Deep WInter REtreat 2021

In January 2021, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett co-led a 5-day retreat on the teachings on the teachings and lives of Buddhist women over the centuries. Mindfulness Northwest Teacher Carolyn McCarthy was assistant teacher.

The books Tim was working from for these talks were The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women edited by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon; and The First Free Women: Original Poems Inspired by the Early Buddhist Nuns by Matty Weingast.

Talk 1: Tim Burnett - Sujata’s Offering: Buddhist Women Lead the Way

[go straight to Sujata's Offering - story and entire commentary - p. 299-301]


A powerful story from long ago and a powerful story by a present day teacher - Vimalasara - in her order they use their ordination names in everyday life. In my order we're more flexible about that and I usually use mine only in the context of formal Buddhist practice. My Buddhist name Nomon Doan means "responding gate, peace & harmony" which is also an encouragement towards generosity and constancy just like the life long ago of Sujata and the powerful experiences of Vimalasara when she was growing up at Valerie. 


We don't pay a lot of attention to the meanings of names. Maybe they did more back when. The birth name of the teacher who wrote this amazing commentary, Valerie, is from the Latin Valerius: means Meaning. Strong, brave (valiant), "Fierce".  It certainly sounds like she is that. And also very insightful, generous, and understanding.


What does your name mean? My given name of Timothy means "honoring God" which always struck me as odd being from a totally non-religious family - we never went to church as a family ever - and yet to my great surprise I ended up ordaining into a religion. And also surprisingly my family has been very supportive of that. I may have seen American Zen as not like that kind of religion - about meditation and enlightenment - but still. And I'm only lately feeling any comfort at all with the word "God" - it's always I have to admit been a word that I found disturbing - and yet I seem to have devoted my life to honoring God nonetheless. God or Spirit or Awakening or something. I'm more likely to think about presence or kindness or just-being or maybe a technical Buddhist term like "emptiness" or some complex sounding philosophical thing like "remembering to feel the interpenetration of the relative and the absolute".  


What have you honored in your life?


Our Deep Winter retreat's source material is from this wonderful book The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-FIve Centuries of Awakened Women. It's a collection of stories of women practitioners - they are almost all Buddhist stories. I put they were all Zen women on the website but that's not really so. And the amazing thing is that Florence Caplow and Sue Moon organized contemporary women teachers to write commentaries about each story. I was flipping through the short bios of these contributors at the back and there are so many. I don't know how they managed to coordinate such a massive effort. I remember Florence telling me something about she and Sue going on retreat in a little house her family owns on the Washington Coast and spreading the pages of the manuscript all over the floor of the entire place trying to figure out how to organize the stories. But I can't imagine the number of emails and calls and backs and forths with all of the women teachers. And the effort of editing them. Sue was the editor for the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship for many years so I know she had great editors chops. It's an amazing effort. A real treasure.


My teacher, Norman Fischer, is also the teacher and friend of Sue and Florence and I remember him telling the story of how he started to "get it" more deeply what a deep problem it is that the stories of Buddhism, like with other traditions, are so utterly dominated by men. 


In the daily routine at Zen temples there's a recitation of the names of our ancestors. Another practice of gratitude. Part of the day there. Well one time a woman Norman didn't know very well came to see him in tears after that morning ritual. He was surprised and asked her why she was upset. It was because she was feeling the deep pain in her heart because the women were missing from the list. Of course he knew this. In his head, but he started then to feel it much more deeply in his heart. And then he says she left the interview room and he never saw her again. Which is strange in that setting - usually you see people day after day. Makes one wonder if she was somehow the manifestation of the missing women in our traditional lists. 


I want to share just a little of what Norman wrote in the introduction because there's an interesting point there about ways of practicing with these powerful stories.


[bottom of page xi and top of page xii]


Back to today's story. Sujata had a practice of gratitude. Once a year making and offering at an important natural spot - where a lovely tree grows. We all have gratitude practices like this. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Thanksgiving. 


And nothing is stopping us from adding more. It's very normal in Asia to have a little ceremony on the death days - anniversaries of the passing - of family members - often the local monk or nun comes to help you with this. It can be a full time job for them running around helping families with these memorial ceremonies but that's another story. We could do that too. And we could also choose to celebrate good things happening in our lives every year, or every month, or every week, or every day.


