Report from Hamburg Congress

July 2007

      The First International Buddhist Congress in Hamburg July 18-20,2007 ended successfully. It provided a new page to the history of Buddhism in general  and history of Buddhist women in particular.

      To be a woman, is always a minority in any religious gathering and to be female monastic is still very much peripheral. But this time the theme of the congress was on the role of Buddhist women and ordination in Mulasarvastivada in particular. Women were the majority for the first time.

       Women in the robes, were very different, very colorful, very impressive.

      The Grand Elysee hotel where most of the speakers and participants stayed during the congress became particularly festive with monks and nuns of various traditions. There were Chinese nuns from the ten Thousand Buddhas in yellow and brown robes, the Chinese nuns from Taiwan some in gray and some in brown. The Vietnamese tradition led by Ven.Thich Guang Ba all in mustard yellow. The bhikkhunis in Theravada tradition in various shades of brown, the Sri Lankan tradition wore reddish brown and the Siladharas from England were in darker brown. The brightest would be the Tibetan samaneris and bhikkhunis in maroon robes. There were a couple of Theravadins  in bright saffron also.

      There were about 400 registered for the congress. Thanks to the University of Hamburg for being far-sighted to host this history making event.

      The few women who organized this congress worked hard in the preparation for not less than a year before the actual congress took place. Ven.Jampa Tsedron from the University of Hamburg and Tibetan Center, Dr.Thea Mohr, a committed professor to the cause of Tibet, Mrs.Gabrialle Kustermann, the treasurer. The Buddhist Studies Center, The Asian and African Institute all had their shares in hosting and making possible this memorable event.

      The first two days were spent on paper presentations, each speaker got 15 minutes for the presentation. There were at least 70 presentations, on the second day of the congress, in one slot of time there were 3 sessions going on at the same time. The questions and answers period came at the end of the day between 7-9 PM.

      At an international congress where there was a simultaneous translation from English into both German and Tibetan, it was very difficult to be satisfactory. With the time limitation, the speaker tends to speak far to fast to comprehend, not to mention to translate. So it did not come as a surprise at the end of the second day some of the questions or complaints raised by the young Tibetan nuns were made as though the persons were not with the congress at all.

     Generally the papers met the standard and were all published so that each participant can look over it before and during presentation. At most of the conferences that I attended at best they provided only the abstracts, and not the full text. Some participants commented happily that “Oh, they do it the German way.”

     After having completed the first two days of paper presentations, on the third day of the congress, we were supposed to be with H.H. the Dalai lama.

     The organizers invited 6 bhikkhus and 8 bhikkhunis to form a working group. Among the bhikkhus there were Ven.Bodhi, Ven.Sujato ( Thai Forest tradition from Australia),Ven.Dhammavihari (Sri Lanka),Ven.Maha Thera from Bangladesh,Ven.Thich Guang Ba (Vietnamese tradition from Australia), Ven.Master from Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. The first four were from Theravada tradition and the last two were from Mahayana tradition. On the bhikkhuni side there were Ven.Master Wu Yin, (Vinaya master from Taiwan), Ven.Seougmong from Korea, Ven.Dr.Karma Lekshe Tsomo (U.S.A.), Ven.Jampa Tsedron (Germany), Ven.Kusuma Devendra (Sri Lanka),Ven.Dhammananda (from Thailand).

     This group worked together beautifully with one common goal to bring about the best proposal with regard to the ordination of bhikkhunis in Tibetan tradition. The Department of Religious Affairs in Dharamsala came up with two proposals :

1. Single ordination by the Tibetan monks and
2. dual ordination by the Chinese Bhikkhunis and Tibetan monks.

     The working committee proposed a third proposal that is a dual ordination with another step of admitting first the existing Western nuns (who are now senior with 20 years ordination) into the Mulasarvastivadin tradition. This is a preparation for smooth transition so that they can give dual ordination with the monks in the same Mulasarvastivadin ordination.
    
     The working committees dispersed after  11 PM taking high hope with them that the proposal will be taken by His Holiness on the next day.
    
