SAKYADHITA MOVEMENT TIMELINE
1987: Sakyadhita International Association was founded at the conclusion of the first International Conference on Buddhist women, Bodhgaya, India.
1988: First Sakyadhita North American Conference, Santa Barbara, California.
1991: Second Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Bangkok, Thailand.
1993: Third Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Sri Lanka.
1995: Fourth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Leh, Ladakh.
1996: Second Sakyadhita North American Conference, Claremont, California.
1997: Fifth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
2000: Sixth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Lumbini, Nepal.
2002: Seventh Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Taipei, Taiwan.
2004: Eighth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Seoul, South Korea.
2005: Third Sakyadhita North American Conference, Northampton, Massachusetts.
2006: Ninth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
2008: Tenth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Ulaanbataar, Mongolia.
2009: Eleventh Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
2011: Twelfth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Bangkok, Thailand.
2013: Thirteenth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Vaishali, India.
2015: Fourteenth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
2017: Fifteenth Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, Hong Kong.
Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women is a global alliance founded at the conclusion of the first International Conference on Buddhist Women, held in Bodhgaya, India, in 1987, under the patronage of His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama (b. 1935), who was also the keynote speaker. The initiative for the conference came from the German nun Ayya Khema (1923–1997); the American nun Karma Lekshe Tsomo (b. 1944); and the Thai professor Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (b. 1944, now Bhikkhunī Dhammananda). The organization aims to unite Buddhist women of various countries and traditions, to promote their welfare, and to facilitate their work for the benefit of humanity.
Sakyadhita (meaning “Daughters of the Buddha”) currently has approximately 2,000 members in forty-five countries around the world. Membership is open to women and men, lay and ordained. Roughly twenty percent of the members identify as monastics, and eighty percent do not. National branches of Sakyadhita have been established in Canada, France, Germany, Korea, Nepal, Spain, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. New branches are currently being formed in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Russia, and Vietnam.
The mission of Sakyadhita is to establish an international alliance of Buddhist women in order to promote harmony and dialogue among the Buddhist traditions and other religions; to advance spiritual and secular welfare of the world’s women; to work for gender equity in Buddhist education, training, institutional structures, and monastic ordination; to encourage research and publications on topics of interest to Buddhist women; to foster compassionate social action for the benefit of humanity; and to promote world peace through the teachings of the Buddha.
Working at the grassroots level, Sakyadhita provides a communications network among Buddhist women internationally. The organization promotes research and publications on Buddhist women’s history and other topics of interest. It supports Buddhist women’s initiatives, including education projects, retreat facilities, training centers, women’s shelters, social welfare projects, and social justice activities. To promote equity and create opportunities for women in all Buddhist traditions, it encourages local conferences and discussion groups. The goal is to empower the world’s 300,000,000 Buddhist women to work for peace and social justice. (The number of Buddhist women could be as high as 600,000,000 worldwide, if the People’s Republic of China is included.)
Biennial international conferences [Image at right] bring laywomen and nuns from various countries and traditions together to share their research and experiences and to encourage projects to improve conditions for Buddhist women, especially in developing nations. Conferences have been held in Bodhgaya, India (1987); Bangkok, Thailand (1991); Colombo, Sri Lanka (1993); Leh, Ladakh, India (1995); Phnom Penh, Cambodia (1997–1998); Lumbini, Nepal (2000); Taipei, Taiwan (2002); Seoul, South Korea (2004); Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2006); Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (2008); Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (2010); Bangkok, Thailand (2011); Vaishali, India (2013); Yogyakarta, Indonesia (2015); and Hong Kong (2017). [Image at right] These conferences feature papers, workshops, and performances on topics relevant to Buddhist women. The global gatherings are open to all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion.The theme of the first conference in Bodhgaya was “Buddhist Nuns in Society.” Subsequent conferences have focused on themes such as “Buddhist Women in Modern Society,” “Women and the Power of Compassion,” “Women in Buddhism: Unity and Diversity,” “Women as Peacemakers,” “Discipline and Practice of Buddhist Women Past and Present,” “Buddhist Women in a Global Multicultural Community,” “Buddhism in Transition: Tradition, Changes, and Challenges,” “Eminent Buddhist Women,” “Buddhism at the Grassroots,” “Compassion and Social Justice,” and “Contemporary Buddhist Women: Contemplation, Cultural Exchange and Social Action.” The keynote speaker at the first conference in Bodhgaya was His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Keynote speakers at subsequent conferences have included dignitaries such as Ranasinghe Premadasa, President of Sri Lanka; Her Majesty Rani Sarla, Queen of Ladakh; Her Majesty Queen Norodom Sihanouk, Queen of Cambodia; Annette Shu-lien Lu, Vice President of the Republic of China; and Princess Srirasmi Suwadee of Thailand, as well as scholars and practitioners such as Bhikkhunī Kwangwoo Sunim, Anne Carolyn Klein, Paula Arai, Sharon Suh, Reverend Shundo Aoyama, Bhikkhunī Myeong Seong Sunim, C. Julia Huang, Bhikṣunī Thich Nu Khiet Minh, and Bhikṣunī Karma Lekshe Tsomo.
