Inspiring Nuns and female practitioners
Growing up, there were many women who showed me real loving kindness… From Kuan Mama who showered me with so much care and love when it was scarce in my abused foster home… to Anila Thupten Chonyid (Carmen Kichikov) who sponsored me when I was financially having difficulties in the monastery. I always felt that women are great practitioners in so many ways, especially in the field of care, nurture and kindness. Their ability to sacrifice themselves for others, and level of empathy and EQ is generally perhaps higher making them more compassionate and sensitive to the people around them. Mother Teresa and Au Sung Suu Kyi are great examples of women who embody these qualities.
Vajrayogini represents complete Buddhahood in the female form. The practice of Vajrayogini is only for the very fortunate and if practiced correctly can lead to Buddhahood in this very lifetime. It was widely known that She was the secret practice of Lama Tsongkapa himself, and lineage lamas such as Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche heavily promoted Vajrayogini and Her practice.
In Tibet, there are many nunneries where there are hundreds of nuns doing powerful and serious practices. Nunneries like the Gebchak Nunnery which was founded in 1892. Many great Buddhist masters praise Gebchak Gonpa as being unrivaled in their spiritual training… and the nuns are famed for their accomplishments in profound yogas and meditation.
Last year, I received a few requests from my female students that they wish to don on the robes and take on nun vows. I was very happy to receive these requests, and rejoice for them. They have clearly realized some form of renunciation by making these requests.
I have previously blogged about a few amazing nuns because I felt very moved after reading their biography, and I wanted to share their story with my students. This time, I thought I’d compiled a list of all these amazing, beautiful nuns, who have dedicated a good part of their lives for the Dharma. Do read their brief biographies. I wish everyone great spiritual growth.
Birth Name: Harumi Setouchi
Jakucho Setouchi (1922–) , formerly Harumi Setouchi, has earned numerous literary accolades, including the Japan’s top literary awards, the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize. She also received the prestigious Order of Culture awarded by Emperor Akihito in 2006. The Order of Culture recognised not only her novels but also her broad cultural contributions such as translating into modern Japanese the 11th century love story, “The Tale of Genji,” Japan’s, and some say the world’s, first novel.
Setouchi might be said to be royalty of a sort herself: the nation’s teacher, its conscience, one of its harshest critics. She first found notoriety in the 1950s when she left her family for a romance with one of her husband’s students and began her controversial career as a novelist. She’s lived several lives since then; perhaps the greatest transition came in 1973 when she took Buddhist vows and received the name ‘Jakucho’, which means ‘silent, lonely listening’.
Today she is known for her vigorous opposition to the death penalty, for journeying to Iraq after the first Gulf War to distribute medicine, and for purchasing newspaper space to condemn its disastrous sequel. In May 2012, her distraught assistants watched her stage an outdoor hunger strike in the blazing summer sun. She was starving herself in protest at the reopening of Japan’s nuclear facilities following the Fukushima crisis, which she likened to the atom bomb attacks during the Second World War.
Setouchi is an anti-war activist and one of the country’s best-known religious figures. Thousands attend her sermons, and some people become so emotional that, putting aside traditional Japanese reserve, they publicly sob. She is so popular as a preacher that fans enter a lottery to attend events at a hall built on her land, while up to 15,000 gather to see her speak at another temple in Iwate in northern Japan.
Birth Name: Tatsuko Takaoka
A popular model featured on postcards and became known internationally as the “Nine Fingered Geisha”, Tatsuko Takaoka was born in Osaka in 1896. At the age of 13 she was sold and started training as a maiko (a trainee geisha). It was during these years that she taught herself to read and write. Later, she moved to Tokyo and worked at Seika, which was considered East Japan’s most prestigious geisha house. She took the name Teruha, which means “Shining Leaf”.
At the age of 23, Teruha married a stock broker and travelled to New York to live. She studied dancing in New York for a few years, later on stayed in London and Paris for a period of time. After returning to Japan, Teruha concentrated her efforts into teaching dancing to other geishas. She also worked as an actress (starred in the film Ai no tobira), a model and even ran a bar in Osaka.
Having struggled through a long string of torrid love affairs (including one with a woman), suicide attempts and failed marriages, all from age 13 to 39, she turned to religion for peace and purpose in her life. In 1935 Teruha shave her hair off and enter the famous all-female Shingon temple, Gio-Ji in Sagano/Arashiyama area of Kyoto to dedicate the rest of her life to Buddha. Teruha changed her name to Chishō (clever sunshine), eventually rose to the position of Head Priestess and lived a rather long and religiously active life.
