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Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

By France Griggs Sloat

Shortly after dusk, Carol Winkelmann and an Indian guide start walking up a mountain path leading from a narrow road in the Himalayan mountains of northern India. They’re trekking to the Shugsep nunnery, where about 100 exiled Tibetan nuns live a couple miles up the dusty trail. They’ll be holding evening prayers soon, and Winkelmann, an assistant professor of English linguistics, wants to join them.

 

About halfway, however, the darkness of the jungle closes in, forcing them to their hands and knees. Fearing the steep sides of the trail, they pick their way along the rocks and rubble, thinking also about the leopards and monkeys that make the jungle their home. Eventually, though, they reach the nunnery, and Winkemann sits at a long, low table in the shrine room. The women, with their shaved heads and maroon robes, beat Tibetan drums, sound horns and cymbals, and perform the ceremony against a backdrop of butter candles made of yak grease. It takes about two hours, and Winkelmann is thrilled to be there.

The hike to Shugsep in May 2004 is one of four visits Winkelmann has made to the nunneries of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Her initial trip to Nepal with Xavier’s service learning semester program in 2002 triggered her fascination with the Tibetan Buddhist nuns who routinely cross the mountains into Nepal and India to escape torture, oppression and persecution by Chinese authorities in occupied Tibet. The dangerous mountain exodus has been taking place since the Tibetan national uprising began in the early 1960s. Now Winkelmann is researching the religious language of these women as they emerge from their patriarchal past into a world where they are free to pursue the education that has eluded them for thousands of years. Because of changing social attitudes and pressure from Western interests, the nuns are now allowed to study Buddhist philosophy in their own nunneries. Their first goal is to educate themselves to the point where they can replace the monks who teach them now.

In January, Winkelmann returns to the Shugsep nunnery for a semester-long sabbatical for her research. She plans to write a book with the working title, Language in Exile.

“I’m trying to figure out how these women’s language is changing because of their educational experience,” she says.

Winkelmann will live with the nuns, many of whom grew up in nomadic families herding goats and sheep, and observe them as they go through their daily Buddhist prayers, rituals and studies. Through interviews and observation, she’ll capture the social change as it happens before her eyes.

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