Saturday, July 31, 2010

90 seconds in front of the jokhang, lhasa

note the absence of western tourists and the presence of military goose-steppers,who continually patrol the square before the jokhang.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lecture Online

Hamburg University has made the talk I gave on Hierarchy and Gender in Buddhist Monasticism available online. In case your absence last night was not an indication of lack of interest, you can listen to the talk here

or go straight to the mp3 file here.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

vegetarians in bhutan

my friend ariana, with whom i had the joy of sharing a birthday lunch with on my five-hour stopover in kathmandu last tuesday, has posted an interesting reflection on vegetarianism in bhutan.

read it here.

Friday, July 02, 2010

not in india

nearly every one of my four years in india has included some travel outside the country, and this is no exception. the next stop on a fairly whirlwind tour (five countries four continents, two months) will be germany, where i'll be giving a talk at hamburg university on "hierarchy and gender in buddhist monasticism," and enjoying both the company of my friend Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen and an intense few weeks translating the stories about they very first bhikshunis as a visiting scholar at the university's center for buddhist studies.

here's the abstract for the talk:

The nature of Buddhist social organizations has been a topic of great debate and often of grave misunderstanding. Focusing on Buddhist responses to caste, many observers have found cause to celebrate Buddhism as promoting an egalitarian social order. However, even a cursory examination of Buddhist monasticism makes it clear that hierarchy itself is not discarded outright as an ordering principle. This talk draws on narratives from the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya (MSV) that depict the life of the early Buddhist order, to explore the ways hierarchy is deployed within Buddhist monasticism, as a means of organizing social institutions but also as an integral part of personal training. Since gender is the single most important determinant of location within Buddhist monastic hierarchies—literally dividing Buddhist monastics into two distinct orders—this paper most directly addresses the hierarchical relation between men and women, or monks and nuns.

To that end, this talk will first describe the particular constructions of gender displayed in the MSV’s narratives. What we note is that Buddhist monasticism’s interventions in prevailing constructions of female gender benefited women greatly, yet mainstream constructions repeatedly re-inscribed themselves on Buddhist nuns’ lives and institutions. This talk will then explore moments of parity between the male and female monastic orders, along with the hierarchy that generally prevails between them. Finally, it will argue that the hierarchical relationship between the monks and nuns’ orders is characterized not by unidirectional dominance of one over the other, but by asymmetrical reciprocity, with each encouraged to offer different forms of care to the other. I will conclude with some observations as to the implications of these care-taking responsibilities on the current debate on bhikṣuṇī ordination within the Mūlasarvāstivāda monastic code that is followed by Tibetan Buddhists.

for more details, see this pdf or the department's website.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

a string of pearls

Back in Dharamsala, back to the rhythm of days lived inside texts and out, the two complementing each other better than ever. Among the several texts whose worlds I've had the great fortunate and true joy of spending time in recently is Je Gampopa's Dharma for the Community: A String of Pearls. This text records a series of teachings given by Gampopa in the 12th century in Tibet to a large gathering of disciples of various levels. Because it is not a literary composition but the record of oral discourses, it is a rare opportunity to connect quite directly with the voice and personal teaching style of this great master. The main disciple of Milarepa, Gampopa combined the Kadampa lineage of teachings - characterized by a focus on renunciation and compassion, and a flair for pith communication that cuts straight to the heart like an arrow - and the Mahamudra teachings so rich in meditative techniques and emphasizing a ritual-free spontaneous presence of awareness. A physician who lost his children and wife when all his medical knowledge could not save them from a local epidemic, Gampopa brought his own personal intensity of practice to the integration of these two lines of transmission, and founded the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

I share below just one of the many passages from this magnificent text that have stopped me in my tracks as I translate:

To awaken to buddhahood, in the beginning you need a wish to work for the aims of sentient beings. To awaken to buddhahood, in the middle you need to work for the aims of sentient beings. In the end, once you have awakened to buddhahood, there is nothing but working for the aims of sentient beings.

