Brief Introduction to Dharma Practice for Modern Women (2009)

From the History of Female Practitioners in Tibet, by Gyalwai Nyugu (Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche)

This article is presented in the 11th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women in Vietnam 2009


In the eyes of many people, the snowy land of Tibet is a place filled with beautiful scenes and ancient cultures. This is the land in which the majority believes in Buddhism. There were many great accomplished masters in the history of Tibet, among which some were the female practitioners such as Yeshe Tsogyal and Machig Labdrön.

We need to talk a little bit about Tara first. Tara is a female deity that is widely prayed to and practised in Tibetan Buddhism. Countless eons ago, when Buddha’s Sound of the Drum taught in the world, she was a princess named Yeshe Dawa. With great faith and devotion to the Triple Gem, she made offerings to the Triple Gem continuously. She had made an aspiration that she would practise Buddha Dharma, generate the mind of Bodhicitta and attain Buddhahood in female form, and that she would also benefit all sentient beings in female form until infinite space is exhausted. Thus she attained Buddhahood through her diligent practice and has been helping and liberating sentient beings as a female figure, respectfully regarded as Tara or Arya Tara.

In the history of Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyal was renowned as an emanation of Tara. She was born in the northern area of Brahmaputra in the 8th century. At first she was one of King Trisong Deutsen’s queens. She then served Padmasambhava, and started engaging in the practice of Sadhana and all the practical instructions. Eventually, she was one of the heart disciples among the twenty-five principal disciples of Padmasambhava. She diligently practised with incredible perseverance on snow mountains and isolated areas, and attained great accomplishment. She was the first female master in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. She propagated the Buddha Dharma in Shigatse area in Tibet and established the Sangha society of more than one thousand nuns. With Namkhai Nyingpo, Vairochana and other disciples of Padmasambhava, she had compiled all the inconceivable teachings given by the great master Padmasambhava and concealed them as termas in the whole area of Tibet. She made tremendous contributions to the propagation and upholding of the Nyingma tradition in Tibetan Buddhism in its earlier stage.

Machig Labdrön was another prominent nun in Tibetan Buddhism after Yeshe Tsolgyal. She was born in Comai, Shannan, Tibet in the 11th century. She relied on Phadampa Sangye to study and practise the teachings of Chod (‘ego-cutting’). She studied Prajnaparamita Sutra and attained the unusual experience and realisation on the emptiness of Prajna. She chose Sangri Khamar (Sangri Zong, Shannan, Tibet nowadays) as her main place to accept and teach disciples extensively. She established a school called Shije in Tibetan Buddhism. Her teachings were widely propagated in Tibet, Nepal and India. Her school of Mahamudra Shije was the only school in Tibetan Buddhism that was transmitted back to India. She trained many nuns, contributed greatly in improving the status of nuns in Tibetan Buddhism and established a good foundation for development of nuns in the Late Period of Propagation of Tibetan Buddhism.

dharma4mordenwomen-3The history of nuns in Tibetan Buddhism started from Yeshe Tsogyal who became a nun under Padmasambhava. After that, Queen Jomo Tsenchie Gyalmo (Ani Drolsa Jyam Choejie) led 30 noble women to be ordained in front of Zen Master Mahayana. From then on female Sangha members developed in Tibet.

In the world of today, Jetsunma Kushok Chimey Luding, Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche, Ani Tenzin Palmo etc are renowned as eminent female practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet, there are quite a number of female ordained practitioners as well, though we are probably not aware.

Yachen Monastery located in Sichuan, China is well-known in Tibet as one of the best places for the actual practice of Dzogchen ( ‘Great Perfection’ ). More than 10,000 residential Sangha members stay and practise here, among which over 8,000 are Anis (nuns). For over twenty years, Lama Achuk Rinpoche, the head of the monastery, has trained more than 400 Tulkus, Khenpos and Khenmos from the four schools, i.e. Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. Khenmo is a title given to a nun who is outstanding in her practice. Among these nuns at Yachen monastery, Lama Rinpoche recognised around 30 nuns who have accomplished their practice and are qualified to propagate the Buddha Dharma and benefit sentient beings. Lama Rinpoche is concerned about the life and practice of nuns. He assigned many Khenpos and Tulkus to teach them every day at the teaching hall which was established for nuns and distribute a monthly living allowance to them so that they can concentrate on their practice.

