Interview with Venerable Thubten Chodron
Interview with Venerable Thubten Chodron from Sravasti Abbey
with nuns from Shide Nunnery
20th April 2016 at Semkye Ling, Schneverdingen Lünzen, Germany
Thubten Choedroen (Shide Nunnery) [Q]: Venerable Thubten Chodron, it’s very kind of you to make time for an interview for our new nunnery, Shide Nunnery. Our first question is: do we need nuns in the West?
Thubten Chodron (Sravasti Abbey) [A]: Of course! The sangha has dedicated their lives to the Dharma. Some lay practitioners have done that as well, but due to their monastic precepts and lifestyle, sangha members have more time to learn the teachings, meditate on them, and then teach and pass them on to future generations. This is very important for the existence and transmission of the Buddhadharma.
Also, the sangha functions as the conscience of society. Just the existence of a community of people living a simple lifestyle that emphasizes harmony poses the question, “Do we need to be so consumerist? Do we need to resolve our problems by fighting wars and harming others?” As a monastic community, if we practice well, we present an example of people who live together peacefully, which is inspiring for the rest of society.
Many people from all over the world write to Sravasti Abbey and say, “Thank you for existing. Although I am not in the situation where I can practice in the same way, just knowing that there are people who are living and practicing like you gives me great happiness and hope.” People know that there is a place they can go when they want to practice together in a serious manner. A lay teacher’s house cannot function in that way.
If a Dharma student knocks on the door and says, “I would like to meditate with you and ask you Dharma questions,” the teacher’s spouse might say, “Oh, I’m sorry. We’re busy with the kids today and my spouse needs to do the laundry and ...” A monastery, on the other hand, is designed as a spiritual refuge not only for the monastics who live there, but also for lay practitioners who seek to be in an environment where everything is oriented toward Dharma practice.
You asked if we need nuns. Yes! We need nuns as much as we need monks. We need all four parts of the four-fold assembly that the Buddha extolled: fully ordained monks and nuns, and male and female lay practitioners who have taken refuge and the five precepts.
Q: Do Western nuns need a nunnery?
A: Yes, that’s very important; it remedies two difficulties. The first is that the sangha in the West lack sufficient support. In general, people in the West don’t understand what Buddhist monastics are, how they live, and what they do. They aren’t familiar with the Asian custom of making offerings to the sangha. When sangha members live on their own and work at a job, lay people naturally think they have what they need. However, when monastics live together in a monastery or nunnery, it becomes obvious that what they do every day is different. Their unique contribution to society is more noticeable, and people who value what they do naturally want to support them so they can continue doing that.
The other problem is that sometimes the Western nuns are very independent-minded, and while they complain about the lack of support, they don’t want to give up their independence to live together in a community. That attitude doesn’t work. Living in a community is part of our training, and monastics have to understand that living in a community isn’t just about having a place to stay. A monastery is not like a boarding house where we can come and go and do what we want. It’s a place where we form a community. We practice what is necessary to resolve conflicts and to come together in a unified way. We support the community and its members, and they, in turn, support us. In this way, we all grow in the Dharma together.
Some centers have a good study program and monastics come together to study there, but in the break time they all go away. They are a group of individuals, not a community, and they remain at the center as long as it benefits their practice. However, there is no impetus to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. A community can do things that one individual cannot do; a community brings the Dharma to the West in a way that one person cannot. A community also aids our practice in a way that living alone cannot. Living in a community makes our afflictions evident; there is no way to hide. We have to give up our self-centered ways.
In a monastery, living according to the vinaya is much easier. When we live alone, unless we are industrious, we don’t learn the vinaya, because teachers usually only teach vinaya to a group of monastics. In addition, even if you know the vinaya, it’s easy to become sloppy when you live on our own or in a Dharma center. When we live with other monastics, everyone does the same thing; so keeping the precepts becomes natural. If we don’t live according to the monastic code of conduct, others will point it out to us and help us improve our ethical conduct.
