Awakin Calls » Karma Lekshe Tsomo » Transcript
Karma Lekshe Tsomo: Women in Spirituality
Pavi: Venerable Karma Lekshe is someone who's followed an unusual trajectory, to say the least. She grew up surfing the waves in Malibu, and eventually discovered an unexpected calling on the other side of the world: Buddhism.
In 1977, she received the precepts of a novice nun, and five years later, received full ordination. The immense challenges she experienced and witnessed as a woman monastic has shaped the course of her life and work. She's the founder of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, and the director of Jamyang Foundation, an innovative education project for women in developing countries. She's also a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of San Diego, and her published work includes Sisters in Solitude. Her work has also explored deeply the fields of death and dying, and she has supported and started nunneries across the Himalayas, and now splits her time between San Diego, India, Hong Kong, and many other parts of the world. It's an honor to have you with us, Venerable Lekshe.
I'd like to begin with the question that's on everyone's mind: How did the Malibu surfer child in you get to be where you are today? What were some of the early influences in your life that perhaps foreshadowed this calling?
Ven. Lekshe: Well, I think one thing is that it was sort of a birthright. I was born into a family with the last name, Zenn. So the kids at school used to tease me about being a Zen Buddhist, and I started to read about it. I'd have all these questions as a kid about life and death and meaning. In those days (this is way back in the 50s), there wasn't much literature about Buddhism available. There weren't any temples or teachers. There were no guides on the path. So finding a couple of books was about the best I could do at that time. And really awakened something in me.
Growing up in Malibu was, of course, a great privilege. It was really wonderful to grow up in the countryside. We were surfing every day. In the summers, we'd spend the whole day in the water. We were in nature all the time. Malibu was really undeveloped at that time, so we would be roaming the canyons, discovering the waterfalls, rocks and trees. I think I was very fortunate to have that kind of environment.
I remember very clearly, losing two dogs on the Pacific Coast Highway. It's a treacherous highway, and so busy, we couldn't really go out on the weekends. The traffic was so heavy. You get to the beach by going under a tunnel to get to the road. But when my dog got killed on the Pacific Coast Highway, it really sort of shattered my world, because I hadn't experienced anything like that before. It really woke me up to the concept of suffering, and opened up a whole new raft of questions: Where did our dog go? I was really still quite young, so it was kind of a shock. That question of what happens to us after we die has followed me all the way through until today.
Eventually, when I was nineteen, I dropped out of Occidental College and got on a ship with my surfboard to Japan. I went from San Francisco to Honolulu to Yokohama, and started surfing there. When it started to snow, I went to a monastery and started meditating. I was searching for a teacher, which took many years to find.
After a couple years in Asia, I went back to Berkeley and studied Buddhism with Lewis Lancaster. Then, I went back to India and to Dharamsala. By this time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama had started the Tibetan library there. So there were teachers there. Finally, the first day I had to start my classes, I ran down the mountain and burst into the classroom, and here was this little lama, sitting on a cushion at the far end of the classroom, on the floor. And he was explaining exactly what happens to us after we die. It was quite remarkable. So I sat at his feet for six years and learned everything that I could. So, it's just taken off from there. [laughs] The last ten, twenty years, I've been following that question.
Pavi: I was listening to an interview with you on death last night, and I made the mistake of listening to it right before I was going to go to sleep. It left me feeling more awake than ever. One line that struck me was you said something like, "dying is the opportunity of a lifetime."
Ven Lekshe: Yes, that's not original, actually. It may have been Stephen Levine who first shared that concept. But when you think about it, in a sense, death really is the opportunity of a lifetime. Of course, this is all based on the concept of rebirth (that we don't live just once, but we live again and again, in different forms), which is probably accepted by a third of the people in the world, at least.
From a Buddhist perspective, we don't always take rebirth as a human being. It could be in any form. But it means that the moment of death is really a special one, because in a sense, the state of mind we're in when we die is the trajectory—or it is the cause—for whatever comes after.
So if we were to die in great anger, for example, that would influence our consciousness in rather unfortunate ways. Whereas, dying in a mindset of loving kindness and compassion, awareness, wisdom would condition our mindset in a very positive, special way that could actually engender perfect awakening. It's a very special moment that we have to very careful to take care.
Pavi: What do you think is the power of living with a very daily awareness of the reality of death?
Ven Lekshe: Well, I think it wakes us up to the moment. We're often in denial about the reality of death, and as a result, we often waste away our precious moments. The Tibetan Buddhists say, "If we don't meditate on death in the morning, we waste the day. If don't meditate on death in the evening, we waste the night."
So rather than think of death as something morbid, it's a way of recalling that our lifetime is limited. It's something that makes us conscious of the preciousness of each passing moment-- not just each passing day, but each passing moment. So that grounds us. It continually brings us back to the present, and we can be fully aware of each precious moment, instead of just spacing out and then we die.
Pavi: As I've read and listened to some of your stories, one of the remarkable things is that death has come calling several times in your life. Could you speak a little bit to those experiences?
