Reflections on Nuns' Conference

By Sister Annabel Laity A retreat seminar, "The Future of a Bhiksuni Order in the West," held June 25-30,1995, was the first time we as nuns in Plum Village had organized anything like that, and it was truly an experiment. The attendance was quite low—30 visiting guests and about 50 residents of Plum Village. Among our visiting guests there were nuns from the Theravada, the Japanese Soto (Serene Reflection), Tibetan, and Catholic traditions. The number of laypeople who attended the conference far outnumbered the visiting nuns.

The majority of visiting nuns were in a tradition which does  not have the bhiksuni order, and we learned that their main concern was not so much reviving the bhiksuni order in their tradition but in making nuns a strong, respected, and equal part of their Buddhist monastic community. Although for some people it seems that true equality between monks and nuns can best be achieved when nuns can receive their equivalent to the bhiksu ordination, some of our Theravadin sisters have in fact gone quite far in achieving equality with the bhiksus. For instance, they travel and give teachings in many places, and they are responsible for teaching the new novices in their own monastery. To call these elder sisters novices therefore is just a technicality. It is simply because their tradition does not allow them to take any ordination higher than the novice ordination that they are still novices. Because of their level of study and practice, if they had been in our tradition they would have received the bhiksuni precepts long ago. Therefore they should sit, not with the ten-precept novices, but with the bhiksunis. We also felt that Christian nuns who visit us should sit with the bhiksunis according to their year of ordination. It seemed strange to separate ourselves according to religion when our spiritual aspirations are so close.1

Most of us who are familiar with the bhiksuni vinaya felt that a great deal of work needs to be done in this area. This work would not probably in the first instance involve re vising or changing the actual words of the precepts. What we would update would be the commentary. Of course, first of all the original commentaries need to be translated into English, both from Tibetan and Chinese, or Chinese via Vietnamese. Just as the Buddha during his lifetime revised the precepts constantly when the need arose, we can write on the various needs which arise in our own times. For instance, in the Buddha's time it was not allowed to ordain a monk or a nun whose sight or hearing was impaired, or who suffered from any permanent physical disability. In our own time we have hearing aids, braille and wheelchairs, which make the disabled person very independent. In light of this, the commentary could advise bhiksus and bhiksunis that when the disabled person is properly equipped we can show compassion and allow her to receive the full ordination. We also decided that no one person alone can work on the bhiksuni vinaya, as it needs the close cooperation of several nuns from different traditions.

We who have become bhiksunis are inclined to assume that every nun wants to become a bhiksuni. But even in our own Vietnamese tradition there are some nuns who prefer to remain novices all their life. We have to be sensitive to the fact that not being a bhiksuni is not an impossible limitation. However, in all of us deep down there is a wish for men and women to be equally able to receive the ordination which allows them to ordain others. The Theravadin tradition is not inferior because it has no bhiksuni ordination, but from time to time there are nuns in this tradition or in the Japanese tradition who, because they so want the ordination that the Buddha gave to nuns, are forced to leave their tradition just to receive the bhiksuni ordination. Once they have received it they are not welcomed back or recognized by their own fellow practitioners as bhiksunis.

Another important issue was that of our religious and cultural roots. Western Buddhist and Catholic participants felt close to each other because we shared cultural roots. When Western women become Buddhist nuns in an Asian tradition there is a danger that they will repress the emotional side of their character which is normally expressed in cultural and ritual practices and ceremonies. A Buddhist nuns' order in the West needs to allow room for the development of all aspects of human nature, not just social service and intellectual pursuits. The true love which monks and nuns aspire to practice is not service alone nor is it just understanding. Although love necessarily has a basis of understanding, love is also an emotion.

When nuns visit our practice center they are often stable in the practice to which they have committed themselves. When laypeople visit, it is often because they want to find a practice to which they can connect. So our way of orienting nuns and laypeople into ourpractice should be different. When we orient nuns into our way of practice it is so they know what we are doing and they can join and feel part of the community for the time being. We should introduce our orientation to nuns by making it clear that we appreciate their commitment to their practice and by asking if we can do anything to help them observe that commitment while they are with us, and only then do we tell them about the practice that we do. Sometimes a nun is away from her practice center for the first time, and if her own practice is not fully realized she will feel very strange having to step into another way of practice.

