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Meditate or Advocate?

Recently Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Sakyadhita International President, reminded the nuns from her nunnery, Dongyu Gatsal Ling, that learning to understand their minds through the practice of vipassana meditation was the most important thing they could offer to this troubled world.

However, in December 1999 His Holiness the Dali Lama told delegates at a religious gathering in Cape Town "Change only takes place through action. Frankly speaking, not through prayer or meditation, but through action."

For me these two quotes raise an important question, as Buddhists which should we do? Should Buddhist women and nuns keep quiet and practice in order to benefit society, or should they be social activists? Before discovering Buddhism, I would have said the second. From a young age, I was a feminist and social activist, my daughter walked with me in her first protest march aged about five! I even did gender studies at university with the aim of becoming a “femocrat” so I could help women, then after graduating I worked at a Brisbane university as an Equity Officer, trying to assist women and people from socially and economically disadvantaged groups enter university.

But then a few years down the track I realised that I also needed to sort out my mind, so nearly 12 years ago I got into Buddhism. I prioritised working on my mind, and as I like to I joke – “I like Buddhism so much I bought the franchise!” and whilst it wasn’t a conscious choice I put my feminist beliefs a bit on the back burner, because I followed the advice that working on my mind and sharing the Dharma with others was the very best way to benefit them.

Then came my good fortune of being sponsored to attend the 2017 Sakyadhita Conference in Hong Kong. Well..... my feminism and social activism had been a little rekindled due to my wish to be fully ordained and finding out I couldn’t in my tradition because I was female, but all I can say is the conference fully re-ignited my feminist side! I re-heard terms I had used at university like “embodied experience”, “internalised patriarchy” and I nodded along enthusiastically as the presenters spoke. I listened to a range of speakers who shared good news about their inspiring projects or research, as well as stories of discrimination and challenges faced by Buddhist women. I met like-minded others who asked me questions that made me think about the situation I and others like me were in; and who challenged me to start questioning the practices and policies of the organisation I’m affiliated with, as well as my own personal actions.

I felt like I was with family (in a good way) by day three! And I tried to capture some of that in the FaceBook posts I did for Sakyadhita Australia, as well as be a bit entertaining! However, for me, the last FaceBook post I did from the conference was probably the most important one, because in that I said “As the sun sets on our last day at the Conference, we say goodbye to new and old friends and look forward to seeing them in 2 years. However, our work isn't we head home I believe it's important to ask ourselves how will we take all the new information, great ideas and energy, and translate that into some type of action.”

Because as Dame Jane Goodall said “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make”.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

And also, I figured that going to the conference would have been a waste of my time (and your money!) if it did not lead to any positive change in my attitudes and actions, my life, and my relationships with others.

So, when I returned home I needed to work out what type of action I would do with my new understandings and new awareness. However, the difference now is that unlike in the past, that is before I met the Dharma, when I may have just rushed in and tried to get things changed “my way”; due to my Buddhist practise I realised that I needed to balance any actions with wisdom and compassion, because without them there is a danger of causing more harm than good, such as blaming others or getting angry or resentful when others don’t agree with me or don’t do what I think is right.

And I will admit I was conflicted about taking action, “just work on your mind” kept ringing in my ears, however when I combine the message from the Dalai Lama’s earlier quote “You’ve done the listening, now go back and make a difference in your community”, with Jetsunma telling us nuns repeatedly when we met with her that “What is happening is not OK you need to talk about it” - this empowered and emboldened me to advocate for change at my Centre and with my organisation. And when it has fallen on deaf ears, which it has a few times, because I know my requests are valid and are backed by Jetsunma, I will continue to try and make a positive difference for my Dharma sisters, and Dharma brothers who are in the same boat.

That’s an important element for me, that my requests and projects benefit others besides myself, as that’s one way I try to keep my level of attachment, self-interest a bit under control.And if you, or I, ever think that one person can’t make a difference just recall the quote by the Dalai Lama “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room”.

So, what has my social activism looked like? Jetsunma told us nuns to educate the lay people and Lamas at our centres about various issues, so when I got home I got on my modern-day soap box ... The internet! I have emailed a number of senior people in the organisation I’m affiliated with regarding the need for developing training and financial support for Western monastics, and I have emailed information and ideas on the same issues to my Centre’s committee for their consideration. Unfortunately, not much to report there yet. [Post AGM update: in response to my requests and suggestions, the section of my organisation that supports Western monastics are presenting a report at the 2017 Australasia meeting of Centre Directors and Program Co-ordinators outlining ways centres can support their monastics]

At my Centre, I’ve talked about the conference to a male lay teacher there and to some women, and as a consequence the teacher said he will add something to a topic he was teaching and the two lay women want to set up a Nuns’ Support Fund. I’ve also met someone who would like to donate money to help with the training of nuns, so I will refer her to the organisation Jetsunma set up to assist Western (as well as some other) nuns, the Alliance of Non-Himalayan Nuns ( ). And after I return from Vinaya training in the USA early in 2018 (which Jetsunma’s organisation helped sponsor me to attend after my organisation declined to do so), I’m planning to assist develop an easily accessible Vinaya training package for Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

Because I found the Sakyadhita Conference so worthwhile I’ve been spreading the word. I have and will continue to tell women and nuns I meet about the conference and recommend they go. And I’ve mentioned the idea of presenting a paper at the next Conference to a couple of women. One of whom is doing a really interesting project about developing a hospice underpinned with both Buddhist and Indigenous principles.

