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Female Buddhas: A Revolution for Nuns in the Plum Village Tradition

Women, including nuns, have long played an important role in supporting and affirming Thich Nhat Hanh’s (Thay’s) vision for a renewed, engaged form of Buddhism. 

Much of what Thay accomplished as a Zen teacher, social activist, and emissary to the West was possible because he had the support and trust of people like Sister Chan Khong, who was at his side nearly from the beginning of his public teaching life. In fact, the first three disciples ordained by Thay were nuns: Sister Chan Khong, Sister Chan Duc and Sister Chan Vị. Today, more than half of all International Plum Village monastic practitioners are women.

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This mutual respect and deep understanding of the nature of interbeing led, in 2005, to a remarkable (by traditional standards) gesture by Thay that set a new standard for equity within his monastic community. 

That year, Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and a large delegation of monastics and lay practitioners traveled to Vietnam for the first time following Thay’s thirty-nine years in exile. During the Lunar New Year celebration, Thay stood up in the first row with many venerable monks, while the nuns sat still with joined palms. One monk read aloud a text recognizing the presence of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, in every nun, and declaring the vow to practice their precepts properly to protect themselves and the nuns.

To the great surprise of Venerable monks at Thay’s side, Thay then prostrated three times in front of the nuns. It would never have occurred to these monks to show such a sign of reverence to nuns, but they followed Thay’s example. Although this was standard practice in International Plum Village monasteries, prostrating before nuns was an incredibly powerful, humbling, and transformational moment for the monastic tradition in Vietnam.

Nuns at Plum Village Monastery receiving their Bhikshuni precepts

Before his passing earlier this year, Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and many other International Plum Village monastics made many other revolutionary changes for nuns in the International Plum Village Tradition, granting them status, voice, and influence equal to that of monks. Some of these major changes include:

  • While in many Buddhist communities nuns cannot be fully ordained, International Plum Village nuns are ordained to the same level as their monastic brothers.
  • All responsibilities are shared by International Plum Village monks and nuns, both within and outside the monasteries. Monks and nuns are equally responsible for teaching, planning, cooking, cleaning, finances, etc.
  • In monastery decision-making, nuns’ and monks’ views are equally valued through a democratic Sanghakarman procedure.
  • In traditional Buddhist communities, the oldest nun is positioned behind the youngest monk in sitting and walking meditation, in ceremonies and in processions. At International Plum Village monasteries, nuns and monks sit, walk, and touch the earth (prostrate) side by side.
  • In traditional Buddhist communities, only monks gave Dharma talks, and they very rarely addressed nuns or women. At International Plum Village monasteries, nuns and monks alternate giving Dharma talks, and all talks are addressed to the whole community. When monastics do not yet have enough experience to teach alone, they teach in groups with equal numbers of nuns and monks. 
  • Thay’s teachings are inclusive. His teachings and practices for monastics are intended equally for monks and nuns, just as his Dharma talks, books and practices offered to lay people are for everyone. Thay was also mindful to interchangeably use “he,” “she,” and the neutral and non-binary “the person,” and “they” in his speaking and writing.
  • While most traditions do not have monks and nuns practice together, in International Plum Village monasteries monks and nuns regularly practice, learn, work, and play together. This arrangement encourages monastics to see one another as brothers and sisters of one same family, reduces fantasy and wrong perceptions that may be created through distance, and helps monastics deal with sexual energy directly rather than avoiding or suppressing it.
  • In the practice of Touching the Earth, through which we pay respects to ancestors and elders, Thay incorporated several venerable female figures: Mahagotami, the first ordained bhikshuni, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, and Mother Earth.
  • Thay’s teachings, ceremonies, and calligraphy center around Mother Earth, recognizing her as a bodhisattva and emphasizing the Buddha nature and teacher are contained within her.
  • Thay created 8 “Gurudharmas” or “Practices of Respect” for monks, a parallel to a set of guidelines created by the Buddha on how nuns should interact with monks. [The 8 Gurudharmas for monks can be accessed through the Mindfulness Bell here (page 19).]
  • For the first time since the time of the Buddha, Thay helped to revise the Pratimoksha, the monastic codes of conduct for fully ordained monks and nuns.
  • Traditionally, nuns and lay friends are not allowed to read the Bhikshu precepts of the fully ordained monks. In International Plum Village monasteries, Thay made the Bhikshu and Bhikshuni precepts available to the public.
  • According to the traditional Pratimoksha (monastic precepts), a monk may disrobe seven times. If a fully ordained nun disrobes, she can only return as a novice and cannot again receive full ordination. In the International Plum Village tradition, Thay has allowed nuns to re-ordain as Bhikshunis.

Finally, a growing number of Dharma books being published by Parallax Press are written or co-written by nuns in the Plum Village community, including Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, written by Thay and coauthored by Sister Chan Khong and Sister True Dedication;  Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War and Beginning Anew: Four Steps to Restoring Communication, by Sister Chan Khong; Flowers in the Dark: Reclaiming Your Power to Heal Trauma through Mindfulness, Mindfulness as Medicine: A Story of Healing Body and Spirit, and Healing: A Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun, by Sister Dang Nghiem; and Mindfulness: Walking with Jesus and Buddha and True Virtue: The Journey of an English Buddhist Nun by Sister Annabel Laity.

Sister Annabel signing copies of her book, “True Virtue”

Thay and Sister Chan Khong have emphasized that members of our sangha should be valued and respected because of our practice, not because of our gender. This revolutionary position has attracted many women to ordain in the community. International Plum Village practices and ways of life have empowered young sisters in their practice and have shifted how they view themselves. These practices will continue to influence the way future disciples are trained, offering more space, trust and voice to women.


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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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