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By Ven. Thubten Damcho
Finally, the big day arrives. After thinking deeply about monastic life for a number of years, attending meditation retreats, visiting monasteries and speaking to monastics, you decide to take the leap: you will move long-term to a monastery to prepare for ordination. You leave your job, break up with your partner, sell or give away all of your belongings, and bid farewell to your loved ones.
Your family is devastated, but they try to remain loving and stoic. After all, you are already an adult, and they just want you to be happy because they love you. Secretly, they harbor the hope that you will give up and return home within a few months. They remain in contact with your ex-partner and console him quietly behind your back.
Your non-Dharma friends express mixed feelings. “Really? You’re going to be a what?” Some of them try to be supportive. “It’s so cool that you’re following your heart. I wish I could be like you!”
Your Dharma friends rejoice and express their admiration. “Wow! You’re finally doing it! You have such good karma! We’re so happy for you!”
You feel upbeat, hopeful and positive that you are taking a step in the right direction, to live in accordance with your values and progress along the spiritual path, for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Then you arrive at the monastery. There are guidelines, there is a schedule, there is a community of strangers. You try your best to fit in, to fall into the established rhythm of life, to adapt to whatever arises. The days are generally peaceful and happy. Each day starts to look the same, and you begin to lose track of time. Occasionally, however, you catch a glimpse of how your mind works, and it is anything but holy – it is filled with self-centeredness and the eight worldly concerns. Your mind fixates on food – “Why isn’t there dessert today? Not salad again!” You worry about material possessions – “I need a new pair of shoes. Nothing here fits me!” You want everybody’s approval – “Why don’t they like my ideas? These people don’t know anything!” You strive to appear like a “good practitioner” – “I must sit still in meditation for hours! I will not break a single precept!” Seeing the worldly state of your mind, you beat yourself up for being a failure.
You become critical and judgmental of yourself and others. Your mind runs through the faults of every community member, one by one. Why don’t the people here treat you the way you were treated outside of the monastery? You were a star pupil, a high-performing colleague, an interesting friend, a good daughter. … Why don’t the people here applaud your virtuous efforts? Why do they give you feedback about your behavior? Why don’t they behave the way you expect them to? Why don’t they buy into any of your trips? What is wrong with them?
This is a turning point: either you accept that your habitual tendencies and the stories that you construct and replay are the true causes of your suffering, or you blame the external world around you. The latter is easier. It’s the schedule. It’s offering service. It’s the lack of study time. It’s the community. It’s the abbess. I am being oppressed here; nobody appreciates or listens to me; I am so lonely; why can’t I just have some space to do what I want, whenever I want to? This is your self-centered mind talking, and if you can’t recognize it, you soon find yourself in a deep hole, ready to pack your bags and run down the hill.
But you are too proud to leave. You are not going to fail in the first few months. You have given up too much for this. Maybe, you think, you should do what you came here to do in the first place: practice the Dharma. So you decide to stop blaming the world around you (for now), and you sit and look within. You sit and you sit. And you are horrified by what you see. Who knew you had so much anger? So much pride? So much jealousy? So much attachment? So much ignorance? What have you been doing with your entire life, living on automatic? Looking at the mind feels like staring into a bottomless pit of snakes.
At some point your teacher’s voice breaks through the thick fog of self-centeredness and self-grasping: “Don’t believe everything you think! All suffering comes from the self-centered attitude and self-grasping ignorance. Train yourself to see your Buddha potential and to appreciate the kindness of others.” This sounds like Greek at first, but your teacher keeps saying the same thing, again and again and again. And because you trust your teacher, and because you have some small faith in the Buddha’s teachings, you decide to put in a bit more effort in applying the teachings in your life.
To counteract anger, you meditate on loving kindness. To counteract pride, you do prostrations. To counteract jealousy, you rejoice in others’ good qualities. To counteract attachment, you meditate on death and impermanence. To counteract ignorance, you meditate on cause and effect, and what little understanding you have of dependent arising. To counteract the proliferation of discursive thoughts, you meditate on the breath. This feels contrived, unnatural and at times, downright impossible. You set a good motivation in the morning and forget about it for the rest of the day. You flare up over the chore rota. You eat three chocolate chip cookies at lunchtime. You fail to live up to your own expectations and aspirations, again, and again, and again.
