Webinar transcript -
“Bhikkhuni” – Film – Q&A
with Director, Malgorzata Dobrowolska.
Sunday 12 December 2021
Sakyadhita Australia was honoured to host a screening of the Documentary “Bhikkhunī – Buddhism, Sri Lanka, Revolution”, followed by a Q&A with the Director, Malgorzata Dobrowolska. The transcript below will give background on the long filming process in different countries and the people – particularly the Bhikkuni – Malgo met along the way..
For more information on the documentary go here (link https://bhikkhuni-film.com) You will find contacts there if you would like to host your own screening.
Helen: Malgo congratulations, it’s truly a beautiful film, and some of your photography is stunning, even if it was just a bodhi tree leaf or the little nuns. It was lovely. Tell us how you started this.
Malgo: Everything started for me from Thailand. There I met Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, and after we visited her monastery in Thailand it was amazing for me. Then I learned that the roots of eight is in Sri Lanka, this is the source of bhikkhuni ordination. So this is why I chose to go to Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka I could meet the first bhikkhuni’s, fully ordained after 1000 years. particularly Bhikkhuni Kusuma. I was also very lucky that at the same time Bhikkhuni Dhammananda was there, I didn't know this when I was buying tickets. I knew her from a previous year from Thailand and I did a short film about 10 minutes there, and she liked the film. So she introduced me to other nuns, and allowed me to film; she's very respected there. This opened the door because they trusted me.
Helen: How long did it take you all that filming in Sri Lanka, in Thailand and I’m not sure if you went to Myanmar as well?
Malgo: Yes, I was in Sri Lanka, two months. So those two months I spent filming and traveling to these different monasteries. I also travelled for 10 days with those groups from Bangladesh, in a bus so it was very interesting because they didn't speak English, I didn't speak Bengali, so I usually never knew where we were going. And, then the editing of the film took another year. Not that it was full time one year, but I would say it was a half year full time. And so it was a very long time, mainly because it was difficult for me because I had a lot of material and it was difficult to choose, because you could tell the story in a lot of ways.
Helen: Perhaps you could have another documentary out of what you didn't use?
Malgo: Yeah, I could. I could do it differently. I had also a lot of variations of the film, I think 11 of them; one was an hour and a half, another was 24 minutes.
Helen: Ven Chokyi is with us and very important for us to hear what she thought.
Ven Chokyi: The thing of course, as you know, Helen is that we have the same or not exactly the same but debates in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of the lineage not being established or dying out or so forth. And that’s why I was interested last time with Tenzin Palmo in Sugato’s presentation and I'm pretty sure she said that Lamas in the Tibetan tradition were looking at ordination. And I guess what I find really very helpful is that bringing that awareness, because, yes, there are differences in the different traditions, but the Vinaya is the Vinaya. And tracing back to Shakyamuni Buddha, and the Buddha had no qualms with full ordination. Yeah, so I think that Malgo has been very courageous, it's not easy going out there on a limb. We have one of our nuns who’s in Bendigo currently who’s Sri Lankan and was in Sri Lanka in our tradition and she had a hard time also in Sri Lanka but had many supportive Lamas in our tradition as well. So I think if we keep that perspective. And Malgo is also instrumental in the statue of the first Buddhist nun I think, to be very soon arriving at Chenrezig Institute. It could be on the way at the end of the month, maybe.
Helen: Who was the first Buddhist nun?
Ven Chokyi: I think Gautami, the Buddha's foster-mother. She comes under different names, but Gautami. So I don’t know if you want to say anything about that. But I was very inspired when Malgo had that suggestion and said what about this and I think Malgo can talk about it, but I think Geshe Tsultrim said what about Tara. She said there's lots of Tara’s here. There's Malgo in a whole room full of Tara’s. But to show the beginning of the lineage Malgo if you want to mention, I’m not sure.
Malgo: Yeah, well, because we already have so many masters statues in Chenrezig, I was feeling that it would be important to add also a statue of a woman and there was Bhikkhuni Gautami who raised Buddha and also she led the way for other women. She came to buddha with 100 women; they requested ordination. So we could say that it was the first women’s march in history. So yeah, I think it’s important to have this inspiration in the centre and to have this Gautami statue and also know her story.
Ven Chokyi: I think also Malgo, as you said, because Chenrezig Institute is a nun’s community, so all the more reason, right?
Malgo: Yes. And we are on the Aboriginal female ground.
Helen: But getting back to Sri Lanka Malgo, something that was interesting to me was that there is an obvious need for these nuns, there’s all these empty monasteries in the region, and so there is a place for them there. Would you like to comment on that?