      With H.H.the Dalai Lama’s presence, we had to move to Audimax which provided  a much larger space. The meeting on the Vinaya convened in the afternoon. The panel consisted of the same members with addition of one scholar monk and a nun from Tibetan tradition. H.H.the Dalai Lama was in the center with Dr.Thea Mohr, the moderator with monks on his right and the bhikkhunis on his left. Each was given 3 minutes to express his or her opinion to support the proposal.
 
     Ven.Bodhi,  the most senior with more than 30 years in the monkhood was wonderful to  give the discussed proposal very clearly. The rest, both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis urged H.H.the Dalai Lama to take decision. Ven.Thich Guang Ba added an important point that whatever is being decided here in Hamburg is going to cause great wave not only to the Tibetan nuns but also the Buddhist nuns of other traditions. Ven.Dr.Heng Ching Shih from Taiwan even got up to plead that H.H.the Dalai Lama take a clear decision. We were afraid that H.H. the Dalai Lama would go back to say “We need more research”.Ven.Jampa Tsedron said very clearly there is nothing more to research. Ven.Dhammananda reminded H.H. the Dalai lama that the Buddha, on his death bed gave this allowance that minor rules may be lifted up if the Sangha should so decide.

    When all the committee members had expressed their concerns, H.H.the Dalai Lama responded. He said that in the past there were  certain things that he could decide on his own he would do, like supporting the nuns to have a better education, etc. But ordination is a decision of the Sangha and he needed to consult his Sangha. Meanwhile, he gave permission that the bhikkhunis in Tibetan tradition should organize themselves well in the training of the monastics, i.e. recitation of the pratimoksha every full moon and dark moon, Pavarana (asking to clear oneself at the end of the rain), etc.

    After hearing H.H.the Dalai lama’s assistant reading out these lines, there was a second of complete silence. Ven.Dhammananda took the opportunity to ask for clarificationwhich tradition H.H.the Dalai Lama would like the Western nuns in Tibetan tradition to recite their pratimoksha, Dharmaguptaka or Mulasarvastivada. H.H.the Dalai Lama responded that they are “same same”. Ven.Dhammananda knew that they were similar but not the same but did not pursue the argument as it was out of space and time. 
   
    Some of the members on the panel were disappointed, but we understood that H.H.the Dalai lama understands the situation better than any of us, the international Sangha. We were reminded that we were outsiders and we did our share of work. At the end of the congress, the audience commented that they gave us 59 marks, we passed. But we still have to do more homework.

    H.H. the Dalai Lama was scheduled to give teaching on the next day at 9.30 A.M. But he must have sensed the uneasiness on our part. He called for a meeting at 8.15 A.M. the next morning at the hotel itself.

   There were all the  committee members from the working group and some other monastics and people who would be responsible for the on going task. The Tibetan samaneris were there also.

   His Holiness proposed 2 suggestions. The first one was almost naïve was to have endorsements from the Sangharaja from Thailand and Burma. If we could have these endorsements the Hamburg Congress would have less value for us from Theravada countries. My Burmese bhikkhuni friend, looked at me with her sad eyes and said  “it is not possible”, I added  more positively, “now”.

   The second suggestion was to call for a meeting in winter for the international Sangha to meet with the senior Tibetan monks in Dharamsala. His Holiness checked with Rinchen Khando who attended the meeting for the past 3 days, she responded positively. The international Sangha present seems to agree and commit themselves to attend this meeting.
 Again Ven.Dhammananda tried to clarify the practical issue whether the Western senior bhikkhunis should be reciting the Sanghakamma according to Dharmaguptaka or Mulasarvastivada Vinaya. First His Holiness said they were the same, and he accepted them as bhikkhunis already. But when pushed further, he said they should do it in Dharmaguptaka.
 In that case we are not in the process of preparing the senior Western nuns to help start the ordination in Mulasarvastivadin tradition.

    We have to overcome this transition process.

    The Western senior bhikkhunis must go through a sanghakamma to pronounce them as bhikkhunis in Mulasarvastivada Vinaya. A Sanghakamma that needs twenty senior monks from Mulasarvastivadin tradition to come together with H.H. the Dalai lama presiding over it.
 Ven.Dhammananda hopes to be able to propose this practical idea for the up-coming meeting in winter that His Holiness mentioned.