Article The World We Want In partnership with the UNDP

Tibetan Buddhist nuns struggling for education and equality

Feminism Himalayan style?

Tibetan Buddhist nuns struggling for education and inequality

Feminism as we know it once started as a distinctly Euro-American phenomenon. Of course, suffragettes of the 19th century expressed something that proved to be a sensitive nerve for many turbulent non-European societies later on. As a result we can easily get lost in the various ethnically informed postcolonial and postmodern strands aiming to improve women’s cause latest after the third wave of feminism. Career aspirations, invisible inequalities and experiences of the female body have been theorised cross culturally ever since.

But when we think of monastic communities who aspire for profound inner changes instead of imposing change on the external world, could such an ideology as feminism become rooted at all? At first glance, many recent developments in ordained female Buddhist communities in Thailand, Sri Lanka and elsewhere seem to suggest so. Yet it is often immensely difficult to disentangle coincidence, similarity and the globalisation of transforming ideas when we try to understand what brings such monastic communities to struggle for changes in their way of life – and it is hardly possible to offer genuine support for them without real understanding.

From swelter to school buses

When I went to Ladakh my main aim was to understand the dynamics of that striking social change which took place in the last three decades in the lives of Tibetan Buddhist nuns. A community that thirty years ago was surviving mostly through subsistence farming and husbandry is now moving towards university trained professions: young nuns are studying to become traditional Tibetan doctors and teachers, merging vocational and secular life, trying to become independent from external support as much as possible. One thing was sure even when I tried to compare older visitors’ accounts with the little I could find about the contemporary situation: such dramatic shifts do not happen simply with tourism and aid reaching the region. Did it grow out of the local tradition of Buddhist doctrines? Is it related to the changed position of the Dalai Lama or might it be a by-product of development and its new ideologies?

In the late 1970s Anna Grimshaw, a young PhD student from Cambridge set out to live with the nuns of Julichang monastery in Ladakh, which was then entirely closed from foreigners. Before the police came to deport her for her illegal stay Grimshaw spent an entire winter with the nuns in the dilapidated little nunnery, having no contact at all with the outside world. She participated in the endless cycle of physical work, fetching water from ice, herding the yaks of the nearby monastery. To keep warm she stayed as close to the tiny kitchen fire in the frigid cold as possible and she listened to the stories the older nuns used to tell sometimes. The nuns did not express hostility towards the monks despite their visible subordinate position and the fact that monks could devote much of their time to religious practices, while their female peers hardly ever had a chance to open a sacred textbook.

The reason behind this is the Buddhist canon’s controversial attitude towards the female body. Although at certain points the Buddha taught gender to be irrelevant to the mind’s potential for reaching enlightenment, there are other texts which state the inferiority of the female body and character, conceiving women mostly as threats of temptation to monks. Himalayan Buddhist societies institutionalized this distinction from the onset: they gave more support and respect to monks and put all the nunneries under the supervision of male abbots. Nuns often still had to work on their families’ lands after their ordination to secure their own food supply for the winter.

Painting this picture in front of a Western audience is extremely difficult. Our outlook on society includes deeply engrained ideas of equality and entitlements for everyone, at least in theory, making the mere listing of facts an urge for social revolution – but most of those nuns did not even question age-old frames of calcified convention. And they certainly loved and respected the monks. When the very essence of Buddhist teachings builds upon acceptance and detachment, urging women activists at best receive puzzled looks and a few smiles. Yet, something grew out of the female Buddhist community itself, changing everything.

More than thirty years have passed opening up borders through which travelers carried stories about this remote, hidden place and people and ideas and foreign products started to march into it. Upon my arrival I stayed at the headquarters of the Ladakh Nuns’ Association in the suburbs of Leh, the capital city. Only a few older nuns lived there, but all of them came from the very same Julichang monastery from where Anna Grimshaw was deported by the police once. They all left in the early 1990s, then being the youngest few, fondling a dream. They left following a young and passionate nun, Tsering Palmo who took it upon herself to change the course of the history of female monasticism in Ladakh.

Tsering Palmo studied in Dharamshala where she had a chance to see Tibetan nuns who came to the exile with the Dalai Lama and who enjoy much more respect and better educational opportunities than their peers in Ladakh. This possibility of such a life struck the young Palmo. She went back to Ladakh and soon got involved in a disagreement with the Rizong monks, the heads of Julichang nunnery, upon her ideas of improvements for the nuns. And this seemingly insignificant act, the initiative of a single young nun, who had the luck of coming from a privileged family and thus a wider outlook female options of Buddhist life, was enough to start an avalanche.

