16th Sakyadhita Conference:
Buddhist Women Rising to Challenges


Presentation by Sarah Harding


What’s in a Name?

“Buddhist Women Rising to Challenges” struck a chord with me since I have definitely felt the challenge of being a woman in the Buddhist world. But as that experience was certainly not unique, it never occurred to me to write about it. Then way down at the bottom of Sakyadhita’s call for papers it said “More personalized perspectives based on one’s own experiences will be welcome.” 

So for the first time ever I will try that.

I met my teacher Kalu Rinpoche at his monastery near Darjeeling, India around 1972. I immediately launched into his program of practice through daily teachings in his room with a small group of westerners, in the midst of the usual life of an all-male monastery. One event that struck me was the sudden “liberation,” as it is called, of a three-year retreat that had been going on there unbeknownst to me. I was extremely impressed by the monks that emerged. Later, when Rinpoche announced the first such retreat for westerners, I immediately applied and was not-so-immediately accepted. I learned Tibetan, did the preliminary practices, accumulated the money, helped to build the retreat facilities at a center in France, and entered retreat in 1976 with seven other women. There was only one nun among us. The men were similarly ensconced a short distance away. Rinpoche had not been deterred by criticism from other lamas for assigning women the same practice program as the men, but he did truly wish that everyone would ordain as monastic, and never gave up trying. On his visits in the retreat, he liked to regale us with true, if somewhat exaggerated, stories from his travels of marriages gone terribly wrong. Still, no one new took permanent ordination, and most gave back the temporary vows that we took for the retreat immediately afterwards. As of now, not a single woman or man from that retreat actually retains their monastic vows. In the highly monastic Kagyu and Shangpa traditions, lay people participating at this level of vajrayāna practice in extended, cloistered group retreat was virtually unknown. That left quite a dilemma for an elderly Tibetan master from a different era, culture, and experience to sort out, enlightened or not.

When the retreat ended in 1980, the first thing that happened was that Rinpoche had each of us give a Dharma talk there at the center in France. So the message was clear: we would be teaching, even though no one had that in mind when they entered retreat (At least not the women. I can’t speak for the men.) The next thing was that we were all to accompany him on a tour of centers around France, sitting on stage with him in our maroon robes, advertised as “the first thirteen occidental lamas.” Rinpoche was clearly very proud of his achievement, and we basked in the glory.

After the glory tour, (and mine was cut short by being sent to rescue a Sikkimese lama who had run away in Los Angeles), we were all assigned to various posts. I was already in Los Angeles, translating for the runaway lama. I noticed that all the other women were also sent to translate or attend Tibetan lamas, while all the men were sent to be lamas in various centers.  So that was interesting. When I had a chance to inquire, there was some talk about how that was more skillful, since in western culture men were dominant and would be listened to. Right—well, as a translator I can say that people might think they were listening to a man, but in fact they were listening to the invisible female voice beside the throne occupied by a monk. Doesn’t that just resemble the history of the modern world? After my first child was born and I wouldn’t wear Rinpoche’s new fashion for lay teachers of maroon with white stripes, Rinpoche seemed to give up on me. I had totally failed.

Around 1982, Kalu Rinpoche was preparing for another retreat in Canada, and I decided to attend the empowerments. Somewhat surprisingly, I was the only one of the earlier retreat graduates who was required to pay the attendance fees, which I could not afford. Perhaps inspired by that injustice, I confronted Rinpoche about the whole issue. Were women doing the retreat the same as men? Yes, but the word “lama” is for men. (Funny, since it is a feminine gendered word in Tibetan.) What about Jetsun Lama Kushola? She’s called lama because she’s the sister of Sakya Trinzin. What about Lama Yeshe? Well, if someone calls themselves “lama” it’s polite to address them as they like. And so on. Later, in a public talk, Rinpoche actually said “You can’t call a cow a bull” and “If someone has qualities, they will automatically shine forth like a rainbow appearing when gold is under the ground.” And so forth. I was so devastated that Rinpoche thought I was trying to stake a claim for myself, I slunk away that very day, definitely not rising to the challenge.