Sakyadhita has given rise to a number of projects to promote the welfare of Buddhist women. They include:
Sakyadhita Training and Meditation Centre, Katubedda, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka (Sakyadhita website 2015).
This center was established to provide education and training to nuns who wish to receive higher ordination as a bhikkhunī (fully ordained nun). It provides training in meditation, monastic discipline, leadership, counseling, healthcare, and empowerment and prepares nuns to serve the wider community. The nuns conduct Dhamma (Dharma) classes for children, seven-day meditation courses monthly, counseling for girls in correctional institutions, as well as religious ceremonies.
Jamyang Foundation (Jamyang Foundation website 2016).
Jamyang Foundation has initiated and supports twelve education projects for girls and women in the Indian Himalayas, three primary schools for girls in Bangladesh, and Sanghamitra Foundation in Bodhgaya. The projects provide general education, Buddhist studies programs in philosophy and debate, and training in healthcare, environmental awareness, and other topics. Six nuns from Jamyang Chöling Institute (Jamyang Chöling Institute Website n.d.) , near Dharamsala, India, the first project established, completed their studies in Buddhist philosophy and received the geshema degree in Mundgod, South India, in 2016 (Jamyang Chöling Institute website n.d.).
Sanghamitra Institute, Bodhgaya, India (Sanghamitra Institute website)
Sanghamitra Institute is a center for learning, culture, and the empowerment of women and girls. The institute provides education programs for children and nuns from the Himalayan region during the winter months. It initiated a literacy program for 120 local village children in 2011, healthcare training programs in 2014, and tailoring programs for local village women in 2014. A community healthcare clinic for women and girls is currently under construction.
Sakyadhita Nunnery School (Sagaing, Myanmar)
This school, formally known as Sakyadhita Tilashin Sathin-daik, was founded in 1998 under the patronage of Hiroko Kawanami, a member of Sakyadhita. The school provides monastic training and education in Pāli and Buddhist scriptures for nuns, known in Burmese as tilashin. The nunnery school was established by three nun teachers and is now home to almost 200 tilashin who typically observe eight precepts and many additional rules of training.
In sixth century b.c.e. India, the Buddha affirmed the equal potential of women and men to achieve liberation. This affirmation represented a significant departure from prevailing views that defined women primarily in terms of their reproductive function and capacity for productive labor. The bhikkhunī sangha (community of Buddhist nuns, bhikkhunī in Pāli, bhikṣunī in Sanskrit) was founded by Mahāprajāpatī, the Buddha’s aunt and foster mother. Since its inception, Buddhism has been unique in recognizing the equal spiritual potential of women and men. Despite this egalitarian philosophy, unequal social structures persist in most Buddhist cultures today. Today, the bhikṣunī sangha survives primarily in three traditions (Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese, all Mahayana Buddhist), but efforts to establish or revive full ordination for nuns are underway in India, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere.
In recent decades, feminist awareness has been growing and women are increasingly taking leadership roles in Buddhist organizations. Conferences, retreats, and publications that focus on women’s spiritual practice and experiences are more and more common, as are women teachers (such as Khandro Rinpoche (b. 1967) and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (b. 1943)), Buddhist women scholars (such as Judith Simmer-Brown, Rita Gross (1943–2015), Janet Gyatso (b. 1949), Sarah Harding, Anne Carolyn Klein (b. 1947), Miranda Shaw (b. 1954), Jan Willis (b. 1948)), and the first generation of geshemas or female scholars of Buddhist philosophy in the Tibetan tradition. (The first geshema degrees were conferred by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in 2016 to twenty Tibetan nuns). With better educational opportunities and greater feminist awareness, Buddhist women are challenging facile assumptions about women’s intellectual and spiritual capabilities, gender equity, gender essentialism, and sexual diversity, giving rise to important debates.