Ven Lekshe: Well, I have lived a bit dangerously--not as a conscious choice, but just by the fact of traveling up in the Himalayas in the summer, where you go over these treacherous roads. Life is really precarious. Buses regularly go over the edge. Jeeps crash and burn. Or get caught in avalanches. All kinds of things can happen up there. Also, in traveling up to the Himalayas beyond Ladakh during the Kashmir crisis, we’d go through war zones, where anything can happen. You just ask the guard, "Is there shooting ahead?" And if there's shooting ahead, you just travel by day and then ask to make sure there's no conflict in the roads.
One of the closest calls I had was when I got bitten by a snake while walking in the forest in Northern India. I didn't see the snake. I just had a really creepy feeling about the place. And then I made it back to the monastery, but, oh, something was radically wrong. The next morning, a Tibetan doctor, who's quite well known (he's written a couple of books that have been translated) found the bite. He couldn't immediately recognize what it was. It could've been a spider or a scorpion or a snake, but he immediately raced off and got some special medicine. The Tibetans have really good medicines for poisons. I took that immediately. I had never seen him do something like that-- diagnose someone, then race off himself to get the medicine and bring back a glass of water to take it right away. So I guess it was a pretty critical moment there. I think that it must have saved my life, because usually people get bitten by a viper and they die immediately. In this case, I didn't die instantly, but got gangrene, because there were no proper hospitals in the mountains there. Eight days later, by the time I got to a proper hospital in Delhi, the gangrene was really serious. They had to cut off a lot of—well, I won't go into all the gory details, but it was a really close call.
I went through a period of three months not knowing each day whether I'd be alive tomorrow. Even though I had already been meditating for many years at that time (thanks to my last name Zenn), whether I was meditating or just spacing out, I'm not completely sure. But I fancied I was meditating.
It’s not so easy to concentrate when you're in a life-or-death situation where you're in great pain. I figured I was in pretty good shape. I was ready to die, but I never factored in the pain that you might face. Some people might be lucky and pass into the night with no pain, no discomfort. But we can't guarantee that. Also, the hospital staff was giving me all these medications. I didn't know what they were. They'd just come along with a big handful of meds and a glass of water, and you were supposed to take them.
One day, I asked, "What's in this stuff?"
"Oh, don't worry. It's just Valium," they said.
That was a shock to hear. Valium’s really not good for the mind. And whether we believe there's anything after a moment of death or not, we still want to be awake and aware, if possible, right? To do the best we can in that moment. And if you're sedated, it really dulls your awareness.
Eventually, I made it. That experience was meaningful, and important in many ways. I mean, you understand the power of loving-kindness. You recognize how utterly dependent we are on other beings. And so many things, like experiencing impermanence up close and personal. I'm really grateful. I wouldn't want to do go through it again, but I feel fortunate to have had the experience.
Pavi: That's tremendous. I can't imagine three months of being at death's doorstep, and still being grounded in your practice. I was thinking back to one of the stories I'd heard yesterday, where you were speaking about how when you were eleven and your brother was twelve, or vice versa, you had gone swimming and there was a storm, and both of you were swept out for several hours. One line that stuck out was that you'd both made your peace with that, to some degree. This was prior to all your practice and study of Buddhism. It’s remarkable to think about a child being in that position and finding that kind of wisdom in response. I'm sure it was terrifying also.
Ven Lekshe: Yeah, but when you’re facing it, you really have no choice. It's not like you can decide. We tried swimming back in, but every wave was bigger than the next. We would've gotten completely whomped if we had tried swimming back to shore. The waves just kept getting bigger and bigger. Fortunately, we were strong swimmers, so we just kept diving under one wave and the next one was bigger than that, and on and on and on. We were three-quarters of a mile offshore. It was one of the biggest storms that had hit Malibu. We were searching for alternative routes for how we might be able to get back to shore. A lot of the coastline was full of rocks, and Malibu Beach—where you can get a nice wave in—was miles away. So we were trying to hold on to the kelp. And we made peace with not only the situation, but with each other. Two kids that grew up together, and then, it was really like facing it head-on. And it was quite terrifying. It was also quite beautiful.
Then, a fishing boat came along. And we were waving like crazy to try to get picked up. The crew ignored us. We were just two little kids out there, and off they went. Fortunately, someone on the shore had seen us go out during the storm warning (we didn't know there was a storm warning), and they called the Coast Guard. So after a couple hours, we got picked up by a Coast Guard ship and got rescued, which was really lucky, because it could've been all over for us.
Pavi: It must have been terrifying for your mother, I'm sure.
Ven. Lekshe: Oh yes.
Pavi: I think what leaps out to me is that there’s something very inspiring about the fact that there is a place of equanimity—of acceptance and strength, really—that we can access in those moments. The lesson I take away is that the more we're cultivating that on the pleasant days, the more, when the storm warning hits, we're going to have better access to that.
Ven. Lekshe: Oh absolutely. It doesn't necessarily come naturally. Normally, we need to train ourselves, because our minds are typically quite distracted. As long as we're distracted by this, that, and the other thing, we don't have to think about what's important, which are the whole big questions—the great matters of life and death. So we normally distract ourselves with all kinds of stuff. And then, when the time comes for it, we're not prepared. I think as we learn to find that peace inside ourselves— “equanimity,” as the Buddhists might say— then we always know we can come back to that place of peace. No matter what's going on outside, no matter how chaotic or crazy things get, we have that refuge inside. So very useful. Very practical.