Malgo: Yes, I agree with that. So, there is some feminist approach to this that everything will change, you know, when there are not enough males only then, you know, they could encourage some women to take those positions. Because they're not going to put women into the main monasteries but to those in the villages. But still it’s a good start and it also shows that it's important.
Helen: Also in Sri Lanka, we saw a lot of Venerable Kusuma who sadly passed away quite recently. And you obviously interviewed her. She was the first nun in modern time, so tell us your impression of her.
Malgo: So I started my trip in Sri Lanka from visiting Bhikkhuni Kusama, and I just landed in Sri Lanka and then I took a taxi to Bhikkhuni Kusama. During this trip I was preparing myself how to ask, because I didn’t say that I would like to do film. So, it's not a question for writing in an email. And when I was coming to Sri Lanka, I didn't have any appointments with any nuns, because I think it’s always better to ask in person. So when I was in this taxi I was very stressed because I knew that everything depends on this one meeting. So then I was thinking oh no, perhaps I should rest for a few days in the hotel and then go, especially after so many hours flying from Poland and coming from winter and snow to this sun. But I got there and Bhikkhuni Kusama was so open and so easy going and very warm. In our first conversation we started talking, she asked me a lot of personal questions and then I very quickly said that I would like to do the film about bhikkhunis after 1000 years. So she was a little bit surprised, and she looked deeply into my eyes and so it took some time and then she said OK. For me it was something very precious and very, very big. Yeah, then next day, I was so excited with the time in Sri Lanka and so I went out to see other monasteries and everything because I was staying in the centre. So I went and I didn't know that it becomes dark so early, at five o'clock. So I was quite far away in some monastery, and it became dark. And also, I'm not very good in remembering my way, so I was always taking photos where to come back. But then my phone died. So then I was going back but with my phone died and everything was dark, so I was lost. And then I was hitchhiking, and someone stopped I said that I would like to go to Bhikkhuni Kusama’s centre. So they said OK, and they put me in this small car and we went together to Bhikkhuni Kusama’s centre. When I came back Bhikkhuni Kusama was so angry with me, and she said I cannot do stuff like this, that if I would like to stay at her centre that I need to stay and not go out, otherwise I should stay in the hotel. So I could choose what I would like to do. So I say okay, I will stay, and I will not go out, if I need shopping then I had to ask one of her helpers. So then I was only on her property and not going out.
Helen: Is that centre, the film centre the same as Ayya Kema’s, because we consider Ayya Kema Australian and proud of what she did establishing the lineage. Did you hear anything, people talking about Ayya Kema? Learn anything about her there?
Malgo: So because Ayya Kema was a very close friend of Bhikkhuni Kusama and Bhikkhuni Kusama named her Bhikkhuni Kusama as Ayya Kema Centre as recognition for her.
Helen: Also I was hoping Ranjani could join us, she was also very involved in those first ordinations.
Malgo: Yes, if I could tell Ranjani that I was lucky that when I was on the Sakyadhita Conference in 2019 I shared a room with Ranjani.
Helen: Yes, Ranjani was very involved in setting up the first Sakyadhita conferences and in the ordinations. So with all this, did you ever think “maybe I should become a nun, or maybe I should ordain, or are you happy being a film maker”?
Malgo: I am happy being filmmaker, I'm asked this question quite often, probably because I did film buddhist nuns. But no, I'm not planning to become a nun.
Jack: Thank you so much for making this documentary. It’s really important and so well done. So thank you so much. And you know, I think you yourself are proof positive of the value of having both ordained and lay people because you have offered something that's so wonderful, that’s come from your own vision and your own heart and about what Buddhism can be. And it was lovely to hear someone saying, just reminding us all that the Buddha did say that Buddhism can only really be strong with the fourfold sangha. And yeah, and we kind of know that discrimination can’t really be justified within Buddhism, but we do have institutions that hold onto that. So yeah, thank you, it was wonderful.
Helen: I know you spoke of some of your inspiration for doing this, being brought up in Catholic Poland. But I'm just wondering why these subjects, women, religion, generally whether Catholic or Buddhism are so important to you?
