How Buddhist Nuns Fight Human Trafficking in Nepal

…and how it might change the way we view US anti-trafficking efforts

An Interview with the Venerable DhammaVijaya

Co-founder of the DhammaMoli project


At DhammaMoli: Sisters DhammaVijaya and Molini, front

Patheos has been putting the spotlight recently on human trafficking, and so far much of the discussion has been about US Evangelical Christians trying to fight it — and the critique they are receiving from certain academics, particularly about an alleged imposition of Protestant values on “rescued” “victims” (we’re using scare quotes here because both of these terms is at question, and I don’t have better replacements). There is, however, a broader range of conversations to be had about trafficking. Why not, for a moment, turn our eyes away from Christian, or even American, anti-trafficking projects, and look at what another faith tradition, in another country, is doing? The answer will of course be interesting in and of itself. But might it also inform the debate about the US approach? We’ll explore that question below. But first, let’s choose the tradition:

Buddhism ought to immediately grab our attention, if for no other reason than because authors like Kevin Bales have argued that Buddhist environments have tacitly permitted prostitution and sex slavery to flourish. Bales, founder of Free the Slaves, has written that Thai Buddhism often “shapes a culture ripe for human trafficking”. [Update, Feb. 28: I emailed Kevin Bales to make sure that I was characterizing his argument correctly. He said I hadn't quite captured his thoughts -- and has expanded in a comment below, which I encourage you to read.] In a future post, soon, we’re going to speak with someone who argues vehemently that Buddhism, properly interpreted, is completely incompatible with the practice of sex slavery. And Buddhist bloggers such as the Venerable Ani Drubgyudma have written that Buddhists should be actively engaged in stopping human trafficking. The fact that this discussion exists motivates us to find real examples of non-US Buddhist-based organizations, on the ground, fighting human trafficking. My (admittedly informal) Internet research actually did not turn up many examples. But there is one project that should be catching our eye: DhammaMoli. It may (or may not) provide a model for similar solutions around the world.

DhammaMoli is a small Buddhist community in Nepal that provides shelter and education to young local girls at risk of falling victim to human traffickers who might sell them to brothels in India. It was founded by two Theravadan Buddhist nuns, the Venerable DhammaVijaya and the Venerable Molini (hence the name DhammaMoli), both of whom received Ph.D.’s from a Buddhist university in Bihar, in northeast India. Theravadan Buddhism, it should be remarked, is the most prominent school practiced in Thailand, but is only one of many found in Nepal, a country in which Hinduism and Buddhism famously coexist in unique ways. Sister DhammaVijaya was ordained in Los Angeles in some 25 years ago. DhammaMoli is funded, in part, by a link-organization in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Sister DhammaVijaya was generous enough to grant me an interview from Kathmandu to New York — not an easy task, given that communications technology at DhammaMoli is rather limited. The very talented Nepali-English interpreter Suman Kansakar helped out.

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Can you go into detail about how your personal spiritual practice motivates your work at Dhammamoli?

Spiritual practice supports me a lot to deal with the girls and other workers in DhammaMoli. In our practice, mindfulness is the main point, and that is why we have the confidence to tackle any situation carefully and rightly. We have no experience of motherhood, but we try our best to raise the girls with love and kindness. This is the main part of Buddhism. And we teach them Buddhist songs and meditation. They try to learn very happily and with great interest. I find the girls are very happy and satisfied at DhammaMoli.

Can you be more specific? What Buddhist thought instructs you to run a project aimed at helping stop human trafficking?

We were first exposed to the devastation brought on young girls by trafficking during our visit to Cambodia. We were invited to pray and provide teachings to HIV-infected girls in a rehabilitation center. After we came back to Nepal, we read the news of 2500 or so Nepalese girls returning from India with Hepatitis-B and HIV, and staying at an NGO called Maiti Nepal [Ed.’s note: a non-faith-based anti-trafficking organization in Kathmandu]. I, along with Sister Molini, went to visit them at the Maiti Nepal center and we were very touched by the plight of these young girls, who seem to have resigned themselves to fate. The inspiration to start DhammaMoli came to us after this visit.

