kind and soft-spoken, leading an exemplarily pure life of a renounced monastic, trained to love all sentient beings without discrimination from childhood on, and intelligent enough that the irony of our traditional view “We Tibetans don’t have a gender problem; every woman has the possibility to be reborn as a man in her next life” was not lost on him.
She raised the topic because he seemed trustworthy and empathic enough to acknowledge the legitimacy and timeliness of the nuns’ cause. A Lama of his stature would never be against the restoration of the nuns’ full ordination and thereby deny equal opportunity for all members of the Sangha. My buddy for that matter was also a reasonable person, not a male-hating, frustrated Inji feminist who was up to breed discord among the Sangha, as some may perhaps suspect.
But although both Lama and student were down-to-earth people, they still didn’t see it the same way: The Lama basically said a disrupted transmission lineage – to nuns or whoever - could not be fixed just like that through an act of goodwill, a majority vote by the Sangha or a word of command by any Lama from the top. Only the Buddha himself would be in a position to restore the nuns’ full ordination, no one else had the power or legitimacy to do so. That was his final word on this topic.
I empathised with my friend and her disappointment: The answer basically made the issue unsolvable. This is real life: Where on earth should the Buddha come from all of a sudden and restore the nuns’ ordination? Please.
This was the sad end of her discussion and all I could think of as a reaction was to share my own disastrous “feminist incident” - misery loves company.
I had a showdown with a Tibetan Geshe not long ago – ironically about the same topic: nuns’ full ordination. The Geshe, who seemed merely happy that I attended Buddhism classes, jokingly suggested I’d become a nun so I could devote more time to study and practice. His well-intended comment didn’t go down well with me. I heard myself say: “I’d never become a nun because they cannot become fully ordained like the monks and are always in an inferior position, that’s not nice.”
The Geshe replied it was not discrimination but a historical development: The transmission was discontinued because there weren’t enough nuns to keep the order alive and only the Buddha (there you go again) could revive it.
The Geshe’s line was all too well known. It was the same as propounded by arch-conservative patriarchs like Samdong Rinpoche. Longtime Professor of Buddhism and a former Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile - himself an officially recognised reincarnated Lama or Tulku - Samdong Rinpoche’s line rejected the notion that the nuns’ full ordination was an equal rights’ issue. As propounded at international Buddhist conferences to help restore the nuns’ full ordination, this line reduced the concern to a mere technical problem that needed to be resolved within the Buddhist “code of conduct” (Vinaya) which he expounded so conservatively to the letter that the entire discussion degenerates into an unbearable technical debate delaying any pragmatic solution.
It was enough to make me weep.
This type of conservative thinking blocked the opening of Tibet and excluded the outside world in the past. And now it was blocking the opening of Tibetan Buddhism and excluding women. In my eyes, it was a tragedy of epic proportions. They were babbling about the importance of re-establishing the Gelongma ordination so the Tibetan Sangha would be complete. But their acts were obstructive. When you looked at proceedings from conferences about this topic, all they do is treat the concern as an academic debating exercise.
The most worrying part though was that even modern, otherwise progressive Lamas, as my Dharma buddy’s example showed, could share this conservative attitude when it came to helping nuns gain an equal position in the Dharma. This was unsettling and showed just how much more persuading the nuns and their supporters had to do.
The Geshe and I argued back and forth for about 30 minutes with no winner, only ill feelings on both sides: He thought I was a foreign-bread Tibetan kid too heavily influenced by Inji girls who were out to breed discord (trukshin lang) under the pretext of equal rights (sic!) and I accused him and “the male-dominated Sangha” of sabotaging nuns equal rights by hiding behind the Buddha who is not here to take a position and twisting the law of cause and effect (“it’s the nuns fault if they have lost their transmission”). I even had the face to say something like: “Geshe-la, for someone who enjoys all the privileges of the system, it just doesn’t look good (lembo mindug) to tell those less fortunate that they have to be satisfied with their position.”
Old habits die hard. I pretty much emptied my entire arsenal of gender equality and Buddhist feminist arguments acquired over the last twenty years over the poor man’s head. I realized too late that I was unable to have such a conversation without my ego interfering. In hindsight I should have just shut up and smiled at the Geshe’s suggestion to become a nun.
How can we hope to improve the situation for women in Buddhist institutions, if talking about their inferior position and the cultural male bias - which we haven’t even mentioned - makes everything worse? Looking at my friend’s and my experience, direct verbal confrontation was not a good idea. It risked upsetting everyone including ourselves. But what would be a good way to approach this topic more effectively?
Even in the world outside the Dharma and the teacher-student relationship, Tibetan society has been slow to read the sign of the times: In other countries, government agencies and women’s organisations take up the gender topic and spearhead the push for equality and social change through education and policies. With every generation, people become more gender-neutral and fixed gender roles are starting to crumble.
In the Tibetan context, the public focus is on human rights abuses perpetrated by China and, as far as gender is concerned, on women-specific human rights’ abuses such as forced abortions and sterilisations or torture of nuns. In recent history, gender discrimination in our own rows has always been overridden by our political problem with China. So with no serious taker for the gender issue even in our times, the cultural male bias that sneaked into Buddhism unchecked for centuries is staining the Dharma more callously than ever - while the people and the world around us are becoming more gender-neutral day by day. This is the context within which the monastic representatives of Tibetan Buddhism teach today.
