‘Actions Speak Louder than Words’: 17th Karmapa’s outstanding activities for females

HH 17th Karmapa with Tibetan Buddhist nuns

17th Gyalwang Karmapa and female empowerment

Within the male privileged environs of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, apart from well-meaning words and soundbites about women from very few male Tibetan Buddhist lamas, even fewer have put their ‘money and time where their mouth is’, such as that of HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. As I wrote about previously here, the 17th Karmapa is truly a progressive and welcome breath of fresh air in the stale, male-dominated religious cultural norms of  the majority  of Tibetan Buddhist institutions when it comes to the issue of gender equality and empowerment of nuns.  As we say ‘actions speak louder than words’ and the Karmapa’s outstanding activities for female Buddhists is loud and clear for all to see.

In terms of his motive for supporting gender equality and empowerment of nuns, the Karmapa explained:

Many people might think I’m doing this because others want me to, but I’m not doing it to placate anyone or in response to anyone. No matter how others see it, I feel this is something necessary. In order to uphold the Buddhist teachings it is necessary to have the fourfold community (fully ordained monks (gelongs), fully ordained nuns (gelongmas), and both male and female lay precept holders). As the Buddha said, the fourfold community are the four pillars of the Buddhist teachings. This is the reason why I’m taking interest in this.”

The Karmapa also gave an interview to the Buddhistdoor.net about his motives and initiatives in connection with nuns and women in Dharma here.

In this article, (which I originally wrote and published last year) I pull together some of the many other initiatives and speeches the Karmapa has given on these issues not only to show how much he has done in such a small space of time, but also as way to show appreciation and respect.

Women supporting women

Tibetan Buddhism is a tradition that, in particular, at the highest levels of the tantric Vajrayana, reveres, worships and respects the female. In fact, as I wrote about in Tantric Buddhism, Sex and Women: the importance of love, respect and consent, a root vow of Vajrayana (the highest level of tantric Buddhism) is not to denigrate any woman, and respect them all. Why is that? Because the female (and their bodies) are seen to be the source and essence of wisdom; the vital component of attaining the fully awakened state of Buddhahood, the union of wisdom (emptiness) and compassion (bliss).   However, for centuries these well-meaning and poetic words and images of female veneration have not been matched in reality with the way female Dharma practitioners have been treated by their male counterparts and the pervasive sexist cultural conditioning. Of course, this is not limited to the Buddhist world, male-dominated patriarchal religions have been with us for centuries, and are still going very strong in some cultures, where democracy and gender equality are poor.

Recently, within Tibetan Buddhist cultures, there have been more and more practical measures taken to empower nuns with the Tibetan Buddhist community. Generally speaking, as with the status and gender equality of woman globally, most of the initiatives driving change and empowerment have come from women themselves. For example, western Tibetan Buddhist nuns such as Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (who set up the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery in India and has been very vocal about the status and inequality of Buddhist nuns), the first Geshema Kelsang Wangmo and teachers such as Tsultrim Allione and English-language Buddhist academics such as Prof. Rita M Gross and others. There is also the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women and Conference (which recently held its first post metoo conference) and the newly-formed Alliance of Buddhist Ethics.

Founding members of Sakyadhita International who read the Bhiksuni Pratimoksa on the full moon night, January 15, 1987. Back row (left to right): Bhikshunis Karuna Dharma, Yi Hang, Jenhua Shih, Miao Kwang Sudharma, Pema Chodron, and Yi Hang. Front row: Bhikshunis Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Jampa Tsedroen, Yung Kai Shih, and Thubten Chodron.

