Daughters of the Buddha

Venerable Karuna Dharma discusses gender equality in Buddhism and her pioneering role in the rebirth of of female ordination.

Why is it important to have bhikkhunis? The same reason it is important to have bhikkhus [male monastics]. The sangha [community of monks and nuns] protects the dharma, they carry on the traditions. If no one would fully ordain, who would do the teaching or carry on the traditions? You never ordain to get more enlightenment—you have to do the practice to become enlightened. A layperson can become enlightened as well as a monk.

In addition to the traditional bhikkhuni ordination, which requires 348 vows to be taken, you gave out Dharma Teacher ordination, requiring just 25 vows, to both male and female students. I know Dr. Thien-An started this revolutionary practice. Would you talk a little about it? It is revolutionary. Dr. Thien-An had lived in Japan for seven years, and he fell in love with Japanese culture. Almost all monks in Japan are married. They do not take the traditional vows of a bhikkhu. They take 25 special vows of Zen priests. That’s what you and your dharma brothers took in 2004 instead of the 250 for the bhikkhus and the 348 for the bhikkhunis. “Dharma Teacher” to me is equivalent to “bhikkhu” or “bhikkhuni.” They’re not laypeople, because they received the same training as the bhikkhus did.

Does it matter? Is there a loss to us in not taking 348 vows? It depends on what your goal is in being a monastic. If you want to be a true monastic, you should probably take the full 348. But if you want to be more like a missionary type, out there with the people, not living in a temple, it’s best that you take the 25.

Are the Dharma Teachers recognized in Buddhist circles worldwide? I have no idea if they are accepted worldwide. Some of my Sri Lankan friends say that we’ve added another level of ordination. But they accept when I tell them that I see Dharma Teachers as being on the same level as bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. That’s the way I look at it, and that’s the way Dr. Thien-An looked at it. I have no idea how everybody else looks at it.

Do you think Buddhist clergy in traditional Buddhist countries take American Buddhism seriously overall? I think they do. Many Asians when they first meet Americans have no idea of the Buddhism in America. They have no idea of the wonderful dharma work that’s being written in English. In some ways they think we don’t know Buddhism the way they know it, but when they begin to understand that we do know it the way they do, their attitudes change.

Tell me about the Buddhist conference you just attended. What’s the purpose of it? I went to the Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Approximately a thousand people attended, including about three hundred bhikkhunis from around the world. The rest were Buddhist laywomen. The conference is held every two years. It includes anything that has to do with Buddhist women and supporting them, but, of course, one of the major things that comes up every time is the bhikkhuni order, because it does not exist in every country.

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