There are two similes for living in a monastic community. One is like trees in a forest—they all grow in the same direction, upward. There’s no room to grow sideways. Similarly, being a monastic in a monastery or nunnery, we grow upward in the Dharma because everyone is growing in that direction together. We live according to the Buddha’s precepts and guidelines. We can’t do our own trip; everyone is studying, reflecting, and meditating on the Dharma together.
The second simile is that of rocks in a tumbler. All the rocks have sharp edges, but as they move around in the tumbler, they chip off each other’s rough edges and polish each other. Similarly, each monastic in a community has her own rough edges—her afflictions, self-centeredness, self-grasping ignorance. By living together and interacting with each other all the time, we come to see our own rough edges and work on them. When we’re living in a community we can’t hide our faults. Our faults are there, and everybody knows them.
If we don’t know our faults, others will point them out to us. We have to develop an attitude of transparency, where we don’t take ourselves so seriously, or try to cover up and hide our faults. They are there, everybody knows we have them, and everybody knows that we are trying our best to work with them. So a certain kind of trust builds up in the community, because we all know that everybody is working with their minds, and that everybody is doing the best they can. It’s a very, very effective training ground, because if we want to live happily in the community, we have to change. We can’t keep on going with our usual “mantra” of “I want what I want when I want it.” We have to take others’ feelings and needs into consideration; we must become flexible and tolerant. In that way we polish each other and become beautiful gems.
My idea is for Sravasti Abbey to be a genuine community, not just individuals living together. Living in community provides a certain kind of emotional support that you don’t have when you live on your own. You live with people who understand what your life is about. In contrast, some Western monks and nuns in the Tibetan tradition have to put on lay clothes and go to work because they don’t have any financial support. The people at work, as well as your neighbors, don’t understand you or your lifestyle. “Why are you wearing these strange clothes? Why do you go on a meditation retreat and look at your bellybutton when you can have two weeks’ vacation on the beach in Spain?” Your colleagues and neighbors—and often your relatives as well—don’t understand.
When you live in a community, people understand that part of you—that very precious part that cherishes spiritual aspirations. You share an underlying connection with your monastic Dharma friends. Because we understand each other’s life choices, we can easily offer each other emotional support. Nevertheless, the benefits of living in community come about with hard work, and community life—especially learning to get along with others—is part of practice. You have to learn to listen, empathize, and give up your trip.
Q: What challenges do nunneries face?
A: The usual ones. Our afflictions come with us wherever we go. We wish we could leave them behind. It would be wonderful if my afflictions needed a visa to come to Germany and they got rejected at the border, so I could enter Germany and leave my afflictions behind. That would be nice, but no, all my disturbing emotions come with me.
The usual things happen when people live together: our mind goes up and down. We have so many opinions and so many preferences. We get discouraged. Living in samsara is challenging. Fortunately, we have the teachings that describe samsara and its causes. Contemplating these, as well as our Buddha nature—our potential to attain full awakening— we gradually develop renunciation that seeks freedom from samara.
Q: What are the biggest differences between Western and Asian nunneries?
A: First of all, Western and Asian nunneries exist in two very different cultures. Asian nunneries have a particular education program, which is beautiful and works well for them. However, I don’t think as Western nuns or monks that we should try to recreate Tibetan monasteries in the West, because we are from a different culture and have different ways of thinking.
I remember talking to Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche many years ago about Tharpa Choeling, a monastery located near Geneva in Switzerland. When I had gone there to visit around 1979, there was a thriving Tibetan monastery of Western monks who spoke Tibetan, debated in Tibetan, and chanted in Tibetan. They did everything in the Tibetan way, but after some years, nearly all the Western monks had left. Rinpoche and I were discussing why that happened, and Rinpoche commented that Westerners need to learn the Dharma in a way that moves their hearts.
Debating is wonderful, and the intellectual studies are fantastic. However, we always have to relate them to our own hearts, to our personal experience. If we do that, the Dharma is very “tasty”; it affects how we live, and how we feel about ourselves and about life in a positive way. We want to continue with our practice.