Although we only spent five days together, I learned so much from my sisters in other traditions. I know that the way ahead for the future is not to make one school only, but to allow the different traditions to continue with the variety of practices which were developed by the Buddha and after the Buddha. There is an important proviso that we visit each other and practice with each other regularly in order to have a more complete picture of the teachings of Buddha. Those of us who have become Buddhist nuns but have Christian roots need also to be in contact with our Christian sisters, to visit them and to practice with them. This is the only way we can offer an integral teaching to those who come to our own center and ask for teaching. Perhaps before we visit the nunneries of other traditions we need stability and confidence in our own meditation so that we have the basis to absorb the riches of other traditions without being dispersed by them. We may feel that the transmission we have from our teacher is the best transmission anybody could have, but that is because it is the best transmission for us. It does not mean it is the best for others.

The interaction between nuns and lay women was very rich. We decided that laypeople should make their needs and demands known to the monks and nuns, but these requests should not be based on a rigid adherence to the status quo. Laypeople should not expect monks and nuns to uphold tradition for the sake of tradition. We uphold a tradition because it brings beauty and happiness into the lives of many beings. In the time of the Buddha, when laypeople observed that the practice of monks and nuns was not conducive to liberation and happiness, they would point this out. The observations of the laypeople were respected and acted upon. Today as monks and nuns we need the laypeople to practice alongside us so that we too can remain diligent in the practice. We need to be seen by the laypeople. We need to offer them the best of our practice, our wisdom, our mindfulness, and our happiness. But we have to offer the truth of our being. When a layperson prostrates to us it is not because we are completely happy and wise. We still have our weaknesses, sadness, and confusion. The laypeople should know that, and should also know that the reason they prostrate is because of their gratitude to the Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha, and the monks and nuns who are doing what they can to keep those teachings alive.

1 All this may seem rather strange to those of you who are not familiar with organization in the monastery. During any official gathering the monks and nuns always sit in an order of precedence. This does not have anything to do with the level of insight of the monks and nuns but depends entirely on what year they received their novice or bhiksuni ordination. When someone visits the monastery they usually take their place according to the same criterion.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is a Dharma teacher and the translator of Breathe! You Are Alive, Our Appointment with Life, and Transformation and Healing.


In the concluding Dharma talk of the Nuns' Conference at Plum Village, Thay presented three important aspects to consider in setting up a monastic community.

"The first aspect is the teaching: What kind of teaching is needed? Look deeply at the suffering of society and offer teaching that is appropriate for the suffering of that society. What kind of teaching can we  give to hungry ghosts, for instance, what kind of practice will help them and their society? 

"The second aspect is the organization of the religious order: How do you organize your practice center and relate to nuns and sisters in other countries? This also includes the relationship between teacher and student. The constitutional aspects of the organization of the order would here include the precepts and the vinaya. We must consider, for instance, whether it is possible to practice the precepts as in the time of the Buddha ? What is our relationship with the bhiksu Sangha of monks?

"The third aspect is the financial aspect: How will our community survive financially—by donations from the lay community? The original Asian forms may not 'be appropriate. The question is, how to take the plant  from the pot and put it in local soil and have it grow? We have to rely on the lay community. It is a very good relationship and very essential. It was so in the Buddha's time. The monks practiced walking and eating meditation and the lay community was inspired by seeing those practices. In Vietnam, temples make soy sauce for some financial independence. Freedom is needed from the conservative elements in the lay supporters.

"The purpose of this nuns' conference was to sow these seeds. In the next conference, we have to go more deeply into these three aspects—the teachings, the organization, and the financial means of sustaining the community. After one or two years, we will have many insights and we can come together again and enrich each other.

"The Bodhi tree has to bring forth new vitality. The  same is true with Christianity. When you stop the revolution, the tree loses its vitality."

—from Sister Eleni's report of the Plum Village Nuns' Conference, June 1995

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