Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Buddhism in the West

Dakini Power honors contemporary female Buddhist teachers and practitioners.

Inspiring Female Practitioners

The book Dakini Power focuses deliberately on some of the most successful female pioneers in the West, but of course there are many more amazing women in Tibetan Buddhism who deserve to be honored and praised. Think of all the unsung practitioners in Tibet, such as the Nangchen nuns in East Tibet, who continue their steadfast practice under unimaginable pressure. These accomplished meditators still carry out the traditional three-year retreats in the most remote locations, sitting in their customary three-by-three-foot wooden meditation boxes.

Tens of thousands of Tibetans continue to work for their compatriots in exile. To name just a few, the Dalai Lama’s sister, Jetsun Pema, has dedicated her life to creating a safe refuge for Tibetan children who have been sent by their parents across the ice-covered passes to India, in the hope of finding a better future in exile. The Tibetan Women’s Association has worked since its founding in 1959 to support Tibetan women and raise awareness for the education of nuns. Ani Chöying Drolma has used her successful singing career to sponsor more than a dozen charities in Nepal and establish Arya Tara School, the first school in Nepal to bring Western and Tibetan educations to nuns. Other Tibetan nuns and former nuns survived decades of torture in Chinese prisons and now use their voices, unafraid, to tell others the truth about the hell beneath the Chinese “kingdom of heaven.”

Increasing numbers of Western women are inspired to follow the path forged by the Asian trailblazers. The late scholar-practitioner Rita M. Gross wrote a timeless article in the Shambhala Sun about How American Woman are Changing Buddhism. The first Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in America, the Vajra Dakini Nunnery, is fledgling in Vermont under the American abbess Venerable Khenmo Nyima Drolma. Women continue to excel in studies, for instance, Venerable Kelsang Wangmo, the first female geshe, and all the myriad women, ordained or lay, who see their possibilities broaden as a direct result of the efforts of a few courageous pioneers. The life stories of female Buddhist teachers are varied and even include an heiress of the Hyatt Hotel, Linda Pritzker, now better known as Lama Tsomo. Read an interview with her here.

Innumerable women and men organize meditation retreats, teach, study, cook, clean, drive, and keep centers flourishing. And the dharma would be nothing without the many wonderful practitioners who don’t sit on thrones and don’t write books but just quietly light up the world.

This website is dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments and life stories of the women featured in this book and many more. Please write and share your story how Buddhist women have inspired you. We will continue to add new interviews with female Buddhist teachers, as well as extend profiles and resources.

Further Reading

We have started a reading list of the best books by and about Buddhist women on Goodreads. Please add to the list and vote for your favorites

how to help

If we make a consistent effort based on proper education, we can change the world.
— His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Many people have asked how they can help support women on the path. One key factor all the teachers in Dakini Power emphasize is education. Therefore we are donating a percentage of the proceeds from the book and t-shirt sales to non-profit organizations that support the education of girls and women, such as the Jamyang Foundation, which was established by Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo to help nuns in the most remote parts of the Himalayas, and Lotus Outreach, an international non-profit, which focuses on helping girls and women in Cambodia and India.

Many Buddhist teachers have established non-profits to help alleviate the need for education and health services. Here is a selection of a few organizations that I highly recommend for you to explore:

- Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche and her sister Jetsun Dechen Paldron are managing the Samten Tse Charitable Society to improve living conditions in the Himalayas, India, and internationally.

- Sponsor a Nun: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo has established a fund specifically for the support of nuns.

- Pema Chödrön´s Foundation is supporting a small nunnery in Nepal to save a practice tradition at the verge of extinction

- Ani Choying Drolma's Nuns' Welfare Foundation supports education and health care for nuns in Nepal.

Trouble in Paradise

An interview with Venerable Pannavati about her life and work

By Michaela Haas

Ven. Dr. Pannavati, a former Christian pastor, is co-founder of Embracing-Simplicity Hermitage in Hendersonville, NC. A black, female Buddhist monk ordained in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions with Vajrayana empowerments and transmission from Roshi Bernie Glassman of Zen Peacemakers, she is both contemplative and empowered for compassionate service. She just returned from South India where she established the first nunnery for 'Untouchables', and she told me about the urgent need for support for girls and women.

Michaela Haas: I regret that I didn’t include any women of color in Dakini Power. One obvious reason is that there are so few, but there are some! Do you have an explanation why there are so few African-American women in the Dharma?