She was well known and loved in the area around Gio-Ji and had no hesitation to speak about her youth. In her time spent at Gio-Ji, she published a book about her life called “Bird Eating Flowers” and also a book in diary form called “The Long Life of a Leaf”. She also contributed serial poetry to Japanese periodicals. After living a rather long, full and interesting life, Teruha/Chishō passed away in 1995 at the age of 99. Her remains rest on the temple grounds that she loved so much. She was also the inspiration behind Jakucho Setouchi’s novel, Nyotoku (女徳).
Thubten Changchub Palmo
Birth Name: Zina Rachevsky
The legendary Zina Rachevsky was the earliest Western student and patron of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She spent much of her early adulthood working as actress and gaining a reputation as an international socialite, and eventually made her way to Dharma.
Zina’s family was incredibly wealthy to begin with. Her grandfather established SW Straus & Co. that held loans on a string of buildings across the United States that was worth $150 million dollars in those days. She had everything – money, fame, beauty and a string of marriages and relationships but she was deeply unhappy and that triggered her soul-searching. In 1965, Zina went to India where she encountered Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa. Thus began her involvement with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa with a long line of endless questions. Her thirst for the Dharma was unquenchable and her faith in Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa was equally unwavering all through the years.
Zina would promote her Lamas with whomever she met and even brought a French film crew to film Lawudo cave in Khumbu, Tibet. Lawudo was where Lama Yeshe was born and the cave was the place where Lama Zopa’s previous life meditated in. Zina brought many Western students to study with them, including Max Matthews who would eventually become a key sponsor of the monks and Kopan Monastery. Max Matthews later became ordained as a nun as well. Over time, Zina bought land and founded Nepal Mahayana Gompa Retreat center that eventually became Kopan Monastery in Nepal.
On 31 July 1968 Zina was ordained by Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche at his home, Nowrojee Kotee Villa. She was given the name Thubten Changchub Palmo.
Towards her last years of her life, she entered a long solitary retreat and she passed away during this time, which post-mortem tests showed that she had died of cholera. She was reciting mantras until she died. While Zina was dying, a close student informed Lama Yeshe. He immediately entered into meditation and after awhile, he came out of meditation and told the student that he had performed mind transference (Powa) and sent Zina Rachevsky to Kechara Paradise – Buddha Vajrayogini’s pure realm. Kyabje Zong Rinpoche later confirmed this and Trulshik Rinpoche also said that she had “a good death.”
Read more about Zina Rachevsky here.
Daehaeng Kun Sunim (대행 큰스님)
Daehaeng Kun Sunim was one of the most respected Buddhist teachers in Korea. She is an author and spent 63 years as a Buddhist nun, contributing to the modernization and popularization of Korean Buddhism throughout the world.
While most Korean Zen masters have traditionally taught only monks and perhaps a few nuns, Daehaeng Kun Sunim was determined to teach spiritual practice in such a way that anyone—regardless of their occupation, gender, or family status—could practice and awaken. With this in mind, in 1972 she established Hanmaum Seon Center of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in Gyeonggi Province as a place where everyone could come and learn about their true nature and how to live with freedom, dignity, and courage.
Born on January 2, 1927 in Seoul’s Itaewon district, she entered Sangwon Temple in Gangwon Province in 1950 and fully ordained as a nun in 1961, having Sangwon Temple rebuilt in 1963. She later founded the Buddhist Center of Korea, where she served as abbess — this temple was the predecessor to Hanmaum Seonwon. In her lifetime she established fifteen branch temples in Korea alone, and ten worldwide in places like the United States, Thailand and Brazil.
She was awarded the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award from the United Nations in 2002 and the Sarvodaya Award from the Sri Lankan religious welfare agency in 2001. Daehaeng Kun Sunim is also the teacher of more than 150 sunims (Buddhist monks or nuns), many of whom help maintain the centers and assist people who come to the centers. She has spent over four decades giving Dharma talks to small and large gatherings. Her teachings have been translated from Korean into English, German, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, French, and Vietnamese. At the same time, she was a major force for the advancement of Bhikkunis (nuns), heavily supporting traditional nuns’ colleges, as well as the modern Bhikkuni council of Korea. She passed away in May 2012.
*Kun Sunim is the Korean Buddhist title of respect for a senior nun or monk.
Sister Annabel Laity
Sister Annabel Laity (Chân Đức, True Virtue), was born in England, and studied Classics and Sanskrit before going to India to study and practice with Tibetan nuns. She has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986, and in 1988, in India, she was the first woman from the West to be ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh as a nun.
She became a Dharma Teacher in 1990, and was Director of Practice at Plum Village for many years. In 1998, she was installed as abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center and Maple Forest Monastery located in Hartland-Four-Corners, Vermont.
As a much-loved senior Dharma teacher of the Order of Interbeing, she travels widely, leading meditation retreats and giving talks throughout the world. In 2000, she was the first Western nun to teach the Dharma in Thailand. She is now Dean of Practice at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.