As for which Buddhist ideas instruct us to run a social project like DhammaMoli: it is very difficult to explain in brief. The fundamental discourse of Buddhism is Loving and Kindness to all living beings, even your enemies. In short, Buddha has said that one should try, in whatever capacity one can, to help others — and more so, those that cannot take care of themselves. Even if you are able to save one life, that counts towards your achievement of Nirvana. [Ed.’s note: Sister DhammaVijaya says this comes from the Tripitaka Buddhist scriptures. In the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, also called in English Monkey God, a character named Tripitaka says, “To save one life is better than to build a seven-storeyed pagoda.”]

What precisely does it mean that the girls are brought up in a “Buddhist monastic environment?” How much Buddhist doctrine and ritual do they practice while they are there?

When we started DhammaMoli, the condition of village girls in our country was very bad. We saw newspaper headlines about girls disappearing all the time from remote areas of Nepal. So we decided that we would help such girls according to Buddhist teaching. We started with four girls, at an average age of six years, from different remote regions of Nepal. We first taught them the following:

The Vihara at DhammaMoli

  • The national language – Nepali. This is because there are many ethnic languages in Nepal, and Nepali is the language of communication all over the country.
  • To be neat and clean.
  • Monastic rules, regulations, and discipline.
  • After that, we sent them to a public school.
  • And Buddhist theory and practice.

Can you tell us more about the monastic rules and discipline? For example, do the girls meditate every day? How long?

  • 5am – 6am: Wake up and getting ready time.
  • 6am – 6.15am – 15 minutes meditation.
  • 6.30-7.30am – Breakfast and cleanup.
  • 7.45 am – Study time.
  • 8.30am – Prepare for school. If no school, Buddhist teachings for about one hour.
  • 9am – 4pm – School. If no school, play, read, talk, etc.
  • 4.30pm – 5.00pm – Light dinner.
  • 5.30pm – 6.00 pm – Chanting, 5-10 minutes meditation (school days); 30 minutes (non-school days).
  • 6pm – 7.30pm – Private tutoring and homework time.
  • 8.30pm – Bedtime.

Holidays – trips to local attractions. TV time (news, animal shows, cartoons).

Nepal is both a Hindu and Buddhist country, and the two religions mix together quite thoroughly there. How is Hinduism is incorporated into the life of the girls at Dhammamoli? How have parents reacted to the religious aspect of the education there?

Yes, Nepal is both a Hindu and Buddhist country. There is no influence from Hinduism in the life of girls in DhammaMoli. As they are all from remote areas of Nepal, their parents are poor and uneducated, and they don’t interfere regarding the religion. They are happy to see their children at DhammaMoli, in a clean environment, and going to school. It is with the parent’s permission that the girls come to DhammaMoli.

Do the parents get to visit? How do they react to it?

Yes, there are no restrictions on parents or relatives visiting the girls. We just ask that they visit them during the holidays or during free time. Some of the girls don’t have parents, so uncles and aunts come to visit. There is one girl from Lumbini whose mother always comes to meet us to check on her well-being when we visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. During our last visit, she requested that she wants to see her daughter, but she couldn’t herself come to Kathmandu. So we arranged to send her daughter to her mother’s place for few days’ visit.

When you are going to villages to scan for at-risk girls, what indicators do you look for? Is it usually the parents who say, here, my daughter is in a dangerous situation, please take her, or is it more that you have to identify by yourselves who is at risk, and then ask the parents if you can take the child?

We visit villages frequently, and we ask the girls how they are living and what the problems are there, often due to poverty and illiteracy. When they see us and meet us, they are happy to know that girls can also be educated, go to school, and learn new things. After the girls have shown interest, we visit their the parents and tell them about our shelter program in Kathmandu. Then the parents decide to send their daughters to stay at DhammaMoli, so that they can escape dangerous situations that arise out of poverty, such as getting married off at an early age, or being sent to cities or to India for employment, which is how most girls are tricked into prostitution.

What might the girls do when they leave DhammaMoli?

The girls are still in primary and middle school, so they have not yet graduated. Once they finish high school, we will honor their wishes at that time. They are welcome to stay at the Vihara [Ed.’s note: the Sanskrit word for Buddhist monastery, and origin of the name of the state of Bihar] or return back to their family. The girls are already learning English at our school, and we believe that education, along with Buddhist teachings, will give them the ability to make the right decision for themselves. This is something that they would not have acquired if they had been in their village.

How do the girls, themselves, emotionally react, when they leave home and are brought to Dhammamoli?

