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Tibetan culture in India, Mongolia and Tibet
Novice Ordination in Tibet:
The Rhetoric and Reality of Female Monasticism*
By Kim Gutschow
in the morning, long before the sun had cast its first rays on the
quiet white-washed monastic cells, frozen into almost primordial
silence, a few inmates at Ganden monastery in central Tibet began
to stir. While thousands of monks lay sleeping calmly in their richly
furnished rooms, a group of humble pilgrims picked their way between
the random jumble of cells that littered the hillside. The five
pilgrims, all women, had traveled several thousand kilometers to
reach this spot and embark on a new life. They had come from Zangskar
on the western edge of the Tibetan plateau to take part in a ceremony
which would have an irreversible impact on the rest of their lives.
These five Zangskari women were to be ordained as novices (dge tshul
ma) in a rite that would signal their lifetime commitment to celibacy,
asceticism, and religiosity. Significantly, they would do so at
one of the most sacred sites in Tibet which had been a destination
for countless Buddhist pilgrims from Tibet and its borderlands,
India, Nepal, and other far flung principalities in Central Asia,
China, and Mongolia since the 15th century.
women were dwarfed against the colossal spread of Ganden monastery,
which tumbled down the side of a mountain called 'Consecration Hill'
(dbang bskur ri), some forty miles northeast of Lhasa. The mountain
had received this name from the time that the first Tibetan king,
Srong btsan sgam po, was anointed with water from this mountain
(perhaps, at his royal ascension). As one of the three greatest
monastic colleges in Tibet along with Drepung and Sera, Ganden was
the seat of learning and scholarship for monks from throughout Tibet,
who had been sent to study to complete the highest (dge bshes) degree
in Buddhist dialectics and philosophy. By the mid 1950's, Ganden
housed nearly 5000 scholars and savants, rogues and renegades, who
came for religious instruction, to pursue a career in the Tibetan
government, or simply to flee the dreary monotony of village or
family life .
remarkable women were going to perform a feat unimaginable or infeasible
for many men and impossible for most women in Zangskar. The five
women who climbed the cliff that morning could not have imagined
what a unique event their ordination in 1956 would become several
decades hence. They could not have guessed that a few short years
later, the Chinese troops would invade Lhasa and that within a decade
the Red Guards would shell the monastery relentlessly into rubble.
These humble women were some of the last monastics in Zangskar and
even Tibet to have been ordained in such an auspicious setting by
such an august officiant. The monk who would officiate their ordination
ceremony was the Ganden Throne Holder (dGa' ldan khri pa), the third
highest ecclesiastic hierarch in Tibet after the Dalai and Panchen
Lamas. He was the only monk in Tibet entitled to occupy a golden
throne (gser khri) built by Nepalese artisans in the 15th century
for the great Tibetan Saint, Tsong kha pa. Thus, he was a direct
spiritual descendant of the saint who founded Ganden monastery in
1409 and who created the Gelugpa sect by reformiing the Kadampa
sect which Atisha had brought to Tibet in the 11th century.
women came a region close by to the west Tibetan province of Guge
from which the renowned teacher Atisha had set out towards Tibet
nearly ten centuries ago. Like the saints Atisha and Marpa, the
women had travelled 2500 km, much of it on foot and some of it by
rail (not an option for Atisha), to reach central Tibet. Ani Yeshe,
Angmo, and Deskyid of Karsha nunnery, along with two nuns from Pishu
nunnery had spent several weeks in Lhasa attending annual Great
Prayer Festival, which Tsongkhapa himself had founded in 1408. This
festival annually brought together the 21,000 monks residing at
Ganden, Sera, and Drepung monasteries. In that year, the young Dalai
Lama, who was already enthroned as the political and spiritual leader
of his people, was present after having returned from his trip to
China to meet Mao Tse Tung. For the pilgrims from Zangskar, the
festival was a spectacle to behold. The sight of so many monks praying
at the feet of the Dalai Lama, an incarnation of the Boddhisattva
Avalokitesvara, had left an indelible mark upon their minds.
on their pilgrimage while visiting Ganden monastery, they had met
Ngawang Tharpa, a monk from a neighboring village in their home
country. He had invited them into his sparsely furnished cell after
showing them around the splendid monastic chapels of Ganden. They
had seen the golden throne, the stupa which housed Tsongkhapa's
remains, and the numerous other golden statues and awesome thankas
which filled the offering rooms. When they reached his room, the
nuns refused to be seated or even to enter beyond the foyer, in
a customary display of shyness. When they were eventually seated
and tea cups were set out, another vociferous exchange took place
as the women vigorously refused tea; however, their host prevailed
at last. The Zangskari women grateful to their kind host for the
delicious tea, as they had been on pilgrimage for several months
by now and were beginning to tire of the scant rations and nourishment
they received while begging at local houses. Little did the nuns
know that thirty years later, this monk, Ngawang Tharpa, would become
the abbot of their nunnery as well as enjoy the reputation of being
one of the most respected religious teachers in Zangskar. The monk
suggested to them that since they had come so far, they ask the
Ganden Throne Holder for an audience. When they were granted a brief
visit with the holy monk, they had requested permission to attend
the ordination ceremony a fortnight hence.
was thus that five women from such humble backgrounds came to attend
an ordination ceremony at the renowned Ganden monastery. As women
they had been barred from sleeping in the monastery the previous
night. Ganden, unlike the Gelugpa monasteries in their homeland
Zangskar, did not permit women to stay overnight in monastic cells.
After spending the night at the base of the monastery, the women
had risen long before dawn to wash their bodies and shave each other's
heads in preparation for the upcoming ritual. Their shaved heads
and sexless maroon robes, borrowed from a kindly monk, lent them
a certain androgyny and other-worldliness. Although it would be
sacrilege for a woman to wear a monk's robes on any other occasion,
the ordination ritual creates a liminal space in which the sacred
becomes profane and the unthinkable becomes pragmatic. They wore
the sacred robes (vest, lower wrap, and yellow outer robe or stod
thung, sham thabs, chos gos) for the first time, although they might
spend the rest of their lives trying to fulfill to the discipline
which those robes signified. Ngawang Tharpa had instructed them
about the import and the procedure of the ritual they would undergo.
Up until this day, Yeshe and her companions had followed the five
Buddhist precepts for several years after offering a tuft of their
hair to a reincarnate monk year before. Now they would take a step
they could never reverse in this lifetime. Although they might abandon
their robes and celibacy, they would never be able to rejoin the
order. According to the doctrines of the Vinaya or monastic discipline,
an apostate monastic (chos log) can never again take full monastic
vows in this lifetime.
in the doorway of the large hall, Yeshe and her colleagues stood
before a sea of yellow robes much smaller than the mass of monastics
at the Great Prayer Festival, but this time they were going to merge
with the group. Then as now, most of the monastics were men. Yeshe
later told me that she was surprised to find only four other nuns,
shyly clustered in the rearmost corner close to the door where they
too took their places. Although they appeared to be marginal by
virtue of being from the Buddhist hind of Himalayan Kashmir, the
five Zangskari nuns actually outnumbered the Tibetan nuns present.
Yeshe and her companions were dismayed to find a paucity of nuns
throughout their journey in Tibet. Bearing the obligatory blessing
scarf (kha btags), Yeshe and her Zangskari companions stepped into
the hall where the head officiant, the Ganden Throne Holder (dGa'
ldan khri pa) sat on a raised dais above the sea of monks. Besides
the officiant and the preceptor, a quorum of at least ten monks
who have been ordained for ten years is necessary to conduct an
ordination ceremony. Temporarily dazzled by the opulent display
of images and personages inside this grand temple, the five Zangskari
nuns unthinkingly prostrated three times. Each woman found a small
spot in the rear of the crowded hall to lay down the square rugs
(lding nga) which only novices are entitled to use. Yeshe kept her
eyes fixed on the holy figure seated on the throne above the crowd,
robed in rich yellow brocades, and ignored the impolite stares of
the monks around her, no doubt surprised to see women in their midst.
