Jungto Society, the international Buddhist community founded by the revered Korean Dharma master and social activist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님), hosted an intensive eight-day study trip in South Korea in June for young leaders and activists affiliated with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB).
From 13–20 June, 19 Buddhists from nine countries and territories in Asia—Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—gathered in a warm and welcoming atmosphere of kalyana-mitrata* to practice, to learn, and to connect; to exchange ideas, to inspire, and to be inspired. BDG was privileged to join this unique assembly of monastic and lay practitioners, leaders and activists, to share a Dharmic journey that combined elements of study, experiential workshops, and field trips, with the discipline and commitment of a traditional Buddhist retreat.**
One of the young leaders attending this learning experience was Venerable Ugyen Choden, who was one among 142 female monastics to receive full ordination at a landmark ceremony in the Kingdom Bhutan in June 2022.*** Organized by the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, this was a historic step toward realizing greater equality within the monastic institutions of Buddhism in the world’s last remaining country with an unbroken Vajrayana tradition.
During her visit to Korea, BDG sat down with Ven. Ugyen on the sidelines of the 2023 INEB Study Trip to Jungto Society to learn about her path to becoming a daughter of the Buddha and her aspirations as a fully ordained monastic.
BDG: You grew up as a Buddhist in a traditionally Buddhist society. How did you decide that you wanted to become a Buddhist monastic?
Ven. Ugyen Choden: I made the final decision at the age of 18, although I have admired buddhist nuns in Bhutan since I was very young and I became more committed to the idea at the age of 15. Back when I was in school, we would meet with the local nuns on our way home. I remember recognizing the unusual peace of mind that these women exhibited, and I thought that if I joined a nunnery, then perhaps I too could attain a similar state of mind!
BDG: How did your parents feel about your ambitions?
VUC: At first, they were against it; they wanted me to continue at school. But I was persistent, and determined that I should go to the nunnery.
BDG: Have there been any unexpected challenges or difficulties on your path to monasticism?
It took about half a year to prepare to become a nun. Now I’ve been a nun for about 12 years, and I was fully ordained last year.
Most of the challenges I faced, I think, were related to education. For example, I studied for nine years to gain a traditional master’s degree in Buddhist studies. At that time, I experienced quite a few difficulties coping with the intensive level of study. When I was at secular school we didn’t need to do much memorizing, but in the Buddhist college it was completely different: I had to memorize so many texts and study assiduously—in fact I almost gave up because studying was so hard. It was then that my Dharma teacher advised me not to give up so easily. She said to me: “You’ve made it this far, so even if you do want to leave in the end, at least complete your studies first and then decide.”
And so I continued and persevered with my master’s degree. I really did my best, and after nine years of studying, I was able to pass my exams. I felt so proud of myself that I was able to succeed in spite of my fears!
BDG: The monastic sangha has traditionally been led by male monks. How well accepted are female monastics in contemporary Bhutanese society?
VUC: The local lay community has been extremely supportive of our work. After our ordination ceremony last year, we went out to receive alms, and the people supported us by giving as much as they could. And after our ordination, when we return to the Bhutan Nuns Foundation Training Center in Thimphu, many people came to greet us, offering traditional kata scarves and other gifts, and showing us a lot of respect.
BDG: What has been the most positive aspect of your life as a monastic?
VUC: Since becoming a Buddhist nun, I feel that I’ve become much more compassionate as a person. When I was at school, we learned all the usual subjects, science and maths and so on, but they didn’t teach us how to be better as people. Monastic education teaches us about Buddhism, and this also emphasizes how to be respectful of others, how to be more compassionate, how to help people. So, as a result, I feel I’ve become less egotistical and a more compassionate person, and I’ve been able to help others as a result.
BDG: Do you have any aspirations for the future? Do you plan to continue your higher education?
VUC: My dream now is to become a doctor of traditional medicine. In this way, I hope to help other nuns and the lay community at large. I’d like to be able to give back to the nunneries and help the nuns there. This is the field of study in which I’d like to specialize.
BDG: Do you have any memorable takeaways from the INEB Study Trip to Jungto Society?
VUC: I feel extremely appreciative to have had this opportunity to learn about the work of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. He’s doing so much for the world and I feel very inspired and proud to be involved with this program and to learn about his activities.
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim also reminded me that we shouldn’t look to lay people with expectations—as monastics, we should be helping them. Because we are ordained monastics, and because we’ve renounced lay life and we can’t marry, we have enough time to help others. As such, we should think about how we can best use our time to help other people. I was very touched by his words and I feel deeply inspired to try my best to do so.
* Kalyana-mitrata (Skt.), Kalyaṇa-mittata (Pali); the Buddhist concept of virtuous spiritual friendship.
Related features from BDG
Daughters of the Buddha: 18th Sakyadhita Conference in Seoul Celebrates the Sacred Feminine
Rebirth and Revolution – Engaged Buddhism in Japan: A Conversation with Jonathan Watts
In the Footsteps of the Buddha: Ven. Pomnyun Sunim Leads 1,250 Jungto Practitioners on a Pilgrimage to India
Engaged Buddhism in a Divided World: Declaration for Peace at the Korean DMZ
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Engaged Buddhism: INEB’s SENS Transformative Learning Program Holds Graduation Ceremony for 2023 Cohort
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Engaged Buddhism: 20th Biennial INEB Conference Concludes in South Korea with a Commitment to Action, Peace, and Change