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Sisters in Solitude – Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women

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Item Code: IHL228
Author: Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Language: English
Edition: 1997
ISBN: 8170305411
Pages: 208
Other Details 9.00x6.00 inch
Weight 370 gm
Book Description
From Back of The Book

“A study of nuns’ ethics is important in itself and is important to Buddhist studies, Asian religions, and Humanities.” Jeffrey Hopkins, University of Virginia. This study is an investigation of the moral precepts and codes of everyday conduct by which ordained women regulated their lives. It takes as its basis the Bhiksuni Pratimoksa Sutras of the Dharmagupta School, preserved in Chinese translation, and the Mulasarvastivada School, preserved in Tibetan translation.

For over two thousand years, Buddhist nuns have quietly embodied specific moral and spiritual values on their path to enlightenment. Contemplative communities offered women both an alternative lifestyle and an avenue for education. Numbering as many as one million at certain periods of history, they have exerted powerful, if often unacknowledged, influence on Asian societies.

Sisters in Solitude documents the earliest recorded system of ethics formulated especially for women and presents the first English translations of the original texts. An essential sourcebook for studies on women’s religious history and feminist ethics, it details the monastic guidelines that link Buddhist nuns of the different traditions. The texts it contains unite women of many cultures.

“The topic is very significant to those seriously interested in issues of women and Buddhism and to scholars of Buddhist studies in general.”

- Rita Gross, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire

Karma Lekshe Tsomo is Instructor of Buddhist Studies at Antioch University and a Degree Fellow at the East – West Center in Honolulu. Her previous publications include Buddhism through American Women’s Eyes; Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha; and Jorcho: Preparatory Practices.


This work, including translations of the Bhiksuni Pratimoksa Sutras of the Dharmagupta and Mulasarvastivada Vinaya Schools and a comparative analysis of the two, is concerned with the ethical precepts that guide the lives of bhiksunis, fully ordained Buddhist nuns. To contextualize this study, it may be useful to describe my background and my relationship to the materials under consideration.

Born to American parents during the Second World War. I was christened Patricia Jean Zenn. My formative years were spent in the bohemian atmosphere of Malibu, California, surfing. As a consequence of my Prussian family name, Zenn, I developed a fascination with Buddhism as a young child and, at the age of 11, announced to my Southern Baptist mother that I was a Buddhist. Some years later, disillusioned and out of sync with the social and political climate around me, I dropped out of Occidental College and spent two years living in Japan and traveling throughout Asia. Returning to complete a degree in Oriental Languages from the University of California, Berkeley, at the height of the student – led social movements of the 1960s, one day I found myself doing prostrations to the Buddha in the living room of Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan lama who had just arrived from India.

In 1972, on an East – West Center grant, I traveled to Dharamsala, India, for Tibetan language training and encountered my kind spiritual guide, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, teaching at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives just established by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Fascinated by the psychological insights and practical methodology of the Tibetan Buddhist approach to living and dying, my teenage aspiration to become a monk developed into a resolute determination to enter monastic life. In 1977, when I received the precepts of a sramanerika (novice nun) in the Tibetan tradition in southern France, I was unaware that full ordination was not available to women within that tradition. The bhiksuni lineage was established in China in the fifth century, existed at one time in Nepal, and was still alive in India at the time Buddhism traveled to Tibet, primarily between the eighth to tenth Centuries C.E. However, there is at present no historical evidence that any bhiksunis made the journey to Tibet to transmit the precepts there or that any Tibetan nuns traveled to India and returned. Presumably the Bhiksuni Sangha from being established in Tibet. Only some years after my sramanerika ordination, while studying at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, did I learn that one of my teachers, an English nun named Khechog Palmo (Frieda Bedi), had received full ordination in Hong Kong, and that the bhiksuni lineage continued to exist in the Chinese and Korean traditions. In 1981, I established a correspondence with the bhiksuni master Shig Hiu Wan of the Institute for Sino – Indian Buddhist Studies in Taiwan and received an invitation to attend a bhiksuni ordination to be held near Taipei in 1982. With permission from my Tibetan teachers, I set off to receive the ordination.

