Judith Hertog profiles the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, which has been leading the way for gender equality in Buddhism for more than thirty years.
At age thirty-eight, Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo felt ready to take full ordination as a Buddhist nun. Five years had passed since she had taken her novice vows in 1977, and it had been almost a decade since she had moved to Dharamsala to study Buddhism. Yet, as she prepared for the next step, she realized that the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition does not offer full ordination for women. Women monastics are limited to being novice nuns—until recently, occupied with chanting and manual work instead of having opportunities to pursue religious studies.
As a teenager growing up in California in the 1950s, Karma Lekshe (then named Patricia Zenn) was drawn to Buddhism. But she discovered that Buddhism as it was traditionally practiced in Asia did not always conform to the ideals that had attracted her to Buddhism in the first place. The books and scriptures she had read suggested there were no gender distinctions when it came to the dharma, and she knew that the Buddha himself had established an order of nuns (bhikshunis). In contemporary Buddhism, however, men dominate the sangha while women generally play secondary roles, with less financial and institutional support than monks, few women in leadership positions, and limited educational opportunities. Until the 1980s, many Tibetan nuns had never even learned how to write. When Karma Lekshe studied Buddhist logic and philosophy at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, she was usually the only woman there.
Sakyadhita has been instrumental in advocating for the welfare of women in Buddhism, supporting their education, and publishing research on the role of women in the dharma.
The bhikshuni order that the Buddha himself established eventually died out in much of the Buddhist world, but it survived in East Asian Buddhist societies such as China, Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan. So in the fall of 1982, Karma Lekshe traveled to Korea to receive bhikshuni ordination from nuns there. This experience was the next significant step in her effort to advocate for a stronger role for women in Buddhism.
Karma Lekshe reached out to others, such as German nun Ayya Khema and Thai professor Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, who were also frustrated by the limitations women faced in Buddhism, and together they decided to organize a conference. In February 1987, Buddhists from all over the world, including over one hundred nuns and monks, arrived in Bodhgaya for the First International Conference on Buddhist Nuns. More than 1,500 people attended the opening ceremony and the Dalai Lama’s inaugural address, in which he spoke about the importance of women’s contributions in Buddhism and said he would welcome a bhikshuni lineage in the Tibetan tradition. During the final session of the conference, the decision was made to establish an international Buddhist association dedicated to encouraging a more active role for women in the dharma. The name chosen for this new association was Sakyadhita, meaning “daughters of the Buddha.” This was the beginning of a new Buddhist feminist movement. Every two years since 1987, each time in a different country, Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women has held a conference addressing the most pressing issues facing Buddhist women.
Over the past thirty-two years, Sakyadhita has grown into a well-respected organization with over two thousand members internationally. It has been instrumental in advocating for the welfare of women in Buddhism, supporting their education, and publishing research on the role of women in the dharma, both present-day and historical. It has also jump-started a movement to reintroduce full ordination for nuns in all Buddhist traditions.
The current president of Sakyadhita, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, is another trailblazer for women. In 1973 she traveled from India to Hong Kong to take ordination as a bhikshuni; in doing so, she became the second-ever fully ordained nun practicing Vajrayana Buddhism. The first woman was her friend Freda Bedi, who had ordained in Hong Kong one year earlier.
Born as Diane Perry in Britain, Tenzin Palmo became interested in Buddhism as a teenager and moved to India in 1963. Three months after her arrival she met her teacher, the Eighth Khamtrul Rinpoche, and she decided to take novice vows at the age of twenty-one. Ten years later she requested permission from Khamtrul Rinpoche to travel to Hong Kong to take ordination as a bhikshuni, since she could not do so in India.
Tenzin Palmo was not involved in the first years of Sakyadhita; during that time, she was in a cave in northern India, completing a twelve-year meditation retreat as part of her training to become a yogini in the togdenma lineage of the Kagyu tradition, a lost female yogini lineage tracing back to Milarepa. She has since established Dongyu Gatsal Ling, a nunnery for the training of the togdenma in Himachal Pradesh in India, where she lives alongside one hundred nuns.
The ordinations of Tenzin Palmo and Freda Bedi showed that with the help of Buddhist communities that had maintained a bhikshuni lineage, it was possible to revive nuns’ orders in places where they did not exist. After all, this is how Buddhism spread in the first place: in the fifth century CE, the Chinese bhikshuni lineage was established by nuns from Sri Lanka.
