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The Importance of Sangha in the West; and Gelongma Vows

Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche
15–16 July 2015
Maitreya Instituut, The Netherlands Edited by Robina Courtin August 19, 2020


I’ve noticed that some centers in the FPMT have respect for the sangha, but most do not. In the centers there is not much teaching on the sangha; you don’t hear much explanation. There are extensive teachings on philosophy – the Masters Program, the Basic Program; so much. But teachings on respect for the sangha, basic lam-rim teachings, very basic teachings of Buddhism are not so much done. Generally, therefore, people don’t show much respect to the sangha.

I’m not talking about Tibetan sangha. I often see that a Tibetan monk, nun – a monk – who does not know the lam-rim is given much respect by Western people. But Western sangha who have studied and know the lam-rim are not respected. It has been like this since the old times; it is not something new; for many years it has been like that. For Tibetan sangha there is respect. But if it’s Western sangha, even if they know the lam-rim well, there is not much respect. I think the older students know that, but maybe the new ones don’t.

When we held our first Dharma Celebration [in 1982], Lama Yeshe used to say that when the Western people took ordination, the lay people would think, “Oh, I know more Dharma than him or her.” It was either like that or there was no appreciation for the ordination; whether the person took getsul or gelong ordination there was no appreciation at all.

But if the person was Tibetan and they didn’t even know the lam-rim, there was respect. If they were Tibetan they were regarded as having realizations! Even a Tibetan layperson – if you are Tibetan, you must have realizations. It is not so much like this now, but in the earlier times it was.

Even if the Western sangha are trying to keep their vows purely, there is no appreciation by the lay people. It is difficult for the lay people. Even though the sangha are practicing, there is no appreciation for them.

I don’t know about other organizations, but in the FPMT it seems that the need to respect sangha is not so much known. Some centers might have respect, but most have no respect at all for the sangha, whether they’re living in thirty-six vows or in 253.

During teachings and pujas the sangha should sit first, not the lay people first and then the sangha sit anywhere afterwards; they should sit first, then the lay people. I saw a photo of a session of a nyung-ne retreat at Vajra Yogini Institute. There were lay people sitting in the front and then the monk Charles – he was the only one – was sitting at the back. He wouldn’t have the thought, “I should be sitting there at the front.” But he should have been sitting at the front.

This shows that in the West people don’t respect the sangha. I think also this could be a cause for sangha to disrobe; maybe. It’s not the only reason, but it can be a little bit the cause. Nobody appreciates you after you take the vows, how much difficulty you are facing, nobody appreciates you being sangha – it is very discouraging; nobody helps them.

As I said before, you don’t know that the vows are the main path to happiness. When lay people respect sangha, the organization really understands Dharma, not just philosophy, but the lam-rim. Then people – Tibetans and people from other Buddhist countries – will really appreciate that, “Oh, the FPMT has respect for the sangha.”


That there is not much respect for Western sangha in the West is very sad; it discourages the Western sangha. If there is respect by the laypeople for Western sangha – respect for your vows, not for your nose, or you ears. Or it’s not because somebody has a bigger nose but they respect your vows, not like that! – it makes you very careful; you pay attention to your vows when other people respect your vows.

When you respect the sangha, you should know you are respecting the vows, the path to achieve happiness in next lives – of course, this life as well. Results can also ripen in this life when the karma is strong. Living in vows is the path to happiness in this life and in future lives, as well as liberation from samsara and enlightenment. For this reason you respect the vows.

Generally, Tibetans also have much respect, but of course it depends on the person, how much knowledge they have – but maybe not much in the young people nowadays.

In Thailand, the monks have to pay attention to their vows because many lay people know the vows, they know what the monks can and can’t do, so there is much respect. They have a system called netenkyitenpa, a system of ordination that allows you to be ordained for one day, three days, or a week, or even for some years, or a lifetime; it is up to the person. Some of the lay people have been monks for a short time; now they are not monks they respect the ordained sangha, they highly respect. It is amazing. I heard that the king of Thailand – I’m not sure if it is the recent one – took ordination for the longest time.

In Thailand, I think in the vehicle it is free, in buses, I’m not sure, in Thailand for the monks, sangha.

