Nuns in the West II - May, 2005 - Hsi Lai Temple, Hacienda Heights, CA
Buddhist, Catholic and Hindu nuns gather to share their inner life and training.

Nuns in the West Photo Albums

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Nuns in the West II/A Reflective Report - Sr. Jeanne Ranek, OSB

Sister Jeanne Ranek, OSB, member of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue's board of directors and coordinator of Nuns in the West II, provides a reflective report on the gathering of Buddhist, Hindu, and Catholic nuns that took place at the Hsi Lai Chinese Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, May 27—30, 2005.

"It was a dance."
Thus did one participant describe the dialogue experience that occurred at Nuns in the West II. Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, they came and listened and shared. The hope that we could go deeper this time was not disappointed. With trust that respect and openness could be sustained, nuns delved into vulnerable spaces and asked the risky questions that led in some instances to resonance across our vast differences, but often to a quandary or impasse because of those differences.

Sponsored by Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID) and graciously hosted by the Hsi Lai Chinese Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, Nuns in the West II gathered 26 nuns for interreligious dialogue May 27—30, 2005. They were...


Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron – Tibetan Buddhist
Venerable Il Aha – Zoge Order in Korea
Venerable Dr. Karma Lekshe Tsomo – Tibetan Buddhist
Venerable Yi Chao – Chinese Buddhist
Myokyo, Osho – Rinzai Zen Buddhist
Venerable Man Yuan Shih – Chinese Buddhist
Venerable Dr. Karuna Dharma – Vietnamese Zen Buddhist
Venerable Miao Yu – Chinese Buddhist
Venerable Tien Lien – Vietnamese Buddhist
Venerable Miao Zhong – Chinese Buddhist
Venerable Gyalten Thartso – Tibetan Buddhist
Venerable Dr. Yifa – Chinese Buddhist (Host)


Pravrajika Saradeshaprana – Ramakrishna Order


Sister Catherine Cleary – Benedictine, MID Board member
Sister Rosemary Huber – Maryknoll, Advisor to MID Board
Sister Rita Keegan – Maryknoll
Sister Joan Kirby – Religious of the Sacred Heart (UN Temple of Understanding)
Sister Jeanne Knoerle – Sisters of Providence
Sister Virginia Matter – Benedictine, Former MID Board member
Sister Barbara McCracken – Benedictine, MID Board member
Sister Sarah Schwartzberg – Benedictine, MID Board member
Sister Katherine Ann Smolik – Benedictine
Sister Mary White – Benedictine
Sister Bridget Dickason – Benedictine
Sister Malia Dominica Wong – Dominican
Sister Jeanne Ranek – Benedictine, Coordinator and MID Board member

Group Profile

Six Buddhist, one Hindu, and eight Christian nuns had participated in the first Nuns in the West gathering in 2003, and several were participants in other MID-sponsored dialogue events, including the Gethsemani Encounters and the Benedict’s Dharma Conference. Diversity of traditions and religious orders characterized the participants. Five branches of Buddhism, one Hindu order, and five Christian religious orders were represented. Eleven Christians and seven Buddhists had earned graduate degrees. Christian participants were significantly older and represented more years as a nun than their counterparts. At least seven of the non-Christians grew up in a different religious tradition or none; only one of the Christians was reared in a different religious faith.

All the non-Christians wore distinctive garb, whereas only one Christian wore a religious habit. More of the Buddhist and Hindu participants live in monasteries (11 at least part of the time) than Christians (only five). Christians arrived from 19 states, including Hawaii. Buddhist and Hindu participants represented only two states and Canada; most are residing in California at the present time. However, a reverse pattern appeared when looking at countries of origin. All Christians were native to the USA, while among Buddhist and Hindu nuns, countries of origin included China, Taiwan, Canada, Korea, England and the USA.

The Dialogue

Billed as an experience-based reflection, the dialogue did indeed elicit the personal stories of individuals, complete with the joys and struggles of grappling with issues of contemporary monastic life in the West. But the dialogue did not stop there. In the attempt to understand one another and respond to queries, participants tapped into the philosophies, theologies, anthropologies and psychologies within each tradition to attempt to pass over into another’s consciousness in order to understand a different worldview. Often, taken-for-granted concepts failed to negotiate the gulf between us. At times, the group simply embraced an impasse. We learned that we could bond with one another on some mystical level and as friends even as we felt at an impasse because of our disparate worldviews and lack of common concepts.

