Buddhist nuns take vows similar to those of Western orders of nuns -- they dedicate their lives to observing poverty, chastity and obedience. Nuns live in communities that are focused on meditation practice, study and prayer. There are far fewer monasteries for nuns than monks in Buddhist cultures and in the West, but the tradition goes back as far as the women who studied directly with Gautama Buddha.
Choosing the life of a Buddhist nun is an irreversible commitment that requires serious study of Buddhism and a dedication to daily practices for years before taking vows. Venerable Thubten Chodron, a native Californian and Tibetan Buddhist nun, is the founder of Sravasti Abbey in Washington State. She chose life as a Buddhist nun to deepen her study and practice of Buddhism in a supportive environment with access to master teachers of the 2,500-year-old tradition. Joining a monastery allowed her to focus all her attention on achieving greater knowledge and understanding as she worked to eliminate the habits and psychological blocks to spiritual transformation. Buddhists believe that actions in each lifetime affect life in future incarnations and that the highest human endeavor is to perfect the self in order to help others transform their own lives.
Each monastery or abbey creates its own schedule but the days are similar and simple. In Gampo Abbey, a Shambala-tradition Buddhist abbey for men and women in Nova Scotia, weekdays begin with morning chant and sitting meditation at 6 A.M. After a brief session of housekeeping chores, nuns eat breakfast around 7 and begin sitting meditation from 8 to 11 A.M. There are short breaks for lunch, exercise and reflection and, after lunch, silent period ends and the nuns do whatever work they are assigned for nearly four hours, meditate and chant from 5:30 to 6:30, and eat the evening meal at 6:30. At 7:30 P.M., silence begins again, there is time for more meditation or quiet study or activities, and lights go out at 10 P.M. Some nuns are asked by their order superiors to travel and teach or lecture. Others are instructed to open new monasteries or study and write in specific fields. But the monastic life itself is spare and organized around a strict discipline that seldom varies.
The Buddhist teachings are complex. It is essential to know the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path and the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Traditionally, you study with a teacher who guides your practice and will determine if and when you are ready for ordination. There are steps to taking vows -- taking refuge in the teachings of Buddha, lay ordination, which allows you to experience the vows without a lifelong commitment, and a long stay in a dharma center or monastic community. The life itself is a challenge. Living in a close community requires a major adjustment for individualistic Westerners. Owning nothing and sharing everything is a reversal of the consumer-driven materialistic culture. Relying on donations for food, shelter, robes and medicines means accepting uncertainty and occasional privation. Giving up a career, marriage and individual identity to sit in meditation for hours each day means cutting ties with most of your former life.
Most Buddhist nuns live in abbeys or monastic houses dedicated entirely to nuns or separated into nuns' quarters and monks' quarters with shared common areas. A very small community of Tibetan Buddhist nuns lives in northern India in a house for four Western women from Europe and the Americas. They follow the daily practices, study Buddhism and Tibetan language and dedicate themselves to creating a stable foundation for an eventual large international monastery. Other nuns continue to live and work in society but take vows and participate daily in meditation sessions and in frequent retreats at nearby dharma centers. In North American there are several established abbeys for nuns and monks like Sravasti in Washington State and Gampo in Nova Scotia.
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