The European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) offers a complete program of training in concrete methods that relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace in ourselves and in the world. The training fully integrates the study of Buddhist texts with concrete applications at all levels of daily life.
Venerable Yifa (依法法師)
Venerable Yifa holds a PhD in religious studies from Yale University (1996) and has been an ordained Buddhist nun since 1979. She grew up in the small Taiwanese town of Beigang and attended college as a law student at National Taiwan University in Taipei. At the age of 20, she was introduced to the philosophy and religious ideals of Buddhism and found inspiration to lead a life of service to humanity. During her second year at the university, Yifa received ordination at Fo Guang Shan at Kaohsiung, Taiwan—a seat of Buddhist learning and service.
Recognizing her potential as a leader and an academic, Fo Guang Shan sponsored Yifa’s graduate studies, first at the University of Hawaii, where she received an MA in Philosophy in 1990, and then at Yale. Within Fo Guang Shan, Yifa has served as an administrator of Buddhist universities and centers for the education of monastics, most notably, as Provost of Hsi Lai University in Rosemead, California. Before going back to Taiwan, she was a visiting scholar at University of California at Berkeley and in the fall of 2001, she became a visiting scholar at Harvard University. Venerable Yifa taught Buddhism in the Institute of Philosophical Studies at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan from 1999 to 2001.
Venerable Yifa received awards as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Persons in Taiwan in 1997 and Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award in 2003. Over the years, Dr. Yifa has been engaged in interfaith dialogue and was supported on some occasions by UNESCO. She was also a contributor to the “Safe Motherhood Project” by the UNICEF South Asia Office.
Venerable Yifa is also an advocate for women’s equality within Buddhism. Her current research focuses on women’s roles in Buddhism and the biographies of Chinese Buddhist women. She is a frequent guest lecturer on diverse subjects, including Chinese Buddhist philosophy, thanatology and ethics.Venerable Yifa has a few books published under her name, including a book on monastic rules and institutions, “The Origin of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China”. Venerable Yifa has also been involved in translating sutras from Mandarin to English. Since 2006, Venerable Yifa and others have published translations of the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Ksitigarbha Sutra, and Amitabha Sutra.
Presently, she is the founder and Program Director of Woodenfish Project. For the past twelve years, this organisation aims at promoting the understanding of cultures and religions between the East and the West, by bringing the college students and scholars in the West to China to experience monastic life and to learn Chinese culture such as Taichi, calligraphy, tea and Chinese medicine. It has expanded to include programs in Japan, the United States, China, and New Zealand, as well as a sutra translation project.
Venerable Master Cheng Yen
Birth Name: Wang Chin-yun
Cheng Yen is a Taiwanese Buddhist nun, teacher, and philanthropist. She is often called the “Mother Teresa of Asia.” In 1966, Cheng Yen founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, commonly known as Tzu Chi; its motto is “instructing the rich and saving the poor”. Later, Cheng Yen’s Charity, Medicine, Education, and Culture Missions developed, and to the present the Tzu Chi Foundation has become involved in international disaster relief, bone marrow donation, environmental protection, and community volunteering.
Master Cheng Yen was born Wang Chin-yun on May 14, 1937, in Chingshui, Taiwan. She has engaged in spiritual cultivation for over 40 years. She calls herself “a mere nun” but she works in and for this world with an otherworldly spirit. “Tzu Chi” means “Compassion and relief”, in other words, “compassion in action”. The work of Master Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi revive the centuries-old, original mission of Buddhism under the banner of “Humanistic Buddhism”. To the Master, indulging only in self-cultivation does not make one a true Buddhist. A Buddhist should be compassionate about the world and its people, identify with others’ suffering, and be committed to take actions that ease their pain. (Gary Ho, The Life & Teachings of Venerable Master Cheng Yen)
Lama Tsultrim Allione
Birth Name: Joan Rousmanière Ewing
Tsultrim Allione was born in Maine and grew up in New Hampshire as Joan Rousmanière Ewing. From a young age she became interested in Buddhism through her grandmother. She travelled to India and Nepal in 1967 and then returned in 1969 and was shortly thereafter ordained as a Buddhist nun by H.H. Karmapa in Bodhgaya and was given the name Karma Tsultrim Chodron.
Lama Tsultrim Allione, author and international teacher, is the founder and spiritual director of Tara Mandala. In 2009, Lama Tsultrim was selected by an esteemed committee of Buddhist scholars and practitioners to receive the International Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award given in Bangkok, Thailand.
