AN INTERVIEW WITH
ANI THUBTEN DEKYONG
Note: The title Ani, used for Tibetan Buddhist nuns much as the word "Sister" is used for Catholic nuns, literally means "aunt." Rinpoche, which means "most precious treasure," is a title expressing respect and affection for high Tibetan Buddhist religious figures. Similar to the Japanese -san, the suffix -la is appended to Tibetan proper names and titles to signify respect. Ani Thubten Dekyong's lay name, Tseyang, is pronounced as "tsen." This interview was conducted for Glow magazine in 1996, when Tseyang-la worked as a translator for monks from Sera Je Monastery in a U.S. tour performing David Patt's Wild Life, Tamed Mind to raise funds for the monastery.
Could you tell us where you were born, where you grew up, what the basic conditions of life were?
I was born in Tibet, in Lhasa, in 1960. We came out in 1965. My parents worked as merchants, selling and bartering farm goods. My immediate family wasn't politically active, but they were very religious. I grew up in Nepal, and then I went to a couple of schools in India. I finally ended up in a boarding school in Kalimpong, near Darjeeling in the Indian state of West Bengal, until I finished high school.
You had a brother who was a tülku (reincarnation) at Sera Je. Was he a strong influence on you?
I wouldn't say he was a strong influence, because he was much younger than I.
What was your education like?
It was a convent school run by Catholic missionary nuns. We came home just once a year for winter vacations. My parents lived in Nepal, and travelling was difficult then. It used to take three days; you had to go on a bus, get on a train, change to another train. Now travelling is more convenient and you can do it in one and a half days.
The student body was a complete mixture
Nepalis, Indians, Tibetans, Bhutanis, Sikkimis. Our schooling was completely in English. We had Hindi as a second language and, for part of the school year, up to the sixth grade, we had Nepali as a third language. But we spoke Tibetan at home. And when we came home for our winter vacations, my brothers and I occasionally had tutors who used to teach us Tibetan.
Doesn't it make you feel ripped-off that the school didn't teach you about your language, your history or your culture?
No, no. We were growing up in communities in exile, so it was interesting to know the history of the place where we were living. In fact, as immediate information, this was something more appropriate. When my parents chose to send me to missionary school, they did that politically because they felt the missionary schools offered the best education. For something that is as personal as developing your own scope of your own knowledge, I think, it's your own individual responsibility to look for it. If you're going to wait for all your knowledge to fall into your lap, it's not going to happen! You have to seek it somewhere.
When did you decide to become a nun, and what led to that?
During my high school years, I used to visit Kopan monastery. I took a couple of meditation courses that were being offered to the Westerners. It was actually much more out of Lama Yeshe's encouragement. It was much more his idea, initially, than it was mine. I just knew him as a lama who was a great friend of my father. He would make a great point of telling me to come to the meditation course, and my father would remind me that I had to do that. And if Lama told me that I had to come by, I felt it was important that I did that. So initially I did it more for him than out of my own personal interest. I didn't want to disappoint him. I wanted to fulfill the expectation that he had of me.
So at first it was more for Lama Yeshe and for your father than for yourself. Once you got there, was it for Lama Yeshe and your father, or for yourself, or for other women?
I had grown all my life in a Catholic convent, and being a nun of any kind hadn't really occurred in my mind. As I began to learn more about Buddhism, it became my own personal interest as well. Then when I finished high school, joining the monastery felt like the next best thing to do in my life.
Joining the monastery, or joining a nunnery?
It was a monastery! We didn't really have mixed monasteries. The core group was a monks' monastery and, if there were nuns, they were just Western nuns. There weren't any Tibetan nuns when I joined it. I was the first one. It was Lama Yeshe who was instrumental in bringing me in. He just said, "You be a nun here!" He and Lama Zopa created the gateway or the path for me to be accepted.
He suggested it? You didn't ask?
All my studies, all the learning of Buddhism that I did was done at that monastery, and I didn't think I had to go to some other monastery now that I had become a nun. And since they had accepted me, ordained me, I kind of presumed I was going to be in there.
For the monastery, it was a challenge to have a local Tibetan nun actually be a part of the community. Because if you accept one, you've got to accept all the others that come. In the early years, the admissions were a bit restricted, because the monastery didn't have the facilities for it. We lived separately, but we ate from the same main kitchen and we went to the same classes as the monks did. I joined in 1979 and, in '82, there were two more nuns. By '83 or '84, there were two more. By '86, there were eleven nuns. It was done very cautiously
trying out one, trying out two more, and so on. Even when I entered, I thought that a lot depended on me, on my way of behavior, to either stop or make it flow.
You had to break new ground for other people to follow in your footsteps.
I felt like that, yes! I was the first local nun, living with a core group of monks. I did feel a sense of responsibility, because I knew that if I made a mess of it, nobody else would get in. And if I made it a success, then others would be able to get in.