A beautiful practice of this is as soon as you wake up tomorrow morning see if you can remember the intention to be grateful today and a good moment of practice is to pause when you first swing out of bed and your feet are on the floor - on the earth - just say to yourself "grateful" and pause and breathe a moment. Even if you usually skitter right off to pee and start breakfast or whatever maybe you can pause there for a breath. Grateful. You don't need to fish around in your mind for what you're grateful for either: just grateful. Just the practice of gratefulness. 


And amazingly - one year when it was the day for the special offering to express her appreciation for her good fortune in this life it was also a pivotal day in the Buddha's journey. He'd just spent six years on hard core practice. Really hard core. Eating just a grain of millet a day. Meditating all day and all night. There are all kinds of hard core practices described like standing in a cold lake without moving for 3 days. The idea he and his practice buddies had was the only way to be free from suffering was to be free from desire. And the way to become free from desire was to cut yourself off from absolutely everything that's pleasant. They got so into this they nearly starved themselves to death. And while they were having powerful visions and deep deep deep meditations the Buddha noticed it wasn't really working. His heart wasn't at rest, he wasn't feeling any kind of lasting peace. It was so hard.


And not surprisingly I guess the five of them were all men. We do have a way of over-doing it don't we? And along comes Sujata with a commitment to a much softer way of life and practice. A life of gratefulness. And she came along at just the perfect time. The Buddha was basically taking a breather - "wow that sure didn't work. what now?" - and here she comes with a golden bowl of thick rice-milk smiling at him, offering it to him with heart. To the mild disgust of the other four hard core aescetics he right away feel a big YES - yes, I accept. I am grateful. 


And the way the story's told he's not mad at himself for getting side tracked for 6 years of hard core. He just receives the teaching and offering of this woman and moves on. I think my mind might have been tempted to tell me what an idiot I was for straining and suffering and trying too hard all those years. But then again maybe we need the hard periods we go through. And when we can finally relax we appreciate it all the more. Whew.


Our wonderful commentator on the story Vimalasara doesn't say a lot about herself but what she shares is so powerful. An orphan. A woman of color. A feminist. Clearly a deeply committed practitioner of Buddhism. Here's the paragraph again where she shares about a moment of awakening around race and gratitude. 


[bottom of page 300]


She doesn't share about her years of hardcore practice but you can feel they're in there can't you. And then a moment of accepting the offering of sincerity and generosity around her from the white women she was in retreat with one day. 


I've had many powerful women teachers in my life and I'll share a little about them as we go along. And I want to apologize in advance for anything I say about all of this that comes off as less than skillful or sensitive. I know I have massive blind spots as a privileged person - it's been powerful gradually getting it through the thick skull how advantaged and lucky I've been to be born into the body of a white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class, American guy who received a good education. I don't know what I did to be so fortunate and I haven't yet come up with an annual offering to make at a tree for this. But I've also been learning these last years that with that good fortune comes great responsibility and that there is a lot I'm not sensitive to yet. I'm working on it. I know we all are. We're working on it. 


How can I be real, and grateful, show up for my life fully, and be a blessing for others? A blessing for the world? I don't use that word "blessing" in my everyday thinking but if I pause to really feel into this stuff I can remember, on a good day, that that's what this is all about. This thing called life. Can I feel more fully my good fortune and express my gratitude in that way? By being a blessing for this world and not veer down one of the many other self-centered or blind pathways that are here? The good thing is that it's not a burden to practice in this way. When I am more in harmony with receiving and giving this bowl of rice-milk I'm a lot happier, calmer, more joyful. To be a blessing is to live a blessed life. And maybe I can come closer to living up to my Dharma name of "responding gate, harmony and piece" and my given name of "honoring God" - how about you?


I want to close with an image from a Malaysian painting of the scene of Sujata offering the Buddha-to-be the rice milk. Isn't it interesting how feminine the Buddha is portrayed?








Talk 2: Tim Burnett - Practicing with Loss

All humans much live with losses of all kinds and somehow know happiness and peace. That was the Buddha's original question in a nutshell. In the fable version of his life he grew up completely insulated from loss and pain and once he learned about sickness, old age, and death in his mid-20's he was utterly shocked. Shocked that that there were such things for sure, but even more shocked that anyone could live with that reality and still be happy and content. 


How have you digested and practiced with your losses? How do you understand grief and grieving? 


I know I'm increasingly suspicious of the idea of "moving on" - does moving on make sense? The people I've lost are always with me. I love them. Why would I even want to move on? And yet I don't want to be crushed by the pain of their loss either. I want to love them and love the ones who are with me know. I want to love the world and love my life. And my optimistic hope is that the vision of practice is that this is absolutely possible without diminishing or stuffing or hiding from our pain. That there is joyful living that includes our losses, includes our pain. 


