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Recording of Webinar held on November 8th, 2018

Part 1: Talk by Jetsunma

Part 2 :Q&A

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo 2015.JPG


Interview with Ven. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo at the Sakyadhita Conference on 29th June 2015 in Jogjakarta, Indonesia by Diana Cousens

Q. Jetsunma - how many Sakyadhita Conferences have you been to?

A. I don't know. The first one I went to was in Cambodia and then Taiwan, Korea, India, Mongolia, Bangkok, and so forth quite a few.

Q. Quite a few. What do you think is the benefit of Sakyadhita?

A. I think it is an extraordinary organisation. I mean it is a totally international gathering of Buddhist women of all traditions, both monastics and lay people. As I say, it is totally non-sectarian. We have Theravadins from Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka; Mahayanas from Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and mainland China now, and also from the Vajrayana, the Tibetans and Bhutanese and so forth. So it is the one place where women from all traditions can meet together and recognise their common unity in the Dharma and really appreciate each other, befriend each other and have a good time together as well as learning from each other's traditions through the series of talks and workshops and get togethers.

Q. Do you think it enables certain special conversations to be carried on over a period of years, such as the conversation about the bhikshuni ordination?

A. Well, because when the Theravadin nuns first - at the beginning of Sakyadhita (India 1987) - when they met with fully ordained nuns, bhikshunis from Korea and Taiwan and so forth - for many of them it was a shock to actually recognise that there were bhikshunis in this world because they are brought up with the idea that that lineage died out a thousand years ago. And they had no idea it was still extant. And so these highly educated, articulate nuns from Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, they showed these nuns from Sri Lanka and Thailand how a nun could be. And they recognised that they are women, we are women. What is happening that we can't be like that? So then some laywomen such as Ranjani de Silva and others from Sri Lanka, were also very inspired and they learned that early on - in I think the Third Century - nuns from Sri Lanka had gone to China to make a double sangha for this bhikshuni ordination which up to then had only been done by the monks' sangha. And they felt it was better to have the double sangha in accordance with the Vinaya of bhikshunis and bhikshus. So they brought in the bhikshunis from Sri Lanka. And when the Sri Lankan nuns discovered that, which is not mentioned in their history books, they said, 'Well, if we gave them the ordination, why can we not receive it back again from these Chinese nuns?' Which is what they did in very historic ordination ceremonies in India and re-established after 1000 years the bhikshuni lineage in Sri Lanka. There are now 1000 bhikshunis there.

Q. Which is amazing.

A. Wonderful. And whether or not it is officially recognised by the government and the powers that be, they're there. And they ain't going nowhere. And there is now serious training and especially in how to become counsellors and helpers -

Q. Social workers?

A. Perhaps social outreach because for many women - with the troubles which one has, they cannot go to the monks with their problems - family problems. They can go to the nuns.

Q. Yes, that's fantastic. And in terms of the progress of Sakyadhita, what do you see as its aspirations?

A. I think basically we are just hoping that in every country that we go to, we arouse the awareness of the women there. I mean in every country the majority of participants are from that country - at least half if not more. And it empowers them with the idea that women - if we hold together and support each other - I mean, this whole conference is organised by women. We don't rely on men to tell us how to do things.

Q. That's right.

A. We do it ourselves. And so in this conference here in Indonesia, several Muslim young women have participated as volunteers, and they say how empowered they feel by this conference and all these wonderful women coming together talking about women's issues and for them it is also very, very uplifting and inspiring.

Q. Just on the subject of the bhikshuni ordination, in the Tibetan tradition, are we making any progress or what?

A. His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa has promised that he will organise the full ordination for at least some of his nuns.

Q. Good, so will it be with a double sangha?

A. Yes, with a double sangha. He is intending to use nuns from China and we will see how that works out.

Q. Yes, that's good. And I think the points of doctrine have now been fully explored.

A. They have been researching for 30 years and they still haven't come to any conclusions.

Q. Ven. Jampa Tsedron has analysed all the points of Vinaya that -

A. Endlessly, endlessly. And they are meticulous. But the problem is that if you don't really want something, you can always delay or find some objections. If you really want something then it can happen overnight. But if you don't really want it then it is not going to happen. So the majority of Tibetans in general and monks in particular couldn't care less about full ordination for their nuns and discourage the nuns from aspiring to it by emphasising how difficult it would be for them, even though we see in these sanghas here, these nuns who have all been bhikshunis all their lives and they have a very - they don't look in the least bit overburdened.

