Venerables Chonyi and Damcho have spent the past two weeks at Shravasti, India, as part of the International Mahayana Bhikshuni Varsa. They have shared inspiring photos and stories of their time there, and we look forward to hearing more when they return at the end of the month. Venerable Tenzin Tsepal will soon depart to join the varsa in India and assist with the closing rituals.
Ven. Chonyi wrote: “Despite a ton of challenges (of course!) it’s a joy to be here to share what has been so kindly and freely shared with us, and to learn from these nuns as well.” The nuns form a harmonious Sangha, happy to share the Dharma together.
History Behind the Event
Khenmo Drolma, abbess of Vajra Dakini Nunnery, has led the organizing effort for this event since 2019. She’s holding the energy with steady calm, fulfilling the vision of her teacher—His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche, who established the Great Shravasti International Buddhist Temple. You can watch Chetsang Rinpoche’s speech at the welcoming ceremony here.
Almost 10 years ago, Ven. Heng Ching came to Sravasti Abbey to teach our community of 10 nuns the rites to enter varsa. None of us could have imagined that some day, two nuns from the Abbey would teach these rites in English to 128 nuns from different countries and traditions!
First Few Days
Nuns spent the first week making preparations and learning the rituals for entering varsa.
Venerable Guo Goang is serving as abbess. She was provost at Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan for many years before going into six years of solitary retreat, and is delighted to focus on teaching after years of administrative duties.
On one of the first nights, the nuns performed a ceremony to formally invite the vinaya teacher and walked the boundary of the varsa site. Ven. Guo Goang chanted a traditional Chinese gata while offering blessed water from a Tibetan vase. Then, as the assembly processed along the boundary while chanting om mani padme hum, she sprinkled the water to purify and protect the nuns’ retreat.
The day before the vinaya rites began, the group processed to Jetavana Monastery where the Buddha gave over 800 teachings. At the site, there was time for each group to do some chanting out loud. Vens. Chonyi and Damcho offered the Heart Sutra in English.
Ven. Damcho wrote: “It was very moving walking there with 128 nuns; you could imagine what it might have been like in the Buddha’s time (except for passing Indian trucks blaring music).”
After a few days of rehearsing the chanting and rituals, the group formally entered varsa.
A Mix of Cultures
There are 63 bhikshunis, six shiksamanas, and 59 sramaneris participating in the varsa. The biggest group of 53 nuns are from eight nunneries in Bhutan, followed by 32 from Druk Amitabha in Nepal, 27 from Vietnam, eight from India, five Westerners, and three from Taiwan.
The nuns’ familiarity and experience with monastic rites, such as varsa, varies substantially. About half of the bhikshunis received full ordination last summer in the historic bhikshuni ordination in Bhutan. Their communities are only beginning to perform the bhikshuni rites, while bhikshunis have performed these rites for hundreds of years in Vietnam and Taiwan.
In additional to learning about the Vinaya, the collection of Buddha’s teachings that especially pertain to monastic guidelines, the varsa gives nuns an opportunity to learn about and appreciate one anothers’ practices. For example, the Druk Amitabha nuns invited everyone to attend their bi-monthly tsog, while the Vietnamese nuns have led the way in demonstrating forms of walking meditation. During the breaks you can hear chanting in Pali, Tibetan, and Vietnamese as people pursue their regular practices.
The varsa abbess, Venerable Guo Goang, gave a talk in which she said, “All things are difficult at the beginning” (萬事起頭難) and it is certainly true of this first international bhikshuni varsa. There are many challenges: the weather, figuring out the AV equipment, intermittent power outages, and simply learning to communicate across cultures and in five languages.
The weather has been incredibly hot. Not only has this impacted the nuns, but Ven. Chonyi’s computer has seemingly suffered from heat stroke as well.
The biggest challenges have been language and technology-related. Principal teachings, given in Mandarin Chinese or English, need to be translated into Tibetan, Bhutanese, and Vietnamese. When translated consecutively through the single sound-system, everything proceeded very slowly. The ideal option would be for each translator to transmit via FM radio, but at first, there were not enough functioning radio receivers for everyone. His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche, the sponsor of the varsa, interceded and enough radios were procured.
Are the nuns bothered by the rain, heat, power outages, translation issues? No, those are small obstacles compared to the great opportunity of being able to observe varsa together.
