They came in robes and in street clothes, with perfectly coiffed hair and with shaved heads, in sandals, in boots, and in high heels. They came from all over the world, on wings, on wheels, by foot. They came, the Buddhists, the Muslims, the Hindus, and the Christians, and some who have set aside all religion. They came, over 1,000 of them, in search of inspiration. And that is what they found.
The 2015 Sakyadhita Conference is the first I have attended, though it has been offered for nearly 30 years now. Organized by an ordained woman who practices Tibetan Buddhism and teaches at the University of California in San Diego, the Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo, this conference for Buddhist women was centered on the theme of compassion and social justice. It is supported by Venerable Lekshe, other nuns and monks, and dozens of women and men volunteers who gain nothing but the satisfaction of knowing that they have helped so many.
This year's conference was held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia where the weather was warm and damp, so that the proceedings could be held entirely outdoors under large tents and verandas. It brought together monastics, scholars, lay devotees, and even entertained a visit from the Queen Mother.
Sakyadhita International is an organization which was formed to support women who want to become fully ordained bhikkhunis, a form of Buddhist monasticism that has been resisted by male patriarchy for centuries. So I expected that most of the more than 50 speakers would be expounding various details of monastic precepts and their associated commentaries and sutras. While there was some of that, what I found out is that the ship has already sailed.
Women are receiving "higher ordination" in greater and greater numbers, in countries such as Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the US. In fact, a Theravadan ordination of this sort was taking place in Germany for the first time during our proceedings. While it is by no means easy for them, many women now have the opportunity to choose that form of practice. They refuse to be denied. Even the Thai Sangha Council, which has declared all higher ordination of women into the Thai Theravada invalid, is confronting the reality that these women want to practice the Vinaya (the early monastic ethical rules), and there are very reputable monks and nuns who are willing to go to jail to see that they can and do.
Bhante Sujato, one of those courageous, reputable monks, advised conference participants not to become like the rigid hierarchy that resists the women, but also, not to define themselves in opposition to those men. This is wise counsel, and it echoes the Buddha's teaching in the Dhammapada:
"He abused me, he struck me,
he overpowered me, he robbed me."
Those who harbor such thoughts
do not still their hatred.
This progress opens the door to a new role for Saykyadhita, one of broadly inspiring women and monastics to grow Buddhist communities and to be involved in their broader communities. Thus, the 2015 conference was a call to action. Time and again the speakers exhorted the participants to take up action to improve the world. They held up historical examples such as the unnamed Arya laywoman who protected the Indian nun Sudinna from sexual harassment, and contemporary examples such as Jiyul Sunim, a South Korean nun who protests environmental destruction in the courts. These are women whose energies were and are devoted to directly engaging and alleviating suffering.
Complementing the panelists were dharma talks by globally recognized teachers such as Venerable Tenzin Palmo and Ajahn Brahm. I particularly appreciated Venerable Thubten Chodron's frank acknowledgement of self interest as a driving force in both arrogance and lack of self esteem. Her suggestion to apply our critical faculty to that aspect of mind seems helpful, but only if applied gently and with a view toward embracing a more universal interest in all beings.
The conference schedule included a daily period of guided morning meditation. On the day I offered the meditation, I began with brief comments on the classical Mahayana teaching, "Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form." This sparked some fascinating conversations. Along with chanting in as many as 10 different traditional forms, the variety of meditation instruction was one of the most fascinating aspects of the conference.
Capping off the trip was a two day tour to the temples and monuments of Indonesia. It was profound. I stood at the steps of Borodubur, in the pre-sunrise light, with tears in my eyes. The power of practice is palpable there. We sat zazen at the temple summit while the sun rose across our faces and across the shoulders of hundreds of seated Buddhas. This moving experience was followed by visits to Kalasan, reportedly the oldest temple dedicated to compassion in the form of Tara, and Mendut temple which houses an enormous image of the primordial Buddha Vairocana, the teacher of emptiness. For me these places evoke deep gratitude to all those who have practiced before us and have ensured that the teachings of Buddhism continue to thrive. Indonesia, I learned, played an important role in that continuity, as the place where renowned 10th century Indian monk Atisha traveled to study Mahayana teachings with Serlingpa Dharmakirti before traveling on to Tibet to become a revered teacher himself.
In the end, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to attend the Sakyadhita Conference. It is a gathering which allows us all to drink deeply from our Buddhist past, and to look ahead to a bright future of Buddhist women fulfilling their greatest vow. I hope it continues for another 30 years and more.