Harvard University Press.
“Being a Buddhist nun” is an extremely valuable account of the life of nuns in the Himalayan valley of Zangskar, a region of Ladakh in N.W India. The work is driven by a deep sense of injustice and a compelling focus on its nature and origin in a remote society still basically medieval in character. It is a highly gendered work in a necessarily gendered field of study. It is certainly true that the arrival of women scholars in such fields as primatology and social anthropology has opened up and corrected a perhaps largely unconscious neglect of the feminine by earlier male workers. Patriarchy is not something that ruled in the past, its presence may make itself felt even now in the liberal and democratic West. The gendering of a research topic is of course accompanied by a comparable gendering of review and assessment but fortunately reflexive self-understanding within post-modernity enables discussion to occur without the rancour of a previous generation. It is perhaps none the less unfortunate in this work that a major chapter on marriage, exchange, work patterns and responsibilities of the two sexes is entitled “The Buddhist Traffic in Women” and an illustration of nuns prostrating before a high lama is captioned “Bowing and scraping “. Such use of words reflects a western bias rather than indigenous perspective.
Kim Gutshow had the guts and the determination to endure some thirty nine months of research in one of the most demanding high-altitude environments of Asia, including three winters in the primitive accommodation of a cliff-top nunnery and making three trips down the notoriously dangerous Chador Gorge by way of the frozen river. Having studied Tibetan at Harvard she was able in time to develop fluency in the Zanskari dialect. This long term residence and linguistic ability has enabled her to present an unrivalled account of monastic economy and social anthropology in Ladakh. Her text is full of “thick” description, delightful anecdotes, biographies of courageous and not so courageous nuns and accounts of the personal joys and sufferings of individuals. Although she focuses on the often lamentable ways in which nuns suffer discrimination she is not unduly disrespectful of the monastic system to which they belong, rather she subjects it to a prolonged and penetrating examination and interpretation.
Gutshow focused primarily on the nuns of Karsha Nunnery but familiarised herself with other nunneries throughout Ladakh. She contextualises her prime focus with detailed accounts of the farming economics and social structure of Zangskar. Although the bulk of this material had been researched in detail earlier, work to which she makes rather scant reference, the specific details of life in Karsha add considerably to a comparative account. It is interesting to note, for an example, that the monks of the great Karsha Gompa use books in their accounting whereas in the previously studied Tongde Gompa across the valley the bulk of the accounting was simply done by memory.
Her prime thesis examines the causes of discrimination in Buddhist society which are often puzzling given the clear statement within Buddhism that men and women are equal and both capable of attaining enlightenment. There is also an equally puzzling contrast between the clear philosophical rejection of any objective reality to social categorisation and the ‘emptiness’ of co-dependent personal terms, and the rigid social enforcement of gender roles both within and without the monastic system. This puzzle is general to Buddhism and appears equally in China as well as in the Himalayas. Only perhaps in modern Taiwan are nuns now accorded a respect similar to that of monks. Folk belief differs greatly from the ethical philosophy of high lamas and it is folk belief that rules. There is a belief, for example, that women cannot attain enlightenment from their female bodies. For this they must be reborn as male. Many women despise their femininity and wish to be reborn as male.
Gutshow sees the prime problem as enshrined in the folk beliefs surrounding the idea of ‘merit’. During a lifetime, merit needs to be accumulated so that future rebirths will be an improvement on the present. While this amounts to the clear expression of attachment to self and the operation of desire, both of which prevent any possibility of enlightenment, Buddhist ethics encourage the earning of merit through selfless behaviour. Generosity is therefore a pleasing aspect of Buddhist culture. However, merit can also be acquired through financing monastic ceremonies, teachings, and sponsoring numerous rituals many of which are only remotely Buddhist and hark back to earlier beliefs. Since monks are assumed to be pure, giving to monks acquires more merit than giving to others. Giving to nuns in their disadvantaged female bodies does not rank highly in a process of merit acquisition. There is thus an elaborately developed “economy of merit”, which conflates with a differential distribution of gifted wealth to the disadvantage of nuns and the very great advantage of monks. Kim explores and elaborates this thesis in convincing depth. Much of the poverty of nuns and their poor ability to generate income or capital for their institutions arises from this non-doctrinal, folk basis of vernacular Buddhism.
The arrival of female anthropologists and accompanying do-gooders has promoted change in the traditional system so that financial aid is now given, often quite copiously, to nunneries in Ladakh. Gutshow herself has been able to help her nun friends considerably in this way. This has enabled nuns not only to improve their accommodation and buildings but also to spend more time in the study of scriptures and ritual. In general there is steady improvement in the life of Himalayan nuns and this is not only due to outside aid. Attitudes in Ladakh are changing, although the fundamental misconceptions of Buddhist thought seem to remain untouched. The whole doctrine of merit clearly needs re-examination and a new presentation. Kim is however by no means starry-eyed about the future. In her last chapter she points out that such changes in wealth and status have not occurred without resistance and resentment. The partial withdrawal of nuns from labour on their home farms contributes to economic difficulties for their families and a reduced support for monks. Outside influence is not always welcomed. As usual thoughtless or biased do-gooding can be counterproductive. In addition, wealth promotes greed and misuse of funds as well as occasioning theft and fraud. Even so there does seem to be a clear movement towards putting the Buddhist house in order with respect to women’s rights. In this the Himalayan example is clearly well ahead of comparable movements elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East. As Kim concludes, outside support together with changing attitudes within the laity “will spell the difference between victory and defeat for Buddhist monasticism in the coming years.”
Yet there is some evidence that Kim Gutshow’s argument remains slightly parochial. During our recent visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh we found large, comfortable well endowed nunneries near the town of Tawang with its famous Gelugpa monastery. At a major empowerment ceremony in the monastery nuns had been allocated some of the prime seating to hear the rimpoche’s sermons. I had the impression that nuns in Tawang were well supported and respected in a way Kim did not find in the western Himalayas. These brief observations suggest that a further research enquiry into the differences in the ways nuns are supported between the two ends of the Himalayas would be well worth while.