Music , Grass and the Spiritual Salad
Music, Grass and the Spiritual Salad
Grass; Music; Background: the native spiritual salad; The western take – two spiritual realities; The Indian spiritual palate and the Jewish soul; Hodi, yehudi, and the ten tribes; The rabbis gave Hinduism a Kosher certificate; The Israeli take on the spiritual salad; A side note: spitirual salad and mixed families;
Grass and Music
“Authentic Israeli culture” – Kasol
Of the “100 Ways to get Lost in India” number one is, for sure, grass and other drugs.
Kasol is known to be “The Israeli Village of India”, though Bhagsu and Dharamkot can easily compete for the title with flying colors… Even Pushkar and Leh have almost exclusive “Israeli zones”.
I haven’t gone to Kasol, mostly because I thought it would depress me to see all these beautiful young Israelis wasted.
According to Wiwigo.com about 70% of travelers in Kasol are Israelis.
“The town is a hot spot for… young Israeli people who finish their compulsory military service … and then escape to the Parvati Valley.” There are more Israelis in Kasol than locals, but that will “make your experience at Kasol only better”.
The writer sends the visitor to
“look out for the music festivals that they host in the peak season… the rave parties full of people smoking cannabis. At the top of all, you will be treated with the delicious Israeli food…(with) “a just handful of money, you can experience the authentic Israeli culture in Kasol.”
And I thought we came to India to experience the authentic Indian culture…
The dark side
Either way, it sounds to me like a good description. The dark side, though, is that, famously, some great guys and gals get seriously damaged there and need their parents or professional volunteers like Hilik Magnus, mentioned in the above article, to come to their rescue. Some, sadly, probably never get rescued… Others are “captured” by the Chabad people who try, and often succeed, to bring them into the fold of the religion.
The one positive coming out of this excellent, but depressing, article is that “the trend of drug abuse that was high amongst Israel’s drug generation travelling to India has considerably gone down.”
I hope that’s true. Personally, I haven’t seen the worst of it but, as I said, I haven’t been to Kasol (or to Goa, for that matter…)
As to music, everywhere in Bhagsu and Pushkar you could see Israelis with guitars and other instruments (even sitars…), giving small concerts, playing with friends, throwing gigs. I mentioned Hayim Cohen’s concert at the Sky Pie in my post about the Israeli Trail in India. There was also a lot of singing and playing in places like Beit Chabad, Beit Bina, and at guesthouses and restaurants where Israelis tend to congregate..
Music teachers abound in the Dharamkot-Bhagsu area and they are all kept very busy teaching (mostly) Israelis to play drums, sitar, singing, flutes.
I took my share of singing classes and some flute, and am proud to say I still keep at it! I bought my flute from a Nepali street vendor in McLoed Ganj, shipped it to Israel and play on it once in a while. The seller was a gifted musician and artist, but was still struggling to make a living. The flute is beautifully carved with Ganesha figures, nature and graphic designs. For my singing lessons I needed to learn a whole new system for the musical notation: sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-sa! I took to it with a stride…
The Spiritual Salad
Background: The Native Spiritual Salad
To the outside observer, an Indian street seems like the ultimate chaos. No traffic lights, no signalling, endless beeping, no lanes, no sidewalks. Yet, the ingenious Indian driver manages the non-stop stream of rikshaws, motos, tuktuks, cars, buses, people, and brings you alive and in one piece to your destination, if a bit nerve-wrecked. Furthermore, he does not curse and is not angry. Compare this to the Israeli driver and you found a quasi-angel…
Something similar applies to the religious scene. The Indian spiritual melange is so vast, so varied and confusing, it is literally ungraspable. Whereas looking from the outside it is impossible to understand who is who in the pantheon, and how come the same deity is called a hundred different names and has a hundred different forms, the Indian seems to live with his/her religion/s in total peace. Each knows his or her corner of the religion and a little more. It reminds me of Parisians familiar with the relevant streets from home to work, friends, hairdresser and bistro. The overall picture of the city is simply too grand.