Malgo: Everything started when I was a small child and Paul the second Pope he came to Poland and it was a communist time and I had the feeling that someone very important is coming, that all people on the street and all my family watching television with silence and excitement. I have this feeling that it's someone who really has an impact on the world and an impact on people’s hearts and minds, so depending on what philosophy you were using. So I had this feeling that someone very important and precious is coming. And then I asked my mum if a woman can become a pope. And then my mother told me no. And I was very shocked, and I asked my mother why? And my mum said that if I will be older then I will understand. So in all this time I’m just trying to understand it and I’m really looking for each positive change because I always feel that it’s better to see positive things and to focus on it because then we will have more positive. So then these childhood questions led me to just research, how it looks in the different religions. I did also a film about women in, it was Christian, but I don't remember, it was a very short film. Then about Thailand, then my first full length film about Sri Lanka. And also I made one about Sharman's in the Philippines, but I didn't finish. So, I feel that this equality in the spirituality is very important because we have now this feminist movement that we have equality at work, working on equality in the government, right. There is still a lot to do. But last step of it is equality in these religious structures, right, this is one part, and another part is also the re-establishment and rebirth of those goddess women spirituality. So there are these two changes what I really support. And then I believe that our work will be much better, right, because patriarchy, we see the results. Wars, poverty, discrimination, these destroy our planet. So I believe when we change this and this quality, then everything will be better because this is the source of problems, inequality.
Jack: Yeah, that’s wonderful Malgo, beautifully said and connecting all these things together. I just couldn’t agree more with you.
Helen: Yeah, in a way these Theravadin Buddhist nuns are leading the way.
Malgo: I think a beautiful example for me, like in the Christian country, right, in a Catholic country and also I was very surprised and inspired and they didn't have this aggression or something to monks, they had only compassion to those who think differently, they have compassion for someone who is not reading texts correctly or has this different view. So this was for me a very new approach.
Sharon: I'm just commending Malgo’s work and her vision. I know she’s making a great contribution to Chenrezig Institute. It’s very well established but it’s always lovely to see fresh young blood coming to an organization and you can really see it. So congratulations Malgo and she happens to be my boss as a volunteer and she’s very thoughtful and considerate. Thank you.
Helen: Given that, perhaps you could explain the story, you came to Australia to screen your documentary at the Sakyadhita conference in the Blue Mountains, so how did you go from there to living at Chenrezig and working with the volunteers.
Malgo: Yes, so everything unfolded in an interesting way because I already had an idea to travel the world and make films, but I was planning to go to India, because it’s a cheap country. But in the meantime I received an invitation for the Sakyadhita conference. So I went there and then I was thinking because I paid for the ticket and everything that it would be good to stay in some buddhist centre for a longer time and then a friend that I met at a film festival in Sarajevo, he recommended that I come to Chenrezig. Yes, interesting because he’s now staying in Maleny, and we met in Sarajevo. So he just sent me the link and I just saw the website and I thought oh, it looks very good, and I thought I would like to volunteer for three months to see how it would be. But I had in my mind that maybe it will be one year if everything will be good. When I was leaving Poland I had an idea to be abroad at least one year and then see what will happen. And I have been here two years and I have visa until July 2023. My main thing is to do two things about Chenrezig Institute.
Helen: Tell us about your films, your plans.
Malgo: It was very good before Covid, I did a lot then covid came and I was doing this multimedia and everything, and it was for me a full time job, so I didn't have time for editing, I only had time for recording. So during these two years I was recording all those important events. So now I need to come back to editing of the film and to do some good new images. I need to finish this film before my visa finish before July 2023 or maybe even earlier at the end of 2022 that I will have time for promotion and maybe travel with this film and do screenings here.
Helen: Well we look forward to seeing that about Chenrezig. And you've screened the Bhikkhuni film I think in many countries, and it's won awards, can you tell us about that?
Malgo: So when I was doing this film and it was my first full length film, so I didn’t know what I would do with this film when I finished it. I didn't know how to do it, how to make it happen that people would watch it. And I didn’t want to do it on YouTube. But somehow everything unfolded very well, because it was screened in the film festival all over the world. And also, cinemas in Poland and also my target group are universities in the US. So they're buying educational licenses, and then they're showing it to students. This is for me very good because people are watching it as part of their education program and are discussing it. I didn't expect now that it would be watched and discussed in so many places and for such a long time. So for me it’s very good. But it also shows that time is very good, that people need this change, that people are looking for information about this.
Helen: Do you think there’s a market in Australia, in Australian universities or even the independent cinemas will screen it?
Malgo: Well I would like. We are talking about this so maybe some universities will hear it and on my website they can buy a licence very easily. And the same thing with the screenings in cinemas.
Helen: I think maybe approaching the universities that have buddhist studies maybe a good start, so we wish you good luck. But tell us about where you are and what we can see behind you. I know you are at Chenrezig but what part of it?
Malgo: I'm in the Tara room and you can see behind me 21 Tara statues.
Helen: Is 21 significant?
Malgo: About Tara, perhaps Van Chokyi could tell us.