Pavi: I want to switch gears to talk about what the experience was for you stepping into life as a Buddhist nun. Having grown up in a Western tradition, were you prepared for what you saw as the inequalities later on? If so, how did that initial period feel like for you, and what became clear?
Ven. Lekshe: Well, I think the growth of my own feminist awareness came rather slowly. Growing up in a family where my brother was privileged, I noticed inequalities very starkly. But I didn't know to question it. I assumed this was the way the world worked, and I would just have to get used to it. It never occurred to me in those early years to question it, or to challenge it. I could say the same thing happened when I became a Buddhist and began to study in traditionally Buddhist cultures. In the beginning, I can't say I really noticed the gender inequalities. It wasn't until later that it started to dawn on me. I started to wake up to the reality that we didn't have the same opportunities that the men did.
Pavi: How did that manifest?
Ven. Lekshe: Well, there were lots of monasteries for men in India. After the Communists took over Tibet and His Holiness the Dalai Lama fled to India (along with about 100,000 refugees), they almost immediately set about establishing monastic centers in India. Today, there are over 300 monastic centers there. But very few for women. In the beginning, there were none. I remember in the mid-70s, a group of nuns started a community in Dharamsala. There were a few nuns living in the jungles down in Odisha. A couple were living together in Darjeeling, but really, there was no place for a woman to go, especially for studies. The monasteries were always the learning centers in Tibet, and in most Buddhist societies. And those great learning centers were not open to women. Women were systematically excluded from them. So it meant that once my male classmates learned Tibetan, they could go down to South India and just check in to one of these amazing monastic learning centers. But there was no place for me to go. Women were not welcome there.
I remember very clearly asking my teacher, "Well, why don't I just go down to Sera Monastery?
And he said, "You wouldn't be happy and they wouldn't be happy."
There really was no place for women, so eventually we had to start our own monastery. That's one solution. We started in about 1987, because at the Tibetan library, which was established by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Western people had an opportunity to study the great Buddhist texts, most of which are Indian texts. We could also study the Tibetan language. Eventually, we just kept learning, and it was amazing. Living conditions were really harsh in those days, but the quality of the education we got was spectacular. Then, once we learned Tibetan, all the men would go down to South India and there was no place for us to go. And the Himalayan women as well. There were no learning centers for them. So that's how we started the first project, with Jamyang Choling in Dharamsala. Then, nuns started coming down from the mountains and asking, "Oh, can we start something up in our homelands?" So we started one after the other until now there are fifteen education centers. They're practice and learning centers.
But the problems we facing is that there are not enough teachers. Because the monasteries with monks are not open. So we're pretty much dependent on male teachers. Up in the hardship areas, it's very difficult to get teachers. So, we're hoping that women, as they get educated, will develop as teachers. And they already are. It’s so wonderful to see the women emerging as teachers and gaining confidence. There's something about education that really builds someone's consciousness. Whether girl or boy, by being educated, you have a certain independence. A certain faith in your own abilities that is difficult when you haven't had the chance to study. So that's what we see happening now. It's like watching flowers blossom. Really beautiful.
Pavi: Beautiful analogy. I wanted to get your perspective on the origins of women's entry into Buddhism. At the very beginning, from what we know today, the Buddha allowed women to ordain, but it was some years after the monastic order was established for men. Could you speak on the Buddha's view of women and how that historically has played out?
Ven. Lekshe: Well, we can't be for sure what the Buddha's views on women were, because the texts were written down long after the Buddha was no longer in this world. So we only have the texts, which were transmitted orally by monks for hundreds of years before being committed to writing. Those texts tell the story about the Buddha's foster mother, Mahapajapati, requesting admission into the Buddhist sangha, or order. And the Buddha, in my reading, did not flatly refuse. He hesitated. He basically said, "Please don't ask. Please don't ask. Please don't ask."
Most recently, a German scholar documented that this is really for the protection of the women, because the wandering lifestyle—the sannyasin's lifestyle—can be quite dangerous for women. Not only at that time, but even today. So I think this German scholar claims that the Buddha was recommending that the women stay at home and practice in the home. They can maintain a celibate lifestyle and concentrate on the practice, but not sleeping under trees. Because sleeping under trees was dangerous for women. But eventually, when he saw the determination of Mahapajapati, and Ananda's argument (which appealed to the Buddha’s loving-kindness: "Well, she took care of you. She nursed you since you were a small child. Wouldn't it be well that she were allowed to join the sangha?”), he agreed.
The kicker is when the Buddha was asked, "Do women have the potential to realize the fruits of the path?" And that would mean liberation, or awakening.
The Buddha said, "Oh yes, women have the potential to achieve the fruits of the path."
In other words, he was asserting the spiritual potential of women. So that's an amazing statement, and it's been very encouraging for women. In fact, that leads to this idea that men and women are equal. As long as a being has consciousness, then that being has potential to purify the consciousness and thereby achieve awakening, whether male or female or other—whatever gender category one might fall in.
But, of course, the social reality is quite a different story. Social realities don't necessarily mean that women have opportunities to study the teachings. They normally don't have the same level of support to be able to go on retreat for a long time, for example.