Just as Yeshe and her companions finished their perfunctory prostrations,
the ceremony began. The Ganden throne holder began to discourse
on the virtues and pitfalls of the monastic life. He urged them
to take their vows seriously, because to abandon them meant a loss
of karma for themselves and more widely perhaps for others around
them who might lose faith in the religion (chos) as a result. The
squatting posture which the initiates held throughout signifies
readiness but not yet completion of the vows they were undertaking.
the head officiant (S. Sila Upadhyaya) explained the moral discipline
(S. sila) they were about to adopt and the other teachers (S. Acharya)
gave brief discourses about the necessary preconditions that must
be fulfilled, the Buddhas and Boddhisattvas, sages as well as deities,
were invited them to attend the ceremony in order to prevent any
obstacles. The initiates were then asked to repent all of the innumerable
transgressions they had committed in the present and previous lifetimes.
The initiates were obliged to admit to countless faults of body,
speech, and mind which are generated by eternal greed, hatred, and
ignorance. These are known as the three mental poisons ('dug gsum)
which enslave human beings within the cycle of birth and rebirth
or interdependent origination (T. rten 'brel bcu gnyis, S. pratitya
samutpada). The initiates were then asked in a summary fashion whether
they bore any of the 13 major or 16 minor obstructions which would
disqualify them from taking ordination. They were required to be
beholden to neither spouse nor king, to be neither slave nor concubine,
neither demon nor deity, but free and fully human. Interestingly,
the candidates were not questioned about their motivation, education,
previous occupation, or family background. In Tibet as in India
when the Buddha first allowed women to renounce, lower caste women
and dissatisfied wives, ex-prostitutes and cooks, were equally eligible
for renunciation. Once the candidates had passed the perfunctory
repentance ritual and the examination regarding obstructions, they
were asked to recite the thirty six vows after the head officiant.
head officiant called each initiate in front of him, one by one,
in order to consecrate them into their new status. Yeshe and her
companions were trembling when they appeared in front of the holy
teacher on his throne. Each candidate respectfully offered a blessing
scarf and placed a bit of sweetened barley dough (phye mar) or sweet
rice ('bras sil) into the replica of the Buddha's begging bowl on
the low table in front of the throne. The initiates would then place
one hand on top of the begging bowl and one below the begging bowl,
around the shaft of the ritual staff (mkhar gsil). The officiant
placed his hands on the staff, while he asked the candidate two
questions: his or her name and the proposer for ordination. The
officiant then consecrated each candidate by pinching the three
types of sacred robes they wore between his fingers as he recited
a brief prayer. After blowing his blessing briefly upon the robes,
he dismissed each candidate, one by one and the ceremony was officially
the venerable officiant and teachers had departed from the hall,
Yeshe and her companions sat quietly to contemplate the pomp and
ceremony they had experienced. They would now be among the 'homeless
ones' who followed the Buddha's teachings, pledging themselves to
celibacy, detachment, and compassion towards all other sentient
beings. Would they live up to the physical and mental challenges
which the doctrine demanded? Even the precept about fasting was
less than straightforward. Years later while telling the story of
her ordination, Yeshe still regrets that she was unable to maintain
the practice of fasting after noon for more than a week. Since she
was on pilgrimage thousands of kilometers from home, she had to
rely on sporadic meals which might be given at any time during the
day. She and her companions could not afford the luxury of fasting
after noon for three weeks as many recently ordained novices did.
Each person does what they can: one may fast after noon for three
days, for three weeks, for three months, and very rarely for rest
of one's life.
the ordination ceremony, the five Zangskari novices continued their
pilgrimage through Tibet for one more month, before making their
way home along the same way they had come. When they crossed the
Tibetan plateau towards the border town of Phari and made their
way down into Sikkim in late March, it was less bitterly cold than
when they'd gotten frostbite on their passage into Tibet several
months earlier. Yet now the plateau lay thick with snow, often windswept
into treacherous drifts against which they pushed and stumbled.