The Daily Schedule
Morning practice begins at 6 am, though most people are engaged in their own practices beforehand. Morning practice includes chanting of general prayers in English, Vietnamese, and Tibetan, followed by silent meditation.
After breakfast there is a teaching session, followed by a Q&A or discussion. Participants include nuns who have completed the Geshema and Khenmo degrees—similar to a graduate degree that qualifies the women as teachers. These Geshemas and Khenmos have been very engaged in the discussions and Q&As, including asking many philosophical questions. They have offered teachings as well.
At noon the nuns have lunch—a substantial meal since monastics generally do not eat in the evening. This precept is kept strictly during the varsa. The Himalayan nuns eat in the main temple, as that is apparently common practice during varsa. His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche brought in two nuns trained in Taiwan to prepare Asian-style meals for the Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and Westerners. Sponsors from around the world help support the meal offering.
There are more teachings, discussion, and Q&A in the afternoon. The evening practice session consists of 20 minutes of walking meditation followed by individual practice in different groups.
There are (of course) tea breaks, and a weekly “break day,” but it is a full schedule in the monsoon heat and humidity. Everyone seems to manage quite well, and it’s no problem at all for the Druk Amitabha nuns. They keep a 3am to 10pm schedule at their nunnery!
One day, before the FM radio translation system was in use, the group was split into three languages (Ladakhi/Tibetan, Bhutanese, Vietnamese) and people went to different spaces for different classes.
One group watched excerpts from a teaching that Venerable Chodron gave on the “Monastic Mind,” pausing the video every sentence or two for translation. The teaching resonated with everyone. The Abbey nuns were so happy to share some of Ven. Chodron’s teachings, since she was unable to attend in person.
Ven. Chonyi led Abbey-style discussion groups based on the teaching and people really enjoyed the format. A third group attended a class on monastic etiquette, taught by Venerable Chang Hwa.
Most of the teachings have been given by Ven. Guo Goang in Chinese with a mix of simultaneous and consecutive translation.
Ven. Guo Goang’s first teaching was about the 12 links of dependent origination and how craving propels cyclic existence. She wanted to set the context for why our root precepts all revolve around overcoming attachment. She also went into the relationship between the noble eightfold path and three higher trainings to emphasize that the purpose of ethical conduct is to become liberated and awakened, not to keep pure precepts for their own sake.
Ven. Chonyi wrote: “Ven. Guo Goang is a very clear and direct teacher, tying vinaya teachings to her vast study of the original Chinese Agamas, the early Buddhist sutras that correspond to the Pali canon. Everyone is learning so much.”
Ven. Damcho has given talks on alternate days, covering precept origin stories and levels of ordination based on the Dharmaguptaka skandhakas, which cover important vinaya topics. Ven Chonyi then led discussion groups based on those talks. A discussion on attachment really got everyone going and there was lots of applause and laughter in recognition of everyone’s common experiences.
Venerables Chonyi and Damcho have shared many stories of how they have been inspired by the other nuns. Venerable Chonyi wrote: “Listening and watching these shy nuns who have never held a mic in their lives warm up to standing up and sharing is inspiring. And their stories are beautiful. Even the monk translators seem to be almost in tears.”
The Nepalese nuns from the Drukpa Amitabha Nunnery are particularly impressive—they are the famous “kung fu nuns”. There are 16 bhikshunis and 16 novices present from their community. The bhikshunis all received ordination in Bhutan last year.
They are well-trained, sharp, and clearly support one another. During the procession to Jetavana, the nuns volunteered to help with logistics, guiding the line and offering drinks to everyone at the site. They are an impressive community, constantly doing group practices in the break times and very engaged in the program. They have led the chanting on many occasions, including circumambulating the boundary and the procession to Jetavana. Their chanting is sublime and inspiring!
Ven. Damcho facilitated pair discussions and had a few nuns share with the whole group. Topics included how they overcame obstacles to getting/staying ordained and their feelings and aspirations when they received ordination. Nuns shared moving stories of the obstacles they faced as girls wishing to ordain so that they could devote their lives to the Dharma. They are now strong and determined women.
We are so inspired to see the new bhikshunis taking the lead in their communities, and pray that the causes and conditions will persist for the bhikshuni sangha to grow and flourish where it has not done so before.