A Buddhist Nun from Taiwan Talks About Her Journey to Become a Nun

November 9, 2016
Picture of Buddhist nun Ching-ning Wang


On November 9th, CSWR resident Ching-ning Wang (Chang Shen), a research fellow and visiting faculty of the Women's Studies in Religion program and a Buddhist nun from Taiwan, gave a talk about her journey to become a nun, and she also discussed training in her monastery in relationship to her book project. Experimenting with the academic method of "autoethnography," Chang Shen explored her personal story as a Buddhist nun who is also an activist, feminist, and scholar, and she examined her relationship to Buddhism, activism, and social justice.

Chang Shen also discussed the book project that she is working on during her time at Harvard.  In her book project: "The Making of Modern Female Chan Teachers," Chang Shen focuses on the female monastic sangha that she comes from, a transnational Buddhist organization based in Taiwan known as Dharma Drum Mountain, as a case study to explore the historically and theoretically significant but under-studied phenomenon of women's religious leadership in contemporary Buddhism. Aware of the scarcity of records of Chan Buddhist women in history, she recognizes the importance of recording the details of female monastics' lives in contemporary society—that is, women's real practice, their subjective perception of Chan, and their substantive pedagogy and outreach experience. By exploring her personal experience and situating it in a larger social, religious, and historical context, Chang Shen reflects on the relationship of activism and scholarship to Buddhist teaching. For the relationship of activism to Buddhist teaching, she contemplates a new model of activism called "activism without duality," that is, to realize the interconnectedness of human beings and things, and to do social justice by way of compassion, not anger. With compassion there is no duality, and the injustice gives us the chance to practice patience. A parable to illustrate this point is that we teach children by taking on a serious attitude when they are not behaving well. She borrowed David Loy's notion of nondualistic social praxis, to work on oneself as well as the social system. Loy argued that the teaching of Buddhism to transform our own greed, ill will, and delusion is important in our efforts to address their institutionalized forms in society. Indeed we may have observed some success in challenging the sociopolitical order in history. However, as we all realize, many examples of revolutionary leaders eventually reproduced, even exemplified, the evils they fought against. Therefore, it is obvious to say that if we ourselves do not transform, any change of the sociopolitical order will not necessarily bring about an awakened society.

As for scholarship in relationship to buddhadharma and practice, in her presentation, she contemplated and suggested a practice called "scholarship without I." Thinking is not the enemy of a person who practice Chan/Zen. The important thing is not identifying the thought as "me." Thinking fast and brilliantly is like having an efficient computer, but I am not "my" computer. If we think with a self-centered attitude, we easily take the success or failure of scholarship to become our own judgment of ourselves as good or bad, gain or loss, and these thoughts and the mind become vexation instead of simply being a useful computer that can contribute to society and oneself. In the end of the talk, Chang Shen concluded that her nunhood was an ongoing journey with Bodhicitta, that is, practicing having an open heart to everyone and seeing everything as a cosmological dream, the essential teaching of Buddhism.


­—by Ching-ning Wang(Chang Shen), 2016-17 Research Fellow and Visiting Faculty of Women's Studies in Religion program, Harvard Divinity School.