But slowly, your mind starts to change. You realize you are not the only person in the entire universe. You see that you live in community with spiritual friends who are doing their best to move in the same direction, to purify the mind and to generate an altruistic intention. You start to see others’ good qualities. You learn to accept your limitations. You start to see what you are working with in your mind, and begin to unravel the beliefs and patterns that you have clung onto your entire life, even though they cause you suffering. Day by day, your conviction that the Dharma is the path to liberation grows.
You begin to see that the precepts not only help you clean up your life, but are a source of refuge. Initially you think they are “external rules,” but gradually you see that they come from within yourself – the desire to live according to ethical precepts protects the mind from being completely out of control. Thinking back on all the times that keeping precepts has prevented you from following your afflictions and creating a ton of destructive karma brings great relief to your mind.
You begin to experience how having the precepts of celibacy and giving up adorning the body really cleans up your relationships with the opposite sex and enables you to listen to others without any agenda. By taking the precept not to handle money, people know that you are not interacting with them for financial gain, which is entirely different from how worldly relationships function.
Hearing, thinking, and meditating on the Dharma, you slowly learn to accept reality. This body is subject to aging, sickness, and death. Death is certain, the time of death is uncertain. You have no idea when your past destructive karma is going to ripen. There is no pleasure that lasts in cyclic existence. Faced with the truth, you feel like you are in rehab, coming off of hallucinogens you’ve been addicted to since beginningless time.
The path to sobriety feels painful at first, but you know it is worthwhile. If you know that you are on drugs and harming yourself and all those around you, the most important thing to do is to get clean. This is the best way to benefit yourself and others. Eventually, knowing from your own experience how to get clean and stay clean, you can help those around you who are also hallucinating drug addicts to do the same.
This is the goal, and the path is long. You forget what little you know of the truth every single day. Your mind keeps grasping at illusions, desperately hoping for one fleeting moment of pleasure after another. You rein in your mind when you can and apply the antidotes again and again and again. There is no ecstasy, only the laundry. But how nice it is to have clean clothes.
The Buddha counseled1:
“Just as a carpenter or a carpenter’s assistant sees on his adze-handle the marks made by his fingers and thumb, but does not thereby have the knowledge, “So much of the adze-handle was worn away by me today, so much yesterday, so much at another time,” but merely has the knowledge that it is being worn away by its wearing away, in the same way, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu living devoted to the practice of mind-development does not have the knowledge, “So much of the taints was worn away today, so much yesterday, so much at another time.” But he has the knowledge they are being worn away by their wearing away.
“Just as a sea-going boat, stranded for six months on the shore by the tide in the winter, has its rigging spoilt by wind and sun, and then, warped by a shower of rain in the rainy season, easily weakens and rots away: in the same way, bhikkhus, for a bhikkhu living devoted to the practice of mind-development, the fetters (samyojanaani) easily weaken and rot away.”
Ven. Thubten Damcho lives and works at Sravasti Abbey, a non-FPMT Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the United States where monks, nuns, and lay students can train to practice the Dharma. Founder and abbess Ven. Thubten Chodron is a long-time student of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
Imagine: In a time when religion is so often used to create disharmony, forty Buddhist monastics (mostly Westerners and some Asians; an even balance of women and men) meet harmoniously for five days to discuss topics relevant to monastic life and the spread of the Dharma in their countries.
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron reports on the April 2007 assembly of Buddhist traditions: Thai and Sri Lankan Theravada, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Ch’an and Pure Land, and various traditions within Tibetan Buddhism.
Each year a different monastery hosts the event; this year, the thirteenth, it was at the City of the Dharma Realm, a Chinese monastery with a resident community of about twenty nuns in Sacramento, California. The full daily schedule of meditation and conferring still gave us time to talk and deepen friendships that have formed over the years.