Instead of using the new situation to adapt, many try to preserve the old ways by using the Buddha as a scapegoat: They cite that he was against women entering the Sangha in the first place and use that as an argument to generally oppose women playing a bigger role in the Dharma.
But others say the only reason why the Buddha was not forthcoming in ordaining women in the beginning was because (Indian) society at the time was anti-egalitarian and the Buddha was skillfully taking social customs into consideration in order not to upset society. In other words, the Buddha’s action at the time was a “preliminary” advice, not a final stand.
Sure, we are all looking at the situation with our own preconceived ideas okay, but in the Buddha’s absence, we simply have to work with something. We can’t just say: “Oh, he’s not here, so we can’t do anything, we’re not authorised”. That’s so fatal.
Personally, I find it hard to believe that the Buddha should have had any bias. I believe if he were among us today, he would give both nuns and monks equal rights so as to not upset society because societal gender norms have profoundly changed.
But the Tibetan monastic Sangha doesn’t seem to share this view. They prefer to believe that the Buddha classified women as lower, less capable and less worthy. Some even deny the validity that from a worldly aspect, nuns’ full ordination is an equal rights issue that needs to be resolved. Even the Dalai Lama, who is the only person I can think of who comes close to the historical Buddha, and who takes a laudably progressive position on this topic, can’t seem to make the Tibetan monastic community move in the right direction.
When your counterpart is mentally that rigid, no matter how much one values dialogue and consensus-building, it’s clear that you will look for other ways to move forward. That’s a very human reaction. So when nuns are given a hard time to become fully ordained in the Tibetan tradition, they will get ordained in other traditions - which they are already doing - or they will make their way outside monastic Buddhism, which they are also doing.
Especially outside Buddhist institutions, women seem to be on the advance: What was once the prerogative of aristocratic ladies and elite monks is available to any serious woman practitioner today. Every girl is free to study, meditate and practice at any level based on her interest and individual capacity irrespective of her social background. Whether girls use this new opportunity is up to the individual but there is nobody making restrictions. This is the advantage of our times. Maybe that’s also a reason why some nuns don’t go on about obtaining the full ordination any longer: They’ve figured out that there is another way outside the male-biased monastic system. No more waiting for other’s grace, you help yourselves, that’s the attitude, dear Anila-tso!
As for our personal situation, maybe we have to be realistic. For one, the Buddha did appear in the form of a male, that’s a historical fact. For another, many would probably agree that it is extremely difficult to come across a Lama who fulfills all the ten requirements of a suitable spiritual guide as outlined in the scriptures. Even meeting a Lama who fulfills only the minimum six, I am convinced, is very rare to encounter. So then when “gender-neutral outlook” is not part of such a spiritual guide’s skill-set, should we allow that to overshadow the teacher-student relationship?
Maybe turning away from a “realised master” because he has conservative gender views, is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater: The gender part we girls can figure out ourselves, for that we don’t need a Lama. But for the other part a Lama’s guidance is indispensable. This way we may be able to carve out a path for ourselves. In the patriarchic Tibetan world, the cleverer give in.
But unfortunately the general problem with the conservatism in Tibetan monastic institutions persists even if we find a personal arrangement.
Well then, if it’s so difficult for the monks to understand that the current practice is far from “normal” and if restoring the nuns’ full ordination is such a difficult problem to solve, why don’t the wise and compassionate ones among them just reincarnate as women in the meantime?
Taking female rebirths would be a genuine contribution towards gender equality. The advantage of this method is that the decision to reincarnate into whatever body is entirely at the personal discretion of the respective Lamas: No approval from an institution or the Buddha required! No more lame excuse to do what is necessary to prove that gender is irrelevant, ha!
Having more officially recognised female Tulkus would really help everyone to let go of their idée fixe that a Buddhist master “usually” comes back as a man. When you hear all this talk about remembering the kindness of the “mother” and regarding all sentient beings as your kind “mother” you wonder anyway why they haven’t chosen female bodies for the longest time.
… or maybe they have all along!?
We really do have plenty of female Tulkus but they all go unrecognised because society with its male fixation only looks for the ones in boys’ bodies - when I think about it, it can only be that! Lamas must reincarnate as girls just as often as they reincarnate as boys, because Lamas minds are trained to understand emptiness, move beyond duality. So there must be just as many female Tulkus as there are male Tulkus. The only reason why we don’t have more officially recognised female Tulkus is the people looking for reincarnations have a male-biased mindset. They have gender-jaundice and they don’t realise it. And when you tell them, they won’t accept it.
In this regard, the Dalai Lama’s occasional statements that he may come back as woman are really welcome. If only this isn’t one of his jokes! If only he dared to do it! Once the top shot among the monks shows that it’s practicable, the ice could break and those people who are in charge of identifying a Lama’s reincarnation would finally begin to look comprehensively through gender-neutral eyes.
It takes two - a boy and girl - to produce humans. Neither is “better”, both are indispensable: Only in a human form, it is said, does our mind-stream have a chance to work with Dharma at all. When mind has no gender and emptiness is beyond dualism, what is there left that would speak against reappearing as a girl?
Please Kundun and all other compassionate Lamas out there: Come back as girls in your next life! Teach us a powerful lesson so emptiness does not remain empty talk when it comes down to gender.
With reverence for the Buddhadharma
All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent.