Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas / Edition 1

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Overview

They may shave their heads, don simple robes, and renounce materialism and worldly desires. But the women seeking enlightenment in a Buddhist nunnery high in the folds of Himalayan Kashmir invariably find themselves subject to the tyrannies of subsistence, subordination, and sexuality. Ultimately, Buddhist monasticism reflects the very world it is supposed to renounce. Butter and barley prove to be as critical to monastic life as merit and meditation. Kim Gutschow lived for more than three years among these women, collecting their stories, observing their ways, studying their lives. Her book offers the first ethnography of Tibetan Buddhist society from the perspective of its nuns.

Gutschow depicts a gender hierarchy where nuns serve and monks direct, where monks bless the fields and kitchens while nuns toil in them. Monasteries may retain historical endowments and significant political and social power, yet global flows of capitalism, tourism, and feminism have begun to erode the balance of power between monks and nuns. Despite the obstacles of being considered impure and inferior, nuns engage in everyday forms of resistance to pursue their ascetic and personal goals.

A richly textured picture of the little known culture of a Buddhist nunnery, the book offers moving narratives of nuns struggling with the Buddhist discipline of detachment. Its analysis of the way in which gender and sexuality construct ritual and social power provides valuable insight into the relationship between women and religion in South Asia today.

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Editorial Reviews

Harvard Magazine

Based on [Gutschow's] 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.
— Anne Stuart

Times Literary Supplement

Being a Buddhist Nun is a valuable account of the life of nuns in the Himalayan valley of Zanskar, a region of Ladakh in north-west India. The work is driven by a deep sense of injustice and a compelling focus on a remote society still medieval in character...[Gutschow] present[s] an unrivalled account of monastic economy and social anthropology in Ladakh. Her text is full of 'thick' description, delightful anecdotes, biographies of courageous and not so courageous nuns, as well as accounts of the personal joys and sufferings of individuals. Although she focuses on the often lamentable ways in which nuns suffer discrimination, she is not unduly disrespectful of the monastic system to which they belong; rather she subjects it to a prolonged and penetrating examination and interpretation.
— John Crook

Frank J. Korom
Solidly based on over a decade of fieldwork, Gutschow successfully dispels a number of stereotypical misconceptions about Buddhist monasticism in general and Buddhist nuns more specifically. She places monasticism in its necessary political and economic spheres, while not ignoring the pragmatic aspects of lived Buddhism. Being a Buddhist Nun transports women and nuns from their marginal peripheral position in Buddhist history to its ideological center.
Unni Wikan
A brilliant analysis, beautifully written, of Buddhism as never before portrayed. Privileging popular practices and local informants over textual expertise, Gutschow takes us right into the heart of the contradictions between Buddhist doctrine and practice, showing the mechanisms that reinstate the very social hierarchies and injustices that the Buddha disdained. The book is a tour de force, a bold and courageous analysis that will change the field of Buddhist studies forever. A truly enlightening and extraordinary book.
Wendy Doniger
Being a Buddhist Nun is a persuasive and moving combination of vivid writing and sophisticated scholarship. The lived experience is wonderfully captured in both verbal and visual thick descriptions of foods, tasks, conversations, all the evocative phenomena of the everyday, while the book raises questions that are significant far beyond the Himalayas, ranging from the usual questions of gender--Why Cannot Nuns Be Monks?--for which Kim Gutschow offers new answers, to the not-so-usual questions of celibacy, in which she sees newly relevant values.
Harvard Magazine - Anne Stuart
Based on [Gutschow's] 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.
Times Literary Supplement - John Crook
Being a Buddhist Nun is a valuable account of the life of nuns in the Himalayan valley of Zanskar, a region of Ladakh in north-west India. The work is driven by a deep sense of injustice and a compelling focus on a remote society still medieval in character...[Gutschow] present[s] an unrivalled account of monastic economy and social anthropology in Ladakh. Her text is full of 'thick' description, delightful anecdotes, biographies of courageous and not so courageous nuns, as well as accounts of the personal joys and sufferings of individuals. Although she focuses on the often lamentable ways in which nuns suffer discrimination, she is not unduly disrespectful of the monastic system to which they belong; rather she subjects it to a prolonged and penetrating examination and interpretation.
Times Literary Supplement
Being a Buddhist Nun is a valuable account of the life of nuns in the Himalayan valley of Zanskar, a region of Ladakh in north-west India. The work is driven by a deep sense of injustice and a compelling focus on a remote society still medieval in character...[Gutschow] present[s] an unrivalled account of monastic economy and social anthropology in Ladakh. Her text is full of 'thick' description, delightful anecdotes, biographies of courageous and not so courageous nuns, as well as accounts of the personal joys and sufferings of individuals. Although she focuses on the often lamentable ways in which nuns suffer discrimination, she is not unduly disrespectful of the monastic system to which they belong; rather she subjects it to a prolonged and penetrating examination and interpretation.
— John Crook
Harvard Magazine
Based on [Gutschow's] 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.
— Anne Stuart
Publishers Weekly
Gutschow, a visiting assistant professor in religion at Williams College, spent over a decade living in various Buddhist nunneries in the Zangskar region of Kashmir to produce a thoroughgoing ethnography describing the "alternative society" the nuns established within their restrictive environment. After describing the social, political, historical and economic context of Zangskar, Gutschow discusses the "Buddhist economy of merit" wherein monks-despite doctrinal teachings to the contrary-are believed to have "more Tantric prowess than nuns" in performing rites for villagers. They garner generous endowments that literally turn the monastery into a wealthy corporation that collects rent from sharecroppers and grants loans to villagers at 20 percent interest. By contrast, nuns are forced to labor in the fields for subsistence, are lorded over by monks and are vulnerable to public beatings, even rape. The inescapable struggle of being a woman in a patriarchal system is the heart of Gutschow's work and permeates her further discussions, including ideologies of purity and pollution and Tantric approaches to the question of female enlightenment. Although her academic tone can be dry, Gutschow's analysis is penetrating, and her supporting anecdotes are often vivid and effective. Her work reveals that the reality of Himalayan Buddhist monasticism, far from being Shangri-La, is thoroughly rooted in the very foibles of the world it professes to renounce. (July) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In many religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, women are considered spiritually inferior to men and often suffer inequitable treatment in the wider society. Buddhism, with its highly egalitarian doctrine, is often perceived as being different. Gutschow (religion, Williams Coll.) shows that in this regard we have mistakenly focused on ideals rather than on actual practices. Since 1989, she has stayed for months at a time at Buddhist nunneries in Zangskar, a majority Buddhist area in the Indian region of Jammu & Kashmir. Her research shows that despite their adherence to approved doctrines of monastic organization and observance and their donning of religious dress, nuns are treated as inferiors and entirely subordinated to monks-just as all other women of the region are subordinated to men. The nuns must fight not only for enlightenment but also for equality. Frequently concerned with the complex theoretical issues in ethnology, this book will not appeal to casual readers. Though specialists may find Gutschow's occasional stridency off-putting, her book is recommended for academic libraries and others with collections on religion.-James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674012875
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Kim Gutschow is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Williams College.
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Table of Contents

Preface

1. Gendering Monasticism

2. Locating Buddhism in Zangskar

3. The Buddhist Economy of Merit

4. The Buddhist Traffic in Women

5. Becoming a Nun

6. Why Nuns Cannot Be Monks

7. Can Nuns Gain Enlightenment?

8. Monasticism and Modernity

Notes

References

Index

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