Vaishali is not how Vaishali normally is the year round. The 13th Sakyadhita conference has permeated its air, its soil and its ethos. Despite the biting winter chill and very little protection from it like a fire or electric heaters, the participants are teeming to the venue of the conference with enthusiasm and spirit.
It’s heartening to see rows of smartly dressed Korean nuns in grey juxtaposed against the quintessential maroon of the Tibetan nuns; the ochre outfits of the Indian bhikkhunis in contrast to the black robes of the Japanese Buddhists; the rust coloured uniforms of the Taiwanese blending seamlessly with the all white ensembles of the Mae Chi women. Then there’s the differently styled Vietnamese contingent also in grey mixing in with a plethora of lay women dressed colourfully in jackets and trousers, silken scarves, embroidered shawls and pretty hats. There’s even a lady wearing a remarkably pretty traditional Mongolian outfit in mauve and pink. Together, the participants bring alive the conference. They bring alive this remote, sleepy village of Vaishali.

But the 13th Sakyadhita is not just about a visual feast of a variety of nun couture – it is about the great spirit of commitment and sacrifice that goes into taking these vows. It is about giving up ordinary material lives and choosing a harder, more challenging life…but one that is overwhelmingly rewarding, one that spells enlightenment, nirvana – pure freedom from the cycle of samsara.

Bhikkhuni ordination is a burning topic at the conference. The panel of presenters on the 8th of January all made concerted efforts through their papers to bring out the constraints that women face in seeking full ordination. Christie from Taiwan moderated the presentations in her usual warm, pleasant and forthcoming style. My paper was on the Transnational Bhikkhuni movement and highlighted the fruitful efforts made by women in countries like Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand and the USA to become fully ordained nuns and coexist peacefully alongside the male sangha. Lori Meeks’ paper looked at The case of Hokkeji in an attempt to recover nun’s voices from history. Caroline starkey’s presentation was on Dress and Liberation: Ordained women in Britain while Jampa Tsedroen spoke about the latest developments on the revival of Buddhist nun’s ordination in the Tibetan tradition. Last but not least, was Lisa Fancott’s presentation on proposing a program for women in Buddhism. 

The presentations were followed by a session of questions and answers where pertinent questions were raised about the limitations which women face in turning to the path. Full fledged ordinations are still a struggle for most women on the path and the conference is doing its best to shed light on the issue from all angles and perspectives. Perhaps by the end of the conference, we might see wholesome conclusions emerge from all the discussions. Conclusions that might be real time, adaptable and ones that might eventually guide the future of the Bhikkhuni sangha. 

Everyone attending the seminar, looks forward to attending the variety of workshops after tea-time. The participants are actually spoilt for choice! Each workshop is on an exciting, inspiring theme and one knows that by choosing a particular workshop one is surely forsaking all the other equally tempting topics. So then, for once, one allows one’s heart to decide where to go.

Not surprisingly, Prema Dasahara’s Tara Dhatu workshop seems to be the most popular. It is a workshop on simple dance movements done to the rhythm of the chanting of the Goddess Tara Mantra. The dance form helps the participant to reconnect to her inner self, to feel the outer burdens falling away and the inner bliss being released! It is no wonder then that after a spending considerable hours in academic and scholarly pursuit, the delegates look for a bit of spiritual dance and movement.

The popularity of the dance workshop by no means undermines the beauty and relevance of all the other workshops. There have been workshops on meditation, deep listening, animal compassion, white Tara, managing conflicting emotions, leadership for Buddhist women, the history of Vaishali, a photo workshop for Buddhist nuns, buddhist picture books children in Taiwan so on and so forth. Each workshop has a healthy attendance and participants come out of these workshops feeling more enriched and better informed.

Yesterday, Christie made a wonderful announcement of putting up a message board! It was badly needed! People are now making plans for onward travel after the conclusion of the conference.  They need to network with their colleagues and fellow travellers regarding joint travel and dates etc. Transportation is not easy here, so get all the lifts you can! 

Sometimes you need a message board just to trace a friend you made a day ago! With two delicious lunch spaces – the Indian and the Vietnamese – it is common to miss the person you are looking for even during the lunch break!

Plus, the message board is a great place to recover lost mobiles and bags!

The Vietnamese monastery deserves a sincere vote of thanks for catering to every need of every participant of the conference. From providing sumptuous food, some amazing afternoon tea, a marvellous venue, adequate workshop space and clean toilets the nuns and volunteers at the monastery deserve our warmest appreciation. A tangible form of our appreciation for their goodness would be to donate liberally into the Sakyadhita donation boxes.

Here’s saying three cheers to the marvellous spirit of the Sakyadhita and the women sangha! May it endure!
Vinita Agrawal

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