Tibetan Buddhist monastery, once all nuns, makes room for monks

Coed Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are rare, and the abbey’s newest senior teacher said the mix has taken some getting used to.

Monastics staying at Sravasti Abbey serve themselves a communally  prepared lunch on Aug. 13, 2018, in Newport, Washington. RNS photo by Tracy Simmons

NEWPORT, Wash. (FāVS News) — By some they’ve been fondly called the “nuns from Newport.”

For years, a group of women with clean-shaven heads wearing traditional Tibetan monastic red robes have been running a 240-acre abbey tucked in the woods just outside of Newport, a town of fewer than 3,000 near the Washington-Idaho border.

But Sravasti Abbey, among the first Tibetan Buddhist monasteries for Western adherents in the U.S., was never intended to be a women-only monastic training ground.

Over the past eight years, Sravasti Abbey has grown apace, ordaining six nuns and two monks and adding three previously ordained nuns to its community.

Most recently, Geshe Dadul Namgyal, an esteemed Buddhist scholar, joined the abbey as the first male resident teacher. He will lead the growing monk community at Sravasti.

Geshe Dadul Namgyal at Sravasti Abbey near Newport, Washington. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey

Geshe Dadul Namgyal at Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey

He joins Sravasti’s founder and abbess, Venerable Thubten Chodron, and author Venerable Sangye Khadro as a senior teacher guiding and instructing the monastery’s now 20 monastics.

“After all these years of being mostly nuns, we now have a burgeoning community of men,” said Venerable Thubten Chonyi, a bhikshuni (fully ordained nun) who oversees publicity at the abbey.

Venerable Thubten Losang became the first monk at Sravasti in 2015 after participating in a Sharing the Dharma Day there two years earlier. Then, in 2022, the abbey ordained its second monk.

Two more men, who are currently in anagarika training, are scheduled to take their novice ordination vows in May, bringing the abbey’s monk population to five.

Namgyal, called “Geshe-la,” an honorific for a spiritual teacher, has been a monk in the Tibetan tradition for more than 40 years. He chose to reside at Sravasti after recently retiring from Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics.

For the past 13 years, he has also served as senior resident teacher at Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta and was senior translator and interpreter with the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a branch of CCSCBE at Emory, where he helped develop a science curriculum for Tibetan monks and nuns.

Venerable Thubten Ngawang, who joined the abbey as its second monk last year, said he was initially surprised and grateful when he learned Namgyal was joining Sravasti.

“And it’s an ongoing recognition, a continual acknowledgment, like wow, this is so precious,” Ngawang said.

Venerable Thubten Ngawang in 2023 Near Newport, Washington. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey

Venerable Thubten Ngawang speaks at Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey

Namgyal explained he first visited the abbey in 2008 for a workshop and since then had been visiting annually. Each time, the nuns invited him to stay. “The doors of the abbey have always been open to me,” he said. “The center has the most ideal conditions for individual growth as well as sharing with the world.”

He added that the abbey’s location in the U.S. was a big draw but that “the sincerity of the practitioners, that is the most powerful. It is evident that everyone here is aware of what they’re here for, to work on and improve their mental attitudes. Everybody seems to really embody and be trying their best in really walking the path. So, that was very evident. That was the most attractive thing,” he said.

Ngawang, who first visited in 2014, felt a similar pull to the abbey. “I was so inspired and impressed by the nuns, and there were only nuns (then),” he said.

He came originally to meet Chodron, whose book “Open Heart, Clear Mind” he said changed his life.

“I saw these women that were so well rounded, so balanced in their approach to life. It wasn’t just about spiritual development, but it was about, as Venerable says often, about being a good human being,” Ngawang said, noting that their commitment to living a sustainable life also inspired him.

Sravasti Abbey, one of the only U.S. monasteries where women — and soon men — can devote themselves to Tibetan Buddhism and become fully ordained. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey

Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey

Ultimately, he moved from Atlanta to Spokane, Washington, to be closer to Sravasti. COVID-19, he said, was the final push he needed to commit to monastic life.

“The abbey was shutting down to people that were outside of the community. At that point, I really had to make a decision. Do I want to be at the abbey? Or do I want to be in Spokane disconnected from the abbey?” he recalled.

He moved to Sravasti in 2021 to begin his training and was ordained as a novice monk seven months ago.

With only two fully ordained monks at the abbey, there weren’t enough men for the minimum of four fully ordained monastics to perform the three prescribed rites of a fully functioning monastic Sangha, or community. These include bimonthly confession and restoration of precepts, the rains retreat or varsa and the end-of-varsa request for feedback.

Chonyi explained that the abbey is able to do these because the women constitute a full bhikshuni Sangha.

“The monks join in ceremonies when it’s appropriate for them to do so, but until there are at least four who are fully ordained, they are not yet a fully functioning bhikshu (or male) Sangha,” she said.

“The Buddhist Sangha is divided by gender; that’s how it is,” Ngawang explained. “There’s a bikshuni (nun) and a bikshu (monk) Sangha and those necessarily are separate for certain Vinaya (disciplinary code) rites.”

Venerable Thubten Losang in 2022. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey

Venerable Thubten Losang became the first monk at Sravasti Abbey in 2015. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey

With a bikshu Sangha on the horizon, Ngawang said a path is opening for the abbey’s future.

“In order for men to have an equal opportunity, it sounds strange, but in order for the abbey really to offer the full experience of Buddhist monastic life to both genders, then it’s necessary to have a Sangha,” he said.

But Ngawang said Sravasti, as a place for both monks and nuns, sends a significant message to the lay community, too.

“I think for other men to see role models like Geshe Dadul (Namgyal) is really helpful to envision what you can become,” he said. “I’ve heard many, many women say that about Venerable Chodron and Khadro and the seniors, so I think there’s that piece of having men also on this path that other men can see as role models that is valuable.”

He added that having both Sanghas at the abbey embodies the unity Chodron consistently speaks of.

Venerable Thubten Chodron, right, a fully ordained Buddhist nun, founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, puts on her chogu before teaching the dharma, as Thubten Dekyi looks on, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Newport, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Venerable Thubten Chodron, right, a fully ordained Buddhist nun, founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, puts on her chogu before teaching the dharma, as Thubten Dekyi looks on, Nov. 18, 2021, in Newport, Washington. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

“Venerable Chodron really emphasizes over and over again that harmony is foundational, we have to have harmony. If we don’t have harmony in the community, there’s no reason for us to be here. What role models can we be if we can’t get along with each other? I think it’s really helpful to have this community be a place where gender issues can be discussed,” Ngawang said.

But coed Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are rare, and it’s unfamiliar to the abbey’s newest senior teacher.

He said so far the experience has been “wonderful.”

“I don’t take my resident teacher position so seriously. I see myself learning and making myself available to share in the understanding,” he said. “When you’re learning and sharing, it doesn’t feel like work.”

This summer Namgyal will lead three summer courses titled “Working with Afflictive Minds: The First Steps” to be held at Sravasti Abbey, 692 Country Lane in Newport, on June 17; July 28-30; and Aug. 18-20. He will also lead the abbey’s annual Labor Day weekend retreat in September.

Chonyi said that even though Geshe-la has taken on a leadership position at the abbey and the monk community is growing, balance is — and will continue to be — key at Sravasti.

“Don’t think girl power is going anywhere,” she said.

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