Recognizing that true dialogue begins with a willingness to enter the consciousness of another religion, the group set out with open minds and hearts to understand and respect the other. Respect was sustained and deepened throughout the weekend of dialogue even when understanding eluded us, leaving eager and willing dialogue partners with a keen awareness of how little we truly understand. As we voiced our hopes at the start of the exchange, many expressed the desire to “go deeper” with our dialogue—not knowing what that would mean. This, indeed, happened. At moments we glimpsed the abyss that divides our worlds and we groped for terms and concepts that both groups could relate to. At other moments, a profound resonance melted barriers. In all cases, an authenticity, a willingness to address the delicate issues of difference, a readiness to learn or to be at an impasse characterized the spirit of the gathering.


The group grappled with a variety of dialogue topics drawn from a précis of our 2003 dialogue and also with topics proposed at the table this year. It would be impossible to convey the full impact of our questing, groping and pondering together. At best, I can only mention topics and point to the substance of our exchange. Indeed, it is the process itself more than the content that achieves the goals of dialogue; this was our experience at Nuns in the West II.

Among the topics addressed were the following:

Meditation Practice: The centrality in monastic life of a meditation practice was a bond across traditions. We spoke of the role of meditation in our lives and its impact/fruit over time, e.g., equanimity. Different meanings associated with the term “meditation” in the East and West were acknowledged, i.e. “meditation” in the West usually refers to a discursive form of prayer whereas in the East it refers to what Christians mean by “contemplation. ”

Mindfulness: Some of us were surprised to discover that we do not mean exactly the same thing when we speak of mindfulness practice; however, we did seem to connect with the phrase “being awake at all times” or “inner connectedness. ”

Dialogue as a way to world peace: So much of the work of all traditions represented seems to be oriented toward peace within persons, groups and our world. While we all value and desire peace, we encountered widely disparate notions about the role of religions in modifying social structures or engaging in political action on behalf of the underprivileged, and we groped for a common vocabulary and concepts available in both traditions. For example, one Buddhist said that “justice” is not a Buddhist concept, and the term “prophetic” is also foreign to Buddhism. Work for justice tends to be perceived by Eastern traditions as an attempt to perfect the world and achieve rights. Hindu and Buddhists emphasize instead non-violent and non-political ways of helping people live peacefully in the flawed world rather than changing those structures. Mother Teresa was cited as an example of ministering to people within a flawed social system, making little or no effort to change the structures that cause the suffering. We agreed that a purification of the heart and clarity about social issues is gained from the practice of contemplation/ meditation.

Balance between Contemplative Practice and Compassionate Service: All recognize the tension in this area. Rather than complaining about the stress, we focused on criteria for decision-making in this area.

Authority: This topic warrants a good deal more attention and might be a good focus for another gathering. Questions centered on practices as well as structures. How can we have healthy relationships in the area of authority? How do monastic norms and cultural expectations conflict or support each other? What is the impact on monastics of changing cultural norms in the West, especially for women?

Other Questions and Observations

What do Christians understand about cyclic existence?
What does each dialogue partner mean by the term “non-dual”?
What do Buddhists mean by the term “Ultimate Truth”?
What is the experience of the illuminated person? Does she experience emotions?
Is there a relationship between the Buddhist bond with all sentient beings and the Christian concepts of Mystical Body or cosmic oneness?


Formal dialogue was complemented by informal evenings and opportunities to share the rituals and chants of various traditions. As guests of the Hsi Lai Temple, we were present at 6:30 a.m. chants in the main shrine and also viewed a DVD of an international Buddhist chanting concert. This was complemented by listening to samples of Christian Gregorian Chant, Orthodox chant, and Hindu chant, noting the evocative and integrative character of chanting and its universal presence in world religions. Rituals from our three traditions—Christian (Compline), Hindu (evening arati), and Buddhist (guided meditation)—closed our informal evening dialogue times, Father James Fredericks joined us in the Temple Pagoda late Saturday afternoon to preside at a Catholic Mass at which Christians extended the kiss of peace to their Buddhist and Hindu sisters. We came away with minds stretched and hearts enlarged.