This is not just a ‘white, western feminist’ thing either (as some [cave] men ‘stuck in their ways’ glibly try to dismiss it with the ‘racism’ card).  There are many Asian and women of colour, both within and outside Tibetan Buddhism, who have also been speaking out publicly about the inequality and struggles of women in Buddhism such as the Tibetan’s Women Association, the Tibetan Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, the recent work on sexual abuse of Asian nuns by Dr. Tenzin Dhadon and Ven. Dr. Karma Tashi Choedron who recently presented their work at a Vajrayana conference in Bhutan, as well children in Bhutan reporting sexual abuse by Buddhist monks and even some high level Tibetan Buddhist lamas, such as Kalu Rinpoche have bravely spoken out out publicly about it. As with gaining the vote only decades ago, a few strong-willed and courageous women have had to work hard against a vast tide of male (and female) indifference, cultural dogma and false consciousness. Sadly, due to pervasive patriarchal cultural conditioning, women can often undermine women too with sexist stereotypes and expectations, and it is essential that they support one another.

‘Gender is only a concept’….

HH 17th Karmapa with nuns from old Tilokpur nunnery, India

As HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, himself states in his excellent book The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out:

Our ideas about what it means to be a woman or a man – that is, our gender constructs – are given meaning and importance in our day-to-day reality. Gender identities permeate so much of our experience that it is easy to forget that they are just ideas – ideas created to categorize human beings. Nevertheless, the categories of masculine and feminine are often treated as if they were eternal truths. But they are not. They have no objective reality. Because gender is a concept, it is a product of our mind – and has no absolute existence that is separate from the mind that conceives of it. Gender categories are not inherently real in and of themselves.

Thus, while it is true that in terms of Buddhist philosophy,  the notions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ are merely concepts without any solid, inherent existence, nonetheless, people in the relative world that cling to such concepts and realities create inequalities and suffering, in the way that racist bias becomes a reality for ‘black’ and ‘white’ people. Buddhism does not assert that since such concepts don’t inherently exist one should not address  and inequalities that are committed in their name. It is possible to understand that such concepts have no objective reality while still seeking to address injustice and inequalities carried out in their name as can be seen in the actions and words of the Karmapa below.

Chod Empowerment and teaching, 2012

HH 17th Karmapa with Chod practitioner and teacher, Tsultrim Allione at the Chod Empowerment (2012)

In 2012, HH the 17th Karmapa gave  his first Chod epowerment in India, at the request of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Tsultrim Allione and sponsored by Tara Mandala. The Chod teachings and practice of Machig Labdron, the Tibetan female lineage holder of the 11th Century, are an inspiration to many female Dharma practitioners.  I was fortunate to be able to attend these teachings and empowerment. A report about the event can be read here and a video of the teachings can be watched (below):

Attendance at Saykadita Conference 2013

In 2013, The 17th Karmapa was one of the only Tibetan Buddhist lamas who met with an assembly organised by Sakyadhita: The International Association of Buddhist Women, attended by people from 32 different countries at Tergar Monastery in Bodhgaya, India. The Karmapa expressed his deep and sincere support for the practice and development of the nun communities through the Buddhist world and made a deep aspiration that he be able to attend one of their conferences in the future. The full speech he gave can be watched here:

New ritual text for the flourishing of Dharma  in women’s communities composed in 2014

HH 17th Karmapa has also written a special ritual for the flourishing of Dharma within female communities,  the Ritual Practice for the Dharma to Flourish in Women’s and Especially Nuns’ Communities, Based on the Inseparability of Avalokiteshvara and Ananda, composed by the Karmapa. In a report about the new text, and its first performance:

The ritual aims to dispel any harms, difficulties or obstacles to the nuns’ dharma, through powerful supplications to Avalokitesvara and the Buddha’s own personal attendant, Ananda.

The Gyalwang Karmapa explained that the Buddha himself had said, in The Sutra of the Great Skillful Means of Repaying Kindness, that in the future when women monastics pray to Ananda, he will be able to protect them from harm and bring them great benefit.

“We’ll do this ritual together now, and I hope that in the future it can also be done on a regular basis in the nunneries,” he said. He recommended that it could be performed in all Karma Kagyu nunneries particularly on the Sojong days that fall in the middle months of spring and autumn.

The Gyalwang Karmapa composed the ritual based on texts relating to the Buddha’s own step-mother and disciple Mahaprajapati, the very first woman to request and receive ordination from the Buddha. After the Buddha had initially refused her request for women to become ordained as nuns, his attendant Ananda had interceded on their behalf and permission was later granted.