Ven. Pannavati: I do. First of all, most sanghas aren’t that inviting to African-Americans. It’s not deliberate, just conditioning. This is a reflection of our broader society. Western meditation was really a sort of white, elite pastime. We people of color weren’t there in the beginning. I remember when I first started going to centers – one in particular. I came by myself at first. They were happy. I was a novelty. We call it being a “token”. I began to bring friends. By our fourth or fifth visit, they gave me a cassette, saying, ‘You know, y’all don’t have to come all this way. We made a tape so you can listen in the comfort of your own home!’ True story! We were quiet, clean, on time – just black. And, of course I don’t need to tell you about the problems we are having with communities all across the country. Trouble in paradise. How can it be different? The people that show up in here come from out there. They are looking for something but their mindset is not transformed. We don’t want to admit some things are just plain wrong or face the fact that without justice, there will be no peace.

White sangha members are always asking me how to get more blacks in. I ask them, ‘How many blacks do you invite to your home?’ On the other hand, blacks are tired of being marginalized and they can be quick to let you know! The Buddha gave trainings on non-conflict, though. We should study those suttas and practice the inward cultivation he prescribed. Then, attachment to erroneous views and habitual patterns of both superiority and inferiority will fall away.

Do you have a lot of black students?

No. Our sangha is all white. I live in a de facto segregated, southern town where only two percent of the population is black. So, it’s really a reflection of our community, also of mistrust. I was once told by a black resident, ‘Anybody who has this many white friends can’t be trusted.’

When I first started receiving speaking invitations I was only invited to speak to the people of color (POC) groups. I would say, ‘Call me back when you’re ready to have me speak to your whole sangha. I’m not a black Dharma teacher. I am a Dharma teacher.’ We have all of these POC sanghas, because they don’t feel emotionally safe. And the whites feel emotionally and physically safer being separate, so how is anything going to change? We have to stay together until we overcome our conditioning through practice. That’s the work. It’s going to take time. That’s why Buddha said friendship in the Dharma is the whole of spiritual life.

You are one of the heroes of engaged Buddhism in America.

Really? Okay, it’s like this: When everything is good, we can sit on our cushions. When there are things to take care of, we should get up and do it. Even Buddha said it is hard for a person to make progress when he is hungry. Western Buddhists need to learn to reach before they teach. Easterners for the most part already get this. It’s not a mental exercise for them.

You are currently looking for resources to build a school and provide water and toilets in India. How did you get involved in that?

A man from India emailed me and asked if I would come and help. I asked, ‘How did you find me?’ And he said, ‘Well, I googled ‘black nun’ and you were the only one who came up. You’ve been through the civil rights movement, and Dalits (‘Untouchables’) need people who really understand what systemic oppression does to the psyche of people.’ So, I did a Bearing Witness retreat in Tamil Nadu with Roshi Bernie and a couple of the Peacemakers. We didn’t know that much about the degradation of the Untouchables as a class of people and the atrocities committed against them. They are considered non-human, 240 million people! Just google ‘Dalit atrocities’ for a quick education. This particular Dalit group asked me to offer the Buddhist precepts and to teach the villagers Dharma. They specifically wanted a bhikkhuni, because they used to be a matriarchal society. But when I got there, I realized, these people don’t even have water. Let’s start with water first and then we’ll do some teachings. We’ve completed one huge well and planted a surrounding forest with a garden of fruit trees, vegetables and medicinal herbs for the village widows. It will serve 3,000 people. We are nearing completion on a 2nd well in an adjacent village, and have begun installing outdoor toilets because right now, they defecate in the street, field or go behind a bush. Many of their women and girls are raped when they go out at night to relieve themselves. It’s a shame. Upper caste members do not generally pay Dalits in rupees for menial work performed. Rather, they give them leftovers or a hand of rice. So, who can afford a toilet?  

Few people in the West realize how crucial that is.

Yes. It is a huge safety issue. Malnutrition and senseless death due to poor sanitation is a problem, so we have a counselor teaching the villagers about sanitation now that water and toilets are arriving! Once the villagers saw the first toilets going in, they became excited and we got requests immediately from over 100 villagers asking for toilets. We can do it for only $40 a toilet! We hope to install them in March when we return to begin phase I of the school project. I need to raise $100,000 dollars for the first phase. We’ve saved a lot by buying a brick-making machine. We’re having villagers trained to make and lay the bricks over the next 2 months and there is plenty of the right soil in the village to make them. That’s an enormous project saving. The equipment and trained bricklayers can create revenue for the village and help pay salaries for teachers. Each trip, 12-15 people go with me to touch and be touched by these beautiful people. If people visit my website below and click on Missions, they can see what we’re doing and donate there or sign up to go with me in March for two weeks. We’re almost at the end of the year, but we need to really make a push for support. Sulak Sivaraksa, co-founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists said, “Buddhism is not concerned just with private destiny, but with the lives and consciousness of all beings. Any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its social dimension is fundamentally a mistake. Until Western Buddhists understand this, their embrace of Buddhism will not help very much in the effort to bring about meaningful social change …or in their struggle to transform their ego.” I agree. One of our ‘witnesses,’ a business owner from Charlotte, in shock upon seeing the conditions, said: “It’s unbelievable…you can’t make this s*** up.” We all need to help. 

