Yeshe's Tibetan Pilgrimage
and the Founding of a Himalayan Nunnery1*
By Kim Gutschow
The three heroines of our story first came to a solitary cliff to build their meditation cells nearly six decades ago, before the Buddhist principality of Zangskar was a part of the nation we now know as India. 2 One by one, nuns came to piece their tiny meditation cells out of rocks and mud mortar, laboriously hauled to the site basket by basket. In the mid 1950's, three of the founding nuns traveled several thousand kilometers to be ordained as novices in Tibet by the venerable Ganden Throne Holder. Before they went to Tibet, Yeshe and her companions were no more than celibate spinsters living on a cliff. After their ordination, they founded a full-fledged nunnery in Karsha village, one of the most prominent and older villages in Zangskar. Karsha proudly hosts ancient temples dating back to the 11th century and ruins dating back even earlier, it appears never to have hosted a nunnery. How could a group of women achieve in this century what others had failed during the previous millennium? We shall examine how ordination can spark both individual and collective transformation, as it transforms the inner and the outer landscape of one Himalayan Buddhist community.
"Life's what you see in people's eyes, life's what they learn, and having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of..." 3
The lines around Yeshe's piercing eyes indicate the tremendous determination which has enabled her to weather countless hardships in her lifetime. Like most nuns in Zangskar, Yeshe first learned to read and memorize Buddhist texts with relatives at monastic institutions. In Yeshe's case, these apprenticeships were at two different sects, which do not operate exclusively in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition but may share initiations and revere the same teachers. After spending several winters at the 18th century Drugpa Kagyud ('Brug pa bKa' rgyud) temple in Sani village, Yeshe moved to the Dorje Dzong nunnery, supposedly founded by a disciple of the 15th century Tibetan saint, Tsongkhapa. In order to be closer to home, Yeshe returned to a site steeped in antiquity in her natal village of Karsha. She moved in with her childhood friend Angmo, the first nun to build a retreat cell near an 11th century temple high above Karsha village. While Angmo had been orphaned as a child and had built her cell laboriously without the help of any family members, Yeshe had received generous help from her father and mother when it came time to build her cell. Yeshe still recalls how her parents held a 'begging beers' in Karsha so as to solicit the beams for her cell, while many relatives volunteered their services as carpenters and masons.
Yeshe, Angmo, and a third nun, Deskyid, spent their first years on the cliff memorizing the Guru Puja and the Diamond Sutra (bLa ma mchod pa, rDo rje mchod pa). At this time, they lived mostly at home as lay nuns' who had taken five precepts---not to kill, lie, steal, commit sexual misconduct, or take intoxicants. They were not qualified to wear monastic robes as they lacked ordaination, which was a rare privilege in those days for Zangskari women. After receiving ritual instruction from an elderly monk at Karsha monastery, they decided to join him on a pilgrimage to Tibet in 1956. It was to be a turning point in their lives.
Setting out on foot, Ani Yeshe and her companions traveled some 5000 km to Tibet, a distant and fabled place of learning and spirituality they had never seen. The first challenge was gathering provisions for the lengthy journey. They each packed a few pounds of butter and nearly 60 pounds of flour, fearing they would be unable to carry much more. They begged relatives for money and pulled together any savings they had. Yeshe collected 500 rupees, while Angmo had 300 rupees, and poor Deskyid raised only 250 rupees. In late November, they set off with seven other Zangskari villages, heading south over the the 16,400 ft Shingo La pass. After walking 400 km to the neighboring region of Lahaul, they took the first bus ride of their lives. In Delhi they caught a train that took them clear across Northern India to Kalimpong. They begged for food and free spots on the train and eventually made their way to Gangtok. In Sikkim, they split into smaller groups for the last leg of their journey on foot. Crossing the Himalayan ranges into Tibet in late December, they faced a freezing wind beyond Phari village. All of them suffered from severe frostbite, which bothers them to this day. Along the way, they slept in the courtyards of Tibetan farmhouses from whom they begged a spoon of flour or butter. After several weeks, they reached Tashilhunpo monastery where they rejoiced in a reunion with fellow Zangskari monks. For the first time in months, they ate their fill and could chat freely in their local dialect. After recuperating for several days visiting the resplendent monastic halls, they set off once more for Lhasa.
They reached Lhasa in time to see the 14th Dalai Lama preside over the annual Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa. Afterwards, they were ordained as novices (dge tshul ma), highest ordination available to women in Tibet at that time.4 They received the 36 novice precepts from the Ganden Throne Holder (dGa' ldan khri pa), who held the throne built for Tsongkhapa, the 15th century founder of both Ganden monastery and Lhasa's prayer festival. They could not have guessed that 40 years later they would be some of the last Zangskari novices to have been ordained in Tibet by this venerable teacher.