Another story (there's several) that talks about how the price of her admission to the sangha was to accept eight special rules, which definitely makes the nun's order subordinate to the monk's order. And then there’s other piece, which is a prediction that the life of the Buddhist teachings, Vinaya, would diminish. The duration of the teachings would be shortened. It said that if women were admitted to the sangha, then the dharma would only last for 500 years. But what we see is that after 500 years, the teachings are still going strong. Then, the texts start to read, "If women are admitted into the sangha, then the teachings will only last 1,000 years." After 1,000 years, the texts start to read, "If women are admitted into the sangha, then the teachings will only last 1500 years." And on and on, until here we are, 2,500 years later, and the teachings are alive and well.
So, clearly, these teachings were not set in stone. I mean the case of the eight special rules, it was very clear that it was not spoken by the Buddha, but probably inserted artificially into the text several hundred years later. Be that as it may, because of the stories, it's put women at a disadvantage. The idea that the Buddha hesitated to admit women makes it look like there's something wrong with women—that women are facing some kind of handicap. That leads to these kinds of beliefs that women are inferior, that women have bad karma, and so on. The idea the women threaten the life of the teachings—wow, that's major. So that's also been used against women. The idea that women are subordinate to the monk's order, and more or less dependent on the monk's order, has also been a disadvantage.
In the modern world now, all of this is being re-thought, reimagined, and re-examined. All these texts are open to interpretation.
Pavi: That's so encouraging, and really enlightening to hear your perspective on all of this. I think, for many of us who have read the texts and heard that history, it does sting a little bit. So, to be able to put it in this kind of perspective is invaluable. It’s an uphill journey to reverse the tides of a lot of these biases. It's not easy work. And yet, to do it with the kind of lightness and joy and loving-kindness that you do is extraordinary. In many fields of activism, the energy is really fueled almost by a kind of anger or bitterness. What would your advice be to people who are—whatever their field might be—trying to affect social change and working against unfair systems without adding to that internal baggage?
Ven. Lekshe: Yeah, that's a really important question. I think that the Buddha's idea would always be to try to maintain this kind of equanimity. Loving-kindness, compassion, balanced with wisdom as well. During the 60s in Berkeley, I was a student. Actually, I was trying to read Japanese poetry and they kept teargasing us out of classes. So it was kind of a wake-up call, for all of us. We could see that, in many cases, there were provocateurs that were sent to outrage the crowds. You know, we'd be marching happily along, and suddenly, out of nowhere, someone starts shouting, "Death to the pigs," or something like that. It was like, "Who are you? Where did these people come from? That wasn't what we were about at all. And yet, you could see how easily a crowd could be maneuvered, manipulated, into a violent response.
We see that even today. It's very, very, very important to maintain calm in social activism, both for one's own mental health, but also for the success of the movement. The minute somebody loses it, that's what gets on the news, right? In Seattle, a quarter of a million people marched quietly, happily. What gets on the news? The eight broken windows.
So it behooves us as social activists, to remain calm. We really should be getting more training and practice in that kind of nonviolent social activism and nonviolent communication. Because, just like preparing for death, we have to prepare for unfavorable circumstances. And to do that well, we have to practice.
That's what meditation is, basically. Meditation is a practice, a preparation, for real life. When we sit on the cushion, even it's only 5-10 minutes, we're getting centered, we're getting used to being calm and peaceful, concentrated and centered. The word in Tibetan in meditation is gom. It means, "to get used to". So we get used to virtue. We get used to this calm, quiet, peaceful state of mind. So that's the norm. We actually get in touch with our own basic sanity and clarity. If we know what that looks like, then we can always come back to it, right? That's the process. I think it's very practical.
Spirituality, for men and for women, is very important, and even necessary, for being an effective social activist.
The thing about rage is, from a Buddhist point of view, first of all, it's really about karma to get angry, which is totally contrary to certain theories. For Buddhists, getting angry is unfortunate. So, in training in patience, loving-kindness, and compassion, we have the antidotes, we have the tools-- for dealing with anger and rage.
Rage is very draining. It's also very uncomfortable sensations and very unhappy situations. And it causes a lot of problems. When we're angry, we say things we don't mean. We do things that we ordinarily wouldn't do. People even kill each other out of anger. So it's really important, I think for everyone, to train in patience. The Buddhists actually have a meditation where they send loving-kindness to all the people who are giving them trouble. Whoever they traditionally call, "the enemy,” whoever's giving you grief, put that person at the very center of your meditation. Then that person who made you angry no longer has power over you. And it has the effect of diffusing these potential conflict situations. A really brilliant method.
Pavi: That sounds like the need of the hour for all of us, to practice along that edge. Ven. Lekshe, I wanted to ask you to speak a little bit about Sakyadhita, the International Association of Buddhist Women. I understand they put on a conference every year. Could you share the origins of this? And the story around the first donation you received?
Ven. Lekshe: Oh yeah, right, right. This Texan woman, a former actress and filmmaker, got lost in the forest outside my mud hut. I hear this call in the night, [Texan accent] "Help, help! Help me, I'm lost!" I went out and found her, and led her back into the hotel. The next day, I ran into her in the village. Well, we'd had this idea of having a gathering of Buddhist women, because we recognized that all of us are facing the same sorts of problems: lack of encouragement, lack of facilities, lack of opportunities. We thought we'd get together and talk about it. When I told her about this idea, she said, "Oh, well I think it's a great idea. When are you going to get together?"
