Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Bikkhuni
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Tenzin Palmo has made an oath to attain enlightenment as a woman no matter how many rebirths it takes her. When she was first born, she felt she was in the wrong body, though with age she has come to be grateful for her rebirth in a female body as there is a lot of work to be done for women. Renowned for her feminist activism, Palmo is not alone in the movement for equal rights within the monastic community. While, women are gaining ground in Buddhism, this is not a new thing. As Khandro Rinpoche, a female lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has said:
“When there is a talk about women and Buddhism, I have noticed that people often regard the topic as something new and different. They believe that women in Buddhism has become an important topic because we live in modern times and so many women are practicing the Dharma now. However, this is not the case. The female sangha has been here for centuries. We are not bringing something new into a 2,500-year-old tradition. The roots are there, and we are simply re-energizing them.”
Related Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo articles:
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: A Brief Biography
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: Root Guru
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo: The Cave
Jetsunma Tenzin Palm: Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery
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When Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism he did not initially allow women in the monastic community. Maha Pajapati, the Buddha’s aunt raised him after his mother died and when he founded Buddhism she followed him, requesting to be ordained. The Buddha argued that it was not the right time and the dharma would be lost if women were allowed in the community. However, Maha and the Buddha’s wife (along with several other women) followed the Buddha and his disciples and after talking with Ananda, Buddha’s closest friend, they were allowed to ordain. The women had to take on several more precepts then the men in the religious community.
Early on in Buddhism it was accepted that one could not achieve enlightenment in a female body. This remains a controversial debate to this day. Though, many practitioners and scholars argue that it was simply a statement reflecting the times of the Buddha and the spread of Buddhism.
Bhikkunis are fully ordained women in monastic Buddhism. The male counterparts are thus called bhikkus. The two groups are required to live by the Vinaya, otherwise established as rules and regulations. The female nuns are required to follow more rules and are seen as inferior to monks no matter age or ranking. A newly ordained monk would be considered superior to an older nun who has studied for years simply because of his sex. It seems that despite the beauty of any religion, sexism ensues.
The image of male superiority is changing rapidly with women such as Tenzin Palmo. Even the Dalai Lama has been speaking for women in Buddhism throughout the past. Speaking at a conference in 2007, he remarked that perhaps if world leaders included more females there would be less warfare. This is not a negative remark towards men, it is simply noting the difference in men and women and the natural balance when the two are equally represented, which they are not in the modern world.
Tenzin Palmo is among good company in the revolution for equal rights. Many notable nuns are taking on the cause. Cheng Yen, a nun, founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation. The well-known Pema Chodron travels giving lectures, publishing books, and changing the image of women everywhere. Even in the past women stood within the religion. Buddhamitra was a nun that lived in the first century and erected images of the Buddha in several cities. These women have existed throughout time and are gaining ground as many monks stand behind their cause and fight sexism side by side. Tenzin Palmo’s root guru is a wonderful example as he encouraged her to open the nunnery.
It is nearly impossible to look at a religion, culture, or society and not find sexism. It is not always misogyny, but that is most common. Though, it is not something to view as a war. It is an opportunity for growth and change. Tenzin Palmo was one of the first Western women ordained in her lineage and she has helped dozens of other women become ordained and educated. Having opened a nunnery, written books, and sworn to achieve liberation as a female, Palmo is a leader in the revolution of equality. Buddhism itself is religion paving the way in the movement as monks from around the world help empower nuns.
- Kate Mattes