The theme was “Health” and Ven. Lobsang Jinpa, a monk who is an Ayurvedic doctor, began our exploration with an overview of Ayurveda. We chanted the “Sutra on Impermanence” and discussed various liturgy used for healing; later I led a meditation on White Tara, a Buddhist deity whose practice promotes long life so that we can practice the Dharma for as long as possible. Theravada monks taught us how to chant several parritas, short sutras that the Buddha wrote as blessings, for healing from illness as well as from grief.
We discussed health insurance, for most monastics are uninsured or underinsured. It would indeed be wonderful if we could have a group policy as monastics, but health insurance being what it is in the US, we are not overly optimistic. We also focused on the topic of elder care. How can we help monastics when they are no longer able to be active in the monastery schedule and require full-time care? What will happen to monastics who live on their own when they become old? These are complex questions.
In our last issue Ven. Losang Monlam, director of the International Mahayana Institute (IMI) introduced a new regular feature on issues that affect the Sangha in our midst. The saga continues as he describes a recent groundbreaking conference …
In February 2008, twenty IMI monks and nuns representing the monastic communities and regions of the world participated in a four-day IMI Planning Retreat at Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel, California. The conference drew on the experience and skills of the delegates to creatively assess and strategize on how IMI could serve its community of monks and nuns, and set the foundation for the future generation.When I took over as director, I was troubled by a lack of clarity on what was this thing called IMI, and exactly what direction was I to take it. Certainly, I had my ideas on who we were, and where we needed to go. Yet I was only one member of the community, and although I might consider my ideas to be visionary, others certainly may not. As a community it was crucial to get others involved, to share ideas and to grapple with the history of who we were, to understand where we needed to go. Key to where we need to go as a community is understanding where we have been, as envisaged by Lama Thubten Yeshe. And so we began by reviewing the development of the IMI community from its early beginnings in the ’70s. Delegates also focused on those aspects within their own lives as monastics that have been beneficial and supportive. These successes were key in identifying what needed to be included in any vision we might embrace for the community. …
In June-July 2012, FPMT student Dr. Mary Wellhoner, an OB-GYN based in Reno, Nevada, U.S., and Marlies Bosch founder of the Dutch Foundation for Ladakhi Nuns visited Ladakh and Zanskar in India to distribute copies of the woman’s health book Healthy Body, Healthy Mind and offer health workshops at nunneries in the region. (See the print edition of Mandala January-March 2013 for the complete story.) They also spent time at the nunnery of Gephel Shadrubling, which you can read about in Mary and Marlies’ story, “A New Generation of Ladakhi Nuns.” (To enlarge photos, click on image.)
By Ven. Ingrid Norzin Braun
History was made in South India at Sera Je Monastery when a 38-year-old Indian woman named Barkha Madan, who works as a model and Bollywood actress, became one of the first non-Himalayan Indian Tibetan Buddhist nuns in FPMT.
Barkha asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche to ordain at the end of his long life puja in early November 2012, during a photo session. “Is it good for me to ordain for the benefit of everyone?” she asked. “Good,” was Rinpoche’s reply paired with a thumbs-up. That evening there was a refuge ceremony in which Barkha participated. Wanting to ask Rinpoche again, she offered a khata with a letter requesting ordination. Rinpoche smiled and asked Ven. Roger, Rinpoche’s secretary, for the divination dice. “Maybe you should wait…” he hesitated. “Actually, tomorrow morning with Choden Rinpoche comes out best.”
Stunned, Barkha’s mouth hung open. “I jumped in my skin,” she told me later, having expected more time to prepare for ordination like Connie, the other young women who would be at the ceremony.
Although Ven. Robina, her mentor, had told her, “When the right time comes, you will ordain,” she was concerned that her family had not been informed and that she was scheduled to go on a three-month tour to promote her film, which was to be her livelihood, in addition to some savings, for her future life as a nun. She was afraid of what the media would make of a Bollywood star on tour in robes and a shaved head.
The three of us tossed around problems and solution back and forth: “I believe your mother loves you and wants to see you happy.” “A wig and a beautiful maroon gown in the first month; robes for the next two months.” “Do I have khatas and envelopes?” “Connie has extra robes you can use.” “Why don’t you go to Choden Rinpoche and find out when his next ordination ceremony would be?” But the conversation eventually ended with, “I don’t want to wait too long, after all, I could die tonight.”
