Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Subtle Presence of Happiness

These photos may or may not capture the subtle sense of happiness that pervades our days here in Bodhgaya. But we assure you, we are living within that joy each moment we are here. Even if you cannot be here in Bodhgaya and breathe this same air of joyful practice, perhaps you can share in some of the spirit through these words of Gyalwang Karmapa, from a teaching given last month in Delhi:

We can learn to appreciate our lives more by considering the fact of our impending death, but we can also come to value our live more by contemplating the preciousness of our mere existence. This is another of the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma, in which we recognize that it is extremely precious just to have a human body, and that it is rare to have this opportunity to simply be a human being. There is a tremendous amount of happiness and well-being embedded within this very fact. But we often miss this subtle presence of happiness, and think that life should be all about getting things we don't have, things that are new to us, and adding more on top of what we have already acquired, without considering that what we already have is a situation of bountiful happiness and well-being.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Receive with Us

This time next week, from the 20th to 22nd of December, HH Gyalwang Karmapa will be teaching on Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend. These teachings, aimed especially at His Holiness' Western and students, will be webcast live, and we invite you to take your seats alongside us, virtually, and share with us the experience of receiving the Dharma directly from this exceptional spiritual teacher.

If the time difference allows you to watch during the Indian hours of 9-11 am and 3-5 pm, you will find the webcast at this site: As a guide to the time differences, these Indian hours coincide with 10:30 pm to 12:30 am and 4:30 am to 6:30 am in New York (and please pardon the east coast bias!)

Should you decide to join us, this photo may help give you a sense of the place where the teachings will be held, and here are some words to give you a sense of the teachings to come. This passage belows is a summary of advice on how to listen to Dharma teachings, from the deeply moving talk His Holiness gave last week to a large gathering of monastics attending the winter debate session here in Bodhgaya. It is excerpted from the daily report we are preparing and that you can also find on the Kagyu office and Kagyu monlam websites.

Describing the way to receive Dharma teachings, His Holiness took up the image of a vessel free of the three faults—of having holes in it, being dirty or being placed upside down. He managed to take this analogy, well known to many Dharma practitioners, and make it come suddenly alive and replete with new meaning—another characteristic feature of his teaching style. His Holiness assigned the audience the task of examining for themselves whether their minds were worthy recipients for the pure Dharma. We ourselves must take steps to ensure that our minds are suitable vessels to hold the Dharma, he said. We must actively work to remove any stains in our minds, and see to it that our minds are sound, and held upright to receive and retain the Dharma offered.

Going to attend the teachings of a high lama casually, as if we were going to an ordinary, everyday event, is a sign we are not properly valuing the Dharma. Nor is it adequate to simply sit, nonchalantly extending our plate for whatever might be dished onto it, His Holiness said. Instead, we should go to teachings with a deep hunger, and eagerly hold up the empty bowl of our minds to receive the nectar of the pure Dharma.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

That We Need Bhikshunis, and Why

His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa has been an unwavering supporter of the proposal first put forward by His Holiness the Dalai Lama that nuns practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition ought to be offered the opportunity to receive full ordination, just as men are. During the winter debate teachings now underway here in Bodhgaya, this extraordinary lama of ours offered a clear and eloquent declaration of the need for bhikshunis in Tibetan Buddhism. From the report that will appear on the Kagyu Monlam and Kagyu Office websites:

Just as a well-constructed house needs four pillars, the teachings of the Buddha are built around the four pillars of upasaka, upasika, (male and female holders of lay precepts) and bhikshus and bhikshunis, (in Tibetan, gelongs and gelongmas, or fully ordained monks and nuns). Among the monastics, the two communities that are considered senior or supreme are the bhikshus and bhikshunis. Among the lay followers, the highest are the male and female holders of lay precepts. When all four are present, the house becomes stable. For the Buddha’s teachings to remain long and flourish, the presence of all four is indispensable, His Holiness stressed. He added that such topics would be discussed further in the upcoming vinaya colloquium that also forms part of this year’s winter debate session.