Lama Tsultrim Allione, charismatic Western teacher and bestselling author of “Women of Wisdom” and “Feeding Your Demons,” was recognized and enthroned as an emanation of one of the most beloved female Tibetan saints, the 11th century dakini Machik Labdrön. She balances the commitments for her family and three kids with the passion to bring century old healing practices to the West. Once among the first American women ordained as a nun, she has since given back her vows to raise a family and integrate her spiritual values into a lay practitioner’s life. The radical life change led Lama Tsultrim to question: How exactly did motherhood fit in with Buddhism? When she looked at the life stories of the great saints of her lineage, almost all of them were male, and the few women had either abandoned their children or were celibate nuns.
Sister Chan Kong
Birth Name: Cao Ngoc Phuong
Sister Chan Khong was born Cao Ngoc Phuong in 1938 in Ben Tre, Vietnam. She met Thich Nhat Hanh in 1959 and he became her spiritual mentor. After finishing her studies in Paris, she returned to Vietnam and joined Thich Nhat Hanh in founding the Van Hanh University and the School for Youth and Social Service (SYSS). During the war, she organized medical, educational and agricultural facilities in rural Vietnam. The SYSS and its thousands of young peace workers helped to rebuild many villages ravaged by the war. When Thich Nhat Hanh returned to the United States, Chan Khong took over the day to day operations.
On February 5, 1966 Chan Khong was ordained as one of the first six members of the Order of Interbeing and was given the name Chan Khong which means “true emptiness”. The Order of Interbeing was composed of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.
From 1969 to 1972 Sister Chan Khong worked with Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris, organizing the Buddhist Peace Delegation which campaigned for peace in Vietnam. Since then she has worked with Thich Nhat Hanh establishing first the Sweet Potato community near Paris, then Plum Village Sangha in 1982. Besides organizing activities in Plum Village, she continued to organize relief work for those in need in Vietnam, coordinating relief food parcels for poor children and medicine for the sick.
In 1988, Sister Chan Khong was ordained as a nun by Thich Nhat Hanh on Vultures Peak, in India.
Birth Name: Nanci Gay Gustafson
“After many years of preparing the field, it is now time to cultivate the depth and breadth of Tibetan Buddhist studies…We have established Light of Berotsana so that we may help with the task of translation from Tibetan into English while highly accomplished Tibetan lamas remain alive and available to teach in the West.” Sangye Khando
Between 1973 and 1977 Sangye lived and taught at the Nechung Drayang Ling Buddhist Temple in Hawaii, which she helped to establish. Throughout this period, she joined others in bringing many renowned teachers to the Hawaiian Islands. These highly respected and learned lamas included H.H. Düdjom Rinpoche, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, and H.H. the 16th Karmapa.
Sangye became Gyatrül Rinpoche’s primary translator and together they proceeded to establish Buddhist centers in California and Oregon under the auspices of H.H Düdjom Rinpoche. On a yearly basis, Gyatrül Rinpoche and Sangye traveled to Taiwan, where they taught, translated, and raised funds for the creation of the Tashi Chöling Temple in southern Oregon. For the next two decades Sangye acted as translator for many great teachers, among them H.H Düdjom Rinpoche, H.H. Penor Rinpoche, H.H. Khenpo Jigme Phüntsok Rinpoche, Dungsei Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Kusum Lingpa Rinpoche, Gyatrül Rinpoche, Lama Ganga, Gönpo Tseden Rinpoche, Chagdud Tülku Rinpoche, Ngapa Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche, Khenpo Palden Sherab Rinpoche, Khenpo Namdröl Rinpoche, Yangthang Tülku Rinpoche, and Gyala Padma Namgyal Rinpoche, accompanying them on numerous teaching tours throughout the world.
In 1999, Sangye’s vision came to fruition when she was able to help found Light of Berotsana, a nonprofit organization for translators. Currently, Sangye dedicates her time to Light of Berotsana and the translation of essential texts drawn from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Venerable Karuna Dharma
Birth Name: Joyce Adele Pettingill
Venerable Karuna Dharma was born Joyce Adele Pettingill in Beloit, Wisconsin. In 1973 she became a Buddhist atthangha sila. In 1975 she spent her weekends at Camp Pendleton as a Buddhist chaplain and in 1976 took full ordination as a Bhikshuni in the Vietnamese Zen tradition.
She met her teacher, Thich Thien-An, and began her studies of Buddhism in 1969. At the same time, she helped Dr. Thien-An establish the International Buddhist Meditation Center, Chua Vietnam in Los Angeles, the first Vietnamese temple in the U.S., and the College of Oriental Studies. Since Dr. Thien-An’s death in 1980 she had been the Abbess of the International Buddhist Meditation Center and was one of its founding members. She oversaw the running of the Center, performed ceremonies, taught, was involved in Interfaith work and InterBuddhist work and had been active in the Interreligious Council of Southern California.
