Gaden Relief Projects
Helping to preserve Tibetan culture in India, Mongolia and Tibet

A Novice Ordination in Tibet:
The Rhetoric and Reality of Female Monasticism*

By Kim Gutschow

Early 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.

The 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 .

These 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.

The 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.

Earlier 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.

It 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.

Standing 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.

After 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.

The 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 concluded.

After 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.

After 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 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.

For 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.


When 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.

For 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.

In 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.

In 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.

In 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.

By 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.

While 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.

Monks 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.

Looking 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 rite.


"Women 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 lot..."

Nuns 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.

Self-sacrifice 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 taught.

In 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.

1. 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 length high.
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.


Thanks 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.

*Gutschow, 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.

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