Buddhist monastics and laywomen from around the world gathered in Seoul on 23–27 June for the 18th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women 2023. The largest gathering in the history of Sakyadhita, jointly hosted by the Korean Bhikshuni Association and Sakyadhita Korea, more than 3,000 Buddhist monastics, laypeople, guests, and dignitaries from different countries and Buddhist traditions were in attendance for this auspicious occasion, to share their experiences and research, and to provide support and encouragement for projects and initiatives to improve conditions for Buddhist women—especially those living in developing countries.
The first in-person Sakyadhita conference since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2023 forum in Seoul was one to which many the participants had looked forward with eager anticipation—an opportunity to touch bases with countless old friends from around the world, to forge new connections, to share and to inspire: five days of insight and wisdom on compassionate action and mindful social engagement in the face of the intrinsic impermanence of all phenomena.
The event was held at the COEX Convention & Exhibition Center, Seoul’s largest events center in the capital’s glitzy Gangnam District. This year’s conference was sponsored by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism; South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism; Seoul Metropolitan Government; the Gangnam District government; the Korea Tourism Organization, and the neighboring eighth-century Korean Buddhist temple Bongeun-sa, which also took on the mammoth challenge of accommodating some of monastic attendees and feeding up to 3,000 people daily.
The theme of the conference, “Living in a Precarious World: Impermanence, Resilience, Awakening,” was a pointed reference to the increasingly apparent truth of impermanence in the world around us—as evidenced by the climate crisis, environmental destruction, political extremism, social instability, and the growing incidence and threat of violent conflict. Directly addressing this theme and its implications, the conference schedule included a wide range of programs, including paper presentations, discussions, workshops, exhibitions, meditation sessions, and cultural performances.
Underlying this theme was an implicit understanding and recognition of non-sectarianism among the representatives, founded on a shared mutual admiration and appreciation of the dedication and commitment of Buddhist women from around the world—many of whom live and work on the most challenging of circumstances.
Women clad in the characteristic robes of various Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions—ordained monastics from Bhutan, Cambodia, Canada, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Japan, Korea, Thailand, the United States, Vietnam, and elsewhere—shared the light of their manifestations of the Dharma, all committed to promoting peace through the teachings of the Buddha, fostering an international network of compassion and empowerment among Buddhist women, promoting harmony and understanding between Buddhist traditions, working toward the physical and spiritual welfare of Buddhist women the world over, and encouraging compassionate social action for the benefit of all beings.
Sakyadhita International president Prof. Sharon Suh emphasized in her welcoming address to the participants: “Although we have globally experienced so many challenges, crises, and struggles, especially over the past few years, I also know that we have been so inspired by the Buddha’s teachings, which have emerged to help alleviate suffering throughout the world. Buddhists are no strangers to precarity and impermanence and are therefore quite well-equipped to help ourselves and others to develop resilience, healing, awakening, and liberation. This gathering of Buddhist women from all over the world is a wondrous moment for us to meet as a global sangha and share our insights, experience, and wisdom across different lineages and traditions for the sake of liberation.”
Over five days of presentations, panel discussions, and workshops, the focus was squarely on Buddhist women and their invaluable role as agents of change for social transformation. Topics ranged from the practical to the academic, however it was perhaps the informal meetings and conversations between Buddhist women from around the world where the purpose of the conference was most readily manifested.
Monastics from Bhutan to Cambodia to the US connected with their contemporaries from Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand—serendipitous meetings between sisters in the Dharma where stories and experiences were shared, inspiration and motivation were nurtured, and eyes were opened to the depth and breadth of the global female sangha in the 21st century. Meanwhile, paper presentations and panel discussions offered food for thought and conversation with their focus on research, on practical experience and applications, on network building, and developing local and international programs to empower and transform individuals and communities.
The 18th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women 2023 was a shining example of the alignment between Buddhist scholarship, Buddhist activism, and Buddhist practice from across the globe. Topics and perspectives highlighted included success stories of leading Buddhist women, challenging issues surrounding gender discrimination, and the touchstones of female education and ordination in an atmosphere of mutual respect and support.
Among some of the numerous notable highlights, Gelongma Pema Deki, with Gelongma Namgyel Lhamo and Dr. Tashi Zangmo of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, spoke about the landmark ordination of 144 bhikshunis in Bhutan in 2022. Cambodian scholar Marlai Ouch shared the challenges still facing women in Cambodia seeking full ordination, much as they do in other Theravada societies. Zen and Vajrayana practitioner Myodo Jabo gave a thought-provoking presentation on Guanyin Bodhisattva and gender fluidity. Meanwhile, Canadian Scholar and BDG columnist Vanessa Sasson and Prof. Sharon Suh presented a Q&A on Vanessa’s important new book The Gathering: A Story of the First Buddhist Women (Equinox Publishing 2023) that inspired and delighted many of the visiting bhikshunis.
As nations, governments, and corporations pursue scientific, technological, and economic advances with single-minded obsession, it is becoming ever-more apparent that individual, social, environmental, and cultural well-being are severely lagging, with wisdom, compassion, and loving-kindness seemingly afterthoughts in the shadow of unsustainable economic growth and the exploitations of people and the natural environments upon which we depend for life: billions live in vulnerable communities that struggle to subsist in oppressive conditions amid severe shortages of basic necessities for living, while a tiny subset of the privileged few accumulate obscene levels of wealth; women and children are regularly sold into sex slavery; animal populations and their habitats are exploited to the brink of extinction; the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people are sacrificed at the alter of war waged for political power and economic domination. While digital technology enables us to disseminate information to millions of people at the touch of a button, people and societies still struggle to overcome the same negative mindsets and conditions that have haunted mankind for millennia: anger, greed, jealousy, mistrust, hatred.
As noted by Ven. Bongak Sunim, president of the Korean Bhikshuni Association of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, and co-president of Sakyadhita Korea, in her welcome message: “It is painfully evident that the modern world and civilization can no longer protect us or guarantee everlasting happiness. The world has turned out to be truly impermanent. But recognizing the transience of our existence in such a precarious world is not enough. By realizing this impermanence, we can simultaneously perceive the perpetuity and boundlessness of time and space as well as rediscover that we are unique, invaluable beings in our own right. To do so, we must always remain attentive and insightful. In this time of crisis and chaos, we would like to hold a celebration of insight and awareness here in Seoul, South Korea. We hope that women and bhikshunis from all over the world will join us. Let us gather in harmony and take part in this nirvanic festivity together.”
Sakyadhita traces its beginnings to 1987 with a conference for Buddhist nuns held in in Bodh Gaya, India, that was aimed at establishing support for the full ordination of female monastics in the Theravada tradition. In the more than 35 years since, Sakyadhita has evolved into an organization that is made up of, and aims to represent and empower, both monastic and lay women, with branches and chapters around the world.
The Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women is now the world’s leading body committed to transforming the lives of women in Buddhist societies, aspiring to empower and unite Buddhist women, promote their welfare, and facilitate their work for the benefit of the Dharma and all sentient beings. “Sakyadhita” means Daughter of Shakya (the clan name of the historical Buddha). Working at the grassroots level, Sakyadhita provides an international network among Buddhist women, promoting research and publications and striving to create equal opportunities for women in all Buddhist traditions.
This international conference is held every two years. The 19th Sakyadhita International Conference is scheduled to be hosted in Sarawak, Malaysia, in 2025.
This feature will be followed by a series of articles based on the experiences and participants of the proceedings summarized here.
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