Western Women: Maroon Robes by Venerable Lozang Tseten
Western Women: Maroon Robes
Venerable Lozang Tseten
The Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is today represented in the west by a small but growing female Sangha who are distinctly not Tibetan by birth and the western women ordaining within this Buddhist tradition are creating a female Sangha that is quite distinct from its Asian equivalent. They are slowly establishing a status and role that characterizes the cultural heritage of its members whilst retaining the Dharma values of the traditional and ancient Sangha. Little has been documented about their circumstances, how they prepare for ordination and how and where they subsequently live and manage their daily lives and my own experiences, as I prepared to take ordination vows within that tradition, were frustrated by a lack of basic information about these significant fundamentals of monastic life. I so wanted to understand the vows and lifestyle that I was deeply committed to following but didn’t really know where to start. Was it really so frustrating for every westerner taking the path I had chosen? Venerable Chodron, (2001) believed it was, stating that the western nun was a new phenomena in an ancient tradition taking radical action to practice the Dharma without any substantial knowledge of monastic life or an appreciation of the significance of living in precepts and training in the Vinaya: it is entirely their own responsibility to find appropriate guidance.
Lama Yeshe was also aware that the western Tibetan Buddhist monastic was as unconventional for the Tibetan culture as for a western one and although it might still be seen as eccentric today in the west, it is somewhat ameliorated by the multi-cultural societies we now live in. He seemed to anticipate my own concerns as he urged the western monastics to take responsibility to forge their own path, that a way had to be found to integrate their western heritage and lifestyle with the Dharma. They could not be Tibetan and should not focus upon the external changes, the shaved head and the robes, concentrating instead upon the internal objectives, recognizing that those external signs would attract attention that was not always sought or complimentary when they returned home. In 2014 His Holiness the X1Vth Dalai Lama expressed his joy at the growing numbers of westerners who are requesting ordination but he doubted that they always had a clear understanding of the deep significance of the vows they have committed to or the profound impact those vows will have upon their life-style. He anticipated that a specific pre-ordination course and mentorship programme for all aspiring western monastics might forestall unexpected issues that would enable the new western renunciate to cope skillfully with the challenges they will undoubtedly meet.
This statement encouraged me to continue my quest for understanding and when the opportunity to explore the individual experiences of other western women who had undertaken the life-transforming choice to ordain arose as the research element of a Masters study programme I was undertaking, I gladly took the chance to highlight the situation of the nuns living in my locale. I simply asked them to talk to me and I learnt a great deal about becoming a nun in the process; they were all unintentionally my mentors.
The research subjects were clearly western (Tib, injis, possibly slang), their pale facial features being universally and specifically recognizable as those of European descent. This very precise racial description is central to the objectives of the study, which was intended to highlight the challenges faced by those women who choose to wear the robes of a tradition that is understood by all who see them as having emerged from an Eastern culture whilst the person wearing them evidently did not.
The nuns who agreed to participate in the study all shared a cultural heritage rooted in a Judeo- Christian background, with some living in the nun’s community  at Chenrezig Institute and a few living independently. When they took ordination vows, they had all inevitably met various challenges, some greater than others but they faced them with patience and a determination to overcome the obstacles, driven by their motivation to live as Buddhist nuns. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo blatantly explained the oftenexasperating situation of westerners ordained in the Tibetan tradition to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1999:
- The nuns are required to live simply but very often have no specific place to live, with so few residential Tibetan Buddhist institutions in the west.
- They are expected to live frugally but many live at or below the poverty line. Having no financial support from their tradition they are sometimes forced to take paid work.
- They are expected to behave and act according to the monastic code but in practice receive little or no training in the Vinaya.
His Holiness cried as she spoke, telling her that she was rather brave and he still recalls that time, now declaring that solutions must be found and enacted (2014) but has the situation really changed so much? In 2002 Tsomo thought not, declaring that the majority of western women who aspire to ordain are motivated by the same desires, to study, practice the Dharma and renounce samsara but the reality appears to be a random confusion of where to live and study with no overall guidance.
The characteristics that define an individual offer a deeper understanding of their situation, certainly in relation to interpreting research data, and especially for this research as these women had adopted a mode of dress and a way of living that inevitably identified them as different. And so at interview, some aspects of the lives of the thirteen participants that had a bearing upon their character were discussed, such as heritage religion. 50% had been raised as Catholic with varying degrees of commitment whilst the remainder were nominal Anglican or not identifying with any religion. Bodhi (2006) had recognised that many westerners felt a deep discontent with their world and their role in it, feeling worthless without really understanding why. He thought that they were finding rational approaches to life’s problems within Buddhism and certainly the study nuns upheld this as they talked about always “looking for answers” that were not forthcoming from their heritage religion, indeed, questioning faith was often actively discouraged by the established church. The nuns were not able to explicitly define what they were looking for, often summing it up as “things simply didn’t add up,” a feeling that was largely responsible for them rejecting their Christian faith in their youth, eventually finding that the Dharma offered answers to those unfocused questions.
