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Tibetans coming to terms with women Buddhist masters

April 14, 2009

Article forwarded over from Dwan at Budding Buddhist Blog, which for those that follow her blog, has just moved to http://walkingtowardrefuge.wordpress.com/. Thanks Dwan!

From Sindh Today

The 800-year-old Tibetan Drukpa lineage of Buddhism – based in Nepal and practised in Bhutan and India – is empowering women, reviving the ancient tradition of women masters and monks that the Buddha encouraged.

Its head, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, has set a precedent by giving the order to its first ever woman master.

“In Tibetan Buddhism, we have no tradition of ‘bikshunis’ or women monks who practise the rigours of the faith and become masters on a par with men. But Buddhism is a very modern religion,” the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, who was born in Himachal Pradesh, told IANS in the Nepal capital.

“Buddha Sakyamuni (Gautam Buddha) treated his disciples equally, irrespective of gender.

“We are bringing the liberal gender order of Sakyamuni back despite protests by some Tibetan Buddhists that it is not right,” said the spiritual leader.

In March 2008, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa enthroned a London-born Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo, recognising her as Jetsunma or “his venerable holiness” for her spiritual achievements.

She came to India in 1964 to study Buddhism. There she met her guru, the Kyabje Khamtrul Rinpoche, and became one of the first European-born women to be ordained a nun. Palmo now heads the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery in Himachal Pradesh.

“I am very proud of Tenzin Palmo and I am encouraging her to bestow on us her lineage so that we can work together to bring the tradition back,” the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa said.

He lamented that the Buddhist sects over the past few hundred years had ceased to allow women the freedom to speak on anything fearing that it would bequeath them power.

“I don’t blame anyone. The male-dominated culture of our folds had made the masters conservative, which include the Dalai Lama and I. But connecting to people is good and beautiful and is in no way below dignity,” he said.

The Drukpa nuns most often cannot be distinguished from their male counterparts in terms of their attire and religious practices, he said. Both have shaven heads and are clad in burgundy and saffron habits.

A high profile woman member of the Drukpa women’s wing is 20-year-old erstwhile Chinese princess Jigme Cheneing Khandro from Nancheng province in China. She gave up her life of luxury to become a nun at the age of 12. It is an uncanny throwback to the life of Gautama Buddha himself.

But she protests with a nervous laugh. “Please don’t compare my life with that of Sakyamuni,” she said here.

The 40th in the 200-year-old line of royal scions, Jigme wants to help people in this life and get enlightened gradually. “It may not happen in this life,” she said.

Her day at the monastery begins at 3 a.m. “I pray for two hours from 3 a.m.-5 a.m. and then recite the ’sutras’ (mantras). It is followed by activities throughout the day till sundown,” Jigme Cheneing said.

The Gyalwang Drukpa encourages the nuns to serve his order “and work in the office”.

“I often tell them to drive cars to bring bring them on the same level with men. Last year, I invited the nuns to perform the traditional masked dance at my monastery in Ladakh.

“Everyone was shocked at the idea of women dancing with masks. But I said I was breaking boundaries – they are all man made – Chinese made, Tibetan made and Indian made…,” the Buddhist master said.

The India-born Drukpa head has nearly 400 women nuns in his lineage. One of the managers at the nunnery at the Drukpa headquarters in Kathmandu is a former woman police officer from Jammu and Kashmir, Jigme Thupsten.

The Tibetan Drukpa lineage – or the order of the dragon yogis – which has come out in the open for the first time in 800 years – is hosting its maiden Annual Drukpa Council atop the hills on the outskirts of this city April 8-16.

Over 2,000 monks and high-profile devotees have assembled from across the globe to hear the Drukpa master’s discourse on religion and chart plans of action to carry the religion worldwide.

India figures prominently on the list, the Gyalwang Drukpa said.

The sect, an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism which believes in service and welfare of humanity, has nearly 250,000 followers worldwide. It is the official religion of Bhutan and has a large following in the Ladakh, Spiti, Lahaul and Zanskar regions in Himachal Pradesh and in Nepal.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. diane permalink
    April 30, 2009 8:48 am

    I am interested in how Tibetan immigrants to the u.s. practice, and maintain their religious and cultural practices in the diaspora. Does anyone have information about this? I would love to hear from Tibetan practitioners.

  2. edamommy permalink
    April 16, 2009 3:52 pm

    Olivia – thanks for the link – this series really looks like something to see!

  3. edamommy permalink
    April 15, 2009 3:35 pm

    Oh, wow – thanks for the mention! ^_^

  4. April 15, 2009 10:44 am

    What a great entry, thank you for showing some attention to this. I am always interested in the way that women are seen in/contribute to Buddhism. For more on the women of Tibet I recommend the Women of Tibet film project, a series of documentaries about the experiences of and contributions by women in Tibetan culture, religion, society, and exile.

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