On the other hand, if we study in the same way that we do at university, learning and memorizing material, telling the teachers what they already know in an exam, maybe even competing with each other over who knows more or who asks the most profound questions, then the Dharma doesn’t touch our hearts. Monastics won’t remain there for a long time because what they’re doing—although intellectually stimulating—is not transforming their minds and they are not becoming happier, more content, or kinder.
The education system in Tibetan monasteries works wonderfully for Tibetans. The young children who enter the monastery are happy to memorize texts that they don’t yet understand. When they get older, they enjoy debating the different categories of a topic with each other. The monastery is like their family and they aren’t exposed to a lot of outside influences. Maybe they live with their uncle or aunt in the monastery, and their family is happy that they are monastics.
But Westerners become monastics when they are adults. We’ve already thought about many philosophical and religious issues; we have a lot of questions about the meaning of life and what happiness is. So we need a different approach. We need much more lamrim—stages of the path to awakening—and lojong—mind training—because those teachings really speak to our hearts. I believe lamrim and lojong integrated with the philosophical studies is very good—it includes the intellectual challenge and also the tools to calm our minds and work with our disturbing emotions. I believe that Westerners also need more vinaya (monastic discipline) training. In the Tibetan nunneries and monasteries, they don’t receive a lot of vinaya training, but learn by observing their elders. Vinaya studies come later in the monastic curriculum.
Most Western monastics live on their own or at Dharma centers where the teachings are directed primarily toward lay followers. Some Western monastics may receive teachings on the 36 novice precepts and some monks may receive teachings on the bhikshu precepts, but that’s it. Because there are not enough monastics to form a quorum, they aren’t able to do the important vinaya ceremonies.
But now you are starting a nunnery, and soon you will have the requisite number of bhikshunis to set up a territory and do important vinaya rites such as the posadha, varsa, and pravarana. These centuries-old ceremonies are very powerful, and doing them together makes a huge difference in community life.
At the Abbey we do all these ceremonies in English. We have put English translations of some of the verses to melodies from the Chinese tradition, so the ceremonies are very inspiring and uplifting, plus we understand them in our own language! Western nuns can receive bhikshuni ordination more easily than Tibetan and Himalayan nuns can. Nuns in the Tibetan nunneries are embedded in Tibetan society where the idea of fully ordained nuns is not yet accepted. As Western nuns we don’t face the same social pressure as they do; if we go to Chinese or Vietnamese masters to receive full ordination, most of our Western Dharma friends are happy for us. We have more opportunity to learn the vinaya and to discuss how to live them in our daily lives.
For me, living in the precepts is not simply following the literal meaning of the precepts. We need to look more deeply and with each precept, ask, “What mental affliction is the Buddha addressing by establishing this precept? What was he trying to get us to look at in our mind? What specific behavior is he calling our attention to?” The precepts were established in the context of Indian society of 26 centuries ago. Some of them are difficult to keep in a literal manner in present society. For example, we have a precept not to ride in vehicles. If we kept that one literally, we would not be able to attend Dharma teachings outside of the Abbey! For this reason, we must look at the meaning behind each precept and understand the mental state that the Buddha was getting at.
We must also understand the purpose of each precept. Some precepts are designed for our safety, so rather than say we can’t keep them literally due to cultural differences, we should look at present dangers we may face and use the precepts to protect ourselves from them. For example, in ancient India, women could not leave the home unaccompanied; any woman walking alone in town was considered a prostitute and faced harassment or rape. Nowadays women walk freely in cities, at least during the day. However, in my country (USA) it’s not safe for a woman to be out alone at night. So at Sravasti Abbey, we can go alone to town to run errands, or to the doctor and so forth during the day. If we go to the city to lead a meditation class at night, the situation is different and we go with another nun. Spokane is an hour and a half car ride away, and some stretches of the road are desolate. No one minds this house rule, because if the car broke down (our cars are old), none of us wants to be on a deserted road alone. Another reason nuns were not permitted to walk in the town alone in ancient India is because there were a few nuns who were naughty and flirted with men. To prevent that, they had to be with a female companion. Nowadays I don’t think nuns flirt very much. If a Western woman wants to ordain, I trust she is not interested in flirting. However, if I see someone flirting, I will point it out to her directly.