Back in her room, Barkha could not sleep. She reached out to Lama Zopa Rinpoche in prayer to help her make up her mind. She felt Rinpoche’s energy enter her heart, and the next morning, after an early breakfast, she called Ven. Namjong at the Sera IMI House (FPMT’s house at Sera Monastery), and asked him, “Where do I go after ordaining as an Indian nun?”
In Indian culture, parents and family are very important so she called her mother. When she hesitantly expressed her wish, her mother replied, “What are you waiting for? Go for it.” This was her green light!
She met Connie at 8 a.m. to ask for her extra set of robes. Connie ran as fast as lightening, and they together arrived at Choden Rinpoche’s with little time to spare. After obtaining Rinpoche’s permission, Ven. Namjong buzzed off her long hair in minutes at Sera IMI House across the road. The whole process – hair cutting, quick shower, and robes – took 15 minutes. As Ven. Namdak was giving her a breakdown of the vows, her body began to shake and blissful tears began to pour down her face. After a few more last-minute instructions, she entered the room, saw Rinpoche and “melted.” Six other participants took getsül vows with her.
Later, when I saw her, she looked like she had always been a nun, except for her bright red nail polish on her fingers and toes. (The monks from Sera IMI House didn’t have, unsurprisingly, nail polish remover!) Although some people thought it was too rushed, she reports that most people were supportive, especially her sister who came from Bangalore to stay for a few days after her ordination.
Now Ven. Gyalten Samten, she remains as beautiful as she is strong, kind, unpretentious and gentle, and she has great faith in Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She felt like she was taken by the hand and guided “to this end” and feels that her being a nun will come out well for all sentient beings. “There is no turning back,” she said. “On November 4, 2012, at 11:20 a.m., I was reborn.”
Ven. Gyalten Samten has starred in four Bollywood films, acted in 20 TV shows and produced one film. Lama Zopa Rinpoche told her that promoting her most recently released film in robes would be good and has given her much personal instruction to help her on the path.
Ven. Ingrid Norzin Braun is a long-time student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
By Mary Wellhoner, MD, MPH and Marlies Bosch
Supported by the progressive policies of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, advanced Buddhist education for girls and women in Asia is taking a foothold in Ladakh. A somewhat revolutionary concept for traditional Tibetan culture and developing Asian countries, His Holiness and Lama Zopa Rinpoche have promised equal education for girls and women. As a result, a cohort of bright, energetic young female geshes is on the horizon at Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery, FPMT’s largest nunnery in Kopan near Kathmandu, and at nunneries in Dharamsala under the guidance of the Tibetan Nuns Project.
Ladakh, part of the northern Indian province Jammu and Kashmir, has enjoyed a peaceful and traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture for centuries, however, for girls and women interested in monasticism, only very small and remote nunneries with poor educational opportunities are open to them.
Following the work of Dr. Tsering Palmo who founded the Ladakh Nuns Association and who has dedicated herself to improving the situation of Ladakhi nuns since 1997, a dedicated group of 12 young educated Ladakhi nuns from Gephel Shadrubling Nunnery now dreams of starting the first university for nuns in Ladakh according to the strict course of study outlined by the Gelug tradition and looking to Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery as a prototype. This summer, Marlies Bosch, founder of the Dutch Foundation for Ladakhi Nuns (DFLN), had the opportunity to talk with Rinchen Khando, the director of the Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in Dharamsala, and her husband, Tenzin Choegyal, brother of the Dalai Lama, about this matter. Rinchen Khando and Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery are setting up a curriculum to make sure that the last part of the geshe studies program for nuns is taken seriously by both nuns and monks. Some of the Ladakhi nuns will participate in this program.
The 12 young women of the Gephel Shadrubling Nunnery were all fortunate enough to travel out of Ladakh to obtain higher education at Khachoe Ghakyil and Dharamsala, maintaining their vision of returning to their home country to improve educational opportunities for their monastic sisters there. Three of these remarkable women, now in their 30s, Vens. Thupten Dechen, Saldon and Namdol, obtained permission from Khensur Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup Rigsel before his death to postpone finishing their studies at the nunnery so they could return to Ladakh and start building and recruiting for the new university there.
