America’s Buddhist Sister Act

Ashley Baxstrom:  In case you missed it – we’ve already covered that Catholic nuns are having a hard time of it of late, what with the Pope calling them radical and all. But we just wanted to shine another spot of light into all that darkness. Good news under the general heading of “nuns”!

“General” because we’re not talking about Catholic nuns – sorry ladies – but Buddhist nuns, anyway! The Sravasti Abbey outside of Newport, Washington can now boast five U.S.-born, fully ordained nuns, and hopes to add another this summer. The Abbey, a Tibetan Buddhist community, is one of the only places in “the West” where people can study the teachings of the Buddha.

Venerable Thubten Chodron, the abbess and founder of Sravasti Abbey in 2003, told Religion News Service, “I think this is a big thing because this isn’t a Buddhist country.”

In fact the seemingly, not un-, but non-Americanness of Buddhism is a major thread running through the article. The author certainly celebrates the accomplishments of the monks and nuns at Sravasti, and is never demeaning towards them or the tradition; but a sense of the exotic nature of Buddhism, the otherness of it all, comes across.

Chodron “spent a decade as resident teacher at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, but had no monastic community to call her own,” the article says. “…Like most Buddhist women, she had to travel to Taiwan to receive her ordination.”

Part of what makes Buddhism seem so foreign to the U.S., besides the slim numbers, is that it is presented as a tradition which one is not born into and does not grow up with. Rather, it reads as a spiritual path which adults study and choose, one which can separate them from their families and local community members. The article talks specifically about being ordained, and the nuns it interviews says they are still in touch with their families, but they are undoubtedly setting upon a distinct path – “first-generation, home-grown monastics” who gave up careers and possessions to form their own community.

Is there something unique about Buddhist monastics, something distinct from Catholic monasticism, say? At least in the minds of popular media? Is Buddhism still foreign to the U.S.? It seems like a silly question to me, but this article makes me wonder if it’s a question in the backs of many reporters’, and indeed Americans’, minds.

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