After being ordained as novices (dge tshul), both nuns and monks are expected to abide by the same 36 precepts as well as wear the same robes. The day of ordination is the first time they may wear the three sacred robes (vest, lower wrap, and yellow outer robe, stud thung, sham thabs, chos gos) which signal their new androgynous state. Novices of both sexes are expected to wear their robes until the day they die, for the robes are deeply invested with symbolic import. They are symbols of the Buddha's teachings and of the renunciative path which was his main legacy. They represent poverty, chastity, and purity. They are fashioned out of pieces of cloth sewn in such a way as to recall the scraps of cloth which the Buddha and his disciples collected from cremation grounds.5 Special rules and an aura of sanctity apply to their use. They must be worn in a ritually prescribed manner, which Yeshe and her companions only learned years later. Yeshe recalled how she hardly wore the robes at all in her first years after ordination, because she simply did not know how to tie them! Eventually, a kindly monk taught her the proper number of folds which are required as well as the rules applying to their use. The upper robes must never touch any of the lower extremities of the body. It is forbidden to step over the robes, just as one avoids stepping over religious books, food, and other sacred substances. Yet robes alone cannot sustain a novice nun. Renunciation also requires a practice by which one learns to retreat from the daily demands of worldly life.
Initial Hardships of Spiritual Practice
When the newly ordained nuns returned home in late spring after crossing many passes and traversing the teeming plains of northern India, they were pulled back into the routine work of agrarian life. Working most days on their family farms down in the village, they hastened to their cells each night to recapture the glowing bonds of their nine-month pilgrimage. As their new-found spiritual companionship at the nunnery grew stronger, they decided to devote the first winter to religious austerities.
Working double time during harvest season, they earned enough grain in daily wages to stockpile food for a lengthy period of meditative seclusion. As the snow began to fall, they repaired their stone cells on the cliff which had been largely unattended during their absence. While the villagers let loose with revelry and feasting, turning the ordinary world upside down in their customary New Year (lo gsar) celebrations during winter solstice, the nuns retired to their cells to perform the preliminary practices (sngon 'gro). A certain degree of stamina is required to complete the the required 111,111 repetitions of these practices in sub-zero winter temperatures. The nuns took solace and warmth from each other as they repeated their prayers of refuge (skyabs 'gro), full-length prostrations (phyag chen mo), the Mandala (dkyil 'khor), and the generative prayer (bdag skyed).6 Although laypeople occasionally complete these practices late in life when they have fewer household obligations, monastics perform these practices in their youth.
Yeshe described the full-length prostrations to me by leaping off her cushion and throwing her full body along the floor and sliding her hands until her arms were fully extended above her head. As she pushed herself back up on her knees, she grimaced and joked that she was getting too old for this sort of thing. She then recalled the blood stains which had dotted her freshly plastered floor during the prostrations years ago. She pointed to her elbows, palms, and knees to show us where she had bled. Describing her sensations as if they had occurred just yesterday, she noted, "Although I felt pain at first, after a while I didn't even feel the bleeding anymore." Unlike Tibetan pilgrims, who often wear leather aprons and wooden blocks on their forearms, Yeshe wore no pads during her repeated slides along the floor. The preliminary practices serve as training in the arts of mindfulness and awareness. The hypnotic effect of the repeated physical rigors and prayers create the conditions for pointed concentration and a gradual emptying of the mind. The practices force the practioner to focus on her body and breath, while denying her pain and exhaustion and other daily distractions of village life.
Yeshe's reminiscences were not intended as exaggerated bravado, but rather as poignant reminders of time spent training herself in the art of detachment. Self-inflicted pain may help to cloud the wrenching pain of separation as novices are psychologically, if not physically, removed from the mundane sphere of village life. Although they may continue to partake in their family's domestic life , nuns learn to rise above the petty desires and dreams shared by their village sisters. Nuns take up a shadow life on the cliff which involves more intense physical deprivation than that ordinarily experienced by other village women. After their winter meditations, Yeshe and her companions emerged from their cells with more than simply scars on their palms and knees. They had found a sustaining vision for their private spiritual life and for the community of nuns who would slowly follow them to the cliff over the next decades.
Daily Praxis and The Art of Detachment:
After taking ordination,Yeshe daily ritual habits become suffused with her mundane practices. As a novice, she is required to adhere to the Boddhisattva vow, that is to maintain an awakened mind (sems skyed) attuned to compassion at all times.7 The vow demands a profound altruism as one places the welfare of others before oneself in every moment. Yeshe knows how difficult it is to practice perfect generosity. Rather than trying to live up to an unattainable ideal of infinite compassion, she makes a vow to take up the pain of those less fortunate than herself in a practice known as gtong len.