By the time they reached the forbidding passes which blocked the
entrance to their own valley of Zangskar, the nuns were anxious
to be home. They'd spent a month in the Lahauli village of Srub,
where they picked up the supplies they'd left behind on their outgoing
journey. They had to wait until the weather was clear and it stopped
snowing before crossing the last obstacle, the 16,400 ft Shingo
La pass which lies between Lahaul and Zangskar. They walked gingerly
over the pass on top of the frozen crust of snow, traveling under
the full moon, in order to cross the frozen expanse before the harsh
sunlight melted the precious layer of ice which held them up over
many meters of snow. While they walked, they planned a winter retreat,
in which they would complete the preliminary practices (sngon 'gro)
required by their monastic vows. Engrossed in their plans and visions
of a community of renunciates, they hardly noticed the miles melting
under their feet.
THE POLITICS AND PRAGMATICS OF ORDINATION
issue of who can to be ordained, by whom, and by what manner, has
plagued Buddhism since the death of its founding member. While the
Buddha preached that there be no divisions amongst his disciples
but that they agree to disagree, the question of ordination and
monastic discipline has led to the formation of countless sects
throughout the Buddhist world. The historical reasons for the demise
of the nuns' order in India, Sri Lanka, and possibly Burma after
the 10th century will not concern us here. However, it is important
to note that when the monks' order died out several times in Sri
Lanka, efforts were always made to reinstate it from neighboring
countries practicing a similar Buddhist discipline. In Sri Lanka
full ordination for monks died out in 1065, and reached such a precarious
state of decline in the 16th and 17th centuries that Burmese monks
were brought to revive and re legitimize the order no less than
three times. By contrast, no effort was made to revive the nuns'
order after its demise in South Asia. At present, full ordination
lineages only survive in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The nuns in these East Asian countries follow the Dharmagupta canon,
which has been used continuously in China since full ordination
for women was first introduced by Sinhalese nuns in 434 A.D. Until
recently, full ordination was not possible for novices following
the Mulasarvastivadin canon in Tibet, Ladakh, Zangskar, Nepal, Bhutan,
and Sikkim and renunciates following Theravada Buddhism in Thailand,
Burma, and Sri Lanka. The highest ordination available to Buddhist
women in most of South and Southeast Asia is ordination as a novice
or a renunciate holding between eight and ten precepts by which
they live as de facto but not de jure nuns. Although monks in Sri
Lanka and other Theravada countries remain opposed, some women in
both Asia and the West have begun a movement to reintroduce full
ordination in South Asia.
many Zangskari nuns, ordination is less of an issue than economic
survival. The nuns in Zangskar are less concerned with full ordination
than they are with daily subsistence and ritual necessities. While
nuns elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia are pushing for full
ordination or seeking alternatives which enable an independence
from the monastic authorities, Zangskari nuns have sought far more
modest goals. They have concentrated on educating the next generation
of nuns. They have gathered donations to build classrooms and are
looking to find teachers willing to teach and live in their inhospitable
and unfriendly climate. Unlike the monks who have ample opportunities
to study at the great Tibetan monastic colleges in South India,
seats for nuns at the exile nunneries located in Dharamsala are
extremely scarce and most often reserved for newly arrived refugees
from Tibet. Zangskari and Ladakhi nunneries are growing in membership
and popularity, but they still lack a study curriculum that includes
both secular and religious education. In contrast most monasteries
in Zangskar and Ladakh have schools under the auspices of the Central
Institute for Buddhist Studies where young monks learn arithmetic,
science, and Hindi. In the last ten years, a few dedicated local
monks and nuns and several foreigners have started scholastic programs
at a few nunneries including Wakha, Lingshed, Rizong, Tia, and Timosgam
in Ladakh, and Karsha, Zangla, and Pishu in Zangskar. The nuns have
received basic instruction in dialectics and debate, although both
student absenteeism as well as the lack of infrastructure (classrooms,
teachers, supplies) has hampered the success of these programs.
