Buddhist nunnery adds temple
LINCOLN — When she reached her mid-forties, Khenmo Drolma was diagnosed with cancer and given five years to live. The diagnosis pushed her to dedicate herself completely to the religion that she had been dabbling in since she was 30, Buddhism.
“That experience gave me the incentive to make a full spiritual commitment to Buddhism,” Khenmo said.
Now, more than a decade later, Khenmo is the abbess of the Vajra Dakini Nunnery in Lincoln, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastic women’s community in North America.
Khenmo is the first Westerner and woman to hold such a position, and was installed as abbess by Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche, the head of the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Buddhism that is practiced at the Lincoln nunnery. All the Tibetans in the lineage were gathered at the ceremony, which took place at Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal.
The Drikung Kagyu lineage is one school of the larger Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and it focuses on the importance of oral teachings. Khenmo explained that vows and empowerments in this lineage must be passed by someone who has received them, and in this way the vows can be traced all the way back to Buddha.
There are only three existing Buddhist monasteries in the west; Khenmo Drolma’s nunnery in Lincoln, along with one in Washington state and one in Canada.
When asked why Lincoln was chosen as the spot for such an important advancement in the Buddhist religion, Khenmo explained that the land the nunnery was built on has been considered sacred for centuries, and not just by Buddhists.
“For six thousand years this area was an Algonquin Indian sacred space. Since then, it has also been recognized as a sacred place of feminine wisdom,” Khenmo said, explaining why the spot was especially ideal for the first Buddhist women’s community in the west.
“The founder of the nunnery, Venerable Dahani Ywahoo, is recognized by both Native Americans and Tibetans as a spiritual leader, and she felt that this spot is a place where prayers are magnified,” Khenmo added.
The nunnery, which was consecrated at the Sunray Peace Village in Lincoln in 2004, has introduced a new set of religious views and beliefs to the Lincoln area, but has seen little opposition from the local community.
“Like all small towns, Lincoln has some reservations about (us) growing and expanding, but once we met with the town and explained what we were doing, they’ve been very supportive. They seem very happy that there’s a place where prayers will be said for peace,” Khenmo said.
In 2007, the nunnery purchased 10 acres of land and a simple house just down the road from the Sunray Peace Village, where the resident nuns, about 68 nuns per year, now live and practice a monastic life.
“Making a commitment to start a nunnery is like a 50-year commitment – it’s a slow and gradual process,” Khenmo said. “Joining a nunnery is a serious life choice, so we invite people to take it slowly.”
Now, in keeping with their ever-expanding community, the nunnery has built a temple to house their unique White Tara statue. The construction of the temple took place from July 6 to 9, 2010, and involved volunteers from as far away as Toronto.
Janet Khan, a volunteer from Burlington who has been working with the nunnery since its inception and is a current board member, said that the nunnery is important because it “presents a view that we don’t quite have yet in the west.”
“I have tremendous respect for Buddhism; it presents a voice for a more compassionate way to be in the world,” Khan added. While she does not aspire to move into the nunnery, Khan volunteers and donates to the monastery in the hopes of helping to root Buddhism in the United States.
According to Khenmo, there were about nine volunteers physically helping to assemble the wood temple, designed by David King of Bristol Woodworkers. Including those who helped fundraise and roll prayers to place inside the statue, however, the number of volunteers involved in this particular project was close to 30.
Khan explained that Buddhist nuns and monks live off alms (charity and donations), and as such the White Tara project was funded solely by contributions. While the nunnery doesn’t put out advertisements for fund-raisers, Khenmo teaches Buddhist beliefs and practices internationally, thus information about the Lincoln nunnery and its needs is spread by word of mouth.
If the White Tara temple project is any indication, this system seems to be working for the nunnery.
The bronze, life-size sculpture of White Tara was constructed by Maurice Lowe, a former professor at University of Pennsylvania (where Khenmo attended graduate school). Lowe, now 83, took two years to build the statue and donated it to the nunnery last year as a gift.
Lowe, who has sculpted Buddha statues for the Dalai Lama in the past, even learned Tibetan while sculpting White Tara so that he could personally write her mantra on her sash.
“The sculpture is irreplaceable – there are prayers rolled and stuffed inside, and relics donated of historic Buddhist saints – all of these are stuffed in between dried juniper to make it more precious. The budget for the rest of the project is around $30,000,” Khenmo said.
Filling the statue with prayers is a Buddhist ritual that increases its religious value. Khenmo explained that the prayers are covered with saffron to make them more precious, then rolled around incense and placed face-up inside the statue from head to toe.
Filling the White Tara statue took three thousand sheets of prayers made up of 20 different mantras. Khenmo hopes to eventually fill every statue on the premises in the same way.
As the Goddess of compassion, longevity and healing, White Tara is a highly worshipped deity in Tibetan Buddhism, and the nunnery expects her statue to become a place of pilgrimage.
According to Khenmo’s account of Buddhist history, Tara was a princess who got leprosy (“like AIDS in that time period,” she said), and was instructed to go on a pilgrimage. For someone of her class and stature, it was a shock to be walking barefoot for long distances with the lower classes, and it gave her the chance to witness the suffering of those around her.
By the time she reached the temple at her destination, her heart had been opened to those who were suffering, and she was wholly compassionate. Because of her leprosy, however, she was not permitted to enter the temple. When the statue inside the temple saw this, it wept. One of the statue’s tears touched Tara’s hem and caused her moment of enlightenment (the Buddhist state of mind of pure knowledge). While her mind was free, Tara’s illness did not get cured.
“As a cancer survivor, this story lifts you out of hope and fear to see what the journey (towards enlightenment) can do to your heart,” Khenmo said, explaining the importance of White Tara from a personal perspective.
“Every individual who becomes enlightened realizes the same state of mind – it uncovers a compassionate heart. Any female enlightened figure is an emanation of Tara,” Khenmo stated.
When asked why the Tara statue was expected to become a pilgrimage site, Khenmo explained the Buddhist belief that every tiny experience contributes to shifting your mind towards open-heartedness and compassion. Since Tara represents these values, her statue is an ideal destination for those hoping to achieve them.
“An experience such as this one (visiting the statue) is full of blessings in that the essence of blessings are almost something tangible that enters your heart,” Khenmo said, adding that “when you see something, it makes a mental imprint that can cause your spirits to be uplifted. In that way, we believe that even animals that pass by the statue will be effected and have their spirits uplifted.”
The consecration of the White Tara statue will take place on Sept. 11, 2010, and the White Tara empowerment (a Buddhist ceremony where a connection is made by an individual with the particular aspect of Buddha represented by a given deity, in this case compassion and healing) will occur on September 12. Both ceremonies will be performed by the head of the Drikung Kagyu lineage, Chetsang Rinpoche.
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