May the suffering of all those who are hungry come to me. May all of my happiness go to them... May those without clothes receive from those who have clothes. ...Just as we are now drinking tea and eating bread, we should think, may all those without food receive as well... If I go hungry it is okay. If I have no clothes and am cold, it is no problem...8
Like most nuns, Yeshe performs her daily ritual recitations almost unthinkingly while cooking tea or carrying water. Yet these recitations should not be confused with secular rituals like brushing one's teeth. As symbolic or aesthetic acts, the recitations can express a profound shift in the way the world is perceived. Non-attachment is far more than a philosophical principle; it is lived bodily praxis. Even simple acts such as going to sleep may be infused with profound meditative import. Every night after dinner as Yeshe completes her evening prayers and visualizations, she mixes the last sip of tea in her cup with a pinch of barley flour. The dough cleans out the butter left in her cup and serves as a bedtime snack. She then turns her cup upside down, for an empty cup invites a host to fill it in Zangskari idiom. Yeshe places hers face down every night to signal that she may not arise the next morning to break her fast:
By next morning, if I open my eyes, it is by the mercy of the Three Jewels as well as my root teacher that I have not died, that I am not sick, and that I have a sound body...By tomorrow morning will my consciousness return or not return?...By tomorrow morning will I return to arise again or not? If I die then it is by the mercy of the Precious Buddha. If we die then it is all right for us old ones.9
With such imaginings, Yeshe tucks herself in and sleeps soundly one more night in her seventh decade in this incarnation. By preparing herself emotionally for death every evening, she infuses her days with meditative awareness. Her evening ritual expresses the credo of Tsongkhapa's Great Exposition of the Stages to the Path of Enlightenment (Lam rim chen mo), in which the practitioner is urged to meditate upon the inevitability and possible immediacy of death as a reminder of why merit-making is the most urgent task in this lifetime.10 Although Yeshe has never read the text, she has heard oral commentary on this text from both Ladakhi and Tibetan monks who tour Zangskar in the summertime to give teachings. Yeshe also prays every evening to Maitreya and to Samanthabhadra, to remind herself of the impermanent, conditioned, and interdependent nature of all things.11 She to maintain a mental clarity in which only good thoughts (kun slong bzang po) arise.
To say "perfectly pure thoughts" means good thoughts, white thoughts. We do not send others evil thoughts or black thoughts. Perfectly cleansed thoughts means the following: we feel only a so-called Boddhisattva mind, a straight mind, which doesn't wish harm upon others, doesn't feel jealousy, doesn't feel anger and pride, and doesn't covet another's wealth. And while staying within one's own faith, one considers all other sentient beings of the six realms as one's father or mother and one says, may they be reborn in the Buddha fields.12
Yeshe explains that suffering is inescapable in all the six realms of existence. In the lower hells one feels the suffering of hunger and thirst, in the animal realm the suffering of carrying heavy burdens, and even in the god realm one suffers because pleasures cannot last. Yeshe admits that she does not know if she will be blessed with another human rebirth, but prays fervently to be reborn as a monk nonetheless. In order to explain why she feels lucky to be born as a human, Yeshe told me a parable from a Buddhist sutra:
Imagine the entire world is covered with a stormy ocean. Deep in this vast ocean, long before the continents emerged, there was a single tortoise who only surfaces once every hundred years for air. Along with the tortoise, there was one other object in this ocean: a wooden yoke, like you'd put on a yak. The probability of the tortoise surfacing so that it puts its neck through the yoke is greater than the probability of our attaining a human rebirth in our next lifetime.
Given that human rebirth is so rare, it would be a shame not to study Buddhism in this lifetime. Many Zangskari nuns dedicate themselves to the practice of Tantra, an advanced path which offers a shortcut to esoteric truths it might take lifetimes to learn by the study of sutras for example. Yeshe and the other nuns at Karsha practice a form of Mahayoga known as Vajrayogini Tantra (rDo rje rnal 'byor ma'i brgyud). After taking initiation as a Vajrayogini practitioner, a nun dedicates herself to meditative austerities as well as a daily regimen of prayers and prostrations. Tantra demands intensive motivation and discipline, because it offers a shortcut on the path to awakening. The daily practices for most Karsha nuns includes the performance of an evening meditation (rDo rje rnal 'byor ma'i bdag skyed) in which each nun privately generates and dissolves an image of her protective deity (yi dam), Vajrayogini. The same deity is called forth twice a month in the monastic assembly. At this point, all those who have not completed the obligatory meditation retreat (such as the ethnographer and the younger nuns) are required to leave the assembly. All but one of the Karsha nuns have undertaken the three month solitary retreat after their initiation into the Vajrayogini practice.13 This retreat involves a concentrated set of visualizations and recitations in which the mind of the practitioner is focused on and eventually becomes the guardian deity. During the retreat a nun does not leave her cell, nor does she receive any visitors except her meditation assistant (mtshams g.yog) and her meditation instructor (mtshams rgan). For nearly 18 hours a day, she meditates, prostrates, and performs the Mandala exercise: the creation and destruction of a tiny three-dimensional structure out of rice, which symbolizes the universe. She only breaks for tea and meals four times a day, while remaining focused on the ritualized performance of her movements, posture, breathing, thinking, sleeping, and rising activities. Even her sleep is regulated in terms of posture and meditation.14 Ultimately, these practices are aimed at the realization of yoga (rnal 'byor), a "non-duality of action and awareness" which is both the goal and the starting point of the practice.15 The yogic practitioner attempt to unite with the ultimate, primordial nature of existence in order to deny the conventional duality between mundane and ultimate truth.
Ordination as Collective Transformation: Founding the Karsha Nunnery
Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise.16
For Yeshe and her companions, pilgrimage and ordination marked a shift in personal status and served as a catalyst for the collective development of the nunnery. Although they left home as simple renunciates, Yeshe and her companions returned from Tibet as novices with an extraordinary blessing. Their ordination under the third highest Gelugpa hierarch in Tibet after the Dalai and Panchen Lamas gave them a certain clout and courage in the eyes of their immediate community. In one pilgrimage, they had seen more of the world than most of their relatives would see in a lifetime. On their return, three nuns had the audacious dream of expanding their community of nuns in the direct shadow of the powerful monastery which had dominated Karsha for centuries. For nearly two decades, a tiny community of nuns struggled with limited economic resources to found a ritual program. While completing their preliminary practices, they incorporated the abstract truths of impermanence into a bodily habitus of self-denial. As Yeshe and her companions visualized the vast, interdependent emptiness of which they were a part, they began to think in wider terms than ordinary village women. To build an assembly hall on the cliff, the nuns needed both a powerful patron as well as widespread support from their community. Not a single stone in the village could be moved without the permission of the village leaders such as the headman and his assistants. The nuns were only able to accomplish this remarkable feat due to the initiative and intervention of a charismatic Ladakhi monk who came to live at Karsha monastery.