Since their return to Ladakh, these hardworking nuns have moved forward with educational support from the DFLN and financial support from a non-Buddhist sponsor from Britain. They have established Gephel Shadrubling Nunnery on a small piece of property near Leh and recruited 13 young nuns between the ages of 5 and 16, mostly from the poor and remote area of Zanskar, where education for girls is scarce. They are teaching the girls English, Tibetan, philosophy, debating, reading and writing as well as Buddhist studies, and they themselves have a geshe as a part-time teacher.
Since their current property is too small for the university, they have acquired a larger piece of land in Basgo, north of Leh and have managed to break ground this past summer and complete a 20-room building to house the school and accommodate additional young nuns. They eventually plan to turn their original site into a retreat center and already have a program in place to house and teach Western retreatants as a means of financial support. Additionally, they were able to send several nuns, who had been trained to support health workshops, to travel with our team of DFLN and medical volunteers in July 2012. Our group distributed the Tibetan women’s health book Healthy Body, Healthy Mind and taught workshops in remote nunneries throughout Ladakh and Zanskar, presenting the materials in the nuns’ own language.
Ven. Thupten Dechen has spent most of the summer out in the hot Ladakhi sun personally supervising the new construction. Vens. Thupten Dechen, Saldon and Namdol hope to obtain spiritual and educational support and guidance from Kopan Monastery and FPMT in the future. We salute their aspiration to create opportunity for higher education for women in Ladakh.
Visit “Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Ladakh and Zanskar Photo Gallery” to see pictures from Gephel Shadrubling Nunnery.
Dr. Mary Wellhoner is a student of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She is a practicing gynecologist in Reno, Nevada, where she lives with her husband, George Mars, and two children, Zia and Kai. She completed her Masters of Public Health online through Johns Hopkins, focusing on global health.
Marlies Bosch is a photographer and the founder of the Dutch Foundation for Ladakhi Nuns (DFLN), an organization dedicated to supporting Ladakhi nuns.
NEPAL: ‘The Most Holy Place in the World’
Ven. Jangchub Gyalmo is from Tumeli in Tsum, Nepal. She came to Kopan Nunnery in 1992 when she was 18 years old. Ven. Namdrol Phuntsok left her home in Pembo, Tibet, near Lhasa for Nepal in 1992. She arrived at Kopan in 1993 when she was 13. Both Vens. Gyalmo and Phuntsok are in the geshe program at Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery. Arya Cayton, spiritual program coordinator at Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre in Kathmandu, talked with them in October 2012 about their experiences at the nunnery. Ven. Tenzin Tsomo (Chandra Chiara Ehm) helped with interpretation.
Arya: What was the Kopan Nunnery like at the time that you first came and how has it changed?
Ven. Gyalmo: When I joined the nunnery in 1992, there were about 30 nuns and we had a common sleeping room and a common puja hall, which were the same room, and we studied together with the senior nuns. Khensur Rinpoche [Lama Lhundrup] and Geshe Khechok and Geshe Lama Konchog were teaching periodically and we were enjoying these teachings, but there were no structured studies. Khensur Rinpoche was like our father. We were very young and he would care for us like children. He would give us treats, and so forth. After one year, we settled down the hill at the new nunnery. It was a big day. Khensur Rinpoche at the time said, “This will be like every other year; I will take care of you. I will come down; nothing will change in terms of our relationship.”
Over the years, the infrastructure has developed quickly and well. Now there is a study program with regular studies taking place. There is room for everyone and our diet is much more balanced.
Ven. Phuntsok: I came to Kopan a little later than Ani Gyalmo. At that time, the nunnery’s new main puja hall had already been built, but not the kitchen and accommodation rooms. We had to work so much! We’d clean the grounds, moving sand and stones. We had to get water from far away as we didn’t have water inside. We had to have our food and tea at Kopan Monastery. But we felt happy, very peaceful. We had class with Khensur Rinpoche. We didn’t have any chance to study English, but we had a very good opportunity to study Buddhadharma. Now we have many very good teachers – Nepali teachers, English teachers, Tibetan teachers. Of course, for philosophy, there is a very good and very famous teacher in the nunnery.
