In June this year the Blue Mountains hosted the 16th Sakydhita International Conference on Buddhist Women – the first time for it to be held in Australia. The name Sakyadhita means Daughter of the Buddha. The name was used at the first international gathering of Buddhist women held in Bodhgaya, India, in 1987. Sakyadhita International was then established with the aim “to work together to benefit Buddhist women, to reduce gender injustice, and awaken women to their potential for awakening the world. Since 1987, through these biennial international conferences, Sakyadhita has worked for gender equity in Buddhist communities.”
Now that I’m based in Melbourne I initially hesitated, wondering whether to make the journey to NSW. But quickly realised what a special and rare opportunity it was, much too good to miss (and I hadn’t been to any of the previous conferences). So I booked my ticket and headed up to the Blue Mountains, staying at BMIMC and travelling to the venue in Leura – The Fairmont Resort – each day. What a fortunate decision.
It also eventuated that BMIMC had its own small role to play being offered the opportunity to accommodate some delegates. In the spirit of generous hospitality the committee agreed and managers Margie and Rebecca kindly prepared all the rooms, including one for me, and created a comfortable base for all the visitors. On the first night of the conference three Tibetan nuns from India, two being Geshe-mas, came to stay. The Geshe-ma title is roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism involving a rigorous examination process taking four years, which is the culmination of a 17-year course of study. It was such a pleasure to spend time with these three interesting and vibrant women. On the remaining nights a group of Vietnamese nuns, and their attendants, provided lively company for Margie, Rebecca and myself. While some had made the trip from Vietnam others had come from Australian monasteries. Although only a few spoke English there was no shortage of friendliness, fun and plenty of tasty Vietnamese food. On Thursday evening, to offer their gratitude, these nuns conducted a session of chanting in the meditation hall at BMIMC for our local sangha. Also invited that evening was another conference delegate Venerable Panna Theri, a nun visiting from Myanmar, who was an engaging speaker both socially that evening and during the conference, giving a talk entitled “New Challenges of Buddhist Nuns (Thila-shins) in Myanmar”.
The conference had a very full program of events with this year’s theme being ‘New Horizons in Buddhism’. In deference to the local Gundungurra and Dharug people, the opening night began with a welcome to country by a local elder. Australian Zen teacher, Roshi Susan Murphy gave the keynote speech. She spoke of the barriers and challenges faced by women in Buddhism in the past and that still exist and, combining this with her regard for Indigenous wisdom and her commitment to contemporary environmental concerns, concluded that “we are here to dissolve the endless delusory sense of separation with which we injure and divide ourselves and pit ourselves so dangerously against the living Earth”.
The conference days were full with panels, plenary sessions, roundtables, films and workshops as well as evening talks and entertainment. Two of the highlights for me were talks given by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Roshi Joan Halifax. Jetsunma, currently the president of Sakyaditha International, is a warm and engaging speaker. She gave an inspiring and heartfelt talk on kindness that resonated with my own appreciation of this beautiful mind state, and which I continue to cultivate in the formal practice of metta. A tender yet powerful companion to vipassana, metta has become an integral part of my meditation practice, encouraging the heart to remain open to all experience. Over recent years I have been fortunate to attend the metta retreats at Chanmyay Myiang Meditation Center in Myanmar with Sayadaw U Indika, Ariya Baumann and Ven. Viranani who all come to teach at BMIMC.
Roshi Joan’s positivity and strength also had quite an impact on me and her talk, given during a panel session, ‘Standing on the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet’ was particularly pertinent in light of the many issues and concerns we currently face. Many other pressing contemporary topics were discussed in the various sessions and workshops, not least the sexual exploitation and abuse of nuns and laywomen in Buddhist communities.
A most delightful, but no less profound, counterpoint to the force of some of these dialogues was the small workshop given by a Korean nun, Venerable Jeong Kwan. Although I had not heard of her, this elegant and dignified nun had apparently become ‘famous’ after her appearance on the Netflix documentary ‘Chef’s Table’. At the end of that episode, she had said ‘I make food as a meditation. I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom. I wish you a healthy, happy life.’ During the workshop she brought these words to life. Firstly she spoke briefly yet eloquently about the creation of a meal as the elements in play that begins with the planting of a seed and culminates in the food on the plate. She then created her own four simple and beautiful dishes, briefly explaining each ingredient, and finally shared this food with us all. What a lovely experience!
The whole conference provided so many rich experiences. Apart from
the wonderful program of events there was so many other things to savour – a
chance to meet up with old and make new friends, sit by an open fire for a chat
and a cuppa, enjoy the lunch buffet, peruse the book stall or purchase Venerable
Tencho’s delicious chai mix, take in the beautiful Blue Mountain views, go for
a bush walk or just sit quietly in the public areas ‘people watching’ the many who’d
come together from all over the globe – monastic and lay – to celebrate, honour and support our
community of sisters in the Dhamma.
By Tara Frances