Guest post: Sravasti Abbey nuns conduct first traditional, three-month monastic retreat ritual in Tibetan tradition in North America

By Bhikshuni Thubten Chonyi

Sravasti Abbey, a Buddhist monastery in Washington State, recently made a significant step toward 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 a Western bhikshuni sangha practicing in the Tibetan tradition has done this ritual in the United States and in English.

“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 US 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 (the invitation of criticism and bestowal of new robes) and within the specific time frame stipulated by the Vinaya scriptures that define the monastic way of life. The Abbey has regularly practiced posadha since 2011.

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 the resident nuns the rites for performing varsa and pravarana.

“The ceremonies are very beautiful,” Ven. Chodron continued, “and the nuns loved learning them. 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.”

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 fifth century CE.

“Over the last ten years the Abbey has received tremendous help from Taiwanese nuns,” Ven. Chodron said, “and we are touched and grateful that the two Venerables traveled to the US specifically to teach us these rituals. This is part of the 2600 year-old tradition: monastics helping each other to sustain the Dharma.”

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 recently has been reintroduced 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.

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.