Gender Equality in and on Tibetan Buddhist Nuns’ Terms
“Even though bodies are sexed, learning is sexless.”--Sherab Zangmo, “Women,” Gangkar Lhamo (2013)
འཛམ་གླིང་གི་ཀློག་མཁན་སྤྱི་དང་ལྷག་པར་དུ་རང་རེ་བོད་ཀྱི་བུ་མོ་ཚོས། ཕོ་མཆོག་མོ་དམན་དེ་དུས་རབས་ཀྱི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་ཙམ་དུ་བསྐྱུར་ཟིན་པའི་གནའ་བོའི་གོམས་སྲོལ་ཕྱོགས་རིས་པ་རེ་ཟུང་དང་། ཤེད་སྟོབས་སོགས་ལུས་ཀྱི་གྲུབ་ཆ་རེ་ཟུང་གི་ཕོ་མོའི་ཁྱད་པར་ཙམ་རྒྱུ་མཚན་དུ་བྱས་ཏེ་རང་ཅག་ནི་བུད་མེད་དོ་སྙམ་ནས་རང་མགོ་རང་གིས་སྨད་དེ་མི་སྡོད་པར།
“Our objective is for the global readership in general and for our Tibetan girls in particular not to think “we are women” and consider ourselves inferior on account of differences between men and women that are based on a few biased outdated customs of male superiority and female inferiority, which have been tossed aside as merely bygone history, or based on a few differences in physical strength.”--Larung Gar nuns’ preface to the largest Tibetan anthology of Buddhist women’s writings, The Ḍākinīs’ Great Dharma Treasury (2017)
2. In and on Tibetan Terms
Yes, I’ve heard of that, but I don’t know much about it. That is about rejecting the idea that girls cannot do certain things, and cannot finish certain things, so why should they go to school? Everyone thinks about girls this way, but everyone wants boys to go to school and gain knowledge.
Before the 1920s, women could not vote [in the U.S.], so they protested. Nowadays, feminism comes from that, but the problems remain. Almost 100 years have passed, and how can this inequality be changed?
For myself, I don’t think about women’s and men’s equality (’dra mnyam), and also I have never spoken about this; I never thought about it that way in my mind. I don’t hold this view.
As for the idea of male superiority and female inferiority, I am not sure if this is an earlier historical fact or a contemporary social custom, really I don’t know. Women are not equal (’dra mnyam). Regarding women’s lower status, we can see that in nomad and farmers’ areas women are treated like animals. We are not happy about this. Generally this isn’t because women aren’t loved. It’s a habit. However, it is not the fault of the [Tibetan] ethnicity (mi rigs). The view that men are superior and women are inferior is not the fault of Tibetans. If everyone works hard and has self respect and courage, not just Tibetans, but everyone can develop. If this happens, then women’s situation will improve—they will not be treated like animals. You and I—everyone in Tibetan areas knows this.
In a family with a mother and a father, women don’t have power. Men enjoy what the family has—he drives a car, rides a motorcycle, and has fun. Women just work and work at home. If she goes out, she doesn’t even have the right to use 100 yuan.12 In that situation, there is no way we can call that equal. If there is love between a man and a woman, and they do the same work, respect each other, and the man also helps with the women’s work, they both should share the household income and enjoy equal amounts of joy and sorrow.
But women do a lot of housework. In families, usually the man spends the money and goes around enjoying himself. And the women stay at home like servants. This is not right. If everyone does her own work, then the situation may change. Nowadays many people are talking about equality, saying “women need equality.” For me, I never used the words “women’s equality” (bu mo’i ’dra mnyam) and also I never think about that. I think the main thing is to do something. No one can say that we are not allowed to do this work, like the proverb “Whatever the subject is, it can be put into practice.”13
About gender equality, I don’t talk about that. The word is not in my mouth and also not in my heart. I don’t have that view. But when I think about how in some families women are like servants, I don’t like that. Men think about what they should have; women see themselves as servants. This is their way of thinking. I don’t debate about men and women’s equality. I don’t say, “I need equality.” I don’t like to debate. What I hope is that all women can enhance their self-confidence, knowledge and learning. Thinking about how to take action is important. I don’t like just talk. Nowadays people talk; one person says some things; another says others. This talk has no meaning. We can’t listen to this. If you’re a Dharma practitioner, then practice! If you’re a business person, do business! I think we should take action.