Some examples from the “Ladies Temple” (Mata Lal Devi Mandir) in Amritsar:
Goddess Bagalamukhi. Bagalamukhi is one of the Mahavidya forms and represents supreme power and energy, as well as control over our bad thoughts and habits. In the picture she stills the demon Ruru by pulling on his toungue.
Chinnamasta is one of the Mahavidyas, ten goddesses from the esoteric tradition of Tantra, and a ferocious aspect of Devi, the Hindu Mother goddess.
And that’s just a small sample of the Hindu vast complexity. And there are also Jain and Sikh and Muslims and Christians. In that immense tapestry (or “spiritual salad”, if you will), our religion is just another small drop in the bucket.
The Western Take - Two Spiritual Realities
To complicate things further, there is a disconnect between what a westerner (Israelis included) expects or looks for in India, and what most actual practice is. To a significant extent, though, some schools and teachings accomodate to Western perspectives.
A good example would be Buddhism. (Also, see Appendix)
Whereas western Buddhists put most of their focus on meditation and ethical improvement, the vast majority of lay folk following Tibetan Budddhism light oil candles, fill sacred bowls with water, turn wheels, chant mantras, circumambulate gompas, worship the Buddha, Boddhisatvas and the lamas, and perform rituals to ward off the evil spirits.
According to encyclopedia.com , in Tibetan Buddhism “worshiping the Buddha or Buddha figures has remained a central component in all Buddhist traditions.” For both lay people and monastics, worship revolves around giving thanks and pleasing the deities to gain their support. It also involves beliefs concerning protection against evil influences (spirits), and the accumulation of meritorious actions. “Most of the devotional life of Tibetans is made up of rituals or actions directed toward these aims.”
The average person does not expect to become a Buddha, get enlightened, or leap off the wheel of samsara. His practice this time around is meant for him/her to accumulate enough merit to get a better birth next time. Chanting mantras is considered beneficial. So are fasts, prostrations and circumambulations of holy places. In one store in Leh, Ladakh, the chant “Om Mani Padme Hum” was playing repetetively all day every day.
Lay people, apart from performing rituals, visit the stupas, temples and monasteries, do pilgrimages, celebrate holy days, and support the monastic communities with gifts and donations. The Sangha (the community of monks) reciprocates by giving them blessings and doing rituals on their behalf. Good karma is accumulated individually but also communally and for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Westerners get a “jumpstart” and (some) want a shortcut
In contrast, western seekers (often highly educated) are basically “jump-started” on the path of enlightenement and Buddhahood… In a way, their form of practice fits more with that of the “Sangha”, the community of monks and nuns, dedicated to spiritual advancement, than to that of the average native follower.
Some westerners, indeed, end up striding this demanding path – taking the vows, shaving their heads, wearing the robe….Of course, the road is not strewn with roses, and everybody has their difficulties. But the western aspirant at least bypasses the lay people’s path and is fast-forwarded to the four noble truths, meditations and the path to liberation.
Unsurprisingly, some westerners want things even faster and try to shortcut the path to enlightenment altogether as in the following book:
For more, specifically about the reciprocal interaction between Buddhism and the West, see the Appendix below.
The Indian Spiritual Palate and the Jewish Soul
Spirituality, not a religion
One of the appealing aspects of “spirituality” to westerners is that it is not a “religion”. For Israelis and Jews specifically the vague “spirituality a-la-India” gives us a refuge from both our own religion, if we are not sufficiently “into it”, and from secularism, if we do not find that satisfying.
That is, of course, true for westerners in general, but for Jews and Israelis even “more so”. I will write further about that in a future post and offer my speculations about the deeper sources of the specific Israeli attraction to India. (Subscribe to follow).
I already presented the stunning statistics about the Israeli presence at Tushita Buddhist Meditation Center, and those do not take into account the quieter, but nontheless significant, presence of non-Israeli Jews there, making the overall Jewish percentage even higher.
The Israeli attraction to India’s spirituality is a part of a wider phenomenon. Jewish fascination with what the subcontinent has to offer spiritually, especially among North American Jews, is well-known and notorious.