Student: Only monks, not for nuns.
There’s no nuns? What? Where you a nun at that time?

Student: I lived there for two years in a monastery. It is true that the nuns are not as respected, there is discrimination, but there is free medical care and free buses.

Rinpoche: Also for the nuns? I think there is not much respect in Thailand for nuns, and also Sri Lanka. But the Chinese are very different; the Chinese are very different.


The West is a new place in which to be ordained; not like Tibet where ordination is old, more than a thousand years old; where Hinayana and Mahayana sutra and Mahayana tantra are unbelievably studied. And not only studied intellectually but also practiced: so many people became enlightened or became bodhisattvas there, as well as in India and other places. Tibet, the place itself, is unbelievably holy; you can feel it. In Tibet, there were not just scholars, those with only intellectual knowledge; not like that.

In Thailand they treat monks like Buddha. When a fully ordained person comes the lay people prostrate or offer food on a tray. The ladies kneel down and the monks come by they offer them the food. It is incredible; it’s like they are seeing the Buddha. I stopped in Thailand one time and had to leave at 6 o’clock, which is when the light starts. The monks are there begging for food. I thought if I was there I wouldn’t be able to get up at 6 o’clock and go begging for food, it would be so difficult! I related it to myself.

So, in the West, even though from the individual’s side there is understanding about ordination, the society doesn’t understand. Society is totally different, not Buddhist, with totally opposite thinking and behavior. The actions of body, speech, and mind are totally different, so Buddhist ordination doesn’t fit; no way. Even though there are other religions, they are opposite beliefs.


You collect so much merit by respecting sangha. As an example, there’s a story about someone in India who had nothing who offered medicinal food to four ordinary monks just one time. After he died he was born as a most wealthy and powerful king, King Kashika. This was from offering medicinal food one time to four ordinary monks. The karma is so, so, so powerful, even just for temporary happiness.

You collect so much merit by offering respect to the sangha with your body, speech, and mind; offering food, any offerings that the sangha need, whatever you are able to offer. Lay people collect the most unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable merit; unbelievable, most unbelievable. The sangha, those who are living in ordination, is a very powerful object.

From the sangha’s side, by studying the vows and living in the vows, getsul or gelong, you become like Dzambala for lay people, as well as for the lower sangha. By their making offerings to the sangha, you give the opportunity for them to collect extensive merits and get inner and outer wealth. By your living in the vows purely you become like Dzambala for all the lay people; they create so much merit, and great success and purification.

When laypeople give respect to the sangha with the understanding that the respect is because you are living in the vows, the precepts, you become more careful with your vows, you put more energy into preserving them and not degenerating them.


From the side of the monk and the nun in the West it is an unbelievable practice to dedicate to; it is great, great, great. It takes great courage, it is a great challenge, but it is so worthwhile.

Being sangha in the West, being an ordained person in the West, is a billion times better than being in the Olympics. I must say it loudly! I must announce it loudly! It’s a billion, zillion, trillion times better than the Olympics or the World Cup. The world thinks they is so important, but it’s like a one-year-old baby playing, you understand? When I was a child in Solu Khumbu where there is water and sand and I say that is my house and some other children destroy it, then I cry, “Oh, my house!” Looking at the reality of life from the Dharma point of view, the Olympics and the World Cup are like child’s play.

In the West, when you win at the Olympics or World Cup you become famous in the world, you become like a god to young people; after you win at soccer the young people take you to be like a god.

Being ordained in the West, a monk and nun who is practicing – not ordained for political reasons such as Dholgyel, or changing the outside, or to get money, for example – really practicing Dharma, keeping the vows, whether it is for your own ultimate happiness, liberation, or for others who are numberless, is a billion, zillion, trillion times more important challenge than the Olympics or World Cup.

In reality it is like this, you understand?

The laypeople – and the sangha themselves – must know that the sangha practicing in the West are great champions. They are like an army going towards the enemy who are carrying swords, carrying all the weapons to destroy them.

They run towards the enemy to overcome them – the oceans of samsaric sufferings of the hells, the oceans of suffering of human beings, the oceans of suffering of the suras, the preta beings, asuras, animals.

