Archive | February 2015

Mongolia – Ven Amaa (1905-2010): Courage and Resilience in Spiritual Practice in Challenging Conditions

by Barbara Yen

This article is written by Barbara Yen in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

Mongolia – Ven Amaa (1905-2010): Courage and Resilience in Spiritual Practice in Challenging Conditions

Introduction

VenAmaaAfter nearly seventy years of Communist rule and destruction, monasteries and nunneries face not only the difficulties of recovering Buddhism but also to establish space to practice.

Traditionally in Mongolia, there was no indication of educating women in the Dharma or offered the possibility of ordination to them, as opposition arose when such ordination was introduced. Hence, before 1990, women were rarely ordained in Mongolia.

There are two types of Buddhist vows available for women in Mongolia.

  1. The full Getsulma vow of ordination, involving 36 monastic rules.
  2. The Genenma lay vows (Five Precepts), promising not to kill, steal, lie, not to commit any sexual misconduct and not to take intoxicants. These vows are taken by many Buddhists, both male and female in Mongolia.

Women who have taken the Genenma vows visit the nunnery during the day but return to their homes at night. They are allowed to marry and when they have children they leave the nunnery for one year to look after the child. They generally wear red or occasionally yellow deels (the traditional dress of Mongolia) rather than the Buddhist robes. They do not shave their heads.

Novice ordination for nuns (Getsulma) was offered for the first time in Mongolia’s history in 1993 by Bakula Rinpoche. Today, these nuns are the first generation of ordained female Buddhist practitioners.

Support from the Bhikkhus
Fortunately there were visiting teachers like Bakula Rinpoche and Lama Zopa Rinpoche who offered desperately needed teachings to the monks and nuns and lay people.

Presently, nunneries in Mongolia, for instance Dechen Ling Monastery in Ulaanbaatar, which was initiated by Ven Bakula Rinpoche, consists of two small gers. The twenty-one handmas (nuns) there had to take turns to live in the nunnery or conduct pujas and other practices like meditation, as all could not fit into one yurt. The rest must return to their family homes each night. In Mongolia, handmas are mostly lay women.

Lama Zopa has agreed to guide the handmas of Dechen Ling and has encouraged them to take novice ordination. Rinpoche also has plans for a new nunnery in Mongolia. In the meantime, Ven. Gyatso from the new FPMT center in Mongolia will teach courses to the handmas there.

There were also opportunities for education for the nuns including studying abroad in Dharamasala, India and in Korea.

During the 10th Sakyadhita Conference in 2010, we visited one of the nunneries. A Rinpoche there declared to us, “We need both the monks and nuns to make Buddhism grow in Mongolia. Otherwise, it is like trying to fly an airplane with only one wing.”

VenAmaa6Family History

At the beginning of the twentieth century, when Ven Amaa was born, there were more than 1,000 monastic complexes sprawled across Mongolia’s deserts, steppes and forests. In Khenti Province alone, where Ven Amaa was born and which was also the birthplace of Chenghis Khan, it was a great stronghold of the Buddha dharma for centuries.

The Mongolian Monastery Documentation Project counted no fewer than 101 Buddhist institutions that flourished there prior to the Stalinist purges. It also seemed a particularly strong place of women’s spirituality, with many deeply respected female meditation masters.

Spiritual Development
Her father and grandfather were accomplished lamas. As a child, she began learning prayers and chanting especially on Arya Tara and Shakyamuni Buddha.

Ven Amaa was later introduced to the ancient tantric traditions of Ven Padmasambhava and was also inspired by one of the greatest practitioners in Padmasambhava’s lineage, Ven Danzan Ravjaa (1803–1856), the famed mahasiddha from the eastern Gobi Desert. She was drawn to his way of practicing chöd, the rituals and visualizations for directly cutting through ego attachment called lujing, Tibetan for “offering the body,” The chöd later became her central practice.

During Stalin’s communist regime, particularly during the years 1937–1939, Buddhists were persecuted and many Lamas were killed, sent to Siberia or disrobed. Nearly all the monasteries were looted and demolished. Religious practice of any kind was illegal and lay meditators had scattered.

