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
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.
- The full Getsulma vow of ordination, involving 36 monastic rules.
- 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
President, Gotami Vihara Society, Malaysia
- Ven Konchog Norbu, 104 Years of Practice, 2013
- Ven Konchog Norbu, Amaa, June, 2008
- Ven Konchog Norbu, Amaa II, June, 2008
- Ven Konchog Norbu, Not the Comfy Chair!, October, 2008
- Ven Konchog Norbu, Chanting Down Babylon, October, 2008
- Mongolian Buddhists Protecting Nature Handbook
- Emily D. Porter, Mandala: Buddhism in Our Time, March 2001, page 16. mandalamagazine.org.
- Ven Konchog Norbu’s blog Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa