WHERE ARE THE GELONGMAS? DISCOVERING HIDDEN TREASURES: THE RARE GEMS OF LIVING TIBETAN BUDDHIST FULLY ORDAINED NUNS. A Pilgrimage and Field Study of Two Nunneries in Himachal Pradesh and fully ordained nuns within the Tibetan tradition.

“There are already nuns within the Tibetan tradition who have received the full Bhikṣuṇī vow according to the Dharmagupta lineage and whom we recognize as fully ordained. One thing we could do is to translate the three primary monastic activities (Poṣadha, Varṣa, Prāvaraṇā) from the Dharmagupta lineage into Tibetan and encourage the Tibetan Bhikṣuṇīs to do these practices as a Bhikṣuṇī Saṅgha, immediately.”
— HH 14th Dalai Lama, excerpt from statement for First International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Saṅgha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages, Hamburg (2007) 

“When I was first asked to write a letter supporting Bhikṣuṇī ordination for Tibetan nuns, my first reaction was ‘No. Letters are not enough. I must do more’. In terms of simply expressing my support for full ordination of women, since Lord Buddha himself already expressed his complete support by granting his permission for women to become fully ordained members of the sangha he himself created, it is absurd for someone like me to add my voice in support. Yet the matter of Bhikṣuṇī ordination is not widely understood in the Tibetan community. Since I bear the name Karmapa, it seems I also bear some responsibility to assist in clarifying the topic.”
–HH 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje (2011)

“After getting the vows, we went to meet HH 14th Dalai Lama who told us it was ‘very good’. Also, other nuns within the Tibetan nunneries thought it was good we had got the Gelongma vows. Why was that? Because at that time, there was a lot of talk about the full ordination. There was a big meeting about it and we were called to attend it. Some of those people attending thought that after researching the texts and so on that it was not possible and had differing views about it. However, we felt that our faith and devotion were enough to take the vows and did not understand all the intellectual debates around whether the lineage was pure, broken and so on. We just felt blessed and happy to have received the vows.”
—Gelongma Wangchug Palmo from Tilogpur nunnery (2022)

INTRODUCTION

After writing about last month’s research and teaching by the 17th Karmapa on the full ordination of nuns here, I decided to write a follow-up second post on the issue, this time focusing on the few women in the Tibetan Buddhist  tradition who have actually taken full ordination in the past decades.

2015 Publication by the Committee of Bhikshuni Ordination, that includes letters of support from the heads of major Tibetan Buddhist lineages

In response to the Karmapa’s teachings write-up, an Australian nun (Ayya Yeshe) sent me a list of fully ordained women  with details of when and where they got ordination (I have included these details as an Appendix below). Also, while I was visiting Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery last weekend, I  also got a copy of the Committee for Bhikṣuṇī Ordination book –Revival of the Bhikṣuṇī Vow, in which the official statements of the Tibetan Buddhist lineage heads are published (in Tibetan and English – see image). I have re-produced these letters for reference in the Appendix below too, they can also be accessed on their website here.

In a fifteen year period 25-40 years ago (from 1983 to 1998)  Asian Himalayan women of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions became fully ordained by foreign Bhikṣuṇī and Bhikṣu sangha in Asia. These were not only individuals, but sanghas of four or more being ordained together each time.  On reading this information, I wondered what has happened to these nuns since that time? Are they flourishing and being supported? Or have they been generally unsupported and forgotten about? Sadly, it seems the latter. Whose fault is that? It seems to be a mixture of the Tibetan Buddhist lineage heads and their male monastic sangha whose actions don’t seem to match their supportive words; not putting their money where their mouths are. As Nicola Schneider (2012) wrote the lineage representative heads all voted unanimously against nuns getting full ordination from foreign Bhikṣuṇī nuns.  Only Nyingma and Kagyu representatives voted in favour of full ordination for nuns by male monastics. Yet, the letters from the main lineage heads, see below, all support the ordination process (albeit some more enthusiastically than others!). Also, some of the nuns themselves seem to think that after taking the Gelongma ordination, the process was not a valid one (see more on that below).

In this post, I present information and images about two well-known Kagyu lineage nunneries in Himachal Pradesh, India that I recently visited on pilgrimage.  Both nunneries were founded by white, British women who also became Tibetan Buddhist nuns (with the active support of Tibetan male heads of lineages). The first is the Drugpa Kagyu nunnery of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Dongyu Gatsal Ling, where there are currently no Gelongmas. The second, is Tilokpur nunnery, the oldest Karma Kagyu nunnery in India, outside of Tibet, founded by Freda Bedi (Gelongma Palmo), from which several nuns took full ordination. I managed to meet and speak to two remaining Gelongmas there.   I have visited both nunneries before. Although my intention for visiting was more for pilgrimage and not specifically to consider the issue of the Gelongmas, it naturally arose during the course of my visit. I also spent over two years studying at the Dolma Ling nunnery, Dharamsala. Although the nuns there are from all the main lineages, the majority of Geshes who teach there are from the Gelugpa tradition and I was told that there are no Gelongmas there. Finally, I consider the Nyingma Gelongma nuns at the Schechen nunnery in Bhutan.

In conclusion, actions speak louder than words. For all the conferences and supportive words spoken by male  lineage heads and so on in encouraging full ordination of nuns, it needs to be matched in practice not only in terms of actual Gelongma ordinations but in supporting those nuns afterwards. Part of that process means making sure the nunneries have good facilities and resources for study and practice but also, as HH 14th Dalai Lama recommended, that the Bhikṣuṇī monastic practices are translated into Tibetan and put into practice.

There is clearly more to taking an ordination/vows than just intellectual debate and tradition, it is a matter of deep faith and devotion. One wonders what the Shakyamuni Buddha would make of these all male-dominated debates and conferences about whether nuns/women can get full ordination or not? The heart’s answer to that question is the one we need to listen to. Perhaps Tilopa laughing from his isolated, basic cave above the river is whispering to us all we need to hear and understand!

Music? Sisters are Doing It For Themselves by Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin….’Now this is a song to celebrate, the conscious liberation of the female state’!

May this new research post be of benefit in raising awareness and courage about the issue of full ordination for nuns within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and may women become re-established as equal members of the four-fold sangha Buddha envisioned!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 4th May 2022.

FIELD STUDY: TWO NUNNERIES IN HIMACHAL PRADESH, INDIA

  1. TARA TEMPLE PARADISE  – DONGYU GATSAL LING NUNNERY (DRUGPA KAGYU)
Entrance to Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, nr Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: DGL website.
View of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. Photo DGL Facebook/website page.

I recently went on brief pilgrimage to two Tibetan Buddhist  nunneries in Himachal Pradesh, India both of which I have visited before. One was the Drugpa Kagyu nunnery of Dongyu Gatsal Ling, established by  Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, near Palampur. A stunning nunnery with excellent facilities for the nuns, a sacred stupa, five guesthouse rooms, retreat facilities for the nuns, amazing natural surroundings and backdrop of mountains and one of the most beautiful and unique temples in India with original, hand-painted walls of female goddesses, female lineage teachers and female students of Milarepa that have ever been produced. 

Marpa the Translator with wife, Dagmema and Milarepa with female students. One of the only Tibetan-style representations of these Kagyu masters with important women in their life. Photo: Felipe Zabala

The paintings in the main temple were specially commissioned by Jetsunma with the assistance of top thangka painter, Kelsang Damcho based in Dharamsala. More on the amazing artwork, statues, paintings, art and temples  at DGL Nunnery in a later post!

Stupa at Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, containing the relics of the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche.

 

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo receiving full ordination as a nun in Hong Kong, 1973. Photo from DGL website (https://tenzinpalmo.com/jetsunma-tenzin-palmo/).

Although Jetsunma received her Getsulma vows from the 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje, she is a student and follower of the Drugpa Kagyu head, Khamtrul Rinpoche.  However, I was surprised to hear when meeting Jetsunma, who not only is a fully ordained nun herself but has also been one of the most public and vocal supporters of full ordination for nuns, that none of the nuns at her nunnery were fully ordained. She explained to me the reasons for this and her opinion on the issue:

“There are two methods for giving ordination for nuns:  according to the Vinaya, a nun needs to be ordained by a dual sangha of first senior bhikshunis and then a sangha of senior bhikshus.  Since there are no bhikshunis in the Mulasarvastivada lineage, the bhikshunis would need to be of the Dharmagupta lineage.  Meanwhile the bhikshus could be of the Mulasarvastivada lineage.  This results in an ordination of mixed lineages but was the procedure favoured by the Karmapa (hence nuns from the Nanlin nunnery in Taiwan brought to Bodhgaya). However, before the bhikshuni ordination is granted the candidates have to observe 2 years as Shikshamanas, an interim ordination given by bhikshunis.

 Unfortunately the nuns selected by the Karmapa only received the shramanerika ordination in the Dharmagupta lineage (they were already shramanerikas in the Mulasarvastivada lineage) and had not received the shikshamana vows when the Karmapa had left India and then lockdown came.

 The other method of bestowing ordination is with monks only. The Buddha had said that he allowed bhikshus to give the bhikshuni ordination in the absence of qualified bhikshunis.  This avoids the problem of mixed vinaya lineages although the Preceptor incurs a minor fault, The ordination is still valid.  Both styles of ordination have technical problems and hence the years of research…

Naturally the Himalayan nuns want to feel that they belong and are part of the Tibetan vinaya family and they need to know that their ordination is approved by the establishment. Hence their hesitation to step forward without the sanction of their lamas.

As said before, this is a complex subject that has been debated for many years without a solution accepted by everyone.  To move forward needs the cooperation of both the lamas and the nuns.”

Tenzin Palmo during the bestowal of the title ‘Jetsunma’ in Kathmandu, 2008. Photo from DGL website (https://tenzinpalmo.com/jetsunma-tenzin-palmo/)
2. MAHASIDDHA, TILOPA’S BLESSINGS TILOGPUR NUNNERY (KARMA KAGYU)
Entrance to the Tilogpur Nunnery. Photo Adele Tomlin (April 2022)

The second nunnery I visited, Karma Drubgyu Targye Ling (there is currently no website for it), often referred to as Tilogpur Nunnery was one I had also visited years before when HH 17th Karmapa visited it, and is the oldest Karma Kagyu nunnery outside of Tibet and home to around 90 nuns. It is based in Tilogpur, about an hour and a half car drive from Dharamsala. Established by British woman, Freda Bedi (Gelongma Palmo) who became a fully ordained nun and translator of the 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje (for more on her translations work with the 16th Karmapa, see here). Here is a rare photo of Bedi with the 16th Karmapa at the Tilogpur nunnery below (kindly provided by the Gelongma nuns there).

16th Karmapa with Freda Bedi/Gelongma Palmo at Tilogpur nunnery in the late 1960s. Photo thanks to Gelongma Tsultrim who sent me it.

The Tibetan Nun’s Project website says that:

“Establishing the nunnery was fraught with difficulties. According to a biography of Sister Palmo, Lady of Realisation, the nuns and Sister Palmo lived in grass huts as the nunnery was being built. The huts were accidentally destroyed by fire and, though Sister Palmo survived, she lost many precious Tibetan Buddhist texts that she was translating into English.

Sister Palmo wrote: “Our gonpa… the nunnery… building is something of an odyssey. We are clearing bricks and mud from the floor of the ruined fort on the top of the hill. Seems like a mountain. Tibetan and India labour with the nuns of all sizes, including me, carrying stones for an hour a day. Our little nuns carry pebbles.”

As there are not many recent photos of the Tilogpur nunnery currently available online, I took some myself for sharing here:

Construction work inside entrance of Tilogpur nunnery. Photo Adele Tomlin (April 2022).
View from the balcony of Tilogpur nunnery, looking down towards the river where Tilopa’s cave is, Karmapa Khyenno (Think of us Karmapa) is written in red Tibetan script. Photo Adele Tomlin (April 2022).

 

Different floors of Tilogpur nunnery seen from the entrance gate floor. Photo Adele Tomlin (April 2022).
Inside the main temple at Tilogpur nunnery. Photo Adele Tomlin (April 2022).
Inside the main temple at Tilogpur nunnery. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).
17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje with Tilogpur nuns (2007). I also visited the nunnery at the time when the Karmapa was there. For a recording of the teaching the Karmapa gave on the life of Tilopa there, see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itSqpwdMceo

According to the Tibetan Nun’s Project website (who seem to be partly responsible for funding the nunnery/nuns there):

“There are two branches of Tilokpur Nunnery. The older compound, called Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling, is now home to about 20 senior nuns who engage in intensive meditation practices and perform daily prayers. It is also home to 11 of the nunnery’s youngest nuns who are being given a basic education in Tibetan, English, and math. The newer branch of the nunnery, called Drubten Pemo Gaype Gatsal, is located down the hill and accommodates nuns engaged in intensive studies. There the nuns have classes in Tibetan, English, Buddhist philosophy, debate, and computing.”

Although I did not get chance to look around the nunnery much, it was late afternoon and a thunderstorm had just started, externally it seemed that since Bedi’s passing away, not much has been done to support this nunnery materially. I did not even recognise or notice the main gate when the taxi first pulled up.  Compared to the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery, it seemed undeveloped and under invested in, with more basic facilities.  The Temple where the nuns do puja was sparsely furnished and decorated.  There is currently no guesthouse facility in the nunnery for visitors either. Visitors can stay in the nearby Zhalu Monastery if they need a place for a night.

Located above the Mahasiddha Tilopa’s Cave

This Karma Kagyu nunnery is based near one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, Tilogpur, where the Indian mahasiddha, Tilopa meditated in a cave and ground sesame seeds for many years, see photos below. I have visited this cave several times before, which is about five minutes drive away but then a fifteen minute walk over rocks next to the river. It never fails to fascinate and bring blessings though. Every time I look inside the cave, I feel Tilopa’s presence there as if he is smiling and laughing at our petty, worldly concerns in his completely basic cave. For more on Tilopa, see here. I will write more about the cave and my visit there in another post.

Nuns from Tilogpur nunnery doing puja opposite Tilopa’s cave. Photo from TNP website.

 

Tilopa’s Cave, seen from the opposite side of the river. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022)
Tilopa’s Cave, seen from the opposite side of the river. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022)
Rare and Hidden Gems – Two living Gelongmas and Tilopa’s sesame seed grinder

One should never judge a book only by its cover (as we say), and a major hidden gem of this nunnery is the presence of two fully ordained (Gelongma) nuns, Karma Pema Tsultrim (63 years old) and Karma Wangchug Palmo (71 years old), who were among some of the first fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist nuns in exile.  Several nuns from the Tilogpur nunnery got full ordination. The first group was in 1983  who received full ordination at a 45-day ceremony in Hong Kong[1] at Po Lin Monastery. Four further nuns from Tilogpur undertook bhiksuni ordination. 

When I arrived at Tilogpur nunnery it was late afternoon and a holiday on the New Moon. The nuns had finished their morning puja. Not many people were around but I managed to find a nun to show me the main temple. Inside this temple was the sesame grinder of Tilopa (in glass casing). More on that and the Tilopa cave in another post!

Mahasiddha Tilopa’s sesame seed grinder inside the main temple of Tilogpur Nunnery. Photo: Adele Tomlin (April 2022).

Also, even though the temple itself was relatively bare and basic, not much expense or attention had been given to it. Nonetheless, the tormas of the Karma Kagyu lineage masters were spectacular (see one of them in image below):

Marpa the Translator Torma in the main temple of Tilogpur nunnery

I asked the nun where the Gelongma nuns were and she told me the two remaining Gelongmas were not there but might be around later. When I returned to the nunnery, after seeing Tilopa’s Cave, for the fourth time in my lifetime (major blessings!), I saw and met the two Gelongma nuns at the nunnery whom (when I told them I was doing some research on Gelongmas in exile) very kindly and humbly agreed to let me ask them some questions about the full ordination and take a photo of them together for historical preservation.  Here is an edited summary/transcript of what they told me in Tibetan.