Announcement to restore full ordination for nuns, 2015

In 2015, the 17th Karmapa “made the historical announcement that, beginning in 2016 [His Holiness] would take concrete steps towards restoring nuns’ vows in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.” The Karmapa said:

“When the Buddha gave women the opportunity to ordain, he gave them everything they needed in order to practice all the paths and levels in their entirety. There are many people these days who are afraid that it would harm the teachings if women were ordained and in particular if they are given the bhikshuni ordination. But I think there is absolutely no need to have such suspicions, because the Buddha has already allowed it.

A report about this announcement with his full comments can be read here.

From ‘Jetsunma’ to ‘Ani’ – the inferior status of nuns

For many centuries in Tibet, the status of nuns has been inferior to monks in various different ways, in social settings, in their seating arrangements and in educational opportunities and learning to name a few.  In 2014, during an empowerment he gave at Tenzin Palmo’s nunnery, the Karmapa spoke about how even the terminology used to refer to nuns is part of the issue. In a report about this event:

“Some people have the wrong assumption that because of the talk of gender equality, women are seeking to become more visible and demanding more respect,” he said. “Actually, I think the respect for women was there in the beginning.” He went on to make a strong case in favor of reinstating the opportunity for women to receive the bhikshuni ordination that the Buddha had originally granted them.  As he spoke, His Holiness the Karmapa used the Tibetan term “tsunma” (meaning “venerable”) to refer to nuns. He expressed his preference for “tsunma” as opposed to “ani” (meaning “auntie”) the colloquial term commonly used for nuns in Tibetan, saying it was not the best choice and commented that he himself did not know where the use of the term “ani” had originated. He reminisced that in the area of Kham where he was born, people used the term “jomo” to refer to nuns. Jomo was a high term of respect, reserved in ancient times for queens.

The history of ordained women

17th Karmapa with Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Arya Kshema – one of the Buddha’s main female disciples

Karma Kamtsang nuns at Arya Kshema event

In a speech in Bodh Gaya, March 2017, HH gave a speech about the history of ordained nuns within the tradition:

He began by explaining the background of the name “Arya Kshema,” given to the Winter Dharma Gathering. He noted that among the disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha, there were his eight greatest male monastic disciples, known for their prajna (supreme wisdom) or miracles and so forth. Likewise, there were female master disciples who were greatest at miracles or known for their prajna and other outstanding qualities. Arya Kshema is one of these and she is described in the Sutra of the Wise and Foolish as the greatest in wisdom and confidence, so the Winter Dharma Gathering is named after her.

“In giving this name,” the Karmapa explained, “we are also following the saying, ‘Later disciples should practice the example of past masters.’ Previously, during the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni, there were woman arhats, bhikshunis, and woman with the eightfold purity. My thought was that we could look to them as examples, train properly in Buddhist teachings just as they did, and achieve the result of liberation. I thought they would provide inspiration and a role model.

Here is a video from January 2014, in which the 17th Karmapa also explains the origin and purpose of the Arya Kshema gathering in Bodh Gaya:

Deterioration of nunneries and status of nuns in Tibet

‘’We don’t know, however, what the situations or circumstances were that led the nunneries and nuns’ communities to decline later. This should be researched, as there must have been some conditions for it. Later, nunneries in Tibet were quite poor and badly off. Many of you probably don’t know this, but those of you who have stayed in nunneries in Tibet probably do. The living facilities are poor, and the opportunities for study are weak. This is very clear. We don’t know whether the reason for this situation is related to politics, the dominance of any dharma lineage, or something else. This needs to be examined.

“In any case, when we say nowadays that nuns should be educated, that they should develop their qualities, and that a community of bhikshunis should be established, this is not something that has only now become important. It is not saying that what was previously insignificant has become important. Instead, it was crucial in the past, and we need to explain how that was and also dispel any doubts or misconceptions about it.’’

