Feeling for Fate: Karma and the Senses in Buddhist Nuns’ Ordination Narratives

Sara Ann Swenson


In Vietnam, the decision for young women to ordain as Mahayana Buddhist nuns is navigated through careful interpretations of feeling. Nuns state their decisions to “go forth” (đi tu) in youth were precipitated by feelings of peace and comfort in monasteries even before they understood Buddhist teachings. Such feelings are interpreted as indicators of past-life karmic bonds, which create “predestined affinities” in this life (nhân duyên). Youth determine pre-inclination for monasticism early in life by reading their bodily reactions to Buddhist spaces with or without adults’ assistance. Nuns reclaim local cultural concepts of femininity by declaring that women have special capacities for discerning these predestined affinities and that they must assume unequal monastic rules because of their innate gendered nobility. This article nuances understandings of women’s agency in global Buddhism by exploring how Vietnamese nuns interpret local concepts of the feminine body as resources for pursuing Buddhist ordination.


Buddhism; gender; Vietnam; ordination; emotion; karma

Full Text:



Ban Tôn giáo Chính phủ (Government Committee on Religious Affairs). 2016. “Luật tín ngưỡng, tôn giáo (Law on Belief and Religion).” http://pbgdpl.moj.gov.vn/qt/tintuc/Lists/PhoBienKienThucPhapLuat/Attachments/1537/Lu%E1%BA%ADt%20t%C3%ADn%20ng%C6%B0%E1%BB%A1ng%20t%C3%B4n%20gi%C3%A1o.pdf

Bartholomeusz, Tessa J. 1994. Women under the Bō Tree: Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Batchelor, Martine, and Son’gyong Sunim. 2006. Women in Korean Zen: Lives and Practices. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Blackman, Lisa. 2012. Immaterial Bodies: Affect, Embodiment, Mediation. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Press.

Brown, Sid. 2001. The Journey of One Buddhist Nun: Even Against the Wind. Albany: SUNY Press.

Cabezon, Jose Ignacio. 1992. Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. Albany: SUNY Press.

Chan, Hoiman, and Rance P. L. Lee. 1995. “Hong Kong Families: At the Crossroads of Modernism and Traditionalism.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies; Calgary, Alta. 26 (1): 83–99.

Chen, Chiung Hwang. 2011. “Feminist Debate in Taiwan’s Buddhism: The Issue of the Eight Garudhammas” (1): 16–32.

Collett, Alice. 2006. “Buddhism and Gender: Reframing and Refocusing the Debate.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 22 (2): 55–84.

Crane, Hillary. 2000. “Are Buddhist Nuns Men at Heart?” Magistra 6 (2): 31.

Crane, Hillary. 2006. “The Stoic Monastic: Taiwanese Buddhism and the Problem of Emotions.” Asian Anthropology 5 (1): 85–110.

Dharma, Bhiksuni Karuna. 1988. “Nuns of Vietnam.” In Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, 154–159. Berkeley: Snow Lion Publications.

Drummond, Lisa Barbara Welch, and Helle Rydstrøm. 2004. Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam. Singapore: University of Singapore Press.

Elman, Benjamin A., John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms. 2002. Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Falk, Monica Lindberg. 2007. Making Fields of Merit: Buddhist Female Ascetics and Gendered Orders in Thailand. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Falk, Nancy Auer. 1989. “The Case of the Vanishing Nuns: the fruits of ambivalence in ancient Indian Buddhism.” In Unspoken Worlds: women’s religious lives edited by Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, 155–165. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Fisher, Gareth. 2014. From Comrades to Bodhisattvas: Moral Dimensions of Lay Buddhist Practice in Contemporary China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Gammeltoft, Tine. 1999. Women’s Bodies, Women’s Worries: Health and Family Planning in a Vietnamese Rural Community. Richmond: Curzon Press.

Giáo Hội Phật Giáo Việt Nam (Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam). 2016. “Thống kê tăng, ni, phật tử ở Việt Nam: Lý luận và thực tiễn (Statistics on Monks, Nuns, and Buddhists in Vietnam: Theory and Practice).” https://phatgiao.org.vn/thong-ke-tang-ni-phat-tu-o-viet-nam-ly-luan-va-thuc-tien-d24104.html.

Gross, Rita M. 1993. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. Albany: SUNY Press.

Gross, Rita. 2001. “Buddhism.” In Women in Religion, edited by Jean Holm and John Bowker, 1–29. Belmont: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Grosse, Ingrid. 2015. “Gender Values in Vietnam – Between Confucianism, Communism, and Modernization.” Asian Journal of Peacebuilding; Seoul 3 (2): 253–272.

Gutschow, Kim. 2004. Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin, and Uri Tadmor. 2009. Loanwords in the World’s Languages: a Comparative Handbook. Boston: Walter de Gruyter.

Kawanami, Hiroko. 2013. Renunciation and Empowerment of Buddhist Nuns in Myanmar-Burma: Building a Community of Female Faithful. Boston: Brill.

Kidd, Ian James. 2017. “Beautiful Bodhisattvas: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Exemplarity.” Contemporary Buddhism 18 (2): 331–345.

