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!