At a Western monastery or nunnery, the seniors can discuss and establish the house rules for all the monastics there. When we start a new community, having a strong leader whom everyone trusts and respects makes a big difference. Junior monastics have not been ordained for a long time; they haven’t studied, contemplated, and lived the precepts for very long, so they need elders to guide them. I lived in a nuns’ community in France many years ago, and everybody had been ordained seven years or less and we didn’t have a strong leader. When new monastics came, they wanted to change the schedule, change the pujas, and do things in a way that was comfortable for them. That doesn’t work.
When Sravasti Abbey began, I was at least 30 years senior in ordination than the others, so I established the house rules and people followed them. Now, we have many bhikshunis, so when new situations arise, we discuss them and come to a consensus, although they give more weight to the abbess’ thoughts on the issue. We modify existing house rules if they aren’t working. Following the vinaya and having clear house rules that everyone has agreed upon gives structure to our monastic life. When you live in a nunnery, you have the opportunity to think about the precepts deeply and discuss them with other bhikshunis. If it is impractical to keep them as they are literally explained, we set up a house rule and everyone respects it. This helps us as individuals to maintain good ethical conduct, and keeping the precepts in the same way is one factor in bringing us together as a community.
Q: Is it helpful to have a certain number, perhaps a slightly larger group? We only have three nuns now.
A: You will grow. Sravasti Abbey began with one nun and two cats, and we grew. If you’re living together happily and practicing well, others will want to join you. Will you have facilities where lay people can come and stay with you so they can see what monastic life is like?
Q: No, not yet. But in the future we are planning to enlarge, to have more younger nuns who are studying.
A: There are different types of nunneries and monasteries. Some want to be more like hermitages where residents focus on practice. Others, like Sravasti Abbey, want lay people to come stay with us and learn the Dharma.
In terms of welcoming new members, my experience is that it is far easier to train people from the beginning of their ordained life. If laywomen come and stay with you, they see how you live and get a feel for community life. Since their introduction to monastic life is through your nunnery, they easily learn and follow your guidelines.
Nuns who have been ordained for a while are often used to doing things in a certain way; they have a harder time adapting to the house guidelines of a new community. If they have another teacher, it may be hard for them to accept the guidance of what Tibetans call the resident teacher (nä-kyi-lama), the abbess of the nunnery where they now want to live. Someone may come and say, “Well, I don’t like getting up at 5 a.m. and my teacher says we can sleep until 5:30 a.m., so I’m not getting up at 5 a.m. like the rest of you.” That doesn’t work. If someone says that, we have to explain that at their teacher’s monastery, they follow those guidelines, but if they live here, they must follow our guidelines. If they don’t like our guidelines, they’ll be happier if they find a monastery where they feel more comfortable with the guidelines and live there.
To give another example, at Sravasti Abbey monastics do not own cars. All vehicles belong to the monastery. We do not get in the car and go to town whenever we want to to buy whatever our attachment tells us we need at that moment. We wait until there are many errands to run; then one or two people go to town and do them together. That saves time and by driving the car less, we reduce our carbon footprint. We also have guidelines about the use of money: while people may keep the money they had before they ordained, they can use it only for medical and dental expenses, travel, and making offerings. They cannot get a new blanket for themselves or buy food.
A monastic who has been living on their own is used to coming and going as they wish. When they come to stay with us, they must make a big adjustment. We have to see how flexible they are and if it’s going to work for them to join the community. They stay with us for a year as a probationary period before becoming a resident of our community.
Q: Since we’re forming a new nunnery, we also have to train ourselves in monastic life. We are not used to community life. I only had the five weeks’ training in Los Angeles at Hsi Lai Temple in 1988 when I was ordained as a bhikshuni. That’s my monastic training.
A: I was in a similar position and, in many ways, I had to train myself. I had close connections with some Chinese nuns and was able to learn a lot from them and ask them questions.
Having a daily schedule and keeping to it is an important part of the training. Make a well-rounded schedule so there is time for meditation, studying, exercise, discussion, and so forth.
