Venerable Karuna Dharma discusses gender equality in Buddhism and her pioneering role in the rebirth of of female ordination.
Weren’t you involved in establishing this conference? Yes, I went to the first in 1987, which was held in Bodh Gaya, India. When I got the notification that they were holding it, I thought it was more important to attend than the World Fellowship of Buddhists, because there had never been a conference for Buddhist women before. On the very last day of the conference we were thinking maybe we should make this a more permanent thing. We voted on the name Sakyadhita because it means “daughters of the Buddha.” The Tibetan nun Karma Lekshe Tsomo and I were elected the co-presidents at that time.
What was important about bringing Buddhist women together? First of all, it really opened the eyes of the Tibetan women, because they had no idea that Western women were being ordained as bhikkhunis and there were so many of us Westerners at that particular conference. The Tibetans became very jazzed up, I suppose you could say, by seeing these American women bhikkhunis who took control of their lives. The Tibetan women had never seen anything like that. There are still no bhikkhunis in the Tibetan order. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was there and gave a talk. He was very supportive of the women, and a lot of Tibetan nuns came with him. The conference was held in two languages that year, English and Tibetan.
Which topics were on the agenda at that first conference? The first time we were not so much focused on the bhikkhuni order but rather on how Buddhist women could raise themselves up, because in a lot of the countries Buddhist women still have a very minor role.
The first conference was also the very first time the bhikkhunis there were able to chant the Pratimoksha [the bhikkhuni vows]. It is supposed to be done by every bhikkhu and every bhikkhuni twice a month on half-moon and full-moon days. According to the Vinaya, you have to have at least four members to be able to chant it together, so it was the very first time I’d ever chanted it.
The person who leads it is supposed to be the oldest, so it got left to me to lead the chanting. It begins with the first eight vows. If you break one of these vows, you are automatically expelled from the sangha. I’d chant the first vow and say, “has anybody broken this vow?” and if they hadn’t, they’d remain silent. Every vow of the 348 is mentioned specifically and repeated three times. It took us three hours to get through the whole thing, and I was chanting as fast as I could!
It was a really wonderful experience, that all of these bhikkhunis from all over Europe, Asia, and the U.S. were chanting together. But none of the Tibetan nuns could be included, because none of them had become bhikkhunis.
How has the role of Buddhist women changed from the time of this conference or even from the time you were ordained? Now that you’re thirty-five years in, is it the same? In America, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are going to be totally equal to each other. At the Soto Zen monastery up at Mount Shasta, two-thirds are women and one-third are men. They call everybody a monk, regardless of what sex they are, and they wear the same robes and they do the same work if they are able.
Thich Nu An Tu is my transmission name, and Dr. Thien-An always wanted me to say Thich Nu, because the “Nu” part after Thich indicates that it’s a female name. I said, “Dr. Thien-An, why do you do that?” He said, “because if I don’t, then nobody will know that you’re a woman!” I didn’t understand at that time what he meant. But now I realize that he was very proud of his women and he wanted people to know that these are bhikkhunis, not just bhikkhus. These are bhikkhunis!