She was an original founding member of the Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue in Los Angeles and represented the Buddhists in presenting gifts to His Holiness Pope John Paul II on his trip to Los Angeles in 1987. She was a past president of the ‘American Buddhist Congress’, served as vice-president of the ‘Buddhist Sangha Council’ and ‘College of Buddhist Studies’ and was a founding president of ‘Sakyadhita’, the International Association of Buddhist Women.
On Saturday February 22, 2014 at 3:30 am, Ven. Karuna Dharma died with her daughter Chrys at her side. She died in peace, she was 74.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
Birth Name: Diane Perry
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was raised in London and whilst in her teens she became a Buddhist. In 1964, at the age of twenty, she decided to go to India to pursue her spiritual path.
There she met her Guru, His Eminence the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, a great Drukpa Kagyu lama, and became one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She remained with Khamtrul Rinpoche and his community in Himachal Pradesh, northern India, for six years and then he directed her to the Himalayan valley of Lahaul in order to undertake more intensive practice. Tenzin Palmo stayed in a small monastery there for several years, remaining in retreat during the long winter months. Then, seeking more seclusion and better conditions for practice, she found a nearby cave where she remained for another 12 years, the last 3 years in strict retreat. She left India in 1988 and went to stay in Italy where she taught at various Dharma centres.
In February 2008 Tenzin Palmo was given the rare title of Jetsunma, which means Venerable Master, by His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, Head of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage in recognition of her spiritual achievements as a nun and her efforts in promoting the status of female practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism. Tenzin Palmo spends most of the year at Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery and occasionally tours to give teachings and raise funds for the ongoing needs of the DGL nuns and Nunnery.
Robina Courtin (born Melbourne, Australia, 20 December 1944), is a Buddhist nun in the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa tradition and lineage of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. In 1996 she founded Liberation Prison Project, which she ran until 2009.
Ordained since the late 1970s, Ven. Robina has worked full time since then for Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s FPMT. Over the years she has served as editorial director of Wisdom Publications, editor of Mandala Magazine, executive director of Liberation Prison Project, and as a touring teacher of Buddhism. Her life and work with prisoners have been featured in the documentary films Chasing Buddha and Key to Freedom.
Dagmola Kusho Sakya
Dagmola Sakya was the first Tibetan woman ever to immigrate to America. Her full title reads Her Eminence Dag-Yum Kusho Sakya, which denotes her high-ranking status as the wife of one of the most eminent masters in the Sakya tradition, Dagchen Rinpoche. However, in the face of her disarming cheerfulness, friends and students quickly do away with the formality and lovingly call her Dagmola. She is one of the very few senior Tibetan ladies who were born in pre-Communist Tibet, but are now recognized as outstanding teachers and live in America.
A combination of the most unlikely circumstances enabled Dagmola to become one of the first Tibetan women to teach in the West. Born 1936 in a tiny village in East Tibet, she was the only girl allowed to go to school. Instead of complying with the established system of arranged marriages, Dagchen Rinpoche fought for her hand. After barely escaping the Communist prosecution in Tibet with her family, she made a new home in Seattle with her five boys, while holding down a nine-to-five job at a blood bank. Her experience as a working mother of five resonates with many students. When students ask her for advice on how to combine a spiritual path with the stress of modern life, she does not need to put herself in their shoes – she knows the challenges only too well. “Practice is in everyday life, not just sitting on the cushion,” Dagmola says. “Every move, every breath, every thought is practice.”
Birth Name: Jane Tromge
Chagdud Khadro met His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche in March 1978, married him in November 1979, and remained his devoted student for twenty-three years. At the time of her ordination as a lama in 1997, Rinpoche invested her as the future Spiritual Director of Chagdud Gonpa Brasil. Since Rinpoche’s Parinirvana in 2002, she has focused on maintaining the high caliber of Vajrayana training he had established.
Chagdud Khadro has been tireless in upholding his legacy. She has guided the construction of a Zangdog Palri (Guru Rinpoche Pureland), works with translation and publishing of texts in Portuguese and Spanish, helped establish Sítio Esperança, a school and educational project in the state of Minas Gerais, and continued to support spiritual care for the dying and their caregivers. Khadro supervises the activities and teaches in all the Chagdud Gonpa Brasil centers and Chagdud Gonpa Hispanoamérica. She also teaches in Europe, United States and Australia.
Ayya Khema (August 25, 1923 – November 2, 1997), a Buddhist teacher, was born as Ilse Kussel in Berlin, Germany, to Jewish parents. Khema escaped Nazis persecution during World War II. She eventually moved to the United States. After travelling in Asia she decided to become a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka in 1979. She was very active in providing opportunities for women to practice Buddhism, founding several centres around the world.
