Story of a Female Monastic and Strides Toward Gender Equality in Buddhism

In the vast realm of Buddhism, the emergence of a new generation of monastic leaders is stirring the air. A gentle breeze of change has made its way from the Kingdom of Bhutan to South Korea, reflecting a shift in societal norms and traditions. At the heart of this transformation is Venerable Ugyen Choden, a Bhutanese nun who is steadily making her mark on the Buddhist path. Her journey from Bhutan to South Korea, and her experiences and aspirations in the male-dominated realm of monastic Buddhism, encapsulate a compelling narrative of resilience, determination, and service.

In June 2022, Ven. Ugyen Choden became one of the 142 female monastics to receive full ordination in a groundbreaking ceremony in Bhutan, a historic step in realizing gender equality within the Buddhist monastic institutions. This transformational event marked an attempt to redefine the traditionally male-led monastic sangha, placing the spotlight on women’s significant roles within Buddhist communities.

Yet, Choden’s journey to become a monastic was not without its challenges. As a child, she admired the tranquility embodied by Buddhist nuns. At 18, she made the brave choice to step away from conventional education and pursue monastic life. Despite initial resistance from her parents, her persistent conviction led her down the path of Buddhism.

The road to full ordination tested her resilience further. The rigorous demands of monastic education, vastly different from her earlier secular studies, nearly pushed her to the brink of giving up. But the encouraging words from her Dharma teacher reignited her resolve to persevere, culminating in her successful completion of a traditional master’s degree in Buddhist studies.

Her experience illuminates the need for greater support for female monastics’ education, laying bare the systemic challenges they face on their path to spiritual advancement. Choden’s tale is a testament to the strength, courage, and sheer determination of women navigating their way through traditional religious structures.

Importantly, Choden’s experience of full ordination revealed an encouraging acceptance of female monastics in contemporary Bhutanese society. The support and respect they received after the ceremony from the lay community signals an evolving perspective, a promising sign for future female monastics.

Monastic life has undeniably enriched Choden, fostering compassion and humility within her. Beyond theoretical studies, it has shaped her as a human being, enabling her to serve her community. Her aspiration to pursue traditional medicine further underscores her commitment to service, promising a future where religious women play crucial roles in nurturing their communities.

Choden’s experience at the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) study trip, hosted by Jungto Society in South Korea, further solidified her dedication to helping others. Inspired by Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s words and work, she was reminded that as monastics, their primary duty is to serve and support laypeople, not merely to seek support from them.

The inspiring tale of Ven. Ugyen Choden is a beacon of hope for many others looking to follow in her footsteps. Her story encapsulates the lived reality of women breaking barriers within the confines of age-old traditions, challenging the status quo, and standing tall as leaders in their spiritual communities.

In an era when gender equality and inclusivity are pressing issues, Choden’s journey epitomizes a stride towards a more equitable future in Buddhist monastic institutions, one where women stand shoulder to shoulder with men, making profound contributions to society. Indeed, her story, echoing from Bhutan to Korea and beyond, brings a fresh wind of change, inspiring young leaders and activists on their own journeys towards enlightenment and equality.

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