Interview with Tilogpur Gelongmas – Karma Pema Tsultrim and Karma Wangchug Palmo
Gelongmas Karma Pema Tsultrim (L) and Karma Wangchug Palmo (R), who kindly agreed to let me take their photo as part of my research.

Gelongma Tsultrim told me she is from Sikkim and that she finished her schooling in the 70’s. She then went to Rumtek monastery to meet HH 16th Karmapa, and a few months after that, the 16th Karmapa gave her the Rabjungma vows around 1972. A few months after that, the 16th Karmapa sent her to Tilogpur Nunnery. At that time, Freda Bedi was there and was very kind and welcoming to her. At that time, Freda Bedi was a Gelongma nun but she is not sure who gave Bedi the Gelongma vows. 

She told me that she took the Gelongma vows in 1988/9, there were twelve people and the Bhikshu who gave them was a Chinese monk.  She took them with four Tibetan Buddhist nuns, including herself. Since then, one had passed away and the other had left the nunnery. I asked her what had motivated her to take the Gelongma vow and she replied that she felt the interdependence and merit of doing so was good.  She felt very blessed on taking the vows. That before taking the vows, the Po Lin Monastery had given excellent training for one month and it was very impressive and inspiring.  That the nuns who had given the training had excellent discussions every evening about the vows, Bodhicitta and so on.  When I asked her what was different about being a Gelongma in terms of coming back to the nunnery, she replied that there was not much difference, it was ‘business as usual’ because the nunnery already has discipline and Vinaya rules. However, she tried as much as possible to do the required Sojong (reparation of vows) on the required days and that she does not go outside much. Even though fully ordained nuns have more precepts, she still abides generally by the nunnery rules and told me that keeping the vows depends on oneself and also the environment one is in.

Karma Wangchug Palmo explained to me that she came from Tibet and went to the Dalhousie school for Tibetans.  At that time, they told them that if there were people who wanted to become nuns it was alright and there were many who became nuns. She became a nun at a young age, around age 13 or  14 years old from HH 16th Karmapa with other nuns. Her Rabjungma vow she got from HE 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche. She explained that the reason she decided to get the Gelongma vows was that first, HH the 14th Dalai Lama had suggested this to the nuns as an option. At that time, there were no Gelongmas at the nunnery, there were many foreign Gelongmas though. The Dalai Lama told us that there were foreign Gelongmas in Hong Kong and other Asian countries and that if were were interested and wanted to take the vows, then it would be good to do so.  Then, in 1984, Tai Situ Rinpoche whom the 14th Dalai Lama also told it would be good to give full ordination to nuns, helped some of us go to Hong Kong and get the Gelongma ordination.  The bestower of the vows was the same person but as Gelongma Tsultrim but she is not sure.

Her feelings about taking the vows were similar. At that time, she explained they had not really studied that much but they had a lot of faith and those who were called Gelongma were very precious and that to get the Gelongma vows was something very precious and that as a nun it was a great opportunity to do something precious. The training was the same, around 45 days of training and that there was lots of respect for those who gave and had the vows by those who gave the training.  She also explained how the people who gave the vows were very impressive in their conduct and manner.  After getting the vows, she said they then went to meet the 14th Dalai Lama who told them it was ‘very good’. Also, other nuns within the Tibetan nunneries thought it was great that they had got the Gelongma vows. Why was that? Because at that time, there was a lot of talk about the full ordination. There was a big meeting about it and we were called to attend it.

However, after the meeting the topic of full ordination gradually disappeared. Karma Tsultrim explained that as Wangchug was in the first group, she has more experience of the meeting and debates about the ordination. Wangchug said some people felt that after researching the texts and so on that it was not possible and had differing views about it.  However, the nuns like her felt that their faith and devotion were enough to take the vows and they did not understand all the intellectual debates around whether the lineage was pure or broken and the debates around it. They did not really understand or care too much about all that but just felt blessed to get the vows.  So when she returned to the nunnery, she never told others, she was a Gelongma or not, she saw herself as a nun and that her place to stay was that nunnery and that she did not go outside much. She explained that in her group of four, two had passed away, the other Gelongma was Ani Norzom from the LTWA in Dharamsala. The Gyalwang Karmapa explained in a teaching that if one had a good motivation and intention, then whether people thought they had actually took them or not was not that important and so the nuns should have courage and determination.

When I asked what they thought about full ordination in Bodh Gaya in the future, Gelongma Tsultrim explained that she was willing to do whatever the Gyalwang Karmapa and other realised Karma Kagyu masters and HH Dalai Lama thought suitable. Nonetheless, Gelongma Wangchug added that it would be good if more nuns from all the Tibetan Buddhist lineages took full ordination. If there were only one or two, apart from keeping one’s individual vows, it was difficult to participate in the group activities of a Gelongma. Thus, the more Gelongmas there are the more they can support each other as a group and it would be good. Also it would be good if the nuns agreed unanimously on the issue of full ordination and its validity.  Gelongma Tsultrim agreed that she also thought it would be good if there were more fully ordained nuns in the future.

In summary, both Gelongma nuns emphasised  that for them receiving the Gelongma vows was a personally moving and inspiring experience and one based mainly on faith and encouragement from their teachers, not intellectual debate and reasoning. They were very impressed by the training they received from the foreign groups before the ordination. They both felt they had received the actual full ordination vows and rejoiced about it. They did not view themselves as something special or unique, even though they had the vows, but were satisfied and happy they had taken them. Both nuns referred to each other as ‘Ani’ and they did not see themselves in any way as special or worthy or respect or special treatment.

Gelongmas Karma Pema Tsultrim (L) and Karma Wangchug (R), who kindly agreed to let me take their photo as part of my research.

On a side note, while doing research for this post, another hidden gem of Tilogpur nunnery is Ani Tenzin Choedon, who is reported to have spent nine years at Tilogpur serving there before doing many years retreat in the sacred places of Guru Padmazambhava. At the age of 82 she was reported in 2020 as going into the rare meditative state of Thugdam, see report here and photo below.

Ani Tenzin Chodron of Tilogpur nunnery, photographed in Thugdam meditative state after passing away (2020).
OTHER TIBETAN BUDDHIST GELONGMAS?

In contrast, another Gelongma based in Himachal whom I briefly met and spoke to after speaking to the Tilogpur Gelongmas (who declined to be interviewed) stated that even though she took the vows, people thought her ordination was not  a valid one. She told me that HH 14th Dalai Lama did not accept the full ordinations as valid. When I showed her the 14th Dalai Lama’s official letter of support in the CBO publication, she read it with surprise but explained that the Dalai Lama had verbally explained in many teachings that the ordination was not valid, and  also seemed convinced that her own ordination by Bikshuni women was not a valid one. So there still seems to be confusion on this issue, even among the nuns who have taken full ordination.

BHUTANESE GELONGMAS – SCHECHEN ORGYEN DORZONG NUNNERY
HE Schechen Rabjam Rinpoche with nuns at the Shechen Orgyen Chodzong Nunnery, Sisina, Bhutan. Several nuns from that nunnery received full ordination in 1993. Photo taken in 2018.

In 1993, HE Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche sent eleven nuns from Sisina, Bhutan to Hong Kong to receive full ordination, the first Bhutanese nuns to get those vows. In 1996, Sisina also was officially converted into a nunnery, under the official name of Shechen Orgyen Chodzong, with a close connection to Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu, and in 1998, it became the first nunnery in Bhutan to have its own shedra or commentarial college, with teachers brought from Shechen Monastery to teach the commentarial curriculum.” (Jacobsen 2020, Routledge Handbook of South Asian Religion, p 357). They are said to be the first group of nuns from the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism to receive this full ordination.

Nuns participating in three days Tshok Bum (100,000 feast offering) done in order to start the new temple for the Nun’s at Wang Sisina (June 2019).
Vajrasattva Drupchen at Shechen Orgyen Chodzong, Bhutan (Facebook page, March 2022).