That colloquium begins on December 13, is open only to monastics, and lasts for five days. We will of course be attending and you can look for a report here then. In the meantime, if your curiosity is already piqued and you'd like to read further now, here are some links that explore the topic of full ordination for nuns in Tibetan Buddhism:

Read what Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo said in a talk attended by His Holiness the Dalai Lama--and upon hearing which, His Holiness began to cry, and a second talk of hers.

Read Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron's article in Mandala Magazine on the topic.

Review the results of a conference on the topic called by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2007.

Preview an upcoming book, Dignity and Discipline, devoted to the topic.

Explore a range of material on the issue.

Or watch the following 18-minute video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama presenting his views on the matter at Smith College:

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Winter Pilgrimage Begins

We are all together again in Bodhgaya, the deeply inspiring site of Buddha's enlightenment. Our days are spent practicing intensely at the bodhi tree, translating and receiving a weeklong series of teachings from HH Gyalwang Karmapa on the three types of vows available for the most serious practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism to take. These vows form the basis of Buddhist ethical discipline, and, as His Holiness commented on the first day of teachings, this discipline is the foundation of all of our spiritual practice.

To read more about what we are up to, a daily summary of these teachings may be found at this link. The photo above, taken by our friend Tashi Paljor, appears on this website, and in it we are seated at the front pillar, to the left. Can you recognize us??

Friday, November 20, 2009

october shifts

The month of October brought many shifts to the quiet routine that had been established in our community. Damchö returned from her long stay in the States, her PhD at long last complete and officially behind her and very much ready to move forward to life beside her Dharma sisters in India. The four of us renewed the bonds of affection that connect us, exchanging tales of our time apart and drinking deeply of the joy of the spiritual life that we share as women on this monastic path.

Within days of returning, any hopes of resting after the long and intense period of writing and defending her dissertation were dashed, as a series of translation jobs came tumbling in, one after the other. While Damchö stayed at home working on texts to be used during the upcoming Kagyu Monlam prayer festival in Bodhgaya, Dapel, Nangpel and Drolma had the great privilege of attending teaching after teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his home monastery in Dharamsala.

First were teachings on the Diamond Cutter Sutra and Sevenfold Mind Training, two texts that focus, respectively, on the cultivation of wisdom and of compassion. To our great delight, a third text, Three Principles of the Path, was added unexpectedly to the program—for it is precisely this text that is the basis of the ten-week study program that Nangpel, Dapel and Drolma will attend this coming January. After a short break, His Holiness offered a second series of talks directly in English at the request of a group from Singapore. The ostensible topic was the Four Noble Truths, the first teaching that Buddha gave after his own enlightenment. But the experience of receiving His Holiness’s wisdom without the intervention of a translator opened a certain sense of closeness and immediacy, as His Holiness spoke from the heart on secular values. Following each set of talks, His Holiness offered an opportunity to take the bodhisattva vows—vows in which we commit to actively cultivate compassion and work for the welfare of others—directly from him. At such moments we see vividly the value of being located here in India, where such rare opportunities occur regularly.

Also this month, we had the opportunity to meet privately with the Gyalwang Karmapa, our spiritual guide, reporting to him on our activities over the past months, and seeking his counsel for what lies ahead. In particular, we presented our aspirations for a study program that would meet our needs as Westerners in whom Buddhism needs to be actively inculcated. As we articulated our wish for a program that could combine elements of Western pedagogy with more traditional Tibetan methods of transmitting knowledge, His Holiness responded to our request by expressing his own strong interest in developing such a program, and we now plan to work to have a working curriculum in place for when Dapel, Nangpel and Drolma return from their study program in Nepal.