The phenomenon is so common there is a term for it in the Urban Dictionary: “Jewbu”. The example the dictionary gives is typical. A woman lights Hannukah candles and then reads the Dalai Lama to her children. That is precisely what is happening in India-inspired festivals, events and practices across Israel today. Few people go “all the way” and become nuns or monks (A very non-Jewish thing to do! Celibacy is not an option in our religion). The majority create a comfortable mix of the two traditions, oftentimes having more Jewish practices mixed in than they had actually had before…
Jews in the Lotus
The book, “The Jew in the Lotus“, by Rodger Kamenetz (1994) describes the Jewish fascination with Buddhism. A Huffpost article gives”5 reasons why Jews gravitate towards Buddhism”. There is a very funny story in that article about a Jewish lady seeking a guru in the Himalayas, but I will not give out the spoiler…
According to the Huffpost article, 30% of all western Buddhists are Jewish! As a reminder, Jews comprise 1-1.5% of the population in the U.S. and Canada.
From my own encounters and observations, I can corroborate that about 25-30% of westerners interested in the Indian spiritual paths in America are Jewish. I am not talking here about yoga for flexibility and exercise. I am talking about “the real thing”, even though, clearly, many of us are attracted to the physical branches of yoga (hatha yoga) for their own sake. The “real thing” extends all the way from meditation, non-violence practice (ahimsa) to “the higher path”, but usually, not always, skips on the Hindu gods and goddesses.
The gurus in the West adapted to that. For example, when I stayed in the Integral Yoga Institute in San Fransisco, the swamis celebrated Shivaratri (the main Shiva festival) with a puja, but for the students/tenants it was entirely optional and not even especially recommended. Our “integral practice” spanned Hatha Yoga and Pranayama (breathing practices), meditation, Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation), fasting retreats, vegetarianism, chanting, blessings and a meal prayer, but did not include pujas or Bhakti (devotional practice).
About a third of all people I met who were involved with Indian spirituality in both San Francisco and New Mexico were Jewish. When “The Mother” came to Santa Fe, a large percentage of the crowd, chanting Hindu mantras and expecting hugs, were Jews.
The Osho Phenomenon
As to the “Osho (Rajneesh) phenomenon“, according to a survey conducted by Swami Krishna Deva and quoted in a Wikipedia entry on the Rajneesh movement, out of 300 American sannyasins polled in Pune, half came from California, 97 percent were white, 25 percent were Jewish and 85 percent belonged to the middle and upper-middle classes. 64 percent of the followers had a four-year college degree. There were more women than men. And I add from personal knowledge – quite a few were Israelis.
Salve for the Jewish soul
Historically Jews had an endless story of woes with our “daughter religions”, not making them good candidates for religious quests. As a kid in a secular school, I was taught not to make the plus sign (+) when doing math, as it resembled a cross… The sign we used did not have the lower extension. Similarly, we do not use BC and AD ( Before Christ, Anno Domini), but CE and BCE (Common Era, Before Common era). By now that became common practice in North America generally, making our lives easier… Plus, Christians can still see it as “Christian Era”, so everybody is happy.
Our religion sets a taboo over the idea of “idolatry”. To cross that taboo requires considerable courage, even for so-called seculars. To many observant Jews, even Catholic Christianity is idolatry. The femaleness of Mary, Jesus’s status as a son of God, the sculptures, the saints, the Trinity – all these are non starters. Islam is “clean” of idolatry, but has low appeal for the average Jew or Israeli on other accounts.
Against this background, India often serves as a salve on our agonized Jewish souls, seeking for more spirit in our lives, especially after the surprising declaration by Israel’s head rabbi that Hinduism is actually monotheistic and not idolatrous…
That does not mean we wouldn’t have gone on the eastern spiritual paths otherwise (I certainly did, and I only read about this auspicious declaration researching for this post…). Yet, it might have created a general positive atmsophere regarding India in both Israel and Jewish communities abroad. Such a conciliatory religious atmopshere makes it easier for seekers to merge, converge, amalgamate and mix our own personal Jewish-Indian spiritual salads. Vegetarianism in India is great help!