En route to Taiwan, while traveling in Korea, I learned by coincidence that a dual bhiksuni ordination, following traditional Vinaya texts, is administered by a full complement of ten bhiksuni precept masters. To participate in such an ordination is a rare opportunity. Therefore, with the kind sponsorship of the Korean Zen masters Kusan Pangjang Sunim. I was able to receive bhiksuni precepts at Beomeo Temple near Pusan with I English nun, 120 Korean nuns, alongside an equal number of Korean monks, in October 1982. There was a tense moment when the ordination officials at the temple raised questions about my sramanerika ordination from the Tibetan tradition, but in the end the legitimacy of my prior ordination was accepted. Following the five –day ordination, II Ta Sunim of Haein Temple, a renowned calligrapher and Vinaya scholar, and spent days clarifying points of the precepts in Japanese for me. It was he who had recommended that the monastic order in Korea reinstitute the dual ordination procedure and had revised the bhiksuni ordination manual just that year.

Since arrangements had already been made for my ordination in Taiwan, I observed an ordination held at Hai Ming Temple in November 1982 and participated in month of intensive training in monastic discipline. This ordination with over 300 bhiksunis and 72 bhiksus, gave me a firsthand opportunity to observe and compare the ordination procedures and interpretation of Vinaya in the Chinese and Koran monastic traditions. A subsequent stay of six months at the Institute of Sino – Indian Buddhist Studies gave me a chance to see how the precepts were interpreted an practiced in ordinary daily life. During this period, I interviewed Vinaya scholars throughout Taiwan to learn more about the history of the Chinese bhiksuni lineage and to clarify technical Vinaya terms and concepts. Returning to my studies in Dharamsala, I had the opportunity to question Tibetan scholars on their interpretations of Bhiksuni Vinaya. My compassionate teacher Geshe Damcho Gyaltsen and classmate Thubten Kunga were especially helpful in deciphering the texts. Certain obscure Vinaya terms found in the Bhiksuni Pratimoksa do not occur in the Bhiksu Pratimoksa. Since, in the absence of a Bhiksuni Sangha in Tibet, monks would not ordinarily have occasion to do research in Bhiksuni Vinaya, the dedication and patience of these monks, in addition to their linguistic and philosophical competence, were impressive indeed. My experience of living as a Buddhist nun in monasteries of various Asian traditions over the last eighteen years has given me unique opportunities to study the texts with Vinaya scholars and practitioners who have a direct and intimate connection with the texts. These research opportunities have been especially valuable in view of the comparative and multicultural (Indian, Chinese, Tibetan) nature of this study. It has also been my good fortune to experience the everyday life of diverse Buddhist communities throughout Asia in company with women dedicated to spiritual awakening. The Bhiksuni Pratimoksa texts constitute the foundations of spiritual practice and social organization for thousands of communities of women even today. The translation of these texts in no mere academic exercise, but has significance for the restoration and continuance of the order to Buddhist nuns in the modern world. When Western nuns of the Tibetan tradition began contemplating full ordination in other traditions, for example, Tibetan scholars raised legitimate queries as to the origin and content of the Chinese and Korean Bhiksuni Pratimoksa texts. It emerged that prospects for establishing a Bhiksuni Sangha within the Tibetan tradition rested on verifying both the texts and the living lineage. Fortunately, nuns within the Tibetan tradition have founds His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be a sympathetic ally. When Bhiksuni Heng – ching Shih, cotranslator of the Chinese translation presented here, had an audience with His Holiness at the Kalachakra empowerment in Madison, Wisconsin, in July 1982, His Holiness asked specific questions about the Chinese bhiksuni lineage and expressed a wish to obtain a copy of the bhiksuni precepts of the Chinese tradition. Directly after that audience, Ven. Heng – ching and I stayed up far into the night making a rough translation of the precepts, which we presented to His Holiness the next day. His Holiness’s request was thus the initial impetus for our efforts and the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration which has resulted in the present work. In response to requests that he personally establish the Bhiksuni Sangha within the Tibetan tradition, His Holiness has explained that creating such an institution is not within the power of a single bhiksu such as himself, but must be the decision of the Bhiksu Sangha in accordance with Vinaya procedures. The order can be reestablished by transmitting the lineage from an existing Bhiksuni Sangha, if the validity of that lineage can be verified and if the Bhiksu Sangha of the tradition agrees. His Holiness has repeatedly stated that he would welcome a Bhiksuni Sangha within the Tibetan tradition. Since reviewing the Chinese bhiksuni precepts and ordination procedures, he ha publicly given his permission for nuns of the Tibetan tradition to travel to Hong Kong, Korea, or Taiwan to participate in the full ordination. He has voiced the opinion that popular acceptance of a Bhiksuni Sangha is more important at this stage than official government recognition.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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