Meanwhile, even as the rhythms of this month were punctuated with teachings, private audiences and other special events, day in and day out, Nangpel and Drolma continued with their intensive daily meditation commitments, as they move toward completing their ngondro (preliminary practices) and at the same time continue their meditation training. For her part, Dapel continues her study of the Tibetan language and her own daily practice commitments. And for all of us, supporting one another in these activities itself forms a core part of our spiritual practice.

Later in the month, a solemn ceremony was held down the road from our house to formally release a biography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that had been long in the making. With HHDL himself in attendance, His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa officiated at the proceedings, with a multitude of Tibetans gathering to express their deep appreciation for the Dalai Lama’s extensive activities. The ceremony took place close on the heels of a series of executions of Tibetan protesters by the Chinese government, and at the close of the ceremony, His Holiness the Dalai Lama commented that prayers are stronger when made on the basis of a shared relationship with the one for whom we are praying – such as family relationships, relationships that come from sharing experiences or belongings, or the relationships that link spiritual teachers and disciples. Therefore, His Holiness said, it would be good for us to pray together for those who have been executed, and for happiness and peace throughout the world. Seated before these two exceptional beings, joining them and the rest of the Tibetan community in prayers, it hit home just how remarkable it is to have a culture fundamentally saturated with the wish to ease the suffering of others, and headed by leaders whose own commitment to the well-being of others is unequivocal. Even if those aspirations prove challenging to implement or even sustain, simply setting them at the notional center of a society is already a great deal.

Shortly after this event, our community found itself somehow entrusted with the task of translating a text by the great Indian master Nagarjuna from Tibetan into Spanish for use during the Kagyu Monlam. His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa will teach on that text, Letter to a Friend (Suhrllekha) in December, so our deadline was extremely tight. It was our first essay at co-translating from Tibetan to Spanish, and the experience produced a special joy, as we spent day after day fully immersed in the powerful verses of Nagarjuna, offering the fullness of our attention and energy with the imminent prospect of connecting Spanish speakers with this text and with the lama who will teach on it. Some years ago, Nangpel had worked on a Spanish translation of Damchö’s English translation of the Sanghatasutra, but this time we worked directly from Tibetan into Spanish, with Damchö first rendering into her version of Spanish, Nangpel then reworking each verse into a suitably literary Spanish, and Drolma contributing her suggestions and editorial talents. As the three of us worked away on the Spanish translation, Dapel was occupied in formatting the German translation for inclusion in the same book. We rather optimistically named this an effort of the “Nuns’ Community Translation Team,” with the wish that it may not be our last opportunity to offer our service in this way. For Nangpel especially, the project was a culmination of her years of experience working with the Spanish language and literature, and served as poignant proof that at this point in her spiritual path, everything that has come before can be made useful, as long as the aspiration to be of benefit to others remains central.

For Spanish speakers, we share three verses we three found particularly moving from this text:

61) Vivir en lugares propicios,
confiar en personas sagradas,
sus propias aspiraciones nobles y mérito acumulado en el pasado:
estas cuatro grandes ruedas le pertenecen.

107) Si no hay sabiduría, no hay concentración.
Sin concentración, no hay sabiduría.
Para quien tiene ambas, el océano del samsara
es como el charco en la huella de una pezuña.

112) Entre los tesoros de las enseñanzas del Buddha
este del surgimiento interdependiente es el más precioso, el más profundo.
Quien lo ve correctamente, por entender la realidad tal como es,
ve al Buddha, en su forma suprema.

The translation was completed in early November, just as Nangpel and Drolma were to leave for Nepal to renew their Indian visas. Damchö and Dapel accompanied them on the first leg of their journey, to Delhi. Dapel and Damchö stayed on, attending to some minor health issues but most importantly, receiving an extraordinary teaching from their lama, on his way back from speaking at the TED conference in south India, where His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa called for spiritual practitioners to pay greater attention to the particular sufferings of women around the globe.