As only the most rudimentary education is available in Zangskar,
over two dozen nuns have left to seek admission at Tibetan institutes
in Dharamsala or South India. In sum, nunneries in Zangskar have
remained intellectual backwaters, largely uninvolved with the more
activist groups seeking full ordination for nuns in South Asia.
Now as when Yeshe first returned from Tibet, nuns continue to face
far more pressing constraints to their monastic practice.
THE NOVICES RETURN TO WORK RATHER THAN RETREAT
Yeshe and four other novice nuns arrived in Zangskar, there was
not much time for study nor for religious practice. While villagers
were eager to hear about the exciting pilgrimage, the demands of
the farm were far more pressing. Fields needed to ploughed and sown,
watered and weeded, and eventually harvested and ploughed once again
before the next winter. In four short months, Zangskari villagers
must grow most of what they rely on for subsistence in this high
altitude desert. Why did Yeshe and her companions work in their
family fields rather than retreat to their monastic cells after
their return from Tibet? Like most nuns in Zangskar, Yeshe and her
companions must uphold their obligations to family and fields, even
after they have renounced the householder's life. This is due to
a complex history of patronage, privilege, and exclusion which has
left the male and female orders in very different positions.
nuns, renunciation is a vocation, while for monks it is an occupation.
Unlike monks, nuns do not receive daily remuneration in cash or
kind for performing ritual services. Secondly, the nunnery cannot
afford to feed its members each day in the same way that the monastery
can. Sending a daughter to the nunnery is like placing her in an
impoverished public university in America or England. She may have
access to knowledge and peers which take her far beyond the provincial
village life, but she or her parents must pay her way. Sending a
son to the monastery is like enrolling him in an Ivy League or Oxbridge
institution. Except for the very rich who may choose to pay their
own way, most monks are guaranteed monthly allowances from the monastery's
rich endowment, while the education or vocation they receive provide
sufficient symbolic capital to secure a comfortable livelihood for
many years. Indeed, the most senior monks at monasteries graduate
into more obscure offices for which the duties are less understood
but the remuneration ever more handsome. As a result of the division
of wealth between monasteries and nunneries, many Zangskari nuns
live at home with their parents and most are forced to work in the
village even though they may have a monastic room of their own.
While nuns, along with monks, are called to attend the major life-cycle
rituals such as weddings and deaths in most Zangskari households,
these cannot provide a daily livelihood.
short, the monastery combines the wealth and power of the Church,
the Bank, and the University all in one. Its power in Zangskari
society cannot be overstated. Zangskari monasteries owned over one
tenth of all cultivated land in Zangskar at the turn of the century,
although that figure has dropped to less than five percent of the
cultivated land due to a dramatic reclamation of desert lands in
the latter half of this century. Extrapolating from earlier census
figures, between one third and one fifth of all households in Zangskar
still till one or more fields owned by a monastery. Moreover, a
handful of houses remain full-time monastic sharecroppers without
any fields to call their own. In Yeshe's natal village of Karsha,
the monastery owns roughly 240 acres, which is one hundred times
the land owned by the poorest households and 40 times the 5.8 acres
which comprised the average household acreage in Zangskar in 1981.
Because monasteries have vast endowments of land and livestock,
they can afford to feed their resident monks for one third of the
year and supplement their annual livelihood with grain, cash, and
other handouts. Additionally, monks receive gifts from their families
and donations from acquaintances for whom they perform ritual services.
