Venerable Karuna Dharma discusses gender equality in Buddhism and her pioneering role in the rebirth of of female ordination.
In 1976, Venerable Karuna Dharma was the first woman to become a fully ordained member of the Buddhist monastic community in the U.S. She has continued to break new Buddhist ground by orchestrating three Grand Ordination ceremonies since 1994 for women of all Buddhist traditions. Close to fifty women have become fully ordained nuns, or bhikkhunis, in these ceremonies.
Ven. Karuna was born Joyce Adele Pettingill in 1940 to active Baptist parents in Beloit, Wisconsin. In 1969 she signed up for a class in Buddhism, where she met her Vietnamese Zen master, Venerable Dr. Thich Thien-An. She helped him found the International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBMC) in Los Angeles in 1970 and became the abbess there after his death in 1980. A recognized Buddhist scholar, Ven. Karuna is a past president of the American Buddhist Congress and current vice president of the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California and the College of Buddhist Studies.
In 1994 she suffered a serious stroke, but she regained speech and mobility that same year and managed to organize the first of three Grand Ordinations that included three major Buddhist schools: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. For each ordination she reached out to sramanerikas (novice nuns) who wanted to become bhikkhunis. Women came from all over the world to be ordained by her. This was a giant step on behalf of women in Buddhism, especially considering that in some Theravada countries, like Thailand, a nun can be arrested for wearing the robes of a bhikkhuni.
Ven. Karuna’s ordination work has been most significant for women in the Tibetan tradition who are denied full ordination in their own temples. While the Buddha ordained both men and women and the bhikkhuni lineage continued after him in Mahayana countries like Vietnam, China, and Korea, it died out in Theravada countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka, and never entered Tibet. Traditionally, ten bhikkhunis are required to ordain novice nuns. As of now—without ten bhikkhunis in any Tibetan temple—their teachers can bestow only the purple robes of a novice nun, and the students remain novices for the rest of their lives.
The First International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha will be held in Germany, at the University of Hamburg, in July 2007, and will feature Ven. Karuna as a speaker. The symposium hopes to conclude the long ongoing debate about reestablishing the bhikkhuni order around the world. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama will be participating in the conference and has publicly stated his support of the recognition of Buddhist nuns.
Ven. Karuna has been my teacher since 1991, and I took the vows of a Dharma Teacher in her order in 2004. This summer—after lunch at my apartment in Playa del Rey, California—we spoke about the legacy of the bhikkhuni order, the changing role of women in Buddhism, and the effects of those changes on the longstanding Buddhist patriarchy. Ven. Karuna has always had a very no-nonsense approach. In true Zen style she always says what she thinks, and this day was no exception.
You were the first woman to be ordained in the U.S., but weren’t there other bhikkhunis here at the time? There were very few bhikkhunis at that time. In fact, there were no other bhikkhunis at my ordination. I was not only the very first American woman to be fully ordained in the States, but also the very first woman to become a bhikkhuni here. Before that time you had to go off to Taiwan or Hong Kong or some place like that to get ordination.
Did you see it as a momentous event for women in Buddhism? It didn’t seem particularly important to me at that time. I didn’t think of it as a big groundbreaking thing. I just knew that somehow I had to become a bhikkhuni. I can’t explain it. Just something inside me said I had to become ordained.
You have been very involved since then with organizing grand ordination ceremonies that include women. How did these events come to be? In 1994 I had some male students who were ready to become bhikkhus. Venerable Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara was in the college [of Buddhist Studies] office. I went down to see him and I said, “Bhante, I have some students and it’s time for them to become bhikkhus. Would you be willing to be our Upajjhaya?” Upajjhaya means the main ordaining master. And he said, “Karuna, I would be honored to be the Upajjhaya!”