An award-winning journalist vividly reports her two-year, 60,000-mile global odyssey in the company of exceptional women who choose to dedicate their lives to Buddhism. In 2011, Christine Toomey met an unforgettable group of Tibetan Buddhist nuns. After hearing their stories—of prison, extreme hardship, and ultimately fleeing across the Himalayas into exile—she resolved to learn more about the private, courageous women of Buddhism: who they are, their experience of suffering, what motivates them to seek enlightenment, and what stands in their way. Toomey’s quest took on even greater urgency with the sudden deaths of her father and then her mother, and her own search for healing wisdom in the aftermath of loss.In Search of Buddha’s Daughters introduces us to women from around the world—Nepal, India, Burma, and Japan, as well as the US, the UK, and France—who have come to the ordained life from every faith and career: a former policewoman, a princess, a Bollywood star, and a concert violinist. Toomey meets a Harvard graduate who sometimes breaks into hip-hop moves after meditating, a Japanese nun who has written bestselling erotica, and a Nepalese order of nuns who practice kung fu for spiritual and physical empowerment. Through insightful conversations with over thirty women, Toomey investigates Buddhism as an antidote to the problems of life in the twenty-first century, and considers the status of women today—worldwide, and within one of our oldest wisdom traditions. “In a world numbed by the amount of attention paid to violence, terrorism, and political and religious power struggles,” she writes, “I find it profoundly refreshing to come across women whose lives are dedicated to nurturing the opposite.”
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About the Author
Christine Toomey is an award-winning journalist and author who has reported from over 60 countries worldwide. Speaking five languages, she has covered foreign affairs for the Sunday Times for more than 20 years, and her journalism has been syndicated globally. Previously based as a correspondent in Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere, she has twice won Amnesty International Awards for Magazine Story of the Year. She divides her time between London and a small medieval town in the Apennines of central Italy.
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KUNG FU NUNS
AT THE DRUK GAWA KHILWA NUNNERY, nestled in mountains an hour's drive from Kathmandu, each day begins at 3 a.m. with the sound of a bell. Dawn will not seep across the highest Himalayan peaks for several more hours. As the young nuns stir from sleep, only a dim light filters through the dormitory windows from lit pathways beyond.
No words are spoken and no glances exchanged as the young women slip from their beds and wrap their slender frames in burgundy and saffron robes. First, an underskirt and shirt without sleeves, worn even on the coldest of days. Over this, a wide lower robe is folded and tucked at the waist. Finally, a long shawl, a zen, is tossed around the shoulders to keep out the chill. After smoothing out sheets and blankets, each woman steps up onto the firm mattress of her bed and sits cross-legged facing the wall against which her pillow rests. Each then turns within, entering the realm of meditation.
While most of the sisters spend the next two hours treading their own inner path, repeating secret mantras and recitations given to them individually by the head of the Buddhist order to which they belong, alternate groups of nuns take it in turns to follow a very different form of practice. Instead of monastic robes, they lift a different set of clothes from the storage boxes under their beds: loose brown trousers and long-sleeved martial-arts jackets cinched at the waist with a cloth sash. Tying the laces of white canvas shoes, they pass quietly from their dormitories into the night air.
It is mid-October when I join them and together we snake up a stairway that leads from their residential complex, along a steep incline bordered on either side by scented flowers and shrubs. The stairs lead to a large hall in front of which stands a giant gilded statue of the Buddha. If the weather is too cold, the nuns take up formation inside the hall. But today, as it is warm enough to practice outside, I follow the women as they climb three further flights of stairs onto the roof and space themselves out with a few low whispers. As their instructor brings the group to order they draw their feet together, pull two clenched fists back toward their waists, and stand waiting.
At the opening command they raise their arms to shoulder height, thrust their right fist into their left palm, and spring into such sharp action that it seems a temporary affront to the calm devotions of those meditating below. In the background, the only sound is a gentle symphony of cicadas, but high on the nunnery roof the peace is now pierced by the shouted instructions in the practice of kung fu. With each position counted out, the nuns move through a series of steps that flow from graceful hand gestures through fierce air punches and swinging chops to soaring kicks and acts of fighting.
Most of the exercises are carried out with each nun going through the motions individually, either with bare hands or with the long fighting sticks known as bo staffs. The most startlingly beautiful are performed with blood-red fans swirled above the head and around the nuns' waists. At times the fans are spun open, at others flipped closed, the effect more dance than martial art. Other exercises involve two nuns sparring, circling each other with clenched fists, thrusting, shoving, grabbing the other's neck in the crook of their arms and pushing their opponent to the ground. Some of the moves are conducted with the fighting sticks held in both hands and used as both shield and weapon. As each series of maneuvers comes to an end, the nuns again draw their fist into their palm then push their open hands slowly down by their sides. It is only this subtle closing movement that returns to the women the gentle demeanor of their monastic calling.
What I am witnessing in this striking predawn display is more than 1,000 years of tradition being turned on its head.
For more than a millennium this practice of kung fu was reserved only for monks, its roots lying far to the north in the legendary Chinese monastery of Shaolin. It was here in the fifth century that kung fu was said to have originated, after Bodhidarma, an Indian prince turned Buddhist monk, set out to take the teachings of the Buddha to China. On finding temples there vulnerable to attack by thieves, and many of the monks struggling with the rigours of monastic life, the monk devised a system of fitness and defense that drew heavily on the ancient traditions of Indian yoga. Like yoga, Shaolin kung fu developed from an observation of the way animals move. Over the centuries the Shaolin monks incorporated many different animal postures into their practice until eventually the mastery of many of these styles developed into a form represented by a dragon. Unlike the fire-breathing dragon of Western mythology, the Chinese dragon is a powerful spiritual creature.
It is telling, then, that the nuns of Gawa Khilwa belong to the Drukpa order of Himalayan Buddhism, druk being the Tibetan word for both "dragon" and "thunder."
As the first blush of sunlight bleeds over the horizon, the nuns draw their morning kung fu practice to a close. A deep rumble of drums can be heard in the distance and high on the roof of the nunnery's main temple I see the silhouettes of two figures blowing hard into gold-and-jewel-encrusted conch shells. This piercing bugle call is the Buddhist call to prayer. It is barely 5 a.m. and two hours of elaborate ritual and worship in the temple will follow before the nuns and I sit down to breakfast.
The ferocity of these morning exercises at Gawa Khilwa seems the antithesis of spiritual endeavor. But this practice I am privileged to have observed not only builds the women's physical and mental strength, it also instills in them a growing sense of confidence. This is an entirely new experience for Buddhist nuns, who, through the centuries, have often been neglected and overlooked.
From the moment I began planning this journey, I wanted to start here, on this rooftop in Nepal. Seeing young nuns engaging in kung fu seemed to offer the perfect introduction to a story of spiritual empowerment. That it was happening so close to the place where the Buddha was born more than 2,000 years ago added to its symbolism. But this is not a straightforward tale, nor was it to be an easy one to follow, as I began to realize on the tortuous route to Gawa Khilwa.
When I descended through the smog to Kathmandu airport in the autumn of 2012, I knew little about Nepal. I knew that today it is one of the poorest countries in the world, beset by the aftermath of ten years of Maoist insurrection. This conflict only petered out in 2006, when the king of Nepal agreed to restore parliamentary democracy. Two years later, a Maoist-led parliament reduced the king's status to that of a figurehead and declared the country a republic. But it was not the self-declared Maoists who dealt the Nepali royal family its harshest blow: rather, the bloody vengeance of a lovelorn prince. In 2001, fueled, many believe, by rage at his parents' disapproval of the woman he wanted to marry, Crown Prince Dipendra had gone on a bloody rampage in Kathmandu's Narayanhity Palace, gunning down almost every member of the royal family before committing suicide. To rid Nepal of the murdered royals' ghosts, a high-caste priest volunteered to take on the negative karma of the tragedy by donning the king's golden suit, shoes, and sunglasses and riding an elephant out of the Kathmandu Valley into symbolic exile.
But as I arrive in Kathmandu it feels as if the departed spirits of these murdered royals still breathe misfortune on those who remain in their former kingdom. When I leave the airport, I discover a place sunk in chaos. The city's roads are dug up, its buildings are crumbling, the streets are full of hawkers and beggars, and it has the unenviable reputation of being one of the most polluted cities in Asia.
