by Sourajit Ghosh
Exploring the Identity of a Buddhist Nun in a Merit-Based Economy:
The term ‘Bhikkhunī’/Bhikṣuṇī or dgeslong ma (also called Tsunma), literally translates to spiritual almswomen’within Buddhism. Considering the lives and work of Tibetan Bhikṣuṇīs as well as their perceptions, I believe, can allow us to interrogate some complex issues on identity. This is especially so within the contemporary Indian Himalayan landscape where Tibetan nuns in exile continue their spiritual tradition away from their ‘homeland’. A contemporary Tibetan nunnery in the Indian Himalayas supports the spiritual practice of Tibetan nuns in exile as well as Indians joining the order. It also enables women from Western context aspiring to join the monastic order to explore Asian spiritual traditions. These nuns are seeking a liberative model following the path of the blessed one, the historical Buddha and his dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha). What is the nature of the alms they seek? Is it the necessities for material existence such as food and robes, or things beyond such necessities, ‘a nectar for the human mind’? It is a quest for ‘sacred wisdom’, the ultimate truth that leads to enlightenment and a cessation of suffering. They are the ‘Daughters of Buddha’; a living heritage which can be seen as the contemporary rendition of one of the earliest women-led socio-spiritual movements which the Buddhists believe was founded during the lifetime of the historical Buddha under the leadership of his maternal aunt/foster mother Mahatherī Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and five hundred Śakyan women. A question that haunts a curious mind is, who are these ‘red-robed bald women’ praying for universal well-being, experimenting with several self liberative models in closed Buddhist convents in the last mile Indian Himalayan landscape? Is their role limited to prayers within confined walls of nunneries? In this piece, I demonstrate how the Tibetan nuns in exile are also shapers of the social and spiritual ethos in their context.
I first encountered this phrase ‘red-robed bald women’ which I used to identify this group of Tibetan Buddhist nuns earlier, when a villager described them as such, when asked for directions to a nunnery in a Northern Himalayan state during my fieldwork for my Master’s dissertation wayback in 2017. I was quite shocked and taken back to hear this description and the result was a much-unexplored quest to study the identity of the contemporary female Buddhist monastic who is supposed to be highly revered in the Indian spiritual context given their well-celebrated history in Asia and the West. The term used by the villager made me ponder on the identity formation of a Buddhist nun given the shadows of the early Buddhist canon which was mostly edited and composed by male-centric authorities in patriarchal settings. Further, the manner in which a contemporary rural Himalayan society perceives these nuns is a matter for further research. Are the Tibetan Buddhist nuns praying for the well-being of the world in solitude? Are they knowledge producers who can bring about an evolving dimension in education movements facilitating welfare, mental well-being, and mindfulness-based alternative learning frameworks to those who cannot afford or do not wish to engage in formal education especially in contexts of abject poverty?
The contemporary role of these Buddhist nuns remains overlooked by the dominant gaze which fails to see contributions beyond quantifiable economic and materialistic matrices. If we discuss female monastic practices in Tibetan traditions in contemporary Indian society we may notice that it includes Tibetan nuns in exile, the regional Himalayan women and young girls joining the order as aspirants of higher level spiritual achievements and nuns who have traveled there from the West, many of whom are often well versed with engaging in ‘formal’ knowledge production systems.
Anthropologist Kim Gutschow coined the phrase “economy of merit” to describe the hierarchical structure of the community that leaves the Himalayan Buddhist nuns perpetually disadvantaged. The struggle of life in exile, with the struggle for a recognition of their spiritual development coupled with a lack of adequate financial support to continue their practice makes the spiritual career of the Tibetan nuns burdensome. The burden of early textual narratives of women ‘not being qualified’ for attaining Buddhahood due to ‘biological reasons’ adds to this vicious cycle. The misogynic eight heavy precepts (gurudhammas) which begin with the rule that even a highly experienced nun ordained for hundred years has to pay homage to a monk who may be a novice, ordained merely for a day, for example, has been put forward as the unconditional condition for a female aspirant to be ordained. Many Buddhists believe that this condition goes back to the first ordination offered by the Buddha himself to his maternal aunt. This even adds to their economic disenfranchisement as it is more likely that devotees donate to the order of monks than the order of nuns which is seen in a much-subordinated lens.
Especially in rural settings, many prefer to donate to monasteries more than nunneries in expectation of a ‘greater amount of merit’ as they will be blessed by monks. Further, the lack of status of a fully ordained nun ‘dgeslong ma’ in Tibetan Buddhism makes the nuns subject to institutional androcentrism in which the agency of the order of nuns is somehow undermined due to excessive dependence on the male-centric authorities and patriarchal hierarchies. As a result, even senior nuns continue their spiritual practice as a novice without proper access to higher levels of monastic education as they are not ‘fully ordained. Though in the case of Tibetan nuns HH the 14th Dalai Lama has been a prominent voice to champion the cause of full ordination of Tibetan nuns along with HH the 17th Karmapa, there is always a limitation that the acceptance has to come from all the leaders in Tibetan Buddhism from all lineages.