During this period, Ven Amaa, with a small group of yogis, lead by a Tibetan master, Lama Zundui, was still able to learn and practice meditation and chöd intensively and secretly for two years with great courage, perseverance and resilience. At age sixteen, she was the youngest member there.

They practiced in caves and cemeteries, hiding in the cover of darkness and dressed in lay clothing. They had escaped detection due to the vastness and mountainous regions of the country and sparse population.
Unfortunately, they were later discovered by the Communist and were forced to flee. Some were caught, while Lama Zundui, Ven Amaa and others escaped. Lama Zundui and another of her teachers, Ven Artiin Mergen Pandita, who could make themselves invisible, escaped arrests on several occasions.

Accomplishment

Inspiring the next generation of nuns. With Ven Ani Kunze, a leader of the Mongolian Buddhist women paying her respects and receiving her blessing

Inspiring the next generation of nuns. With Ven Ani Kunze, a leader of the Mongolian Buddhist women paying her respects and receiving her blessing

She was renowned as the only person in Mongolia’s three eastern provinces who could do the complete and proper chanting and ceremonies for those who passed away, based on the text by Ven Padmasambhava, now popularly known as ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’.

Her Home was her Temple

Although devotees visited Ven Amaa daily, at all hours of the day or night to ask for advice, prayers and blessings, she did not have a sacred space of her own. She received them on the carpeted floor in her family ger, greeting everyone with the same loving, toothless smile. On auspicious days, she and her disciples would chant in a nearby temple.

VenAmaa3

Ven Amaa’s own ger. Posing with her is Batbaatar, who sponsored it’s cost.

 

In 2008, at the age of 104, Ven Amaa finally had her own ger, which became a meditation and chanting shrine. It was sponsored by an American male devotee, Batbaatar who had never met her before.

Ven Amaa, a revered 104-year-old Buddhist master at the 10th Sakyadhita Conference, Mongolia, 2008

Ven Amaa, a revered 104-year-old Buddhist master at the 10th Sakyadhita Conference, Mongolia, 2008

In 2008, Ven Amaa travelled 200 miles to Ulaanbaatar to attend the 10th Sakyadhita Conference. At the Opening ceremony, we stood up in an ovation when she walked up the stage, aided with a walking stick, to welcome us. She was overwhelmed to see several hundred Buddhist women and men of different nationalities and traditions, speaking different languages coming together to speak with one heart. She reflected, ”I met people from all over the world. I saw that Buddhism was being practiced in so many languages. The language isn’t so important, it’s the meaning…. that is important.” She declared to the crowd, “I have been waiting for this moment my whole life.”

Fortunately, on the recommendation of Venerable Konchog Norbu, Ven Amaa was interviewed for the Mongolian Buddhist Monasteries Documentation Project.

Ven Amaa passed away in 2010, nearly 106 of age, one of the last of a generation and culture never to be seen again.

Konchog Norbu is an American Buddhist monk who served as director for the Mongolian Buddhist Revival Project from 2005–2009. From Shambhala SunSpace. Posted by Sakyadhita Blog on Nov 11, 2013

Konchog Norbu is an American Buddhist monk who served as director for the Mongolian Buddhist Revival Project from 2005–2009. From Shambhala SunSpace. Posted by Sakyadhita Blog on Nov 11, 2013

 Conclusion

For the first time in centuries, Sakyadhita International Conferences are uniting and empowering women like Ven Amaa across traditions and cultures. Women are coming together to enrich each other’s lives and spiritual practices, and returning home to build local networks that will continue to strengthen the traditions and practices of women at the grassroots level all over the world.

Written by

Barbara Yen

President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia

 

References:

  1. Ven Konchog Norbu, 104 Years of Practice, 2013
  2. Ven Konchog Norbu, Amaa, June, 2008
  3. Ven Konchog Norbu, Amaa II, June, 2008
  4. Ven Konchog Norbu, Not the Comfy Chair!, October, 2008
  5. Ven Konchog Norbu, Chanting Down Babylon, October, 2008
  6. Mongolian Buddhists Protecting Nature Handbook
  7. Emily D. Porter, Mandala: Buddhism in Our Time, March 2001, page 16. mandalamagazine.org.
  8. http://vq.vassar.edu/issues/2002/01/online-additions/nuns-mongolia.html#sthash.XtgrnHNV.dpuf
  9. Ven Konchog Norbu’s blog Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa

 

 

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Taiwan – Dharma Master Cheng Yen, (1937- ): Buddhism Beyond Borders: Engaged Buddhism – Compassion in Action

by Hooi Yoon Chun

This article is written by Hooi Yoon Chun in conjunction with 2014 International Bhikkhuni Day Celebration at Gotami Vihara Society Malaysia Honouring Eminent Asian Buddhist Women in the Modern Era.