Our Story

At the conclusion of our gathering, we attempted to tell our story, the story of Nuns in the West gathered in dialogue. First of all, we have become friends, and meeting as women bonded us in a special way. We challenged ourselves to “go deeper, ” and we allowed ourselves to be stretched by different worldviews and perspectives. We found a comfort level in our willingness to grope with core issues. We were unafraid to surface differences, and when understanding did not come, we honored one another as we stood together at an impasse. We experienced great respect, even awe, before each other. We found the inner life of contemplation to be a wonderful common denominator amidst such vast differences. We learned that in many ways we are so much alike, and that we have yet so much to learn about and from one another. And finally, we agreed that it is the process, the experience of dialoguing with one another, that is most important and fruitful.


Friday, May 27

6:00 p.m. Dinner
7:30 p.m. Welcome by Ven. Yifa, host, and S. Jeanne Ranek, coordinator
Introductions and Informal Dialogue
Christian Ritual: Compline (Led by S. Virginia Matter)

Saturday, May 28

6:30 a.m. Chants in Main Shrine
7:00 a.m. Breakfast
9:00 a.m. Dialogue Session
11:30 a.m. Lunch
1:00 p.m. Group Photo (Rev. Kusala Bhikshu, photographer)
1:30 p.m. Dialogue Session at Temple
3:15 p.m. Break
3:45 p.m. Dialogue Session at Temple
4:45 p.m. Catholic Mass in Pagoda (Rev. James Fredericks, presider)
6:00 p.m.Dinner
7:30 p.m. View Buddhist Chanting Concert on DVD
Listen to Samples of Chant: Christian Gregorian Chant, Orthodox Chant, and Hindu Chant
Hindu Ritual (Led by Saradeshaprana)

Sunday, May 29

6:30 a.m. Chants in Main Shrine
7:00 a.m. Breakfast
9:00 a.m. Dialogue Session at Temple
11:30 a.m. Lunch
1:30 p.m. Dialogue Session at Temple
3:15 p.m. Break
3:45 p.m. Dialogue Session at Temple
4:45 p.m. Meditation/Contemplative Sitting [Led by S. Mary White]
6:00 p.m. Dinner
6:30 p.m. Youth Symphony Orchestra Performance in Temple Courtyard [Optional]
7:30 p.m. Informal Dialogue and Closure Buddhist Guided Meditation (Led by Ven. Thubten Chodron)

Monday, May 30

Breakfast and Departure

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A Reflection on Nuns in the West II
- by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron

Bhikshuni Tubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey, offers a Buddhist perspective on Nuns in the West II.

In 2002, I had the good fortune to attend Gethsemani II, a Catholic-Buddhist monastic dialogue at Gethsemani, Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. We nuns wanted more time to discuss amongst ourselves, so the Catholic Monastic Interreligious Dialogue organized Nuns of the West. We met over Memorial Day weekend in 2003 at Hsi Lai Temple, near Los Angles. The dialogue was so rich that we were eager to continue, and thus Nuns of the West II was again organized by MID and hosted by Hsi Lai Temple, May 27-30, 2005.

Most of the twenty-five nuns in attendance had participated in our first gathering, but the group was enriched by the participation of several newcomers. The Catholic sisters comprised both monastic sisters (whose lives were organized around the daily Office) and apostolic sisters (who were more involved in social welfare projects). The Buddhist nuns were from the Tibetan, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean traditions; one Hindu nun was also present.

In our initial go-around, we articulated the wish for our dialogue to go deeper now that we knew each other better, although none of us knew what direction that depth would take. We agreed that understanding and tolerance, not consensus, are goals of dialogue. Dialogue helps us to stretch our boundaries; it also enriches both our belief system and our spiritual practice. Furthermore, our contemplative practice enables as well as seeks dialogue.

Several of the nuns said that our meeting and sharing together was important in this world where people are once again dividing into political groups along religious lines and killing each other in the name of religion. The power of women of different faiths meeting together and sharing in harmony cannot be understated. Although we alone cannot cure the world’s ills, we can give an example of hope to others, and our gathering is a contribution to world peace. With this in mind, we plunged into discussions with the whole group seated around an oblong table. Later we broke into smaller groups, which enabled us to connect even more.