Chodron (2000) maintained that the western woman taking Buddhist ordination is usually a mature adult with a wealth of worldly experiences. She is likely to be a well-educated, strongly motivated and selfsufficient career woman who brings many valuable qualities to ordination.
Half of the nuns did hold higher, secular academic qualifications, and three of those held a second degree and they were grateful for their wellestablished study skills, which certainly enabled them to better cope with the demanding study programme at Chenrezig Institute. Many of them had also maintained demanding careers and eight had raised a family, indeed two of them were still caring for a child when they ordained.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has suggested that the motivation to ordain develops from recognising that to live every moment deeply committed to ethical practice and the study of Dharma is only possible within ordination. Motivation not only drives our actions but also sustains our enthusiastic effort to continue and the intention to maintain the commitment to the ordination vows requires a strong and clear motivation combined with a deep understanding of the significance of the vows.
The aspiration to take monastic vows was obviously a unique experience for each nun, sometimes, as for two of them, an instant flash of realization, sometimes for others a slowly developing consciousness as study of the Dharma developed their faith. But they all recognised that they had to learn how to live and behave as a monastic. Each nun was asked what her understanding of monastic training was and whilst the most senior nun had received a more conventional training within a Tibetan monastery in Nepal, being amongst the first westerners to ordain with Lama Yeshe in 1974, only four other nuns had actively sought the modern equivalent available today. Although the nuns recognised the need to prepare for ordination they all took a different approach to finding adequate support with some simply closely observing monastics they frequent saw at teachings, very often at Chenrezig Institute and its sister Dharma center, asking questions and being offered valuable advice, building up their confidence in the expected behavior and dress. Indeed, this amounted to a significant sisterhood of informal mentorship that nurtured and supported the new nuns. Three of the nuns had waited for so long to ordain that the transition to wearing robes seemed almost negligible as they had actually lived as monastics for some time.
Many years ago, one nun had formally requested a mentor but no one had felt able to fulfil that role at the time and she had stumbled on, finding the lack of support very challenging. Some years later though, the senior western nun at Chenrezig Institute had offered tuition in monastic life to a few of the pre-ordination nuns who were resident there, an incredible gift as senior nuns are a scarce commodity and few feel able to take on a mentoring role. It is expected that mentors and trainers in the west should be experienced senior  nuns but it seems that few western nuns remain in robes that long. Monlam  (2008) suspected that the reason that many are unable to sustain their vows for more than ten years (many for much less) is the lack of supporting infrastructure to sustain them in their new way of life. Tsomo (1994) claimed that many westerners find it too difficult to be a Buddhist monastic, however strong their motivation, and being overwhelmed with problems they eventually return their robes. She further explained that the physical and emotional consequences of ordination can be overwhelming and should not be underestimated; perhaps mentorship and pre-ordination programmes might alleviate this problem? The majority of westerners taking ordination within this tradition do not receive formal training with some not feeling it so necessary, but in any case, there would simply not be enough places available to meet the demand.
Two of the nuns had met serious difficulties early in their lives in robes, with senior Sangha had a complete indifference to them that almost amounted to hostility. Lama Yeshe had warned “getting ordained is easy; it takes less than a day: the difficulty lies in keeping going, that’s where the hardships are” and the two nuns had not ever considered given up, instead actively seeking alternative approaches. The Buddha had declared that a novice monastic should live with a preceptor who was required to provide preliminary training for the candidate, including appropriate behavior and the rules and customs of the Sangha. In the early Sangha there were also not enough preceptors and the new monastics often behaved inappropriately reflecting badly on the Sangha community and this led to the Buddha making preceptorship a condition of admission to the community, as has His Holiness the Dalai Lama now for those he personally ordains. His Holiness now requires those women that he personally ordains to live within a registered Sangha community for two years, a rule that, if applied to all western ordainees requesting ordination within the Gelugpa tradition, would excluded most as in reality there are simply not enough places available to meet the demand.
Within the contemporary corporate world my personal experience has shown that people are now required to attend training programmes to become skilled mentors as this role is considered a vital part of successfully integrating a ‘novice’ into the structure of the company.
Berzin (2000) indicated that there is a crucial difference in the concept of scholastic Buddhist education as understood by the Gelugpa school and novice monastic instruction. Buddhism and its associated monastic life permeate the entire Tibetan culture; they intrinsically know how to behave as monastics with Tibetan children traditionally living in a monastery, wearing robes and shaving their heads. Whilst they do not necessarily ordain, they are utterly immersed in monastic life. The situation for westerners is of course significantly different, coming to monasticism from a distinctly non-Buddhist culture. They are independent adults and it is often the very western virtues of self-sufficiency and determined motivation that can become obstacles to living in harmony within a Sangha community, if they have one. Chodron (2002) felt that they are often rather resistant to discipline and might find their new physical environment confronting, whether it is with Sangha or within a lay community, and they have to combine learning the Dharma with more intensity than before with learning how to be a monastic.
Tushita House in Dharamsala, India is one of only three places I had identified as offering training programmes for westerners who requested Tibetan Buddhist ordination, the other two being Gampo Abbey in Canada and Sravasti Abbey in N. America. Some years ago one senior nun had lived at Tushita House for many months before attended the preordination programme there prior to taking vows with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She totally agreed with Berzin that the Tibetan monastics had none of the issues that those westerners who are Tibetan Buddhist monastics face. “The Tibetan culture is entirely imbued with Buddhism, they do not need to learn the practices or find the confidence that we westerners need to learn to even wear our robes out in society! They do not need what we need, their culture already has it well established.” She felt that she had the perfect way to start ordained life “in a sea of maroon, blending in with natural exemplars of behavior all around!” One other nun who took her vows from His Holiness, inevitably following the Tushita programme, found that living in the more traditional community with so many people in robes “was truly a blessing for a new nun,” and she strongly felt that training was a vital element in preparation and should be a prerequisite for all ordainees, “you cannot be a nun by osmosis, it takes so much more that that.”
The three-week programme “exploring monastic life” at Sravasti Abbey in N. America offers open and frank discussion of the demands made by living in maroon robes in the west to those considering ordination. However those committed to ordination may then stay at the abbey for some time, living with the resident monastic community whilst training. Two of the nuns in the study had attended Sravasti Abbey with one staying much longer to train for six months following the initial three-week course. She was determined to “learn to be a nun,” greatly valuing the experience, but later felt that there was only so much that could only be learnt before taking vows, a view expressed by a number of the nuns. In the four weeks that I was able to be at Sravasti Abbey for the short programme, I began to understand many of the issues around ordination, for which I was very grateful. Just living with so many western nuns and following the routine of practice with the residents, gave great meaning to my aspiration to ordain.
There is a significant difference between the programmes at Tushita and Sravasti though, not least because those who attended Tushita were committed to taking vows with His Holiness at the end of the course whilst those on the short course at Sravasti did not necessarily have that commitment. The Tushita programme, as experienced by one senior nun, was described as intensive, rigorous and thorough, emphasizing all aspect of being and behaving as a monastic such as deportment, how to wear the robes and a deeper study of practice and the vinaya. The shorter Sravasti programme gave prominence to the potential issues raised by living as a Buddhist monastic in the west, such as where to live and practice, with some history of how the vinaya evolved. Staying for longer at Sravasti with the intention of ordaining would have offered the opportunity for that in-depth preparation but I subsequently also found that there was only so much that could only be learnt before ordination, thus highlighting the importance of living in a monastic community.
It was felt by many of the nuns that too much was expected of them too soon after they had ordained and that it would be wonderful if the new nun could simply concentrate on “nunning.” They had felt the pressure of ‘others’ expectations as soon as they were in robes, being very concerned that they were not meeting those expectations, with one nun asserting that “it would be wonderful if the newly ordained nun lived a couple of years just being a nun without getting involved in the business, just learning to be a nun.” She emphasised that it takes time to integrate learning with practice as she recalled her own experiences when she took vows so many years ago when she gave 100% to learning, 100% to being a nun and 100% to supporting the Dharma center where she lived. Perhaps this is the lot of the modern western nun as another had also found these demands far too much.
However, finding suitable guidance and support when being newly ordained is closely aligned with an appropriate place to live which in turn relates to financial support, which, although was raised during interview has not been mentioned here. This is not only because of limited space but also the nuns were quite reluctant to discuss this aspect of their lives. Suffice it to say that they all barely managed, although those receiving government pensions were certainly in a better position.
These western women were taking personal responsibility for their lives as Tibetan nuns, turning adversity into advantage as best they could, never giving up, driven by the strength of their motivation to live in the Dharma.
Cozort (2003) had speculated that the cultural divide might present the biggest obstacle to the continuing progress of Buddhism in the west. The studentteacher relationship is central to Tibetan Buddhism, but the language barrier and therefore conveying a clear understanding of the finer aspects of the Dharma can make that relationship quite difficult. Cozort (2003) presented the concept of a “western lama” who teaches Dharma in their native language to their contemporaries, and he wondered if this should necessarily be an ordained Lama. However Bodhi (2006) was quite clear that the western Sangha should indeed be those teachers and that actually too many western monastics are taught Dharma and even trained to teach by laity. The nuns in the study had varying opinions on their evolving role on this field, with some already being eminent teachers whilst others preferred to devote their time to being Dharma students.
Of course, these recorded experiences are entirely different to those of the traditional Tibetan ordainee and comparisons cannot be drawn. The Tibetan monastics take many years from ordination (at a younger age) to become mature, senior practitioners with their lives guided by their teacher with whom they live. The western nun is left very much to her own devises and she must have realistic expectations of herself in her new role, being concerned with how her behavior affects others rather than with what others might think of her. Chodron suggested that this equally applies to what the nun can offer the Sangha rather than what the Sangha is offering her; “by changing our attitudes, we will gain more benefit, and it is a future Sangha who will benefit the most.”
The western Buddhist nun then is a pioneer, creating a distinctive role and status that characterises her cultural heritage in the western Buddhist world. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo stated during a recent visit to Chenrezig Institute, “the problem has to be recognised for a solution to be found,” and so how might the development of an appropriate Sangha community in the west be accomplished? This study attempted to provide a snapshot of the situation of a group of western women who had ordained at various times over the past four decades and the situations they faced at the time they donned the maroon robes highlighted the fundamental issues of pre-ordination preparation, mentorship and where to live, which will all continue to be areas of concern for both the current nuns and future novices and must be addressed. By capturing individual aspects of the stories of this small group, the study aimed to be a stepping stone towards a more profound understanding of their lived experiences.
In this brief summary of the research thesis, every attempt has been made to responsibly represent the nuns as faithfully as possible as words so easily distort truth and reality. It is also acknowledged that many of the issues raised in the research are equally applicable to western monks.
- Berzin, A. 2000, Relating to a spiritual teacher: building a healthy relationship. Snow Lion Publications. Ithaca, New York.
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 2006, Whatever happened to the monastic Sangha? A talk given at the 13th western Buddhist monastic conference, Bhavana Society, West Virginia. www.thubtenchodron.org/buddhistnunsmonasticlife posted with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s permission.
- Chodron, Bhikshuni Thubten. 2000, Western Buddhist nuns: a new phenomena in An ancient tradition. pp. t81-96, in Findley, E. (ed.) 2000, Woman’s Buddhism’s women: tradition, revision, renewal. Wisdom Publications,Boston.
- Chodron, Bhikshuni Thubten. 2001, A monastic’s mind. Excerpt from a talk given to a group of newly ordained monks and nuns at Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamsala. Sangha. The magazine for the Sangha of the International Mahayana Institute of the FPMT. Issue 9. October 2001, pp. 13-14.
- Cozort, D. 2003, The making of a western lama. In Heine, S. and Prebish, C. S. (eds.) 2003, Buddhism in the modern world: adaptations of an ancient tradition. pp. 221-248. Oxford University Press.
- Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron. 2014, Buddhism: one teacher, many traditions.Wisdom publications, Boston.
- Monlam, Bhikshu Lozang. 2008, Ordination: caught between two cultures. Sangha in Mandala magazine. August/September 2008. www.mandala.fpmt.org
- Ribush, N. (ed.) 2002, Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa: advice for monks and nuns. Published by Lama Yeshe Archive, Boston for the International Mahayana Institute.
- Tsomo, Bhikshuni Lekshe. 1998, Sakyadhita, daughters of the Buddha. Snow Lion Publications.
- Tsomo, Bhikshuni Lekshe. 2002, Buddhist nuns: changes and challenges, in Prebish, C. S. and Baumann, M. (eds.) 2002, Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia. University of California Press. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London.
- There have been monastics at Chenrezig Institute from its inception as Lama Yeshe involved some of his western monastics from the outset but it was only in 1996 that the community of nuns at Chenrezig was officially established.
- In 1974 Lama Yeshe made his first overseas visit and that was to Queensland. After a very successful visit he was offered the land to establish a study centre that has grown from a rambling collection of buildings to a world-class teaching institute today.
- A monastic is considered a senior after ten years in robes.
- Venerable Losang Monlam (2008) was the director of the International Mahayana Institute, the community of monks and nuns of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition established by Lama Yeshe.
- It is interesting to note that the recognised incarnation of Lama Yeshe was born in Spain to Spanish Nationals, his parents being students of Lama Yeshe.