The following text is derived from a speech that I was asked to give, during the past summers historical inauguration of a traditional Tibetan Buddhist Temple, built on Scandinavian soil. The theme was "The challenges with bringing dharma to the west." I spoke for 20 minutes, and as my speech came to an end, and I returned to my seat, there was a massive positive response of applauds and thank yous. This is what I said:
"As a Buddhist monastic, in the Karma Kagyu lineage, as well as being someone who shares the dharma with others, I often struggle with the question of how to balance respect for tradition, while adopting the dharma in to new cultural territory.
From a western Buddhist nuns perspective being an island as to one self is many times a living fact rather then an active choice. We are often deprived from the context of a sangha, both monastic and lay, and therefor I can only speak from my own point of view, taking in consideration, the challenges among the several groups I have the good fortune to meet and teach on a regular basis.
In the old days nuns and monks were embraced in to a monastic environment, with access to a temple, to teachers and education, as they took they're vows, and thereby entered the monastic Sangha. That is not the common case of today. At least not for us westerners. We are many times on our own with a lack of support, home base and monastic sangha. In most cases no education is given to us, unless we find a way to finance our own education. Furthermore we have to find our own ways to sustain our selves, and make sure we have the finances to keep us going - just like any lay practioner.
After some years of studying, receiving empowerments and being close to the masters in India and Nepal, in particular my main Lama, the Gyalwa Karmapa, I came back to the west. First I came to live at Karma Triyana Dharma Chakra, the Gyalwa Karma's main seat in the US, where I stayed as the assistant shrine keeper.
On the invitation from a dharma organization in Sweden I then accepted they're request to come and live there as they're teacher in residence.
For the last two years that I have been back in the west, living with and sharing the dharma with several Buddhist groups, in the US as well as in Sweden, it has been an ongoing investigation in how to apply and live the dharma in the most beneficial way. My regular activities has so far mainly been as the resident teacher of a Buddhist study group in Sweden, besides my role as the assistant shrine keeper at KTD. Most residents at KTD are laypeople with a variety of visions of what KTD is and as of now its mainly run as a retreat center for laypeople, while upholding the Gyalwa Karma's main seat in America to the utmost of ones abilities. While the non-profit Buddhist organizations in Scandinavia, to my experience, like so many other dharma groups in the west, display divided groups within the organizations, when it comes to practice preferences and visions, as well as how to organize them selves. The groups tends to base they're decisions on single opinions, rather then democratic values and show a lack of agreed guidelines. With many different teachers, from several lineages and traditions coming through and giving different advices, this in reality all together creates a fertile field for confusion to arise. Only 2 of the 5 groups that I'm regularly visiting have they're own facilities.
From my side its still - good to be back home.
Because seeking out the genuine living Buddha Dharma in the East, on the other hand, we many times find our selves in environments that are providing a reality of shelter and food that are challenging our possibilities to stay healthy. Despite the facts of immune and digestive systems becoming more vulnerable when traveling abroad, we do need the closeness it gives us to the living dharma, the masters and the pilgrimage sites, as for all students of the Buddha dharma. Cultural differences are inevitable and the gap to be bridged over, between westerners and easterners frame of mind, also needs to be taken in to consideration.
We take ordination for life just to discover that the social context in which to grow and learn from are deprived from us. So we become individual satellites floating around in the world of Buddhism with our twinkling search lights. Its a very lonely position. Most of us doesn't last very long. During my first year as a nun more then 8 western monastics in my immediate surroundings disrobed. That was very discouraging.
With the lack of a supportive environment to uphold Shakyamuni Buddhas teachings in the West, its hard to imagine how is it going to be done, and by whom? The new temple in Norway is an inspiring example of the Buddhas way in Scandinavia, and its so needed in order for the Dharma to stay available and be upheld. Best case scenario monastics and lay dharma practitioners are setting examples of spiritual discipline and acting as inspiration to others, which is the foundational prerequisite for the Buddha Dharma to stay alive. Secondly we are all looking forward to see the emerging of several temples, stupas and Buddhist resting places for the deceased in Scandinavia. So that we, just like our Christian, Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters can enjoy the opportunity to practice in a traditional way within our own belief system.
In my current situation I have been providing dharma discussions on different topics on a regular basis, and this has shown to be very meaningful for many participants. I'm also giving Shamatha meditation instructions and conducting retreats on themes such as Inner Stillness, Self Compassion and The four foundations of Mindfulness, based on the Satipattanna Sutra. All of these topics find a large number of interested participants. Most of my activities are facilitated by an external organizer, such as a dharma center. What topic to be taught is often based on they're needs and my suggestions. As I'm not a master of the Buddha Dharma, I have limited the availability of different topics, based on advice from the Gyalwa Karma and my branch teachers. This seems to be working very well.