I said, "Oh, January."
And she asked, "How much money do you have for putting that conference on?"
"Well, we don't have any."
"Oh! Well, what if I lend you $5,000?"
“Well, you don't even know me."
"I know you."
"Well that's very kind of you, but what if the conference is not very successful and we can't pay back the money?"
"Well, then we'll call it a gift."
So, wow! There we had the seed money to put on this conference, which attracted several hundred people. In fact, in the opening ceremony with the Dalai Lama there were 1,500 people. And, you know, it was something really new. People didn't really know what we were doing. Some monks found it quite threatening to see all these women getting together. It was in Bodhgaya, in a very poor village, and we put on a Sangha Dana (a lunch offering) for all the abbots in town, which are, of course, all men. We had about 100 people sitting down at the same table as nuns. Oh, that was very groundbreaking. There were so many groundbreaking things. Like nuns welcoming the Dalai Lama playing the traditional horns.
Well, after a week of our discussions and a week-long tour to the Buddhist sacred sites, we did all the accounting, and it turned out we made our expenses exactly, and were able to repay the $5,000.
Now we have a conference every two years, and it's all run by volunteers. Everything we do is. We wanted to continue the conversation after that first conference, so we decided to establish the Sakyadhita as an international association of Buddhist women. Sakyadhita means "daughters of the Buddha". We’ve continued since then, with very little support on the financial side, but lots of encouragement and inspiration from all these wonderful women. In particular, there’s also a lot of male allies. That's been very important.
So it's grown and grown, and now we're holding our 14th Sakyadhita Conference this year, at the last week of June in Indonesia. So the idea was to create links among the Buddhist women of the world. There’s something like 300 million Buddhist women, but actually the people in China said, "Oh, wait a second, we've got 300 million [in China alone]." So we had to double our numbers. That's a tremendous force for peace in the world. If you have 600 million people already dedicated to peace and the wellbeing of living creatures, and all of this, maybe we could save the world.
So we continue, and these conferences are open to everyone. They're open to men, women, laypeople, monastics, people of all religious backgrounds, no religious backgrounds, from all cultures and countries and language groups. We try to provide translations in as many languages as possible. We even had Hindi and Marathi at our last conference in Vaishali. Vaishali's the village where the Buddha's foster mother became the first Buddhist nun. It's quite historical. So that's what we're up to.
Pavi: So much of the work you’ve done is around education and empowering the development of women. Across the board, whether we're talking about community or societal development, it’s been seen time and time again that the most effective way to do this is to start with women. Giving women the opportunities to learn, and to increase their access. So the ripple effect of this work is extraordinary. And I know you have another foundation, the Jamyang Foundation. What does the name mean?
Ven. Lekshe: “Jamyang” means Manjushree. Manjushree is the bodhisattva of wisdom, and is said to be the embodiment of all the Buddha's wisdom. So, we took that name because it's a study center. And “choling” means "a space where dharma can happen". So that's the meaning of the name. And that's grown organically since 1987.
Right after the conference, we said, "Whoa, we've really got to help these women out." In Buddhist cultures, people are really serious about Buddhism. They usually want to be a monastic. They dive in headfirst and decide to make a lifetime commitment of it. So nuns have been at the center of this, but we welcome laywomen and laypeople.
We started with a program just to learn the Buddhist texts. And first, it started with literacy, because a lot of the women in those days were illiterate. Especially the nuns who walked out of Tibet. And this is the language in which the texts are written. Imagine becoming a nun, making a lifelong commitment to practicing the dharma, and yet not being able to read the dharma texts. Again, we take for granted so many of the privileges we enjoy, like literacy.
So, the first program was eleven months of learning to read. They were arranged in age, from 36 to 63, and all of them learned to read within two months. That was remarkable. Then they came and said, "Oh, can we learn Tibetan grammar?"
Okay, so I went out and found a grammar teacher for them.
Then they said, "Can we learn philosophy and debate?"
That was harder. It was very hard to find a monk who would come and teach philosophy and debate. In a small village society, the reasons aren't hard to see. What's a monk doing in a nunnery? It sets up some gossip. They were pretty hesitant, but finally a young monk that I knew personally agreed to come teach the nuns philosophy and debate. Then, an English woman came and said, "Do you think they'd like to learn English?"
"Well, I have no idea. They weren't versed in their own language until a couple months ago. But I'll ask them."
So I asked them, "Would you like to learn English?"
"Oh yes," they wanted to learn English. So, in this way, it was in a few short months, we had a full-time study program. And that's what has continued. It’s actually taken root and given off shoots in many Himalayan regions— regions where women had no place to go. So, it offers women an alternative to marriage and family, which is an age-old tradition in India.