Hodi, Yehudi and the Ten Tribes
Simba, a nice easy-going guy of good will, manages the Shankar Palace Hotel in Pushkar, where 80% of the guests, other than Indians, are Israelis. He socializes with everybody and is well loved by the guests. Simba was proud to show me a Kippa (skullcap, Jewish head cover) he got from one of the Israeli visitors. He said he loved it…
Simba also drew my attention to the similarity between “Hodi” (Indian) and “Yehudi” (Jewish). Others see a resemblance between “Brahman” and “Abraham”. I personally noticed that the word “darshan” and “drasha” have the same root.
Separately, there are some Indian groups who claim to originate from the ten tribes, e.g. the group called Bnei Menashe, some of whom have eventually emigrated to Israel.
The Rabbis Gave Hinduism a Kosher Certificate...
Gladly accepting the differences…
In February 2007, Swami Dayananda Saraswati organised a first Hindu-Jewish meeting at New Delhi, facilitated by “The World Council of Religious Leaders”. The Hindu-Jewish dialogue was aimed at “highlighting common cultural features and philosophies… while gladly accepting the differences” between the two oldest religions in the world.
A second meeting was held in 2008 in Jerusalem. It emphasized the importance of honest dialogue between the two religious traditions to resolve “seemingly irresolvable differences”.
Remarkably, the Jerusalem conference concluded with a landmark declaration that Hindus worship “One Supreme Being” and are not idolatrous . “The implications of this are profound in content and far-reaching in effect.” Probably as far reaching as the distance between India and Israel, now traversed by so many Israeli India-lovers, young and old…
Reversing the millenia
Swami Dayananda said the dialogue “completely reversed wrong views and erroneous perceptions held over millennia”.
The declaration recognizes that “one Supreme Being in its formless and manifest aspects has been worshipped by Hindus over millennia. The Hindus relate to only the One Supreme Being when they pray to a particular manifestation. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘idols’. They worship devataas who are manifestation of the One Supreme Being”.
In other words, behind the creator, maintainer and destroyer, the gods and goddesses, there is Brahman, the ultimate unity, the substrate of the world or God, whatever you want to call it.
I have noticed, as I watch my favorite Bollywood series “Tujhse hai Raabta” on Israeli cable TV (with English subtitles, of course), that when people pray or talk to Ganesha, they refer to him simply as “God”, as in “I preayed to God”.
A special drop in the bucket
Swami Dayananda concludes: “Now after an honest and open dialogue they have realized that the accommodating heart of a Hindu is born of his/her acceptance of one Supreme Being who is invoked in many ways and in many forms by different faiths including theirs.”
In other words, yes, we are a drop in the bucket, if a bit of an unusual one…
The declaration makes it easier for an Israeli Jew to feel comfortable in this fascinating country. It also makes it easier to experiment.
Shared historical perspectives
India is well-known for religious tolerance. The very multiplicity of the gods, their personal connection with their devotees and the profusion of other religions in the land all attest to it. Both India and Israel accomodate large Muslim minorities (14.2% in India, 17,7% in Israel), sizable Christian minorities (2.3% in India, 2% in Israel), and others. Both countries advocate freedom of religion.
Missionary activity, though, is prohibited in Israel. Similarly, in India, Dr Katju, India’s Minister for Home Affairs and Law (2013), said that while everyone in India was free to propagate his religion, the Government did not want people from outside to come and do it:
“If they come here to evangelise, then the sooner they stop doing it the better.“
And Mr Rajagopalachari, Premier of Madras added:
“Hindus are most tolerant but that does not mean that missionaries could forever come and treat Hindus as heathen and expect Hindu tolerance to protect them against the rightful indignation of respectable people described as heathen.”
Dayananda said Hindus were persecuted historically because they were perceived to be idol worshippers. For that reason, it was important to him that his Jewish counterparts would see his religion in the correct light.
“…both religions in their own ways, have gone through the painful experiences of persecution, oppression and destruction. Therefore, they realise the need to educate the present and succeeding generations about their past, in order that they will make right efforts to promote religious harmony”.
