Lower birth and spiritual transcendence

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Lower birth and spiritual transcendence

The Tsoknyi Nangchen nuns of Tibet

by Kathryn Dickason on Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 2:02pm

Feminine Faiths: Women's Spirituality and the Shaping of Tradition. Scholars, artists, and religious practitioners led discussions at Stanford to highlight the ways in which women’s spiritual labor has expanded and revised religious practice even beyond the confines of the cloister.  This three-article series explores the proactive role of women across different traditional and temporal lines: western medieval Christianity, modern Tibetan Buddhism, and contemporary Baul (an unorthodox form of mysticism practiced in South Asia).  In these contexts female spirituality has garnered the esteem of male-dominated societies.  Rather than preserving the rigidity of doctrine, “Feminine Faiths” reveals how women empower themselves and others by diversifying the repertoire of female identity and spiritual experience. This is the second of the series of three articles. 

Blessings movie imageThe Tibetan word for woman (kye-man) translates as “lower birth,” and thereby brands even the holiest of females with spiritual inferiority. A screening of the 2009 documentary film Blessings: The Tsoknyi Nangchen Nuns of Tibet, chronicles the remarkable history and daily lives of eastern Tibetan women devoted to an ancient yogic tradition.

In spite of any anti-feminist social realities in Tibet, Blessings highlights how a community of religious women challenged patriarchal dominance and persevered amid periods of revolution and destruction.

Directed by the award-winning filmmaker Victress Hitchcock and narrated by Richard Gere (both long-term Buddhist practitioners), this film celebrates the Tsoknyi Nangchen nuns’ dedication to their faith. In spite of any anti-feminist social realities in Tibet, Blessings highlights how a community of religious women challenged patriarchal dominance and persevered amid periods of revolution and destruction.

Gender shock: East meets West

Blessings documents a jarring encounter between Tibetan nuns and western pupils, one in which, says Gere, “ancient wisdom meets modern experience.”  At the start of the film, Hitchcock contrasts the nuns’ brute labor and Spartan lifestyles with western scenes of shopping malls and automobiles. As a part of their daily routine, the nuns carry their drinking water uphill and wash their garments by hand. The American and European novices - so accustomed to the mechanization of modern life - remark upon the difficulty of abandoning material comforts. In a humorous interlude, Hitchcock juxtaposes gravity and levity: the nuns chant the Buddha’s wisdom while the pupils sing Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

Filmmaker Victress HitchcockFor the western women, their close proximity to serious devotees proves to be illuminating. By leaving behind consumerism and individualism, practitioners enjoy an intimate transmission of knowledge between elders and novices that cannot be reproduced outside the hermitage. During a retreat, the nuns may spend as many as three years together in the same room. The collective nature of their practice features communal learning, chanting, meditating, eating, and sleeping. The nuns’ regard for each other undergirds their practice as much as the dharma itself. 

Even while these women care for one another like family, their cultivation of inner wisdom values the coexistence of social and individual morality. An excerpt from the chant, “A Small Song of Yearning, Calling the Lama from Afar,” exemplifies this dual morality: “Bless me to hold no hatred - no hatred for my enemies. Bless me not to cling – not to cling to any friend. Bless me to let this bias subside – this bias subside naturally. Lama, hear me. Lama hear me.”    

Tradition and innovation

The nuns’ history is in part a story of religious reconstruction. During the Cultural Revolution of the mid-twentieth century, all forty Tsoknyi Nangchen nunneries (housing about 4,000 nuns) were destroyed. Several of the displaced nuns returned home, worked in labor camps, or perished. A small number of them took refuge in remote caves and continued to practice their faith in hiding. Twenty years later, these nuns reemerged to rebuild their religious dwellings, stone by stone.

As the film unfolds, it represents the nunneries’ perpetuation as the fulfillment of fate rather than a vicissitude of history. In his many appearances throughout the film, the renowned Buddhist Lama, Tsoknyi Rinpoche III explains the importance of continuing the gender equality proposed by Tsoknyi Rinpoche I.  Rinpoche III believes that both men and women can imbibe teachings and obtain wisdom equally. Lauren Aguilar, a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute, led a post-screening discussion with Hitchcock and Rinpoche III, during which Rinpoche, with his winsome sense of humor, identified himself as a “feminist monk.”  Speaking of the Tsoknyi Nangchen nuns, he proclaimed: “I am their promoter and supporter.”   

Maternalism and meditation

With their tonsured heads and androgynous garb, the Tsoknyi Nangchen nuns seem to efface traditional constructs of femininity. At the post-screening discussion, Rinpoche III explained that despite the nuns’ childlessness, he aligns their compassion, caring, and intuition with a maternal quality that is good for humankind. Hitchcock was likewise struck by their unconditional love, as the nuns take on the world’s suffering in meditation. “In meditation," one nun explained, "you take on their suffering and give them your happiness.” According to Rinpoche, the nuns are capable of “slowing the engine” through the spiritual art of meditation. In other words, they are consciously connected to their place in the world, a connection that crosses gender distinctions.

Blessings, nuns outdoorsThe nuns’ mastery of meditation is particularly important within a Tibetan religious institution, as misogyny is more pronounced in male-dominated monasteries (as compared to the quasi-egalitarianism of nomadic societies). Through meditation, the nuns cultivate an awareness of saṃsāra, which in Buddhist doctrine is the cyclical flow of the human condition (birth, life, death, and decay). Saṃsāra tempts us to cling to material, impermanent things. By letting go of these attachments, the nuns find true happiness independent of worldly preoccupations. Sisters of all generations came together to celebrate these achievements in song: “Mara [i.e. Buddha’s opponent] is the mind clinging to like and dislike; so look into the essence their magic, free from dualistic fixation.  Realize that your mind is unfabricated primordial purity. There is no Buddha elsewhere; look at your own face. There is nothing else to search for; rest in your own place.”  

Even when regarded as spiritual mothers, the Tsoknyi Nangchen nuns’ religious practice enables them to surpass a prescribed gendered identity. Through their determination, integrity, and cross-cultural outreach, they demonstrate how Tibetan women can influence traditions as binding as religion. 


The Blessings screening and discussion was co-sponsored by Stanford University’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Department of Religious Studies, and Ho Center for Buddhist Studies.

headshot DickasonKathryn Dickason is a Graduate Student, Department of Religious Studies and a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.