Were you met with a lot of hostility or resistance, like the American women who were the first to integrate the armed forces or like blacks who integrated previously white-only schools?
It was difficult for the first few years, but they didn't discriminate against me in that kind of way. Listen, I had finished high school. At least I had some basis of education, not particularly in monastic learning but, still, I had done a kind of study, which other monks hadn't done. It was difficult because here you are, you know, a very new dharma student, very enthused by the spiritual path, and you're in a community, and it's just all monks. I do remember thinking, "There must be an easier way to a spiritual life than what I'm going through."
Was Lama Yeshe as encouraging towards other would-be nuns as he was towards you? And are there other lamas or abbots or monks who are as encouraging as he was?
I don't know about other people, but I do know Lama was very encouraging. Just as he was instrumental in bringing me into the monastic community at Kopan, it was he who brought in the next two nuns, too.
How did things change for you when you went from being the only nun to being with other nuns?
What happened was that, just as the first two other nuns joined me, Lama sent me to Australia to translate. I was there until '85. While I was in Australia, Lama Zopa sent this letter about how wonderful it would be to have a nunnery, how beneficial it would be, and so forth. When I came back, there were four or five more nuns. By '86, there were eleven!
Was that just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how many women wanted to be in there?
I think so. The monastic community is pretty crowded, so it was a big step for them to make room for a community of nuns. Anyway, then in '86, Lama Zopa actually said it, about building the nunnery. That's how the idea started off. I think when he wrote to me in '84, he kind of expected me to come back and do it. But at that time, I didn't really think I was being asked to do it.
He was planting the seed in your mind.
Yes, probably he was getting me warmed up to the idea.
When you started the Kachoe Ghakyil Nunnery, was that a separate institution, or were there organizational ties to Sera Je or to Kopan?
Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa are connected to Sera Je, and Kopan is a monastery that they founded. And the nunnery is a result of Kopan. I didn't go to Sera Je; I've never been to Sera Je. I started studying Buddhism at Kopan, first as a layperson and later on as a nun. And the nunnery happened because of Kopan. It shares teachers with Kopan. But for buying land and building, as nuns we had to find the money and everything to do it.
How many of you were there?
There were eleven of us in the beginning. By '88, we were 18. Then 20. As it became more apparent that the nuns were going to do a place for themselves, more nuns were allowed to join the community. By the time we finished building and the nuns moved into the property, which was in November of '92, there were more than 55 nuns.
How did you do it? How did you raise the money?
Oh, I don't know how I did it! I just begged for them. I asked for money from different people, wrote brochures, did interviews so that people would hear about it and give us money. I did most of the fundraising outside, and then we did a little bit within the community in Nepal. There is very little money in Nepal. But we were able to raise almost all of it to buy land and to build enough so that we could move in.
We hired local people and, for the first year, the nuns also helped. Because the initial year doesn't require much skilled labor. It's clearing dirt here and there, stacking up bricks, carrying this and that back and forth. So for the first year, all of the nuns participated. Plus, we needed the nuns to look after the construction site, make sure people were working. We had a meeting, and we decided that this would happen. It was also: then it would feel like it's part of their life, as opposed to just me running around, getting money, build it and "Here's a place!" I thought it would be good for the spirit or the morale. And since they didn't participate in the actual fundraising, I thought it was the least they could do. We all had our little jobs for the first year, except for the youngest ones; we all had roles as to who would look after this or who would look after that.. The second year, we needed more skilled labor. We built the nunnery between '90 and '91. It was only in November of '92 that we were able to move in.
Now there are over 120 nuns. Initially, when I was first planning, I was thinking, "Oh, I'm never going to get enough money to build, for a big community. Maybe I should at least aim to make the place big enough to house 50 nuns and let the community grow from there." We had 50 nuns by the time we moved in! So they've been just adding layers.
What are the nuns like, and how do they support themselves?
Their age range is from eight to forty. Everything has to be taught at the monastery, starting with the alphabet, so older nuns teach the younger ones. Sometimes their families contribute to their support, but never on a continuous basis. They give what they can, when they can. Kopan Monastery gives them some money for their food and things like that. A certain amount of money each month is allocated to them, so if they run short of it, they have to make do. If they have a surplus, it's also for them. So they get a certain lump sum each month, divided by the number of nuns that are there.
Is it anticipated that the nunnery will be self-supporting at some point?
I left the nunnery shortly after the nuns moved in. I left in early '93. So by now I'm not so involved. The two nuns that entered the monastery after me are kind of managing everything. Now there's a place for them to live and everything, and if donations happen that's great.
What's your connection with them now? Do you just drop in and say hi when you're in the neighborhood, or do you live there when you're in Nepal?