In 1987 she coordinated the first international conference of Buddhist nuns in the history of Buddhism, which resulted in the setting-up of Sakyadhita, a worldwide Buddhist women’s organisation. H.H. the Dalai Lama was the keynote speaker at the conference. In May 1987, as an invited lecturer, she was the first ever Buddhist nun to address the United Nations in New York on the topic of Buddhism and World Peace.
Ayya Khema has written twenty-five books on meditation and the Buddha’s teachings in English and German; her books have been translated into seven languages. In 1988, her book “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere” received the Christmas Humphreys Memorial Award.
Ani Pema Chödrön
Birth Name: Deirdre Blomfield-Brown
Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936, in New York City. Graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, she taught as an elementary school teacher for many years in both New Mexico and California. Pema has two children and three grandchildren. Pema first met her root guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1972. Lama Chime encouraged her to work with Rinpoche, and it was with him that she ultimately made her most profound connection, studying with him from 1974 until his death in 1987. At the request of the Karmapa, she received the full bhikshuni ordination in the Chinese lineage of Buddhism in 1981 in Hong Kong.
Ani Pema served as the director of Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado until moving in 1984 to rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to be the director of Gampo Abbey. The Rinpoche gave her explicit instructions on running Gampo Abbey. The success of her first two books, The Wisdom of No Escape and Start Where You Are, made her something of a celebrity as a woman Buddhist teacher and as a specialist in the mahayana lojong teachings. She and Judy Lief were instructed personally by the Vidyadhara on lojong, “which is why I took off with it,” she explains. Pema has struggled with health problems in the past five years but her condition has improved and she anticipates being well enough to continue teaching programs at Gampo Abbey and in California. She plans for a simplified travel schedule with a predictable itinerary, as well as the opportunity to spend an increased amount of time in solitary retreat under the guidance of Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.
Birth Name: Chatsumarn Kabilsingh
Bhikkhuni Dhammananda came from a prestigious family. Her father was a politician belonging to the Democrat party in Thailand. Later on her mother became the first bhikkhuni (fully ordained female nun) taking her ordination from Sri Lanka. Bhikkhuni Dhammananda did her study in India and Canada and became the first woman in Thailand to have a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies. She had 30 years of teaching experience in one of the top Universities in Bangkok.
Bhikkhuni Dhammananda had a busy and successful life both teaching and running TV dhamma talk show for 7 years. She is well known internationally among Buddhist academics with her involvement in ordination for women and concern for environment. In her private life she was married with three grown sons, and divorced to prepare for her spiritual journey. She left her colourful background to join the Order and became the first fully ordained bhikkhuni in Theravada tradition with the turn of the new millennium. She is one of the prestigious Peace Councilors among other leading Religious leaders of the world including H.H. the Dalai Lama. In 2004 she was awarded outstanding Buddhist women by the UN and 2005 she was nominated for 1000 women for Nobel Peace award.
She sits as a Buddhist committee member to select Niwano Peace Prize. She is editor of Yasodhara, Newsletter for International Buddhist women’s activities from 1984. She runs her own temple, Songdhammakalyani, an hour drive from Bangkok and now is in the process of establishing her own Sangha inspite of the fact that the Thai bhikkhu Sangha has no place for bhikkhuni Sangha. She is a peace-loving person, full of energy and compassionate to help the suffering women in her country. She runs a home of peace and love to help the underprivileged girls and women. She offers her temple as an international center for learning and training primarily for women.
Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Birth Name: Patricia Zenn
Born in Delaware, raised in Hawaii by a “materialistic Dad” and a “Southern Baptist Mom”, Karma Lekshe largely found her connection to spirituality while surfing the waves near Honolulu. Being teased as a teenager is rarely a trigger for life-changing serendipity, unless you’re Karma Lekshe. Prior to ordaining as a Tibetan nun, her last name was “Zenn” and kids used to tease her – “What are you, Zen Buddhist or something?” She didn’t really understand the “insult”, so she went to the library and checked out two books on it that would change her life. Little did those kids know that they were inadvertently sowing the seeds of a revolution in a 2500 year old religion — Buddhism.
A surfing competition led her to Japan, which then took her to India. In between a surfing competition in Japan, Karma Lekshe visited some local monastaries in India to learn more about spirituality. Compelled by the Tibetan culture and spirituality in Dharamsala, she stayed for a year. When money ran out, she sold her guitar back at home and stayed another year. By 1987, she was ready to start her first project, without any money, for eight nuns who had recently walked out of Tibet. Today, with 115 students and many innovative programs, the Jamyang Foundation has revolutionized many cultural paradigms and is seen as a model for emerging initiatives. While on a continuing trip to India, she heard the teachings of Dalai Lama. One thing after another, she was convinced that she wanted to become a nun, and dedicate her life to service, except for one problem: no monastery would accept her, because she was a woman. So, Karma Lekshe started her own nunnery in the Himalayas and sure enough, became a Buddhist nun herself.