In order to supplement their income, monks perform rituals of expiation,
purification, and benediction at households and at village wide
festivals. During such rites, monks are provided with gracious amounts
of food and money. They also receive liberal private donations at
the monastic assembly during ritually heightened moments of the
year. Whether stationed at the monastery or serving a three year
rotation in an outlying village as a sacristan (mchod gnas) and
ritual servant, monks are deeply embedded in the cycle of ceremonies
which provide a meaningful exchange for both donor and officiant.
contrast with the monastic endowments, Zangskari nunneries have
such scarce resources that sustaining their members is out of the
question. While monasteries depend on taxes and voluntary donations
to support their member monks, nunneries do not collect a single
ounce of grain in taxes throughout Zangskar. Of the nine nunneries
in Zangskar, five have no fields at all, while the four that do
own fields harvest no more than a pittance from that land. Only
one nunnery in Zangskar, known as 'Vajra Castle' (rDo rje rDzong),
owns livestock; yet the care and maintenance of the flock of the
thirty sheep appears to outweigh the value they provide. The sheep
barely produce enough butter to keep a single butter lamp burning
in each of the two chapels at the nunnery. Here, as at other nunneries,
the member nuns solicit donations from their families and villagers
at large to keep the lamps burning and to provide the basic staples
(butter, tea, salt, flour) required for ritual services at the nunnery.
Because the nunneries have so little endowment, they cannot afford
to feed their member nuns on a daily basis, nor sponsor the extensive
rituals that the monastery can. As a result, most nuns in Zangskar
seek their own subsistence by domestic and agrarian work. Nuns perform
mundane chores of farm and field for their families and acquaintances
in order to receive meals or payment in kind. The monthly and annual
rituals at the nunnery are sponsored on a rotational basis by stewards
who solicit donations of butter, flour, other staples, and straight
cash. While some nunneries have recently begun to receive foreign
sponsorship, these cannot buy the three most critical resources
in the Zangskari economy---land, water, and fuel. Ownership and
communal access to these resources is based on centuries of patronage
which have been the exclusive privilege of male monasteries.
Zangskar as in Tibet, nunneries have been largely excluded from
this history of patronage by which kings and nobles gave land grants
to monasteries and meditators. Nuns are quite capable of performing
ritual services; however they have been discouraged from doing so
because of several historical and cultural reasons. Since male monasteries
were the traditional targets of royal patronage, they became the
centers of political power and economic resources. Monasteries came
to stand for higher ordination and educational traditions while
nunneries functioned as more marginal retreats for women who wished
to make merit or meditate. In short, monasteries were prominent
and wealthy, while nunneries remained stranded on the margins of
these economies of merit. Since nuns did not have the authority
to transmit higher Tantric knowledges but had to rely on male teachers
for oral transmissions, they became dependent on male monastics
for instruction, knowledge, and religious authority more generally.
Nuns were not taught dialectics and debate, nor the highest forms
of ritual knowledges studied in the upper and lower Tantric colleges
which still dominate the Gelugpa scholasticism. Until recently,
none of the four orders of Tibetan Buddhism encouraged nuns to learn
sacred practices such as making sand Mandalas, performing fire sacrifices,
or holding ritual dances ('chams). In Zangskar, only monks are qualified
to construct the most elaborate offering cakes (gtor ma) used in
household and village expiatory rites; nuns make such cakes only
for their own use at the nunnery's collective rites.
oneself is evil done and by oneself in one defiled.
By oneself is evil left undone and by oneself is one purified.
Purity and Impurity depend on oneself.
No one can purify another.
the Buddha clearly disavowed the role of the priest in purifying
others, Zangskari monks regularly perform rituals of purification
to secure the prosperity and livelihood of the donor, his household,
his ancestors, or the wider village sphere. Every house and every
village is supposed to sponsor a monthly juniper fumigation (bsangs)
which is intended to cleanse the impurities or ritual pollution
(grib) which have accumulated due to the inadvertent and ignorant
actions of human beings which might offend the protective deities
being propitiated. The annual springtime circumambulation of the
fields ('bum skor), the cleansing of the mountains and valley (ri
khrus lung khrus), and countless other rites offer some form of
ritual ablution (khrus) or purification (bsangs) as part of the
ritual liturgy. Since women are by nature impure, monks rather than
nuns are preferred for many of these purification rituals. Due to
a complex cultural calculus which claims that female bodies are
innately inferior and polluted, nuns suffer a sexual handicap in
their relations with the sacred. While monks may appear to have
transcended sexuality by celibacy, nuns have been tied to an impure
sexuality which disqualified them from certain esoteric ritual practices
and spaces in Zangskar and elsewhere in the Tibetan Buddhist realm.
are considered to have greater ritual efficacy than nuns due to
their higher learning, innate purity, and advanced Tantric knowledges.