The swami stressed that Jews were allowed to practice their religion in India with dignity, while being persecuted in other lands. Rabbi Metzger, on his part, acknowledged that Jews have lived in India for 2,000 years and have never been discriminated against: “This is something unparalleled in (our) history”.
The declaration went on to say:
The two traditions teach faith in one supreme being who is the ultimate reality, who has created this world in its blessed diversity and who has communicated divine ways of action for humanity for different peoples in different times and places.
In other words, different religions suit different peoples. No coercion. No judgement.
Both Hindus and Jews can agree that the same God “wanted” different peoples to worship in different ways. That is also why both are not missionary religions and do not proselytize. At the same time, we wish nobody would try to proselytize us, but that, as both peoples know all too well, has not been the way of history.
An eclectic temple in Nadi Village, Himachal pradesh. Picture quality is poor as it was just about to downpour.
The Israeli Take on the Spiritual Salad
Not really new…
Starting with Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion, yoga practice was in. Spiritual ideas have always hovered in the background.
The Shalom Hartman Institute is focused on Judaism and modernity. Its mission includes “developing compelling Jewish ideas capable of competing in the modern marketplace of identities and thought” and promoting religious pluralism in a Jewish society.
According to the Hartman Institute, in the early years of the country, “Down-to-earth Zionism was all that good Israelis needed in order to have a fulfilling life…Spirituality, in the age-old sense of connection with the divine, or transcendence here on earth, continued to be present, in various forms, but the urgent existential necessities of the young state did not leave enough room for that kind of searching.
Still, even then, there were movements like Shechterism, a spiritual group that had established a unique vegetarian village with a strong spiritual bent – Yodfat in the Lower Galilee.
The soul of secular Israel
In the quoted article,” The soul of Secular Israel”, it is stated:
Israelis have come a long way in their understanding of spirituality. From an either-or society of secular pragmatism versus religious spiritualism, with very few shades in between, Israel has come to accept spirituality as an important social and cultural element.
I have one issue with that statement – I wouldn’t describe traditional Orthodox Judaism as “religious spiritualism”…
That is precisely why people get attracted to India. Traditional Orthodox Judaism is lacking in something India is rich in. The exception is Kabbalah, a very esoteric non-mainstream branch of Judaism, that had a resurgence of late, even among pop stars… Still, it is traditionally meant for men over 40, and not for the average aspirant.
In the words of Ellen Frankel on Huffingtonpost:
Many Jewish seekers find that the Judaism they grew up in lacked a spiritual component with which they could connect. While many Jews today can identify with the cultural, social and historical aspects of Judaism, the spiritual dimension for many is significantly lacking.
The Hartman article admits that:
The journey to India, made by thousands of young men and women fresh out of the IDF, left a strong impression on many, and broke down the walls of cynicism toward spirituality in general, and ritual in particular.
Those who “graduated” from India helped to “spiritualize” Israel, both the so-called “secular” society and the religious one. If they become religious, they do it in a different way.
There are now many renewal movements inside Judaism, both in America and in Israel. They all try to inject the “spirit” back into our religion.
In this secular Rosh Hashana celebration at an Israeli restaurant in Pushkar the crowd performs some Jewish ritual, but after the meal everybody smoked pot and played cards.
There is also a new road that was first paved in music, as the Hartman article observes. It is a sort of bridging, “merging” without changing one’s basic “tribal” identity. Artists like Meir Banai and his brothers converted the Israeli secular music scene into a “spiritual blend” of sorts. Their music appeals to mixed audiences. Concomittantly, an interest in Jewish studies in a non-religious way had become the “in” thing in today’s Tel Aviv. A good example for this trend is Beit Bina in Dharamkot, where I had a great Kabbalat Shabbat experience. .
The Israeli relationship with spirituality, according to Hartman, has been “complex and fluid“.
Complex and fluid
Here are some examples from my personal experience, observations and general knowledge:
- There is a settlement in the Galilee, established 1982, of Transcendental meditators, called Hararit. Many other Yishuvim (villages), especially in the north and the south have “spiritual orientations”, like Yodfat, Harduf, Amirim, Neot Smadar.
