Venerable Karuna Dharma discusses gender equality in Buddhism and her pioneering role in the rebirth of of female ordination.
With some trepidation I said to him, “Bhante, there’s one little problem. My students think that since I’m their teacher, I should ordain them, but I know that I cannot ordain men.” He said, “Let me think about this.” After a few minutes he said, “My job as the Upajjhaya is to make sure that whoever leads the ordination is qualified to do it. And I want you to lead it.” I thought about it that night, and when I came down the next morning I said, “Suto, I’m very honored that you appointed me to be the ordaining master, but I don’t think I should do it alone. Let us share the job.” And he said, “That’s a wonderful idea.”
So we sat down to do the program for the ordination and we broke it in half. Instead of having three main ordaining masters, we had six: three men and three women. We had twenty more masters sitting up on the dais—ten men and ten women—and we also had another twenty or so who came along as witness masters.
You told me that Dr. Thien-An started the tradition of inviting all the different traditions to ordinations, and that mindset is why he named the center he founded the International Buddhist Meditation Center. Dr. Thien-An said, “You are an American, and this is going to be Buddhism in America. We should not limit the ordination to our particular school.” In fact, there weren’t very many Vietnamese around at that time anyway. He said, “I’m going to invite masters from all the different Buddhist traditions.” So he did, and they all came to the ordination ceremony. And I’ve carried on that same tradition because I think it is a very excellent way to do it. As Suto said, “We are not ordaining people into a particular Vinaya [set of rules and regulations for the communal life of monks and nuns]. We are not ordaining them into a particular school of Buddhism. We are ordaining them as monks and nuns, period.”
Is that because it was Buddhism in America, where all traditions are represented, unlike Asian countries that each have a specific tradition? Not only that, but also because that is the way it was in the beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha. There was no such thing as denominations in Shakyamuni’s time.
How does it work exactly? Because even though there were many traditions represented on the dais, you’re my teacher and you come out of the Vietnamese lineage, and when people ask me, I say that is my lineage. When I ordain people they put on the robe of their own school. So if you are a Tibetan you put on the Tibetan robes, if you are Vietnamese you put on those robes, if you are Theravada you put on the Theravada robes. That is why our ordination ceremony looks very different from others’.
Before the ceremony in 2004, I sent out a package to each candidate with information and an agreement. In order for her to come to the ceremony she had to write to her teacher and have her teacher sign the agreement that she was ready to be ordained and also that he would look out for her for at least five years afterward. Because for the first five years you are not free to just go and do whatever you want. According to the Vinaya, you have to be under the tutelage of your master. The masters all signed that agreement. We kept it fairly straightforward and strict that way.
After getting their agreement signed and traveling to L.A., all of the women had to stay at IBMC for at least two weeks ahead of time for the traditional ordination training. We had women who came in from Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Australia, and both coasts of Canada. A lot of women came and most, but not all, were Tibetans. There were a few Theravada women who became ordained. We ordained twenty women in all.