For all of us, I think the main thing is taking action. If we have done this work, then we don’t need to just talk. I never talk about just the words of equality between women and men—I don’t like this, it is not right. Taking action is the main point. This is what is important. You used the word feminism (bud med ring lugs). From our view we probably would talk about reducing “the view that men are superior and women inferior” (pho mchog mo dman gyi lta ba)—that is how we would discuss equality.
We need to do work about women. And we need to help each other. If we do this, our mutual ability will improve. For instance, if I feel jealousy toward someone like you with higher education and a good situation and I don’t help you, that is women’s shortfall. Otherwise, if we help each other, then you can do your research and can accomplish something. We can all achieve our respective projects if we help each other.
For me I don’t argue about women’s status (thob thang). Deep down in my heart, I’m thinking that from the time of the Buddha until now, there has been the issue of male superiority and female inferiority (pho mchog mo dman); I never thought that women were equal. To give an example, take a lama and a nun—if they do exactly the same work, the lama [male Buddhist teacher] will always be praised and the nun will never be because she is a woman (bud med). Even if they do the same work, they don’t get the same praise. I have the feeling it’s like that. If the lama accomplishes more work than the woman, giving praise to the lama and not the woman is okay. But if they do the same work, just because he is a man and I am a woman, women will also support the man and esteem him and not support the woman. That is damaging for women. Everyone should esteem each other properly. For women from each culture, whoever does beneficial work, all of us should esteem and support each other. Then we can help each other’s situation. Most women on the Tibetan plateau work hard for their livelihood. But some work in culture or research women’s issues. If we can all help each other, even if we don’t have a lot of wealth or capacity, then each of us will have some success; we can help each other gain results.
3. Taking Action by Anthologizing Tibetan Buddhist Women’s Lives
The textual work was incredibly difficult. We worked for about five years on the Ḍākinīs’ Great Dharma Treasury. First we went all around gathering texts. We went to Lhasa and everywhere we could to find texts. Women’s writings were few at that time and were not easy to find. We developed relationships with people with this project in mind and asked very politely for texts, but there were a tiny number of texts by women. When we found some, they were very old. Many of them were not clear and we couldn’t understand them. It is such difficult work, and so different from [male] lamas’ writing. Lamas’ writing and women’s writing are different because for lamas’ writings, they are published by the Lhasa Publishing House once, by Sichuan Publishing House again, and so forth, so it’s much easier to republish them. But women’s historical writings are so few. They are almost nonexistent. So we had to start anew, from “a, b, c.” We had to enter them newly into the computer. For the Ḍākinīs’ Great Dharma Treasury, we had a group of people who all worked hard. It was very difficult. It wasn’t my goal alone. All of us wanted to help women and publish women’s writing together. We entered it all in from the beginning and edited it. But for lamas’ books, there are many source texts (ma dpe); for women we don’t have many; we just found one here, one there.
Our main objectives are first and foremost to protect and promote the writings of the female scholar adepts who have come before in India and Tibet, which are like the principal wealth of the world. Secondly, our objective is for the global readership in general and for our Tibetan girls in particular not to think “we are women” and consider ourselves inferior on account of differences between men and women that are based on a few biased outdated customs of male superiority and female inferiority, which have been tossed aside as merely bygone history, or based on a few differences in physical strength. Additionally, to serve as examples of what types of undertakings one should accomplish in both this life and future lives, our main objective is to provide learning materials that reinforce ways of correctly knowing which endeavors to accept and reject, as well as reinforce how externally one should conduct oneself virtuously in accordance with the present conditions and internally one should have courage and strength along with intelligence. We have published, distributed, and promoted this priceless collection as medicine to nourish the wellbeing and happiness of the world in general, and in particular as a gift for female Dharma practitioners of the Snow Land [of Tibet], who are its great stewards.(pp. 3–4)
So that future generations of Tibetan mothers and daughters will know about the outstanding tradition of excellent mothers17 of the Snow Land of Tibet, and so that their conduct will not contradict the essence of holy divine Dharma and secular ethics as appropriate for their era, we think that it is extremely important to recognize that the responsibility falls on our shoulders to take steps to improve their circumstances.(p. 2)
Tibetans or any other ethnicity need some results that future people can see from history (lo rgyus). Men and women’s value is different. Through reading history we can see men’s value. We should also be able to show the real value of women’s contribution to Tibetan culture. If women make history, then their value will be visible to other Tibetans.
Especially when we asked about women, people didn’t want to help. They would mention that there is a text, but they wouldn’t help us find it. There are many people like that, with different opinions. When we asked about women, some wouldn’t even answer our questions.
We gave them to people who help women and who do research about women’s writing. We sent the books to libraries and universities in this country [PRC] and foreign countries for scholars. We weren’t selective, saying we should send them to one person but not another—we gave them out without sectarian bias because the volumes themselves are non-sectarian.
One reason is that for a long time in my mind I wondered if we could finish this work. The work would take a long time, and because it was so difficult, we might not be able to finish it. Now that we’ve put this out, it’s like passing an exam! This is not just one- or two-days’ short project. We worried about whether it would be finished. However, we’ve accomplished our important objective, so I am happy. The second reason is that we encountered some difficulties doing this work. After our hard work, we overcame our difficulties. We really like the volumes because we accomplished our goal.
4. Taking Action by Publishing a Tibetan Nuns’ Journal
Dear readers who are fellow siblings from the three provinces19: In this cool Dharma realm completely surrounded by a garland of white snow mountains, if we examine earlier times, since education standards have improved somewhat since then, these days an inexpressibly huge variety of books in the public and private spheres are produced, like crops that grow in the summertime. Reading them, even though we find them compelling, we are saddened that women’s essays have become as rare as stars in the daylight. We think the reason for this is that in the past extremely few Tibetan women took on the responsibility or had the inclination toward studying the sciences of grammar, poetry, and so forth. Until now, not many had the full resources required to diligently study. Education and knowledge are necessary for both men and women; at all times they are certainly needed. Therefore, with the intention of future advancement and uplifting our friends, we must open mindedly pursue our education and writing. In order for our lifetimes to bring about results, we must sincerely work hard.
Laywomen don’t have control over themselves; against their will they are bound with rope and married off. Many are sold into marriage or sent as brides to enemies for the purpose of settling disputes. In particular, the way people view monks and nuns is different. Toward a monk, everyone respects him and views him as an object of veneration. No matter how educated, good intentioned, and dedicated to benefitting others a nun is, not only do people not perceive her good qualities, but instead think that she shaved her head because she was unable to support herself by working in the secular world. These are the major faults of our [Tibetan] ethnicity that I want to discuss.
If we want to move in that direction [toward equal rights, ’dra mnyam gyi thob thang], we won’t gain anything by debating with uninformed confusion and anger “We want rights. We want gender equality.” These are just empty words.
But we women need to constantly keep this in mind: No matter whether we are laywomen or nuns, being self-interested about our direction and the goal of our own rights is of little importance. Our purpose is not bringing about temporary equality with men. Rather, think that what is truly important is bringing about equality for the general fulfillment of the Buddhist teachings and beings, and for the advancement of the [Tibetan] ethnicity. That is the complete and authentic meaning of our rights (thob thang).
In conclusion, once again my aspiration is for the impact of all women of the Land of Snow Mountains who are benefitting the world in general and our ethnicity in particular not to be erased. Along with making this difficult-to-express aspiration, we must never be mistaken with regard to equality and respect. So that this positive custom will not decline, I am offering this hope—please keep it in mind always.
- Girls: The fate of my sisters is to expend their precious human birth in the dung enclosure, with the livestock, in the fields and in the house. How is this the only fate you can have?
- Girls: Even though it isn’t our fate, we have been locked into the trap of this fate.
- Girls: By any means we must awaken from this thick sleep of ignorance.
- Girls: Like the metaphor of a frog stuck in a well, you are duped, living in a small world, painting your pure face and adorning yourself with jewelry made of various stones. Our precious human life is like a rainbow—there is nothing aside from this.
- Girls: Feeling like we need to cast our heads down only because of these things makes no sense.
- Girls: It is not the case that we must only herd the livestock and till the fields.
- Girls: If we girls are continually surrendering to others’ influence, how can we ever be beautiful?
- Girls: In this time of the 21st century, how is it okay for us to still hold only the view that men are superior and women are inferior?
- Girls: But how is it acceptable for us to only spout empty talk?