For centuries the country's strategic position, caught in a pincer between China and India, meant that trading caravans laden with silk, wool, and salt traversed high mountain passes here, bestowing great wealth on Nepal. As Kathmandu grew rich, many gilded pagodas and ornate temples, both Buddhist and Hindu, were built in the city. But those who pass through Kathmandu today leave a slurry of waste. Rubbish is piled high along the city's roads and throughout the countryside beyond. Nepal's greatest good fortune now is that its mountainous north contains ten of the world's fourteen tallest mountains, including the highest point on earth, Mount Everest. With an appetite for adventure, hordes of foreign trekkers and mountaineers descend on Nepal each year in ever-growing numbers. Yet even the base camps around these high peaks are now strewn with the detritus of a throwaway modern society.
This seems an incongruous location to seek the origins of Buddhism. But it was here, in the far south of modern Nepal, in a ramshackle town called Lumbini, that the man who came to be known as the Buddha, or "Awakened One," was born. At the time of the Buddha's birth, around 480 BCE, Lumbini lay in a small north Indian kingdom ruled from Kapilavastu, the capital, by a tribe of kinsmen known as the Sakya. For this reason the Buddha is sometimes referred to as Buddha Sakyamuni, or "Sage of the Sakyas."
There are many versions told of the Buddha's life, though few details exist of the time before he became a wandering monk. Certainly his youth must have been more complex than the later poetic tales suggest, but for the purposes of this book their version of events will suffice. According to legend, the Buddha was born into great privilege, as a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, whom sages immediately predicted would one day become either a great ruler or a revered holy man. To ensure that his son succeeded him on the throne, King Suddhodana virtually imprisoned him within the walls of a royal compound and, in order that he should never want to leave, made his life one of luxury and ease. As a young prince, Siddhartha was provided with three palaces for the three seasons of the year and was surrounded by beautiful courtesans. His marriage to a cousin, Yasodhara, resulted in the birth of a son, Rahula. But by the time his son was born, Siddhartha was twenty-nine and overcome by curiosity about the world.
During secret nighttime journeys beyond the palace walls, he is said to have come across four sights — of a sick man, an old man, a decaying corpse, and an ascetic — none of which he had ever been allowed to see in his life of indulgence. When he turned to his charioteer to ask if sickness and death would eventually be part of his life too, the answer, that they would, is thought to mark Siddhartha's awakening from innocence and prompted him to seek an alternative existence. After gazing tenderly at his wife and child as they slept, he set out secretly one night from the palace and for the rest of his life lived as a simple monk, wandering widely through the Ganges plains of northern India.
Following years of extreme asceticism, he is said to have sat down one day beneath a bodhi tree where, after weeks of intense meditation, he came to a series of realizations. His enlightenment embraced a deep understanding of the true nature of human suffering and a way of being released from it, into a state sometimes referred to simply as nirvana, principally by banishing ignorance and craving. These realizations formed the basis for teachings that spread so widely across the globe that today more than half of the current global population is said to reside in parts of the world where Buddhism was once a dominant force.
At the start of my journey, I understand little of the rich and complex world of Buddhist teachings. I know that 2,500 years ago the Buddha summed up the reality of human existence in what came to be known as the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is a clear recognition that in life there is suffering, and the second that we suffer because everything is impermanent, but because we don't want to accept that fact, we cling to what we think will make us happy and our attachment only makes us suffer more. The third and fourth truths recognize that there is an end to suffering and this can be achieved through a way of life summed up as the Noble Eightfold Path, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The endless cycle of clinging and suffering, referred to in Buddhist teachings as samsara, is the condition in which humans everywhere are said to find themselves. Acknowledging this is as relevant today as it was in antiquity.
For the jet-lagged traveler, the journey from Kathmandu to Gawa Khilwa nunnery is itself an initiation into the sorrows of mankind. After leaving the polluted city's choked thoroughfares behind, the steep, deeply pitted road leading into the mountains is precarious and prone to frequent landslides. More than once I clamber out of the taxi to lighten its load as its wheels spin, trying to gain purchase on loose gravel, unnervingly close to the edge of a precipice.