Photograph by author
Refugee Status, Challenges in Exile, and the Formation of the Sacred Space in Indian Himalayas:
In Tibet, which once sheltered and housed over six million, including a major monastic community (now Tibet Autonomous Region) there was largescale displacement of people in the aftermath of the Chinese aggression in 1949. As a result, the spiritual and administrative Head of the region HH the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959 was exiled to Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh India. From the 1980s till the 2000s several Tibetans migrated to India and Nepal in search of a new identity while trying to continue their religious practices. In this context, countless Buddhist nuns also arrived in Indian Himalayas, as well as Bhutan and Nepal in search of the hope of creating a women-friendly sacred space that can foster and nurture female monasticism with a more gender-inclusive approach as India is the land where the early order of nuns flourished. Several concerns still add to the underlying tension like the future of the Tibetan refugee community in the coming decades, the succession issues and the heir to the lineage of the Dalai Lama, and the status of the refugees as per the Indian Foreigner Registration Act. Second and third generation Tibetan origin individuals were able to apply for Indian citizenship with the enactment of the Indian Citizenship Act amendment in 1986 even though this was not desirable in terms of upholding the national identity of Tibet. Such tensions add to the need for inclusive emotional, mental, livelihood generation, and economic support systems for monastic communities along with health as well as water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities for these communities in exile. Over and above, there is a dire need for social dialogue on the future of the spiritual life of the young women and girls joining the monastic order. The Tibetan authorities (Central Tibetan Administration in Exile) must adopt a gender-inclusive strategy to ensure the leadership of the female monastic saṇgha is in the hands of women who can take up the responsibility of continuing the Tibetan female monasticism. Awareness raising on the legacy of the first Buddhist nun Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī and the remarkably extraordinary leadership narratives of early Buddhist nuns may also help inspire a new generation of nuns.
Her Struggle and Perseverance in Exile:
After the 1980s with the massive immigration of nuns to India, there has been an overwhelming struggle for food security and economic support. This has left the Tibetan nuns without any choice but to contribute to road construction projects to ensure their spiritual practice can survive with minimum economic support. Very little is known about the social status of women in Tibet given the lack of existing literature. Much of the narratives of extraordinary achievements remain in oral tradition. Female monastic spaces or nunneries served as knowledge hubs at the nexus of the agrarian economy and are liable education infrastructure for the rural spiritual economy. Before the Cultural Revolution of China during the 1950-59, around 618 nunneries promoted the autonomy of women in learning infrastructures and allowed women to explore deep heights of their spiritual journeys.
Ray of Hope: NGOs and Think Tanks Empowering Tibetan Women in Exile:
If we consider the potential of the Tibetan nuns in exile as a community there is significant potential for meaningful engagement. In light of the goal to ‘end poverty’ as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, there is of course, a space to look at the contemporary nunneries as women-led community-based organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), non-profit organisations (NPOs), and Think tanks under the Central Tibetan Administration in exile in Himachal Pradesh, India as social wellbeing acceleration hubs. The Buddhist nuns are knowledgeable on traditional medicine, and sustainable regenerative agriculture, supporting retreaters from all over the world in demand of spiritual well-being. The contemporary nunneries and women-led retreat centers accelerate spiritual retreats, green tourism, local livelihood generation and community-based water management systems in extreme last-mile Himalayan villages. The Buddhist nuns also make the regional village community aware of waste management especially in relation to the reduction of plastic use. They promote women’s livelihood by recycling waste to compost, converting soft plastic to meditation cushions and harder plastic to bags and fly curtains. Further, the umbrella organisation of Tibetan nunneries established in exile, namely the Tibetan Nuns Project, supports the practice of faith of the nuns through sales of handicrafts and gift items made with sustainable material by Tibetan nuns to ensure a stable source of economic support. Most significantly, the nuns are sacred figures highly revered in rural settings as social leaders who are a major source of inspiration to young girls to engage in educational empowerment as nunneries are the primary education hubs for girl children who are not able to afford traditional educational facilities.
An Opportunity for Further Research:
It’s high time that the academic endeavours on feminist, women’s, and gender studies in Asia consider the evolving role of the nuns practicing under Tibetan tradition in the Indian Himalayas beyond Eurocentric theories which are far removed from the ground realities and experiences of the nuns in Asian geographies. This would be an important step in moving forward towards sustainable peace and respecting human rights and dignity. The nuns, afterall, are shapers of the social and spiritual ethos of their context and beyond.
The terminology is used by I.B Horner in I.B Horner, Women Under Primitive Buddhism: Laywomen and Almswomen (Delhi, MotilalBanarsidass, 1930) to recognize a distinct identity of women going homeless in the Buddhist order in search of a spiritual identity and career. This was one of the early scholarly attempts to identify a women in Buddhist monasticism much distinct of any other household identities such as mother, daughter, wife etc as portrayed in the early Buddhist texts.
Diana Y Paul, “Buddhist Attitudes toward Women’s Bodies,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 1 (1981): 63–71. https://doi.org/10.2307/1390100.
Anālayo, “The Bahudhātuka-sutta and its Parallels On Women’s Inabilities,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics ISSN 1076-9005 http://www.buddhistethics.org/ Volume 16, 2009: 137-190.
 Bhikkhu Anālayo, “The Cullavagga on Bhikkhunī Ordination,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics Volume 22, 2015: 401-448. Accesed at Microsoft Word – JBE-AnaalayoCullavagga revised 9Sept15.docx (dickinson.edu) on 17/03/2023 at 12:55 P.M.
Price-Wallace, Darcie M. Price Wallace, “The Fragility of Restoring Full Ordination for Tibetan Tsunmas (Nuns), ” Religions 13, no. 10, 2022: 877. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13100877
 Recently full ordination of Tibetan nuns has been conferred upon by HH the Je Khenpo in Bhutan adopting single ordination method by senior monks.
Karma LeksheTsomo. “Tibetan Nuns and Nunneries,” The Tibet Journal 12, no. 4 (1987): 87–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43300270.