Addressing the Shadow in Buddhist Communities

Addressing the Shadow in Buddhist Communities


Lama Palden, Lama Döndrup, and Annik Brunet attended the Sakyadhita Conference, an international gathering of Buddhist women that was held in the Blue Mountains of Australia this past July. Here, Annik shares the highlights of the conference:

The Sakyadhita conference opened with a deep acknowledgment of Aboriginal culture, highlighting the essential connection between dharma and the wisdom of the ancient inhabitants of the Australian continent. Aunty Beryl Carmichael, an indigenous elder of the Nyampiia people was quoted as saying something the Buddha could have said: “Reality is connectedness. If you are not in connectedness, you are not in reality.” The importance of our relationship with the land and with earlier cultures, as well as the predatory nature of our materialist societies were clearly acknowledged. Bikkhu Sujato, a forest monk, presented a paper on Aboriginal culture. He pointed out that the Aboriginal people “have been custodians of the land for 55,000 years, and we managed to muck it up in just a couple of hundred.”

The majority of women attending the conference were from Asia. There was also a strong Australian presence, and a smaller number of women from Europe, the U.S., and other countries. A few men participated and also delivered significant papers.

The conference courageously addressed, with both discrimination and compassion, the shadow issues in Buddhist communities across all lineages of practice, both East and West, particularly the issue of sexual abuse.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns explicitly exposed abuse occurring in monasteries of the Himalayan region. I had recently visited France, and it was striking to notice the similarity of abusive patterns across these hierarchical religious terrains. During my stay in France, my Catholic friends and family were reeling at the recent revelations of abuse within religious orders. One of the most egregious was that of monks getting nuns pregnant, upon which the nuns—but not the monks—were expelled for having broken their vows of celibacy. The Conference allowed me to hear of the exact same stories happening in an Asian Buddhist context.

Not only did the conference address the question of power differential as it plays itself at the coarsest level of the male/female divide, but it also examined the complexities nested in the notion of gender. Karma Lekshe Tsomo (co-founder of Sakyadhita and a professor at UC San Diego) led a workshop on “Unlearning Sexism.” She explored the fairly recent awareness in our culture of gender as a lived spectrum of potentiality which finds its expression at different levels of embodiment for each one of us. This understanding has been more alive in pre-modern cultures (Indian, Native American, Hawaiian) even if it did not always prevent discrimination.

Doctor Jampa Wurst offered a workshop to members of the LGBTQQI community present at the conference. It provided a safe container, that enabled us to begin to share and investigate our experience in a Buddhist context.

Under the presidency of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Sakyadhita has been a force of change and rejuvenation. In this circle one can feel the impact the emergence of women is having on the assumed boundaries of our world. It is women who are challenging the hierarchical and patriarchal dynamics within Buddhism, as well as examining power differentials among women, such as those based on class and race. The power dimension and its potential appropriation cuts through all of our institutions whether led by males or females.

The Alliance for Buddhist Ethics, initiated by Pema Khandro, Olivier Adam, and Karma Thashi Choedron, proposed guidelines and codes of conduct “to make Vajrayana safe, protect vulnerable people, and sustain the Buddhist teaching in a future of gender equality.”

Roshi Joan Halifax called for a socially-engaged Buddhism that can face the global challenges of our time, urging us to practice a “wise hope” which is born in the spaciousness of radical uncertainty. This wise hope, she says, is steeped in goodness and non-harming, and situates itself beyond the mechanics of ordinary hope and fear: “Sitting with a dying person or a dying planet, we show up. We all know that indifference kills.”

Art was welcomed at the conference in the form of Iwasaki Tsuneo’s work. Iwasaki (1917-2002), was a Japanese artist and research biologist who, in his retirement years, dedicated himself to the visual translation of the Heart Sutra. His paintings, which use the Sutra’s Chinese characters as prima materia, are a deep contemplation of non-duality and connectedness. They are an unequivocal transmission of the emancipating power at the heart of Reality.

In the same vein of heart transmission, Lama Palden led a workshop on Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso’s Tara Terma. On the Bodhisattva path, Tara vowed to awaken in a female body, shattering the traditional concept that one can only attain awakening in a male body. As a female Buddha, Tara is a manifestation of the non-dual expression of the male and female principle. This non-dual energy is prior to all the conceptual labels of male and female born of our confusion and distress.

The social organizations we have been living in for a long time now have prioritized the masculine experience and principle. In the process they have crippled the expression of the feminine principle, which is alive in all sexes and genders. It is a great joy to see the Sakyadhita Conference vigorously questioning and redressing what is fundamentally a perceptual error and a factor of immense suffering.