Ven. Gyalmo: At the beginning when we began our studies, we were a very close-knit group and were very shy. During debate or exams, we would close all the windows and curtains so that no one could spy on us. It would be a closed event with just the nuns and teachers.
If I compare this to today, studies have improved enormously and we have more confidence. Before, Khensur Rinpoche was taking care of everything, but now the nuns take more responsibility and initiative.
In 2000, Khensur Rinpoche arranged the opportunity for the nuns from our nunnery to go to the Jang Gun Chö [winter debates] in India. From that moment on, our self-confidence increased very much. It was the starting point from which we could become more confident in and clear about our goals for study.
Ven. Phuntsok: I didn’t study in Tibet, so when I arrived at Kopan, everything was new. We had to go to class with the monks at Kopan Monastery who were older and had more knowledge. It was very difficult to share or request assistance or ask questions when I didn’t understand something.
I feel there has been a big change not only in the nunnery, but also in my mind. Now, whenever I’m asked a question, I can give some sort of answer. Before, that would have been very difficult, because even when I did have an answer, I didn’t have any confidence to say it or to make my point clear.
Arya: What has kept you motivated and inspired you during your time at the nunnery?
Ven. Phuntsok: I came from Tibet with the purpose to study, so I had a deep motivation to stay in the nunnery and study for the long term, not just for a few years. In my class, there were many nuns in the beginning, but now they have mostly disappeared.
I feel like I have to finish my studies, and after that, I have to get some results. This is not like other studies; most of the study here is very profound and it takes a long time.
Ven. Gyalmo: When I joined the nunnery, I had this very simple motivation of changing the mind and of being a good Dharma practitioner in this very human life by studying the texts again and again, more and more deeply. This was the main motivation. Over time one can compare one’s original motivation with what one is studying and integrate the two. Because I studied the texts and topics again and again, I always check and integrate the original motivation into what I am learning. At the beginning, it was only a wish, but with study it has become more substantial.
Arya: How do you feel the attitudes of the nuns have changed?
Ven. Gyalmo: I am from Tsum and many nuns would meditate in the caves in the hermitages in Tsum. But only a few with strong karmic imprints had the chance to develop spiritual attainments, to really go into the Dharma. Many nuns would stay at home to work the wool and other domestic chores – that was the nuns’ lives. They would work at home and then they would go for the accumulation of mantras at the nunnery. It wasn’t like here where the nunnery would give food and accommodation.
When I joined the nunnery, I quickly learned that being a nun goes way beyond domestic work and simple prayer. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that it’s important for lay people, it’s important for nuns, and it’s important for monks to study. It’s not enough to have robes on and it’s not enough to accumulate mantras; you have to understand the meaning behind it. From this point of view, the motivation today is completely different from the original motivation because we all have an understanding of how to meditate on great compassion, on emptiness, on how to deal with these profound Dharma topics.
Ven. Phuntsok: In Tibet we have many nunneries, but those nunneries didn’t really have any study. They just stay there, read and talk. Then in autumn and spring, all the nuns go to their homes and help their parents. They are not really thinking about studying. In exile, one doesn’t have time to go home because we have something to do day to day, something to learn, upcoming exams. Nowadays in Tibet some of the nuns have studied and are involved in philosophy, so I can see it has very much changed.
Arya: You’ll both be completing geshe studies with the geshe exams soon, which will make you among the first Tibetan and Nepali nuns in history to receive this degree and become geshe-mas. What have been the biggest challenges in getting to this point?
Ven. Gyalmo: Since we are among the first nuns to be getting this degree, there was nobody for us to look up to. Because there were no geshe-ma role models, it has been difficult to get our motivation straight and steady and persevere.
Ven. Phuntsok: We also didn’t have any encouragement to become geshes. Monks inside institutions like Sera and Drepung obviously study very strongly, because after some years they will take the exam for the Geshe degree. We studied, but didn’t feel that we would get that same opportunity. Maybe we can say that this was one obstacle we faced.