Monastic rituals held at households, villages, and the monastery
are considered to maintain a state of harmony between the human
and divine worlds and thus secure worldly wealth and prosperity
more widely. A Zangskari farmer calls the monk to holds rites of
exorcism again noxious spirits, rites of expiation for inadvertent
pollution and other mistakes which offend the guardian deities of
house and village, and rites of benediction and thanks for a successful
harvest, birth, or other venture. Generally, monks but not nuns
are called to propitiate the deities and demons who lurk in the
invisible and visible realms known as the six families of existence
('gro ba rigs drug). Since monks have exclusive control over the
most subtle Tantric practices, they are called to conduct the rituals
to mollify the demonic agents whose anger continually threatens
to disrupt the human realm.
at novice ordination alone, one cannot find justification for treating
monks and nuns differently. Indeed, the ordination rite that Yeshe
took part in makes no distinction between male and female novices.
Both male and female novices take the same 36 precepts, wear the
same robes, shave their head in the same manner, and could easily
be mistaken for each other. Yet a closer inspection of the social
and religious context to which these novices return reveals two
very different experiences of detachment. While nuns are detached
from the luxurious life, they are forced to participate in the mundane
aspects of economic production. Conversely, monks are removed from
the gross material needs and desires of the householder, yet they
enjoy wealth, security, and other luxuries. Although nuns and monks
participate in a joint rite of passage which moves them into the
renunciate life, their paths diverge ever more sharply after that
MEDITATION IN ACTION: HOW NUNS PRACTICE MUNDANE COMPASSION
are amputated of the purpose of their action, forced to be disinterested,
self-sacrificing, without ever having chosen or wanted this. The
path of renunciation described by certain mystics is women's daily
are poor not by choice but by necessity. They live up the dual roles
of dutiful daughters and sacrosanct celibates. For monks, renunciation
is synonymous with abandoning the duties of a householder. Nuns,
however, are expected to adopt the ideals of selfless detachment
while devoting their labor to relatives who offer them daily subsistence
in exchange. Although compassion is idealized as universal by most
Zangskari Buddhists, it is exacted along precise lines of kinship
affiliation. Nuns cannot claim any exemption from the persistent
clamor of relatives asking for domestic help. Out of customary compassion,
nuns cannot shirk such obligations in an agrarian economy which
is short of labor due to the out migration of both laymen and monks.
In recent decades, women and the older generation have been left
behind to run the farms, while young men earn cash wages in government
and military service, or seek educational and vocational opportunities
in urban centers outside of Zangskar. Nuns are essential to the
household economy, for unlike laywomen, they rarely leave their
natal villages. Families send their daughters to nunneries lying
in close proximity to their natal villages, so that they can return
for daily chores in their parents' homes. In contrast, daughters
cease to work in their parental homes after a few years of marriage.
When a nun is sent to an institution somewhat further afield, she
usually seeks out a surrogate family in whose home she labors in
exchange for her daily bread. In most cases, she is appended to
the household as an adult servant. Because nuns do not have obligations
to children and husband, they are expected to be available or 'on
call' day and night by households chronically short of labor in
the local economy.
and voluntary poverty were some of the most radical aspects of the
Buddha's doctrine. When the Vedic ritual of sacrifice was internalized
by the Buddha, an entire class of priests in India became obsolete
in theory if not in practice. The Buddha and his followers transformed
the sacrifice or purification rituals which had been performed exclusively
by the Vedic priest or Brahman for the benefits of householders.