Even living in vows just for yourself, for your own happiness, ultimate happiness – without even talking about enlightenment for sentient beings – you must realize you are a champion, a champion, you should realize that. You are a billion, zillion, trillion, numberless times more of a champioin than those who win the Olympics or World Cup; you must know that, feel that.

It is very, very important for the sangha to be strong in their Dharma practice; your mind practicing Dharma has to be strong – especially when lay people don’t appreciate. That is how to enjoy life as sangha.

It’s the same for lay people who are doing retreat and practicing Dharma, but especially the sangha. They are living in ordination in order to defeat delusions, you understand? To defeat delusions, the cause of samsara, to overcome them. It’s a huge difference, wow, wow, wow. You understand? You have to see the difference. The sangha lead a very simple life, in a dedicated way, very renounced, in order to overcome delusion; what he or she practices is this.

We have been suffering from beginningless rebirths, beginningless rebirths, you understand? Suffering in the oceans of hell realms, human beings, six realms without beginning, can you imagine? The ordained sangha, their practice is to overcome the causes of samsara, delusions and karma, you understand? You have to know that.

If people – the sangha and lay people – just think that sangha are simply changing from lay dress to sangha dress, cutting the hair and changing the robe. then life has no meaning. You have to know why you become sangha, you have to remember that. That is why I said the Olympics is nothing; all the things that worldly people think are so huge are nothing; they’re just child’s play. By following those you’re just being a servant to delusion, a total slave to delusion.

You have to understand that having met the Dharma and practicing Dharma – for lay people but especially sangha – is a big, huge decision in life. Wow, wow, wow! It is not just a simple thing.


In the ordination text it says you should not accept prostrations and respect from a higher monk or a higher nun, one who is a full bhikshuni or a gelong. Those who are living in lower ordination should not accept prostrations from them. There could be reasons why it’s permissable, such as if the person with lower ordination becomes the abbot; or in the Tibetan tradition if someone is recognized as a reincarnation, someone who has qualities. There are different situations in which someone with higher ordination can prostrate to someone who is lower, but generally it says in the text that you don’t accept prostrations from those who have higher ordination.

From those who have lower ordination you can accept respect such as prostrations. The respect is not for your ego but for your ordination. From someone who is lay or lower in ordination you accept that they respect your ordination.

One who has taken ordination this morning, for example, is higher than someone who takes ordination this afternoon, so they must be respected. Even if you take ordination within the same hour as someone else, the person who takes it ealier is higher than you, so you must respect them.

This is what is explained in the texts; it follows the Buddha’s advice. It’s not that Buddha didn’t explain this and only the Tibetan monks explained it – it’s not like that. It’s not “Tibetan Lamaism,” as His Holiness says; not that.


Some sangha may have questions about gelongma vows; I have been asked sometimes about them by nuns; not about the gelong lineage but about the gelongma vows.

The first gelongma in the FPMT was Jampa Chokyi, the Spanish nun who wrote the Lawudo Lama biography; many of you know her. She was the first one to take gelomgma vows. Then there was Thubten Chodron. She started our first nunnery at Vajra Yogini Institute; I gave it the name Dorje Pagmo. Then I asked her to go Amitabha Buddhist Centre to be resident teacher. She was there for quite a number of years. Finally, the nunnery at Vajra Yogini, Dorje Pagmo, didn’t happen.

Then the nunnery started at Chenrezig Institute. There were monks and nuns at first. There wasn’t a plan for it be a nunnery in the beginning, but it became one – it’s karma, it just follows karma, whatever karma you have. There were more nuns than monks; there were one or two monks when Geshe Tashi was there. There was one Vietnamese monk, who was sick, but he doesn’t live there now. I didn’t meet him this time when I was at Chenrezig Institute.

As well as those places, I think there are other places where there are two or three nuns living together.

In Bendigo, there is the monastery Thubten Shedrup Ling next to the lay center Atisha Center. Doctor Adrian made it up with the help of his benefactor Salim Lee, from Indonesia, who lives in Perth. They built a stupa and some houses and there were two or three monks. But monks didn’t come for a long time. It was built a long time ago but it didn’t have the karma to receive monks. I think now there are five or six monks. A Tibetan geshe from Sera was supposed to come as the abbot, but he had some visa problems, so I chose another monk for abbot. It is getting better now.