Most of the girls that have come to DhammaMoli are young. They don’t know about anything. They are shy and quiet. They don’t know of the variety of food available, as they have grown up with only rice and lentil soup as their daily staple. They have not seen different kinds of vegetables, fruits, juices, and so forth. One of them didn’t know what a mango was. She was scared to eat a mango for the first time.

Do you know of other Buddhist-based organizations working to fight human trafficking?

We believe that there are many Buddhist organizations fighting human trafficking, but we do not know of them specifically.

A lot of trafficking originates or ends in prominently Buddhist countries (Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, etc.). Is there something in Buddhism — not necessarily in theory, but perhaps in the way it is incorrectly practiced — that enables sex trafficking, or that tacitly permits it to occur?

We have travelled in many southeast Asian countries where trafficking of girls is prevalent, and we feel that there are multiple reasons why this problem is there. The main reason is poverty, followed by illiteracy. Also, all of these countries are male-dominated societies, and a girl child is valued less, as she is seen as a burden. Also, even though some of these countries are known as Buddhist countries, the Buddhism practiced is not always pure Buddhism – it is mixed with Hinduism, Spiritualism, Tantrism, and so forth.

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Let’s now go back to the academic critique of Protestant values in US trafficking efforts. Certain feminist and queer theorists say that anti-trafficking organizations wrongly assume what’s best for the women and girls that they “save” (ditto on the scare quotes). Other academics worry about certain NGOs exploiting the vulnerabilities of trafficking victims to proselytize for Christianity, denying their cultural heritage.

  • To be intellectually consistent, must these academics say the same things about DhammaMoli? Is it right or wrong that these Nepalese girls are brought to a safe place and then taught Buddhism from a young age?
  • What about the fact that DhammaMoli doesn’t expose the girls to other Nepalese religious traditions (Hinduism, Islam, indigenous practices, and even some Christianity)? Does this constitute a similar denial of someone’s cultural heritage? When precisely is anti-trafficking about forced religion, cultural hegemony, heteronormativity or imposed “family values” — if ever?
  • What is the moral difference between an American Christian bringing an at-risk girl to a church and teaching her Christianity, and a Buddhist nun bringing her to a vihara and teaching her Buddhism?

Your answers desired.

Soon I’ll be posting an American Buddhist anti-trafficking expert’s perhaps surprising opinion.

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  • Yvonne Zimmerman

    An interesting piece and accompanying questions, Erik. One that I would add to your list turns Bales’s observation (that, as you put it, “Buddhist environments have tacitly permitted prostitution and sex slavery to flourish”) back on dominant understandings and practices of Christianity in the U.S.: What is it about (ostensibly) Christian environments that permit labor exploitation (and especially though not exclusively the sexual labor of women) to occur as part of routine, common practice? Unfortunately, Christianity as it has been and is practiced in the U.S. has a much longer socio-political history of supporting and justifying slavery, and certainly of legitimating the oppression of women and sexual minorities, than it does of resisting these social practices. As a Christian ethicist, keeping this question close at hand and letting it provoke me is part of how I try practice spiritual and intellectual integrity in my own work.

  • Claude d’Estree

    I know that my own, longer reply is in process, but I thought I should reply to Kevin Bales’ assumption about Buddhism in Thailand (and I have expressed my views to Kevin personally). I think it important to separate out “Buddhism” and it’s attendant philosophical and ethical norms from “Buddhism” tied to its cultural milieu and framework. It is often joked that they don’t practice “Buddhism” in Thailand, but “Bahtism” (“baht” – the national currency). The predominance of sex tourism and trafficking in Thailand is more a product of Thai culture and less of Buddhism. Having said that, the lack of an official reply from the Sangharaja (Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism) is both embarrassing and long overdue. The Buddhist Sangha everywhere should make it clear that human trafficking of any kind is completely unacceptable.
    Prof. Claude d’Estrée
    (aka The Venerable KhaYa, Sunim (Korean); Lopon Konchog Trinly Dorje, Rinpoche (Tibetan))
    Director – Human Trafficking Clinic
    Josef Korbel Schol of International Studies
    Buddhist Chaplain

  • Kevin Bales

    Claude and I are very much of the same mind.