Now it's more informal. I just drop in when I'm in Nepal, offer them lunch or something like that. Offer them tea, offer them some money, and that's it. Because I've been living mostly in the States since mid-1993.
Do you plan to go back?
I don't know. I haven't decided.
A problem that David Patt brought up in my interview with him is that the best and the brightest of the lamas
and, obviously, now nuns Tibetans who come to the States and get a taste of Western life and luxuries [Tseyang-la howls with laughter] frequently give up their robes and don't want to go back. And even those who don't give up their robes still don't want to go back. It's a great benefit to the US, but it's a real loss to the Tibetans. Not that we don't want to have you here, but Tibetan culture and people are hanging by such a thin thread that to lose their people to Western decadence (or civilization or whatever you want to call it) may be the difference between life and death for Tibetan Buddhism. These are my words, not David's. It seems to me to be a real problem that needs to be addressed: Why isn't there enough there for you to be able to stay? Or is it that you think the needs here are so much greater, or that you could do more for them here than you could there?
I know it would be more meaningful in the long run for me to stay there and help out. But sometimes it's difficult when you have to work. Because I was responsible for the nunnery, I still had to work in conjunction with the main monastery. And it got difficult to work.
I think I was too much of a problem! [laughs] I didn't quite fit the mold of what a Tibetan nun should be.
I'm sure every woman who's been the first has gone through that one, not knowing if it's because of who she is individually as a person or simply because she's female. It's usually because she's female. It doesn't have anything to do with you!
It's like, if I have to challenge, it's much more of a challenge than a monk's challenge. I stuck it out until they all got established. Had I left any earlier, the nunnery would never have been finished. But the moment everyone moved in, I said, "That's it!" I thought it would be better for our relationship if I wasn't there and they got to handle the situation. You see, when we were building the nunnery, although it was Lama Zopa who suggested it, we didn't get any financial help from Kopan in those first years. They didn't say, "Here's five cents toward the nunnery." We fundraised from scratch! Although we lived at the monastery at Kopan, it was fine as long as we were dependent. But to create this independent situation with our own land, our own property
in that, we didn't get any financial help. Generally I should say that it's harder to raise funds for nuns than for monks.
Was it that they didn't want you to be independent, to be in control of your own lives, to be making decisions for yourselves?
It's funny, because we are now lightening the burden by coming out of the community. But I think the thing was mostly that all the money I collected, I should have given to the monastery and then said, "I need money." Ten dollars here, a hundred dollars there. They wanted it like that. And I didn't see it that way. I raised the money, and I felt responsible for the money, and I was doing the best I could, from my perspective. I think that created bad feelings. And then, Lama Zopa used to tell me, "You should tell them what's happening, talk to them."
Would you say it's any of their business?
Well, first of all, they didn't show enough of an interest in us for me to feel that I would go to them and tell them my sob stories or my happy stories. You share your stories, in sadness or in happiness, with people whom you feel are concerned or would be concerned or are interested. You wouldn't go to tell anyone with whom you felt strange or who was indifferent towards you. This is what I felt; I'm sure they would say otherwise, that they had our interest in the depth of their heart. They could easily say that. But personally, I didn't feel that kind of pathway to go to them. So that didn't create a good situation.
In situations where nunneries have been run under the auspices of monasteries, haven't there sometimes been problems where the nuns were basically expected to wait on the monks, do their laundry and clean up after them, handle the cooking and cleaning and all that stuff so that the monks would be free to study?
I have absolutely no idea, because I never lived in a nunnery other than what I got myself into! There was one time in the '80s when I could see laundry hanging on the nuns' side that I didn't think belonged to any of the nuns. I told the nuns that I didn't think this was appropriate. I told them the only people's laundry that I wanted to see was their own, or that of very, very young monks that couldn't take care of themselves, or some of the older monks who shouldn't have to do laundry. I felt it was okay for the nuns to do that, because the monks are giving them teachers and they don't pay a penny toward their education. The least they can do is wash their robes, for the youngest and the oldest. But we're not washing machines!
I do feel that it was all worth it, now that it's created a space for so many people to come. It would have been good if I had felt like it was a good situation to still continue on. It would have been good because I could have done more. But right now I feel that it's better for me to give breathing space to them
or to myself!
Then there's just the concern as to whether or not they'll be able to fight for themselves and speak out in the way that you would have.
When I was there, if something came up, they would complain to me, but they would never bring it up to the monks that were in charge or had something to do with the nunnery. Initially I would bring it up to the monks but, later on, I would teach them, encourage four or five of the nuns to go visit together and let one be the spokesperson and say "This is the problem." So that it wasn't just one person. I found little ways to communicate like that.
Is this part of a problem of lack of ordination for women or basic Buddhist stuff that monks, as you say, were "in charge"? Were the monks in charge, or were the nuns in charge? Who's making the decisions, who's running this institution?