སངས་རྒྱ་བར་བྱེད་པ་ལ་དང་པོ་ཡང་སེམས་ཅན་གྱི་དོན་བྱེད་པར་འདོད་པ་ཅིག་དགོས། བར་དུ་ཡང་སངས་རྒྱ་བ་ལ་སེམས་ཅན་གྱི་དོན་བྱེད་པ་ཅིག་དགོས། ཐ་མ་ཡང་སངས་རྒྱས་ནས་སེམས་ཅན་གྱི་དོན་ལས་བྱར་མེད་པའོ།

Friday, December 18, 2009

Drinking Fully of the Dharma

Starting tomorrow, and continuing until the 22nd of December, HH Gyalwang Karmapa will be teaching on Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend. These teachings, aimed especially at His Holiness' Western and students, will be webcast live, and we invite you to take your seats alongside us, virtually, and share with us the experience of receiving the Dharma directly from this exceptional spiritual teacher.

If the time difference allows you to watch during the Indian hours of 9-11 am and 3-5 pm, you will find the webcast at this site: As a guide to the time differences, these Indian hours coincide with 10:30 pm to 12:30 am and 4:30 am to 6:30 am in New York (and please pardon the east coast bias!)

His Holiness recently commented that he had chosen this text to teach on because :it was the custom in ancient India that, as soon as someone took the five refuge precepts, they would memorize this text. Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend was written for a king, with laypeople primarily in mind. Hence, it is very helpful in that it addresses the conduct of laypeople, explaining how they should behave in their day-to-day lives."

Should you decide to join us, we offer this summary of advice on how to listen to Dharma teachings, from the deeply moving talk His Holiness gave last week to a large gathering of monastics attending the winter debate session here in Bodhgaya. It is excerpted from the daily report we are preparing and that you can also find on the Kagyu office and Kagyu monlam websites.

Describing the way to receive Dharma teachings, His Holiness took up the image of a vessel free of the three faults—of having holes in it, being dirty or being placed upside down. He managed to take this analogy, well known to many Dharma practitioners, and make it come suddenly alive and replete with new meaning—another characteristic feature of his teaching style. His Holiness assigned the audience the task of examining for themselves whether their minds were worthy recipients for the pure Dharma. We ourselves must take steps to ensure that our minds are suitable vessels to hold the Dharma, he said. We must actively work to remove any stains in our minds, and see to it that our minds are sound, and held upright to receive and retain the Dharma offered.

Going to attend the teachings of a high lama casually, as if we were going to an ordinary, everyday event, is a sign we are not properly valuing the Dharma. Nor is it adequate to simply sit, nonchalantly extending our plate for whatever might be dished onto it, His Holiness said. Instead, we should go to teachings with a deep hunger, and eagerly hold up the empty bowl of our minds to receive the nectar of the pure Dharma.

Friday, November 20, 2009

october brings change

The month of October brought many shifts to the quiet routine that had been established in our monastic community. I returned from my long stay in the States, PhD at long last complete and very much ready to move forward to life beside my Dharma sisters in India. The four of us renewed the bonds of affection that connect us, exchanging tales of our time apart and drinking deeply of the joy of the spiritual life that we share as women on this monastic path.

Here are a few snippets from our community blog, which henceforth will be the main site for new updates...

Within days of returning, any hopes of resting after the long and intense period of writing and defending my dissertation were dashed, as a series of translation jobs came tumbling in, one after the other. While I stayed at home working on texts to be used during the upcoming Kagyu Monlam prayer festival in Bodhgaya, the other nuns had the great privilege of attending teaching after teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his home monastery in Dharamsala...

This month we also had the opportunity to meet privately with the Gyalwang Karmapa, our spiritual guide, reporting to him on our activities over the past months, and seeking his counsel for what lies ahead. In particular, we presented our aspirations for a study program that would meet our needs as Westerners in whom Buddhism needs to be actively inculcated. As we articulated our wish for a program that could combine the best of Western pedagogy and more traditional Tibetan methods of transmitting knowledge. His Holiness responded to our request by expressing his own strong interest in developing such a program, and we now plan to work to have a working curriculum in place for when Dapel, Nangpel and Drolma return from their study program in Nepal.

