Sravasti Abbey nuns are playing a significant role in the historic bhikshuni varsa occurring this summer at the historic site of Shravasti, in Uttar Pradesh, India.

The similarity in name is no coincidence. Ven. Chodron suggested the name Sravasti Abbey after this historic site where monks and nuns both received teachings. From a list of other names, it was chosen by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the name for our beloved monastery in the West.

Shravasti at the Buddha’s Time

The Buddha taught many sutras near Shravasti, a significant trade city at the time. Jetavana monastery, the first Buddhist monastery, was established there as a place for monastics to gather for the rains retreat (varsa), held during the summer during the monsoon. Shakyamuni Buddha spent 25 varsas at that place, teaching the monastics for three months.

Around the 4th century, the city of Shravasti and the monastery began to fall into ruin. The ruins of the monastery were rediscovered by archaeologists in the 19th century, and little remains of the city itself.

Monastic Rites in English

At the Abbey we train in the Dharmaguptaka lineage, where the full (bhikshuni) ordination for women still exists. The monastic rites in that lineage—including ordination, posadha, and the rites associated with varsa—did not exist in English. In the early days of the Abbey, great effort and many people were needed to translate those rites from Chinese so they could be performed in our community in a language we all know.

When Ven. Tarpa was ordained in 2006, three Taiwanese bhikshunis came to assist. Not only did they form the needed quorum of four bhikshunis, but they also worked on-the-fly to translate the ceremony from Chinese to English.

After Vens. Chonyi and Jigme returned from full ordination in Taiwan in 2011, there were enough bhikshunis to perform posadha (biweekly confession and restoration of precepts). This important ceremony existed in English due to the efforts of many people to translate and edit it.

Varsa at Sravasti Abbey

At the beginning of 2014, Vens. Heng-Ching and Hong Fan came to the Abbey to teach the bhikshuni sangha how to perform the varsa. Again, there was an impressive collaborative effort to translate and edit the texts for these ceremonies.

Chanting and musical instrumentation play an important role in many of these ceremonies, and Ven. Hong Fan taught Abbey nuns how to play the traditional instruments and chant the melodies. Ven. Samten scored the Chinese melodies in Western notation with the English lyrics.

In January of 2014, seven bhikshunis and three novices made a significant step toward rooting the Dharma in the West by formally beginning their first winter varsa. As far as we know, this is the first time a Western bhikshuni sangha practicing in the Tibetan tradition has done this Dharmaguptaka ritual in the United States and in English.

Modern Varsa at Shravasti

The head of the Drikung Kagyu Lineage, His Holiness Kyabgön Chetsang Rinpoche, had the vision to establish a temple near the historic site of Shravasti. In order to restore the spiritual vibrancy of this place, he committed to sponsoring a varsa at the site. The first year was for 108 Theravada monks.

The second year would be for Mahayana bhikshunis, organized by Khenmo Drolma, a close American disciple of Chetsang Rinpoche. Originally scheduled for 2020, the pandemic delayed the varsa until 2023.

Why are we going?

Khenmo Drolma reached out to Ven. Chodron, knowing that we perform the varsa here, as well as the other monastic rites. The 145 nuns attending the varsa come from many countries: India, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, Australia, Thailand, France, and the United States. English is the common language in the group, and many attending have not done these rituals before in any language.

As far we know, we are the only people in the world who do these Dharmaguptaka-lineage ceremonies in English. We are grateful for the many bhikshunis who contributed to translating and editing these ceremonies in English, so that we can share them with this international nuns community.

Not only are we are sharing our translated rites, but we have also made small adaptations for the rituals to be performed by a community of this size. To help the nun attendees prepare, we recorded the chants used in these rituals.

Ven. Chodron, unfortunately, is unable to attend. Ven. Damcho—who has translated much of the bhikshuni training literature from Chinese—will speak in her place on Vinaya. Vens. Chonyi and Tsepal are also attending to teach and facilitate the Vinaya rituals. Ven. Guo Goang, from Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan is serving as the Abbess. Many of the nuns attending the varsa have not previously had the experience of being led by women.

The Varsa Program

The summer program is a six-week half-varsa. The educational program is based on the Three Higher Trainings of ethical conduct, concentration, and wisdom. The first two weeks will focus on Vinaya teachings, with different sessions for the bhikshunis and novices (sramaneris and shikshamanas). The middle two weeks will be taught by Khenmo Drolma on a method for practicing the Sattipattana Sutra. The final two weeks will be taught by Ven. Guo Goang on the Chan method of developing wisdom.

This historic varsa is an incredible opportunity to bring together an international community of nuns to practice together, learn from one another, and to deepen the roots of the Buddhadharma throughout the entire world.

More Information

Look for updates and reports on this historic varsa here on our website, in our monthly eNews, and on the Vajra Dakini Nunnery’s website. You can read more about past events at the Great Shravasti Temple here.