Marriage and family are really wonderful things. They’re necessary for a human society. But up in these regions, where there's so little food— I mean, these days, there's precious little water, and there's no healthcare. So women give birth every year with no medical care. There's a lot of suffering that goes on. They watch their children die for preventable reasons, and so forth. I think it's natural that some young people see the Buddhist teachings in stark contrast to the reality all around them, and they think, "Oh yeah, it's time to get off the wheel." So they want to study Buddhism, both boys and girls. The girls never had the opportunity before. Now they do. We just wanted to make that available. There's always a very small percentage of the population that chooses to dedicate themselves fully to the spiritual path. I mean, celibacy has been an option since the beginning of time, but there's just few people who take advantage of the opportunity. So it's not like everybody's going to run off to the monastery by any means. But at least for those who are inclined to a spiritual path, and want to do it full-time, well, now they have the option.
Kozo: I just want to thank you for sharing your wisdom. I also wanted to ask how surfing played a role or influence in your spiritual path? And if that's too specific, then perhaps, how the Hawaiian concept of aina ("the spirit of the land”) influenced your spiritual journey in either Hawaii, Bodhgaya, the Himalayas, or Dharamsala?
Ven. Lekshe: Good question. I think surfing was really spiritual for me as a child. You’re out there in the middle of the ocean and it's very quiet. It's very peaceful between sets. You have a lot of time for reflection. You also get a new perspective on life. Instead of seeing the busy-ness of your everyday things, you can see the whole landscape, the whole coast. It really changes your way of looking at the world. I feel very fortunate about that.
That's connected with the concept of aina, because you get an appreciation for land. In the 50s, beaches were still quite pristine. Then, gradually, we started to see developers come in, both in California and Hawaii, and mess up the aina. Actually, they were messing up our surfing spots. (We were kids, so that was the first thing we thought of.) But later, I realized, it gave me an appreciation for the earth itself, and the earth as our home. It made me realize that we're all sort of embedded in this wonderful earth that we share.
So, of course, the Hawaiian wisdom on that I learned even further by living in Hawaii for many years. Also you get an appreciation to the attachment that some people have to the land. Being rootless— for those of us who moved every few years— we don't necessarily have these kinds of roots. But I gained a perspective for people who are very closely grounded in a particular culture, in a particular place, or in a particular village. This would help us understand a lot of the conflicts that are going on in the world today: Why the Tibetans are sad to have lost their country. Why the Palestinians are sad to have lost their country. It helps to explain why people get upset about things like that. I think in many ways it was valuable.
Anonymous Caller: Ven. Lekshe, I wanted to ask why celibacy has been such a central role to the deep practice of Buddhism. Is this related to just choosing the life as a householder versus a monastic? Or is it related to the physical and emotional impact of living a celibate life?
Ven Lekshe: I think it has many benefits, spiritually, psychologically, and so forth. It’s noticeable in almost every religious tradition, though it's more pronounced in certain traditions, say the Roman Catholic monastic tradition, Hindu sannyasin tradition, the Buddhist monastic tradition, and Taoist also. First of all, it saves energy. It saves energy that can be directed to spiritual practice. Second, it saves time. Because, relationships require a lot of time, and a family life is really important and precious, so that also takes a great deal of time. I think a celibate lifestyle allows one to live either singly or in a community, and just totally focus on spiritual practice. Of course, after we mediate on the mountains for some years, we come back to society. That's for sure. And I'm not saying it's an easy path. In Thailand, they have a temporary ordination, so you can go into the monastery for a year or month or, these days, even a week, and get a taste of what monastic life is like. Learning to sort of sublimate desire is an age-old spiritual practice. There's a lot more to be said, but that's kind of the basics.
Amit: Thank you for that. When you were first going down this path, and started learning to mediate, what kind of challenges did you come across, internally or externally? Whether it was people, like friends and family around you, that questioned the path you were on, or your own doubts and questions that were coming up from inside.
Ven Lekshe: Well, first, the people around me weren't at all into this kind of thing. My father's an engineer. My mother's a Christian Fundamentalist. There was no encouragement whatsoever for following this kind of spiritual path. So that was daunting. Also, I mention the lack of teachers, the lack of guidance. I thought I was meditating. Now looking back, I was probably mentally wandering. I didn't know what I was doing, right? And there weren't many books to help guide. Today, there's shelves and whole walls full of books on spiritual practice and meditation. At that time, there was nothing.
Then, internally, I think the biggest challenge was that I wanted to go faster. I wanted to get on with it. But I still was bogged down on all these worldly entanglements. All of it. All the social stuff that goes on. All the distractions. So I really wanted to put it away, and just go for it, but I didn't know how. And it took many years to learn to be patient with the process.
Then, I was fortunate also to find these wonderful, wonderful teachers in India. So that was a great gift.
Amit: You had mentioned that at the conference you put together, the Dalai Lama had come there. What has the Dalai Lama's views been on women in Buddhism, whether in roles as nuns or being accepted throughout the entire tradition?
Ven. Lekshe: He's been really encouraging. I'm not sure that he realized exactly the situation of the nuns until we started to share some of this with him. He didn't know how hard it was for the nuns. And then, he's really made some really clear, supportive statements. Especially encouraging the nuns to get better educated.