We talk in the Buddhist trade a lot about being "free from suffering" but I don't know if "free from" is quite right. To me it feels a lot more real that we practice to become "free in suffering" as suffering is always with us. 


Today I want to share two different stories of powerful women practitioners, again from Buddha's day, who knew great loss. How they worked with it, how they got hooked in it - in both stories they were bound in suffering for a time, how the Buddha encouraged them to practice, and how they came to freedom.


[Kisagotami p 176]


[Patacara p 197]


Therigatha poems:



There is a wonderful collection of poetry by these nuns who practiced with the Buddha. The collection called the Therigatha is actually the oldest existing literary collection of women's writing that we know of. 


There are poems in the Therigatha by both of these women talking about their journeys. This is from a recent new translation where the translator has cast their voices in a contemporary way to help us connect and I think they're really beautiful. 


Kisagotami's poem is about the story we just read. She writes to encourage her sister nuns, and us, to keep on with our practice even in the face of great loss.


[Kisagotami p. 92]


And Patacara's poem is about much later in her practice. She describes a moment of release and realization. During a retreat like this one let's say. 


[Patacara p. 64]


Can you relate to this sense of connecting deeply with what's right in front of you? It makes me think of deeply seeing a little English Daisy in the lawn at Samish Island where we usually did these retreats pre-Covid.


As you walk your neighborhood today maybe you can see it as an opportunity to connect deeply with what is. To pause and taking bushes and trees and birds. To pause and look up at the sky.


I'm exploring a new romantic relationship with someone who's spent the last 30 years in California so she's not used to our gray cloudy drizzly skies in the northwest. And she was here a week ago for 5 or 6 days when it was so stormy. There wasn't a fully blue sky day the whole time she was here and it inspired me to look up at the sky more. In support of her I thought - I was kind of joking around really - look all of the different shades of gray, honey, look at the layers of cloud, look there's a little blue in the gray over there. But actually I found it quite entrancing and helpful myself. Our gray skies actually are beautiful. Rich. Layered. Sensuous even. Let's remember to look up at the sky just like Patacara looked down at the dribble of water from washing her foot. 


Our practice helps us access the extraordinary nature of what we so easily take for ordinary. It makes me think of one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver. I use this in teaching all the time so I've probably read this poem 200 or 300 times by now. And every time it entrances me and inspires me. Let's close with this:


Mary Oliver - The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, 

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-‐

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should l have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?



Talk 3: Tim Burnett - Modern Buddhist Women

Good morning. 


I want to bring our stories of strong women practitioners forward to the 20th century with three short stories. In the stories we've looked at so far from the Buddha's day the women were the students and the Buddha the teacher. Each of the three women we've met so far: Sujata, Kisagotami, and Patacara all went on to be nuns and teachers for the sangha. 


The Buddha did include women as full members of his community of practice - his sangha - pretty much. We'll circle back to that tomorrow. But to the extent he was able he did include women and a long chain of choices and actions and cultural shifts from that day to this including the hard and courageous work of modern feminists give us an American Buddhist movement that's now more or less gender diverse. The leadership in most sangha I know of is about evenly men and women and there are usually a few non-binary folks who, I hope, feel fully included. 


Or at least kind of close to just and diverse, I know the patriarchy is still embedded in everything but at least it's powers have weakened. And this morning we meet three powerful women teachers from the 20th century.


[Anne Aitken, p. 192] note about Robert Aitken's prominence, but Anne's family funded the start of their temples in in Hawaii. Michael Kieran's talking about "the old guy" but he never mentioned Anne to me. 


[Maurine Stuart, p. 335] note about Gyokuko's teacher Kennett Roshi as a pioneering woman


[Maylie Scott, p. 144] 


Therigata Poems


Another Anyatara p. 47


Vimala p. 49


Talk 4: Tim Burnett - First Buddhist Women: Born in Fire

[Mahaprajapati p. 224]


The Eight Special rules Thannissara was speaking about do seem designed to hold nuns as inferior to monks. 


One rule has to do with seniority. A big deal in traditional Buddhism is made about seniority. The monastics line up in order of their ordination when they go off to beg for food in the village, they line up in order of seniority in ceremonies. The system makes it clear who's senior and who's junior and they're encouraged to honor the seniors.


And so one of the Eight Rules is: 


(1) A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day.