The Buddha offered a way out of this ritual hierarchy by urging
the householder to abandon his house, using his body as ritual vessel
of purification. The Buddhist renunciate fuses within him or herself
the position of patron and priest, because (s)he becomes both the
means and the beneficiant of the sacrifice. As Collins (1982) notes,
the Buddhist monk internalized the fire sacrice through fasting,
meditation, and other ritual asceticism. The disciples who first
practiced such asceticisms at the time of the Buddha have given
way to an order of bureaucratic institutions underwritten by vast
corporations and endowments micro-managed by a staff of monastic
stewards and fund-raisers. In contrast, nuns embody a profound material
poverty and exemplify the non-attachment which the Buddha actually
present day Zangskar, nuns embody the self-sacrifice advocated by
the Buddha, because they live a daily regimen of detachment, poverty,
and service. They live the doctrine which their monastic brethren
so skillfully debate, teach, and transmit. While most nuns live
in simple, barren rooms with only a handful of possessions to call
their own, monks live in splendor at the top of the social and spiritual
hierarchy. Monks are treated with obsequious attentions by villagers,
who rarely give more than a passing thought to the conditions at
the nunnery, unless they have a daughter residing there. By closely
pursuing humility and detachment from material things, nuns approach
Buddhist ideals at the same time that they lose the respect and
attentions of the villagers. Most people in Zangskar I asked pray
to be reborn as monks. A monk's life is considered to afford the
best chance at rebirth in the Buddha fields, from which one might
escape the wheel of Samsara all together. As the wheel of Karma
spins onward, nuns are left struggling on the dusty roadside while
monks race by in fancy vehicles. Yet it is far too early, to know
who will reach the distant goal first.
Thirty-Six Novice Vows.
Avoid killing a human.
2. Avoid beating or harming livestock and other living beings.
3. Avoid using water containing living creatures.
4. Avoid killing animals.
5. Avoid stealing.
6. Avoid indulging in sexual misconduct.
7. Avoid telling lies.
8. Avoid accusing [a monk or nun] of a root defeat.
9. Avoid slandering [a monk or nun] by insinuation.
10. Avoid creating a schism in the monastic community (Sangha).
11. Avoid following such a schism.
13. Avoid knowingly tell a lie.
12. Avoid disturbing a householder's faith.
14. Avoid making false accusations to favor a friend.
15. Avoid slander or derision.
16. Avoid accusing [a monk] of teaching Dharma for material gain.
17. Avoid accusing [a monk or nun] of committing a remainder transgression.
18. Avoid casting off a teacher's advice.
19. Avoid accepting food that is more than one's share.
20. Avoid drinking beer.
21. Avoid [all] kinds of singing.
22. Avoid [all] kinds of dancing.
23. Avoid playing musical instruments.
24. Avoid wearing [all] kind of ornaments.
25. Avoid using aromatic scents.
26. Avoid using colorful costumes.
27. Avoid wearing garlands, etc.
28. Avoid using high or fancy seats and beds.
29. Avoid sleeping or sitting on high and fancy seats and beds.
30. Avoid using thrones or beds more than one elbow length high.
31. Avoid sleeping or sitting on beds or thrones more than one elbow
32. Avoid eating food after noon.
33. Avoid accepting gold and silver.
34. Avoid maintaining a lay person's lifestyle.
35. Avoid abandoning a novice's lifestyle.
36. Avoid refusing service to one's abbot or teachers.
above all to the Karsha nuns and all other Zangskari nuns for hosting
me with infinite compassion and patience, as well as endless cups
of butter tea which I can never hope to repay in this lifetime.
Thanks to Sarah Levine and Becky Norman for helpful conversations
on this paper.
Kim 2000. Novice Ordination for Nuns: The Rhetoric and Reality of
Female Monasticism in Northwest India. In Women's Buddhism Buddhism's
Women: Tradition, Revision, Renewal. Ellison Findly, Ed. Boston:
Wisdom Books. Pp. 103-118.