Q. They manage quite well.

A. But if that is what your teacher tells you that is what you believe and you have never seen a bhikshuni, so how do you know?

Q. And what will be the advantages for Tibetan nuns when they become bhikshunis?

A. We can see that in all those countries where there are bhikshunis they have a very important role to play in Buddhist society. They gain self-confidence, they are a member of the sangha, not just novices. I mean in the Tibetan tradition you can be a nun for 80 years and you are still a novice?

Q. Yes, it's ridiculous.

A. I mean this was not the Buddha's intention. Buddha never said, 'Oh right, we will accept women but they can only be novices'. He said, 'Ay hi bhikhuni'. 'Come, nun.' And he always emphasised the importance of the fourfold sangha and that fourfold sangha was bhikhus, bhikhunis - not samaneris, not novices. Bhikhus, bhikhunis, laymen, laywomen and he said that if these are all strong and study and practice and propagate the Dharma - all four of them - not just monks - he never ever said just monks. He always said the fourfold sangha, both the monastics and the lay people. Their duty is to study, practice and propagate the Dharma. Then the Dharma will flourish.

Q. On another subject, I have noticed recently the rise of something which has the name of "Secular Buddhism", which seems to have no idea about karma and rebirth - at least as I understand it. What is your opinion about these new Buddhist movements that have trouble with karma and rebirth?

A. I mean the point is it is all very nice but it is not Buddhism. I mean, if you throw out karma and rebirth you are also throwing out pratityasamutpada - interdependent origination - and it was with the realisation of interdependent origination that the Buddha realised that he was a Buddha. Basically what it is doing is just turning Buddhism into a nice therapy for making this life easier to live. It has got no vision. But basically what they are doing is saying, 'Anything which doesn't happen to agree with my own preconceptions, the Buddha couldn't possibly have said it.' Who are they to repudiate 2,500 years of Buddhist wisdom?

Q. Correct.

A. And if people don't want to believe in karma and rebirth that's fine, that's up to them. But they shouldn't say the Buddha didn't either. Who are they to say what the Buddha was talking about - that the Buddha only took it on board because that was the socially accepted ideas of that time. That is so insulting to the whole Buddhist tradition, as well as to the Buddha. He didn't know what he was talking about?

Q. It's wrong. He was opposed to other assumptions such as the caste system.

A. Caste. Yes, and according to traditional sources his experience prior to enlightenment was to go back through countless past lives of his own, and then in the second watch of the night for his mind to expand to the coming and going of all beings in the universe. In the third watch of the night he therefore realised pratityasamutpada. That is what made him a Buddha!

Q. Exactly.

A. I mean - why are we ... Yes, we can get realisations, but we don't become samyaksambuddhas because our minds don't expand to that vastness of a genuine Buddha consciousness. That is what makes him so supreme. And just to reduce him to a 'feel good' therapy for this lifetime, you know, I think you've lost the plot.

Q. Well I think they are making Buddha in their own image.

A. Well they are.

Q. And their own image is maybe of some kind of therapist.

A. It goes back to spiritual materialism. If you can't prove it in a machine it doesn't exist.

Q. It's an empirical but not a spiritual approach.

Q. How is the nunnery you built, Dongyu Gatsal Ling, going these days? Is the building finished and how many nuns are there?

A. The building at Dongyu Gatsal Ling is now almost completed. We have about 100 nuns from the various Himalayan regions. Our latest candidates to be ordained were from Bhutan and Dolpo in Nepal. The nuns are all studying Tibetan and English together with Buddhist philosophy and debating and ritual. They also enjoy drawing and writing stories embellished with illustrations. Many of the nuns have now graduated from their basic philosophy program but still continue with their studies. In addition there are now six nuns in our long term retreat centre receiving personal teaching from the most senior Togden or yogin at Tashi Jong. These nuns have already completed over six years of strict practice.

Ven. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is now on pilgrimage in India.

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