Also, he constantly praises the roles of mothers. He sees mothers as the symbol of loving-kindness. He had a wonderful mother. Although he didn't live with his mother after a certain age, he always had a very close relationship with this amazing woman. So he says that we know that human beings are naturally loving, because even from the time they're first born, they reach out with love to their mothers. And we should always remember the kindness of the mother. We should always remember to repay the kindness of the mother. Even if we have a difficult, rocky relationship with our mother, we can't deny how much we owe our mothers. Because they gave us life: this precious human opportunity.
So he's also supported the establishment of a lineage of full ordination for women. The Tibetan tradition doesn't have a lineage for full ordination for women. We have to go to other traditions. I went to Korea for full ordination. But he encouraged me. And, several of my teachers encouraged me. The problem is the technicality of monastic law— how to get the thing started. He asked us to form a committee. We were five western nuns. And he had just won a Peace Prize in Switzerland with 50,000 Swiss Francs. He gave me the money, and he said to me, "I want you to meet and figure out a way to get this done."
So we've been meeting for the last eight or nine years, and doing the research on trying to find a method that would be acceptable, even to the most conservative of the senior monks. So he always encourages us. I'm quite confident that we will be able to establish full ordination for women, and actually, it's a religious rite. If women don't have equal religious rites, then they don't have equal human rights. That's just logical. So, we're working on it. [laughs]
Anonymous: My question revolves around what the meaning of dharma is in terms of in my life—what's my dharma. I'm clear about what my spiritual dharma is in the deeper sense, but I'm less clear about that on a day-to-day level. I really appreciated your comments about being patient with the process of finding clarity about that unfolding. Could could share about that process?
Ven. Lekshe: The word "dharma" has many meanings. In the Hindu tradition, it has certain levels of meaning. In the Buddhist tradition, it has further levels of meaning. So "dharma" as your own personal path is one meaning. In the Buddhist tradition, it generally means, "the teachings of the Buddha, the path to liberation". The Buddhists, especially in the Mahayana tradition, invite us to check our motivation: Why are we living? What's the purpose of this life? For the Buddhists, especially in the Mahayana tradition, the idea would be to achieve liberation, not only for one's personal benefit, but in order to relieve the suffering of others.
I find this a useful measure. Why am I doing this? Am I doing this for my own, limited, selfish personal interest? Or am I doing it for some greater purpose? Am I going to feed myself, or am I going to feed 500 kids in India? Am I concerned about my own health? Or am I going to be concerned about helping other people to be happy?
What we find is that the wider our compassion—the more people we let into our sphere of interest—the happier we get. So, check it out. Look around. My experience has been that people who are most concerned about themselves, are the most miserable. And those who are most concerned about others, and doing something about it, are the happiest. So maybe they're on to something.
Amit: Thank you Venerable Lekshe. That's a very important point to even sit down and think about. Even as we start our day similar to the way the Tibetan Buddhists say that if you’ve wasted your day if you don't wake up meditating on death, I almost want to say in a similar way, "If you don't wake up thinking about how you're going to serve someone, then you may have wasted your day."
Michele: My question relates to the topic of death. I watched my father pass away from Alzheimer’s disease. He was totally unaware at the moment of death, and I was there to make choices about putting him on medication because he was in a lot of pain. Do you have thoughts on being conscious at the moment of death with Alzheimer’s disease? What you see in that, and how we can prepare for that as well?
Ven. Lekshe: Well, we can't be sure what kind of awareness those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease have. We don't have the instruments to measure that. It's possible that they're not completely aware, but we don't know for certain. There are a number of different ways to prepare for death. Meditation to be aware moment-to-moment is really powerful. It helps to deal with all of the circumstances of both illness and death. It also helps us be present at the moment of death. Maybe we won't be awake. Maybe we won't be conscious. But ideally, we would be. And in that state of mind, we'd be able to guide our state of consciousness to whatever comes after. Which, for the Buddhists and most people in South Asia, would be another lifetime.
Also, getting rid of the defilements. Getting rid of anger. Getting rid of detachment. Getting rid of jealousy. Getting rid of pride. That's what the Buddhists talk about when they talk about purifying the mind. It’s like “clearing out the garbage," because you don't want those kinds of thoughts to come up at the last moment. The other thing is to prepare by creating as much positive karma as possible. That would be by keeping good moral principles and through acts of generosity and kindness, and practices of patience, meditation, studying the teachings, and all these wholesome actions.
With all of that taken together, then even if a person is an Alzheimer's patient, and to all appearances is not conscious, they would still have a good store of what they call, "merit”. They will have accumulated all of these meritorious factions, which would help them to get a positive state of existence the next time around.
Maybe in the future we'll know more about what's going on. At the moment, we don't even know how to measure consciousness. We don't even know, for the Buddhists, it's important not to disturb the dying person, because as long as their consciousness is present, we want them to be able to go through their process. If we start, like, moving them around, or fighting over the estate, or whatever, that can be very disturbing to the person. So we want to avoid that.
Michele: I've been fascinated in studying the "entity humanity"-- the emergence of an awareness at the level of humanity, the organism. I’m very interested in the First Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals, which has been developed by the UN, but with more than 5 million people involved so far. Do you see any possibilities coming out of these development goals, as well as their relationship to other forms of activism?