Geshe Lobzang Zodpa and the Vajrayogini Practice
When Geshe Lobzang Zodpa first came to Zangskar in 1972, he gave a series of initiations including Tsongkhapa's Great Exposition of the Path (lam rim) and a Kalachakra initiation (dus 'khor dbang chen). In the tradition of scholars from centuries past, the Geshe also wrote a short history of religious establishments in Zangskar (Zodpa and Shagspo 1979) while residing at Karsha monastery. His teachings were so powerful that four nuns renounced the lay life and took up five precepts, while several older nuns were ordained as novices (dge tshul ma) under the Geshe's tutelage.17 In the summer of 1975, the Geshe gave the "Profound Teachings of Vajrayogini" (rDo rje rnal 'byor ma'i zab khrid) to a select group of nuns and monks in Karsha. The Vajrayogini empowerment is an esoteric rite administered orally only to serious initiates who must commit themselves to certain precepts and meditations.18 While only a few monks participated, all of the nuns from Karsha were present. As a result of this initiation, the Karsha nuns found both a spiritual practice and their root teacher (rtsa ba'i bla ma).
After holding the week-long Vajrayogini empowerment at the monastery, the Geshe crossed the Karsha gorge to visit the cluster of nuns' cells on the opposite cliff. When he saw the nuns diligently performing their humble practices in the dark, windowless temple surrounded by a host of ancient but crumbling wall paintings, he was moved. The nuns told him how they cooked their communal tea and mealson a makeshift hearth, outdoors, while blizzards and hailstorms might rage in the wintertime. They complained about the difficulties of gathering in a temple they could not call their own, to which they were never certain if they would have access. In response, the Geshe suggested it was time to build a new assembly hall. The nuns spent the next decade converting this vision into reality. While the process was driven to its conclusion by powerful and persevering women, the catalysts and engineers were men.19 As he departed from Zangskar in 1975, the Geshe urged the nuns to begin collecting rocks from the surrounding hillside. Although the Geshe did not return as promised until two years had passed, the nuns never gave up their dream of an assembly hall on the site he had selected.
The nuns worked as menial laborers on the site for the next ten years. For two summers, the nuns gathered building stones from the surrounding cliff, conveniently littered with the rubble of Karsha's earliest settlement that dates back to well before the 10th century. When the nuns held the ritual to open the earth (sa'i cho ga) in the summer of 1978, the entire congregation of nuns and the most senior monks of Karsha monastery were present. After performing the ritual to mollify the local earth spirits (sa bdag, gzhi bdag), the foundation of the new assembly hall was laid. The construction proceded slowly, since silt and water could only be hauled from the streambed far below the clifftop site they had selected. A monk from Karsha proved indispensable as construction manager, for he bought many construction supplies (central beams, glass, wood for framing the windows and doors) from the neighboring district capital Kargil. While he called masons and carpenters from Karsha village, the painters were well-known artisans from distant monastery of Lingshed monastery in the neighboring region of Ladakh. With his initial loan, the nuns could start to build, and as the walls took shape, they could begin to solicit contributions for the work in progess. In gratitude for his assistance, the nuns spun his wool for two winters and helped to build him a house in the village. One might say they wove this monk into their female company inadvertently, for he abandoned his monastic robes thereafter. First, he married a woman in Karsha and settled into a house the nuns had built in the village. Later, he took a second wife who was ex-nun who left the order to tend his house and sheep in a neighboring village.20
After four years of hard labor, the nuns had exhausted their supplies as well as the generosity of villagers who had been working largely without pay. Although some of the beams had been donated from neighboring villages thanks to Geshe Zodpa's solicitations, most had been bought on credit.21 When the cash ran out, several nuns traveled on foot throughout Zangskar and Ladakh begging for donations. The three nuns who went to the upper Indus valley in Ladakh recall the difficulty they faced so far from kin networks and the natural generosity of their region. They were turned away from houses with angry insults and only a cup of roasted barley flour (rtsam pa) for their efforts. Since the Ladakhi villagers appeared to have so little respect for nuns, they were often refused beds,but slept in the courtyards under the open stars. After several winters of soliciting donations, the nuns sold the barley flour they had earned and returned to Zangskar with more useful and lighter commodity: cash. In the meantime, other Karsha nuns had been soliciting donations from up and down the three major river valleys of Zangskar, Stod, Lungnag, and Sham. At a total cost of nearly 30,000 rupees, the completed nunnery complex includes an assembly hall, guest room for visiting dignitaries, winter and summer kitchens, assorted storage rooms, and a bathroom. After fifteen years of labor, the wall murals in the assembly hall were completed in the summer of 1990.22 The finished monastic complex, known as the Land of Oral Accomplishments and Propitiation (bKa' spyod sGrub gLing), stands as testimony to the perseverance of the remarkable Karsha nuns.
