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Reviewed by:
  • Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas, and: Himalayan Hermitess: The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun
  • Rita M. Gross
Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas. By Kim Gutschow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 333 pp.
Himalayan Hermitess: The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun. By Kurtis R. Schaeffer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 220 pp.

Because these two wonderful new books are about Buddhist nuns, the topic of gender looms prominently in them, in a way that it never would in books about Buddhist monks. Such is the unavoidable heritage of the androcentrism that has dominated both religious institutions and scholarship about religion for centuries. It will probably be a long time before books that include a great deal of information about women are the normal course of events rather than a special event. Fortunately, at least books about religion that include almost no information about women are no longer acceptable to most scholars.

In both books, the Tibetan Buddhist (and general Buddhist) preference for men and monks comes through loudly and clearly. The difficulties women and nuns face in negotiating Buddhist institutions are accented in both accounts. The view that female rebirth is definitely inferior to and much less desirable than male rebirth is emphasized by all the women whose voices are heard in both books. Yet neither book is polemical in the least. They simply present a straightforward account of how things are for women, and to a lesser extent, for men, in these Himalayan societies.

Of the two books, Being a Buddhist Nun is the more heartbreaking because the nuns studied in this account face such unrelieved difficulties in their pursuit of the religious life. This book is based on fourteen years of fieldwork in Zangskar, which is in the western Himalayas near Kashmir and Ladakh. The author lived in local nunneries while doing her fieldwork. Thus, this account narrates the contemporary condition in which some Buddhist women live. Beginning with the absolute preference for a male body, everything conspires against nuns and women, and there are no success stories of women who somehow transcend all these barriers in this book.

Regarding the desirability of a male rebirth, Gutschow writes, "The bottom line is clear. No Buddhist in her right mind desires a female body" (p. 17). As we read of the nuns' lives and of women's lives in general, the reasons for this conclusion quickly become clear. If a girl or woman becomes a nun, she receives little recognition or [End Page 220] celebration of her status from either her village or her family. Donations to nunneries are meager and as a result, it takes nuns many more years to build their cells and assembly halls than it takes monks. Donations given to a monk are considered to produce more merit for the donor than a similar donation to a nun. Rituals performed by monks are considered more efficacious and meritorious than those performed by nuns. Hence, when villagers require ritual services, for which a donation will be made, they are much less likely to ask the nuns to perform the rituals. Education for nuns is quite limited. Because nuns often have to take employment doing manual labor or housework to earn enough money for their supplies or to build their cells, opportunities for them to perform their meditation practices are also limited. For many of the nuns, the female yidam Vajrayogini is their main meditation deity. Nevertheless, they cannot transmit this practice or initiate other nuns to do the meditation. Even if they have completed the required number of mantra recitations, they cannot perform the fire puja (called burnt offering in the book) themselves, but must have a monk perform it on their behalf. The final liability faced by the nuns is that it is generally believed that enlightenment is not possible in a female body anyway. So, in vicious circular reasoning, why educate or support the nuns anyway? The list of liabilities seems endless.

Nevertheless, modern methods of communication and travel are bringing new ideas to the region. In 1995, Sakyadhita's fourth international congress was held in Ladakh. Local...


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