Today, decades later, she has drastically altered Buddhism’s view of women. Through her well-researched academic work, Karma Lekshe brings new insights to traditional interpretations of history; sometimes she simply brings stories back to life: Mahaprajapati walked several hundred miles to implore Sakyamuni Buddha for an “order of women mendicants.” On the basis of her work, the Buddha agreed that the spiritual potential of women and men is equal, and he recognized the right of women to wear the garb of a mendicant. As a PhD in comparative philosophy, author of several books, founder of a Himalayan nonprofit, professor at University of San Diego, president of International Association of Buddhist Women, Karma Lekshe is actively involved in interfaith dialogue and grass-root initiatives for empowerment of women.
In the late 80s, she was bit by a poisonous viper that could’ve ended her life. Her arm was paralyzed but she somehow survived. With an iron will and unwavering commitment, Karma Lekshe keeps the revolution going.
Khandro Tsering Chödrön
Khandro was born in the Earth Snake year (1929) into the Aduk Lakar family of Kham Trehor, an ancient family of benefactors who supported many monasteries and teachers in Tibet dating back to the time of Je Tsongkhapa. Khandro became Jamyang Khyentse’s spiritual wife in 1948, at a time when he was in poor health and many of his disciples were urging him to take a consort to prolong his life. For the next eleven years she served as his attendant and devoted companion, receiving countless teachings and transmissions, requesting practices and prayers and putting questions to him in the form of songs, and he would write songs back to her, often in a playful and teasing manner.
According to Dzongsar Ngari Tulku (Tenzin Khedrup Gyatso), on one occasion c.1952, when Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö was opening the sacred place of Khyungchen Paldzong, known locally as Gyalgen Khyungtak, above Dzongsar Monastery, Jamyang Khyentse, Gyarong Khandro, Khandro Tsering Chödrön and Sogyal Rinpoche all left their handprints in the solid rock. Khandro continued to live there for many years after Jamyang Khyentse passed away in 1959, quietly devoting her life to constant prayer in the presence of his reliquary stupa. During this time she read the entire Kangyur and Tengyur. She travelled from Sikkim to Europe and America several times at the request of her nephew Sogyal Rinpoche. On 5th of December 2006, near the beginning of Rigpa’s first three-year retreat, Khandro Tsering Chödrön took residence in Lerab Ling.
Khandro Tsering Chödrön passed away on the 24th day of the 3rd lunar month (26th May 2011) in Lerab Ling. Sogyal Rinpoche and Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche were both present at the moment of her passing where she showed all the signs of attaining the final accomplishment of a great Dzogchen practitioner.
Ani Pachen Dolma “The Warrior Nun”
Ani Pachen Dolma was born in 1933, in Gojo, the eastern district of Kham, the only child of a powerful Khampa chieftain of the ruling Pomdha Tsang family, which shared a regional leadership role with nine other families. Her life from the beginning was different from that of other young Tibetan women.
“My father taught me to ride and to shoot,” she says. “I used to race horses when I was a teenager. They didn’t have separate races for girls. I raced my horse against men.”
The people of the Kham region are legendary for their equestrian skills. During festival times in Kham, hundreds of people would gather for days of prayer and play—dancing, sharpshooting and trick riding. Among Tibetans the Khampas have a reputation for being tough, fearless, and maybe a bit wild. When I ask Ani Pachen if she ever had a wild streak, her response is to punch me hard in the arm and laugh. Her eyes are bright and her gaze is deep and direct.
“I raced my horse against men,” she reminds me.
“When I was young I really wanted a religious life,” she remembers, “but my family wanted me to marry.” She fled her home when her family tried to arrange a marriage, and returned only when the family relented. Dividing her time between household activities and studies at the monastery of Gyalsay Rinpoche, she devoted herself to meditation practice and Buddhist studies.
But if Ani Pachen had managed to avoid marriage, she still bore responsibility as her family’s only child. Her father requested that she return from the monastery to train to become his heir as chieftain. If she was not to be a wife, she would be a warrior.
– Ani Pachen, Warrior Nun of Tibet, Gayle Hanson, Shambhala Sun, September 2000.
For two years, she lived in the hills with other leaders and their people (she was the only female leader), ambushing Chinese convoys and destroying their camps. Her father died at the time the Chinese invaded eastern Tibet and though she was in training to be a nun, she was compelled to take over for him and lead her people in resistance against the Chinese.
