Joy amidst Challenges of Being a Nun
by Venerable Karma Tashi Choedron
Venerable Dr. Karma Tashi Choedron is a Malaysian nun ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She obtained her Ph.D. in Environment and Resource Studies from Mahidol University, Thailand, and M.Sc. in Highway and Transportation Engineering, and B. Engineering in Civil Engineering from Universiti Sains Malaysia. She became a nun under Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche at Thrangu Tashi Choling Monastery in Namo Buddha, Nepal, in June 2009.
Prior to becoming a nun (Choela in Tibetan), she had coordinated several social development/sustainable livelihood projects for indigenous communities, i.e. the Orang Asli under the Small Grants Program by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the UNDP/Global Environment Facility (GEF) Peat Swamp Forest (PSF) Project in Pahang, Malaysia. From time to time, Choela Karma contributes her expertise to social impact assessments, forest audits and high conservation value forest (HCVF) assessments with local communities in Malaysia and Indonesia while striking a balance between her spiritual life and volunteer work. Choela Karma has authored two books and several articles pertaining to community-based conservation in South-East Pahang.
Venerable Karma has also delivered lectures on the environment, animal welfare, Buddhism and interfaith harmony in Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand. In recognition of her contribution to environment conservation and Buddhism, she received the Outstanding Woman in Buddhism Award in Bangkok on March 5, 2010. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Buddhist Studies at the International
Buddhist College, focusing her thesis on comparative religion.
Dr Lai Suat Yan interviewed Venerable Karma for the January 2013 issue of Eastern Horizon.
Suat Yan: Can you provide the background as to how you came in touch with the Buddha Dharma since I understand you are not from a Buddhist family?
I became a Buddhist by chance in May 2002 when I first went to Thailand to learn meditation because of my work stress as a civil engineer then. When I requested a Thai friend to recommend me a place to do meditation, he suggested Suan Mokkh, an international meditation center founded by Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906-1993). There, I came across Buddhism for the first time, taught by a Thai Maechee, Ajahn Aree. The basics of Buddhism were packed into the 10-day meditation course. I learnt about the Triple Gem, Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path, Karma, and Dependent Origination. The Dharma just swept me off my feet. I had never heard anything so profound in my life. It was so clear and I saw the truth in all the teachings based on my own experience. And many of my lingering questions such as where do we go after we die, why are we born, how the universe works…they were all answered during the 10 days! That was the biggest eye-opener of my life. It was like getting an electric shock…I was suddenly jolted out of my slumber and a sense of urgency arose in me to practice the Dharma. It was like I finally remembered the purpose of my life and felt that the Buddhadharma was so familiar. It made perfect sense to me and to not practice it made no sense at all.
So you decided to become a nun after this experience at Suan Mokh?
After the 10-days retreat, for the first time in my life, I felt the great peace of the austere monastery-like environment and my mind was also clear and calm. When I came out, my friends, colleagues and parents said that I looked radiant. That was what they saw but what I felt was truly liberating. I was so much at peace with myself and could not think of going back to normal life.
After the retreat, I was able to handle life better and began to practice the Dharma earnestly. I took the Five Precepts and tried my best to keep them. I began to work better and really had a renewed interest and motivation in life. I progressed speedily in my career and studies. But deep down inside I felt that I must become a nun as it would help me tremendously in my practice. I always remembered the peace, calmness, and freedom from all worldly affairs during the 10 days I was at Suan Mokh. Imagine if it was for life! Life is also very short and to squander it doing mundane things will not bring me closer to my goal. I felt that being a nun is most natural to me and began to make aspiration prayers. I was ready since day one but I knew that my parents were not. Seven years later, by some stroke of luck or perhaps by the power of seven years of aspiration prayers, I became a nun in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition.
Please share with us about the ordination, your preceptor, and where you were ordained.
I went to Nepal in June 2009 to attend a teaching at Namo Buddha (Thrangu Tashi Choling Monastery), which is about two hours from Kathmandu. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, abbot and spiritual master of the monastery, was giving a 10-day teaching on Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara. A lama from Sibu, Sarawak, Lama Ngawang invited me and my Dharma sister and spiritual guide, Venerable Sonam Wangmo to attend this teaching, and made the necessary arrangements for me to be a temporary nun. I did not know my preceptor before I was ordained as a pre-novice (Tib: genyen) nun. In fact, the first time I saw Rinpoche was during my pre-novice ordination and refuge ceremony, which was held in closed doors with only Rinpoche, Ven.Sonam, Lama Ngawang, Rinpoche’s attendant and I in the room. I first had to take refuge under Rinpoche who cut out a small lock of hair (tonsure ceremony) and then gave me the refuge and pre-novice vows. I was planning to be a temporary nun for four months as I took leave from work for that amount of time. After my preliminary practice of four months in Bhutan, I was supposed to return home as a lay person. But that never happened. I then decided during the four months that I will stay on as a nun for life. It was a liberating experience and nothing can be compared to the sheer liberty and spaciousness I feel as a nun.
Less than a year later, on May 14, 2010, I took the novice (Skt: sramaneri; Tib: getsulma) ordination under the same Rinpoche. I flew to Sibu, Sarawak to attend the Kalachakra teaching by Thrangu Rinpoche. Lama Ngawang arranged for my ordination as I had requested Rinpoche one week earlier in Kuala Lumpur during the Malaysian Kagyu Monlam to confer ordination. As Thrangu Rinpoche is from the Karma Kagyu lineage, my ordination name is Karma Choedron which means “Activity of the Dharma Lamp”.
Did you know Thrangu Rinpoche and was it a conscious decision to have him as your preceptor?
Taking the sramaneri ordination was a conscious decision on my part as this ordination seals my status as a nun. It is not easy to find a preceptor in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and even more so, a learned scholar and enlightened master like Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. When Lama Ngawang brought up the subject of sramaneri ordination for me in February 2010, I thought a lot about it especially since I would be living in Malaysia and my relatives are not Buddhists and will not accept me as a nun. Weighing all the pros and cons, I decided to take ordination as it is extremely important, and with all the precepts I can practice more seriously. Besides, it is very rare for a Malaysian to be able to be ordained in her homeland by a very high master. Ven. Sonam had to wait six years before becoming a sramaneri as she waited for HH the 14th Dalai Lama to ordain her in a mass ordination ceremony in Dharamsala. So I thought I was very fortunate, the master himself is in the country and I will get an exclusive ordination, all because of Rinpoche’s and Lama Ngawang’s kindness. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, once one takes the novice ordination, it is for life. The only way to get out of monastic life is to disrobe and return my vows, which is certainly not an option.
I understand there is little institutional support for women ordained in the Tibetan tradition in Malaysia. So how do you support yourself as a nun?
I am fortunate to have my own apartment, which I bought before I became a nun. This helps tremendously as I do not have to look for a place to stay. However, I do face financial constraints in maintaining the apartment and also in my daily living, traveling, and maintaining my basic requisites. This limitation is not only among those who practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Many nuns living in Malaysia also have difficulties supporting themselves. I do not live in a nunnery or a center because there are simply no nunneries in Malaysia for Tibetan nuns. However, some local Buddhist devotees have recently started Gotami Vihara as a center for nuns in Puchong, Kuala Lumpur. Tibetan Buddhism has many lineages and centers in Malaysia are established under a specific Rinpoche. Thrangu Rinpoche has a center in Kuala Lumpur but it is not available for nuns since two monks live there. I am happy to live and practice in my own apartment which is secluded and quiet, thus ideal for spiritual practice. However, the challenges are maintaining the place, utility bills, transportation, and my basic requisites.
So you live alone?
I live with my Dharma sister and Tibetan language teacher, Ven. Sonam Wangmo. Both of us support each other spiritually and emotionally in our Dharma practice, and in our studies. In the initial three years since my pre-novice ordination, I worked about 70-80 days a year. I managed to save some money that will last till the end of this year. I may have to take additional work to sustain me for another few years while I am in Malaysia. Before I became a nun, I was an environmental sociologist and worked extensively conducting social impact assessments (SIA), forestry and oil palm audits. I sometimes write reports or edit work in order to earn some money. But I would rather not work as it requires me to compromise my daily practice and it disturbs my practice. Ven. Sonam and I have three lay Dharma friends who sometimes sponsor our basic requisites, especially food and medicine, and provide transport and help to feed our cats when we travel. Apart from that, both Ven. Sonam and I receive donations when we give teachings or are invited for danas and prayers for the sick and deceased. We cannot rely solely on our friends as they have their own families to take care too. When we attend conferences or travel, we use the donations we receive. Some are kind to provide partial sponsorships though we don’t get full sponsorship for our daily living and travels. Our cash flow fluctuates and our survival depends on how well we can manage our finances.
What are the joys of living an ordained life?
Every living moment is a joy if I practice well. Especially memorable are the group prayers during large congregational prayers where monks and nuns gather to recite sutras. My time spent in retreat is also very joyful. I find teaching the Dharma and helping people during difficult times when they need spiritual support, e.g. during sickness and death of relatives, very satisfying. I feel that my role is especially important as a nun in guiding Dharma friends and their families during times of duress. This is when I see lay people needing the presence of the sangha and to be around for them gives me much joy.
What about the challenges that you encountered?
Life is a challenge, whether lay or ordained. But since my ordination, I have struggled to stay afloat financially. To have the peace of mind to practice and not worry about meeting basic needs is still elusive. I have peace of mind for a couple of months and then the financial reality sets in again and I tend to worry about how to support myself and my teacher, Ven. Sonam. That is the single biggest challenge living outside a nunnery or a center. I have the freedom to practice according to my own ability and in my own space, but at the price of not having financial security. I also struggle to learn to read, write and communicate in the Tibetan language which is imperative in order for me to be able to study Buddhist philosophy at a deeper level since I am in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition after all.
Living in Malaysia is ideal to receive so many teachings and empowerments from very highly qualified masters and for that, I am grateful. However, since I am living outside of the nunnery, most of my studies are piece-meal. But I do have a systematic training in my spiritual practice which I believe is most fortunate for me and keeps me busy. Maybe because I do not live in a nunnery and became a nun only in my mid 30-s, I get the vibes from some people that I am not an ‘authentic’ nun. I have no idea what ‘authentic’ means and as long as I can serve sentient beings, learn the Dharma and have the opportunity to practice it on a daily basis, it is more than enough for me…. without having to worry about my next meal though.
When I used to work on short assignments even after ordination, many Dharma friends were very supportive and understanding and never raised their eyebrows that a sangha member is working. Even my preceptor gave his full support. However, the setback is that people also take it for granted that I have the ability to earn an income and leave it at that. I worked because I had no choice but many Dharma friends around me assumed that I was managing well. They tended not to ask about my basic sustenance and left me to fend for myself. Things became so bad that I just stopped working and told friends that I no longer work. If I continue to work, dana will not be forthcoming and it will be counter-productive.
What can be done so that women like you are supported as Buddhist nuns?
I think that most people have a good heart and want to contribute to the sangha. However, I believe that most are unaware of the difficulties nuns face in securing basic requisites. Most assume that we are funded by our spiritual masters or respective nunneries. The first thing people ask me is, “where is your nunnery/center?” When I reply that I do not have a center, people stare at me and ask me where do I live then? This concept of living outside of nunneries/temples/ monasteries is very alien to Malaysians. Somehow, it is not as alien in the Himalayan region as there are many practitioners who live on their own. As such, many in Malaysia do not know that there is a real struggle for survival amongst “freelance” sangha members. Many people ask, “why don’t you go and stay in a nunnery in India/Nepal/Tibet?” My reply is, “Malaysia is my country and if I cannot live here, where else should I go?” The sangha is needed in every country and India and Nepal have many monastics. Malaysians need the sangha too, so why should we leave just because we struggle to survive here?
I think the first step is for an umbrella organization under Vajrayana Buddhism in Malaysia to reach out to nuns like myself. I believe there are also monks who have to survive in a similar manner, but I think nuns outnumber them. Individuals want to help but how much can they contribute and for how long? It is just not practical. An organization that can look into the welfare of nuns will be the best option. The Theravada Bhikkhunis finally have such an organization in Malaysia. I am working towards finding out how many Vajrayana Buddhist nuns there are in Malaysia who struggle to survive like me and to network with them. Once I have the full list of nuns, I hope that the Vajrayana Buddhist Council of Malaysia or any other Buddhist organization can reach out to the nuns and help us. At present, I am very grateful to the Tzu-Chi Buddhist Welfare Organization for organizing free health screening for the sangha. I have benefited from them and hope that such organizations will go a step further and also help the so-called “freelance” sangha to survive.
What are your plans for the future?
Honestly, I simply haven’t thought too much about it. But I am helping Ven. Sonam to set up a retreat center for nuns in Bhutan as this will be very helpful for elderly nuns and nuns who have no place to practice. I will be using all my energies to help Ven. Sonam to achieve her dream. Once the retreat center is completed, I hope to be able to go into long retreat.
What are your aspirations?
That I can practice the Dharma without worrying about my finances. I hope to be able to enter into a long retreat and practice the stages of the path as instructed by my teachers. Oh yes, I also hope to be able to finally speak and fully understand the Tibetan language and learn Buddhist philosophy more deeply. Finally, I wish that I will make full use of my precious human life to be able to benefit all sentient beings, especially my fellow citizens and to help uplift the status of Buddhist women practitioners, especially nuns. EH
Dr Lai Suat Yan is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Malaya. She received her Ph.D. from
Claremont Graduate University, USA, M.A. from Institute of Social Studies, Hague, Netherlands,
and B.Comn from Universiti Sains Malaysia. Her expertise is in Gender Studies, Religion
and Development Studies. She is also a regular contributor to Eastern Horizon.