The hows and whys of a quiet revolution

Tsering Palmo met me in the office of the Ladakh Nuns’ Association, a rather modern space with sofas, computers and multiple thermoses of milky tea. She is a short, strongly build women in her fifties with an atmosphere of determination and kindness. She completely lacks the shyness so overwhelmingly present in all the young nuns, and talks in an eloquent, spotless English. I ask her about her story, the motivation behind her agenda and the remaining tasks to finish.

She tells me that in Dharamshala she had a chance to study not only traditional Tibetan medicine and become an amchi, but had access to teachings of Geshe Sonam Rinchen, a Buddhist dharma teacher of high rank. This was the main source of her inspiration, the realisation that long generations of deep poverty and dependence on their families’ were the main factors in the sad conditions of the nuns and there was nothing in the Buddhist canonical teachings that deemed it impossible for nuns to aspire for the same heights as monks do.

She wanted to create an opportunity for the nuns to educate themselves. In 1995, the first international conference on Buddhist nuns the Dalai Lama sent a supporting message declaring the nuns’ right to education. The subsequent years have seen a huge rise in the number of nuns, new nunneries were built and now more than a 100 young nuns left Ladakh for higher studies. Many monks became highly supportive of these changes too, gradually giving more respect to nuns and sending their resident teachers to nunneries more and more often. When I asked older nuns why they think the monks did not help them earlier they often answered that monks themselves did not know things could be different. They also pointed out that in many nunneries it was often monks who started reforms.

Thus even though we tend to understand the nuns’ agenda as one against male hegemony, they themselves do not see it in hostile terms; the rapidly changing Ladakh with its new infrastructure and changing society melts into the changing life of the monastic communities. For better or worse, the old world is gone and the new one that is still in formation does not seem to divide the past into victims and victimisers.

Tsering Palmo urged the nunneries to build schools and now 10 out of the 27 nunneries have at least in-house education. The young nuns then pursue careers in amchi medicine and Buddhist teaching, securing professional partly secular careers for themselves. The overwhelming majority of them then give their salaries to their home nunneries, aspiring for self-reliance. These jobs provide a way of performing what Dr Palmo calls a socially aware Buddhism: she sees the immediate community as something for which the nuns are responsible as sources of help, spiritual support and personal guidance. They now operate an amchi clinic in Leh and many of their patients lend a hand when the nuns set out to extend the nunneries.

Another huge source of support comes from mostly Western European, Taiwanese and American NGO-s. These often feminist and/or Buddhist organisations are especially keen on educational activities and renewable energy devices, supporting the nuns’ aim to secure stable sources of electricity and to build solar greenhouses. Their volunteers often visit the region and teach English in the nunneries. These mostly very fruitful co-operations have a downside though: the cultural and geographical distance makes it difficult to support Ladakhi nuns without imposing their own ideas about which directions they should take and which activities to prioritise.

This often created tensions: for example once a Singaporean donor did not allow them to spend her donation on a more remote nunnery with urgent restoration needs instead of an already flourishing nunnery she herself visited before. When Ani Palmo tried to convince her, she terminated her support, leaving any chance of work half done with not much hope of continuation. In other cases donors want to support selected students, often leaving those in bigger need but smaller media presence without any help. Such issues made the nuns prioritise their work in the local Ladakhi community.

As Tsering Palmo told me, you never know in a region with such a strong strategic importance, when the Kashmiri conflict would start raging again, when would the Chinese cross the border again and when would another European economic crisis hit again, drying up their vital sources of support. For the nuns, locals provide the ultimate lifeline through this new form of exchange, through socially aware Buddhism. Neither do those smaller local transactions have such a strong power over their decisions that could favour the more mainstream nunneries over the more remote ones, where illiteracy and physical work are still present. We could say that while of course Ladakhi nuns are extremely grateful for foreign help and in many cases they could not have done without it, overall they try to act within the society they belong to. The same way Tsering Palmo never heard about Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, but developed her program as an organic derivative of Tibetan sources, her current solutions for achieving self-reliance and independence are deeply rooted in local conditions.

In this story we find something indigenous becoming oddly similar to a line of thought we are familiar to, but as soon as we try to implement what we think is in line with it, this ‘Himalayan feminism’, as soon as we declare war against those locals who oppose it we hit a wall of resistance. In many ways Ladakhi nuns provide a great example of gaining the most of rapid changes and modernisation without creating ruptures in their social environment. Way too often development and change in such remote areas leave post-colonial communities fragmented, scattered and in need to reinvent themselves without the means to do so. Ladakh, or at least its Buddhist communities seem to have won the challenge so far and any real development worker should be happy to be rejected by the prospering, self-sustaining community of nuns. We are not there yet, but getting there.

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