From some distance away, as the taxi twists and turns, I begin to glimpse a striking white edifice that towers above the valley. As we draw closer I get a sense of the size of the nunnery: not just one building but a complex of many, adorned with traditional designs of brightly colored tiles around the eaves. The tall steel gates of the nunnery remain firmly shut as we draw up to the main entrance. One of the persistent power cuts that besiege Nepal has disabled the electric lock. Beyond the metal grille, I watch a portly nun disappear into the bowels of a gatehouse with a wrench in her hand. Minutes later she emerges, rearranging her robes and smiling broadly. A generator growls to life, the gates swing open, and I enter a different world.
By now it is already early evening and after being shown to my room in the nunnery's guest quarters, I am left to my own devices. Most of the nuns are busy with their duties, so I take a stroll alone through the grounds toward a large hall.
In front of the hall, close to the towering gilded Buddha, are a number of smaller dragon statues. This is one external sign that Gawa Khilwa is a seat of the Drukpa, or Dragon order of Himalayan Buddhism. The Drukpa order was founded a millennium ago and over the course of hundreds of years, many of its followers became adepts at a powerful form of spiritual practice believed to lead to enlightenment within a single lifetime.
I have only just begun to unravel the complex threads of different Buddhist lineages, but I am struck that the head of the Drukpa order, known as the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa, chooses to live for most of the year here at Gawa Khilwa nunnery rather than in a monastery like most other senior male lamas. His encouragement of the nuns in practicing kung fu is only one aspect of a highly unusual degree of support he shows the women in his care. Most significant of all is his direct teaching of the nuns. This breaks with Buddhist tradition, which, throughout much of history, has held nuns to be inferior to monks. So much so that in the past many were treated as little more than domestic servants in monastic settings.
There is nothing subservient about the demeanor of the nuns I watch striking fighting poses against the dawn sky the following morning. When their practice is over and they return to their dormitories to change into their monastic robes, I make my way to the nunnery's main temple for the start of the first period of daily worship. The temple itself is a feast of rich colors and imagery, its tall ceiling supported by a succession of pillars around which the golden tails of dragons are entwined. The walls are lined with nearly 2,000 glass-paned alcoves containing delicate golden statues of male and female deities and seated Buddhas.
But it is the throng of women already gathered inside that astounds. Enveloped within this soaring space, surrounded by walls glistening with reflected light, are more than 200 nuns sitting cross-legged on row after row of long low mattresses covered with rugs fringed in red and gold. In front of them brightly painted tables hold ancient scriptures, from which they recite, their chanting accompanied by ringing bells and the constant throb of ceremonial drums beaten with long curved sticks.
Raised above the main floor where the nuns are seated is a dais on which the Gyalwang Drukpa sits when in attendance. To one side, hung in a wooden mount, is the temple's biggest drum, whose deep sound echoes far beyond the nunnery and into the valley below. Beside the nun whose task it is to beat the drum sits the mistress of chants. Her sonorous voice leads the gathering of nuns through at least four hours of devotions each day: two in the morning and another two or more in the early evening. Spread before the dais, at a lower level, the nuns sit in rows facing each other on either side of the main entrance. At the end of each row, left and right, are Gawa Khilwa's most recent arrivals: more than a dozen novices below the age of fourteen. One, I later learn, is just ten years old.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In Search of Buddhas Daughters"
Copyright © 2015 Christine Toomey.
Excerpted by permission of The Experiment Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface: Crossroads 1
Part I Nepal
1 Kung Fu Nuns 19
2 To Kathmandu 49
3 Birthplace 59
Part II India
4 Burning for Justice 69
5 Entering the Debate 83
6 Out of Silence 99
Part III Burma
7 Golden Spires 117
8 Peace and Persecution 137
Part IV Japan
9 Mirror Zen 159
10 Stillness 177
Part V North America
11 Route 101 205
12 East of the Cascades 231
Part VI Britain
13 Changing Gear 245
14 "We are Pioneers!" 267
15 "Zen is not a Spectator Sport" 283
Part VII France
16 Quiet Revolutions 293
17 Changing Times 317
Part VIII Beyond Bounds
18 Inside 327
19 Full Circle 341
20 The Desert 355
Further Reading 369
About the Author 371