Evolution of the Ritual Calendar at Karsha Nunnery
After their ordination in Tibet, the founding nuns had the courage and the ability to take on greater ritual responsibilities. Instead of gathering only once a year, they began to gather to honor the eight Mahayana precepts (theg chen gso sbyong) every month. This was suggested by an elderly monk from Karsha, Meme Khachen, who had lived in Tibet for many years. If they had not been to Tibet themselves, the nuns may not have merited the attentions of this monk nor would they have had much success gathering the necessary donations of food and cash for their rituals. Angmo's family gave each nun five rupees as a principal, with which to start monthly prayers on the full moon of every month. The rupees were pooled as a fund on which to collect interest, while the actual ceremony was held using individual supplies brought by the nuns. At first, each nun would bring 1 kg butter and 5 kg roasted barley flour as well as a handful of tea and a pinch of salt. They borrowed the cooking implements such as a fat copper pot, a brass ladle, and tea strainer from a village temple at the base of the nunnery cliff. Eventually, as the membership grew, the original pool was abandoned. Now that the nunnery has twenty members, a rotational system has been organized so that nuns take turn sponsoring the various rituals, one by one.23 Presently, one or two nuns serve as stewards (gnyer pa) who sponsor the tri-monthly ritual assemblies at the nunnery by soliciting the requisite food items from their families.24
Many years after her pilgrimage to Tibet, Angmo decided to initiate a Great Prayer Festival (smon lam chen mo), modeled upon the one that had made such an impression upon her in Lhasa. Lhasa's Great Prayer Festival has been imitated throughout Tibet and its borderlands, although none of these celebration can match the original spectacle in Lhasa where 21,000 monks usurped law and order for an entire month up until 1959.25 At Karsha monastery, the Great Prayer Festival involves 150 monks and over 440 residents of Karsha village, as well as hundreds of visiting donors from near and far who come to celebrate for nearly a month. When the nuns first initiated their own Great Prayer Festival, they invited monks to guide as well as teach them the requisite ceremonies and prayers. By the late 1960's, Yeshe and her companions no longer needed the assistance of the monks and began to organize the festival on their own. The nunnery's Great Prayer Festival has become the largest nunnery-based festival in Zangskar and it attracts hundreds of donors every year.26
As the nunnery's largest ritual expense of the year, preparation for the Great Prayer Festival takes up an entire year. Twelve months before the festival begins, a new nun is chosen as steward (gnyer pa). Every nun must take her turn at this dreaded position, which requires the steward to feast her colleagues at the nunnery for nearly a month. In the spring, the steward collects dung and firewood which will feed the cooking fires during the upcoming festival. In the summer, she travels to Zangskar's high pasture camps ('brog sa) to collect cheese and butter (dkar slong) from the shepherds. During the fall harvest and all winter, she begs for alms (bsod snyoms) of grain and flour. In the early spring, she gives a series of begging beers (slong chang) in nearby villages to request donations in cash or kind. In each of the village she selects, every household may send one adult to such a party, where barley beer (chang) is the only fare. As the evening wears on and the guests become sufficiently inebriated, the sponsoring nun or her male relative solicits the donations. Every guest must stand up and orally proclaim the exact gift he or she will make to the upcoming festival. In return, the steward hosts the sponsors when they deliver the promised goods during the festival.
Joining the nunnery also involves a number of ritual offices, which every nun is expected to take up in turn. Each nun serves as conch blower (dung ma), ritual assistant (chos g.yog), sacristan (dkon gnyer), assistant chant master (dbu chung), and chant master (dbu mdzad) a post which doubles as head nun . All of these positions involve a three-year tenure, except that of sacristan. The ritual assistant is responsible for making the dough and butter sculptures, offering cakes, and other parts of the ritual altar whenever there is a collective ritual. The main ingredients of the ritual sculptures (butter, roasted barley flour, milk, beer, buttermilk, yogurt, saffron and other ritual spices) are provided by the sponsoring villager. The ritual assistant must procure auspicious spices such as bzang drug which are required for esoteric rites. She takes care of the nunnery's ritual items: the colored powders for dying butter sculptures, the wooden relief block and orange-powder used to create the Vajrayogini Mandala, plates for tossing gtor ma, butter lamps, offering bowls, and other ritual paraphenalia. The door-keeper must go at dawn and dusk to the assembly hall to light butter lamps, refill offering bowls, and to offer a litany of sounds and smells to the protective spiritsjuniper incense, a ritual shake of the bell (dril bu), the hand drum (da ma ru), and a quick crescendo of beats on large drum (rnga).
The most important post at the nunnery is that of head nun or chant master (dbu mdzad). This post is filled by each nun, according to seniority. According to a seating order based on when she joins the assembly, each nun must serve her turn as chantmaster for a three year term. A nun will spend a training period of three years as assistant chant master prior to being chantmaster in order to memorize chants and learn the innumerable details of running a religious institution of twenty women. The chant master has memorized scores of texts which she can recite on call, and she bears sole responsibility for the nunnery's collective resources, works and projects, ritual calendar, and annual investments or expenditures. The chant master combines the roles of C.E.O., principal shareholder, and office manager. When necessary, the chant master even cooks the tea and prepares the meal requested by a donor, before leading the necessary chants of a given rite. She must handle the internal politics and negotiate complaints registered by her fellow nuns, although the final adjudication of disputes and any disciplinary measures are decided by the abbot or a unanimous vote of the entire assembly (dge 'dun).