The freedom fighters were gradually defeated, and in 1960 she was captured by Chinese soldiers while attempting to flee on foot over the Himalayas with her mother, aunt, and aged grandmother. She was imprisoned, and spent the next 21 years in a series of Chinese prisons in eastern and central Tibet. In the early years of her imprisonment, she was the only woman held with hundreds of men. Later she was transferred to prisons with other women, and ultimately incarcerated at the dreaded Drapchi Prison in Lhasa. She endured extreme conditions and continuing torture, and during those years learned that her mother, aunt and grandmother had died from starvation. She credits her spiritual training, and her desire to meet with The Dalai Lama, with giving her the strength to survive. She died of heart failure at her home in Dharamsala, India, on February 2, 2002. She was sixty-nine years old.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman
Blanche Hartman was born in Birmingham, Alabama to non-practicing Jewish parents in 1926. Educated in the Catholic school system in the early 1930s—and impressed with the religiosity and faith of one teacher—in 1943 she moved to California, where her father served in the military.
After taking up biochemistry and chemistry at the University of California she married Lou Hartman in 1947, giving birth to four children, one of them being Nina Hartley, a porn actress. In the late 1950s she found work as a chemist, though by 1968 she began questioning the direction of her life. She and her husband began sitting zazen regularly at the Berkeley Zen Center in Berkeley with Sojun Mel Weitsman, California in 1969, and in 1972 the two entered Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. The couple lived at all of the other San Francisco Zen Center sites, including City Center and Green Gulch Farm.
Zenkei has lived and trained at all three of SFZC’s practice centers. She has led retreats for women at both SFZC and in Japan, She is a member of the American Zen Teachers Association (AZTA) and sits on the Board of World Religious Leaders for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. She currently resides at City Center, where she serves as a Senior Dharma Teacher.
Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche
“If being a woman is an inspiration, use it. If it is an obstacle, try not to be bothered by it.” — Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche
Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche’s position in the Buddhist world is entirely unique. She is one of the very few fully trained female Rinpoches in the Tibetan tradition. Born in 1968 as the eldest daughter of the late Kyabjé Mindrolling Trichen Gyurme Künzang Wangyal, the 11th throne holder of the renowned Mindrolling lineage, one of the six main Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, Khandro Rinpoche, her younger sister and her mother were the only women growing up among 400 monks at her father’s monastery in India.
The Mindrolling lineage is one of the rare Tibetan traditions that do not distinguish between male and female heirs. Now one of the most influential and vibrant women teachers, Khandro Rinpoche jet sets tirelessly between her late father’s monastery and her own two nunneries in India, her American headquarters Lotus Garden in the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia, and an ever-increasing number of Buddhist communities who are keen to benefit from her sharp acumen. In addition to receiving the traditional training usually reserved for male teachers, she also studied journalism, business management, homeopathy and sciences. With her unparalleled upbringing and training, she has built a reputation as an uncompromising, sharp-witted and unconventional teacher who is never afraid to “rock the boat” as she continues to question the responsibility and role of women in the Buddhist society.
Though Khandro Rinpoche downplays her own significance, her influence both in the East and West can hardly be overstated. Educating and empowering women is at the core of her work. In this book, she opens up about her upbringing, her family and her vision: “Maybe I can be a medium through which more women become confident, dynamic leaders.”
Ani Lama Sherab Zangmo
Ani Lama Sherab Zangmo was a resident nun and meditation teacher at Gebchak Gonpa. Often referred to as “The Great Yogini of Gebchak Gonpa”, Sherab Zangmo was famed among the lamas in Eastern Tibet for her high realization. She passed away in the autumn of 2008 with many signs of an accomplished practitioner. She spent 70 years in unbroken meditation practice since first coming to Gebchak Gonpa when she was 16 years old. She was the last remaining from the earliest generation of nuns at Gebchak Gonpa, and was integral in rebuilding the Nunnery in the late 1980′s and in the revival of its unique system of Buddhist practice for women. Sherab Zangmo was extraordinary in many ways: for the spontaneous enlightenment she gained through devotion to her guru, Tsang-yang Gyamtso; the profound simplicity of her teachings; and her flexibility in the face of challenging conditions.
Sherab Zangmo guided the younger nuns of Gebchak Gonpa in their practice right up until the moment of her passing. As she neared the moment of her death she laughed as she encouraged the nuns, and narrated the clear visions of buddhas that were appearing before her. Lama Sherab Zangmo’s repeated teaching was this: “Knowing one thing, everything is liberated” – by knowing the mind through practice, everything is liberated.
For more interesting information:
- Chupzang Nunnery
- Jiddu Krishnamurti- The Freedom Fighter
- Ekai Kawaguchi – Three Years in Tibet
- Lama Anagarika Govinda
- Post 80’s girl practices Buddhism as a nun in snow-capped plateau
- Nun on FORBES
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