Later in the month, a solemn ceremony was held down the road from our house to formally release a biography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that had been long in the making. With HHDL himself in attendance, His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa officiated at the proceedings, with a multitude of Tibetans gathering to express their deep appreciation for the Dalai Lama’s extensive activities. The ceremony took place close on the heels of a series of executions of Tibetan protesters by the Chinese government, and at the close of the ceremony, His Holiness the Dalai Lama commented that prayers are stronger when made on the basis of a shared relationship with the one for whom we are praying – such as family relationships, relationships that come from sharing experiences or belongings, or the relationships that link spiritual teachers and disciples. Therefore, His Holiness said, it would be good for us to pray together for those who have been executed, and for happiness and peace throughout the world. Seated before these two exceptional beings, joining them and the rest of the Tibetan community in prayers, it hit home just how exceptional it is to have a culture fundamentally saturated with the wish to ease the suffering of others, and headed by leaders whose own commitment to the well-being of others is unequivocal. Even if those aspirations prove challenging to implement or even sustain, simply setting them at the notional center of a society is already a great deal.

Read more on our activities for this month here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

in 350 words or less

since i left for india shortly after the phd defense, my friend sangeeta did the honors (and considerably gnarly administrative chore) of taking the final copy for final review and depositing it in the library in madison, thereby officially ending my time as a grad student. my degree was granted on friday, october 16, and a new life has begun.

i know over the years, a few people have asked and if anyone is interested in actually reading it, let me know now and i can send a pdf copy. for those with some interest but no time to wade through 455 pages, here is the 350-words-or-less version i was required to produce as part of the finalizing of the degree:


This dissertation explores the ethics that Buddha and his monastic followers practiced, as imagined in the narrative world of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya (MSV). The MSV is a multi-volume canonical text that has governed various Indian and Tibetan Buddhist monastic communities for nearly two millennia, and it is also hailed as a masterpiece of Sanskrit literature. Through close readings of the MSV’s many narratives, this dissertation is principally concerned to understand in what ways and to what extent its ethics is gendered.

The MSV regulates historical monastic communities, often addressing those communities through narratives. The text thus demands reading practices that reflect its status as both authoritative and multivocal. Deploying such practices, we note that Buddha’s practice of ethics in the MSV is marked by an intense attentiveness to human particularity and difference. In the ethics of the MSV, many features combine to constitute a person: caste, family, gender and other markers of social location, their relationships with particular others, as well as individual disposition and karma. Within Buddhist monasticism, gender emerges as one of the single most important determinants of social location and personal identity, profoundly impacting what is and is not possible for persons at any given moment. Buddhist monasticism’s interventions in prevailing constructions of female gender benefited women greatly, even though those mainstream constructions repeatedly re-inscribed themselves on monastic women’s lives, bodies and institutions.

With its intense focus on the body as a site for ethical cultivation, Buddhist monasticism offers women an alternate model of female embodiment. When gender is institutionalized within monastic communities, we note moments of parity between the male and female monastic orders, along with the hierarchy that generally prevails between them. The hierarchical relationship between the monks and nuns’ orders is characterized by asymmetrical reciprocity, with each encouraged to offer different forms of care to the other.

Throughout, the dissertation assesses the constructions of gender imagined in the MSV’s narratives, asking to what degree and in what ways Buddhist monasticism succeeds or fails to enable women to engage in the work of self-fashioning that is its overall ethical project.

Friday, September 25, 2009

over the edge

a dissertation entitled:

"For the Sake of Women, Too":
Ethics and Gender in the Narratives of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya

was successfully defended and signed off on at 3pm today, as you can see.