The Economic Basis of Female Renunciation
As a collective, the nunnery owns two small fields which yield a crop of 80-100 kg of grain per year, depending on the climate and on the crop sown (wheat, peas, or barley). The communal grain is used to feed visiting guests or the nuns on days of communal labor such as repairing the walls and path at the nunnery compound after each winter's damage. When the next year's seed and other expenses have been subtracted, each nun receives a lump sum of eight kg of grain every three years.27 The grain is distributed once every three years when the position of head nun shifts. At this time, a collective audit is conducted by the head nun in front of the entire community of nuns. All outlying accounts, loans, and expenses are cleared before the new incoming head nun takes office. Two nuns serve as field stewards (zhing gi gnyer pa) each year to organize the tilling of these fields. In early spring, these two stewards call upon their male relatives for assistance, since women cannot plough or sow the seeds, but will be employed to smooth the furrows at that time. The rest of the summer, the two stewards are responsible for weeding and watering the fields. In the autumn, one half of the nuns are selected each year to perform the harvest, threshing, and winnowing. Karsha villagers are not obliged to participate in this process, although individual nuns may ask a male relative to assist with ploughing, a task customarily forbidden to women.
The nunnery is relatively impoverished when compared to most monastic establishments in Zangskar. While Karsha monastery annually collects nearly 10,000 dg of grain and 450 kg of butter in tithes and has a herd of thrity or more cows and crossbreeds, Karsha nunnery does not own a single cow nor does it collect an ounce of grain in taxes or rent. Even butter lamps in the assembly hall are filled by the sacristan (dkon gnyer) and other nuns rather than from random village donations. The nunnery does own 40 goats, which are farmed out to the 20 member nuns who keep them at a relatives home. Twice a year, during the Vajrayogini burnt offering (rDo rje rnal 'byor ma'i sbyin sreg on XII.10) and at the springtime Thousand Offerings of an Auspicious Era (bsKal bzang sTong mchod, on IV.15), every nun delivers a kilo of butter to the nunnery which will be usd to fill the substantial number of butter lamps required on these occasions. The rest of the butter produced by these goats is kept by her family in exchange for their daily care of this livestock. When a nun passes away or leaves the nunnery, the two goats must be returned to the collective or other goats can be offered as substitutes if the original goats have died. Unlike the monastery in Karsha, the nunnery does not receive obligatory loads of dung or thistles from surrounding villagers. Every nun must collect four or five loads of thistle wood and two loads of dung as communal cooking fuel for the nunnery's hearth.
The effect of the nunnery's meager economic resources is twofold. Firstly, collective rituals only occur when nuns solicit sufficient donations. Secondly, individual nuns must seek their own subsistence. The nunnery performs ad hoc rites for villagers who provide the ritual expenses in the interest of making merit. Such rites include commemorative prayers for the deceased within the 49-day period between death and rebirth (bar do) and readings from selected texts ('Bum, sGrol chog, sGrol ma, rNam rgyal stong mchod). Individual nuns collect donations for all regular rituals on a rotating scheme, yet the nunnery's calendar clearly is limited by the skill of the stewards and the generosity of the villagers. For instance, the duration of the Great Prayer Festival each year depends on the sponsoring nun's fundraising abilities. A successful sponsor will hold the festival for 20 days or more, while a less proficient nun may only manage 15 days. As the nunnery has grown more prominent, the duration and donations for the Prayer Festival have increased tremendously.28 The sharp increase in village donations over the last five years may reflect rising living standards or the nunnery's increased status. Since 1991, Karsha nunnery has received some foreign sponsorship from the Ganden Choling Center in Toronto, Canada. The funds were pooled collectively to build a classroom, initiate a modern study curriculum in Tibetan grammar, math, and English. The nuns also bought butter, tea, salt, and rations in order to serve tea and a simple meal during daily ritual assemblies held between December and May each year. .
Although such foreign money has supplemented the nunnery's capital costs in terms of ritual expenses, it remains an insufficient endowment. In short, money is no substitute for the basic elements of Zangskari subsistence: butter, barley, and fuel. While the male monastery is maintained by extensive relations of patronage and privilege, the nunnery must rely on the generosity of its members and their families. A nun's life is a vocation, but not an occupation. Most nuns still descend to the village most days to perform domestic chores in exchange for their daily bread. They remain caught between two worlds---esoteric ritual and mundane production---which are essential to Zangskari livelihood. Nuns are pushed and pulled between nunnery and household but can depend fully on neither.