- Girls: Therefore, starting with us, it goes without saying that we need to diligently study the ten Tibetan arts and sciences.
- Girls: We also need altruism and pure intentions; shame and modesty.
- Girls: Our ultimate goal must be to magnificently spread the path of white light.
- Nuns: Being completely free of the suffering of women, from the perspective of being people who serve mother sentient beings:
- Nuns: Not only must we diligently study the ten Tibetan arts and sciences, but we must journey through the pleasure grove of the academy.21
- Nuns: We must actually perform practical actions that benefit others, not just talk about doing this.
- Nuns: We must speak our own opinion in public and be without bias toward Buddhist doctrine and the authority of the five sciences.
- Nuns: Even though bodies are sexed, learning is sexless.
- Nuns: With confidence in Machik Labdrön’s insight and Nyangtsa Kargyen’s courage, we must diligently cultivate gender equality (Sherab Zangmo 2013, pp. 72–73)
As for us, trailing after livestock, amid waves of falling snow and roaring icy wind, the years pass by. Experiencing any number of hardships, we nomad girls expend our youth in dung and mud. Never tasting the milk ocean of the five sciences, we never see the beauty of the myriad subjects of learning. With scant opportunity for women to attend school, kind teachers cannot provide any education beyond how to recite the alphabet.(p. 74)
Listen! Don’t spend your whole life herding livestock—dawn’s smiling girl welcomes you onto the long pathway forward to your brilliant shining future. Once you awaken from the stupor of backwardness, she will accompany you on your path of advancement. Study the worthy jewel of scholarship; this is your method in support of discovering your life’s value, so please don’t forget!(p. 74)
Parents of the pasturelands stuck in the ditch of stupor—if your nomad girl yearns for an education, don’t be impelled by ignorance to say “that is pointless!” If she wants to attend the local school, don’t criticize and insult that goal. This is the long-term way to discover her life’s future. Not only that, it is the supreme medicine that dispels the diseases of backwardness and timidity. Do you understand?(p. 75)
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For her monograph based on ethnographic research on Tibetan nuns, see (Havnevik 1989).
The most recent and robust example of this critique is (Salgado 2013).
Notable among these are (Klein 1994, 1995; Gross 1993, 2009; Tsomo 1988, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2012, 2014, 2019; Hu 2011; McWeeny and Butnor 2014). The pinnacle of Salgado’s critique (Salgado 2013) as it pertains to Tibetan Buddhist studies is the abovementioned work of Rita Gross. It should be noted, however, that Rita Gross was not trained in Buddhist Studies or Asian languages (her U. of Chicago PhD in History of Religions culminated in 1975 with a dissertation about women in Australian Aboriginal religion). Therefore, Salgado’s observation that Gross’s work “does not engage contemporary practices of women in the Asian societies she purports to discuss” (p. 29) is both accurate and not representative of the current state of research on women in Buddhism.
For just a few examples among the many to choose from, for Tibetan language women’s studies scholarship see (Ra se dkon mchog rgya mtsho 2003; Josayma 2017; Chu skyes sgrol ma 2013, 2017) (except the first reference these are authored by Tibetan women). For Tibetan and Bhutanese women’s studies research translated into or written in English, see (Chotsho 1997; Madrong and Tsering 1997; Tsomu 2018; Wangmo 2017; Wangmo and Edo 2016). For Chinese-language scholarship on women in Tibetan Buddhism, see (Deji Zhuoma 2003, 2005). For women’s contributions to modern Tibetan literature, see Tibetan references in conclusion. Another rich domain of research on women in Tibet is medicine—among others see (Josayma and Dhondup 1990; Tsering 2005; Chos ’phel and Tshe ring 2008; Fjeld and Hofer 2012).
In addition to the work nuns featured in this article are doing to improve nuns’ education, see also the Tibetan Nuns Project founded and directed by Richen Khando Choegyal (https://tnp.org).
The population of Larung Gar has fluctuated, sometimes reaching above 10,000 residents, more than half of which are nuns.
See, for instance, the well-appointed English-language websites of Khenpo Sodargye (http://khenposodargye.org) and Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö (http://www.luminouswisdom.org), whereas Jetsunma Mumé Yeshé Tsomo maintains much less web presence. Nevertheless, she is deeply revered by the Larung Gar community in general and nuns in particular; for biographies of her see vols. 16 and 50 of (Bla rung ārya tāre’i dpe tshogs rtsom sgrig khang 2017).