Ven Chokyi: Just in brief, it’s a longer story. Tara she was training on the path, not yet buddha she had very well advanced realisations. Her name was Yeshe Dawa and it’s said that the monks were saying that oh it’s a shame you’re in female form, you should make a vow to come back as male and then you can become a buddha. You can see the degeneration of the understanding of the teachings at the time. So she vowed to always come back female. And that particular manifestation of the 21 Taras comes from Chenrezig was despairing about seeing the suffering in the world, doing so much practice and seeing all the suffering and Green Tara came out of one tear and emanated all the 21 Taras on petals of lotus and Tara represents swift action and says yes, I will come to your aid. So I think that swift action we see it in Malgo, just unstoppable, unflappable and another Tara making a huge impact in the world. It is phenomenal really.
Ven Dechen: When I was in Dharamsala, India I found this book. It was copyright 2015. It’s “The Revival of Bhikshuni Vows in Tibetan Buddhism Tradition”. Authored by the committee for Bhikshuni Ordination in the Tibetan tradition, edited by the Foundation for Buddhist Studies and it’s got letters and statements of support from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Sakya Dolma Rinpoche, Kyabje Ganden Tripa Rinpoche, Gyalwa Karmapa and many others. So apparently they are all Rinpoches from all four traditions represented and they're all very supportive of having the bhikshuni vows reinstated within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. My understanding is that the bhikshuni ordination never made it to Tibet, that it has never been a part of the Tibetan tradition. So that’s my understanding, to me it seems if it’s never been there then it’s never been lost. Now is an opportunity to instate it as a part of Tibetan Buddhism. So, it seems to me that hopefully it really is only a matter of time when you've got all of those high lamas in support of it, it’s just to go through a few committees and stuff like that.
Helen: It’s good to see that it’s happening in Tibetan Buddhism as well as Theravadin.
Ven Chokyi: Yeah, thank you Dechen because I'm pretty sure that’s why I was interested to listen to the recording of Ajhan Sujato’s talk because I think it was JetsunmaTenzin Palmo when she mentioned about the full ordination that one of the Tibetan lamas was going to
start doing that and I just wondered whether it was His Holiness Karmapa because he said that earlier on that he made an indication of a commitment to actually bestowing ordination for women in Tibetan tradition. It maybe that he’s now reached that point of offering that, I don’t know. We can see that there are very many already with the Tibetan tradition but so far have to go outside of that, so that’s the whole debate that happens.
Ven Dechen: And also each year we are getting more geshemas too. I think in time the geshemas will say “come on, we’ve got the same level of education as you these days, why can’t we have the same level of ordination as you guys too.” I think Geshemas are the ones that will probably push it.
Ven Chokyi: I think you’re right to a large extent, I know Tenzin Palmo said that if you don’t have the backing of the male lamas it won’t fly. But also just on that Geshema degree because it was originally said that women couldn’t complete that degree because they didn’t have the full ordination therefore they could study the bhikshuni vows in the extent that is studied by the monks. And so that was a prohibitor for a period of time which has been overcome and I know that our teachers in FPMT, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe in establishing the nunnery to get exactly the same education and we see that they were the top graduates out of the big graduation ceremony, not the first one, when Kelsang Wangmo the German nun but the subsequent one and that encouragement I think you're right Dechen there'll be a force to be reckoned with, they can debate very well.
Helen: Tell us about you crowd funding or raising funds for another camera?
Malgo: So now I’m doing a crowd funding campaign to buy a new camera because I’m doing now two films. One is about the origin of Chenrezig Institute and based on this I would like to show this bigger project. How Tibetan Buddhism went from Tibet to the western world and it’s about origins. It shows how small things could make such a big difference. And the second part of this is more current issue. Also like full ordination Tibetan buddhists, so women’s issues and also so Aboriginal peoples issues because we are on the aboriginal ground. So in the second part I would like to include those two current issues that are going on. For me it’s very important to show it in the best possible way, because the topic is so important, so to show it in professional good quality with beautiful pictures is important. So I would like to buy a new camera. My camera I bought in 2015 and now we have 2021 so it’s six years old, so I need to do it and now I’d also like to do films similar. I didn’t expect that it would become my profession, I think I’m just doing practice with working in the corporation. And now I would like to travel and make films. So for me it was my main tool of work, so I chose a very good camera. So it's quite small so I could use it and travel and take everywhere. And it's recommended as a very good camera for the documentary films because it's small and the pictures are very beautiful. So I started a crowdfunding campaign and I’ve raised more than half. So now I have to buy a body and now I’m raising funds to buy a lens. The link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/new-camera11
I would be grateful for any funds, even the smallest matter.
Helen: We really appreciate that. It sounds to me, as I say dig deep and because I know that we really appreciate it and I think you really have a talent for this and hopefully you’ll go far. Thank you again so much for the screening and good luck with staying in Australia and Chenrezig and your next documentary and raising enough for the camera.