In Tibet, most lay women believe in Buddhism with sincere devotion. My mother had aspired that all of our family members could become ordained as monks or nuns when I was young. My brother, my sister and I were ordained at a young age and my mother gave us her full support. At the time when my father was about to pass away, my mother said to him, “I believe that the most beneficial action that I can do for you in my life is to become a nun to help propagate the Buddha Dharma and benefit sentient beings.” Upon hearing this aspiration my mother made, my father was very much gratified and passed away peacefully. Thus my mother became ordained. She then went to the Five Sciences Buddhist Institute to study and contemplate on the Buddha Dharma for seven or eight years. After that, she moved to Yachen Monastery to engage in actual practice of the teachings. It is almost 10 years now. Once my mother was sick and had to go back to our hometown for treatment. At that time, I was giving teachings to disciples at Yachen and was unable to accompany her. I could only give her a call or write her a letter occasionally. My mother had a message passed to me which said, “When I visited Lama Rinpoche in 2003, I had offered you to Lama Rinpoche. I hope you can wholeheartedly serve Lama Rinpoche. Even if I were to die tomorrow, you do not have to come back to see me. What you should do is to teach and train the Sangha members well, make Lama Rinpoche pleased and benefit all sentient beings. This is the wish of my life.” My mother is 75 years old this year (2009). She made this aspiration in front of her Guru (teacher) and Triple Gem, “Not only in this life, but also in my future lives, may I be a nun and continuously help to train nuns and propagate the Buddha Dharma.” She often reminds me, “You are a Rinpoche, you are bearing more responsibilities thus you should dedicate yourself to better work for the Buddha Dharma and all sentient beings.”

There are many female lay persons like my mother in Tibet, who are really great in mind. Maybe due to these connections, I am pleased to participate in the 11th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women, as both my guru and my mother care about the development of female practitioners very much. I hope to take this opportunity to introduce these good practitioners in Tibet to you and in the meantime to exchange pointers and learn the experiences of training female practitioners from you. I appreciated the organiser’s effort in having created such a wonderful opportunity for all of the participants and for female Buddhists.

Following the advice of my guru Lama Rinpoche, I have accepted and trained many Tibetan and Chinese Sangha members and lay persons for the past eight years. I would like to offer my share of experiences in teaching female practitioners to you.

I. Do not deceive oneself

As a female disciple, it is essential to do her practice before she has the ability to propagate the Buddha Dharma and to benefit beings. Do not wander around. One should observe pure precepts, treat oneself as a sick person, rely on a good doctor — a qualified guru and engage in practice one-pointedly. A Sangha member who is determined to be a genuine practitioner needs to rely on an enlightened guru. Under his or her guidance, one should engage in listening, contemplating and practising with mindfulness and awareness. Nowadays some of the disciples like to pay lip service or do their practice blindly. These will not help much in eliminating their afflictive emotions and having their compassionate mind developed.

dharma4mordenwomen-GN-2During my teachings to the Sangha members at Yachen, I often emphasised that those who wish to engage seriously in their practices should maintain mindfulness and awareness and practise gradually in accordance with one’s Individual Liberation vow, Bodhisattva vow and Vajrayana vow. Some people like to do meditation very much. However their minds’ orientations are too narrow, closing and shrinking all the natural appearances of their wisdom, and leaving their innate open, pure wisdom isolated and unaware. Outwardly, they appear calm but actually they are very foolish, locking their minds into a so-called calmness box, and because of that pure wisdom cannot be freed. Our objective for meditation is to develop our narrow minds so that they are open and expansive. Therefore I often stress the gradual path in practising meditation, first embark on the preliminary practice, before moving on to the main practice in the following order: Shamatha with Attributes, Shamatha without Attributes, Practice to Identify the Mind, and finally the ultimate Five Kinds of Distinguishing. During these practices, all the spheres of wisdom experienced are different. It is not a mere state of calmness, what we need to develop is pure wisdom, a totally free mind which realises its innate power and perfect state.

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do not come from space but from the inner mind. The root of the inner mind is Buddha Aksobhya. Where is the root of mind? It is the nature of conceptual thinking, pure wisdom, and the innate perfect quality which is accomplished by all Buddhas. We all wish to be freed from the sufferings of Samsara. We cannot do so from outer phenomena and objects, we need to completely transform the inner thoughts of dualistic fixation into the luminous pure wisdom.

Therefore I hope everyone can do meditation, experience it through actual practice and realise one’s mind. We need to apply the pith instructions given by our gurus to solve the problems encountered during meditation and correct our wrong concepts for actual practice. Many people have done listening and contemplation of the teachings for years. However they do not even know the actual practice of the Five Preliminaries. The sufferings of Samsara have never been truly generated in their minds through the practice of contemplating on the outer common preliminaries. So we must start our practice from our minds, and our faith and devotion to our Gurus and Triple Gem will never fade if we prove this path to enlightenment through our own practice. It is impossible for a worldly being to get contentment by depending on material things. Similarly, it is not possible for practitioners to solve their inner problems of afflictive emotions by relying on oral words or theoretical scripts. Therefore whether you are a male or a female, I hope you can become a genuine practitioner. I feel it is important for us to practise and attain realisation until we gain mastery of death.

