Is the Time Right for a 'Simple Buddhist Nun'

Tenzing Peldun
Tenzing Peldun 12C

by April L. Bogle

 Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, would make the perfect dad. Imagine having to tell the world’s most famous “simple Buddhist monk” that you wrecked the family car. Material items are not important, but you must examine the causes and conditions that gave rise to this accident. Or that you spent all the money in your checking account before the end of the month—again. You will not find happiness through external means. You must look inside to identify the things that lead to happiness. Or that you are devastated by the breakup of your love relationship. Everything is impermanent. This suffering too will pass.

His gentle and often playful manner, his engaging smile and twinkling eyes, his quick wit and simple yet profound remarks inspire a sense of reassurance, acceptance, and peacefulness that the world has come to attribute to this one person, this man.

But what if the next Dalai Lama is a woman? Would she, or even could she, offer the world the same grounding wisdom? Inspire compassion within people of all cultures? Properly navigate Tibet’s troublesome relationship with the Chinese government?

Before exploring that idea, the more primary question is whether a woman can be the Dalai Lama. It is a question surfacing with regularity at the seventy-five-year-old monk’s teachings and public events, and it is likely to come up again during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Emory from October 17 to 19.

When an Emory student asked the question during the 2008 Emory Tibet Studies Program in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama said with enthusiasm, “It’s possible! . . . Dorje Phagmo [is an example]—through at least the sixth and seventh centuries—that reincarnation [was] all female. Logically, the very purpose of reincarnation is service to the Buddha Dharma, and in terms of the people, if circumstances are such that [a] female body would be more useful in that field, then why not?

“Then I add that if a female Dalai Lama comes, then that female must be very beautiful,” he said with a mischievous chuckle, gesturing to his face. Giggles erupted from his students. “That is one of the eight qualities or virtues of the Dalai Lama. If the female Dalai Lama is very ugly, then less people [will be] showing interest!”

In a much more sober tone, the Dalai Lama restated the possibility during a February 24, 2010 interview on CNN, although the question from reporter Betty Nguyen was of a different sort: “Are you the last Dalai Lama?”

“Whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not is up to the people. So, I don’t care,” he said. “In case people want to keep this institution . . . and if people want to follow the traditional way, the search of one boy or one child, that also depends on circumstances, and if people want a female that also is possible. . . . ”
 

Equality in Buddhist Philosophy

For 2,500 years—since the Buddha defied cultural norms of the time by allowing women to become fully ordained nuns—Buddhist philosophy has supported equality of the sexes.

“Women were not even allowed to worship in temples, let alone pursue the same spiritual path of men,” said Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, senior lecturer and director of the Emory-Tibet Partnership. “The Buddha did it carefully without provoking the men to rebel. He made compromises in the monastic rules, with a certain set of new vows for women. From the philosophical perspective, Buddhism acknowledges the equality of men and women, and therefore there is no reason a highly evolved being like the Dalai Lama could not be born as female,” says Negi.

But then he quickly pointed out that while philosophy is one thing, cultural practices are quite another. “In Tibet, more privileges are given to the male population, although Tibetan society doesn’t have prejudice against women,” he said.

Tara Doyle, senior lecturer and director of Emory’s Tibetan Studies Program in Dharamsala, India, says this “systematic inferior treatment of female monastics throughout Buddhist history” meant less food, education, and other resources for nuns. As the competition for resources increased, almost all lineages of ordained nuns died out. Today, however, women are exploring how to restart these lineages. Given that a few remain in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea, a handful of women in the Tibetan tradition have gone there during the past two decades and become fully ordained. But many Tibetan monks do not accept these ordinations because of their adherence to cultural traditions. 

Can’t the highest lama mandate a change of rules or at least encourage a new, more open attitude? Doyle explains that while the Dalai Lama is giving seed money to the nunneries in exile and fully supports the full ordination of nuns and raising educational opportunities for women, he can’t force things to happen. “He says there has to be a more widespread infrastructure in place for it to be successful. It’s like green energy here. President Obama supports it, but he needs the full support of Congress to make it happen.”


Machig LabdronFemale Buddhas Abound

Although women have not had equal political power in Tibet, their ability to become a Buddha—a person who has achieved enlightenment—is obvious by the relatively large number of female Buddha images in Tibetan culture. Arya Tara, a celestial Buddha, is often referred to as the mother of all Buddhas, and her image is in monasteries and temples throughout Central Asia. She is known as “Karma Lady”—the force fostering the conditions that make the birth of wisdom possible.