We had a monastery where monks could stay, but somehow for many years they didn’t come; very strange. It’s karma. Just building a monastery is not enough, you understand? This is a good example that shows that you need to have karma.


Anyway, when Jampa Chokyi wanted to take the gelongma vows, I didn’t know why; it was a big question from my side. Why? Then the second was Chodron. I don’t know, I don’t think they would all have the same reason. The third was Ingrid from Greece, then several others at different times.

There was a famous abbot in Taiwan, Master Shinyun, I think. He built monasteries that looked exactly the same everywhere in the world, which were huge. So he ordained Jampa Chokyi; he announced, and then she went; she was ordained in Bodhgaya. There was no gelongma participating in the ceremony. There should be gelong and gelongma both when ordaining gelongmas. Then he announced again the next year that he would include gelongmas, bhikshunis; they have a lot in Taiwan. So Jampa Chokyi had to go again to take the vows.

So my first question is, why take gelongma vows? You are thinking seriously from your heart about taking 365 or 366 precepts, three hundred sixty-five vows to be kept. I don’t know whether they are really thinking to take the vows or of their reputation, to receive respect from people, respect. You put your dingwa, you get bigger place during His Holiness’s teachings; you put your dingwa so nobody can sit there, so you get a higher place. I don’t know. Reputation?

Reputation is same as animals. Those who haven’t met Dharma, that is a normal thing, reputation to get happiness in your life, to get happiness, the same as insects, happiness of this life. So that: reputation? Other people respecting you, to get pleasure of this life? That; or you are really concerned thinking of the precepts, 365 or 366, thinking to keep all those precepts very sincerely? I doubt, I really doubt.


Already you have taken pratimoksha vows, bodhisattva vows, and tantric vows; wow, wow, wow. So then you are thinking about taking gelongma vows – why?

What is the motivation? You have taken the other vows many times during initiations; so much to practice. But you never think that; so it is very strange. You don’t bother about this one, this one; you don’t care. They are not vows? They are not to be kept? Then gelongma vows! I don’t understand. What is the motivation? I laugh. What is the motivation?

Pay attention to the bodhisattva vows and tantric vows and study them at your own center with the geshe or elder students rather than looking for gelongma vows.


There was a nun, Munsel, who lived in the Aptos house for six years. She worked very, very hard making water bowls. She is American. Her Chinese guru built a monastery, One Thousand Buddhas. Her guru passed away, so she was given the job to lead, to guide, to continue the monastery, to be the abbess of the monastery. Chinese sangha, the nuns, do unbelievable service for the monastery, so much, so much, unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable. I have been to a nunnery in Taiwan, I stayed there. People come to make offerings. The nuns say prayers, make food, they do so much cleaning, so much work, service. So Munsel was used to that; she had been the abbess, so in the Aptos house she did the same as she had done in the monstery.

Also, she was keeping her vows – not like Western students, for respect or reputation, worldly mind; for me it is like that. She was keeping the vows. For example, you can’t go out alone, you have to go with another nun; if you don’t, you get a residue. Gelongs have those too: there are thirteen remainders. I don’t know about gelongmas; they might have many.

At Aptos there are many Western sangha. Munsel needed an extra sangha to go with her when she went out, but it was difficult because people were very busy; also they didn’t see it as important to help her. So she would take the dog, our first dog, Om Mani Pedme Hum; that’s the name I gave her. She took the dog with her when she went shopping, or to do other things, so as not to get a remainder.

The Chinese nuns study and know the precepts, but many of our sangha don’t know them, the 365 vows; I don’t know whether they even read them.

Student: I have heard you say this in the past that most Western nuns wish to take the gelongma vows out of wish for respect. But as you said before, there is not so much respect to be gained with the gelongma vows. But on the other hand His Holiness promotes very much that we establish the bhikshuni ordination for nuns in the Tibetan tradition. Many people worked very hard on establishing it. It sounds to me it is discouraging if we hear again and again that nuns usually take these vows with the wish for honors and respect.

Because the same question is not really ever put to the monks when they take ordination. Nobody says to the monks ever, “Do you really take your vows out of the wish to attain liberation or do you do it out of respect” – that is never asked. But for the nuns it is always asked, “Do you really do it for liberation or do you do it for respect?”