CONCLUSION

Of course, this report is the tip of the iceberg, and it would be good to find and speak to any other Gelongmas in exile. So why are the Gelongmas in the Tibetan tradition almost forgotten about and not seen as that important in their own tradition/institutions? I asked Gelongma Tenzin Palmo this question, who said:

“The problem really was that there was no structure in place to help them and see that they were trained in Vinaya.  It was not the fault of anyone in particular,  just that those were early days and nuns were not yet being educated properly.  There was also the question of who maintained seniority when the older nuns were Getsulmas but some younger nuns had higher ordination.

The issue is not about receiving higher ordination per se.  Ordination in the Dharmagupta lineage of the Chinese is easily obtained but it means that the Himalayan nuns have a separate ordination tradition from the Himalayan monks.  This is also one reason why it did not prosper and was not generally accepted.

 What we are trying to establish is full ordination for nuns in the Mulasarvastivada lineage given by monks of the Mulasarvastivada lineage (i.e. Tibetan tradition). Only then will they be accepted as part of the same sangha family. Also naturally the Tibetans consider their own tradition as superior to all others, so it is necessary for the nuns to receive ordination from their own lamas in their own language and then to study and train in the Mulasarvastivada vinaya.

At the time of the introduction of monastic ordination into Tibet, only monks were invited so there is no female monastic tradition.  The monks can bestow Getsul novice ordination on females because it is the same for monks and nuns.  But the Gelong vinaya is different from the Gelongma vinaya, so the argument is that there is no Gelongma lineage in Tibet and only Maitreya can restore it!

 In addition it requires a quorum of 4 or 5 bhikshunis to constitute a sangha which can then undertake the various rites such as sojong.  Many years ago there was no one who had any experience of the nuns’ Pratimoksha and so they could not teach it (and the nuns themselves were mostly uneducated).

This is a huge issue and a minefield which has been researched for at least 25 or more years and is very complicated.  Anyway it is an ongoing topic that will no doubt eventually be resolved when the nuns themselves show more interest and determination.  Right now most are happy enough just to be studying and teaching.”

These initial observations from the field were interesting and at times, surprising. The fact there are no Gelongmas in the nunnery of a Gelongma who is one of the most vocally supportive on the issue of full ordination it itself rather strange. Especially when the Tibetan Buddhist nuns were encouraged by all the main lineage heads, such as 14th Dalai Lama and 17th Karmapa to get the full ordination. Second, even where there are Gelongmas, they appear to have been largely forgotten about afterwards and without much training or support.

The remaining questions are obvious ones, if people are really serious about giving nuns equal status and respect within the Tibetan tradition then why are the nunneries still not being financially and practically invested in to the same extent and level as the male monasteries? Why do nunneries that have such investment have no Gelongmas? Why are Gelongma nuns not being provided with more training and support within their nunneries after they have received the full ordination? If nuns receive full ordination but things are back to ‘business as usual’ when they return to the nunneries, then one might ask what is the point? Other than the personal satisfaction and merit of having taken the vows, is it really having any impact on making nuns/women equal members of the Buddhist four-fold sangha? As Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo says, nuns alo need to show more interest and courage too, but when the current Gelongmas have grown up with patriarchal conditioning and only male teachers and leaders and have been left generally unsupported, isolated etc. can one blame the nuns for not being that interested in taking the full ordination? Not at all.

Nonetheless, the two Gelongmas I managed to meet, filled me with a sense of hope and inspiration. Their moving words of how they felt about the Gelongma training and ordination were lovely and both were happy and proud to have the vows and opportunity to have taken them. There is clearly more to taking an ordination/vows than just intellectual sophistry and tradition, it is a matter of deep faith and devotion. As I stated in the introduction, perhaps we just need to lighten up a bit and also allow the heart, devotion and faith to speak!

 

APPENDIX  A

LIST OF FULLY ORDAINED NUNS

1. 1983 Hong Kong:

Four Tibetan nuns from Karma Drubgyu Targye Ling [Tilokpur], India, received full ordination at a 45-day ceremony in Hong Kong. (p 179 Innovative Buddhist Women Swimming Against the Stream) [e18. Kunzang Wangmo, Wangchuk Palmo, Karma Tsultrim, and Nordzom. See Hanna Havnevik, Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: History, Cultural Norms and Social Reality (Oslo-Norwegian University Press, no date), pp 199-200, and Tsomo Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha, pp. 153, 246.]

