Photo workshop Vaishali

Work from the photo workshop; seeing and capturing transience, impermanence, compassion, hope, suffering, and taking care of each other.

Photos by Caroline Starkey, Hsing Lin, Eunsu Cho, Aura Pochanapring, Shuman Chen



Tara dance

No Longer MIA in History

Recently I was reading a report on the activities of a monks’ monastery in the local Buddhist group´s newsletter.  I had known that the monks, especially the abbot, had been very kind and had allowed a Buddhist nun to stay at the limited women´s quarters in the monastery to do a three month retreat during the traditional rainy season retreat period.  I was therefore expecting that the nun would be included in the report’s description of the community that had spent the rains retreat and was surprised to find it made no mention of her at all.  It enumerated only monks, postulants training to be monks, and laypeople.

It was so strange.  It was almost as if the nun hadn´t existed.  People who weren´t at the monastery during that time would have no knowledge that this nun had undergone a three month retreat there.  Years or generations later, there would be no historical evidence in the archives of this Buddhist organisation that the nun had stayed and practiced at this place, or even, in the greater scheme of history, that she had lived at all.  (To some degree this might apply also to the laywomen, as the term “laypeople” at a monks’ monastery might be assumed to refer only to men by those unfamiliar with the community.)

I had majored in History at university, so I am well acquainted with the problematic nature of historical sources and the issues that arise in the writing of history.  I was told from day one in a history class that “history is interpretation.”  There is no such thing as a purely factual record of past events. History is merely what historians concoct from limited sources, which they make sense of with their limited perspectives, and use selectively based on limited time and limited space (and all sorts of agendas).  So I know all this.

But this was the first time I saw the process actually unfolding on events very fresh in the past, on a subject that hits close to home.  Ohhh, so this is how it happens!  This is how women and particularly nuns get lost in the lacunae of imperfect historical record.  It’s not that they are consigned to the ´dustheap of history’ – they are not even included in the pile!

Moreover, here was a case where I know that the monks at that monastery have been very kind and supportive of nuns, even at great expense to themselves. So I know this omission cannot be attributed to misogyny or any form of meanspiritedness.  Then why?  I can only speculate.  Perhaps there were some political sensitivities in mentioning in such a public way that a nun had stayed at a monks’ monastery, which might be frowned on by some conservatives. Perhaps as it is a monks´monastery, visiting nuns are outside the scope of what is considered to be core monastery business to report.  Perhaps, given the very limited contact between the nun staying at the monastery and the monks, she just wasn´t on the ‘radar screen’ of the monk writing the report (although it seems impossible that he could have been completely unaware of her stay).  Or perhaps because she didn´t fit into the standard categories of people who normally stay at the monastery, it was just an oversight in a boilerplate listing of monastery residents.

Well, whatever the reason may be, even if the omission was just accidental, it is not inconsequential.  The bottom line effect is that there is no evidence of her in a document that serves as a historical record.

It made me think: Geez, if even the histories written by people who are very sympathetic to nuns can still leave them out, what can we expect of the histories written by those who are indifferent or even against them?  It made me wonder, how many nuns in past years and centuries have lived that we can find no trace of in historical sources?  On a more positive note, it gave me great faith that there is every possibility, indeed likelihood, that there have been far more accomplished nuns and vibrant nuns´communities that have existed through the ages than we are aware of, even if we have no way to concretely prove it. Even if we have no way to intellectually know it.

While faith is a wonderful quality to cultivate, there´s no denying that it is so valuable to have real historical records of nuns and also Buddhist laywomen. And it is actually harmful when we don’t.  Because the stories of great nuns and laywomen are so scanty compared to those of monks and laymen throughout the centuries, women are starved of spiritual role models.  Having such role models is so crucial in providing inspiration to walk the path, and the confidence to believe we are capable of walking it all the way to the end. Furthermore, if only the people deemed significant enough are included in historical accounts, what message does this send when nuns and laywomen are left out?

It is thus such a great blessing and joy to be at the Sakyaditha conference, where the voices and faces, words and deeds of Buddhist women past and present are being proudly and lovingly showcased.  It has been so nourishing to hear papers and watch documentaries that highlight the stories and teachings of great nuns and laywomen of yore, whether the arahant theris and foremost upasikas of the Buddha’s time, medieval Japanese empresses who were major patrons of nunneries, or formidable bhiksunis who founded magnificent Korean nunneries.   It is rare to have such an opportunity, because even though some historical records of Buddhist women do exist – thankfully! — they are often not given much attention, even by women themselves.