Several of the rules are about the internal workings of the monastic order. Like to support the monastics in following the ethical rules there's a special ceremony at the new moon and the half moon every month to recite all the monastic rules and for anyone who'd broken a rule to confess. The Special Rules stipulate that the monks are in charge of organizing that ceremony and the nuns have to confess not just to the other nuns but also go over to the monk's compound and confess to them too. Plus a particularly ugly rule about ethical behavior within the monastic Sangha is rule #8:  admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden. They were barred from criticizing the monks. There is not a similar rule in the other direction.


But the most powerful rule which has hamstrung the nun's orders is about the ordination of new nuns. While monks can be ordained by senior monks to ordain a woman as a nun you need most senior monks AND senior nuns to conduct the ceremony.  Since there were always more monks than nuns this rule led to the nun's order dying out in most parts of the Buddhist world.  And in our lifetimes there's been a wonderful effort made to revive the nuns' orders. And one of the important figures in that movement actually runs a monastery


Let's dive into the particulars of that. This is a little more academic maybe but it's important to know this stuff. This is from a Buddhist encyclopedia:


Bhikkhuni ordination lineages

The Theravadin nun's order flourished in Sri Lanka from around 250 BCE to around 1100 CE, but then vanished. Since nuns are needed to ordain more nuns then once the lineage has vanished it can't be restored. But before it vanished in Sri Lanka, the ordination of bhikkhunis was transferred from Sri Lanka to China in 443 CE and from there spread to Asian countries where it is found in Mahayana Buddhist traditions in China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and Japan.


 There has been a recent movement to restore the tradition, as preserved in East Asia, back to the Theravadin traditions that it originated from, and also to some other Mahayana traditions where it has vanished such as Tibetan Buddhism. [19]


20th century and 21st century ordination of women

In Theravada Buddhism today, the full Bhikkhuni nuns' ordination lineage has been restored in Sri Lanka, but Theravadin nuns in other countries find it extremely difficult to obtain full ordination. Although some expressed an interest in receiving the full ordination via the surviving Mahayana full Bhikkhuni ordination in the course of the 20th century, it was not simply the difficulties of ordination from a different school of Buddhism that deterred them. 


The first Western woman to receive full ordination was Freda Bedi, in Hong Kong in 1972, from by Venerable Minh Chi and Venerable Sek Sai Chung. As the nun's orders did survive in China.


Tibetan Buddhism never had a full bhikshuni ordination lineage, nuns were always held at the level of novice throughout Tibetan Buddhist history until Tenzin Palmo ordained since 1973 and Ven. Thubten Chodron, ordained since 1977. Before then it had only a tradition of novice nuns. However, it has had a number of famous women practitioners who were yoginis. 


Many distinguished Buddhist scholars and laypeople have lent their support to establishing Tibetan traditions of full ordination.


[and here's an example of the many sneaky catch-22's in religious systems in probably in all organizations to keep women subservient:]


At present, the Tibetan nuns are prevented from completing the Geshe degree, since Vinaya is one of the five subjects studied and they are not permitted to study it without already being bhikshunis." [23]. 


The Karmapa announced in 2015 that he was taking steps towards instituting full ordination of nuns within the Kagyupa tradition, in lineage from the Dharmagupta tradition which is renowned for its strict observance of the vinaya lineage [24]


Bhikshuni Prof. Dr. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, President of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women stated, while talking about Gender Equality and Human Rights said: "It would be helpful if Tibetan nuns could study the bhikshuni vows before the ordination is established. The traditional custom is that one is only allowed to study the bhikshu or bhikshuni vows after having taken them. "


So the Buddhist nun's lineages are like this fragile thread through history. Flourishing one place - Sri Lanka - and then getting established somewhere else - China - and dying out in the first place. And in some cases - like in Tibet - never being fully established at all. 


We do tend to love and idealize the Tibetans - who doesn't love HH Dalai Lama - and yet that tradition was also a feudal tradition that never allowed nuns to raise even to the somewhat subservient status of the original nuns. Holding them back in the early novice stage. 


The far out thing in that little story is the influence of Western women. Most of the Tibetan Buddhist teachers did accept full ordination for women in the 1970's when an English woman - who became Tenzin Palmo and an American woman who became Tenzin Chodron somehow insisted in a way that actually worked that it was time for that empty glass ceiling to break.


And here's a wild thing for those of us in Washington State. Tenzin Chodron started a monastery in Eastern Washington - an hour north of Spokane. And it's one of the few places in the world where fully ordained men and women practice together in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It's called Sravasti Abbey.


