Tibetan Khampa Nuns in the Changing Society by Mitra Härkönen

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Traditional monastic life appears to be more popular among young Tibetan women today than ever before despite the various modernising efforts of China in the Tibetan regions within the People’s Republic.1 This is evident in the many new nunneries that are being built in Khampa regions in the Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, for example, as well as in the increasing numbers of women going into them.

In my PhD thesis-to-be I ask why the number is increasing now, and more importantly, what kinds of societal forces on the one hand and individual life histories and experiences on the other, make nunhood popular among young Tibetan women today. In today’s presentation, I discuss how the status and motivation of the nuns have changed under the changes brought by the modernizing efforts of China. The discussion is based on my data on Khampa nuns living in Yushu Prefecture of Qinghai province.


First, let’s take a short and a rather general look at the traditional monastic life of nuns in Tibet. There exists no recorded history of female monastics (Tib. ani/jomo) in Tibet but many early records mention nuns (see Uebach 2005). The exact number of nuns and nunneries is not known either. It is believed that before the 1950s, the nuns comprised 2–4 percent of the female population and that there were 600 to 800 nunneries.2 Not all nuns lived in nunneries, however. Some of them led a wandering life or observed their vows in their natal home. Despite the differences of opinion

as to how many nuns there were in traditional Tibet, it is obvious that monks far outnumbered the nuns – despite the fact that pre-1950s Tibet was home to the largest community of Buddhist nuns in the world (Havnevik 1994; Tsomo 2003). When comparing monks and nuns in general, there appeared to be differences, for example, between their levels of monastic ordination, religious practices and education, as well as the roles acquired in the society. Whereas the monks could receive the highest monastic ordination (Tib. gelong) after the novice ordination (Tib. getsul), the full ordination was not usually available to nuns.

The formal status of nuns provided them scant opportunity for ritual or scholastic advancement and most nuns neither pursued advanced philosophical studies. Nunneries did not have the economic resources, organizational structure, or able teachers to impart higher education. As the monks also monopolized esoteric tantric practices of religion, the nuns rarely undertook elaborate meditation or yoga practices. Hence they spent their time mainly on elementary religious practices, performing rituals and reciting prayers (Havnevik 1989; Tsomo 1987, 1988; Willis 1987; Tsomo 2003).

Partly because of the basic level of their religious and spiritual education, most nuns were never awarded the title of the high religious teacher (lama), and were seldom recognized as the incarnations of enlightened lamas (trulku), or khandromas. Since monasteries were founded on the spiritual and administrative guidance of these religious authorities, the lack of female lamas meant that nunneries were usually sub-branches of monasteries, males often being their heads (Campbell 2002; Gross 1993; Havnevik 1989). Whereas monastic life represented a highly valued life career which was believed to increase the spiritual merit and social prestige of both the monk and his family, the motives of nuns who joined monastic life were often suspected.

Why did some women then enter monastic life in Tibet? There was a variety of reasons why women became nuns, as there was a diversity of reasons why men joined monastic life. These included the importance of monastic institution in the society, the wish of their parents, hardships in lay life, as well as a compulsory nun or monk levy some families had to pay. However, considering the smaller number of nuns and the difficulties women often faced as full-time religious practitioners, it is probable that many of the nuns held religious devotion. One of the most central motives to join monastic life appeared to be a relative freedom it offered especially for women. The literature from before the 1950s tended to emphasise the relatively

‘high’ status of Tibetan laywomen. While women enjoyed a certain amount of freedom both in work, marriage and community life, in fact, there appeared to be few opportunities for women to ‘escape’ their conventional gendered roles as wives and mothers – the most common alternative life-career being life as a nun.


Let’s then move to the nuns in contemporary Tibet. The past few years have witnessed increases in the number of nuns and nunneries in many parts of Tibetan areas under China. Charlene Makley (2005), for instance, noted the increasing numbers of nuns in Labrang in Amdo, and growth is also evident in many parts of Kham in Qinghai and Sichuan. To give just a couple of examples, there is a Kagyu nunnery in Yushu Prefecture that was first opened in the 1840s, was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and re-opened only five years ago. There were 20 nuns living there before 1958, 250 in 2007, and 300 in the summer of 2009. Most of the current residents are between 15 and 30 years old, and around 80 per cent became nuns when they entered the nunnery. Sichuan has two enormous Buddhist centres (Sertar Institute and Yachen Gar) where thousands of monks, nuns and lay people study under influential Tibetan lamas. For instance, when I visited Yachen Gar in 2007 there were around 6,000 nuns and 4,000 monks living there.