- There are yoga festivals every year in the Arava desert.
- Vipassana had become very popular. An Israeli Center conducts retreats in Kibbutz Degania B in northern Israel, but many do it in India.
- There are multiple yoga worshops and centers. I took a “Deeper look into Yoga” workshop that concentrated on pranayama and meditation. It was held in a beautiful setting outside Jerusalem. The teacher has a “secret” guru “hidden” somewhere off-mainstream-Israeli-trail India.
- There are concerts of sitar and tabla music held around the country regularly.
- There are several Israeli gurus in India with their own communities of followers.
- Hatha Yoga is taught regularly in community centers around the country along with Pilates and Zumba…
- I have a friend living in central Israel, who consults with a group of Indian sages before making any important decision in his life. He met them while in India, but is not big on travelling. The Internet helps to close the geographical gap.
- I knew an Israeli woman, in her 40s, who had been living for 8 years in the Pune Osho Ashram. She came to Israel due to family circumstances, but could not wait to get back there. Her home now was clearly in Pune. And there are others.
- As mentioned elsewhere, I met in Bhagsu two Israeli Buddhist monks about to board the plane back to Israel, create a center and spread the message. There was a posted ad at Tushita for classes given by an Israeli Buddhist nun in Ramat Gan.
- I met Israeli guys with Kali malas around their necks (See pic above – Chinnamasta)
- Ex-Israeli-sannyasins donated to me some orange shirts when I arrived in America. They relinquished the Rajneesh movement after the Oregon debacle. Nonetheless, they kept practicing his teachings, but without the robes…
- Many Israelis meditate regularly on an individual basis, many practice yoga.
The Desert Ashram
Shamanic circle, connecting with the Earth, Ashram Bamidbar, Shittim, Israel . A large Om can be seen inscribed on the desert gravelled soil behind the tent.
There is an “ashram” in the Israeli south, originally founded by ex-Osho sannyasins, called “Ashram Bamidbar” (desert ashram). Now it is more of an umbrella for diverse spiritually-related things with some Osho inspiration.
They have ongoing festivals, workshops and a residentail work-meditation arrangement (the WOMP program). I personally go there about twice a year to attend “Zorba the Buddha“ festivals or other India-inspired workshops like “Sacred Journey“. The idea is that Zorba brings Mediterranean lightness of spirit and joy, and Buddha brings the deeper messaging layers. Works for me! It is always a lot of fun. There is something for everybody, and a lot of good music!
On Kabbalat Shabbat the sacred music is Jewish, but the tone and the chanting are Indian. Singers often perform Indian music. Musicians play guitars, sitars, tablas and didgeridoos. “Active meditations” a-la-Osho evolve into trance dancing for the 4 elements.
A special tent is always allotted for a deep pondering of “Who am I” and the Jnana Yoga path to enlightenment. When the majority of us dance, some sit and meditate in that tent.
Integrated into the festivals is also American Indian spiritualism through shamanistic activities, sweat lodges, women and men circles, and much more.
A Side Note: Spiritual Salad and Mixed Families
Spiritual salads and international travel sometimes bring about very tangible results.
During my 2.5 month visit to India, I came across 4 cases of mixed Indian/Israeli couples, all of which were comprised of an Israeli woman and an Indian man. All were running restaurants with rich Israeli menus. When I was fortunate to see the children, they were, of course, gorgeous.
I admit it was a bit weird, at first, to see half-Israeli kids running up and down the steep Bhagsu roads, or having their home in the holy, but highly messy, city of Pushkar. But…
…did I not mention that the world is, indeed, getting smaller?
Up and coming: More about my analysis and speculations about the various reasons, shallow and deep, obvious and not so obvious, Israelis are attracted to India.
In preparation also: a personal post about my very own “spiritual salad”.
Keep posted. Subscribe.