Buddhist women’s lives vary from tradition to tradition, and from country to country. Laywomen’s daily devotions may include making prostrations and offerings to the Buddha before an altar in the home, circumambulating nearby temples, providing offerings of food and other requisites to monastics or the poor, going on pilgrimages to sacred Buddhist sites, and the reciting scriptures, prayers, or mantras. The daily practice of Buddhist nuns is similar, but is generally more intensive. Nuns rise early in the morning for chanting and meditation, clean the monastery grounds, take an early breakfast (often vegetarian), and then devote themselves to their assigned tasks. These tasks may include meditation, scriptural studies, teaching, counseling, administrative work, interactions with community members and donors, and other practical tasks involved in running a monastery. Further activities are held weekly, monthly, or annually. Special events include devotional practices, scriptural readings, chanting sutras, meditation courses, repentance rituals, classes and teachings for the nuns and the lay community, and the commemoration of events in the life of the Buddha or other great masters.
Sakyadhita International has been registered as a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit corporation in the State of California since 1988 as a global alliance to work for the welfare of Buddhist laywomen and nuns. The members of the organization elect officers every four years on the basis of nominations from the membership. Officers may be lay or ordained. These officers initiate and oversee research, publications, conferences, and other activities on a volunteer basis.
Sakyadhita has established national branches in a dozen countries through an application process. The national branches may elect their own officers, raise funds, and organize activities in accordance with the interests of their national membership.
Sakyadhita’s objective has been to address gender inequities in Buddhist societies and communities, and especially in Buddhist institutions. The bi-annual Sakyadhita international conferences have provided forums for addressing these inequities, developing solidarity, and proposing potential solutions, especially in terms of women’s access to Buddhist education, ordination, and institutional leadership. Sakyadhita has encouraged research and writings on topics related to Buddhist women that have facilitated a rethinking of gender preconceptions, prohibitions, and other obstacles that inhibit the full participation of women in Buddhism. In some countries, efforts have been made to establish better facilities for Buddhist education and meditation practice for Buddhist women, especially nuns, but glaring inequalities remain. A shortage of qualified teachers and insufficient financial support continue to handicap programs for women and girls. These structural inequalities perpetuate women’s disadvantaged status within most Buddhist traditions, especially in developing countries. Opportunities for higher ordination as bhikkhunīs have opened up in Sri Lanka, but are still closed to women in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and nuns of the Tibetan tradition. A strategy of taking careful steps to reestablish the lineage of full ordination in Sri Lanka and slowly bringing it to Thailand has been effective, but still faces strong opposition from conservative monks in these traditions.
In addition to the five precepts of a Buddhist layperson, a novice nun (or monk) maintains celibacy and may observe five more precepts: to refrain from ornaments and cosmetics, singing and dancing, high seats or beds, untimely food, and handling silver or gold. The nine precepts include the eight precepts, [Image at right] plus a precept to generate loving kindness (metta) to all living creatures. The ten precepts include the eight precepts, separating the precept to refrain from singing and dancing and from cosmetics and jewelry into two. The tenth precept is to refrain from handling silver and gold. Eight- and nine-precept nuns do not take this last precept, which allows them to handle money. Nuns who observe eight, nine, or ten precepts maintain a renunciant lifestyle, including celibacy. They occupy important roles in society as teachers, counselors, and ethical exemplars, even when they do not have access to bhikṣunī ordination. Some argue that their status on the margins of the male monastic establishment allows them more autonomy than if they were regulated by the eight weighty rules that subordinate bhikkhunīs to bhikkus (monks). The eight weighty rules for bhikkhunīs include five rules that entail their dependence upon the bhikkhus: bhikkhunīs are required to pay respect to bhikkhus, no matter how junior; to seek ordination from both bhikkhu and bhikkhunī saghas (the order of fully ordained nuns); to invite a bhikkhu twice a month to give exhortation; to hold their rains retreat in a location where there is a bhikkhu; and, in case of a sanghavesesa offence, be reinstated by both saghas.
Sakyadhita is open to all women (and men), whether they are lay, ordained, or “neither lay nor ordained.” Although the organization has drawn attention to the absence of higher ordination for women in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions, the express intention of Sakyadhita from its inception has been to unite Buddhist women internationally. It has therefore taken an approach that is inclusive and respectful of women’s diverse paths and life choices.
In addition to working to open up opportunities for women to receive ordination, Sakyadhita has sought to encourage and facilitate both secular and religious educational opportunities for Buddhist women. It seeks to recover Buddhist women’s history and highlight the achievements and attainment of women in Buddhist societies whose stories have been ignored. It further seeks to research issues of interest to Buddhist women, including social activism, charitable activities, and strategies for negotiating male-dominated Buddhist traditions and institutions. The goal is to raise awareness of the importance of gender equity in all aspects of human society by documenting the experiences of Buddhist women.
Sakyadhita creates forums for the discussion of controversial issues, such as racism, sexism, political and religious oppression, the exploitation of women, and sexuality, including sexual abuse. One challenge is raising awareness among more privileged Buddhist women, who have opportunities for education and higher education, but who may be unaware of the economic, social, and political difficulties experienced by women in other countries.