“The first Tibetan nuns to receive the full gelongma / bhikṣuṇī ordination are members of the Tilokpur nunnery, four having traveled to Hong Kong in 1984 and four more in 1988 to participate in the bhikṣuṇī ordination ceremony at Po Lin Monastery.” (Conway 1991 Women of Spirit, Ch 2)

2. 1987: Hong Kong (Lantau, Po Lin Monastery):

Four further nuns from Tilokpur (a Kagyü nunnery near Dharamsala) undertook bhiksuni ordination. (Ani Jampa Chokyi, Mandala, 1988). 

3. 1993 Hong Kong:

“In 1993, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche (Tib. Zhe chen rab ‘byams rin po che) sent eleven nuns from Sisina to Hong Kong to receive full ordination, the first Bhutanese nuns to achieve that status. In 1996, Sisina also was officially converted into a nunnery, under the official name of Shechen Ugyen Chosong, with a close connection to Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu, and in 1998, it became the first nunnery in Bhutan to have its own shedra or commentarial college, with teachers brought from Shechen Monastery to teach the commentarial curriculum.” (Jacobsen 2020, Routledge Handbook of South Asian Religion, p 357). They are “the first group of nuns from the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism to receive this full ordination.” (Shechen website 5 May 2021).

4. 1997: Mainland China:

“after HH the Dalai Lama publicly expressed interest in the Taiwanese bhiksuni lineage during his first visit to Taiwan… Buddhist authorities in mainland China conducted an international ordination for 400 monks and nuns, including …Himalayan nuns of the Tibetan and Nepali traditions. (p 179 Innovative Buddhist Women Swimming Against the Stream).

 This is not the first time that Chinese Sangha has worked to bring the Dual Ordination to Tibetan Buddhist nuns. In mainland China, Bhiksuni Longlian, abbess of Tiexiangsi in Chengdu, is the most well-known proponent of this movement. See Miaochang, “Introducing Buddhist Women on International Women’s Day.”

 5. 1998 Bodhgaya:

Four Ladakhi novices of the Tibetan tradition (p 174) — following Tibetan authorities allowance for nuns to receive full bhiksuni ordination in Chinese traditions and HH the Dalai Lama’s visit to Taiwan in 1997. “The Ladakhi nuns belonged to the Tibetan lineage” (p 175 Innovative Buddhist Women Swimming Against the Stream).

Present Interest in Full Ordination

“Given recent improvements in communication and transportation, the various Buddhist schools are now in more contact with each other. Some women who are eight- or ten-precept holders in countries where the bhiksuni sangha did not currently exist now wish to receive bhiksuni ordination. In 1988, eight women novices (getsulma/sramanerika) of Himalyan Vajrayana traditions from Bhutan, France, Spain, Czeck Republic, Austria and USA, and fourteen women renunciates of South and Southeast Asian Theravada traditions, from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Germany and USA, received bhiksuni ordination in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya tradition together with women of East Asian heritage at Hsi Lai Temple in Southern California, with a total of 200 women ordained as bhikṣuṇīs.”

APPENDIX B

LETTERS OF SUPPORT FOR FULL ORDINATION FROM THE HEADS OF THE TIBETAN BUDDHIST LINEAGES

The CBO website has published letters of support for the full ordination of nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (in English and Tibetan), these can be viewed from the links here:

HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa

HH 14th Dalai Lama

HH Sakya Gongma Rinpoche 

HH Gyalwang Drugpa Rinpoche

HH Drikung Kyabgon Rinpoche

Kyabje Ganden Tri Rinpoche

 

 

 


[1] p 179 Innovative Buddhist Women Swimming Against the Stream) [e18. Kunzang Wangmo, Wangchuk Palmo, Karma Tsultrim, and Nordzom. See Hanna Havnevik, Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: History, Cultural Norms and Social Reality (Oslo-Norwegian University Press, no date), pp 199-200, and Tsomo Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha, pp. 153, 246.]

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