Appendix: The Effect of Westerners on Buddhism
The “Loop Effect”
Westerners are affected by Indian spirituality, but apparently the process is reciprocal. I disagree with people who say that India has now become materialistic, while the West has spiritualized. I think both statements are untrue. “The West” has ways to go to be considered “spiritual”, though many are seeking and experimenting, and India’s traditions are still very strong and solid despite it becoming a world power economically.
Nonetheless, it is true that the contact with westerners has an effect on the religions as practiced in India. A good example, again, is Buddhism.
According to Britannica, the “westernization of Buddhism” had a loop effect on the religion as it is practiced in Asia!
In some situations, Buddhists themselves introduced reforms designed to make their religion a more appealing and effective force in the modern world. Even in the late 19th century, Buddhist leaders put forward a more rationalized interpretation of Buddhism. They de-emphasized the supernormal and ritualized aspects of the tradition, and put the focus more on the continuity between Buddhism and science and on ethics and morality.
According to its proponents, this new direction actually represents a recovery of the true Buddhism of the Buddha. The Dalai Lama himself strongly supports the incorporation of science into the religion.
So-called “Engaged Buddhism” is also a result of western influences. It focuses on progressive social, political, and economic action in the outside world, and on the pursuit of peace and justice globally.
The transforming power of western Buddhist nuns
While at Tushita I read a compilation of essays on inter-religious interactions that was displayed in the Gompa (main hall). The anthology, titled “Interfaith Insights”, included an article by an American Buddhist nun of Jewish origin, Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron. She describes her struggle to fit into a traditional Tibetan nunnery. It was a cultural challenge and a path previously untrodden.
Tibetan nuns were treated by the hierarchy as second class. Even the traditional ordination path for nuns, called “Bikshuni ordination”, was dropped by the sideway over years of patriarchial control. At first, Chodron tried to fit into the group she was assigned to live with. Eventually, in a respectful manner, she started to change things from within.
By now, her achievements include, among others: directing the spiritual program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy, being the spiritual director and resident teacher at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, writing 25 books on Buddhism, re-establishing the Bhikshuni lineage of Buddhist nuns and cultivating interfaith dialogue. She founded the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery in America, Sravasti Abbey in Washington State, and is the abess there.
Thubten Chodron travels worldwide to teach the Dharma: North America, Latin America, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and the former Soviet states.
Obviously, all that is unprecedented, completely foreign to the traditional way of life of the native Tibetan nun…
From London to a cave in Ladakh
Born as Diane Perry to a London fishermonger’s family, Tenzin Palmo spent 12 years in solitary retreat in a Ladakh cave. This earned her outstanding respect among both Asian and western teachers and quite a universal fame.
I heard about her from a German friend I met in Bhagsu, who told me that Palmo runs a center where many westerners come to study Buddhism and get inspiration. She urged me to get a seating with her (did not happen, maybe next time…) The center she established is dedicated to offering nuns optimal opportunities to study, debate, and meditate—a privilege usually reserved for monks.
The effect on the status of women in the general Tibetan society
I saw the effect of these outstanding women’s work in an unexpected place – the Tibetan historical museum in McLoed Ganj. A movie was displayed in the museum several times a day, but suprisingly, it was not about the horrendous persecution of the Buddhists in Tibet, which is what the museum is about. Instead, it was about a father, a good man, but traditional, who had to be “re-educated” by the females in his household in order to allow his daughter to get an education. She eventually returned from an American university to establish a hospital department in brain neurosurgery for the Tibetan community!!!
The “Fourth Turning of the Wheel of Dharma”
In the United States and Canada, new Buddhist communities have grown fast. I was lucky to have visited Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, by sheer serendipity. Santa Fe, NM, where I lived, also has a Tibetan Buddhist stupa and center. Tibetan arts and crafts are sometimes sold in special fairs in town to raise money for the community.
In places like this, older Buddhist traditions are being modified by new ways of thinking. Western converts often place a greater emphasis upon the practice of meditation than upon monastic life and rituals. Some Buddhists believe that the process of acculturation in the West is actually leading to a “Fourth Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” a new form of Buddhism distinct from the traditional forms of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, but incorporating aspects of each. I believe women will play a more central role in the religion in its new incarnation.