It has also been eye-opening and refreshing to learn about all the progress being made by modern day Buddhist women, particularly the example of such well-established nunneries and educational systems for nuns in Taiwan and Korea, the heartening news of significant steps forward taken in the movement to introduce full bhiksuni ordination in the Tibetan lineage, and not least of all the the amazing work being done by our gracious Vietnamese hosts, who are working so tirelessly on various dhamma propogation projects in India, including programs to provide bhikkhuni ordination and training to more women from different countries.  Their establishment of this nunnery named after the great Mahaprajapati, founder of the bhikkhuni order, complete with a magnificent stupa to commemorate her, itself is such an uplifting reminder of our roots.

However, it has been saddening to learn of the hardships and obstacles faced by some sisters, especially the nuns in the Vajrayana tradition living in the Himalayas and Malaysia.  Some consolation is offered by the knowledge that these under-supported nuns are being given attention by the researchers and journalists who have presented their work at the conference, including a photo book of Bhutanese nuns, recordings of the dharma songs of the nuns of Kinnaur, and survey data of the nuns in Malaysia.  This is wonderful work, because it is so vital not only to record success stories where nuns are already flourishing, but to document and raise awareness of areas where help is needed, while also highlighting admirable examples of strength.  How inspiring it has been to see the fortitude, dedication, and courage shown by nuns who are persevering in the robes despite much difficulty.  And how moving to see the way women are stepping forward to help each other, both laywomen who have founded organisations to support nuns, and nuns who are reaching out to assist their sisters regardless of tradition.

The Sakyaditha conference has provided a rare and precious forum for all these important stories to be told.  Here, women’s voices, so often muted or muffled, can be projected, heard, and preserved.  The book of conference papers, photos, videos, and audio recordings all will provide rich documentation of the lives and work of Buddhist women.  Ah, how nice indeed to rest assured that women will definitely not go MIA [missing in action] in the historical records produced from this Sakyaditha gathering (where we are a tad conspicuous.)

Perhaps the most important place where the stories of remarkable Buddhist women will be preserved, however, is deep in our hearts.  The inspiration and joy they give us can nourish and invigorate us long into the future, hopefully all the way to complete liberation.  Which of course would be the greatest story to record in history!

-Munissara Bhikkhuni

Excerpts from Paula Arai’s talk, “The Healing Power of Beauty”

January 9, 2013

“The places the eyes of the flesh see have a limit. The places the eyes of the heart see have no limit.” –Gyokko Sensei. The pithy yet profound words of an elderly Japanese Buddhist woman suggests the wisdom of viewing the world through one’s heart. When the heart looks out, it can see the boundless connections that weave everything together in a beautiful and vast web of compassion. The Dalai Lama suggests that, ‘Often it is through the expression and appreciation of beauty that we unlock the compassionate potential in the human heart.’ Beauty is the fullest manifestation of the present moment and it has the power to focus one’s being on the life-affirming aspects of the present. In other words, beauty has a seductive power to draw one to see the myriad of connections that embrace one in a universe of compassion.

The key to the healing power of beauty is to experience interrelatedness – not just have an intellectual understanding of it. Such is possible through complete body-mind engagement with a meaningful activity in the present moment. To experience this not only nurtures the self, but gives rise to a sublime joy in living. Being fully present requires having an open and accepting heart, which in turn cultivates gratitude because one can see from an expanded perspective. Beauty heals because it is an immersion in immediate and positive sensorial, somatic experience of the present moment.

The enigma is to appreciate the present moment as beautiful precisely because it is ephemeral. Contemplative arts can be experienced as a healing in so far as they direct one’s attention to the present activity with full body-mind engagement. Each motion is carefully crafted to be the height of respect and efficiency, every gesture meaningful. When treating everything with which one comes in contact with respect and awareness of interrelationship, one feels respected in return and supported by a vast web.

One of the dimensions of the practice of beauty as healing that is especially amenable to daily activities is the beauty of physical movements. Beauty in motion occurs when one acts with full mindfulness on the present moment, embodied awareness of the meaning of each movement, and treats everything with respect. Therefore, when doing domestic tasks as beauty-making activities – including hanging laundry, cooking, serving food, cleaning floors, and washing dishes – they become healing activities.

Beauty also sustains through its capacity to soften the rough spots in one’s heart, enabling one to be more flexible in living with present circumstances. Once one is aware of beauty in one’s midst, it works as an antidote to bitterness and it stops calcification in the heart. It acts as a solvent that loosens debris in the heart. Beauty can engage one further in the fullness of the present moment in which one can recognize oneself as an integral part, a participant. Perceiving beauty is an act of recognizing the value of something. In so doing, it awakens the beauty in oneself, to one’s bigger nature. In these ways, beauty helps one feel deeply connected and whole.