Even though conservative Buddhist institutions have tended to disapprove of ordinations carried out by clergy from different traditions, these ordinations have inspired a bhikshuni revival all over Asia. In 1996, with support from Sakyadhita, eleven Sri Lankan women took bhikshuni ordination with Mahayana nuns in Sarnath, India, reviving the nun’s order that had disappeared from Sri Lanka more than nine hundred years ago. The initiative was so successful that now there are more than two thousand fully ordained Sri Lankan nuns, who, in turn, have started ordaining bhikshunis from other Theravada countries.
Even in the Tibetan tradition, which never had a bhikshuni lineage as far as we know, a revolutionary shift has taken place. In 2017, the Seventeenth Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, initiated the process of establishing a bhikshuni order in the Tibetan Kagyu tradition. In an unprecedented move, he invited Taiwanese bhikshunis to Bodhgaya to confer novice vows to nineteen Tibetan women. In a few years, when these women have completed their training as novices, the Taiwanese nuns will presumably ordain them as bhikshunis.
Tenzin Palmo believes Sakyadhita has played an important role in showing Buddhist women what’s possible. “When they see hundreds of fully ordained nuns who are highly educated and disciplined,” says Tenzin Palmo, “they are quite in shock because they didn’t know such women existed.” By connecting Buddhist women from different traditions from all over the world, Sakyadhita helps them to broaden their vision, overcome obstacles, and realize new goals.
For Tenzin Palmo, the beauty of Sakyadhita is that it is totally nonsectarian and inspires Buddhists to look beyond the restrictions of gender or nationality to the essential Buddhist values they hold in common. “All these women from all over the world, from all these different traditions, come together and meet each other and recognize that underneath the differences in costume and language and ritual we are all just Buddhists,” she says.
The recent Sakyadhita conference in Australia, with the theme of “New Horizons in Buddhism,” explored what Buddhists, and Buddhist women in particular, have to offer the world in light of current global concerns. Dozens of internationally acclaimed female Buddhist teachers addressed issues such as racism, sexism, and sexual harassment, as well as practical methods to resolve conflicts and achieve peace and reconciliation. In contrast to previous years, discussions of sexual abuse and its prevention were featured in every sector of the conference, leading to the formation of the new Alliance for Buddhist Ethics to Eradicate Abuse in Buddhism.
“Buddhism is changing,” says Tenzin Palmo, “the lay population—both men and women—is now highly educated, and that changes their role in the dharma. They are no longer passive supporters but come with their own expectations.” She says that to stay relevant in a modern world, Buddhism has to repackage itself to make sure younger generations can recognize its extraordinary philosophy and practice.
Eun-Su Cho, a professor of Buddhism at Seoul National University and vice president of Sakyadhita, agrees that Buddhism must adapt to modern values. In Western countries, she says, Buddhism is popular because it is seen as a progressive alternative to established religions; Buddhism in Korea, meanwhile, is associated with repressive, conservative values, so it fails to appeal to younger, more progressive Koreans. “Many younger Korean women prefer Christianity,” she says, “because it teaches more equality than Buddhism.”
Cho attended her first Sakyadhita conference in 2002. “It was very empowering, and it completely changed my perspective,” she recalls. A lifelong Buddhist, raised in a Buddhist family, Cho had been studying Buddhism as an academic subject for years. But at the conference, she realized that despite this lifelong immersion, she actually knew very little about Buddhist traditions other than the one in which she had been raised. And while she was steeped in the academic study of scriptures and ancient Buddhist texts, she didn’t know much about the lived experience of Buddhists in societies outside Korea. “Hearing about real women’s problems and actual issues made me want to become an activist,” says Cho.
Cho’s research interest has since turned to the role of Buddhism in female empowerment in Korea. In a recent article, she looked at how Buddhism in previous centuries offered Korean women an escape from strict Confucian gender hierarchies. She has also edited a book celebrating the achievements of strong Korean Buddhist nuns and laywomen from past centuries whose stories have long been ignored. “There have been very brave, strong women who were Buddhist leaders and nuns,” says Cho, “but they just wouldn’t have called themselves ‘feminists.’”
According to Cho, women tend to be more active in Korea’s Buddhist temples than men. She remembers her own mother taking her for picnics at the temple grounds during weekends and says that these days the overwhelming majority of the audience members at most Buddhist teachings are women. But it’s still men who hold leadership positions.
Western Buddhist feminists, in Cho’s opinion, have been a welcome influence in Asia; as outsiders, these Western women have been able to challenge biases that women from traditional Buddhist societies couldn’t tackle alone. But Cho also notes that some East Asian nuns are not comfortable hearing Western women’s views about gender equality.
Some critics of the international Buddhist women’s movement have dismissed gender equality as an imposition of Western values on age-old Buddhist societies and argue that feminism doesn’t accord with Buddhist values. Karma Lekshe has encountered many Buddhists nuns who were told by their teachers that bhikshuni ordination was unnecessary and that Buddhists shouldn’t be concerned with social status. “But being ordained has nothing to do with status or getting some special privilege,” says Karma Lekshe. “We take bhikshuni ordination because it signifies a full-time commitment to Buddhist study and practice. If receiving full ordination is regarded as praiseworthy for men, why should it be considered self-cherishing or arrogant for women?”
It is difficult to change attitudes that for centuries have been rooted in practices and structures that favor male authority, especially if this sexism is enshrined in scripture.
Historically, Buddhist tradition itself seems conflicted about whether or not it is desirable to have female renunciates in the sangha. According to early scriptures, the Buddha agreed to establish a bhikshuni order only reluctantly, at the urging of Ananda; Ananda advocated on behalf of the Buddha’s aunt, Mahaprajapati Gotami, who was eager to become a nun. At the time, the Buddha confirmed that women are indeed as capable as men of attaining liberation. But according to the story, when he finally ordained his aunt, he warned that establishing a bhikshuni order would shorten the lifespan of the dharma in the world. The Buddha is also said to have imposed “eight heavy rules” (garudhamma) for Mahaprajapati, which have been used to subordinate nuns to monks. Among other things, these rules stipulate that nuns cannot admonish monks and that even the most senior bhikshuni must always bow to the most junior bhikshu.
It is difficult to change attitudes that for centuries have been rooted in practices and structures that favor male authority, especially if this sexism is enshrined in scripture. In this, of course, Buddhists are not alone. “In no religious tradition that I know of did women have equal status to men,” says Karma Lekshe, who is in close contact with feminists from other religious traditions, including Catholic nuns, orthodox Jewish women, Muslim women, Hindus, and others.
“In a way, Buddhists are in the best position,” she says. “At least, we already had fully ordained nuns from the very beginning, and we have a very clear statement from the Buddha himself confirming that women have equal potential for liberation.”
Scholars confirm that the position of women in early Buddhism started off strong. “If you look at inscriptions from the early period of Buddhism in India, you can see a thriving nun’s order,” says Reiko Ohnuma, a professor of Buddhism at Dartmouth College, who has been studying the role of women in early Buddhism. Nuns were significant donors to stupas and monastic complexes and may have had resources and status nearly equal to those of monks. According to Ohnuma, textual criticism has shown that the story of the founding of the nun’s order is clearly not historical. Early Buddhist scriptures were written down only centuries after the Buddha’s death, and it’s likely that the rules that subordinate nuns to monks were only later cobbled together by monks who felt threatened by competition from nuns. “It’s amazing,” says Ohnuma, “that women initially got so powerful at all.”
Karma Lekshe thinks it’s timely that women gain the equal status in the sangha that the Buddha intended for them. “If women were inferior and not worthy of ordination, the Buddha would not have ordained women,” she says.
Since its establishment more than three decades ago, Sakyadhita has made so much progress that it has had to revise its objectives; almost all its early goals have been accomplished. “Of all the goals that we set ourselves, I think the only one we haven’t achieved yet is to attain world peace through the teachings of the Buddha,” jokes Karma Lekshe. She lists the many improvements in the status of Buddhist women today: greater educational opportunities, more women teachers, improved opportunities for ordination, representation in public forums, increased women’s leadership, higher education for women in traditional Buddhist studies, and, finally, a new willingness to expose sexual abuse in the sangha and in Buddhist societies overall. Thanks to a surge of research on the role of women in Buddhism, much of it sponsored by Sakyadhita, we are also getting to know many strong Buddhist women from the past.
Many things that seemed impossible for women in Buddhism three decades ago have now become a reality, and this progress emboldens Sakyadhita’s sense of purpose. “When women achieve equal representation in Buddhism,” says Karma Lekshe, “Sakyadhita will continue to work for social justice. We will continue to nurture kind and wise women leaders to help eradicate sexism, racism, homophobia, and other social ills.” Today, women in robes are creating currents of social transformation in Buddhist societies, with ripples expanding across the globe.