TaiwanDharma Master Cheng Yen, (1937- ): Buddhism Beyond Borders: Engaged Buddhism –  Compassion in Action

VenChengYanContact with Buddhism
Master Cheng Yen, who leads the world renowned Disaster Relief organistion Tzu Chi, was born in 1937 in Taiwan. She was raised by her aunt and uncle. She had first hand experience of suffering, witnessing the devastating effects of war, which taught her the truth behind the concept of impermanence and suffering. She also looked after her sick brother in a hospital for eight months.

At the age of 23, her father died suddenly from brain hemorrhage. It was in searching for a burial place for him that Master Cheng Yen first came into contact with Buddhist philosophy and made her to aspire to be a nun.

She traveled around eastern Taiwan with a nun but without being ordained. After 2 years, she registered for ordination in Lin Chi Temple but was turned down as a nun must be the disciple of a master for two years before ordination.

Fortunately, she encountered Venerable Master Yin-shun, who accepted her request, just an hour before registration closed! She then went to Hualien County to continue her spiritual practice, which was mainly reciting and copying Sutra. It was during her six months there that she vowed to commit herself to the Lotus Sutra and the “Path of the Bodhisattvas.” It was also the Sutra of Immeasurable Righteousness, dealing with human problems, weather, psychiatric, psychological and spiritual issues, that influenced her outlook.

Founding of Tzu Chi
There were two watershed events that inspired Master Cheng Yen to take the power of Buddhism to help people in the world. The first was at a discussion in 1966 with three Catholic nuns who pointed out that Buddhists had not helped society, unlike the Church, in building schools and hospitals. Those words made Master realise that Buddhism had to do more than simply encouraging private cultivation.

Tzu-Chi-logoThe other event occurred in the same year while visiting a hospital in Fenglin. She saw blood on the hospital floor and learned that an aboriginal woman suffered a miscarriage but was not attended to without paying a deposit. These events led Master to establish the Tzu Chi Foundation in April 1966 and its first Hospital in Hualien in 1986.

Initially, she encouraged her 5 disciples to make baby shoes and thirty followers to save fifty cents from their grocery money every day into little savings banks made from bamboo. Master encouraged the daily “giving” practice which would help develop the virtue of generosity. Just as the Buddha was guided by a noble desire to help others, she inspired her followers to listen to those who were sad or help those in pain.

Tzu Chi’s beginnings were humble. In the first year, 15 families were helped by 30 followers. Unlike most Buddhist orders, Tzu Chi nuns do not take donations for themselves. They worked for their food by farming, weaving gloves, making diapers, shoes and electrical circuit breakers.

Medical Mission
By 1970, Master realized the link between poverty and illness after spending six years among the poor of eastern Taiwan and resolved to tackle the problem. Tzu Chi’s first medical outreach free clinic in 1972 opened in Hualien, with more than 140,000 consultations done so far.

Plans to build a 600-bed general hospital were developed in 1979 to provide service to the undeserved eastern Taiwan. Despite initial setbacks both in funding for the hospital and finding an acceptable site, construction was completed and the hospital opened on 17 August 1986. Tzu Chi has since built 6 hospitals in different parts of the island.

In order to address the shortage of nurses, and expand the medical mission, the Tzu Chi College of Nursing was built in September 1989 in Hualien. It was the first private nursing college in Taiwan to waive tuition for selected courses. Students not only learn the technical skills of nursing, they were also imbued with the spirit of compassion and humanitarian outlook.

In 1992, a bone marrow registry was started and Is now a division of the new Tzu Chi Stem Cells Center. By August 2005, Tzu Chi had registered more than 274,000 marrow donors and matched almost 1000 recipients with compatible donors around the world.