During the teaching in Delhi, His Holiness commented on how to put to practice use the notion of emptiness, which is the term used in Buddhist philosophical to describe ultimate reality. Emptiness, His Holiness said, does not mean a lack or an absence of things, but means rather an interval or a gap. Emptiness, he said, is the opening from which all opportunities spring. If we have the sense that the world is taking away our opportunities, or robbing us of chance to develop, we should recall that endless opportunities are always present, able to spring from the interdependent arising that is the ground of our existence.

In that spirit, we wish you an endless arising of goodness and joy, now and in the month to come.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

tiny start, vast aspirations

During an audience the four of us had as a group earlier this year with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa Orgyen Trinley Dorje, we presented our vision and aspirations for our community. The following is adapted from the letter that we read aloud to His Holiness at that time.

Your Holiness, we have begun living together, slowly trying out structures for community life that are both in accordance with the vinaya and suited to our backgrounds and Mahayana aspirations. We do this with the dream of building the foundations for a larger monastic community in the future. For us as Westerners, this may take some experimenting, and we are committed to working together to find the right balance so that a strong, stable and harmonious community can slowly take shape. In the long term, we aspire to help create a community where nuns from many different countries can move towards enlightenment together. We wish to construct a beautiful and flourishing platform on which to benefit others in ways we ourselves cannot now even imagine. We would like to share with Your Holiness our ideas and aspirations for this community.

Monasticism as valuable part of Buddhadharma for Westerners

As Westerners, we all grew up immersed in an environment that tells us that happiness depends on our acquisition of external goods and sense pleasures. Among the many teachings the Buddhadharma offers, the monastic path in particular provides direct and living proof that it is possible to be content with far less than our society would insist is indispensable for a happy life. Western monastics living meaningful lives joyfully can offer a powerful demonstration that the causes of happiness lie elsewhere than might commonly be thought. As such, we feel that Buddhist monasticism has a highly valuable contribution to make to Western culture, and thereby to the global culture that it influences.

Community life as an integral part of Dharma practice

Living together as monastics in community also offers a vivid demonstration of Buddha's teaching that the pursuit of our individual happiness can only be successful when it actively takes into consideration the well-being of others. In this sense too, a harmonious monastic community can offer to Western society a direct argument against the belief that our own happiness can ever come at others' expense.

Our purpose in living together is not simply to find supportive conditions for our individual Dharma practice and study. Rather, we take our community life as an integral part of our work to transform our minds, which is the aim of that Dharma practice and study. We value the chance to support each other in using community life as a means of recognizing and confronting our own afflictive emotions and self-cherishing and for generating tolerance and lovingkindness, and learning to cherish others.

However, individuals simply living in the same place do not constitute a thriving Dharma community. To build community, we find formal practice together important, for stability and a sense of closeness, and also listening to Dharma teachings together, for deepening our shared practice. On a practical level, we cook and eat together, follow a daily schedule that includes group prayers and practices in the morning and evening and listening together daily to recordings of Dharma teachings.

Training in the vinaya

We see the guidelines that Buddha outlined for his monastic followers as personal instructions we can use to support the transformation of our minds, by disciplining our bodies and speech. We also see them as offering a blueprint for our community life. We find it highly beneficial to go regularly to the biweekly sojong confession ceremony. We do not eat in the evening, and are sharing financial resources, so that when we handle money we can do so without the thought that it is mine.

Although we recognize that many of the rules in the vinaya were initially designed in response to a different context, still we want to try to follow this model wherever possible, and adjust only where it seems necessary to do so. For this, we see as crucial the guidance of a valid realized teacher - which we have already in Your Holiness - and a protected environment in which to apply the vinaya rules - which we are now creating with our community.

Maintaining joy in our vows

Although it can be hard to confront our afflictive emotions, we feel ourselves to be unimaginably fortunate to live under the protection of our pratimokṣa vows and to share this noble way of life. Our further good fortune at coming under Your Holiness' care as nuns fills us with a joy that is impossible to express. This joyfulness helps us cultivate a relaxed mind, amidst the sometimes difficult work of self-transformation. We want to maintain this basic joyfulness as a cornerstone for our life together in community.

Creating a stable base for other nuns to join later

In some ways Western cultural backgrounds are not particularly conducive to communal life. Generally, we are raised to value our 'independence,' to have our own private space, and to plan and work for our own needs. As a result, after ordaining Western nuns often find it quite natural that they should live alone, look after their own material needs and practice the Dharma privately on their own. Since in any case there is a dire shortage of places where Western nuns can live and train together in community, the choice to develop a monastic style that is private and individual is easily taken. As a result, Westerners entering a monastic community will often have many adjustments to make, and the transition will not always be smooth.

Moreover, although we use the term 'Westerners,' in fact there is no single Western culture. Small as it is, our community already includes people from three very different cultures, and so our community life needs to take these cultural diversity into consideration as well. In any case, difficulties and conflicts inevitably arise to varying degrees in community life, where many egos and many sets of afflictive emotions are all gathered together. Only with time can we build up the needed confidence and trust in ourselves and each other to face such moments with equanimity and compassion.

For that reason, our thinking is not to take any new members until we have first built a stable base that others can then join, rather than adapting in response to the individual wishes of each new arrival to the community. At this point, we envision needing perhaps two years to slowly build the necessary foundation before we can begin thinking about growing beyond this tiny community now in its infancy.

Our aspiration is to work to make ourselves qualified to be of limitless benefit to others, without missing opportunities to offer our service to others in smaller ways along the way. We see the forming of a monastic community as an excellent way to do both, learning how to offer and offering at the same time. For now, our aim is simply to work to make ourselves and our tiny community suited to serve as a platform to benefit others in the future.

Your Holiness, these words have been spoken with one voice, but their aspirations were written in four hearts. We appreciate beyond words all Your Holiness' support thus far, and supplicate with palms folded that you keep us and this community in your close care always. Please guide us to make ourselves and our monastic lives together of most benefit to others.

Monday, April 20, 2009

our community budget

monthly living expenses

all the recurring expenses incurred
by our community are: $850 per month........$10,200
per year

Housing.........................$150 per month.......$1,800 per year
We rent three rooms on one floor of a quiet and sunny house, next door to Drolmaling Nunnery near Dharamsala, India. The owners are Tibetans living in New York who plan to retire here one day. The other floors of the house are vacant, and our space includes a large open roof space and several terraces.

Food.................................$150 per month.......$1,800 per year
We take turns cooking simple but nutritious vegetarian meals. For breakfast we have Indian porridge (upama) or oatmeal. Lunch is usually rice, vegetables and either dal, beans or a tofu dish. We fast in the evenings.

Education.......................$230 per month.......$2,760 per year
Part of the service we offer now and hope to offer more in the future involves translation of Dharma materials from Tibetan, Sanskrit and English into Spanish, German and English. This fund supports our education to that end, including books, small, symbolic offerings we make to monastic teachers from whom we receive instructions, as well as the salaries of our Tibetan language teachers.

Communication.............$90 per month.......$1,080 per year
We are committed to remaining connected to others, even as our life as Buddhist monastics entails renouncing ordinary social and family life. We maintain blogs, such as the one you are now reading, and remain in touch by phone or e-mail when possible.

Transportation..................$75 per month.......$900 per year
We travel twice a month up to His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple in McLeod Ganj for monastic confession ceremony, and twice weekly to Gyuto Monastery, the residence of our main teacher His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, for teachings and public audiences.

One-Time Annual Costs
Apart from our recurring monthly expenses, we have a number of annual events that we consider important and valuable but that (unlike our food, housing etc.) are optional, and thus could be skipped if we do not receive support for these activities. In addition, none of us have health insurance and would like to have annual medical exams and dental care.

Health ................................................$1240 per year
Our estimated medical costs assume no major health issues, but a thorough annual medical, gynecological, dental exams and new eyeglasses as needed. Fairly high-quality health care is available in India at far lower costs than in the West, but not in the area we live, so this budget includes as well the cost of travel by overnight bus to Delhi, where such care is available.

