On the necessity of creating and supporting the
Alliance of Non-Himalayan Nuns
Non-Himalayan Nuns is a term applied to ordained female monastics who are from outside the traditional Tibetan/Himalayan cultures of Vajrayana Buddhism. Worldwide, these nuns play an important role in maintaining and transmitting Vajrayana Buddha Dharma. To gain a better understanding of the situation these dedicated practitioners face, it is vitally important to consider three essential points about the special role they fill as members of the ordained Vajrayana sangha:
- The role of karma.
- The function of the fourfold sangha in practicing and upholding genuine Buddha Dharma.
- The uniquely important role that nuns play in the continuation and lifeline of authentic Vajrayana Buddha Dharma, especially as it is transmitted beyond its traditional venues.
Considering karma, it should be clear that one’s karma has a very important impact on how (or even if) one feels a draw to Buddhism in the first place. To have the karma to generate an interest in Buddhism and a wish to practice Dharma, as well as a connection to a specific tradition are all said to be the influence of karma. In addition, one must then have the causes and conditions to encounter genuine practitioners in the sangha to study and practice with. This last point includes both monastic and lay practitioners. One must have cultivated incredible karma to actually take the vows and robes of a monastic. In some Vajrayana traditions, there are even practices to enhance karmic impact which entail visualizing oneself as a monastic, such is the high esteem of monasticism to move us closer to our goal of Enlightenment. So, there is certainly a special karma to be able to create the causes and conditions to go forth and take monastic vows and robes.
Without monastics, there can be no well-educated, trained and fully renounced sangha. Qualified monastics are those who have taken and maintained vows in a formal ceremony, engaged in committed study and practices, and have themselves been trained by other qualified teachers. A quorum of ordained monastics is needed in order to continue to offer vows, from novice to fully ordained monastics. If an entire pillar of the ordained sangha dwindles to the point of collapsing, as one day it very well might, the four-fold sangha not only crumbles, but vanishes. The sangha then becomes an extinct species. In other words, there is no way set out by the current Buddha Shakyamuni to bring it back.
Once it is gone that’s it. At least for a very, very, very long time.
As globalization speeds along most Buddhist practitioners born within and outside of Tibetan/Himalayan cultures are very content to fill the role of lay practitioners. Meanwhile, the number of ordained monastic practitioners in the Vajrayana tradition continues to decline. Rapidly. If we look back over the last 60 years, Tibetan Buddhist and other Vajrayana cultures upheld monastic institutions, with enrolment of tens of thousands of monks and nuns. In comparison, in 2019 we can easily note that the number of ordained Vajrayana practitioners has dwindled to less than perhaps ten thousand today who live outside of occupied Tibet or in other traditionally Vajrayana locations such as Nepal, Bhutan and Indian Himalaya regions. Interestingly, as the number of monks is quickly declining, the number of nuns continues to grow, however not in numbers seen in past generations. The support is very solid for these practitioners, as governments, families and supporters worldwide are quick to help out.
Although the percentage of sangha from root cultures has declined, there has been growing interest and genuine participation from outside cultures as the Dharma spreads. Karma continues to call people to the monastic life in the Vajrayana tradition from far beyond the borders of Tibet and high mountains of the Himalaya. This is where the role of the Alliance of Non-Himalayan Nuns becomes essential. To follow the analogy further, if there is an endangered species it is worth supporting and protecting its environment, no matter where it is alive on the planet.
That about sums up the state of affairs of non-Himalayan nuns: rare, though cherished, and essential for the preservation and spread of genuine Vajrayana Dharma. However, support for these newcomers is scarcely there. As current events of the #Me Too Buddhism movement have exposed, there is a growing interest in the ordained tradition of female monastics. As qualified teachers they can share Vajrayana Dharma in a clean, clear, ethical and accessible manner, especially to a growing audience of predominantly female practitioners.
While there a few classes of highly trained Geshe Mas (equivalent to a PhD plus in the West) have graduated, most do not speak English, and nearly all are embedded and serving within the Tibetan nunnery system in India. So, the role of well trained and qualified teachers from other cultures becomes very apparent. Who will carry the teachings forward to the rest of the world? This is where the Alliance of Non Himalayan Nuns (ANHN)plays a critical role.
It is a vehicle, envisioned by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and directed by her, as well as Geshe Ma Kelsang Wangmo (a German nun who became the first female Geshe in the Tibetan tradition), and Venerable Tenzin Sangmo, (who built and directs the only Vajrayana Buddhist Nunnery in India for non-Himalayan nuns). They have been there over decades to witness first hand the struggles of women, who from karma have been led into this unique situation of being ordained into the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition.
Those ordained from beyond Tibetan and Himalayan cultures often face very daunting circumstances to remain in robes and hold true to their vows. There are stories floating around that up to 75% of this group who take ordination are forced to give back their vows and robes.
Why is this? In the case of most nuns these are the most commonly stated reasons:
- There are economic challenges: how to be supported while one studies and practices?
- Environmental challenges: where to find a conducive place to live and practice, as a renounced monastic? Renounced means that after taking ordination one is not expected to work anymore in the traditional sense.
- Spiritual challenges: how to access the sacred items that go along with monastic life, such as new robes, texts and other needed items for practice.
- Continuing education challenges: travel to attend teachings and retreats is often unattainable, if the other mentioned needs are proving difficult.
- Unlike familial and cultural support from within the Tibetan tradition, most non-Himalayan nuns do not have that kind of support from their family or culture of origin
The main objective of ANHN is to help educate the sangha about the need to support Non-Himalayan Nuns. ANHN provides a vehicle to help meet their needs, and aims to generate tangible support for these nuns. We then get that needed support directly to those who are requesting it through a formal application process.
Donations to ANHN go directly to providing the necessary causes and condition to make an incredible impact on the lives of nuns to be able to stay in robes and continue to grow and meet their objectives of cultivating spiritual qualities in order to be of ultimate benefit.
Let us know how you would like to help. We are forever grateful for your kind interest and support.