(please forgive the brevity of this post. i'm fresh out of words at the moment!)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

on the brink of dissertation

friday, september 25.

1pm to 3 pm, madison, wisconsin time, in a room on campus i recall most vividly for its lack of air, i will take a seat before the five professors who make up my doctoral committee.

it will be time to defend my thesis.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

first you submit, then you defend.

i submitted my completed thesis to my doctoral review committee a week ago, and in just over two weeks have my formal defense.

academia really is a pretty curious beast. although we may be familiar enough with them that they seem quite natural, academic practices, rituals and language are easily as odd as the tibetan buddhist rituals that are often branded as bizarre, or more generously perhaps, exotic. one clear example of this is the very process of completing the phd requirements. in the humanities at least, one usually thinks of a phd as consisting of some years of formal study, a year or so spent researching something or other, followed by a final period - a year or two usually - spent writing up the actual dissertation thesis. but this overlooks the very last, and very combative, portion of the process: submission and defense. the odd thing, certainly odd in military terms at least, is that first you submit and then you defend. this is not merely a question of odd use of language. like two animals positioning themselves to determine which will be alpha, there is a carving out of territory, a series of challenges, displays of [here, intellectual] power, and throughout, a process of submitting to a known genre of authority marking and making. in the end, the grad student leaves their dissertation thesis in the ring and withdraws, to allow the committee their time to see what they make of the offering. meanwhile, the process of defending the doctoral theses is the culmination of years of study and research, and, for many graduate students, months or years of nail-biting and teeth-gnashing during the write-up stage. yet given how tightly defined most thesis topics are, and given the strong preference for students to undertake research on topics or questions no one else has explored before, or in the same way, by the time phd candidate have completed the writing of the thesis, in many cases literally no one else in academia knows as much as the phd candidate on their topic.

yet first you submit. and if my doctoral defense is anything like my masters defense, i fully expect that the next entry i post here will be a report of my survival of the encounter, and perhaps even a display of the wounds i sustained in attaining the right to print three tiny letters after my name - a right in all likelihood i will not exercise.

Monday, August 31, 2009

news from the front

this photo depicts the mountains visible from redlands, the southern californian town i am writing from. over these past two months i have been in semi-retreat writing here, no doubt all sorts of difficult situations and painful experiences have taken place in the world outside this house. but until they penetrate this self-induced bubble, they remain vague 'suffering and causes of suffering.' even now, when serious disaster nears, my head somehow must remain firmly turned to my screen and on that screen Word and not an internet browser must be open.

in the past few months i have written five chapters, and now have the conclusions left. my deadline for handing this to my phd committee is friday, which means thursday afternoon must be spent at kinkos making copies to send them overnight. this is excellent news. except that having offered all the mental and physical energy i had over the past two months, i am running low. and it is 109 degrees, the AC has chosen this summer to become in operative, which has actually been largely manageable because being near the desert, temperatures drop dramatically at night and a well-shaded house like this can be kept fairly cool in the days as long as it gets well cooled at night. but ... at the moment we cannot open the windows at night to let the house cool down because forest fires are devouring the nearby hills. here and in a number of other fires raging across southern california, thousands of home have been evacuated, and already two forest-fighters have given their lives. a crew of prison inmates was enlisted in the struggle to bring this raging force of nature under control, and when the fire began to engulf their campsite, the two firefighters who fell had been trying to find a safe route out for them. one of the two leaves a wife pregnant with their first child, due to be born in the next few weeks. some people refuse to evacuate, thinking they can defend their homes or wait it out, but by the time they are willing to be rescued, the towering flames of fire make it impossible to reach them. men die, children are orphaned, countless animals will be trapped in flames, humans become homeless and fearful for their lives' investments and shelters and dreams. all this only comes to my attention because the air we invisibly share has become dangerous to breathe. so the windows stay shut at night, leaving the house no chance to release its heat out into the night air, and so this house is indirectly warmed by the fire.

today for literally the first time in weeks, i left our yard and looked out and up at the mountains. i last paid them any attention when i was selecting a photo to upload on a past blog entry, in the early phase of this writing. though obviously they have been there this whole time, until they burst into flames their presence appeared utterly irrelevant, one of the million background details our brain processes and doesn't bother us about because it does not matter. we can focus on our little corner of the large world as narrowly as we like, it seems, and even if we can lose sight of it at times, our connectedness to it does not disappear. not even for a moment.

Monday, August 17, 2009

one small bump from china...

chinese authorities apparently permitted the wide publication of an article advocating taking steps towards the break-up of india. echoing darkly the rhetoric used to justify its invasion and occupation of tibet, the article points to india's tremendous internal diversity as evidence that "the 'so-called' Indian nation cannot be considered as one having existed in history."

a china-centered asia would be so much better for everyone involved, the chinese authors of the article concluded.

from an english summary of that article: Adding that Hinduism is a decadent religion as it allows caste exploitation and is unhelpful to the country's modernisation, it described the Indian government as one in a dilemma with regard to eradication of the caste system as it realises that the process to do away with castes may shake the foundation of the consciousness of the Indian nation.

The writer has argued that in view of the above, China in its own interest and the progress of Asia, should join forces with different nationalities like the Assamese, Tamils, and Kashmiris and support the latter in establishing independent nation-States of their own, out of India. In particular, the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) in Assam, a territory neighboring China, can be helped by China so that Assam realises its national independence.

continue reading the rest of the article.

for those who read chinese,here is the original article. (the connection is sporadic)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

chapter headings

as i now near the close of the fifth and final chapter of my dissertation, i thought i'd share some quotes that i am placing at the beginning of each chapter, as an epigraph. each chapter itself in part constitutes a sort of reflection on the epigraph, so i will not try to comment on them here. with the exception of the first - a tibetan proverb - the rest all come from the mulasarvastivada vinaya.

"scriptural texts are like soft clay."

"Venerable Nandaka thought, 'Women have little wisdom,' and thinking that, he taught the Dharma [to a group of bhikṣuṇīs] with meanings, sentences and words that were abridged. Because they were wise, they asked him progressively difficult questions, to which Venerable Nandaka replied."

"In saṃsāra, without needing to direct efforts to it,
A body is extremely easy to attain.
In ten thousand million eons,
A worthy place to offer it is extremely hard to attain."
- Mahāsenā, after she had cut out a piece of her thigh to make a medicinal broth for an ailing bhikṣu. (Buddha compares her act to his own deeds as a bodhisattva, and then immediately thereafter bans monks from accepting human meat!)

"All girls are material to be sold by their parents; if my arm or legs are broken by my jumping up or falling down, who will ask for me? Instead, my whole life I would surely become something my parents had to take care of."
- Viśākhā, a young unmarried girl explains why she does not hop and skip like her friends.

"Dharmadattā said to her retinue, 'Sisters, the fact that the Lord has permitted bhikṣuṇīs to go forth, take full ordination and engage in bhikṣuṇīhood: This is all due to Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī.'"

Sunday, July 12, 2009

can i go to india to become a buddha?

settled well in to dissertation writing here in my hideout in southern california (in the town from which this photo here was taken). my hosts have a four-year-old daughter, for whom my robes, shaved head and life in general are a source of ongoing fascination. my first day here, unsolicited and out of the blue, she looked at me quietly for a moment and said, "i want to go to india to become a buddha. can i go to india and become a buddha?" this, despite the fact that i had told her nothing of life in india, and certainly nothing of buddhist theories of enlightenment.

she later peppered me with other questions - are there little girls like her in india with those kind of clothes, indicating my robes? do they go to school? would she have to cut off her hair?

i told her she could definitely become a buddha if she wanted to, but maybe better to try when she was a little bigger... what i did not say, but might have, was that i too want to go to india to see about becoming a buddha, but first have to finish this dissertation ...

and a little PS for anyone wondering, southern california is indeed rather warm in the summer.