Even though I have had a very fortunate situation coming back to the west, with many generous persons around me, and people being thirsty for the dharma, it has long been a contradictory situation for many western monastics to take robes in a situation where we on one hand have not been fully supported, and on the other hand are not encouraged to take an employment and keep a household. So then how is a westerner in robes supposed to survive and develop? With a sincere aspiration to give your life to the Buddha Dharma but finding a lack of social context, appropriate education and so forth, we are more or less forced to become estranged by our own as well as Eastern societies, and that's not a very sustainable situation.
Few individuals, both men and women, has stubbornly succeeded to keep them selves for decades on this lonely path to enlightenment. Those are the handful of inspiring living legends that we admire today, but whose lives hardly can stand as role models, as they're exceptions to the commonality.
Those of us who are interested in philosophical studies usually struggle to get an education, and end up financing it our selves. If we can. Some occasionally do take temporary employments back home in the West to fill up the emptying bank account, and a very few fortunate once has financial support from Buddhist lay people, but usually only for some limited time. Most western nuns Ive met end up staying in separate apartments and laypeople houses, and pay for they're own lodging, travels and food. They might never have had the good fortune to live with other nuns or in a monastic environment, nor been given any formal training. Many give up after 3 years or so...
Those who find the opportunity to commit them selves to a monastery or dharma center soon become aware of the tendency for those institutions to be fertile grounds for power struggles. For a anyone to start a dharma center there will be a need to come together with others who are ready to take on the responsibility that comes hand in hand with such an undertaking.
When creating monasteries and dharma centers that involves monastic presence, the main responsibility of carrying for worldly concerns, should in an ideal world, be in the hands of the lay practitioners, not the monastics. While the Abbots and spiritual directors as well as the dharma teachers should mainly be monastics. For us to be able to uphold the Vinaya and Pratimoksha rules in our day and age, we need a collaboration with the lay sangha as in the traditional way.The Vinaya principle and the continuity of the original tradition needs to be followed as much as we can, as its a path proven to re-ignite our inherent recognition of our true nature. Here we find the importance of the virtuous collaboration of the four pillars of monks, nuns, lay women and men by staying true to these 2600 years of vintage ideas.
On the other hand we many time ripen a bitter practice when becoming to tight around the principals of training that the Buddha laid down in the Vinaya. A tendency that is especially strong among us westerners, as this life style is something we seldom grow up with, and therefor not always fall in to so naturally. As nuns we are furthermore being expected to be the second class citizens in the Monastic world, so it seems as we easily fall in to the "good girl trap," trying to prove our selves as a worthy existence in this medieval system.
What the Vinaya is concerned, its about how to live a healthy life all together. Its an extended form of yogic life, not a book of hardcore rules that you will be punished for when not following them exquisitely. Punishment and original sin doesn't exist in Buddhism, as you know - and this is another cultural challenge of bringing the dharma to the west, as most of us has grown up with a value system based on the Christian faith, weather we have been confirming ourselves to Christianity as a religion or not. So hitting our selves on the head when we fail to be perfect picture book nuns or perfect picture book dharma practitioners wont help anyone. We need to have the courage to apply radical acceptance of our shared humanity, and remember that our true inherent nature is good, pure and awake. Because of this ingrained ignorance it is useful with some guidelines, such as the Vinaya, without becoming to rigid about the whole idea.
For us westerners there is very seldom any Monasteries or Nunneries to turn to. Especially as nuns we are kind of left in the gutter. But there is light in the end of the tunnel. During this years past Arya Kshema in Bodhgaya, the Gyalwang Karmapa made the historical announcement that, beginning next year, he will take steps towards restoring nuns’ vows in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Furthermore, inviting the Dharmagupta nuns, who hold bhikshuni ordination, to confer the first two levels of vows to a limited number of nuns in the Tibetan tradition will ensure that their novice and training ordinations are conducted in a proper and complete ceremony from an unbroken lineage. These novice and training vows may then form the basis for future full ordination for all women in the Tibetan tradition. So these are incredible news from the Gyalwa Karmapa planting the seeds for us to gain access to an increasing number of female teachers in the future, and so create a basis for gender equality in our global dharma community.
There are certain things that can only be upheld within a monastic tradition, and others where there is not much difference between lay practioners and monastics. We need to see these differences, and draw the strength from both, as we are creating a living support for the four pillars of monks, nuns, men and women, to come alive in the west. We need to come together around this and uphold a living network among us Scandinavian dharma practioners, in order to create a sustainable growth for the Buddhas teachings on our soil. In our tradition things has slightly degenerated trying to fit the pure learned lifestyle of the monastics with a life of rock stars on motorbikes as well as an unsupported plain laylifestyle…On the other hand, standing to much outside of modern day society and holding to tight to traditional ways, will not be helpful either, as how to integrate Buddhism in our time and part of the world.
But where do we find the motivation today, to uphold the Buddhas teachings, in a society that are filled with values and ways of life that not always are so helpful...How do we go from a place of encouraged self indulgence to a shared space of basic sanity?