There was quite a lot of talk in India and Nepal about giving the Geshe-ma degree, but for a long time it was just words. In 2012, however, the Sikyong of Tibet, Lobsang Sangay, expressed his strong support for the idea. So that was important. Also we had support from high lamas such as the Ganden Tripa and the Jangtse Chöje – two very great lamas – and His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well. Now we feel very encouraged to take the exam.
Arya: How do you feel that your new role as geshe-ma will influence your life and the lives of others in the nunnery and also in Buddhist society?
Ven. Phuntsok: It is not entirely sure that we will earn our Geshe degrees. But if we get the degree, we will be in a role in which we take on some responsibilities. We will offer beneficial service like teaching or sharing the essence of the Buddhadharma and encouraging its practice here in Nepal or in other countries. Or if we stay in the nunnery, we will teach other young nuns what we know. Whether we become geshes or not, we still have responsibilities that aren’t so different, because as a nun, we spend quite a long time studying the Buddhadharma. So regardless, we have something special to do – to share, discuss, develop, establish and teach Dharma in Western countries in the centers of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and in India and Nepal, maybe even in Tibet. Whether we are geshes or nuns, we are all Buddhist, and it’s a big job.
Also, women now have a lot of faith. Many are interested in Dharma and want to study and practice. This is why we have nuns and it’s important and special to teach them as well.
Ven. Gyalmo: So there are four years of exams that have to be taken, and I cannot say that we are going to make it. If I do master these exams, first of all, I will be happy to realize all the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and of Khensur Rinpoche. Whatever they see to be the most important thing for me to do, I am happy to follow their advice. On the other hand, where I’m from in Nepal, there are many people who don’t know the real meaning of Dharma. There are geshes going to Tsum to teach, and I would very much like to help and encourage this development. And also encourage nuns and share the fundamental meaning of Dharma with them. I see a chance to do this, if I get the Geshe degree.
Arya: How important do you feel the actual title, “geshe,” “geshe-ma,” is now? How beneficial is it and why is it beneficial to have the title, do you feel?
Ven. Gyalmo: So as you said, “geshe” is a title, and I don’t see the big importance of titles. We should also recognize that titles can be used in good and bad ways. But from another perspective, the geshe title is helpful because it encourages you and gives you more enthusiasm, motivation and courage for study because it’s something to accomplish. So if the title is used in the right way, it can be of benefit.
Ven. Phuntosk: I think it makes a difference if you have the degree. When one person has very good knowledge, but no degree, the person won’t be accepted necessarily as a teacher. If we have a geshe degree, we can do more and be of more benefit to other beings. The Geshe degree is very different from other degrees, like an English degree or other wordly degrees. I feel it is very great and very beneficial degree.
Arya: The last question is, as future geshe-mas or just teachers, what do you feel is the most important human value to be cultivated within the nunnery and also in modern education and society as a whole?
Ven. Gyalmo: A person who holds a Geshe degree knows something, right? So that knowledge should be shared and taught with a very kind and peaceful mind in a way that is in accordance with the customs of the culture. If I stay in Nepal, I’ll teach and share keeping in mind the culture and style of the Nepali people. In a Western country, you have another style. In Tibet, there is another style. In Tibet, if you are very friendly and open, they don’t think that is very good. So there are different styles and different traditions in every country, and we have to adapt to them when teaching.
If we become geshes in the future, which is not a certainty, I think one main point is the connection we make between study and practice. We study in order to raise the quality of and optimize our practice of Buddhadharma. So it will be important for us to transmit, explain and share the understanding of Dharma with others.
Complementary to this, the importance of completing the Geshe degree – of being pioneers – is that we demonstrate that it is possible. It is important to study for all the nuns, and for everyone, to show that an aim like this is achievable; it benefits society in a wider sense. It is also important to have the feeling that we achieved what our teachers, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and His Holiness, wanted for us; we really are accomplishing their wishes. The achievement of the Geshe-ma degree and having a program of profound philosophical studies for nuns is one of the most important achievements of His Holiness in his lifetime. It is perceived like this.
Arya: So is there anything else that you would like to add?
Ven. Tsomo [interpreter]: Can I ask one question?