In seeking answers to the question of the increasing number of nuns I conducted 20 life-story interviews among nuns living in the Yushu prefecture in 2009. I asked them to talk freely about their lives, experiences and expectations before and after monastic ordination.

Ethnographic Context

Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is located in the southern Qinghai on the northern Tibetan Plateau. Yushu Prefecture covers an area of a little less than 200,000 square kilometres at an altitude of between 3,000 and 4,200 metres. It comprises six counties3 and the political and economic centre of both Yushu Prefecture and Yushu County is the town of Jyeku, an old trading centre. In 2008, there were more than three hundred thousand (331,733) people in Yushu prefecture. Interestingly, nearly 70 per cent of the people living in Yushu were 35 years old or under. Just over 12 per cent (40,822) were government-employed, the rest being nomads and farmers. Because of the high altitude, the main source of livelihood was nomadic pastoralism. The number of monasteries and nunneries, or monks and nuns was not given to me by authorities

In April 14th this year, a huge earthquake struck Yushu County and it is estimated that 85-90 percent of the Jyeku town was destroyed.

Background of the nuns

The 20 nuns I interviewed were mainly from two nunneries. The first was a Kagyu nunnery that reopened in 2005, with more than 300 resident nuns at the time of my research. The other one was a Sakya nunnery that was established six years ago and had about 100 resident nuns. The nuns I interviewed were between 20 and 43 years old, the average age being 33.8 years. Most of them came from nomadic or farming families and both parents were alive. Among those with one surviving parent the loss of their mother was more common than the loss of their father, and many also talked about their mother’s sickness and health problems. The average number of siblings was five, and half of the nuns had another monastic – i.e. a monk brother or a nun sister – in the family. More than half of them had never been to school. There was a lot of variation in the number of years since monastic ordination, between one and 34, but the biggest group had been nuns up to four years. However, they had been living in a nunnery for only up to three years. In theory, what makes a person a monastic in Buddhism is monastic ordination. The nuns I studied were not formally ordained. They had not studied nor did they follow the set of monastic vows described in the Buddhist Vinaya. Instead they followed the rules of the nunnery and the

instructions of the head lama. Many of them were just starting to receive formal education on Buddhism, and some were still just learning how to read. Their daily routines and practices included attending temple ceremonies in which they recited Buddhist texts often learned by heart, studying under the guidance of male teachers sent by the head lama, and individual activities such as preliminary Vajrayāna practices and fasting rituals.

Motives of the nuns

In terms of motives for entering into and leading a monastic life the individual nuns often mentioned more than one during the interviews. The most frequently mentioned motive was a wish to avoid family life. A 39-year-old woman who became a nun when she was young but stayed at home until she joined the nunnery three years ago talked thus about her choice:

‘Different people have different worries. People can’t be happy forever; every new day there is new suffering. Everybody suffers about something. As a nun I don’t need to think about the suffering that women experience. Women have to take care of a husband, of a child. I don’t need to worry about these things. It wasn’t my parents’ wish but my own to become a nun. The time was right after the Cultural Revolution.’

The second most frequently-mentioned motive was a wish to avoid the heavy work in lay life. A 21- year-old nun from a poor family whose parents did not have a permanent job had also learned about the difficulties in lay life from her relatives:

‘My parents’ life was quite difficult. And my uncle and aunt are nomads and I would see them looking after the yaks and sheep. They always had to work and I learned that life was really difficult. When I saw that I realised it would be very difficult to lead a worldly life. If I were to lead a worldly life I wouldn’t do well at all.’

The motives were often mixed.

A 43-year-old nun, who had also lived as a nun among her nomadic natal family taking care of her siblings’ children, said about monastic life: ‘You don’t need to do so much household work and you don’t need to think about your children. You don’t have a husband to serve. There’s a Tibetan saying that the hardest thing for a monk is to study for three years. But I think that even that can’t be compared with three years in the life of a nomadic woman.’ The third most prevalent motive was a wish to have more time to practice Buddhist religion, dharma. As a 37-year-old from a semi-nomad family, said:

‘I can practice dharma. When someone passes away I can chant for him. If I were leading a worldly life I wouldn’t have this chance, would I? … At home, even if you want to practice religion you don’t have time, isn’t that right? Even if you want to practice dharma you still have to take care of everyday things and that’s not practising dharma. So when I see this, I realise how happy I am being a nun.’

The fourth most frequent motive, the wish to benefit others, shows how the motivation might change as the nuns receive some formal education on Buddhism. A 21-year-old told me how her ideas had changed since she had been in the nunnery:

‘First you think that being a nun is very good. You don’t have to work; all you need to do is to just chant, yes? Then, when you become a nun you realise that you have to practice dharma for all beings.’