An important Kagyu lama tried to prescribe the word “naljorma” (yogini) for lay female retreat graduates, but this didn’t really stick. However, Kalu Rinpoche’s successor, Bokar Rinpoche, had no trouble at all addressing and respecting lay women who have completed the retreat as “lamas.” So perhaps it is no longer an issue. But my experience with my own guru, in whom I have never had a moment’s doubt, spawned a series of questions for about thirty years that I will try to describe in two minutes:

I’ve always disdained titles. So why bother? But, at the same time, is it fair if men get it and women don’t? Is this even my fight? I don’t even like the job description of “lama” since I don’t want followers. But if I don’t stand up to it, am I abandoning women? If I do, will it seem arrogant and assertive? Aren’t claims and titles a male thing anyway? Why should a woman have to act like a man? Do I even want to buy into titles bestowed or withheld by men? So, “thanks but no thanks.” (Or something a little more rude.) Do I want a title in a foreign language that no one really understands? Would I rather be called “professor,” since that’s clear? If the power of women is communal and not hierarchical, why set ourselves up for reverence based on a name? Is all this my neurosis or my wisdom?

This last is the burning question. We are taught, in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings, that the kleśas or toxic emotions are actually a kind of wisdom when they are not distorted by ego-clinging. Thus, desire is the wisdom of discernment, anger is mirror-like wisdom, and so forth. This is a fundamental teaching of the vajrayāna. Usually it is described as the wisdom present after those poisons are purified. But what if they co-exist? If desire exists alongside the wisdom of discerning that those specific desired phenomena are intrinsically empty; that anger is permeated by the mirror-like wisdom that reflects equally the merely superficial images of infuriating situations; that pride actually is the wisdom of equality that recognizes our interconnectedness, and so on?

And what if the wisdom of the noncompetitive nonassertive female power coexists in me along with the scourge of female low self-esteem? That not rising to the challenge of female equity in the Buddhist ranks or stepping up to the role of lama is both a kind of humility and resistance to egomania and at the same time a shrinking acquiescence to male dominance? I don’t know.

There’s no time now to report on my research regarding female titles, other than a few observations. While many Asian lineages have mostly kept the traditional titles in the west, occasionally sharing them with women, the Tibetan lineages use all kinds of titles, mostly deriving from Tibetan or Sanskrit terms taken out of context. So there are mitras, shastris, loppons, acharyas, naljormas, ngakmas, yoginis, jetsunmas, khandromas, etc. In a nod to the English, one group uses “vicar” and the hilarious “brevet lama,” borrowed from British military.

The important pattern to notice is that aside from the word “lama” when it is used for graduates of the three-year retreat, almost all the titles do not indicate any specific achievement. Titles are bestowed solely at the discretion of a teacher at best, or at worst claimed by the person themselves in what is a very literal “sense of entitlement.” The former requires us to have confidence in the clairvoyance of the preceptor that granted the title, and the one that granted that one, and so on back into the past. But this makes it quite difficult to research the background of any prospective teacher, the way the Dalai Lama has recommended. And I found that the majority of title grants were more about promoting the teacher’s sphere of influence than the spiritual realization of the disciple, which in any case is difficult to assess. Needless to say, the self-entitled teachers greatly add to the befuddlement of us mortals.

Ideally, titles should indicate something specific that anyone could understand. For instance, a PhD doesn’t guarantee wisdom, but at least we know the person did their homework. Usually. That’s why “Venerable” and “Venerable Bhiksuni” for fully ordained nuns works so well. Someone who takes and keeps vows is worthy of veneration for that alone. It’s clear and universally understood. But for there to be an equivalent term for lay female teachers would require agreement on teacher training, programs, levels, names, and so forth across Buddhist schools and lineages, or even within one lineage. I don’t think that is going to happen. It would be nice to do away with titles altogether, but that’s not going to happen either. I guess each person has to figure it out alone.

Anyway, it’s too late for me now: my five-year-old grandson already calls me “grammalama.” I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do.

Learn more about Sakhyadhita on their website: Working at the grassroots level, Sakyadhita provides a communications network among Buddhist women internationally. We promote research and publications on Buddhist women’s history and other topics of interest. Our members strive to create equal opportunities for women in all Buddhist traditions. Read More