Women played critical roles as religious leaders throughout Tibetan history as well. One of the most important is Machig Labdron, a woman from twelfth-century Tibet who started the practice of chod— giving rather than grasping—practiced by all lineages of Tibetan Buddhism today.

A current example is Her Eminence Mindrolling Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche. She is descended from the Mindrolling lineage, known for its great female masters, and is a Tulku, a reincarnated teacher. She teaches buddhadharma (the way of the Buddha) internationally and leads a number of charitable projects, including Tibetan Women's Development Projects, Tibetan Youth Projects, development of medical clinics, and the Leprosy Project, among others.

Can We Accept a ‘Simple Buddhist Nun'?

Even as Buddhist philosophy supports the equality of the sexes—and the selection of a female Dalai Lama—are Tibetan society and the rest of the world ready for a woman in the role?

Emory’s experts agree that today the answer is likely no, but this may change by the time the next Dalai Lama is chosen. “A female Dalai Lama would not have the support needed to be effective because of social conditions [in Tibetan culture and other parts of the world]—not that a woman isn’t qualified. But if the Dalai Lama lives twenty-five more years, as he says he will, who knows?” said Doyle.

Tenzing Peldun, a Tibetan and Emory sophomore majoring in international studies, is concerned about a woman Dalai Lama as a political figure in dealing with the Chinese government. “Being a male, he may have more of an advantage,” she said.

Says Negi, “The selection has to reflect the culture of the land, but that is changing.” He explained that in previous centuries, greater importance was placed on “rationality and physical force.” But now the world is entering a new era, where “greater importance is being placed on love and compassion as the means for humanity to survive,” and within this backdrop, women are assuming greater prominence.

“If the Dalai Lama can play an inspiring role in helping human beings in this way, naturally the Dalai Lama would come into the role as a female form,” he said, noting that women are considered to be more compassionate because of their biological role as mothers.

Role of China

Of course, the elephant in the room when it comes to discussions of the next Dalai Lama is the role of the Chinese government. In July 2007, China issued a document called Order No. Five, which states that all reincarnated lamas, including the Dalai Lama, must be approved by the Chinese government.

“This is an effort to once and for all kill Tibetan culture,” said Negi. “The Chinese know the power of the Dalai Lama. He is the symbol of Tibetan identity, connected to the very origin of the race, and deeply embedded in the psyche.”
 
The exiled Tibetan government rejected this order outright and will select its own fifteenth incarnation, Negi says, likely by following the traditional search process of high lamas seeking the reincarnated leader in the form of a small child.
 
But three other important options also are being discussed by the exiled Tibetan government, according to “The Next Dalai Lama: How Will They Decide?,” an independent research paper written by Doyle’s student Molly Daffner during the 2010 Tibetan Studies Program. In meetings with Tenzin Takla, the Dalai Lama’s private secretary, Daffner learned these other options include the Dalai Lama’s appointing someone before he dies as a temporary spiritual leader, using a process similar to that of selecting a pope, and even choosing a reincarnation before his death.

Amid a number of unknowns about the future of Tibet, there seem to be three certainties concerning the future Dalai Lama—that Tibetans will select a new Dalai Lama, that their selection will be made outside Tibet, and that the Chinese government will choose a Dalai Lama of its own. Said the Dalai Lama during the CNN interview:

If circumstances still remain like this, we are outside Tibet, then the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama logically will be found in a free country. Why? The very purpose of the reincarnation is to carry continuously the task that was started in the previous life. So I come to a free country, I escape to a free country for a certain purpose, so if that purpose is not fulfilled . . . then the reincarnation must be to be carry continuously that task not yet achieved. The Chinese government [is] . . . already talking about [the] future Dalai Lama. Sometimes [the] Chinese government [is] more concerned about [the] future Dalai Lama than me. So they may choose one who is official Dalai Lama, but not Tibetans’ Dalai Lama.

The Real Question

But for Peldun, whose grandparents fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion and who hopes to visit her native country for the first time this summer, there is a question of much greater concern to the Tibetan people: “Will the next Dalai Lama continue the current Dalai Lama’s legacy of bringing compassion into the international spectrum, not to advocate for Buddhism but to show there are different ways—rather than money and jobs—of being happy?”

She’s pulling for a woman to take on the challenge. “Personally, I think it would be great if the next Dalai Lama would be a female. Deep down, I want him to be,” Peldun says.

April L. Bogle is director of public relations for Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion, senior communications adviser for Candler School of Theology, and a nascent Buddhist.