Propagating Buddha Dharma should be done from the experiences of one’s own mind. It will be difficult for us to propagate the Buddha Dharma simply through Buddha statues, Sutra texts and Sangha robes. Therefore we need to propagate Buddha Dharma out of our inner Bodhicitta mind and the accomplishment of actual practice. Like what Lord Milarepa said, “For a homely life enjoyed by a child with parents, an orphan will never understand. In the same way, for the state and power of realisation attained by a practitioner through his or her diligent practice, the person who has immense theoretical studying for years cannot express it.” Some may say, “Oh, Milarepa is such a great master, we are not able to do ascetic practice like him.” We may not be able to practise like him in our outer behaviours, but we should attain the same inner state of mind as him.

Female laity often encounter more stress and afflictive emotions with regard to their family life and careers. Whether you choose married life or a career-oriented path, or both, it will be good if you can put effort into practising the Buddha Dharma. Only by studying and practising the Buddha Dharma can you achieve true benefit for your life and be liberated from sufferings. Either your family or your work can be the place to practise if you are a practitioner. For instance, your children help you greatly in cultivating your patience. Your colleagues at work and your mother-in-law in your family bring you good opportunities to develop your compassionate mind. I often remind my disciples that no enemy will be encountered when you have compassion and no afflictive emotions will arise when you have wisdom. Females have an inborn instinct for motherhood and compassion. Female lay practitioners often have more opportunities to practise and develop loving-kindness and compassion. Through study and practice of the Buddha Dharma, our inner stress and afflictive emotions will naturally decrease as more and more wisdom and compassion are developed in our minds, and we will lead a happy and joyful life in this lifetime. In the meantime, our family members and friends, our societies and nations, and the whole world can be filled with warmth of happiness because of the sun of wisdom and compassion.

As Buddha’s followers, we need to embrace all beings in the world like our own family members. We should respect life, as no one would exchange his or her own life even for the wealth of the whole world. We need to learn to love our own lives and also cherish and protect the lives of others. Abstaining from killing and doing life-releases are what we can put into practice. As lay women, you need to observe pure speech, do not malign and slander others; you should speak the truth and keep your promise, and do not deceive any one. You can then engage in actual practice of the Buddha Dharma on the basis of being good people.

II. Do not deceive others

As Dharma practitioners, our conduct should exceed worldly beings. Padmasambhava has said, “Although my view is higher than the sky, my respect for the cause and effect of actions is as fine as flour.” If one has not attained realisation or is not recognised by a realised being, one should know his or her role, it would be good to help sentient beings on the basis of moral conduct and ethical values. Anyone who tries to deceive sentient beings by changing his name or form is the most pitiful person in the world. He is akin to a terrorist only that he’s not holding a weapon. Therefore whatever we do, as practitioners, we should not deceive beings. Without realisation, without capacity, without qualities, one is harming beings by changing names or playing artifice, no matter how wonderful it seems to be. When Lama Rinpoche recognises disciples for their practices, if they do not possess compassionate minds and do not respect cause and effect, no matter what advanced levels they practised, Lama Rinpoche will not approve of their practice and they are not good practitioners.

When a guru gives the instructions of practice to female practitioners, it should be in sequence, following stages by stages or step-by-step and not just based on the theoretical part. Disciples should put them into practice after listening and contemplating, experiences of practice should then arise from their minds. Female and male practitioners have their respective problems. So a teacher cannot use one method for all of the disciples, instead different kinds of skilful means should be applied to help disciples to tame their afflictive emotions. A teacher should know the personality, capacity and habitual tendency of an individual disciple. Females usually tend to think a lot, and strong jealous thoughts easily arise. Once they get angry, they will seldom think of its consequences. Their emotions also constantly fluctuate, demonstrating a lack of good foundation in practice. Males are usually stubborn to their own thinking. On the other hand, from the aspect of quality, females tend to have their wisdom developed, and males tend to have their meditation stabilised. When a teacher gives the instructions of practice to a disciple before thoroughly understanding him or her, the fruitful effect of practice may not be there, as the right remedy is not administered to the case. Therefore it is important for both the guru and the disciple to do complete observation of the other before teachings are transmitted. Otherwise, problems may arise easily. A guru then gives the specific instructions to the disciple according to his or her capacity. When the disciple engages in practice, the guru needs to be strict with him or her and often checks on his or her practice.

The above is a brief introduction to the actual practice in Buddha Dharma for Buddhist women and some points to be noted.

I was a village boy from a nomad area of Tibet. I am very fortunate to have met my kind guru, Lama Rinpoche, and become a simple monk. In the deep recesses of my heart, the loving-kindness of my great mother always inspires me to do my part for the Buddha Dharma and for all sentient beings. Taking this opportunity, may this sharing of spiritual mind transform into a pure white Khata offering to all the mothers and women in the world as the most auspicious greetings. Tashi Delek!

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