Last year, we requested His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa to name our community. The giving of names is considered in Buddhist (and many other) contexts to be a potent act in which important aspects of a person (or institution’s) identity is articulated. When we become monastics we receive new names, given to us by the abbot who confers the vows that make us monastics. Most Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and Dharma centers receive their names from their spiritual guides, an acknowledgment of the formative role of that guide in shaping the direction and identity of that institution.
When we asked His Holiness the Karmapa to name our community, he thought briefly, and then told us to pick the name of one of the bhikshunis who were direct disciples of Buddha, and give her Sanskrit name to our community. His Holiness knew well that Damchö had been working on the Sanskrit and Tibetan life stories of these nuns for her dissertation, and could easily surmise that anecdotes from their life stories form part of the informal fabric of our lives together. His Holiness also knew that although none of us have yet received bhikshuni ordination, we all harbor strong aspirations to do so in the future, aspirations that have been nurtured by reading the lives of the very first bhikshunis.
However, wanting the auspicious connection of having a name chosen by His Holiness, we suggested that we might come up with a short list of possible names and His Holiness could then select from among them, to which he agreed.
As it turns out, by the time we had a list ready, all four of us had a clear favorite—a nun who overcame great obstacles to receive her bhikshuni ordination and who went on to become a great teacher of the Dharma and leader within the nuns’ order. This courageous young woman not only managed to give a Dharma teaching that completely pacified her would-be in-laws, who had surrounded the house she was staying in to prevent her from going forth into the nuns’ order. When she later taught the Dharma to a troop of soldiers, they became pacifists, and followed her guidance as their lama or virtuous friend (kalyāṇamitrā). This nun’s name was Bhikshuni Dharmadattā and she inspired us deeply with her commitment to the monastic path, and her commitment to the Dharma and to caring for others by means of Dharma.
At this point, although we all knew which name we’d like, our agreement still stood: We had asked His Holiness to chose one from a list, so Damchö duly took a list to His Holiness, who glanced quickly at the options and simply pointed to the name: Dharmadattā.
Thus our community’s name was born, in much the same way our community itself has evolved—with us nuns first bringing our aspirations to His Holiness, seeking from him the guidance that lamas usually give their disciples, and with His Holiness then urging us to take responsibility for pursuing those aspiration ourselves, even as he agrees to share in that task with us. And in the end, we have found, our vision and aspirations for ourselves and Gyalwang Karmapa’s vision for us continue in perfect harmony.
(A full translation of the story of Dharmadattā’s life will be published, along with the stories of other nuns by Wisdom Publications, and an advance draft will appear on our website in the next few weeks.)