Conclusions: A Fragile Economy of Merit
"The hippo's feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends..." 29
Religious practice is fraught with the uncertainty of subsistence. While Zangskari monasteries are supported by sharecroppers and endowments, most nunneries are either landless or forced to till their small land holdings by themselves. The nunneries do not receive grain tithes but are support mainly by voluntary solicitations. The stark contrast between the landed wealth of the male monasteries and the few token fields owned by the nunneries is testimony to centuries of Zangskari patronage and a belief in the innate superiority of the monks as ritual mediators. This economic disparity has fueled the differences between the male and female monasteries. While monks belong to an endowed institution which guarantees their future, nuns are part of institution which demands loyalty but cannot guarantee survival. Thus, nuns are bound to hearth and home, while monks are urged to sever their domestic obligations. Due to more patronage, monks may pursue higher studies which legitimize their status as ritual officiants, while nuns do not receive higher education nor any advanced ritual instruction. It should not surprise us that monks are called upon to serve as ritual officiants more often than nuns are. While both monastics may practice similar visualizations and meditations, their public roles are dramatically different. The dramatic advances of Yeshe and her colleagues in the latter half of this century bode well for the status of nuns in the next millennium. Indeed, several new nunneries have been founded recently in Ladakh, while the memberships of Zangskari and Ladakhi nunneries continue to grow and may eventually outpace the declining membership of male monasteries. Centuries of disproportionate patronage cannot be undone overnight, yet the dedication of a few nuns has altered the religious landscapes in one Himalayan region beyond their and our expectations.
An-Che, Li 1994. History of Tibetan Religion: A Study in the Field. Beijing: New World Press.
Aziz, Barbara 1976. Views From the Monastery Kitchen. Kailash 4(2): 155-67.
Bartholomeusz, Tessa 1994. Women Under the Bo Tree: Buddhist Nuns in Sri Lanka. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Campbell, June 1976. Traveler in Space: In Search of Female Identity in Buddhism. New York: George Braziller.
Diener, Michael et. al. eds. 1994. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Boston: Shambhala.
Falk, Nancy 1980. The Case of the Vanishing Nuns: The Fruits of Ambivalence in Ancient Buddhism. In Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures. Nancy Falk and Rita Gross, eds. Pp. 207-24. New York: Harper and Row.
Fürer-Haimendorf, Christopher von 1976. A Nunnery in Nepal. Kailash 4(2): 121-54.
Gombrich, Richard and Gananath Obeyesekere 1988. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton: Princeton Unversity Press.
Gross, Rita 1989. Yeshe Tsogyel: Enlightened Consort, Great Teacher, Female Role Model. In Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet. Janice Willis, ed. Pp. 11-32. Ithaca: Snow Lion Press.
Gross, Rita 1993. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. Albany: SUNY Press.
Gutschow, Kim 1997. Unfocussed Merit Making In Zangskar: A Socio-Economic Account of Karsha Nunnery. The Tibet Journal 22(2): 30-58.
Gutschow, Kim 1998. An Economy of Merit: Women and Buddhist Monasticism in Zangskar, Northwest India. Ph.D. Thesis. Department of Anthropology, Harvard University.
Gutschow, Kim in press. A Novice Ordination in Tibet: The Rhetoric and Reality of Female Monasticism in Zangskar, Northwest India. forthcoming in Women Changing Contemporary Buddhism. Ellison Findly, ed. Boston: Wisdom Books.
Havnevik, Hanna 1990. Tibetan Buddhist Nuns. Oslo: Norwegian University Press. Havnevik, Hanna 1998. On Pilgimage for 40 Years in the Himalayas: The Female Lama Jetsun Lochen Rinpoche's (1865-1951) Quest for Sacred Sites. In Pilgrimage in Tibet. Alex McKay, ed. Pp. 85-107. London: Curzon Press.
Horner, I.B. 1930. Women Under Primitive Buddhism: Laywomen and Almswomen. London: George Routledge.
Kabilsingh, Chatsumarn 1984. A Comparative Study of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. New Delhi: Chaukhambha Orientala.
Kalilsingh, Chatsumarn 1998. The Bhikkhuni Patimokkha of The Six Schools. New Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
Kelsang Gyatso, Geshe 1996. Guide to Dakini Land: The Highest Yoga Tantra Practice of Buddha Vajrayogini. London: Tharpa Publications.
Klein, Anne 1995. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon Press.
Klein, Anne 1985. Primordial Purity and the Everyday Life: Exalted Female Symbols and the Women of Tibet. In Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality. Clarrissa Atkinson, Constance Buchanan, and Margaret Miles, eds. Pp. 111-38. Boston: Beacon Press.
Lhalungpa, Lobsang, trans. 1984. The Life of Milarepa. Boston: Shambhala.
Ortner, Sherry 1983. The Founding of the First Sherpa Nunnery and the Problem of Women as an Analytic Category. In Feminist Revisions: What Has Been and Might Be. V. Patraka and L. Tilly, eds. Pp. 93-134. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Women's Study Program.
Ortner, Sherry 1989. High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Paul, Diana 1985. Women In Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in Mahayana Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Shaw, Miranda 1994. Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Trungpa, Chögyam 1982. Sacred Outlook: The Vajrayogini Shrine and Practice. In The Silk Route and the Diamond Path: Esoteric Buddhist Art on the Trans-Himalayan Trade Routes. Deborah Klimburg Salter, ed. Pp. 226-42. Los Angeles: UCLA Art Council.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe 1988. Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe 1996. Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women. Albany: SUNY Press.
Turner, Victor 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Willis, Jan 1985. Nuns and Benefactresses: The Role of Women in the Development of Buddhism. In Women, Religion, and Social Change. Yvonne Haddad and Ellison Findly, eds. Pp. 59-85. Albany: SUNY Press.
