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Separate and Unequal

For Tibetan Buddhist nuns, the path toward enlightenment is anything but smooth.

November-December 2004

The way Kim Gutschow '88, Ph.D. '98, Jf '00, sees it, Americans have a lot of misconceptions about Buddhism — especially Tibetan Buddhism.

For instance, says Gutschow, an ethnographer and now a visiting assistant professor of religion at Williams College, Westerners tend to assume a Buddhist is a Buddhist is a Buddhist. Not so. "There are as many kinds of Buddhism as there are countries with Buddhists," says Gutschow (pronounced "GOOD-show"), who in a 14-year span spent 39 months studying and living with Tibetan Buddhist nuns in the Zangskar region in northern India.

Kim Gutschow with a group of nuns at the Karsha Nunnery in Zangskar
Photograph courtesy of Kim Gutschow

The biggest misconception, in Gutschow's view, is the Western stereotype of Tibetan Buddhist monks as having transcended worldly gender-based distinctions. Says Gutschow, dryly: "The lived reality and practice are quite different" from that rosy picture.

That's something of an understatement, considering her conclusions in a new book, Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas. Based on her observations and research in Zangskar, the book describes a rigid hierarchy in which monks rule, enjoying power and prestige and conducting important ceremonies and rituals, such as blessing households and construction sites in their villages. Nuns, who must defer to monks and sit behind them at formal gatherings, are relegated to menial tasks, such as collecting the dung and sticks that the entire community will burn for fuel during the region's harsh winters.

"Sending a daughter to the nunnery is akin to placing her in a community college without any scholarship," typically keeping her close to her home village so that her family still benefits from her labor, Gutschow writes. "By contrast, sending a son to the monastery is like enrolling him in an Ivy League or Oxbridge college on a full scholarship. He will earn a handsome stipend at an elite institution which provides him with ample opportunities for privilege and profit for the rest of his life."

Most significantly, Gutschow says, the Buddhist "economy of merit" heavily favors monks. Tibetan Buddhists believe that performing certain actions in this life generates credit toward better standing in the next one. Among the best ways of "making merit" is donating cash, food, and other gifts to religious orders — and therein lies the problem. "Monks are seen as having more merit than nuns," Gutschow says. "So giving to a monk brings more merit than giving to a nun" — even though nuns are far more likely to need contributions.

Such practices embody the wealth-driven worldliness and power that Buddhist monks are supposed to renounce, argues Gutschow, who did not become a nun but considers herself a Buddhist. But even though visiting Westerners may find the culture of inequity and subservience shocking, Tibetan nuns rarely question it. "They accept the hierarchy because they are also Buddhists," she says. In addition, challenging the power structure might threaten what few benefits the nuns have.

There are some signs of change, most involving fundraising to help support and educate Himalayan nuns. Working with a Toronto-based nonprofit group, Gutschow has delivered more than $40,000 to Zangskar's nunneries since 1991.

Meanwhile, she is considering her lifelong interest in gender issues in a whole new way. Earlier this year, she and her husband, Ashok S. Rai, an assistant professor of economics at Williams, became the parents of twins: a boy and a girl. She's also working on a second book that explores Buddhist practice in other locations.

~Anne Stuart