Daughters of Wisdom: Tibetan Nuns Inspiring a Feminist Movement Through Their Isolated Monastic Life
by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
Documentary director and producer Bari Pearlman documents the lives of the 300 nuns practicing Buddhism while living at an all-female monastery in the Nangchen district of Kham, located on the Eastern Tibetan plateau north of the Himalayas. The area is home to over 60,000 subsistence farmers and nomadic herders, most of whom are illiterate and live in extreme poverty. For the women who choose to become nuns, their cooperative life is one of relative ease and security, as their days are filled with work, studying, meditation and rest.
“Free Tibet” has become part of our lexicon due to countless bumper stickers adorning Volvos and fundraisers featuring Richard Gere. Despite the feminist persuasion of many Tibetan supporters, women in Tibet, particularly nuns, are rarely the focus of the movement. After seeing the film Daughters of Wisdom, which is currently on the film festival circuit, I was so inspired by Tibetan nuns and their spunk that I wondered why the “Free Tibet” movement doesn’t focus more on these incredible women.
In Tibet, a man who devotes his life to religion is considered a source of pride for his family, but women are not encouraged to join a monastery, even if this is their only access to an education; rather, nuns are considered a burden to their families since they cannot help farm, will not have children who will help farm, nor can they be married off in exchange for livestock. The Kala Rongo Monastery is the only place in Tibet exclusively for nuns, many of whom join the monastery when they are children, to live freely amongst other women.
Buddhism has been resurrected in Tibet since becoming legal again in 1980, when over 20 years of religious oppression at the hands of China’s cultural revolution finally ended. The nuns began building the monastery in 1990. They constructed the buildings themselves, which is quite a feat considering they use antiquated manual tools and wear their formal robes at all times. Nonetheless, it only took them one year to finish their impressive temple. Their construction philosophy dictates that they never hurt any living being. I was inspired by how in synch the nuns are with nature; their lives are completely sustainable.Prior to seeing Daughters of Wisdom, I never really thought that being a nun was an enviable life. But compared with the alternative (illiteracy, high rates of death during childbirth and a life of unending manual labor), being a Tibetan nun seems almost like fun. I mean, even sitting in a meditation box for hours during a three-year meditation retreat wherein the nuns live in complete isolation seems like a vacation. The nuns must agree, since over a third of them have completed the retreat.
By living an isolated monastic life, the nuns are able to escape the oppressive patriarchy that dominates life in Kham. During class at the Monastic College, the Abbott tells the women that there is no gender inequality in enlightenment. Even though there has not yet been a female Abbot at Kala Rongo, the nuns dream of the day when their teacher is a woman; their feminist aspirations are inspiring, particularly in a country where bra-burning never caught on.
During a profile of Tsering Chodron, one of the founding nuns of Kala Rongo, you see the life that women in Kham are resigned to during a trip to her family’s yak farm. While Tsering spends hours a day leisurely studying or resting, her mother and sisters work from sunrise to sunset herding yaks and maintaining the household. Her family, which lives in poverty, uses every part of the yak: the milk is used to make cheese and butter, the hair is used to make tents and the dung is burned for heat. While the men leave the farm to sell the butter and milk, the women stay home and work. Tibetan women have little in life to aspire to and few opportunities.
Lama Norlha Rinpoche founded the monastery and continues to help fund the nuns through donations. It doesn’t take much money to support Kala Rongo, since nuns each live on about $150 a year. Even though Norlha Rinpoche has been exiled from Tibet and currently lives in the US, he regularly visits Kala Rongo and provides guidance to the nuns. During a meeting he helps them democratically divide responsibilities so that they can run the monastery independently in his absence.
Considering the hardships the nuns faced in their pre-monastic lives, their accomplishments at Kala Rongo are all the more impressive. Kala Rongo has not only allowed the nuns to obtain an education and live in a supportive female-dominated community, but their study of Buddhism has led many of them to an elevated consciousness. Tsewang Yangtso, a nun who joined the monastery at the age of 16, said that after studying Buddhism at the Monastic College, she is no longer afraid of dying. The nuns seem very happy with their life, often breaking out into uncontrollable giggles – even as they’re in the middle of constructing a new building.
These nuns are free, literally and transcendentally, from the sufferings of life. If only more of us could say that!
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.