Buddhists Around the World

by Joanne Gozawa, Ph.D.

Encouraged by Reverend Koyama, Temple member Joanne Gozawa wrote about her experience attending a recent Buddhist women's conference in Indonesia. An abridged version of the article will be printed by The Wheel of Dharma. The following is the unabridged version of Ms. Gozawa's article.


Buddhists Around the World

Unable to attend the BWA Calgary conference, I went to the International Buddhist Women's conference held in Indonesia at the end of June instead. Theravada, Tibetan, and Mahayana Buddhists, all convened together around the theme of Compassion and Social Justice. It was a life changing experience.

The 1000 attendees were from at least 20 different countries, mostly Far East, South, and Southeast Asian. There were also a number from Australia and some from Europe, Canada, and the United States. While English and Indonesian were prominent languages spoken in conference proceedings, five different simultaneous translations were also available during presentations. And at meals, I heard people happily chatting in Hindi, Bhasa-Indonesian, Malay, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Taiwanese, Burmese, French, as well as English in many accents.

This conference was transforming. I experienced first-hand how large the Buddhist presence in the world; how long its ancient history in Asia (I saw the sun rise from Borobudur a massive 8th century temple); appreciated how different Buddhist lineages all live the Four Nobel Truths; and how compassionate wisdom brings its gifts to global challenges like climate change, poverty, inequity for women and other social injustices. In this international setting, I instantly understood that the inclusive spirit alive in BCA, is part of the larger field of compassion realized by Buddhist globally. This larger context also put my day-to-day concerns into perspective. Especially since the conference was held in a developing country, and renunciant nuns were prominent participants. We from first-world countries, likely came away humbled or at least reflective about the material priorities that can occupy our lives.

All the people I met were so open-hearted, whether they were affiliated with their country's equivalent of the BWA, working professionals and housewives who took up Buddhist Studies, life-long practitioners, seekers, academics, or monastics. I fell easily into conversation with all of them who spoke English (a majority)—women and men who had engaging stories to tell about their lives, about their families, and about their faith. I imagine it was like being on the Silk Road or at the United Nations, getting a sense of the life, as well as the politics and the economics of people from multiple countries and all at once. This being my first trip to Southeast Asia, I was like a sponge, absorbing the atmosphere and all that casual, yet sincere conversations could offer.

The conference was organized by Sakyadhita, an international group of Buddhist women, with several small, country-based branches, including one in the United States. Sakyadhita is 30-years old and operates on a shoestring. Everyone is a volunteer and donates their expertise, and yet the organization manages to coordinate an international conference once every two years (the one I attended was its 14th) to encourage and connect Buddhist women around the world. Amazingly, the eight day conference I attended had 11 panels adding up to 58 paper presentations, 45 different workshops ranging from Batik, to Teaching Dharma to Children, to Movement and Stillness, to Story work and Healing, to Buddhist Women Leadership and the Environmental Crisis to name but a smattering.

Additionally every-other evening after dinner, we were treated to a 1.5-hour dharma talk, including one given by the popular if controversial monk, Ajahn Brahm (I'll say more about him later). Alternative evenings featured Indonesian cultural night (providing performances by Indonesian dancers and musicians and a shadow puppet drama). If the formal program was full, it was complemented by how well we were cared for. Food at the conference was incredible, varied, and plentiful—three delicious vegetarian meals a day and afternoon tea all served buffet style every day. Also, one could easily book a body massage, as the massage venue was conveniently located on the way from the main open-air presentation forum to the dining area.

And one further note regarding the conference generally: It was given distinction by the Sultan-Governor of the Yogyakarta region (we went to his palace an hour away) who was involved with opening formalities and his wife, the Queen, who participated in closing ceremonies. Remarkable when one realizes that Indonesia is a Muslim country. Many of the student volunteers, from five local universities who worked at the conference, were Muslim. They worked 15-hour days even though the conference was held during their fasting month of Ramadan.

As to a particular learning connected to Abbot Brahm, whom I mentioned earlier. Originally Peter Betts from the UK, Ajahn Brahm was an ordained Theravada monk of the Ajahn Chah Forest Sangha lineage in Thailand since the 80s. However, he was removed of his status by senior members in 2009 after he facilitated a full ordination ceremony for four Western bhikkhunis (nuns) in Australia. (The main monastery of the lineage in Thailand does not recognize equal status for women.) He lost his community and many long-time friends. In his talk, Brahm, now abbot of a Western monastery in the hills near Perth (the largest community of Buddhist monks in Australia) spoke to the theme of compassion and social justice by suggesting that sometimes direct action is needed and in other circumstances having a cup of tea is the right action. But a question from the audience really seeded the implications for me: When do we act and when do we have a cup of tea? This integration of being and acting is a perpetual question for me. I think Jodo Shinshu can add a lot to the discussion with its understanding of Ta-riki / Jiriki— self and other power. I was sorry that I was the only Shin Buddhist at the conference.

A similar insight about letting go to other power came to me with a presentation by Thih Nu Nhu Nguyet, who holds a doctorate in Buddhist Studies. Bhikunsi Hue Tuyen, the subject of Dr. Nguyet's talk, is the head of Lam Quang Temple in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Raised in a temple from the age of 5-years, Bhikunis Hue Tuyen's depth of compassion is extraordinary. For the last 20-years she and her nuns have administered to many homeless, elderly women. The temple serve as many as 170 at a time. One Korean nun in the audience, who cared for her elderly mother before becoming a nun, asked the abbottress (who was also present) how she managed to remain compassionate, as the demands of the elderly with memory loss and other health challenges can be very difficult. I noted that Bhiksuni Hue Tuyen's answer revealed an enlightened consciousness, one more fully connected to a compassionate, egoless field. She simply said that she saw that the elderly were like children who needed love and patience. Thus explained, her action seemed inspired by her seeing what is rather than desiring for what can't be—surely a seeing that comes from a letting go of ego desire. I felt in her response, albeit translated into English from the Vietnamese, a harmony between other power and action (an action that does not emanate solely from self-power). But without the articulated teaching from Shin Buddhists, the potential learning can be missed.

Another parallel regret is the lack of diversity amongst the American attendees. On the last day, we gathered in groups by country of residents. Of the score of Americans present, I was the only Asian-American and the only Shin Buddhist who attended the U.S. group meeting. I hope in two-years, when the conference will be held in Hong Kong, that some of us at PABT and other BCA temple members will consider attending. An international conference of such diversity did a lot to expand my horizons about Buddhist presence in the world and has deepened my contemplation as to how Ta-riki and action towards social justice in the world can be lived.

It might be quite helpful if the BCA and Hongwanji encouraged more of us to attend the next conference. I'm sure others Jodo Shinshu Buddhists will find this international conference an illuminating experience and in turn will have much to offer.

If you would like more information, please don't hesitate to contact me: jgozawa@gmail.com