Whether engaged in a formal tea ceremony or enjoying a cup at home, tea as aesthetic mode of ritualized motion is about embodying tranquil beauty. In tea ceremony, artistry and healing come together in powerful ways.

Subtlety is especially treasured in the tea world. It activates your creativity. Tea teaches the method of moving in the most beautiful way to do a task. Tea centers on beauty. The aim is that it is carried into daily life. Tea becomes part of who you are, the way you move and see, what you notice. It takes a long time to cultivate this.

Let’s take a glimpse of this refined and subtle world of healing beauty through tea. It begins with the first step into the garden. Join me in visualizing the recently moistened rock path meandering through the garden, generating an inviting sense of fresh life, as we walk toward the tea hut. With each step, the strains and weariness of stressful demands are left behind, as each stone leads us deeper into the tranquility of the garden. On arriving at the well, pause to reflect on the carving in the stone basin: “I only know satisfaction.”

Reaching right hand to lift the long, thin-handled bamboo dipper is an occasion for reflecting on how it would feel if all one knew were contentment. Gingerly scoop water into the dipper and slowly pour it over your left hand.

After removing your shoes and placing them neatly out of the way, kneel at the tea room door and slide it open with both hands, showing high respect. While sitting in silence, drink in the carefully and thoughtfully arranged items. Feel respected. Someone cared enough to tend to each detail, creating a soothing harmony of elements that draw out the tranquil beauty of the season, time of day, and qualities of the relationships of those to be gathered.

Harmonizing diverse elements into an integrated whole is beauty-making activity in its highest and strongest mode. Expansive beauty provides a safe space for healing to occur. The larger the context in which one perceives oneself to be, the stronger the support one feels. When one feels alone and perceives things narrowly, it is easy to experience suffering. Beauty draws one’s attention beyond this illusion and directs it to the proverbial Jewel Net of interrelationality.

Beauty entices one to engage in an act with one’s full being, whereby the distance between things dissolves. 

January 9, 2013

Day 5 of the 13th Sakyadhita Conference

We woke up to fog so thick that my roommate thought it was snowing–and at 3 degrees Celsius, it’s cold enough to do so. My roommate and I have gotten into a pattern of having coffee and conversation in our room before going to the 7 am meditation. The first few days we started before 4am, then as we adjusted to the time difference it was 5 am. Today our bodies seem to be on Indian time and we slept until 6, which gave us only half an hour to chat over our cups of instant coffee. The first few days of instant coffee and whitener were a shock to those of us who drink gourmet blends,  but now we no longer notice the difference.


This is the first time I’ve been able to attend Sakyadhita; my academic calendar has always interfered. But this year I start teaching later and I decided not to miss the opportunity. I didn’t know anyone else who was attending but I knew I’d be with friends. And so it’s been. In Delhi, I was already in falling asleep in my bed when I met my roommate Barbara Wright. We introduced ourselves and started talking… and we haven’t stopped since. That sense of familiarity seems present with many of the people I have met here–people who hold lovingkindness and Buddhist ethics in the forefront of their minds.


Each morning meditation is led by someone from a different tradition. Today Jetsuma Tenzin Palmo was the leader. A few days ago she gave a workshop on meditation in which she said one thing that really struck me. I paraphrase here, “the ego believes that meditation will solve all its problems.” How true is that!


This morning she emphasized how important it is to relax in meditation. So nice to be reminded of that and so contrary to how I approach most things in life. As we came to the end of the sitting, she led us in a brief visualization and as we left the hall, I noticed how many people coming out had tears streaming down their cheeks. Tears of connection, tears of joy.


Another thing I’ve noticed here is the melting away of sectarian boundaries. In my observation, there seems to be little grouping of practitioners from the various traditions represented here. Theravada, Chan, Zen, and diverse Tibetan lineages seem to have checked any exclusivity at the door. True there are language differences, but lay and monastic, women and men (yes, there are a few) are drawn close to each other by their love of the dharma.


In finishing my post, I want to mention how inspired I’ve been by some of the papers presented. I’m still thinking about this morning’s panel on Buddhism and Social Activism. I wept when Karma Lekshe Tsomo described the sacrifices and hard work of motherhood as social activism. As a mother and a grandmother, I feel like I’ve waited a long time for someone to acknowledge that. It’s a far cry from the belief that lay women and mothers are spiritually inferior.  


Sarana Nona Olivia