Pilgrimage, Teachings and Monlam Festival...$1,500 per year
Every winter in the most sacred Buddhist site of Bodhgaya, Buddhists gather from around the world for all-day prayers, teaching and initiations called the Kagyu Monlam. The event is preceded by a winter debate session with teachings on such topics as philosophy and monastic training (vinaya), also led by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa. We find this to be an important way to connect with the larger Buddhist community and to offer our prayers, presence and translation services to support its aspirations.

Special Teaching Events................................$500 per year
Several times a year, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives public lecture series on various subjects in his monastery in Dharamsala, India. Our costs are approximately $10 per day for all of us to attend these teachings. In addition, several high lamas give annual public teachings in various locations around India. As and when other important teachings take place in India, this fund would allow us to take advantage of those opportunities. Although admission to such events is free of cost for monastics, we must cover our own travel, lodging and food costs.

Visa Renewal........................................$1,200 per year
Several of our community members are able only to receive short-term visas for India, and most leave the country one to three times a year, to Nepal or other countries, to apply for new Indian visas. This is an unavoidable and costly part of our community life.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

our daily schedule

monday through saturday in winter

5:00 – 5:30 am...............Prostrations (Dapel and Nangpel)
5:30 – 6:00 am...............Individual meditation or Tea
6:00 – 6:30 am..............Group Prayers
6:30 – 7:30 am...............Cook and eat breakfast, Set up for teachings
7:30 – 8:30 am...............Listen to Recordings of Teachings
9:00 – 12:00 pm[*]........Tibetan Language Class (Damcho and Dapel)
......................................Formal Practice Session (Nangpel and Drolma)
(11 – 12 pm)....................Cook lunch (Two people)
12:00 – 1:00 pm..............Lunch
1:00 – 2:30 pm...............Cleaning kitchen, Rest, Other chores
2:30 – 4:30 pm[†]..........Translation Work (Damcho)
......................................Tibetan language study, memorization (Dapel)
......................................Formal Practice or editing (Nangpel)
......................................Formal Practice (Drolma)
4:30 – 5:00 pm...............Yoga or other exercise (Optional)
5:00 – 5:30 pm...............Tea break
5:30 – 7:30 pm[‡]...........Translation Work (Damcho)
.......................................Tibetan language study (Dapel)
.......................................Formal Practice (Nangpel and Drolma)
7:30 – 8:00 pm...............Group shamatha Meditation (Optional)
8:00 – 9:00 pm...............Group Practice
9:00 pm..........................Individual Practice, Translation or Rest

sunday in winter

5:00– 5:30 am ................Prostrations (Dapel and Nangpel)
5:30 – 6:00 am ...............Individual practice or tea
6:00 – 6:30 am ...............Group Prayers
6:30 - 7:30 am ................Cook and eat breakfast, Set up for teachings
7:30 – 8:30 am ............... Listen to Recordings of Teachings
9:00 – 12:00 .................. Cleaning and other chores
(11 – 12) ...........................Cook lunch (two people with this duty)
12:00 – 1:00 pm..............Lunch
1:00 – 2:30 pm................Cleaning kitchen, Rest, Other chores
2:30 – 4:30 pm............... Free time - Sometimes blog, check email, connect with families, wash clothes, reading, or just relax.
4:30 – 5:00 pm.............. Yoga (Optional)
5:00 – 5:30 pm.............. Tea break
5:30 – 7:30 pm.............. Translation Work (Damcho)
.........................................Tibetan language study (Dapel)
.........................................Formal Practice (Nangpel and Drolma)
7:30 – 8:00 pm ..............Group shamatha Meditation (Optional)
8:00 – 9:00 pm...............Group Practice (Dedications, Chenrezig etc.)
9:00 pm...........................Individual Practice or Rest