Ven. Lekshe: Well, I think this is really great. I think we have to work on every possible level. Humanity's really at a critical state right now, and we have to work on the personal level: cleaning up our own personal garbage—the garbage of the mind—and improving our own personal relationship with others as well as with the earth. All of this is vitally important. Addressing the gender imbalance is vitally important. Trying to do something about unjust exploitive economic systems. We have to work on all of those levels. Wash all those plastic bags, or avoid them altogether, if possible. Grow our own food. Do everything we possibly can. Get our shower time down to 4 minutes. Do it all. Refuse plastic bottles. I think all of those things are important. They're symbolically important. Sometimes it feels like we're spitting in the wind, but hey, we’ve do something. We’ve got to do everything possible for the good of the planet. For the human species. Otherwise, it's not looking good. We've got to improve our chances here.
Anonymous: You mention that anger is a huge no-no within Buddhism, yet this is something that most of us experience at some point or another, ranging from irritation to full-blown anger. How do you handle this in your own life?
Ven. Lekshe: That’s really good. I think the caller's already on to the process, in that irritation is a kind of low-grade anger, so the awareness that we develop in meditation helps us to become more aware of irritation as it begins to arise. That's really important. If we can be aware and notice when anger or irritation is arising—usually it's about not getting what we want, right? If we can use that and prevent it from exploding into full-blown anger, we're doing great. So that's exactly what we need to do. It comes through awareness, and it’s a practice. There's no point in beating yourself up if we blow it occasionally, but trying to get better at the irritation as it starts to arise. If we can catch it in the beginning, we can avoid embarrassing ourselves. That's a really great thing.
Anonymous: Thank you for sharing the Tibetan Buddhist practice and beliefs around meditating on death in the morning and evening. It's a precious reminder that we're dying with every moment. That we're not living fully. It really resonates with me in a joyous way, far from being morbid. So thank you for that.
Anonymous: You've been practicing meditation for so many decades, how do you feel that your practice has changed over the years, if at all?
Ven. Lekshe: I think I've become better at integrating the practice into daily life. You know, I’m still beginning on the path, but I feel encouraged and inspiredto see that the meditation seems to be applicable to everything. I start out in the morning with meditation and then some yoga, and then you go into the coffee ritual, right? See, every movement is a kind of meditation. So, after things get busy and you start logging on and start getting out in the traffic, it's more difficult. But in the early part of the day, if we can practice, we can use that as an opportunity for implementing and integrating our sitting meditation into our everyday activities.
They say in the Zen tradition, "When walking, walk. When sitting, sit. While eating, eat." Right? Using every activity as a meditation practice. Then it will just start to become natural. It'll get easier and easier as we go along. That’s what I’ve found.
Anonymous: How can we donate to Venerable Lekshe's projects? And are there other things that we can do to help other than financial as well?
Ven. Lekshe: Oh, that's very kind. I appreciate that very much. If you go to our website, there's a donate button. That's the way to do it.
We do have a volunteer program as well. We have opportunities for volunteers to go to the Himalayas and to volunteer teaching English, math, social studies, environmental awareness, healthcare, all kinds of things. Sometimes we have medical teams come over. We just had one from Taiwan. They brought 4 laptops. Now the nuns can study English by a CD during the winter months. It's really wonderful. So donations of laptops are also welcome. We also have one center that's not in the Himalayas (it's in Bodhgaya), so in the winter months, the nuns come down from the mountains and they stay there for 4-5 months, and we need teachers there as well. We've had people come over and build a classroom. Last winter, an American young man came to teach English and he saw that they didn't have proper classrooms, so he just rounded up the resources, got some donations, and built a beautiful, thermal room, with double glass and things like that, so they can stay warm in the winter. There's lots of different things. We'd really love to have a team of dentists come out. That's a little more challenging, but yeah, all these kinds of things.
Pavi: Is there any particular story from the Buddha's life or from any of the other bodhisattvas that you find particularly inspiring?
Ven. Lekshe: Oh, so many stories! Well, I love the story of the Buddha when he was meditating a dispute on the Rohni River, and he was able to bring the two conflicting sides together. It sort of predates all the nonviolent communication skills by about two and half millennia. I think if human beings were able to look at problem-solving this way— that it's not me against you or us against them or our country against the world—we could see the problem as a challenge that we could all solve together. For instance, climate change is something we need to address together. How can we do it best? How can we pool our resources? So this story of the Buddha I find very powerful. Yeah, that's a good one. Oh, there are so many stories.
Pavi: I know it's closing in on 2am your time. We are so grateful for how generously and beautifully you've shared from your experience and remarkable insights. As I think about the intersection that your journey has played out, it brings together such a unique combination of things. The historical biases that your work seeks to correct, the education element in it, the environmental elements you touched on. You've just given us so many nuggets to hold in our pockets as we continue on our path. For me, that reminder that each day we spend without reflecting on our mortality, or without reflecting on our capacity to give, we lose out on something tremendously precious.
Ven. Lekshe: We're all interconnected, right? That's so important to remember that we all depend on each other. None of us could live independently from each other. That's why it's all wrapped up together. We tend to put things in different compartments, but it’s all interconnected.
Thanks so much for giving me this opportunity, and all your great work in putting this together. It's a great service to the community.
Pavi: The gratitude is definitely mutual.
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