The whole speech can be watched here below and the transcript here:

A documentary film was recently made about the quest for a better education and standard of living of Tibetan nuns in exile called ‘Awakening the Sleeping Goddess: directed by Zrinka Jančić. It can be watched in full here.

Progress is being made for Tibetan nuns in exile in terms of education. In July 2016, the first twenty Tibetan nuns in history passed the Geshema exam.  Each year the Karmapa also hosts the Arya Kshema winter gathering where nuns receive special teachings, instructions and gather to debate Buddhist philosophy so as to further increase their opportunities for a traditional education and female chant leaders (umze) are now used for ritual ceremonies too.

Conferring the vows: A First Step Toward Full Ordination for Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

In March 2017, the Karmapa also took the first steps towards giving nuns full ordinations by conferring a special set of Shramaneri vows under the Bodhi Tree.  The full report of this event can be read here. Khenpo Kelsang Nyima, the dean of the Rumtek Monastic College in Sikkim, recounted that it was not just the 17th Karmapa, but also the nuns who had supported the reinstitution of full ordination for nuns:

‘’During the thirteenth Kagyu Winter Debates in 2009, there were discussions of the vinaya, and His Holiness spoke of the lineage of the gelongma vows, about which he had conducted considerable historical research. He especially referred to the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje’s writings about giving full ordination to women as well as other lamas….

Not only this, while discussing the Buddha’s teachings, the Karmapa stated that both men and women are able to do the practice of the three levels of vows…. And further, in the world today, more women than men have an interest in the Buddha’s teachings. Therefore, if women could have the chance as men do to engage in the three trainings, it would benefit the flourishing of the Buddha’s Dharma.’’

‘’ So the bestowing of the full ordination was due 1) to the great compassion of His Holiness; 2) to the continued supplications of the Kagyu nuns; 3) to the fact that among the followers of Buddhism in the world today, there are many more women than men; and 4) to the nuns wanting to take the vows affirming that they would follow carefully the precepts as they had been given.

The full speech (in Tibetan, with English subtitles can be seen below here):

The full event under the Bodhi Tree can be viewed below:

International speeches on gender equality

The 17th Karmapa has also given many speeches and interviews about the status and ordination of nuns and gender equality in Buddhism.  For example, in 2015,  in “A Buddhist Perspective: The Environment, Gender and Activism”, a lecture given by the Karmapa at Princeton University Chapel, a genuine gender equality does not stop at mere external forms:

It is important to remember that the restoration of women’s rights and the full empowerment of women must go far beyond mere external appearances and institutionalized mechanisms or structures. Such necessary steps as restoring the full monastic ordination for women in my own tradition, famous historical steps such as women’s suffrage, and even the election of a woman as president—these steps are in themselves not enough to truly restore women’s rights, or to truly empower women…We need mutual understanding and it has to be real. It cannot be fake or contrived. It has to be loving and respectful—and it has to be founded in basic human benevolence and caring for one another.

The full speech can be viewed here:

Also, in 2015, the Karmapa gave a talk and interview at Harvard University Divinity School, on the full ordination of nuns and gender equality, with esteemed professor, Janet Gyatso (see below) :

Actions speak louder than words – conclusion

In conclusion, considering the immense love, compassion and respect that the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa has shown towards females in Tibetan Buddhism, not only with his words but with his actions, it is even more tragic that he is currently unable to return to India and reside and teach at the Karmapa’s seat in Rumtek, Sikkim. It is a tragic loss not only for the Kagyu, for Tibetan Buddhism but also for women and nuns following Buddha Dharma. Male Tibetan Buddhist lamas who give such speeches and activities are rare indeed. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words,  and these activities speak louder than any mere words can do justice.  The clear and undeniable evidence of the Karmapa’s attitude and respect for female Dharma practitioners is there for all to see in the recorded pictures, audio, words and activities, which will benefit the Dharma and many females (and males) for years to come.

I dedicate this article to truth, justice, love and respect for females and to the long life and flourishing of the activities of HH 17th Karmapa, the Kagyu and Buddha Dharma.

Adele Tomlin, December 2019.

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