Sravasti Abbey recently made a significant step towards rooting the Dharma in the West when the community of seven bhikshunis (fully ordained nuns) and three novices formally began their first winter varsa (three-month monastic retreat). As far as they know, this is the first time Western bhikshuni sangha practicing in the Tibetan tradition have done this ritual in the U.S. and in English, according to a press release.
“When we study the Buddha’s teachings,” said Ven. Thubten Chodron, founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, “We learn that one quality of a ‘precious human life’ is to be born or live in a Central Land. A Central Land is a place where a sangha of at least four fully ordained monastics engages in these three monastic rites — the bi-monthly confession (posadha), an annual rains retreat (varsa), and the ritual to conclude the retreat (pravarana). The Buddha taught that the Dharma flourishes where the monastic sangha thrives, so it’s very important for the Dharma in the U.S. that these monastic practices be done.”
Although Sravasti Abbey spends every winter in three-month meditation retreat, this is the first time the community has done a varsa retreat with the formal sanghakarma rituals and within the specific time frame defined in the Vinaya. The Abbey has regularly practiced posadha since 2011, according to a press release.
Two bhikshuni Vinaya scholar-practitioners—Ven. Bhikshuni Heng-Ching of National Taiwan University and Ven. Bhikshuni Hong Fan of Wu Yun Chan Yuan Temple in Taiwan— kindly came to Sravasti Abbey for five days in early January specifically to teach us the rites to perform varsa and pravarana.
“Doing these ceremonies increases our mindfulness. We also had the sense of belonging to and continuing a tradition of ordained women that has existed since the time of the Buddha. It’s awe-inspiring to raise our voices together in chant, knowing that we share the same aspirations as countless Buddhist nuns throughout the millennia. We’re honored to bring the varsa ceremony into the English language, thus continuing to inspire generations of monastics,” Chodron said.
While Sravasti Abbey practices in the Tibetan tradition, recognizing His Holiness the Dalai Lama as its root spiritual guide, Abbey monastics ordain in the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya tradition practiced in Taiwan, Korea, China, and Vietnam. The bhikshuni sangha has existed in the Chinese community since the 5th Century.
The Buddha established the bhikshuni sangha just a few years after accepting male monastic disciples. The bhikshuni sangha spread widely, but through wars and other tribulations, the women’s lineage was lost in many countries and did not spread to others. Today, it thrives in the Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese Buddhist traditions and has recently been re-introduced into the Theravada tradition. Under the direction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan scholars are studying the feasibility of bringing bhikshuni ordination into the Tibetan tradition, according to a press release.
Sravasti Abbey’s winter varsa continues until April 15, when the bhikshuni sangha will perform the concluding pravarana, thus further establishing the existence of the Sangha and the Dharma in the West.
Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 15 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti.
Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. Currently she serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She is also a Scholarly Assistant Professor at Washington State University.