It's a Catch-22 kind of thing. How Lama Zopa and Yeshe Rinpoche's organizations are run, whether it be a monastery or a nunnery or just a dharma center, is that we all have directors. Each place has its own director. We have a board and, under the board, we have directors for each center. All the directors are hand-picked by Lama Zopa or Lama Yeshe. It's not like there's a community election. Since Rinpoche appointed me as a director, I felt like I was only answerable to him. And because we didn't have any financial dependence on the monastery to get the money for the land or the building, I felt that we were independent. They apparently didn't see it that way; they felt that we are nuns who come to the monastery to get education. They already see themselves in the role of teachers, and they feel they have some mandate over the situation.
So it won't be until we have our own women teachers that we can be independent.
I think so. I think there's always going to be a little bit of conflict of interest.
What about you personally now? Do you see yourself staying here in the US forever? Will there be a conflict between keeping your robes and living here, or will you be a nun forever?
I'm still dedicated, still want to remain as a nun for the rest of my life. That's for sure. Here, although it isn't specifically a nun's situation, I still devote a lot of time to my own practices. All the years that I had to fundraise and get the nunnery together, my own practices or studies were secondary; I kept them to the minimum. Being here in the States for the last two years has allowed me a lot of time for myself, to concentrate on my own practices, all the teachings that I've heard. To just do that. And also, I make myself available to teachers that come here in the States and need translators. There are a few dharma centers that know where I am and can call me if they ever need a translator. It's a great learning process for me, much more than just listening to a teacher. That in itself is a great blessing, and I give that first priority. Second priority is just giving myself more time for my own study, for my own practices. However long it takes me to go through the practice, I'll do that, because I know I have the time. Occasionally I give talks or things like that, depending on where I am. I feel kind of satisfied doing this. I don't feel it's necessary for me to be running a whole organization. But I do know that, had it been different for the nunnery in that situation, I know I could have made it. I'd still be there, still running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
Except that you might have been able to empower more women and delegate more responsibility so that it wasn't all on your shoulders.
I think so. And in some way, they looked up to me for an inspiration. Although sometimes they would feel that I was more Western than Tibetan.
Well, sometimes you were the scapegoat, and sometimes you were the inspiration, right?
Yes! I worked in both ways. So, I don't know, I haven't decided. I would say that for personal benefit, this is my best situation. But if you think about the good of the many, then it would be better for me to go and still live in the nunnery and do what I can for the nunnery and for the nuns.
As a result of being in Australia and here, are there things you've seen, learned, ways of operating, that you want to take back, that you would do differently now than when you were there before?
I think the organizational skills would be very helpful, because in some ways monasteries have a very autocratic way of getting things done or decided. When I was with the nuns and we used to have meetings, one of the key things I used to stress to the nuns was "Here are the jobs we've allocated to ourselves or to each other. And we all decided that this is the best way you can help out in the situation. But should you feel you are being underused or that there is a field where you can do even better, then you should say so." This was the thing we always worked on. Some said, "Oh, I think I could do this." And even when I had my doubts, I'd say, "If you feel you can do it, you're welcome to try." We were all trying and learning, because none of us were equipped with the knowledge to do everything.
Mostly the key is what you feel about yourself
that's the most important. The confidence in yourself, not how society perceives you or into what grouping or what area society has pocketed you. That's secondary. What bypasses all that is your own confidence in what you feel you are. Because of that attitude, that feeling, people give you credit. They treat you at the level at which you perceive yourself.
But there's still a difference between perception and reality. You may be strong and independent, but if they don't want you to be strong and independent or intelligent and resourceful, then you have a problem. And it's not a problem of perception; it's a problem of power, a problem of reality.
It comes down to proving them wrong, or irrelevant. To convince them that it isn't quite what they perceive or what they think it to be. Of course it's harder. When have men ever got to prove their credentials? Women have always had to prove their worth, that they are credible or whatever. In that way, there's more effort involved as a woman.
They say a female rebirth is not quite at par with a man's. When I think about all the hurdles we have to jump, I can understand. Because they hardly have to do anything. We have to jump, skip and hop all the way.
Visit a wonderful website about Women's Freedom and Spiritual Liberation,
the nuns' tours of North America in 1999 and Europe in 2000:
Tibetan Nuns of Kathmandu
Women and Buddhism
Sakyadhita: The International Association of Buddhist Women
Women Active in Buddhism
For Further ReadingLenore Friedman and Susan Moon (eds.): Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment.
Anne Carolyn Klein: Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self.
Karma Lekshe Tsomo: Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women - A Comparative Analysis of the Chinese Dharmagupta and the Tibetan Mulasar.
hardcover (Special order) | paperback
Janice D. Willis: Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet.