The following interview with Ven. Lhundub Chodron, on the occasion of FPMT’s International Sangha Day, is part of our new series, “Monastic Perspectives.”
To learn more about our FPMT Sangha, please visit the International Mahayana Institute (IMI).
Q: What motivated you to become a nun?
Ever since I could remember, I wanted to be a nun. I remember that even before I started school, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said “a nun.” I was brought up in a very Catholic environment. I went to private girls schools run by the nuns from kindergarten through high school and we had many close family friends who were priests. I was surrounded by ordained ones. I always liked going to church, I liked the ritual, all the “bells and the smells.” It was a place of peace and refuge for me.
For some years in my late teens and 20s, I lost touch with the Church and with myself. I think of them as the lost years. When I resurfaced, the aspiration to become a nun was still there. On two occasions I went through the process of “discerning” whether I had a vocation in the Catholic Church. There were always obstacles (inner and outer) to my becoming a nun until I met Lama Zopa Rinpoche, then all the conditions came together. I was actually on my way to take ordination in the Korean Zen tradition when I met Rinpoche in Malaysia.
I suppose my motivation for wanting to become a nun changed over the years, but at no time could I imagine any other life for myself. I never wanted a householder life, a long term relationship, children, a permanent residence. I was always attracted to the life of the spirit, to the inner journey rather than the outer one.
Q: How does the monastic community benefits others through its vows?
Many people think of vows as something that restrict a person, but actually vows can be very liberating. For those who wish to dedicate their lives to the study and practice of Dharma, vows protect that aspiration. Vows also give us an opportunity to create merit. For example, if a person who takes a vow to not kill refrains from killing, they create more merit by that act than a person who also refrains from killing but does not hold the vow.
The Buddha said, “Wherever there is Sangha, there the Dharma will flourish.” Traditionally the role of the monastic community is to ensure that the Buddha’s teachings flourish. In order to transform our own hearts and minds and be an instrument for peace in the world, the Dharma must be practiced deeply, the vows are a key condition for doing this.
Q: Do all Sangha members live in a community? If not, what is daily life like for them?
Within the International Mahayana Institute (IMI), the non-Himalayan community of FPMT monks and nuns, there are a number of monastic communities; Chenrezig Nuns Community in Australia, the IMI House in India, Takden Shedrup Targye Ling in Italy, Thubten Shedrup Ling in Australia, and Nalanda Monastery in France. In addition to IMI sangha living at these monastic communities, some sangha members live and work at FPMT centers.
There are Sangha who do not live in monastic communities or at FPMT centers. Their lifestyles vary depending on their situation. I know some who are engaged in part- or full-time Dharma study, some who are caring for their aging parents, some who are in part-time or full-time retreat, others who are working. For those Sangha who are not living with other monastics it takes a lot of discipline to continue to study and practice deeply without the support of other monastics.
Q: What are some of the challenges faced by monastics in modern Western society?
One of the main challenges for Western monastics is the lack of communities. Ideally, when a person decides to take ordination, they would go and live in a monastic community to see what monastic life is like before taking vows. After taking vows they would ideally live in a community and train under senior monastics. To date there are limited opportunities to do this.
For those Sangha who do not have any personal financial resources, it can be difficult to live the life of a monastic while needing to provide for one’s basic needs. When talking about the basic necessities needed for living, we talk about the four requisites, which are food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. The IMI is able to offer some support to help Sangha with the four requisites and continues to work on expanding that support, but many Sangha must find their own means of support, such as a sponsor or a paying job.
Q: How can students best support the Sangha and express gratitude to monastics for their kindness and generosity in sharing the Dharma?
People who wish to support the Sangha can do so by supporting organizations like the IMI or by supporting individual Sangha members who they have a connection with. Support is not just financial; it can be things like offering a ride or a place to stay, or help accomplishing a task. For example, IMI is trying to build retreat cabins in the US for Sangha. A project like this requires many skilled people. Offering one’s skills in accomplishing a worthy goal that will benefit the Sangha is a wonderful way to offer support.
Ven. Lhundub Chodron is currently the North American representative of the International Mahayana Institute (IMI), as well as its acting Treasurer and accountant. She also serves as Treasurer to Shantideva Meditation Center.
After taking refuge in the mid 1980s, Ven Chodron practiced in the Korean and Japanese Zen traditions for 10 years. Since meeting Lama Zopa Rinpoche in 1997, she has studied and practiced Tibetan Buddhism within the FPMT community and has held various positions within the organization including Director of the Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo Translator Program in Dharamsala, India and Director of the International Mahayana Institute. She took getsulma vows from Geshe Lhundub Sopa in 2000.