This summer, six students from the University of St Andrews went to Nepal to make a documentary titled Daughters of Dolma: The Spiritual Journey of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Nepal. Some may have heard of this project, but only a few know how it progressed. As a team member, I will enlighten you on the trip.
My team’s strategy was to explore the nuns’ personal lives in the contexts of both monastic and lay communities and trace researchers’ individual reflections. For a month we lived in Karma Ngedhon Osal Choekhorling and visited Karma Samte Ling Nunneries in Kathmandu, Nepal. The nuns were filmed during their religious practices. A few female practitioners were followed in their free time and interviewed in private surroundings, such as their rooms and homes. To spice up the film, we recorded our individual experiences and insights throughout the journey.
Undoubtedly, spicy food and travelling through India in a bus without any air-conditioning apart from its windows for forty-eight hours proved character-building for my team. For example, I gained more willpower, a stronger metabolism and a good reason to never miss an Indian train with reserved seats again. However, the point was to explore how ancient traditions of Tibetan Buddhism are challenged with the 21st century modernization and contrasted with western preconceptions, particularly in the case of Buddhist nuns who receive much less attention than monks. Today, female practitioners still cannot sit on the seat closest to the Rinpuche (a Tibetan high-ranking teacher or lama) during pujas (Buddhist religious services) and they can achieve some but not all of the titles men get for their religious knowledge. My team believes that sharing insights about Buddhist nuns with a wider audience can enhance a better exchange between western cultures and the Nepalese/ Tibetan ideas based on their religious principles.
Western concepts, such as feminism and discrimination, spurred different expectations in the team. However, the predominant one was that age, monasticism and residence in such a poor country would shelter Tibetan Buddhist nuns from the realities of the modern world; at least, in a technological sense.
Many elder and experienced nuns and monks treat modernity as a broad category which serves as a distraction for Buddhist practitioners and could be an obstacle for Spiritual Enlightenment. These practitioners note that even supposedly useful technology, such as mobile phones and the internet, is irrelevant in living out the Buddhist teachings, because it distracts the mind while practice could only be accomplished through the ancient Tibetan Buddhist texts. However, some modern technology, such as solar panels and modern medicines, are used by the monastic people, surprisingly enough.
A more positive view on modernity was shared among the younger generation of nuns. Many of them believe it does not necessarily bring distraction if applied with moderation. Moreover, almost all young nuns have mobile phones and watch television and contemporary Asian, European, and American cinema while a few have e-mail and Facebook accounts.
Nuns particularly requested that all their different pujas are depicted in the documentary which signifies how highly they revere religious ceremonies. More fascinating was to note how nuns interpret their Buddhist teachings individually and intertwine these teachings in their private spheres leaving little space for a rigid interpretation. Some nuns incorporate Buddhist elements when writing prose and poetry and others when painting, but every time with a meaning derived from the context of their private lives, such as favourite Korean films or personal, emotional experiences.
As anticipated, nuns’ attitudes and interests reflected their age and thus, the same goes for their individual understanding of monasticism. For instance, I expected to see the elder nuns as more self-disciplined than the younger spiritual practitioners. However, the surprising thing was to realize that discipline and monastic life do not preclude nuns from some distinctive experiences for their age. The youngest nuns play games, draw pictures, and affiliate with other children and adults like their coevals do. As if in a Hollywood production, I managed to play football, watch India’s X factor show and dance Indian and Nepali dances with the young nuns. Furthermore, together we raced with jeeps on the hill to the nunnery. The teenage nuns watch popular movies and encounter similar questions and dilemmas to those lay teenagers worry about. In this context, some older nuns believe that monasticism is a vocation which requires certain mental maturity before one takes its path, but it does not completely alienate its practitioners from lay life, as many wrongly assume.
After a training debate among the nuns from Karma Ngedhon Osal Choekhorling Nunnery on whether the monastic life of a monk is different from that of a nun, two main views were delineated. Some argued that men are better spiritual practitioners for several reasons amongst which is their physical superiority. However, in defence to what all interviewed high-ranking nuns and monks expressed, a group of nuns believed that there is no difference between men and women with regard to their monastic lives. This group argued that nuns should receive the same titles and seats during common rituals as monks do according to the level of their Buddhist knowledge. Ani Puntsok, a highly-educated teacher nun, expressed that the observed gender difference is a reflection of the lay society where women do not always share an equal stand with men. As a feminist myself, I was overwhelmed by the prevailing exaltation and commotion during the long debate which showed the importance of this topic to the contemporary generation of nuns and may indicate its relevance for the future of Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
Living in a nunnery for a month does not sound like an all-inclusive Italian vacation, but provides a life-changing experience. Furthermore, it shows that today’s gender-related topics receive much more consideration among Buddhist practitioners. Contemporary Nepal is rapidly changing and challenging its social postulates, which has its effects on the Tibetan Buddhist communities. A documentary depicting nuns in their multidimensionality can prove essential for a better understanding of the on-going processes in their society.
Those who want to find out more about the upcoming events and screenings of Daughters of Dolma in St Andrews, can join the Facebook group.
Image credit – Daughters of Dolma Facebook group