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2,500 Years After the Buddha, Tibetan Buddhists Acknowledge Women

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Buddhist women are celebrating a landmark victory: In April, the renowned Institute for Buddhist Dialectical Studies (IBD) in Dharamsala, India, conferred the degree of "Geshe" -- the Tibetan equivalent of Ph.D. -- to Venerable Kelsang Wangmo, a German nun. This is a historical first in so many ways: Traditionally, Geshe degrees are conferred on monks after 12 or more years of rigorous study in Buddhist philosophy. For the first time in history, a nun has now received this degree, and even more surprising, a Western woman. Venerable Kelsang Wangmo is finally rewarded for mastering the strenuous study course in highest Buddhist philosophy. She has already been teaching philosophy at the Institute for more than five years.

So, why is this such a big deal and why did it take so long? After all, in the West the first professor degree was awarded to a woman at a European university almost 300 years ago, in 1732. (Scientist Laura Bassi taught physics at the University of Bologna.) And more than 2,500 years ago the Buddha himself allowed women into his order and ordained his own foster mother, Mahaprajapati. She and 500 like-minded women had to shave their heads and walk 350 miles barefoot to show their unwavering determination, before the Buddha finally granted their request -- a revolutionary decision in India at the time. The Buddha's order was the first in Asia to formally allow women in its ranks.

Yet it may come as a surprise to many that despite its peaceful and somewhat progressive image in the West, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition does not know full ordination for women. For complex historical and patriarchal reasons, the lineage did not migrate when Buddhism spread from India to Tibet, thus outclassing the Tibetan Buddhist nuns as inferior. In fact, the Tibetan word for nun, Ani, with which the nuns are commonly addressed, does not even really mean "nun," but simply "auntie." Tibetan Buddhist nuns have to travel to Chinese countries to receive full ordination in a Buddhist lineage that they are not entirely familiar with. "Most Tibetan nuns don't have the means to travel to Hongkong or Korea," says Tenzin Palmo, the most senior Western Tibetan Buddhist nun alive today, "and even if they did, they want to be ordained in their own tradition, by their own Lamas, in their own robes." The consequence is that the nuns also don't have equal access to the full curriculum -- only fully ordained monastics can study ethics in their entirety.

The spiritual leader of the Tibetans, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has long been an advocate for the empowerment of women and insisted that there should be a Geshe-ma degree for Tibetan Buddhist nuns. He has also publicly supported full ordination for nuns and equal access to education. "The important thing is that now, for the past thirty years, we have worked to change that. Many nuns are very sincere, but they have had no chance to ascend to the highest ordination level," the Dalai Lama acknowledged in an interview with The Progressive.

"This has made me somewhat uncomfortable, especially since the Buddha gave equal opportunities to women. But we, even as followers of Buddha, neglected that. In the last few centuries, we completely neglected the quality of religious studies in nunneries. For the last forty years, ever since we've been in India, nunneries have developed better. Then, we introduced the same levels of studies for both males and females. Now it is possible for both men and women to get doctorates in Buddhist studies."

The Dalai Lama stresses that he cannot simply dictate change -- the whole community of senior Tibetan masters would need to agree to change the traditional rules.

Therefore a full-fledged discussion is in place about the position of Tibetan Buddhist nuns. To this day the female nuns have to obey 98 more precepts than the monks, including the rules that they have to obey the monks, can't give them advice and even the most senior nun still has to take a lower seat than the greenest rookie monk. Tenzin Palmo seriously doubts that these extra precepts were really taught by the Buddha and has researched reasons to believe that they were added by later patriarchs to reflect the dominant views about females at that time. What started out as the most revolutionary welcome to women at the Buddha's time, has turned into a misogynistic adventure. "It's just time they get their act together!" Tenzin Palmo said pointedly when I last visited her in the Himalayas, "and give the nuns their full ordination!"
Tenzin Palmo was born as Diane Perry in London and shares her own insight into the hardships of following the Buddhist path as a Western woman. Her biography, "Cave in the Snow," became a bestseller worldwide.

For the last 15 years, she has campaigned tirelessly to promote the education of women and even started her own nunnery in the foothills of the Himalayas in India, not far from the Dalai Lama's seat in exile. She will visit New York this weekend to teach. In her neat, sunny nunnery everything is geared towards boosting the nuns' knowledge and with it, their self-confidence. In her new book, "Into the Heart of Life," London born Buddhist teacher Tenzin Palmo writes: "As in most religious institutions, Tibetan Buddhism is expressed in a predominantly male voice. The books were written by men, almost all the lineage masters are male, all the examples handed out to us are male. Women also have a voice, which is very distinct, and in order to achieve balance in the Dharma, that voice needs to be heard."

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