I am very happy to say that one of the nuns who has been involved in our Support Network from the beginning has just been named as a recipient of an Outstanding Woman in Buddhism Award. Here is a full report by Ven. Karma Tashi Choedron, and we all say a big sādhu to our friend Venerable Tenzin Dadon (Sonam Wangmo) on this memorable occasion.
A Bhutanese nun was among thirteen women who received the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards on 2 March 2012 at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. Venerable Tenzin Dadon (Sonam Wangmo), 34 from Zhemgang, Bhutan received the award for her contribution to Vajrayana Buddhism, especially Buddhist women in the Himalayan region. Also honoured at this year’s awards ceremony was the Prime Minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, renowned Buddhist scholar and activist Prof. Dr. Hema Gunatilake from Sri Lanka and Buddhist nuns and laywomen from Austria, Taiwan, Thailand, and Switzerland.
Venerable Tenzin, who holds a Master of Arts (M.A) degree in Buddhist Studies from Delhi University, India, has long been an advocate of Buddhist women’s issues, especially among female monastics in the Himalayan region. Born in Trashigang, Eastern Bhutan in 1977, Venerable Tenzin grew up in the capital city, Thimphu where she completed her high school education. She became a novice nun in 1993 at the age of 16 and received her sramaneri (Tib. Getsulma) ordination from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India in 1999. She left her home country to pursue a systematic monastic education which was and to a large extent, still not available to nuns in Bhutan. Venerable spent 13 years at Jamyang Choling Institute of Buddhist Dialectics (a non-sectarian nunnery institute) in Gharoh, Lower Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India learning Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan language and literature.
“Very few women from my home country,” Venerable Tenzin says, “and all over the Himalayan range, e.g. Nepal, Ladakh, Zanskar, Spiti, Kinnaur, Lahaul, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Uttaranchal in India have the opportunity to pursue monastic studies and even basic education. Many women are still illiterate and entrenched in poverty. Even if they can become nuns, many do not have the opportunity to study Buddhist philosophy. Most nuns in the Himalayas only conduct ritual practices but are unable to understand the meaning of the scriptures. Many are so poor and do not have even basic necessities such as shelter, proper robes and decent food to eat. In these conditions, it is very difficult to even survive, much less practice the dharma.”
Venerable Tenzin humbly attributes her accomplishment to all the people in her life, saying, “My being able to receive this award is a result of prayers and support from my family, especially my parents, teachers, fellow nuns and kind benefactors who have helped me throughout my life; to educate and empower me to a level whereby I am able to help my sisters in the Himalayas and to help spread the Buddha dharma.”
Venerable is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Gender and Religion at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, focusing her thesis on nuns in Bhutan with the aim of improving the status and living conditions of nuns in her native country. She has written several articles, aimed at invoking policy changes in terms of achieving equal access to monastic education and overall improvement of living conditions for nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist (Vajrayana) tradition. She also teaches the Tibetan language to Vajrayana Buddhist practitioners in Malaysia.
The Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards, held in conjunction with the United Nations’ International Women’s Day, are held annually to recognise the accomplishments and celebrate the acts of courage and determination of Buddhist women across the globe in promoting positive social changes, e.g. propagating the Buddha dharma, carrying out social work, peace activism, community development and spiritual practice. The award recipients are selected by a panel of Buddhist scholars and practitioners and supported by the International Women’s Meditation Center Foundation. The awards are the brainchild of two Buddhist nuns, Thai Bhikkhuni Rattanavali and American Bhikkhuni Dr. Lee, who wanted to develop an award in honor of Buddhist women’s accomplishments on the United Nations’ International Women’s Day, which falls on 8 March each year. Subsequently, they established the Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards Organisation which began conferring awards to worthy recipients since 2002.
In 2006, HRH Princess Dechen Wangmo Wangchuck of Bhutan received the same award for her contribution towards religious education and the needy in Bhutan. Other notable past award recipients include Princess Norodom Morinen of Cambodia (2006), Bhikshuni Dharma Master Cheng Yen, founder of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, Taiwan (2002): and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar (2005).
Other Vajrayana Buddhist practitioners who received the award in the past are Bhikshuni Thubten Chödron from the USA (2002), Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo, (USA, 2004), Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen, Germany (2007), Bhikshuni Pema Chodron (USA, 2008), Rinchen Khando Choegyal, India (2009), Lama Tsultrim Allione (US, 2009), Dr. Krisadawan Hongladarom, Thailand (2009), Sramaneri Dr. Tashi Choedron, Malaysia (2010) and Sabine-Hayoz-Kalff, Switzerland (2012).
Upon completion of her doctoral degree, Venerable Tenzin hopes to establish a practice centre for displaced and often forgotten nuns in Bhutan—to provide them with a decent living place and the opportunity to propagate the dharma, with the ultimate aim of transcending traditional barriers to monastic education and spiritual progress of Bhutanese women.
Here is a video of the Award Ceremony, which took place at Chulalongkorn University.