To commemorate Chokhor Duchen and FPMT’s International Sangha Day, the Center is happy to offer the following interview with Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi, an FPMT nun, touring teacher and resident teacher at Vajrapani Institute. Ven. Tenzin has been giving teachings in New York City for the Center over the past two weeks, and we are immensely grateful to her.
Q: What motivated you to become a nun?
When I decided to get ordained, I was nearing the end of a long meditation retreat. I had gradually come to the realization that in order to meditate really well, it was helpful to simplify my life, eliminating many of the sources of the distraction that I experienced in attempting to meditate deeply: the distractions of relationships, entertainment, other worldly concerns. I realized that Lord Buddha had designed the perfect lifestyle to enable one to meditate well, namely, the life of a monastic. So this was my main motivation, to simplify my life in a way that would enable me to focus on what had become my main priority, my spiritual practice.
Q: How does the monastic community benefit others through its vows?
Even though simplifying my life in order to better be able to focus on practice without distraction was my main motivation for ordination, one of the unexpected benefits is seeing how much it touches and inspires the people I come into contact with. I travel a lot, and when I’m in public places, people often approach me to ask questions about Buddhism and meditation, and often to ask advice about their lives — these are total strangers! In our increasingly secular, materialistic world, I love being able to offer a very visible alternative that anyone seeing me walking down the street, or in an international airport, can contemplate and that might make them think about their own lives and choices in a different way.
Q: Do all Sangha members live in a community? If not, what is daily life like for them?
There are very few monastic communities in the FPMT, so many of us live in Dharma centers geared primarily to offering teaching and retreat opportunities to lay people. Sometimes we might be the only monastic in a center, or perhaps there are a few of us together. Many other monastics live as touring teachers, going from center to center at the invitation of those centers to teach. Then others of us are involved in residential study programs at a center, or engaged in long-term retreat.
Q: What are some of the challenges faced by monastics in modern Western society?
As Buddhist monasticism isn’t established in the West, we often receive quite a lot of unwanted attention in public (stares, sometimes comments, or the question “What are you?”) which can be tedious at times. One of the biggest issues that we face, mostly due to not having monastic communities, is the question of where to go if we want to have a break from teaching or whatever job we are doing at a center, and the huge question of where to go in our old age or if we become disabled in some way, as there is really no provision for these eventualities, and often we have devoted our lives to service which means we have limited income in the way of retirement funds, pension, etc. This can be a source of worry for us as we age.
Q: How can students best support the Sangha and express gratitude to monastics for their kindness and generosity in sharing the Dharma?
I feel that the students in the centers where I teach are very supportive of us, and display a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude. I think one of the things that students could do is perhaps familiarize themselves with our vows, so that they are more aware of behavior that might make us feel uncomfortable, for example, drinking alcohol around us, or overt displays of affection between romantic partners in our presence, things like this. But in general I feel that the understanding and appropriate treatment of the non-Tibetan monastics in our centers is improving all the time.
Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi bought a one-way ticket to India in early 1991 with the intention of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She then became a student not only of His Holiness, but also of Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. After returning to the U.S., Ven. Tenzin worked in various positions within FPMT – Director of Vajrapani Institute, Co-Director of FPMT International Office, FPMT Center Services Coordinator – and also completed several long meditation retreats. She took novice ordination in 2004 with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and since 2006 has been regularly teaching at various FPMT centers around the globe. Ven. Tenzin is currently the resident teacher at Vajrapani Institute in California and also a visiting teacher for the Liberation Prison Project. She is very esteemed by her students for her warmth, joyful energy, and ability to adapt the wisdom of traditional teachings to our modern Western world.