A Humble Start

My intense desire to study Tibetan Buddhism led me to volunteer in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal in March 2009. For 5 weeks, I was to teach English to 19 monks. They were no ordinary students, however. They were Buddhist Philosophy degree holders, having undergone some rigourous training in the field for at least 15 years. Despite this, the monks exhibited tremendous humility, enthusiasm and respect for learning.

With the regular power shortage in Nepal, we were constantly faced with evenings illuminated merely by candlelight. Moved by their immense motivation to study amidst this ‘slight’ inconvenience, I decided to publish a book compiling the personal essays of my students about their monastic lifestyle, family and personal challenges. It served to improve their English and also to allow them to communicate something personal and valuable to the outside world. It was eventually entitled Essays by the Candlelight, an apt description of how their essays came into being. With 250 copies of the book sold, it was a good start in sharing the life-story of a people.

A New Plan –Bigger and Bolder

May 2010 – A year has gone past, yet I am still deeply intrigued with the Buddhist path and its lofty goal of Buddhahood, or spiritual awakening. Now, I also want to hear the perspective of their counterpart – the Tibetan Buddhist nun. The voices of these nuns are barely heard of even if they are as committed to spiritual practice as the monks. There is a clear lack of academic coverage on the lives of this group, both spiritually and culturally. Does gender affect their status as spiritual practitioners in a largely patriarchal tradition? How do they maintain the intensity of their spiritual fervour in the midst of the modernising society of Kathmandu? A professionally-made documentary film exploring the interrelated themes of gender, modernity and spirituality as manifested in the lives of these nuns will clarify hard-wired assumptions and expand our knowledge about an enigmatic spiritual tradition such as Tibetan Buddhism. It will also shed light on an entirely different group of people who share a surprisingly similar aim with the rest of us – the pursuit of happiness.

The film will be shot in June 2011 for four weeks, in the beautiful Kathmandu valley, with two Buddhist nunneries agreeing to collaborate in this project. Set to be released in December 2011, in DVD format, it will serve as a valuable and eye-opening educational resource for higher institutions around the world and also a light-hearted and captivating film for home viewing. It will be submitted as entries to film festivals within the UK and in other parts of the globe. The main aim is simple – to hear a female practitioner’s account of achieving spiritual awakening in the midst of individual and social challenges.

Putting the Ideal to the Fore

It is April 2011, and the project has encountered challenges one after another ever since – team members resigning, the sudden withdrawal of a nunnery’s participation and countless rejections from potential funders. As the project leader and an undergraduate student, I have my own deadlines to meet and commitments in several societies. Why bother? Will the benefits outweigh the costs? Undeterred, I stuck by it, and slowly, so did a new team of ‘restless’ students. Consisting of five undergraduates and one PhD student now, the team eventually garnered the support of three esteemed professors as project advisors. Their guidance will ensure that the film stays educational, artistic and professional. Vice Principal Ronald Piper believed in its merits too, and gave us a start-up financial grant on behalf of the university. Carnegie UK Trust followed a few days later with another financial grant, and the Hugh Richardson Foundation soon promised financial backing as well.

We are still in the midst of a fund-raising campaign to fully fund our vision. All film sponsors will be mentioned in the film’s final credits, and also acknowledged in all film screening events. But the main reward for the sponsor? – to be assured that one will be a part of something promising and exceptional.

Interested in becoming a sponsor? Any contribution is much appreciated. The project proposal and budget summary are available upon request. Kindly contact the author at amc88@st-andrews.ac.uk or +44 78816 00516.

The author is a second year Social Anthropology and Psychology undergraduate in this University.