From Bhutan to Korea: Reflections of a Monastic Woman on the Buddhist Path

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Fri. Ugyen Choden, left, with Ven. Sonma Choden from the Bhutan Nuns Foundation during the 2023 INEB study trip to the Jungto Society. Image courtesy of Jungto Company

Jungto Society, the international Buddhist community founded by revered Korean Dharma master and social activist Venerable Pomnyun Sunim (법륜스님), organized an intensive eight-day study tour to South Korea in June for young leaders and affiliated activists to the International Network of Committed. Buddhists (INEB).

From June 13-20, 19 Buddhists from nine Asian countries and territories (Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) gathered in a warm and welcoming atmosphere. kalyana-mitrata* practice, learn and connect; to exchange ideas, to inspire and to be inspired. BDG was privileged to join this unique gathering of monastic and lay practitioners, leaders and activists, to share a dharmic journey that combined elements of study, experiential workshops and field trips, with the discipline and commitment of a traditional Buddhist retreat.**

One of the young leaders participating in this learning experience was Venerable Ugyen Choden, who was one of 142 female monastics to receive full ordination in a historic ceremony in the Kingdom of Bhutan in June 2022.* ** Organized by the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, this was a historic step towards achieving greater equality within the monastic institutions of Buddhism in the last country in the world with an unbroken Vajrayana tradition.

During his visit to Korea, BDG sat down with Ven. Ugyen on the sidelines of the INEB 2023 study trip to the Jungto Society to learn more about her journey to becoming a daughter of the Buddha and her aspirations as a fully ordained monastic.

The INEB 2023 study trip to the Jungto Society. Image courtesy of Jungto Company
The INEB 2023 study trip to the Jungto Society. Image courtesy of Jungto Company

BDG: You grew up as a Buddhist in a traditionally Buddhist society. How did you decide to become a Buddhist monk?

Fri. Ugyen Choden: I made the final decision when I was 18, although I have admired Buddhist nuns in Bhutan since I was very young and became more committed to the idea when I was 15. When I was in school, we met the local nuns on the way home. I remember recognizing the unusual peace of mind shown by these women, and I thought that if I joined a convent, then maybe I too could attain a similar state of mind!

BDG: What did your parents think of your ambitions?

VCUs: At first they were against it; they wanted me to continue in school. But I was persistent and decided to go to the convent.

The INEB 2023 study trip to the Jungto Society. Image courtesy of Jungto Company
The INEB 2023 study trip to the Jungto Society. Image courtesy of Jungto Company

BDG: Were there any unexpected challenges or difficulties on your path to monasticism?

It took about six months to prepare to become a nun. Now I have been a nun for about 12 years, and was fully ordained last year.

I think most of the challenges I faced were related to education. For example, I studied for nine years to obtain a traditional master's degree in Buddhist studies. At that time, I had a lot of difficulty coping with the intensive level of study. When I was in secular school, we didn't need to do much memorization, but in Buddhist college it was completely different: I had to memorize so many texts and study diligently – in fact, I almost give up because studying was so hard. It was then that my Dharma teacher advised me not to give up so easily. She said to me, “You have come this far, so even if you want to leave at the end, at least finish your studies first and then make up your mind.

And so I continued and persevered with my master's degree. I really did my best, and after nine years of study, I was able to pass my exams. I felt so proud of myself that I was able to succeed despite my fears!

BDG: The monastic sangha is traditionally led by male monks. How well accepted are monastic women in contemporary Bhutanese society?

VCUs: The local secular community has been extremely supportive of our work. After our ordination ceremony last year, we went out to receive alms, and people supported us by giving as much as they could. And after our ordination, when we returned to the training center of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation in Thimphu, many people came to greet us, offering kata scarves and other gifts, and showing us a lot of respect.

The INEB 2023 study trip to the Jungto Society. Image courtesy of Jungto Company
The INEB 2023 study trip to the Jungto Society. Image courtesy of Jungto Company

BDG: What has been the most positive aspect of your life as a monk?

VCUs: Since becoming a Buddhist nun, I feel that I have become much more compassionate as a person. When I was in school, we learned all the usual subjects, science and math, etc., but they didn't teach us to be better as people. Monastic education teaches us about Buddhism, and it also emphasizes how to be respectful of others, how to be more compassionate, how to help people. So as a result, I feel that I have become less selfish and a more compassionate person, and I have been able to help others as a result.

BDG: Do you have any aspirations for the future? Do you plan to continue your higher education?

VCUs: My dream now is to become a doctor of traditional medicine. In this way, I hope to help other nuns and the lay community in general. I wish I could give back to the convents and help the nuns there. This is the field of study in which I would like to specialize.

BDG: Do you have any takeaways from the INEB study trip to the Jungto Society?

VCUs: I feel extremely grateful to have had this opportunity to learn more about the work of Ven. Pomnyun Sunim. He does so much for the world and I feel very inspired and proud to participate in this program and learn more about his activities.

Fri. Pomnyun Sunim also reminded me that we shouldn't look at the laity with expectations – as monks, us should help them. Because we are ordained monks, and because we have renounced the lay life and cannot marry, we have enough time to help others. As such, we should think about how best to use our time to help others. I was very touched by his words and feel deeply inspired to do my best to do so.

The INEB 2023 study trip to the Jungto Society. Image courtesy of Jungto Company

* Kalyana mitrata (Skt.), Kalyaṇa-mittata (Pali); the Buddhist concept of virtuous spiritual friendship.

** Compassion and Connection: The Jungto Society Organizes a Study Tour for Young Leaders and Activists of the International Network of Committed Buddhists (BDG)

***Gelongma Dompa (dgeslongma'i sdom pa): The Blessing of Bhikshuni Ordination in Bhutan (BDG) and 142 Buddhist nuns receive full ordination in a landmark ceremony in Bhutan (BDG)

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

Leave comments