To help raise the profile of Sakyadhita Australia:

• I have been telling others I meet about this organisation and I have encouraged them to join and even come along today • I have shared information and flyers about Sakyadhita Australia with my various networks such as the ASA, the Qld Sangha Association the Qld Buddhist Council and I’ve sent them to put a short blurb about Sakyadhita Australia with a link to the Conference photo video and asked them to put them on the their “Links” page and in their newsletters • I’ve shared articles from Sakyadhita on my FB page and asked my FB friends to ‘like’ it (something I would encourage you to do) • the Sakyadhita Conference book is now in the library at my Centre and a couple of women I’ve told about it plan to borrow it to read • I have also put the Sakyadhita flyer up on my Centre’s notice board. As well as at notice boards at two other Buddhist centres. • Lastly, I have been involved in the working group that is exploring having the next Conference in Australia.

And I’ll continue to keep promoting Sakyadhita Australia and the conference, as I would encourage you too, because they both provide an important space. A space where:

• Women from around the world (or Australia) can gather and have fellowship, or should I say ‘sistership’ and develop friendships with people they normally wouldn’t meet • Women support each other, encourage each other and lift each other up • Women can speak about issues to do with women and Buddhism; and be listened to and taken seriously • Women can hear about issues that they may not otherwise hear about, the good and not so good, which may, like in my case, spur them into some type of action... because as the Chinese proverb goes “When sleeping women wake, mountains will move”

So, to come back to my original question - should Buddhist women keep quiet and practice in order to benefit society, or should they be social activists? Pema Chodron’s response to a story sums it up perfectly for me. A man told her how rising waters meant a dyke, a levee, near his grandparent’s home was likely to break. According to the storyteller, his grandfather said, “Let’s pray” while his grandmother, who prevailed, said “Let’s go.” Pema chuckled at this and said, “I would say, ‘Let’s go, but pray while we are going.’” For me my answer is “yes” to both, meditate and advocate, although I respect others might answer that question differently. So, what would my middle way look like? As well as continuing my daily meditation practice, firstly it would involve what we call in Tibetan Buddhism, the 2 wings, wisdom and method.

• Wisdom - understanding that whilst at the ultimate level there is no ‘self’, no inherently existent concepts; at the conventional worldly-level there is discrimination and injustice ....and • Method – my intention is to be skilful and patient in my actions and have compassion for all involved and try to understand their viewpoint This would be supported by my firm belief in impermanence, that change is inevitable, and by planting a few seeds here and there, slowly, slowly things will change for the better, and we’ve seen that in some areas already, the Mae Chee’s in Thailand and the nuns in Myanmar are now gaining more well-deserved respect, there are female Geshes (Western and more recently Tibetan) also known as Geshe-mas, there are fully ordained Thai and Sri Lankan nuns, and His Holiness the Karmapa is implementing full ordination for his nuns. We can make a positive difference.

Lastly and importantly, and to the consternation of some, I’ll try to do it all with a sense of humour. I was very pleased when I found a quote by Jetsunma in which she said, “the seventh paramita [perfection] should be a sense of humour, so we don’t take ourselves too seriously”.

My parting words, before I conclude with a short prayer by Shantideva which is one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s favourites: • A big thank you to Sakyadhita Australia for giving me the opportunity to attend the Conference in Hong Kong. • A big thank you to Jetsunma who helped realise that IT IS OK for a Buddhist nun to say, “IT IS NOT OK”, and that it is OK, and important, to challenge discrimination and injustice at a conventional worldly level. And for showing me and reminding me that “There is nothing" a woman cannot accomplish.

“May all beings everywhere, Plagued by sufferings of body and mind, Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy, By virtue of my merits. May no living creature suffer, Commit evil, or ever fall ill. May no one be afraid or belittled, With a mind weighed down by depression. May the blind see forms, And the deaf hear sounds, May those whose bodies are worn with toil Be restored on finding repose. May the naked find clothing, The hungry find food; May the thirsty find water, And delicious drinks. May the poor find wealth, Those weak with sorrow find joy; May the forlorn find hope, Constant happiness, and prosperity. May there be timely rains And bountiful harvests; May all medicines be effective And wholesome prayers bear fruit. May all who are sick and ill Quickly be freed from their ailments. Whatever diseases there are in the world, May they never occur again. May the frightened cease to be afraid And those bound be freed; May the powerless find power, And may people think of benefiting each other. For as long as space remains, For as long as sentient beings remain, Until then may I too remain To dispel the miseries of the world.”

By Ven. Lozang Drolkar, August 2017 © Email:

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