Ven. Tsomo: Traditionally in Tibetan society in the past, and in our Gelug tradition especially, it was taught that we have to do a long period of study, and then when we have finished all the studies, we do rituals, and then when we finished the studies of rituals, then retreat. But these days, very few monks and nuns do 25 years of studies, and then three or four years of rituals, and then three, nine or ten years of retreat. However, Lama Zopa Rinpoche always says, if you don’t do retreat, nothing happens. There is no realization without retreat. So my question is how do you see retreat? Is it coming for you, or is there no time?
Ven. Phuntsok: Most of the monks and nuns that we can see now are doing some months of retreat and some months teaching. They are going the middle way. Without any retreat, without focused thinking about bodhichitta mind or emptiness, we don’t gain full enlightenment. But in this life, it is very difficult to get full enlightenment. So I think: two hands – helping others and doing meditation. Some months we can do meditation and some months we can teach others, and maybe one month, go for teachings, like from His Holiness, which is very rare and a very important opportunity for us.
Ven. Gyalmo: In my opinion, it’s not necessary to stay a long time in retreat and to isolate oneself from the everyday life in order to help other sentient beings in a profound and effective way. I think being together with people and explaining Dharma out of personal experience as Lama Zopa Rinpoche says is the most beneficial thing that can happen. If we take the example of Khensur Rinpoche, our late abbot, until he passed away, he was always in action. He was always working for the benefit of others without retiring that much in retreat. So it is not a question about meditating, it is more of a question about experiences and integrating the Buddhadharma into everyday life and studies and so forth.
Arya: Is there anything else you want to add?
Ven. Phuntsok: I want to say that if I get the Geshe degree, I will feel very grateful and it will be due to the kindness of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Khensur Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup. I many, many times remember their kindness and support, and I think, I can do this.
Stephen Batchelor, former monk in both the Zen and Tibetan traditions, now lectures and leads retreats worldwide. His books include Buddhism without Beliefs, Alone With Others and The Awakening of the West. He spoke to Nancy Patton.
For me the Buddhist tradition is founded in one of the longest living human institutions – the bhikshu [monks] and the bhikshuni [nuns] of the Buddha. This is an institution that provides a framework of training that has managed to survive throughout an enormously diverse range of cultures.
My time as a monk was effectively when I received all my intellectual and contemplative training. It is a well-tested framework. One might argue that some of the minor vows are anachronistic, dating back to 500 C.E. India, and they haven’t been updated to contemporary circumstances, but to me that’s a fairly minor issue….
Former FPMT executive director Massimo Corona talks to Ribur Rinpoche about monasticism in the West and how to maintain Buddhist monastic vows for the long-term.
From Mandala September-November 2001.
The great yogi, Ribur Rinpoche, (Mandala June 2001) was in Taos, New Mexico, recently for week-long teachings and public talks. Massimo Corona, executive director of FPMT, Inc., took the opportunity to ask him how Westerners who take robes can retain their vows for a lifetime. Even after 15 or 20 years, many Westerners give up being monks and nuns. Some cite lack of community support as the reason; others say it is the difficulty of keeping all the vows. Ribur Rinpoche gives some of the answers through his translator, Fabrizio Pallotti.
The very first thing that is needed [before even considering ordination] is to have the mind subdued by the force of the lam-rim practice. What makes the difference between those who stay and those who leave is whether or not the person has been successful in subduing his or her mind. If the mind is not subdued, after a while it gets overwhelmed with delusions and on the basis of that people disrobe.
The transformation of abandoning the household life and entering into the perfect conduct (rabjung) is based on the force of renunciation; and that can only come about with lam-rim practice. So the mistake is not relying enough on lam-rim practice.
When I was in Italy a few years ago, I noticed many Western monks and nuns were very scattered in the ten directions. They wander here and there from center to center and there didn’t seem to be a really stable establishment, a monastery or nunnery for them to feel at home in, and to be able to stay there…
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In my mind, one of the beauties of Buddhism is that it offers us a practical training for our mind. It does not say, ‘Bodhicitta is fantastic because Buddha said so!’ Instead, it gives us the methods for developing such an attitude and we can then see for ourselves whether it works or not, whether it is fantastic or not.
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