Prior to this joint work, separately Padma’tsho has been conducting research on Tibetan nuns’ education at Larung Gar and elsewhere since 2010. See (Baimacuo [Padma’tsho] 2014).
For the latter definition, see (Goldstein 2001, p. 165).
The latter term appears in (Josayma 2017). All of these were the subjects of a rich conversation during the panel titled “What is ‘Feminism’ in Tibet about?” organized by Nicola Schneider and Hamsa Rajan (at which Padma’tsho presented a paper on aspects of this research) at the 15th International Association of Tibetan Studies Meeting in Paris on 11 July 2019.
Others have noted the tension between preserving Tibetan national unity and engaging in feminist activism (Rajan 2015, p. 149).
100 Yuan is less than $15.00 USD.
Khenmo expressed this Tibetan proverb as “kha byang ci yin na lag len zer gyi thub pa.” In other words, anything one can talk about, one can put into practice. If you can say it, you can do it, so don’t just talk about it—do it!
For a useful overview of Jamgön Kongtrül’s massive textual production (100 volumes), see https://www.shambhala.com/jamgon-kongtrul-readers-guide/.
For a fuller account of this project, see (Padma’tsho and Jacoby forthcoming).
The Education Branch (Slob ston khang) is the section of Larung Gar Five Sciences Buddhist Academy that manages the education system, the teaching of courses at Larung Gar, and handles affairs related to publications.
Here, the Larung Gar nuns are using “mothers” metaphorically to refer not only to biological mothers, but also to notable historical Tibetan women in general.
The five major subjects of exoteric Buddhist studies (gzhung chen bka’ pod lnga) at Larung Gar include (1) Valid cognition (tshad ma, pramāṇa), (2) Monastic discipline (‘dul ba, vinaya), (3) Abhidharma (mngon pa, abhidharma), (4) Middle way (dbu ma, madhyamaka), and (5) Perfection of Wisdom (phar phyin, prajñāpāramitā).
Referring to the three regions of Tibet: Kham, Amdo, and Utsang.
Padma’tsho has independently published a complete translation of this work; see (Padma’tsho forthcoming).
Journeying through the pleasure grove of the academy (slob gling gi skyid tshal ’grims dgos) refers to completing the monastic curriculum at Larung Gar.
For further analysis on the 10 arts and sciences in Tibet and their particular combination of religious and secular subjects, see (Townsend 2016).
In (Dpal mo 2005), Palmo published an anthology of women’s poetry (Bzho lung, The Milk Pail Hook), followed by a four-volume collection of literary works written by Tibetan women published in (Dpal mo 2011) (Deng rabs bod rigs bud med kyi dpe tshogs, Collection of Contemporary Tibetan Women), followed by another five-volume series (titled Dmangs phan rig mdzod: bud med rtsom pa po’i dpe tshogs, Treasury of Knowledge for the Benefit of the People: A Collection of Women Writers’ Works) comprised of single-authored volumes written by Tibetan women in (Dpal mo 2014). For an English-language overview of Palmo’s publications and women’s health work, see (Robin 2015).
For a study on Tibetan women’s writings, see (Lcags rdor rgyal and Go shul grags pa ’byung gnas 2017).
They did not mention the most well-known international organization cultivating a global sisterhood of Buddhist nuns, Sakyadhita (https://sakyadhita.org).
They are not alone in finding resources within Buddhism to correct “the view that men are superior and women are inferior;” see (Holmes-Tagchungdarpa 2019) for other instances in which “Buddhist ideas and practice remained a rich resource for concepts of gender equality” for Buddhist women (p. 167).
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Padma’tsho; Jacoby, S. Gender Equality in and on Tibetan Buddhist Nuns’ Terms. Religions 2020, 11, 543. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11100543
Padma’tsho, Jacoby S. Gender Equality in and on Tibetan Buddhist Nuns’ Terms. Religions. 2020; 11(10):543. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11100543Chicago/Turabian Style
Padma’tsho (Baimacuo), and Sarah Jacoby. 2020. "Gender Equality in and on Tibetan Buddhist Nuns’ Terms" Religions 11, no. 10: 543. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11100543