The nuns also mentioned motives such as wanting to accumulate positive merit and to avoid negative karma, and to study, as well as uncertainty about the future. A 32-year-old who was the only nun who had been to school for several years told me about her choice: ‘I didn’t really pass the entrance exam but I still had a chance to go to Xining [the capital of Qinghai province] to continue with my studies. However, I thought it would be very difficult to get a government job, so I told my parents that I wanted to become a nun.’


What to make out of these quotations? We saw that there appeared to be few opportunities for women in traditional Tibet to ‘escape’ their conventional gendered roles as wives and mothers – the most common alternative calling being life as a nun.

The ‘modernising’ efforts – including the construction and expansion of the infrastructure, industries and urban facilities – as well as the ideological reforms imposed by China in the Tibetan regions have brought drastic changes to the Tibetan social, political and economic structure. Have the status and motives of Tibetan nuns changed because of these major changes?

The above quotations clearly show that the life of the Tibetan laywoman living in contemporary China is full of difficulties. The traditional nomadic and agricultural ways of life are still dominant, and gender relations as well as the gender-based distribution of work seem to prevail as before. The consequence of fact that Tibetan women are not isolated in the private sphere of home or limited to housework is that they are loaded with double or even triple the amount of work. In addition to taking care of the family and household chores inside and around the house or tent, they are responsible for many of the duties associated with nomadic pastoralism and agriculture. A young Tibetan female friend of mine, who comes from a nomadic family but has been fortunate enough to be educated and now works as a teacher, once told me: ‘We consider women’s life very difficult and pray that whenever someone dies he or she will be reborn as a male. If a lama says that the person who died will be reborn as a female people cry. When I think of the word ‘woman’ I feel sad because women are so low and they have so much work. There’s never time for a nomad woman to relax, to sit down and chat with relatives. There’s always some work to do, to serve other people … So no-one wants to be born a woman.’

Not all men are considered ideal husbands and fathers either, and some nuns told me about sisters or relatives who were beaten, for example, and about cheating husbands. Interestingly, some of my Tibetan female friends were looking for a less-than-handsome husband because they thought such a man would be more faithful.

Because of the Chinese policy, there is a new generation of educated Tibetan men and women. However, after basic schooling only a few Tibetan students manage to continue further and this seems to be the case especially among female students. Some of the nuns I studied had been to school for some years. However, those who had been to school told that they did not actually have time to attend classes because their labour was needed by the family. One of them finally had the chance to go to school when she was 19 years old, but only because her younger nieces needed someone to take them there. In fact, it seems that the modernising efforts have had only a minor (positive) effect on the lives of these rural women. Only four of the nuns I interviewed thought that there had been some improvements in the livelihood of the people in their hometown. Most of them could not think of any changes that had taken place.

While the life of Tibetan women has not changed that much the attitudes towards female monastics seem to have changed more. When asked the reason for the emergence of the nunneries in Yushu, a monk friend of mine stated that also Tibet was becoming more 'equal' these days. According to him, there were not many nuns in Yushu earlier because the opportunities for religious studies were few.

Now, he said, the situation for nuns is much better. The changing status of nuns in Kham is also brought up by a 38-year-old nun I interviewed. She said:

Before, no-one cared about the nuns. Now lamas understand that women have lots of problems and build nunneries.

A male head-lama of one of the monasteries in Yushu also emphasized that monks and nuns are 'equal', and I, as a researcher, should see it in this way, too. Even if this is the case, the laity still seems to prefer monks for most rituals, leaving nuns to perform the most basic merit-making tasks such as reading ritual texts, fasting, or doing prostrations on behalf of the lay-sponsor.


To conclude, it can be suggested that while modernization has changed many of the aspects of Tibetan culture and society, it has not changed so much the traditional motives of Tibetan women who join monastic life. It thus seems that as before, monastic life offers some rural women asylum and the opportunity to avoid many of the hardships experienced by laywomen. Apparently, it means freedom from conventional expectations and the traditional female role and could also provide them with new, more meaningful roles in society as defenders and preservers of Tibetan traditional ways of life in the face of major changes.

1 The Tibetan regions refer here to the traditional Tibetan provinces of Ü-Tsang, Amdo and Kham, now annexed to the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu as well as to Tibet Autonomous Prefecture (TAR).

2 Dreyfus’ (2003) estimation is that nuns comprised 2–4 % and Willis’s (1987) 2 % of the female population.

3 Jyekundo (Yushu in Chinese), Nangchen (Nangqian), Trindo (Chengduo), Dzato (Zaduo), Drito (Zhiduo) and Chumarleb (Qumalai).

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Power Point

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