The Sakyadhita conferences play a critical role not only in bridging the diverse Buddhist traditions, but also in bridging the educational, economic, ethnic, social, and language differences that exist among Buddhist women. [Image at right] Educational and economic limitations affect the majority of Buddhist women. This is reflected in the challenges of representing Buddhist women at international forums. For example, although Sakyadhita holds consultative status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), there are few Buddhist women who are both English-speaking and economically able to travel to meetings and conferences. Sakyadhita’s role in encouraging and actively expanding educational opportunities for Buddhist women is therefore crucial.
Image # 1: Cultural performances are featured at all Sakyadhita conferences. Wilis Rengganiasih Endah Ekowati of Indonesia performs a song titled “Samsara.”
Image # 2: Local and international organizers open the 14th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in 2015.
Image #3: Eight-precept nuns from Myanmar and a Korean bhikkhunī join hands to advance the welfare of the world’s Buddhist women.
Image #4: Asian and Western nuns practicing in the Tibetan and Vietnamese traditions meditate together on a cultural tour to Borobudur, a ninth-century Buddhist monument in Java.
Jamyang Choling Institute. 2017. “Geshema Nuns of Jamyang Choeling.” http://jamchoebuddhistdialectics.org/Geshema%20Nuns%20Jamyang%20Choeling.htm.
Jamyang Chöling Institute website. n.d. Accessed from http://jamchoebuddhistdialectics.org/ on 3 September 2017.
Jamyang Foundation website. 2016. Accessed from http://www.jamyang.org on 3 September 2017.
Sakyadhita website. 2015. Accessed from http://www.sakyadhita-srilanka.org/ on 3 September 2017.
Sanghamitra Institute (Bodhgaya, India) website. n.d. Accessed from http://www.jamyang.org/pages/sanghamitra.php on 3 September 2017.
Fenn, Mavis L., and Kay Koppedrayer. 2008. “Sakyadhita: A Transnational Gathering Place for Buddhist Women.” Journal of Global Buddhism 9:45–79.
French, Rebecca Redwood. 2013. “Daughters of the Buddha: The Sakyadhita Movement, Buddhist Law, and the Position of Buddhist Nuns.” Pp. 371-89 in Feminism, Law, and Religion, edited by Marie A. Failinger, Elizabeth R. Schiltz, and Susan J. Stabile. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing.
Mohr, Thea. 2002. Weibliche Identität und Leerheit: Eine ideengeschichtliche Rekonstruktion der buddhistischen Frauenbewegung Sakyadhita International. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Sakyadhita Newsletter. Published annually or more frequently from 1990 to the present.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe, ed. 2015. Compassion and Social Justice. Proceedings of the 14th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women. Yogyakarta: Sakyadhita. Available at http://sakyadhita.org/docs/resources/epublications/Compassion+SocialJustice-BOOKMARKED_SI14.pdf.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2014. Eminent Buddhist Women. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2012. Buddhism at the Grassroots. Proceedings of the 13th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women. Delhi: Sakyadhita.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2011. Leading to Liberation. Proceedings of the 12th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women. Bangkok: Sakyadhita.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2010/1995. Buddhism Through American Women’s Eyes. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2008. Buddhism in Transition: Tradition, Changes, and Challenges. Proceedings of the 10th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women. Ulaanbataar: Sakyadhita.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2008. Buddhist Women in a Global Multicultural Community. Kuala Lumpur: Sukhi Hotu Dhamma Publications.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2007. “Sakyadhita Pilgrimage in Asia: On the Trail of the Buddhist Women’s Movement.” Nova Religio 10:102–16.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2006. Out of the Shadows: Socially Engaged Buddhist Women in the Global Community. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2004. Bridging Worlds: Buddhist Women’s Voices Across Generations. Taipei: Yuan Chuan Press.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2004. Buddhist Women and Social Justice: Ideals, Challenges, and Achievements. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2000. Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream. Surrey, England: Curzon Press.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 1999. Buddhist Women Across Cultures: Realizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 1988. Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
Wurst, Rotraut. 2001. Identität im Exil. Tibetisch-Buddhistische Nonnen und das Netzwerk Sakyadhita. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.
Sakyadhita I.A.W. 1988. Women in Buddhism: Unity and Diversity. 32-minute video. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63VC52UHYZE. 9.26-minute clip from this same video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk27nsr4f7A.
Sakyadhita: International Association of Buddhist Women. http://www.sakyadhita.org/.
Sakyadhita USA. http://www.sakyadhitausa.org/index.html.
Sakyadhita Canada: Association of Buddhist Women. https://www.sakyadhitacanada.org/.
3 September 2017