I’m just saying that it’s a little bit discouraging. On the other hand, we need fully ordained nuns as well in order to have the four sangha members in a tradition, because we need four sangha members to have a complete community, and that contains the bhikshunis as well.

Rinpoche: What is the essence, your main point?

Student: The essence is: I’m discouraged to hear that most of us are aspiring for the bikshuni vows for worldly purposes alone. It sounds like in general that you are discouraging the taking of bikshuni vows.

Rinpoche: I was not discouraging for everybody. I mentioned Munsel. She really tried to practice; she fasted and didn’t eat in the afternoon. Gelongmas have more remainders than gelongs; she was trying to practice.

Of course, like her, I’m sure there are many people who are serious in practicing. But I was mainly talking about our older students, some of the sangha – I’m sorry to say this but I don’t know whether they even read the vows, I’m not sure.

If it is not to keep the precepts, then what is the reason for becoming a gelongma? Why do you take the vows? As I said, putting the dingwa in a higher place as a gelongma and receiving respect from others and a reputation that she is a gelongma – that is additional digpa, negative karma, nothing different than whatever everybody does, people who don’t know Dharma; doing what they do all day long and night for attachment.

And it is true that the bodhisattva vows and tantric vows are not being learned, even though they have been taken so many times during initiations. That is what I think. I’m not saying everybody is wrong, I’m not saying that.


In Dharamsala, there were one or two nuns who pushed, who became gelongmas. There was Lekshe Tsomo in the old times; near the end there wasn’t a good relationship with her teachers; she was bitten by a snake and never came back after that.

Of course His Holiness is often asked by nuns who are trying to achieve women’s liberation. So of course His Holiness. . . .

His Holiness’s idea is to open for everybody. . . but Theravadins and Chinese Mahayana and Tibetans have to have a great assembly, and then the Theravadins have to accept the gelongma vows taken from China. Then it is okay. His Holiness. . . but it took many years. There was one meeting in Dharamsala in early times; I think it happened due to some Western nuns who pushed, advertised.

There are different Theravadins in different places, in the West, but in Thailand I wonder if they would accept that. Of course Chinese Mahayana would accept because they have spread so much in China and Taiwan where they respect nuns as monks; probably there are thousands of nuns in Taiwan.

In Sri Lanka at the temple where there is the Buddha’s tooth I saw one or two nuns; I saw much suffering, that is how I saw them. There are only a few it seemed. One time before going to Taiwan, I met His Holiness in his room and he asked

me to check the lineage. In Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche’s sung-bum we have the lineage from Buddha; all the lineage lamas are mentioned in His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche’s Collection of Teachings; I have seen it.

So I checked. You are supposed to have the lineage, so I checked in Singapore, or Taiwan – I forget – in one nunnery, with a few nuns. The abbess said they didn’t have the lineage from the Buddha. But one monk who did Manjushri retreat for a long time, six months or a year, he did retreat in Taiwan and he decided to pass the lineage of the gelongma vows to them. This is what she told me, but you don’t hear that normally; I never heard what the abbess told me from other abbots.

I’m talking about my own efforts. I didn’t get to ask the four famous abbots in Taiwan, including the one who practices very much the vows at one monastery, but I didn’t get to see them, because I left early for Nepal.


You see, if you are really looking to keep the 365 vows, if you are really looking for that, oooooooh; whether there is the lineage or not – I don’t know – but just that thought, wow, so brave. But some of our nuns – I’m not sure. I’m not talking about other people. Thank you.

Yes, of course, if people really sincerely want to keep the vows and there is the lineage from Buddha – yes. Without the need to even ask His Holiness, who is omniscient, he would announce it. That is my projection, okay? I think that is all. Of course somebody who sincerely wants to keep the 365 or 366 vows, I rejoice; if they really want to keep, wow. Whether it is not perfect, even if there isn’t the lineage – but it seems that. . . can’t say. I’m sure there are many people practicing, even some Westernerss who have taken the vows; some try to practice. There were two Australian nuns who lived in Dharamsala for a long time, now they live in Australia, in Canberra.

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