Our daily life is part of our training; we practice keeping the precepts, applying the antidotes to afflictions, generating compassion, and reflecting on impermanence and emptiness as we go about all the activities in our daily schedule. We have a number of short verses that we recite before different activities, and begin all our group activities with someone leading a short bodhicitta motivation. We also have a vinaya class once a week with teachings and discussions when we talk about how to live the precepts in the Western culture in the 21st century. We also have an Exploring Monastic Life class each year. Although it is primarily for the newly ordained and people who are thinking of ordaining, our senior monastics attend the teachings as well. In addition, we have Dharma classes on Buddhist philosophy, the great treatises, the lamrim, and thought training.
Q: We envisage our nunnery to be a contemplative nunnery with a lot of meditation, and still having contact with lay people. We do outside activities like teaching or leading meditations here or in nearby towns. The nunnery itself would be just for the nuns, where they live, meditate, and study together. What do you think of the idea of having a contemplative nunnery?
A: That’s fine. There are different ways of organizing a nunnery. The challenge for a contemplative nunnery would be to arrange for teachings, Dharma discussions, and sharing. Having these other activities is important in addition to meditation.
Sometimes as Westerners we think—as I did when I first ordained—“I’m going to sit and meditate for as long as it takes to become a Buddha in this life.” We don’t realize that we have to create merit and purify our negativities. For our meditation to be successful, we have to know the teachings well. We also must make sure we have a good understanding of the meaning of the teachings through discussing them with other people. All of this is quite important.
Another challenge is that it could be very tempting for people to isolate themselves. If people are principally doing individual retreat all the time, you’ll need to keep track of what’s going on in their minds—whether they’re meditating properly or spacing out. Are they depressed? Or maybe they’re feeling lost and and not doing anything in their meditation sessions. If everyone lives mostly in silence, it will be hard to know when someone needs help but is reticent to ask for it.
Some of my Theravada friends in the U.S. organize their communities where only nuns live in the community. Due to the way they keep precepts, some lay women may live there or live nearby, or come from time to time to help out. This is how their communities grow. Someone initially comes a layperson to volunteer. Seeing how the nuns live, they become interested in becoming a nun themselves and request the eight anagarika precepts and after a while monastic ordination. In this way, they have a contemplative focus and their communities grow.
Q: There is one nunnery like that in South Germany. It is a Theravada nunnery. To move to another topic, what are the duties or tasks of nuns in a nunnery? Should there be the traditional functions of abbess, disciplinarian (gegu), chant leader (umdze) and manager?
A: Personally, I don’t think it’s wise to simply duplicate the Tibetan system. We need to see
what is needed in our particular situation. Especially at the beginning, you need a strong leader who has experience, someone whom everybody respects. If people don’t respect the leader, it’s not going to work, because everybody—especially those new to monastic life - will want to pull the community in different directions according to their own personal preferences. Factions may form. I think it’s good to have an abbess who is senior, knows the precepts, and has a wise and clear vision for the nunnery. She must also be compassionate, yet firm, and want to guide junior monastics.
However, the abbess is not a dictator. She is somebody who guides, nurtures, and keeps track of how everybody is doing. If people are discouraged or angry, she speaks with them and helps them. When people are stuck in their practice, she offers wise advice. When two people are not getting along, she helps each of them to use their Dharma practice to work on their own issues and helps them learn how to communicate effectively with each other.
An abbess has a lot of work to do! Everything you’ve studied before, you have to practice when you’re in a leadership position. Bodhisattva deeds sound so nice when you’re studying them. They’re so inspiring, but when you’re working in your community you have to put all the thought training teachings into practice! In addition, you are the person that everybody blames when they are unhappy. That’s just part of the job description. When they are unhappy with themselves, they blame the abbess. When they can’t get their way all the time, they blame the abbess. It’s just like that. You learn to not take these things personally.
Q: Do you have a disciplinarian or chant leader?