Leshkowich, Ann Marie. 2014. Essential Trade: Vietnamese Women in a Changing Marketplace. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

LeVine, Sarah. 2013. “At the Cutting Edge: Theravada Nuns in the Kathmandu Valley.” In Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, 13–29. New York: Routledge.

Luong, Hy V. 2010. Tradition, Revolution, and Market Economy in a North Vietnamese Village, 1925–2006. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marr, David G. 1984. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2007. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” boundary 2 12 (2): 333–358.

Ngo, Thi Ngan Binh. 2004. “The Confucian Four Feminine Virtues (tu duc): The Old Versus the New – ke thua versus Phat huy.” In Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam. Edited by Lisa Drummond and Helle Rydstom, 47–73. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Nguyễn Khuê. 2009. Chữ Nôm: cơ sở và nâng cao. Hanoi: Vietnam National University.

Nguyen, Tam, and Holly Angelique. 2017. “Internalized Homonegativity, Confucianism, and Self-Esteem at the Emergence of an LGBTQ Identity in Modern Vietnam.” Journal of Homosexuality 64 (12): 1617–1631.

Paul, Diana, and Frances Wilson. 1985. Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in the Mahayana Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Phạm Quỳnh Phương, and Chris Eipper. 2009. “Mothering and Fathering the Vietnamese: Religion, Gender, and National Identity.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 4 (1): 49–83.

Phạm, Quỳnh Phương. 2009. Hero and Deity: Tran Hung Dao and the Resurgence of Popular Religion in Vietnam. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.

Phan, John Duong. 2013. “Lacquered Words: The Evolution of Vietnamese under Sinitic Influences from the First Century B.C.E. through the Seventeen Century C.E.” Ithaca: Cornell University.

Rydstrom, Helle. 2004. “Female and Male ‘Characters’: Images of Identification and Self-Identification for Rural Vietnamese Children and Adolescents.” In Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam. Edited by Lisa Drummond and Helle Rydstom, 74–95. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Salgado, Nirmala S. 2013. Buddhist Nuns and Gendered Practice: In Search of the Female Renunciant. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shohet, Merav. 2017. “Troubling Love: Gender, Class, and Sideshadowing the ‘Happy Family’ in Vietnam.” Ethos 45 (4): 555–576.

Slote, Walter H. and George A. De Vos. 1998. Confucianism and the Family: A Study of Indo-Tibetan Scholasticism. Albany: SUNY Press.

Soboslai, John. 2012. “Vietnam.” Encyclopedia of Global Religion 2: 1350–1353.

Soucy, Alexander. 2012. The Buddha Side: Gender, Power, and Buddhist Practice in Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Soucy, Alexander. 2014. “Thầy Phồ Tịnh: A Vietnamese Nun’s Struggles in Canada.” In Flowers on the Rock: Global and Local Buddhisms in Canada, edited by John S. Harding, Victor Sogen Hori, and Alexander Soucy, 333–354. Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Taylor, Keith W. 2013. A History of the Vietnamese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Keith W. 2002. “Vietnamese Confucian Narratives.” In Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Edited by Benjamin A. Elman, John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms, 337–369. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Taylor, Philip. 2007. Modernity and Re-Enchantment: Religion in Post-Revolutionary Vietnam. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Thích, Minh Liên. 2017. “Giáo dục Phật giáo Khất sĩ: Từ truyền thống đến hiện đại [Khất sĩ Buddhist Education: from traditional to modern].” Giáo dục Phật giáo Khất sĩ: Từ truyền thống đến hiện đại. http://daophatkhatsi.vn/giao-phap-khat-si/nghien-cuu/giao-duc-phat-giao-khat-si-tu-truyen-thong-den-hien-dai.html.

Tran Ngoc Angie. 2004. “What’s Women’s Work? Male Negotiations and Gender Reproduction in the Vietnamese Garment Industry.” In Gender Practices in Contemporary Vietnam, edited by Drummund and Helle Rydstrom. 137–157. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2013. “Transforming Women’s Position in Buddhism: Strategies.” In Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, 326–329. New York: Routledge.

Watson, Gay. 2003. “Buddhism and the Feminine Voice.” Contemporary Buddhism 4 (1): 25–31.

Wikan, Unni. 2013. Resonance: Beyond the Words. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Willis, Janice. 1985. “Nuns and Benefactresses: The Role of Women in the Development of Buddhism.” In Women, Religion, and Social Change, edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Ellison Banks Findly, 59–86. Albany: SUNY Press.

Woodside, Alexander. 1989. “History, Structure, and Revolution in Vietnam.” International Political Science Review 10 (2): 143–157.

Yü, Chün-fang. 2013. Passing the Light: The Incense Light Community and Buddhist Nuns in Contemporary Taiwan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Yun, Sung Hyun. 2013. “An Analysis of Confucianism’s Yin-Yang Harmony with Nature and the Traditional Oppression of Women: Implications for Social Work Practice.” Journal of Social Work 13 (6): 582–598.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5281/4030985


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2020 Sara Ann Swenson

The JGB is indexed by Scopus, ATLA Religion Database, ProQuest, EBSCO, eGranary Digital Library, the DOAJ, and ERIH PLUS. The works published in this journal are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.  ISSN 1527-6457

Contact: jgb@globalbuddhism.org