 For more information: http://pannavati.org/

To read the full interview, including questions about Ven. Pannavati's own path and her push for full ordination for women, sign up for our newsletter.

An international teacher, Ven. Pannavati advocates on behalf of disempowered women and youth globally, and insists on equality and respect in Buddhist life for both female monastics and lay sangha. She was a 2008 recipient of the Outstanding Buddhist Women’s Award. In 2011, Venerable adopted ten “untouchable” villages in India, vowing to help them establish an egalitarian community based on Buddhist principles of conduct and livelihood, providing wells, toilets, books, teachers and micro-loans for women.  Approximately 30,000 people live in these villages. Ven. Pannavati founded My Place, Inc. in Hendersonville, NC, which has housed more than 75 homeless youth between the ages of 17 and 23 over the past four years. That effort evolved into a NC state demonstration model with its own academic platform, jobs training program, residential program and social enterprise, My Gluten Free Bread Company.

“Radically working with your own mind”

An Interview with Venerable Robina Courtin about her life and work

Venerable Robina Courtin is a dynamic and candid Dharma teacher. Since her ordination in the late 1970s, the former Australian singer has worked full time for Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche's FPMT. She has served as editorial director of Wisdom Publications, editor of Mandala Magazine, and the executive director of Liberation Prison Project. She does not really have a home, but travels tirelessly to teach around the world. Her life and work with prisoners have been featured in the documentary films Chasing Buddha (see trailer below) and Key to Freedom. In her book Why Buddhism? Vicki Mackenzie describes her as “funny, dynamic, affectionate, kind, outrageous, her speech frequently dotted with expletives. All this plus her ability to move across the ground at a million miles per minute proved conclusively that you do not necessarily have to be quiet, serene and passive to be Buddhist.” In this interview with Dakini Power author Michaela Haas, Ven. Robina says: "I’m radically working on my own mind. Not believing in the way things appear to us: you can’t get more radical than that."

Michaela Haas: How did you transition from being a Kung Fu fighter to a Buddhist nun?  

Robina Courtin: Well, the longest distance was from Catholic to Buddhist nun. Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, I went to Church every day. I loved God. I thought a lot about the nature of God, the universe and what makes it tick. From the moment I first went to Mass I knew I wanted to be a priest. Everybody laughed at me and said I had to become a nun instead. I was so little I couldn’t understand the reason. When I was twelve, I begged my mother to let me be a nun like my hero St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who became a nun when she was 14. I obviously had a strong connection with the religious way of seeing things and, I suppose, with Tibetan Buddhism: I didn’t think of God as my creator, which is interesting. And at the convent I went to throughout all my school years, for our uniform we had a saffron yellow blouse and a maroon twinset. Very familiar!

MH: How did your parents react when you first wanted to be a Buddhist nun?

RC: My mother had to go through quite a bit before then. When I gave up God for boys, she cried. When I went to London in the late 60s and gave up my classical singing studies for involvement in the radical left, she cried. Then I got into black politics, and she cried. Then I became a radical lesbian separatist feminist, and she really, really cried. So by the time I told her I wanted to become a Buddhist nun when I was 31, she didn’t have any tears left. But she always came around: so kind.

MH: I am intrigued how you could go from being such a political and radical person to not being interested in these topics anymore at all.

RC: I’m just the same radical person. I’m radically working on my own mind. Not believing in the way things appear to us: you can’t get more radical than that. How women are treated in Buddhism, full ordination for nuns, whatever – all of these issues are important. But I want to look at the internal component, not the external. I want to uproot the causes of all suffering, which are mental. In that, I am more radical than ever.

Read the whole interview by signing up for our free newsletter here

And check out Ven. Robina Courtin`s teachings about Buddhism in the modern world. Here is a link to her article on "Can You Love Without Attachment?"

Jetsun Kusho Chimey Luding @Sakya Dechen Ling

Jetsun Kusho Chimey Luding @Sakya Dechen Ling

Jetsun Kusho Chimey Luding

One can count on one hand the Tibetan women who have been fully trained to give empowerments and teachings in the West today. Dagmola Kusho Sakya and her cousin, Jetsun Kusho Chimé Luding, are among the very few women raised in the traditional culture of pre-Communist Tibet who now travel internationally to teach and bestow empowerments.