The process of investigation is an indispensable part of our progression towards a more awakened, compassionate, and wiser state of being. Many Western Buddhists come from a perspective that is highly suspicious of orthodoxy and religion. This can also be a strength when approaching the Buddha Dharma. As many of our Masters are emphasizing the foundation of studying the Buddhist teachings based not on faith alone, but also on rigorous investigation, just like a merchant of gold who buys the gold only after thorough analysis of its purity.
Buddhism appeals to this rationality by challenging ingrained ideas about suffering, happiness, and the nature of reality, but when we study with traditionally trained Tibetan Masters, we often find that the teachings are intertwined with cultural assumptions that do not fit neatly with a strictly rational perspective and other western oriented perspectives such as me myself and I before community building and a healthy stand in the power of us, we and ours. Applying rigorous inquiry to traditional Buddhist teachings is more delicate than it might appear. A case in point is when we meet the traditional teachings on guru devotion, or reliance on a spiritual friend.
As the number of non-Asians studying and practicing Buddhism has increased, let alone in Sweden there are now 30 000 registered Buddhists as of today. Even though we can see that this number also is due to Asian immigrants, there is a growing interest for Buddhism among the general public, Especially through popularization of Buddhist philosophy and core values, such as the seventh branch of the Noble eightfold path, namely Mindfulness, as well as many Psychologists turning to Buddhism to find sustainable ways of carrying for our mental health.This has also led to an increase in confusion that may arise when students don't know the broader perspective of the Buddhas wisdom teachings, nor how to develop a healthy approach to they're Lama and monastic sangha. Students may be enchanted by the exotic aura that often surrounds Tibetan Lamas, and we may not have the emotional or spiritual maturity to distinguish healthy behavior from unhealthy patterns of emotional dependence. While such patterns are often related to students’ psychological backgrounds, they may also be due to teachers’ lack of bridging the dharma from one culture to another. Western students may be seeking a “quick fix” to their problems or a transcendental experience, which may unconsciously manifest as excessive devotion to their teacher without a careful examination of the teachings or the teacher. Or by turning to Mindfulness in the same way you would go to the Gym for an hour. So in order to avoid falling into this type of cultural clash situations and lack of knowledge, and thereby potentially being watering down the dharma, it is crucial for both teachers and students to carefully investigate with whom we form spiritual relationships and what to adopt and how to adopt the teachings when integrating the dharma on western soil.
As an example, the term ”mugu” or “devotion,” especially ”guru devotion” can evoke very strong feelings. A“guru” is generally imagined as a mystical figure with esoteric knowledge who gathers eager disciples who often idealize him or her in cult-like devotion. In the Buddhist teachings, however, a real guru, holds a pure linage and possesses an abundance of good qualities, such as ethical discipline, wisdom, compassion, and patience. Although we might not necessarily see all these qualities in they're perfection in every teacher we meet, due to the degenerate times we are in, as well as due to our own karmic dispositions of meeting a qualified teacher in the first place, we need to find away to cultivate trust through investigation. When I meet this kind of strong feelings around the word ”Guru” I prefer to use other terms such as spiritual friend or simply teacher or guide, to create an accessible bridge in relation to our own cultural way of relating in a healthy way to a Kalianamittra or Spiritual friend. Therefore, it is best to try to express and resolve our doubts and concerns, if not directly with our teachers, at least with more experienced students then ourselves, whom we trust in these matters. And as senior practitioners make them selves more available to new comers questions and doubts a big portion of this kind of confusion will be resolved. Without a sense of mutual responsibility, care and skillful communication, as well as mutual trust and a common vision, we wont be able to firmly root the Buddha dharma in the west. Naturally, we need to do this transition in as a skillful way as possible, being aware that cultural and linguistic differences may also play a significant role in our misunderstandings and confusion.
The dharma has jet to be carefully nurtured in Scandinavia in order to grow in to a steady and rooted tradition in our cultures. In the 70s and 80s there was a larger number of Swedes who engaged in the dharma on a deeper level then there is currently. As for the last 30 decades the Dharma has almost fallen in to a sleeping beauty state in Sweden, until recently. So I'm so happy to see that there seems to be a re-emerging from this sleepy state, and am grateful to all of you in Norway for not giving up and to manage to build such a fine temple on Scandinavian soil, as you have. If it wasn't for a few torch bearers like your selves, that has kept the light burning, this part of the world would have been an even darker place then it already is.
I feel honored to have discovered some of the precious dharma jewels of Scandinavia, and to touch base with the pathways that already has been created. I feel humble before the possible prospect to follow in the footsteps of such pragmatic and fearless heroines and heroes. My heart is pounding in order to bridge an ocean of dharma activities in to the open fields of these native grounds of ours, be part of, and welcoming a continuous blossoming for the Scandinavian Buddha Dharma.