I was curious to share with you her story but I couldn't find a concise telling of it although in her talks she's spoken about her history. Ven. Tenzin Chodron has written a few books about Tibetan Buddhism too and is a reliable source for sure.


But I did find a report on an Australian woman who also ordained as a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Her ordained name is Thubten Chokyi and here's her story as she told it to a journalist:


I grew up a Catholic and considered becoming a Catholic nun but ended up pursuing theatre instead, because I always loved singing and dancing.


Over the years, I moved away from Catholicism in adulthood and started looking into contemplative traditions, including Hinduism and Sufism, but it was Buddhism that I was really taken with. I became a Buddhist when I was in my 30s and continued with my singing and dancing, plus teaching Aboriginal Studies at the University of NSW.


But as time went on, it became more evident to me that I wanted to take an oath and become ordained as a Buddhist nun.


I wanted to be more focused on the spiritual path and not get caught up in other things, such as socialising. I had a sense of wanting to devote myself to others and get some deeper meaning in life.


So in my 40s, I spoke to my lama (teacher) to request ordination and he agreed that it was clear it was the path for me. I did a course to prepare for ordination and moved into the Vajrayana Institute in Ashfield NSW, where I still live today, and was fully ordained when I was 49 years old. 


I was ready to let go of fashions and hairstyles – it saves a lot of time when you don't worry about what you're wearing. Becoming a nun also means taking a vow of no singing, dancing or romantic relationships ­– the idea is that it allows you to conserve your energies for your purpose and why you ordained in the first place. In my experience, life without physical intimacy makes you much more available to others.


Sometimes, I wish I had been ordained earlier – it's a much richer existence than I ever anticipated – but I wasn't ready back then.


My days are busy. I start with morning practices and prayers and most of the rest of the day is spent teaching, giving advice or doing admin in my role as the spiritual program coordinator at the Vajrayana Institute and the International Director of the Liberation Prison Project.


I also go and visit prisons to lead meditations and teaching. I admire these prisoners – most of them have had tough or difficult backgrounds and for them to say, 'I've got two years in here so you've got to help me turn my life around', I think is brilliant. If I had a hat, I'd take it off to them.


As a Buddhist nun, we still feel the pressures of modern society, but we work on cultivating positive states of mind. I'm human and I have normal reactions, but I try to minimise the disturbing emotions to work on peace in my own mind with the idea that it will lead to peace in the world. 


I am a feminist and recognise that in Buddhism, we still have a bit of a way to go [on gender equality]. I always say that the nuns work a lot harder [than the monks] and there are still differences in terms of ritual practices.


There is a misconception that people ask me about that Buddhists believe enlightened people are reincarnated as men, however this is not what Buddha taught. There are many female Buddhas and ultimately, if you have got a mind, you can become enlightened – whether you're a male or female makes no difference. 


I've never received any negative comments from the general public about my choice to be ordained; if anything, I find people are curious or indifferent or excited.


I've learned to allow more time when I go to the shops in case people want to ask me something – I can't just go, 'really, I don't have time for this'.


I once had a car full of guys wind down the window and call out, 'hey Dalai Lama!' and I think, 'fantastic – if I remind you of the Dalai Lama, I'm very happy'.


I appreciated Carolyn bringing up some words from one of my teachers this morning: Zenkei Blanche Hartman. 


[bows on the paths story]

[water system at Tassajara story?]

[first sewing retreat in Bellingham]


I hope you've enjoyed these stories of Buddhist women practitioners and teachers from Buddha's day and in modern times. There are 100 stories in the book and we only had time for 6 of them so you can easily keep exploring on your own. And again the references to this Hidden Lamp book and also the book of the first nun's poetry will be in the notes we send you and these talks will be posted on the Mindfulness Northwest website too.


Although by primary teacher was a man, I am so grateful that I got to work with several women teachers and starting a sangha here in Bellingham and growing up spiritually together with that group of souls which included many strong women has definitely been a big part of my learning and growth and continues to be. And in the mindfulness movement also although I did do some initial training with Jon Kabat-Zinn the most powerful teachers I worked with were women. And now in Mindfulness Northwest I have the privilege of working with several strong women some of whom are here in this group. I learn a lot working with them, practicing and studying with them, supporting them in their growth and development as they support me in mind. We'll do our proper thank you's tomorrow but of course it's been a great joy to watch Carolyn emerge from her closet as a meditator and blossom into a wonderful teacher as you've been experiencing with me this week.


Notes not available.




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