This insightful book has 14 chapters based on "Life as a Buddhist Nun," a 3 week educational program for nuns @ Bodhgaya, India, Feb. 1996. The authors are from numerous countries, mostly European. Major sections include: history & monastic discipline, living as a Buddhist nun, nun's teachings, and a poignant appendix: p. 187: Bhikshuni Tenzin Palmo (England) "The Situation of Western Monastics," which made the Dalai Lama weep and an interview with the him in which he stated, pp. 192-3: "I think the rights of women practitioners in the Tibetan Buddhist community have been neglected."
There are many references to cultural differences between East and West and the need to adapt:
p. ix: Dalai Lama: "Wherever Buddhism has taken root in a new land, there has always been a certain variation in the style in which it is observed.
p. xxxiv: editor Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron (USA): "Western monastics must determine how to keep some of the precepts according to the society and situation in which they find themselves. When Buddhism spread from India to Tibet, China, and other countries, the way of keeping the precepts was also adjusted to fit the mentality of the society as well as the geography, climate, economics, and so on of the country. This process is only beginning in the West now."
pp. 7-8: Bhikshuni Lekshe Tsomo (Hawaii), "Buddhist Monasticism & its Western Adaptation"--"Differences in social conditions now and at the time of the Buddha require thoughtful adaptation of the precepts in the present day."
p. 19-21: Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (Thailand) "The History of the Bhikkhuni Sangha"--"The Buddha always made exceptions after the general rule was established...Questioning the authority of certain passages in the Buddhist scriptures is a delicate issue, and we have to be very careful. How can we prove that everything was passed down exactly as the Buddha spoke it? On the other hand, isn't there a danger in saying that certain passages are later interpolations? I become suspicious only when a passage does not correspond with the spirit of the main core of the Buddha's teachings."
p. 31: Kabilsingh: "Certain ancient Indian social values were taken into Buddhism, because the Buddhist community was not separate from the general Indian society at the time."
p. 117: Chi-Kwang Sunim (Australia), "A Strong Tradition Adapting to Change: The Nuns in Korea"--""Westernization and technology are not the problem; what we do with them is."
pp. 141-2: Thubten Chodron "Finding Your Way"--"What is the essence of the Buddha's teachings that we must practice, bring back to our Western countries, and teach others? What is cultural form that we need not bring to the West? ...I had to confront the fact that copying a cultural form and others' external behavior was not necessarily practicing the Dharma...Because most of us Western monastics are operating cross-culturally, we would benefit from adapting the positive aspects and values of all culture we contact, while leaving behind whatever prejudice and preconceptions we may encounter."
pp. 167-8: Bhikshuni Wendy Finster (Australia) "We should be careful to distinguish between the Buddhadharma & the cultural context within which it has developed & be sure that we grasp the essence of the Dharma without getting caught up in the paraphernalia appropriate to its Asian cultural context. We must make an effort through our own individual practice to separate the grain from the chaff."
Of particular note: Bhikshuni Ngawang Chodron's (England) cogent arguments for full (Bhikshuni) ordination for nuns: p. 91: Under King Langdarma most Tibetan "monks were killed or forcefully disrobed, but 3 who survived fled to Kham, Eastern Tibet. There they met 2 Chinese monks who completed the required quorum of five monks to give ordination. If Tibetan monks could enlist the aid of Chinese monks, I feel that nuns in the Tibetan tradition should be able to enlist the help of Chinese monks & nuns who now give the Bhikshuni ordination...A central land is defined in the scriptures as a place which has the 4 classes of Buddhist disciples: bhikshus, bhikshunis, & lay practitioners of both sexes. If a place has no bhikshunis, it is not a central land...Why should a 70 year old nun still be a novice?"
Further, there were some very interesting psychological observations and comments:
p. 144: Thubten Chodron: "Feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy are prevalent in Westerners...Tibetans do not have words in their language for low self-esteem or guilt, so Westerners' problems with these feelings are not readily comprehensible to them. His Holiness had difficulty understanding how someone could not like himself. He looked around this room of educated, successful people and asked, `Who feels low self-esteem?' Everyone looked at each other and replied, `We all do.' His Holiness was shocked."
p. 158: Finster (a clinical psychologist and nun): "Only enlightened persons are totally mentally healthy." Her powerful & provocative chapter speaks to sangha dangers, responsibilities, & cultural differences.
p. 166: [not meeting one's expectations] "causes us to judge ourselves harshly and feel guilty, and as a result our self-esteem plummets. This surprises our Asian teachers; they do not realize the level of self-criticism and self-hatred that can arise in individuals raised in our culture."
p. 169: "If we find that we are not happier in our daily life, then we are not practicing the Dharma correctly." She also contrasts "spiritual materialism" vs. "kitchen sink reality."
But, perhaps the heart of the book lies in the descriptions of modern monastic life as actually experienced today, such as "Life in Gampo Abbey" by Bhikshuni Tsultrim Palmo, including rituals and daily routines. After all, the main point of a nun's life is to practice the Dharma. As the editor points out, p. xxxiii: "If we were able to keep the precepts perfectly, we would not need to take them." This is a fine book.