A: When organizing the distribution of jobs in a community, you need to take into account the talents and dispositions of your members. You also need to help people learn new skills and to prevent them from getting attached to having a certain job and developing an ego identity, “I’m the cook; the maintenance person; the altar manager; the web master and so forth, and this is my empire.” In our community, people take turns cooking each day. We tried having one person in the position of kitchen manager, who made sure that all the donated food was used in a timely manner and nothing went to waste. When lay people asked us what food we needed, the manager would respond. But recently the community decided that the job of kitchen manager was too much for one person, so we’re trying a new system of having three people manage the kitchen, with a new group of three taking over every three months. Meanwhile, everybody cycles through the cooking rota. This accords well with our present situation and the number of people in our community. When we were smaller, we didn’t need to do this. The arrangement was informal. As the community grows, we’ll probably change the system again.
We’re also blessed to have one nun who loves to organize things. Sometimes people become frustrated because she’ll reorganize things, and then we can’t find what we need because it’s in a different place. But she’s learning to communicate with everybody else about what she wants to organize and how she will arrange it. Seeing that she’s very good at organizing materials, furniture, and so forth, she’s in charge of our supplies as well as the storage room. She loves to build shelves and organize cleaning supplies, extra robes, blankets, pillows, etc. and makes sure they stay clean. When people need new robes or more blankets, she helps them. We are at a size now where there needs to be someone in charge of this.
Personally, I don’t like the term “disciplinarian.” It conveys a bad feeling, as if someone is breathing down your neck and you’ll get in trouble We’re people practicing together; we have to trust the sincerity of each person’s motivation that each nun is doing her best to come to daily meditation, teachings, offering service periods, etc. If somebody misses meditation sessions regularly, I’ll usually talk to them, or I’ll ask one of the other senior nuns to talk to them. “Are you sick? Are you tired? Is your body painful?”
We’ve gotten to a point now where people know what they need to be doing, and if they can’t do it they say to the group, “I’m sick, I won’t be at morning meditation.” Or, “I have a dentist appointment on Wednesday and will miss offering service. If you have errands that need to be done, let me know and I’ll do them while I’m in town.” Then everybody knows what’s happening with that person, and there’s no build-up of resentment. We have an announcement board, and when people have to miss scheduled events, they let everyone know by writing on the board.
Guests come to stay with us, and our office manager takes care of them, answering their emails and phone calls, arranging transportation from the shuttle to the Abbey, etc. She writes on a large monthly calendar all the events of that month as well as guests coming and going and other appointments monastics have. Another monastic is in charge ofs our monthly e-newsletter and monthly e-teaching. Somebody else is in charge of maintenance; another person takes care of legal and government procedures; a specific person manages the transcripts of teachings while someone else is responsible for videoing teachings and uploading them to the web. One monastic handles the schedules for all retreats and courses as well as arrangements for guest teachers. We don’t have one specific chant leader, but the people with good voices take turns. People also take turns setting up the altar and doing various cleaning jobs. In short, as monastics develop, different talents and their aptitudes become apparent, they take on various new jobs. You see what positions need to be filled. Some jobs are good to rotate, like working in the kitchen, setting up the altar, and cleaning. With other jobs, people need to do them for a while because they require certain skills that not everyone has.
Q: What would be a balanced relationship between group and individual practice?
A: Group practice is very good, especially when you’re newly ordained. Since everybody is meditating at the same time, you meditate too.
When we don’t have a lot of self-discipline, following the schedule and doing what everyone else is doing makes sure we do what needs to be done. Left on our own, some people will make all kinds of excuses. “I’m supposed to meditate now, but I’ll drink a cup of tea first and then I’ll meditate. It’ll only be ten minutes. . . ” And then our meditation session gets put off a little. “Oh, now that I’ve drunk a cup of tea, I might have to go to the bathroom, so I’d better wait another fifteen minutes and start my session after that.” You know how it goes.
With group sessions, you get a lot of support and energy from everybody meditating together. Our group sessions begin with someone setting the motivation, followed by chanting together. Then there is a good chunk of time for silent meditation. The dedication of merit is chanted together. We do Lama Chöpa (Guru Puja) twice a month, Tara Puja once a month, and posadha (sojong) twice a month. People also have their own practices, which they do either during the quiet time in the group meditation session, or in the meditation hall before or after the group sessions.
Q: How much free time should a nun have?
A: The arrangement in our community is that people have two weeks every year during which they can visit their families, do a retreat or attend teachings somewhere else. At the same time, there’s flexibility. For example, if someone goes to India to attend His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings, they’ll need more than two weeks. Sometimes people go to conferences as an Abbey representative, which doesn’t count as part of the two weeks.
As for our daily schedule, we have free periods. Between the end of morning meditation and breakfast there is half an hour. After lunch, depending on whether you are on lunch clean up or not, there’s an hour or more. Some people eat medicine meal in the evening, but those who don’t have another hour. We finish evening meditation at 8:15 p.m., so after that people can do their own reading, studying, and so on. It’s interesting, some people who visit us say, “Oh, you’re so busy at the Abbey,” but I think people on the outside are very busy, because they’re always running here and there.
We also try to have a group outing once or twice a year. There’s a Dharma center that’s about a four-hour drive away that often invites me to teach, and then the entire community comes along. This is really nice because we’re out together in a different environment, meeting different people. Sometimes lay people want to take the community out for a day; last year we went on an outing to visit a grove of ancient cedar trees.
We try to create a feeling of community by doing things together. We’ve just bought the property down the road. It needs a lot of work, so everybody went there one afternoon and worked together. It’s a wonderful feeling when we’re all working on the same project together, to accomplish a common purpose. We also have a big forest where we work in the summer, and that’s like playtime to me. I’m so happy being in nature. I call it “forest therapy.” I’m finally away from the computer, doing things with other people. We also take walks in the forest, sometimes individually, sometimes together. Being in nature is very healthy. It provides mental and physical space. If somebody is upset they just take a walk in the forest to calm down.
On a different topic, there are a lot of stereotypes about women that both Westerners and Tibetans have, and in my experience these stereotypes are wrong. It’s very important to discuss stereotypes and not let people get locked into thinking, “I’m a woman therefore. . .”
Tibetans monks in general think that women are full of sexual energy and the monks need to be protected from women. However, my experience is that it’s quite the opposite. The monks seem to have much more difficulty with the celibacy precept than the nuns do. Another stereotype is that women are jealous and they don’t get along. That’s ridiculous. From my experience of living many years in Dharma centers and monasteries, that stereotype is not true at all. I’m surprised when I meet women who accept that without examining whether or not it is true. Women get along very well; they are no more jealous or quarrelsome than men. Women may sometimes talk about things differently than men do—some men have told me that in a group of men, there is an alpha male which is recognized as the leader of the group and he deals with conflicts. . Men may not talk about interpersonal things as readily as women do. People sometimes say women are emotional, but some men have come to me for counselling after a relationship break up and they’ve been overwhelmed with emotion and cry a lot. But human beings are human beings; it doesn’t matter whether we are men or women.
Q: How should the timetable be structured in a nunnery?
A: I can share with you how we do things, but you’ll want to modify it to have a more contemplative lifestyle.
Morning meditation is from 5:30 to 7 a.m., so people get up at 5 a.m. or earlier, according to their wishes. Some people stay after morning meditation to do their personal practices. Breakfast is at 7:30 a.m.
Abbey residents have a stand-up meeting at 8:15 a.m. Our stand-up meetings work really well—we don’t sit down, so it’s a short meeting - fifteen to twenty minutes. First we go around and everyone says briefly something they rejoiced in from the previous day and what they plan to do that day—their different tasks, errands, and so on. This meeting brings us together in a very good way because everyone learns what made each person happy the previous day, and each of us learns to rejoice before we say what we plan on doing that day. If someone needs help with a task, or there’s an issue that needs to be discussed, they bring it up at the stand-up meeting. If we need to have a longer discussion, we say, “Let’s take this offline,” and two or three people are designated to deal with that issue. At 8:30 a.m. we begin offering service—we call it offering service, not work. Other centers call it karma yoga, but we prefer “offering service” because it’s part of our practice to offer service to the community. It’s a privilege to serve the Three Jewels because we accumulate incredible merit. So we offer service to the sangha, the lay community, society, and to the Dharma.
Lunch is at 12 p.m. We chant before breakfast and lunch, and also after lunch to dedicate the merit for those who offered the food. After lunch we also chant a short Dharma text that we change every day, such as the Heart Sutra, “Three Principal Aspects of the Path, “Eight Verses of Thought Training.” Offering service in the afternoon is from 2 to 4:30 p.m., followed by study time from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Medicine meal is at 6 p.m., then evening meditation 7 to 8:15 p.m.
We have regular teachings on Tuesday morning, and Thursday and Friday evenings, so the daily schedule differs slightly on those days. The Thursday and Friday teachings are live streamed. Every day before lunch, we have a short teaching in the dining room of 10 to 15 minutes called “Bodhisattva Breakfast Corner” (BBC) talks. All of these are found on our YouTube channel. Normally I give the teaching, but when I’m traveling, the other nuns take turns leading reviews or giving the BBC talks. Sometimes I can sense something going on in the community and use that talk before lunch as an opportunity to give direction. For instance, if someone is doing something that’s not beneficial, I present that issue to the whole group, and hopefully the person understands it. This usually works much better than speaking to that person directly. Otherwise, I take a short text and go through a little bit every day for the BBC talks..
In this way, there’s Dharma at breakfast and Dharma at lunch—this helps us to center ourselves and return the mind to the Dharma if we’ve gotten distracted. Not everyone eats the medicine meal, so that’s more informal, and people offer their food silently, on their own. People can use that time to catch up, or see how the guests are doing.
Q: Do men come to your courses?
A: Yes, and we have one monk and one man who is an anagarika with eight precepts. We have a gender-equal community, even though some people disagree with this. I decided to set the Abbey up in this way, because I’ve faced enough gender discrimination that I don’t want to create any more gender discrimination karma by excluding others. There is a separate men’s wing where the monks and male guests stay. Women don’t go there, and men don’t go into the women’s residences.
So that’s our schedule. I tell people who want to join the monastery, “There are three things you’re not going to like: how we do the chanting and structure the meditation sessions, how the kitchen is run and what food is served , and the schedule. Please remember that nobody else likes these three either. Everyone wants to change these three things to suit their own preferences, but however we change these, some people won’t like that either. If you accept the chanting, kitchen, and schedule and use them for training your mind, you’ll be happy here. Otherwise you’ll be miserable. It’s your choice.”
We also have meetings, sometimes to discuss practical things and sometimes to touch base and see how everyone is doing. “Is your mind happy? Have you had any bumps in your practice?” that kind of thing. These are community meetings, which are different than our short stand up meetings in the morning. We have community meetings every few weeks unless we get very busy. One of the nuns keeps track of them and reminds us when we haven’t had a community meeting for a long time. This is a good way for people to share and communicate with each other.
Of course, we do our meditation practice to train our mind, using the lojong practice to work with our afflictions and our craziness. Also, we try to constantly cultivate the mind that wishes to benefit others. The more you help other sentient beings as a group, the more they will help you in what you’re doing.
Q: How do you show appreciation for your supporters? We have a little booklet with names of our sponsors and people who have asked for prayers and we read this aloud.
A: We do that, too. Every evening at the end of the meditation session, we read the names of people who have requested prayers and dedications. On tsog days, twice a month, we read the names of people who have either offered service, made financial donations, or helped us in one way or another in the last half month. We also print an annual report that we give to our benefactors so that they can see what we’ve been doing and how we have used their donations. We also send people a thank you email or postcard to show our appreciation for their support.
Q: We have a website, a regular newsletter, and Facebook. One nun updates our Facebook page and there is information there.
A: That’s very good. We also have a website and Facebook page. We asked a laywoman to take care of our Facebook page. We appreciate her help very much, because it frees us from involvement with social media, which can be very time consuming.
Q: Thank you very much for your advice and for giving us so much of your time! That’s very kind of you!
A: My pleasure.