Paro, Bhutan 2022
‘"If it were hundreds of years ago perhaps I would say I saw a flock of golden beings, the patches of their cloth glinting and catching the light. Making up a crowd of beaming joy they gathered under a tent in the forest and drank tea together, looking at one another in the understanding of a deep and profound bond and enormous gratitude to all who made it possible."
In June 2022 in Paro, Bhutan around the temple dedicated to Gelongma Palmo, the female practitioner famed for the Nyungne practice, many threads were woven together to create the most extraordinary historic event and one I must be honest I did not know I would see in my lifetime, yet alone take part in. It was historic in that it the ability for females to take full Bikshuni or Gelongma ordination within the Vajrayana lineages has been impossible for many centuries now. But it also felt historic in the conditions it recalled – reminiscent to many who will have read the Sutras and their way of describing conditions for teachings and insight.
As in those here in Bhutan there was the blessing of the Dharma King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the support of both his parents; his mother Her Majesty Tshering Yangdon and his father His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. There was the essential support of the great Dharma practitioner the Chief Abbott of Bhutan His Holiness Je Khenpo, accompanied by the necessary ten esteemed gelongs, to bestow the vows. The work of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation was the third key element supporting the vision of those above and supporting the organising of much of the event. Finally there were those willing and appropriate to take the 364 vows; the one hundred and forty two nuns.
Perhaps the auspicious gathering of these conditions was best confirmed at the start of the first day of taking vows when, at the arrival of His Holiness Je Khenpo, a beautiful rainbow was seen to circle the sun. Who can explain such things but it seemed to seal the shining radiance of the event like the sky lit up with the joy of what was taking place on earth.
Luckily we had Khenpo Nima Shar from Tago Dordena, the Buddhist monastic university outside Thimphu, to guide us and help us prepare for the various stages of the ceremony which was done in the traditional way with groups of three nuns taking vows together. We were given a new Gelongma name, all of which began with Jigme, meaning fearless, and divided into groups of threes and allocated places to sit based on our grouping. The Khenpo, tall and professorial in nature patiently helped us understand each of the many necessary steps involved. I asked him how he felt to be at the event ‘it’s a great opportunity for me to be part of this.’ Every nun I asked said ‘it’s a great opportunity for me.’ All expressed great gratitude to Their Majesties and to His Holiness Je Khenpo. Everyone was so filled with this sense of an auspicious ‘opportunity’ and ‘chance’ and this created a powerful feeling of what is positive, of what is truly possible.
It was an incredible start and my state of awe continued as more and more of the ceremony revealed itself. Although I am already fairly familiar with the meticulous care with which Buddhist events occur in Bhutan it was as if each moment of this had been polished to perfection.
From different places throughout Bhutan, India and Ladhak and myself from England we came together – women who had been living under the Getsulma vows for a required minimum of seven years. Our ages, faces and languages were different but there was an extraordinary sense of a particular Sangha arising. Through the course of a total of five days 142 nuns came together to help each other, get to know each other, share tents and food and queries over what we had to do and say and so forth and to, together, become Gelongmas in the Himalayas.
For me I kept pinching myself that this was really happening. I knew the Buddha had mentioned the four-fold Sangha as a necessary condition for the thriving of Buddha-Dharma in the world. Could this leap forwards imply a great thriving was about to begin I wondered?
Below the beautifully decorated temple, stupa, thangka and ceremonial tents was an area of tents for eating and below that, in the forest a family of tents had been erected; some tall and green capable of holding up to eight nuns, some medium height and yellow and smaller two person tents dome shaped. I was in one of the latter with a nun from Wangdi in Bhutan who had been doing the 440,000 preliminary practices twice over in retreat. Luckily, she had brilliant English. I was so grateful for that as my basic grasp of
Dzongkha, keen eye for hand gestures and facial expressions was not going to be enough to safely get me through the next few days without incident! We quickly became inseparable, placing our camping mattresses, pillows and belongings neatly in the tent which was just long enough to hold me! I was so grateful for her help through all the days and her patience with my never ending ‘What was that? Did he say do ten prostrations or 30 prostrations?’ – type questions. I really did not want to be like the one person in the class who goes left when everyone else goes right! One of the first things to get right was a perfectly shaved head!
Gradually through the course of three days the outer robes turned from red to the deep yellow of full ordination. To ordain all 142 nuns took three days in total so it was a gradual turning with those already fully ordained no longer allowed to eat after midday and those still in red forming a shorter and shorter dinner queue. Until finally everyone was saffron and everyone was drinking tea! I was personally thrilled to be ordained on the second day, at 2.52 on June 22, 2022 to be precise – everyone is told the exact time when their Gelongma vows enter into you – when Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was present. For me personally and of course for her three nuns from her Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery it was just so wonderful to have her as a precious part of the historic event. Her example as a practitioner in female form was a great inspiration to all the nuns present.
On the final day His Holiness the Je Khenpo of Bhutan made a moving speech talking so clearly about the reasons he felt this ordination was correct and that he felt the statue of the Buddha in front of him had kept smiling at him as he considered his decision to bestow the vows. One of my new Gelongma friends from Mongar nunnery said she could not stop the tears coming on hearing his words. For a culture not keen on public displays of emotion this is a big statement of just how much his words pierced through to her very heart.
Although I had experienced the strength which comes from taking vows when I had taken my Getsulma vows in 2014 still I had no idea of what it might feel like to be given Gelongma vows, particularly in such incredible circumstances. After all how can you really imagine let alone know before hand how it might feel?
My first awareness is that the vows are about restraining from many things which is a basic teaching for training the mind to refrain from the three poisons so the vows feel very helpful as a form of mental practice.
All I can say is I felt so, so grateful for this chance and so inspired by the words of His Holiness Je Khenpo and the supportive words of Her Majesty Tshering Yangdon. To be given these vows is a clear statement of being taken seriously as a Dharma practitioner and renunciate. The vows have given me clear guidance on how to live, largely based on acts of refraining or of renunciation. Whilst that may sound severe a peaceful mind is built on foundations of refraining, refraining from anger, greed and so on so in fact these vows are a source of profound peacefulness and freedom. Going forwards I felt sure these vows would be like the wood rafters of a building whilst in future retreats and in living a life of most help to sentient beings.
Personally I found something within taking these vows profoundly changed my relationship with my perceived self. Deep inside I felt an ability to care deeply for my own being, perhaps indeed as a mother might. I don’t mean this in an ego kind of way but in a healthy, loving way as a mother may look at their child wishing them full happiness and joy in their chosen path.
On the final morning we gathered, 142 nuns in saffron robes with our newly offered alms bowls - and together we went forth out of the forest on a traditional alms round around the valley town of Paro. This meeting with the lay people of the town felt very beautiful, like looking again and again into the eyes of the other with such mutual respect. Sounds a simple thing but in this world it felt enormous.
Above us the bright blue sky of a summer’s day in Bhutan echoed the vastness of a sky opening up across the world. As we eventually parted I found myself moved to tears to see this golden flock scattering in all directions to touch many different places.