    I like that Erik is opening this up for discussion, but I’m not sure that he’s captured my thoughts – in that chapter on Thailand I go over a series of attributes of Thai society – an inherent sexism, a history of women used as conspicuous consumption items, economic pressure and disrupting rapid economic transformation (“Bahtism” as Claude aptly puts it) , as well as an interpretation of one branch of Buddhism that includes the idea that women are lower on the ladder to enlightenment and thus of lower value. I’m at pains in that work to emphasize, as I did with Islam in the chapter on Mauritania, that this is an interpretation but not truly reflective of the core of Buddhist thought and practice – any more than Deep South American slavery was reflective of the core and practice of Christianity (certainly as practiced by, say, Quakers). This misinterpretation of Buddhism was included in a discussion of a larger cultural package, and needs to be kept in that context.

    It was interesting that after the publication of Disposable People I was contacted by several Buddhists. Some, usually those who were Thai, tended to say ‘Well, this is a valid criticism of the way some who profess to be Buddhists talk and act.” Others, who tended to be American Buddhists, would point that this was a perversion of Buddhist thought and practice and that I shouldn’t be reporting it as “Buddhism”. I appreciated their wanting to defend all that is good about their faith tradition, but we all know that ALL faith traditions have been perverted and used to rationalize and justify ugly and inhuman acts, including slavery. My view, my strong conviction, is that virtually all of these faith traditions have within them the seeds of liberation and human growth, but that we must confront the men (usually men) who would twist and despoil the tenets of any faith tradition to their own selfish ends. In my mind this holds true whether we are talking about Christians (such as the ‘Evangelists’ who “like hypocrites love to say their prayers standing … at the street corners for everyone to see them” [Matt. 6:5] and then pocket and waste the proceeds of their sanctimonious scam) Christianity, for at least a thousand years was used to justify slavery. And the same ill-usage have been done to Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – and most other faith traditions as well.

  • Claude d’Estree

    I concur with Kevin. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate a religion from the culture in which it sits. Both the strength and weakness of Buddhism has been its willingness to openly assimilate the cultures that it has moved into over the centuries. Presumably this was also with the intent of helping transform the culture in positive ways. I have to say that I have been deeply disappointed in my own tradition (Buddhism) in recent decades in its lack of response to social issues. Staying secluded in forest retreats or mountain caves, keeping itself aloof from the lay population, and reifying inequities in social norms makes the tradition complicit on issues like misogyny, forced labour and human trafficking.

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  • Ani Drubgyudma

    I appreciate all that has been addressed thus far in this dialogue. As Erik, in my research, I found very little information on the internet in light of what Buddhists have been doing in relation to the human trafficking issue. I am grateful for the interview with the Nepal nuns, and all that they are doing.
    I have been personally involved since the early 1990′s with learning about human slavery – a family member was kidnapped and rescued in Kenya (We were living and working there). She was on the way to be trafficked, had we not rescued her. She was missing for one week. At that time I did not know that slavery existed in our world. This began my long journey to awakening on many levels.
    Yes, staying in a remote place disengaged from society’s ills is definitely no better than staying in society disengaged and living a self-encapsulated, and distracted lifestyle. Yet in a practitioner’s cultivation, whether monastic or lay, there are times when secluded forest retreats provide the necessary conditions for realization and stabilization in becoming a human being who is ready to serve in the world. Until a person has some stabilization, serving in the world and hearing the cries of world, can be overwhelming to the practitioner, as well as to the community that s/he may be serving in the world. We need forest retreats that are open to providing “safe havens” to all people, including rescued victims of slavery. Why not plan a safe haven for “one person at a time”. Build it into the system.
    The point of Buddhist practice as I understand it is to aspire to stabilize and manifest as a bodhisattva/buddha – an altruistic compassionate wisdom human being serving in the world. A human being who hears the cries of the world and then responds.
    In my view, Buddhist monasteries and temples can assist in rescue work. I can envision temples, retreat houses, and monasteries offering “safe havens” to rescued victims.
    I know of Catholic nuns who have been providing “safe havens” to domestic violence victims for many years…one women at a time. When staying at one of their retreat houses years ago, there was a women who was living in one of the hermitages. I thought that she was a retreatant, only to discover later that she had been a rescued victim of domestic violence who was taking the time to recover and discover her next step in life. She was not Catholic, and was not forced to attend programs, etc. The Catholic nun was a trained inter-faith spiritual director, she assisted the “survivor” as she recovered.
    I can also envision Buddhist lay practitioners who are qualified to offer “foster homes” … one rescued victim at at time. The need is great, we must hear the cries and respond – raising awareness and providing the necessary “safe havens”.
    Thank you for initiating this dialogue, Erik.

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