The topics were fascinating. For example, we discussed God and non-duality (leave it to us nuns to jump into the midst of things!); the role of study, prayer, contemplation, and meditation; types of meditation; the benefit of a monastic way of life to society as a whole; the role of authority in spiritual practice and in communities; the meaning of commitment to a spiritual path. We shared rituals, chanting, and music from our own traditions, as well as laughter and humor.

Seeing the similarities as well as differences in our philosophies and practices enriched us. One dialogue I found particularly interesting was the topic of justice. I’d never heard any mention of this word during my many years of Buddhist study and was personally confounded by the multiple meanings it seems to have today. Politicians take “justice” to mean punishment and sometime use the word as a euphemism for revenge and aggression. The Catholic nuns, on the other hand, use the word very differently: to them it indicates action that remedies poverty, human rights abuse, racism, and other inequalities. As Buddhists, we support these latter aims, but we would use the term “compassionate action” to describe our efforts to improve the world and the lives of the individuals in it.

This led us into a discussion of our world view. Is the world a place that can be made perfect? Or is it flawed by nature? What constitutes benefiting others? Is it giving others food, shelter, clothing, medical supplies? Is it changing societal, political, and economic structures that perpetrate exploitation and violence? Is it freeing ourselves from ignorance, attachment, and hostility so that we can lead others to that same freedom? Are all these ways equally necessary and valuable? If so, how do we decide where to put our energy? If not, it is suitable to express disappointment at the “limited” ways that others help society? Personally speaking, I believe this issue speaks about the variety of dispositions that the Buddha so often commented upon. Each of us has our own talents and ways of giving and benefiting. All of these are valuable and all are necessary. Some people excel in changing societal structures; others are more effective in helping individuals in a personal way. Some help by their prayers and their example of ethical discipline, others by teaching and guiding others. Mutual respect and appreciation for the diversity in how we contribute to the welfare of others is as important as honoring the diversity in our religious beliefs and ways of practice.

I was also fascinated by our discussion on the prophetic roles of monastics. “Prophetic” is another word not found in Buddhism, and its Old Testament usage, with which I was familiar, didn’t seem to fit what the Catholic sisters meant. They used it to indicate the conscience of society: those who were not invested in society’s norms could point out injustice and degenerated practices. They would speak out to encourage others to correct their misguided ways.

The Buddha certainly gave counsel to kings, ministers, and society at large, but more often this took the form of articulating general guiding principles instead of addressing specific instances of injustice. It seems to me that the countercultural role of a prophetic voice could function in several ways. One would be through living a monastic lifestyle of simplicity, which, by example, challenges society’s addiction to consumerism and materialism. Another would be through actively teaching good values and principles to others in churches, temples, and Dharma centers. A third would be those who address the public or who speak to the media regarding specific issues and events occurring at this time. This topic, however, requires much more discussion as does the topic of justice and compassionate action. My hope is that this MID will continue to organize these gatherings, and that Hsi Lai Temple or other monasteries will continue to host them so that this will occur.

As a Buddhist nun who is embarking on the great adventure of founding an abbey in the West, I deeply appreciate the support of these nuns—both Buddhist and Catholic, Western and Asian. Some of them have visited our fledging abbey, others will in the future (More than one Catholic sister asked about doing retreat at Sravasti Abbey). They have years of experience to share and a mind that rejoices at what is wholesome in the world. Beyond dialogue, genuine friendships amongst us are growing.

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Inspiration from Enlightened Nuns - by Susan Elbaum Jootla

This essay explores the poems composed by the 'Enlightened Buddhist' nuns of old, looking at these poems as springs of inspiration for contemporary Buddhists.

The verses of the nuns, if systematically examined, can help serious Buddhist meditators to understand many central aspects of the Dhamma. The background to the verses, including biographical information on the nuns who uttered them, is provided by the ancient commentary on the Therigatha by the venerable Acariya Dhammapala. Mrs. Rhys Davids has included some of these background stories in Psalms of the Early Buddhists, and in the first part of this essay we will look at these stories and consider the themes they suggest that are relevant to contemporary students of Buddhist meditation. Then we will go on to discuss a selection of the poems themselves, which deal with many specific teachings of the Buddha.

We of the twenty-first century who are seeking to attain liberation will find ourselves deeply grateful to these fully awakened Buddhist nuns of old for their profound assistance in illuminating the Dhamma for us in their own distinctly personal ways.