Arts&Culture :Lighting the way

by Aree Chaisatien

A Western bhikkhuni is spearheading the first international congress on the ordination of women in Buddhism

Grey-robed bhikshunis are a common sight these days in China, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam. We also see the saffron and red of bhikshunis in the Tibetan tradition, and their equivalents, bhikkhunis, in the Theravada traditions.

Yet the opportunity for full ordination isn't yet available to women in Tibet and most other countries following the Theravada tradition, including Thailand.

Clad in the saffron and red of the Tibetan tradition, Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen's smiling face shines like a beacon. "Jampa means metta, or loving kindness, in Tibetan, while Tsedroen means the 'lamp of life'," explained the German-born female monk and UN Outstanding Women in Buddhism award winner, who was in Bangkok last month.

There are today three living traditions of the Buddhist monastic code, the Vinaya, according to Bhikshuni Jampa: the Dharmaguptakas practised in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Buddhism; the Theravada found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia; and the Mulasarvastivadin practised in Tibet.

"There aren't many big differences in the three traditions. We need to understand that we are all disciples of the Buddha," explained Jampa, who was ordained in the Dharmaguptaka tradition but now practises the Mulasaravastivadin Vinaya.

"I first wore the Chinese grey cloth before changing permanently to this Tibetan robe."

Born in 1959 in Holzminden, Germany, Jampa began life as Carola Roloff - raised in a Protestant family and active in a local Christian youth group. At the age of 18 she started to question the meaning of life after a member of a friend's family committed suicide.

Her main question was: "Where does suffering come from?"

"Suffering can't come from God, as God is the Creator of all that is good. I couldn't get any satisfactory answers from Christian ministers," she recalled.

Then at the age of 21, she found answers in the Buddhist philosophy and started studying the Tibetan language. A year later, in 1981, she was preliminarily ordained at the Tibetan Centre in Hamburg under her teacher, the Venerable Geshe Thubten Ngawang, and became one of the first Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Germany.

In 1985 she followed her teacher to Taiwan, where she took full ordination in the Dharmagupta lineage at Miao-tung monastery in Kaohisung. After a month there she returned to Hamburg, where she assisted her teacher on the Tibetan-language course for German Buddhists and enthusiasts, and served as manager of the Tibetan Centre for five years.

There is an ancient bhikkhuni tradition reaching back to Bhikkhuni Mahapajapatti, who was ordained by the Buddha himself, and existing in India up to the 11th century BE. In the third century the lineage was transmitted from India to Sri Lanka by King Asoka's daughter, the famous Bhikkhuni Sangamitta. In the 5th century a group of bhikkhunis travelled to Nanking, China, where they assisted Dharmaguptaka monks in ordaining Chinese women and re-ordaining nuns. It was said that prior to the bhikkhunis' arrival, nuns in China had been ordained by bhikkhus only.

"But we don't know why the bhikkhuni lineage failed to reach Tibet," said Jampa.

The re-establishment of ordination for bhikkhunis was met by mixed opinions from Tibetan monks, according to Jampa. "Some accept bhikkhunis ordained in the Dharmagupta tradition, like the Venerable Tenzin Palmo and me. Some think it's okay to have Mulasarvastidin bhikkhunis together with bhikkhunis from the Dharmagupta lineage who have been ordained for 12 years. Others believe that those ordained in the Mulasarvastivadin tradition alone qualify for true lineage status.

"We are considering each of these three options, and hopefully we can find a world-wide consensus at the international congress."

Instrumental in the bhikkhuni movement in Tibetan Buddhism, Jampa has been busy planning the first International Congress on the Role of Buddhist Women in the Sangha, to be held in July in Hamburg. The congress will be attended by speakers from around the world, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who will speak on July 20.

The spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism has given his full support to reviving the bhikkhuni precepts, and donated 50,000 Swiss francs (Bt1.3 million) as a pilot fund towards the goal. "He suggested that Western nuns take the lead in exploring ways of consulting with Buddhist leaders in majority-Buddhist Asian countries," said Jampa.

"But His Holiness said he was not the Buddha and therefore couldn't make the decision alone, and recommended dialogue. Hence, the congress."

Looking at things from a Western point of view, the main question for Jampa is not whether we can or should have bhikkhunis in all three traditions, because this has already been answered by the Buddha himself, who gave full support for the women's Sangha.

"The real question is, how can we develop the existing bhikkhuni Sangha in the best possible way?"

The crucial point is the spiritual issue, not the legal ones, stressed Jampa, who was in Thailand to extend an invitation to the congress to leading monks and nuns of all traditions as well as Buddhist scholars, including the Venerable Bhikkhuni Dhammananda and Prof Peter Skilling.

"We need to ask ourselves 'what would the Buddha say today?'". For peace to exist between the different cultures of the world, concluded Jampa, it's important that the world's leading religions have both strong role models and respect for each other. "Religious and cultural traditions have a strong influence upon women's social status. Women need female role models."

Published in "The Nation", 04/01/07

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