1998 Student-Faculty Fellows: Skidmore College
Role and Status of Nuns in Tibetan Buddhism
Mentor: Joel R. Smith, Philosophy
Student: Elizabeth Noble, Philosophy, ’99
In the past, women entering into the monastic practices of Tibetan Buddhism rarely learned actual religious teachings, but rather became low status worker for either their family or the monastery. In an old saying, heard more than once, it was said, “if you want to serve the Buddha have your son become a monk, if you want a servant have your daughter become a nun.” However, recently there has been a rise in the opportunities offered to nuns to engage in actual religious study and practice. We studied several nearly completed new nunneries, as well as others that are expanding, in Dharamsala and in the vicinity of Leh, the major town in Ladakh, a Himalayan region of northern India. Elizabeth stayed with nuns at Wakha nunnery and also joined some nuns at a teaching given in Nubra Valley by the distinguished abbot of Rizong monastery. Joel researched a new nunnery nearing completion in the village of Lingshed. We found that the new nunneries are being established for the sole purpose of supporting a monastic community of women devoted to religious practice, rather than manual labor. The nuns are beginning to engage in philosophy and the study of scriptures, activities that previously were reserved only for monks. They are now learning dialectics, or debating, for the first time ever, as we witnessed several times. The circumstances causing these changes are a complex interrelation among the ever increasing Western influences, reform from within Tibetan Buddhism, and a growing internal desire for better opportunities from the nuns themselves, as well as from lay women. The expanding opportunities for the Tibetan Buddhist nuns are an encouraging and exciting turn for these women; however, the road before them is long, and this is only the beginning.
Walking through the village with the monks and laity most of the day and taking slides gave me a marvelous and rare opportunity to experience and record village life. I had engaged a translator – himself quite knowledgeable about Tibetan Buddhism at the folk level- so I was able to talk informally with a number of monks and laity.
My understanding of Tibetan Buddhism increased considerably and this will greatly enrich a course I teach on Tibetan Buddhism every year. I also took many slides that will be very useful in this course and in other courses I teach about Buddhism. I was able to attend the Bumskor festival at Thikse village. Having attended a similar festival at the nearby Shey village last year, I now have enough information and slides to give a formal presentation on campus and at a professional conference.
The issues I encountered while researching the role of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Ladakh, a region of Northern India, provided immense personal and academic growth. As I have only once before briefly traveled in an underdeveloped country, the trip provided a constant educational experience. The first few weeks, everyday I encountered some part of the culture that filled me with amazement or repulsion. My attitude towards the diverse cultural differences varied throughout my time there, as I slowly began to understand the complexity of the economic and developmental issues, as well as just settled into the culture. Although I have learned that I would most likely not want a career in the field of anthropological research, I have developed a strong interest in community development issues, which I would like to pursue further. Overall, I feel the research project was an invaluable learning experience.