Jetsun Kusho Chimé Luding, born in 1938, is the elder sister of His Holiness the Sakya Trizin, the head of the Sakya lineage. Jetsun Kusho took novice ordination at the age of seven and completed her first retreat at age ten. Most unusually, in 1955, when she was only seventeen years old, she gave the full transmission of the important “Path and Fruition” (Tib. lamdré) teachings to Tibetan monks over a period of three months when her brother was unavailable. In 1959, Jetsun Kusho escaped from Tibet to India, before settling in Vancouver, Canada, with her family in 1971. In order to provide for her five sons, she worked as a farm laborer, knitwear designer, and in other jobs, while trying to maintain her spiritual practices. Heeding the repeated requests of her brother and other eminent masters, Jetsun Kusho started teaching in the West in the early 1980s. A more detailed biography can be found here.


From an Interview with Jetsun Kusho by Dominique Side, originally published in The View:

Your visit to England in 1995 marked the first time a woman master in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has ever taught here. Why are there so few women teachers?

I think the two primary reasons are karmic and cultural.  Karma is a factor in deciding gender, and then the differences in the way men and women live–their different roles–are the products of certain kinds of karma.  On the cultural side, in Asia there were more men who wished to put their effort into spiritual practice than there were women, and that is why there were fewer nuns than monks.  But other than this, there are no reasons that I am aware of.  Certainly there are no arguments for this in the teachings themselves.

Could you explain the karma of being born a woman?

I really don’t know what the karmic causes are to be reborn as a woman; I have never seen any explanation of the karma of being born a woman in the scriptures. But personally I think individuals have a special karmic connection to their first life of spiritual practice, so if a person was a woman in their first life of practice, they might choose to take rebirth as a woman.

I know there are prayers in which we pray not to be reborn as a woman but as a man. Most of these were written at a time when the life of a woman was very hard, and I think that is the reason people prayed for rebirth as a man.

In terms of the spiritual path and the ability to attain enlightenment, is being a woman an inferior birth?  I believe that the teachings of the Theravada tradition say that it is more difficult for a woman to attain enlightenment than for a man...

Yes, and in the Mahayana too, but the Vajrayana doesn’t say that.

Why is it more difficult according to Theravada and Mahayana?

Women are said to have more desires, all sorts of wild thoughts, and are also very prone to doubt. Buddha said that doubts and desire are unhelpful for religious practice, and in the Theravada and Mahayana teachings, he pointed to them as obstacles.

So women are at a disadvantage on the spiritual path because they have so many emotions, and emotions are seen as defilements?

That’s right.

Yet in the Vajrayana almost the opposite is true, and women are seen as a symbol of wisdom.

Fundamentally, men and women are the same–they are both human beings. However the masters have found that there is a difference between their minds. Women have very sharp minds; they are actually sharper than men, which is why in the Vajrayana, the path which works directly with the mind, women represent wisdom and men represent method.   Often a woman will have thought through an idea many times, long before the idea has even struck a man. This is something I have noticed when comparing my husband and myself.

In the Theravada and Mahayana, on the other hand, there are many examples where women are shown to be bad. This view is also sometimes reflected within the culture. In India, for example, women have a lower status than men. As most of Buddha’s disciples were male, he used the example of beautiful women to demonstrate impermanence. Monks were trained to consider that a woman’s beauty is only skin deep, and however beautiful she may be when she is young, one day she will grow old and ugly. This is a method for reducing sexual desire, and was taught by Buddha because he felt that sexual desire was not helpful for spiritual practice.

He also taught another method, called ‘sealing the doors of the senses’, in which the beautiful woman’s body is skinned, mentally, and monks consider how ugly and repulsive it is inside as they ‘look’ at the pus, blood, intestines and so on. Using these examples, Hinayana and Mahayana monks who had taken the vow to lead a life of renunciation, would purify their minds.

The point here is not that women themselves are ugly and impure—if Buddha were to teach a group of nuns, he would use the same example in reverse and tell them to scan the body of the man they desired. Men and women are both human, they both come from the mother’s womb, there is no difference between them. This is my view, it is not something I’ve been told. Buddha taught all sentient beings. There is nothing in the scriptures to tell us that he taught men rather than women.

So to summarise, from the Theravada and Mahayana points of view, both men and women are basically the same–they have emotional and intellectual defilements which need to be purified–and the difference between them is one of degree; but from the perspective of the Vajrayana, there is a subtle difference between the minds.

That’s right. In the Vajrayana, especially in the Sakya and Nyingma traditions, there are dakinis who are considered to be spiritually more advanced than men. I’ve heard that at some levels in the Nyingma, you cannot get enlightened unless you have a spiritual consort. A Vajrayana monastic still has to keep all the Mahayana vows; it’s only at very high levels that a physical consort might be taken. Normally a physical consort isn’t used, instead a mental consort is visualised.

Read the full interview here.

Videos and Interviews:

More video teachings and interviews: The Yogini Project  and Dakini Power playlist on YouTube

The Buddha`s Forgotten Nuns: A new documentary looks at the issues behind full ordination 

Traleg Khandro speaks about her life with the Yogini Project