Master established the Tzu Chi College of Medicine in 1994, which became a University in 2000. She also appealed to Taiwanese people to donate their bodies for medical training which resulted in one body for every four students to study. The Athletic Drug Testing Center was established in 1996 when gold medal winners were tested for banned drugs.

International Relief Work
Relief work in China, the first major work, began in 1991 when devastating floods hit central and eastern China. Despite the political situation, Tzu Chi was able to open up avenues to assist Chinese people in desperate need. It was difficult to convince Taiwanese to help the Chinese in China, whose government officials were wary of accepting Tzu Chi.

Tzu Chi volunteers are not to discuss business, politics, or religion while giving aid. Master’s philosophy is that both parties, those receiving assistance and those delivering the aid, are rewarded, one materially and the other spiritually.

Master Cheng Yen has directed Tzu Chi to conduct relief work in various disasters like typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis in countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami, Pakistan earthquake in 2005, in Mongolia, Ethiopia, Nepal, Thailand, Rwanda, Cambodia, North Korea, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Vietnam, the United States, Brazil, Argentina and numerous other countries including Taiwan.

Help was rendered in the form of immediate relief assistance like prepared meals, drinking water, financial assistance, and rebuilding homes and schools. This relief work has earned the reputation of being the first to arrive and the last to leave.

Da Ai Television
Da Ai TVMaster Cheng Yen launched ‘Da Ai Satellite Television’ which is a 24-hour, commercial-free status television station on 1 January 1998. It is partially funded by a nationwide recycling effort She encourages vegetarianism to improve the carbon footprint further.

Da Ai features non-political news, generally free of negativity and violence, teaching lectures and serial programs designed to extol the virtues of living a good life, often profiling people who made major changes in their life for the better. She broadcasts inspirational teachings every week-day in the programme “Morning at Dawn”, a 25-minute address and a twelve-minute address in the evening.

Master rises early in the morning and often receives visitors and actively oversees the many projects throughout Taiwan by making monthly trips around the country. She also monitors the action of the various centres in 47 countries throughout the world. Master is really a person who practices what she preaches.

.
Cheng Yen Award

Recognition

Master was recognised internationally with some of these awards:

1986: Received the ‘Huashia Medal of the First Order,’ Taiwan
1991: ‘Ramon Magsaysay Award,’ Philippines for Community Leadership
1994: ‘Eisenhower Medallion’ by the People to People International.(PTPI Founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower)
1995: ‘Executive Yuan (Cabinet) Cultural Award,’ Taiwan
1996: ‘Interior Ministry’s First Class Honorary Award,’ Taiwan
1996: ‘Foreign Affairs Medal of the First Order,’ Taiwan
1996: ‘Huaguang Award of the First Order,’ Taiwan
1998: ‘International Human Rights Award,’ the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO)
2000: ‘Noel Foundation Life Award’
2001: ‘Presidential Culture Award,’ Taiwan
2001: ‘National Medal of the Second Order’ from the President of El Salvador
2001: Conferred ‘Honorary Doctorate in Social Science,’ Hong Kong University
2001: One of 26 ‘Heroes from Around the World’ and featured on the ‘Wall of Honor’ in Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum
2002: ‘Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award,’ World Buddhist University, Thailand
2002: ‘Honorary Doctorate Degree in Socio-Cultural Studies,’ National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan
2003: ‘Presidential Second Order of the Brilliant Star Award,’ Taiwan
2004: ‘2004 Asian American Heritage Award for Humanitarian Service,’ Asian American Federation of California (AAFC)
2007: ‘24th Niwano Peace Prize for Humanitarian Service,’ Niwano Peace Foundation, Japan
2008: ‘WFB Merit Medal,’ from World Fellowship of Buddhists
2011: ‘Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humanities,’ University of the East, Manila, Philippines
2011: named by the Times, New York as ‘One of World’s 100 Most Influential People’
2014: nominated for Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Harald zur Hausen, director of the German Cancer Research Center who was one of the former prize winners

Written by
Hooi Yoon Chun
Honorary Treasurer
Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia