sakyadhita workshop

The following includes portions of a proposal that was submitted to and approved by the Foundation for Buddhist Studies, which has generously agreed to sponsor Lhundup Damcho's attendance at the conference in Singapore next year. 

The vast preponderance of Buddhist monastic communities to date have been male communities. The stability and lasting resilience of those communities over the centuries depended not only on the availability of financial support but also on the success of the social structures and practices they employed internally. Although these were all-male communities, and therefore clearly employed practices and social structures that were intensely male-gendered, this simple fact has often been overlooked when it comes to our thinking about and development of nuns’ communities.

Tibetan Buddhism teaches that women and men have the same essential nature. Both ultimately share the same basic potential for spiritual growth and enlightenment. Yet it also clearly acknowledges that social conditioning has a major impact on the tendencies, needs and strengths that any given person can bring to bear at any given moment. Whenever people live together, the habits, expectation and internalized roles that they have imbibed with their earlier socialization take on great relevance. This is certainly so in the case of gender socialization.

A great deal of sociological research has been done into the ways that men and women in the same society display differences in their friendships, their ways of caring for others and their styles of communication. If we are able to tailor the social practices within our monastic community to reflect the strengths we have as women, this could be of great benefit to the health and stability of our community. For example, as women we might tend to be more comfortable sharing our internal processes in ways that allow us to address more effectively the interpersonal and personal issues that will inevitably arise in any social group. Thinking about such differences gives us an opportunity to support each other in ways that men might be less inclined to do, and that therefore might not be part of the traditional monastic practices developed in male communities. In order for this to happen, we must begin by asking ourselves and each other and see what relative strengths we have and how we might integrate them  into our community life in a healthy way. 

When nuns’ communities have been established within otherwise male-dominated Buddhist traditions and orders, in many cases, they were founded and guided at least initially by male Buddhist teachers. Even when the founders are female, quite often the structures of authority, the place of dialogue, the practices of communication and forms of personal relationships that proved effective in all-male monastic communities tend to be simply emulated as the model for nuns’ communities that are established in that same tradition.

In modern times, when nuns’ communities founded in such a way have failed to prosper or encounter internal problems, this failure was at times attributed—usually informally and in private conversations—to women’s nature, rather than to the fact that they were living in structures and employing practices designed for men. As the number and size of Buddhist women’s communities grow, it seems the right moment to question whether the models of men’s communities that have dominated Buddhism to date might not require adaptation in order to suit women’s needs and potentials. three in a row

We are organizing a workshop that addresses this question, during the 12th Sakyadhita Conference in Singapore in June 2011. This workshop will focus discussion on ways that women’s communities have drawn or might draw on the particular strengths and needs of women, and ways that all-male models fall short of meeting those needs or making us of those strengths. The workshop will include Buddhist women from various traditions—Mahayana, Theravada and Tibetan. First, we will be inviting as participants women who have lived in all-female communities, and we will initiate online discussions among us in advance of the workshop at Sakyadhita. For the workshop, speakers with expertise in gendered studies of organizational structures and communication practices will also be sought.  Additionally, we will solicit contributions from scholars able to bring into the conversation the experiences of historical communities of Buddhist women, such as medieval Japanese nuns. Dharmadattā Nuns' Community will chair the workshop, and offer comments based on some of the initial experiences and challenges we have faced in the two years since our founding. At the workshop, participants will exchange views and experiences, with active involvement of the members of the audience.

In short, this workshop will seek to bring our collective experience and understanding to bear on the following thesis: If women tend to communicate with each other differently than men do, if women tend to respond differently to hierarchical authority, and if women tend to form different sorts of friendships than men do, then in order for communities comprised entirely of women to flourish, they may need different organizational structures and different communication practices than have historically been found productive for Buddhist male communities.

We believe women’s ability to form effective monastic communities could be one condition that is essential for the long-term viability of the Buddhist nuns’ orders, which would greatly enhance progress towards goals of gender equity in Buddhist societies. Since some nuns’ orders have had far deeper histories than others, this workshop will provide an opportunity for newer communities and orders to learn from them. At the same time, other women present could offer expertise in sociology, psychology, gender studies and communication theory that might serve as important tools in the crafting of wisely gendered communities, and this conference offers a rare forum for fostering communication among all such parties.

Indeed, the Sakyadhita conference is the ideal forum for such a workshop. Founded in 1987, Sakyadhita is the leading international association of Buddhist women, and brings together important figures in the movement to foster gender equity in Buddhist communities and societies. The organization itself includes social activists, leaders within Buddhist organizations, and scholars and practitioners committed to gender equity. Its conferences are attended by many women who live in all-female communities who could contribute what they have learned and at the same time benefit from hearing others’ experiences, as well as many Buddhist women with expertise and formal education in relevant areas of study, such as sociology, psychology, gender studies and communication theory. Further, proceedings of the conference are often published, further extending access of this workshop to those not able to attend the conference. As such, it offers unique conditions for making such a workshop of maximal effect.

We are working on making provisions for online discussion about the topics this workshop would raise. Please check back here next month for ways to participate and respond.

“All beings throughout the reaches of space 
must have happiness, be free from suffering,
and quickly attain unsurpassable, perfect and complete awakening.

For that purpose, until buddhahood, I will employ
my body, speech and mind in virtue.
Until death, I will employ
my body, speech and mind in virtue.
From today until this time tomorrow, I will employ
my body, speech and mind in virtue.”

- From our morning prayers