Willis, Jan 1989. Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet. Ithaca: Snow Lion Press.
Woolf, Virginia 1921. An Unwritten Novel. in Monday or Tuesday: Eight Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. Inc.
Zod pa, dGe bshes and Ngag dbang Tshe ring Shags po 1979. Zangs dkar gyi rgyal rabs dang chos 'byung [The Royal Chronicles and Religious History of Zangskar]. Leh: Ladakh buddha Vihar.
1 I thank all of the Zangskari nuns whose infinite kindness and limitless patience have provided a living picture of the Boddhisattva of compassion they meditate upon. I especially thank Sarah Levine, Lekshe Tsomo, Jan Willis, Michael Aris, Nur Yalman, Arthur Kleinman, Henry Osmaston, and John Crook for conversations relating to my research in Zangskar. My fieldwork between 1991 and 1997 was supported by the Jacob Javits Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and Harvard's Department of Anthropology. I have used the standard Wylie system of transliteration for Tibetan terms and marked Sanskrit terms (S.) separately.
2 Zangskar is a subdistrict of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, which lies amidst the Greater Himalayan range. With an area of 7000 sq km, Zangskar is slightly smaller than Sikkim. It is inhabited by only 12,000 people, making it one of the least populated sub districts in India.
3 V. Woolf, (1921: 19).
4 See Gutschow (in press) as well as several of the contributions in this volume on the politics of ordination. The debate about reviving full ordination for women in Sri Lanka is addressed in Bartholomeusz (1990), Gombrich and Obeyesekere (1988), and Tsomo (1988), as well as the more recent issues of Sakyadhita, the newsletter for the International Association of Buddhist Women. Havnevik (1990, 1998) describes the pilgrimages and ordination of notable Tibetan nuns.
5 The proportions of the robes are ritually specified. The upper robe (gzan gos, nam za) has 25 lengthwise folds and 9 widthwise folds. The outer yellow robe (chos gos) has 7 folds lengthwise and 2.5 folds widthwise. Both these robes are 6x3 cubits in size. The lower robe (sham thabs, thang gos) has 5 folds lengthwise and 2.5 folds widthwise. It is 5x2 cubits, but can be shortened up to 1.5 cubits.
6 In theory, a nun need only do 100,000 repetitions of each meditational practice; however, she performs an additional 11,111 of each practice in case her attention has lapsed at any point in the process.
7 Boddhicitta denotes the state of mind in which practitioners seek enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. According to Lhalungpa (1984: xv), it "is at once an enlightening attitude and a state of awareness, each of which is both a means to the goal and the goal itself."
8 Yeshe said: Khong ba tshang ma ltogs ri yong mkhan po'i [dug bsngal] nga la yong zhig. Nga'i skyid po tshang ma khong ba cha zhig. De khong gos lag med mkhan po, yod mkhan po tshang ma yong zhig.....Nga zha dag sa ja thung byes, te gir za byes; te 'o do tshang ma khong ba za byes yong zhig...Rang ltogs na sgrigs byes. De gos lag med na drang mo yong na sgrigs bsam byes."
9 Yeshe simply stated: "De snga mo mig phye, 'di bla ma dkon mchog la thugs rje, bla ma sangs rgyas dang rtsa ba'i bla ma thugs rje, nga ma shi, nga zur mo me rag, gzugs po bde mo rag,...tho res snga mo nga rang rnam shes yong ni mi yong...tho res snga mo lang byes yong ni mi yong, nga shi nas, ci byo en, bla ma dkon mchog gi thugs rje, shi cha nas, khams bzang yin nog, nga ja rgan mo gun."
10See Lopez (1997: 421-41) for a translation of a part of Tsongkhapa's text.
11 Diener et. al. (1989: 296, 377) notes that Samanthabadra (Kun tu bzang po) represents the "embodiment of the wisdom of essential sameness, i.e., the insight into the unity of sameness and difference..."
12 Abbi Yeshe explained: "Sems rnam par dag pa zer nas sems bzang po, rgyal ba, sems dkar po. Gzhan mi sems pa ngan pa mi bcos. Sems pa nag po mi bcos zer te zer re nog....Sems rnam par dag pa ni don 'di yin. Phad byang chub sems zer nas, sems drang po, mi gnod pa mi bcos, khra dog mi byos, zhe sdang nga rgyal mi bcos, mi nor na thob byes mi bsam. De rang chos phad bzhugs nang la pha ma 'gro ba rigs drug sems can thams cad dag pa sangs rgyas zhing du skyes zhig zer byes."
13 Retreat practices involve four elements (bsnyen pa bzhi): (1) a complete ritualization of all movements and posture of the body or lus kyi bsnyen pa , (2) a close practice of mantras which are numerically counted or grangs kyi bsnyen pa, (3) visualizing and dissolving oneself into the deity or mtshan ma'i bsnyen pa, and (4) the generation and (ultimately) completion stages of the yoga practiced or sems brtan gyi bsnyen pa.
14 The yoga of sleeping specifies that the practitioner should sleep with her head to the north and facing west where the Dakinis reside.
15 Cf. Guenther, 1989: 85. Vajrayogini practice is described in Kelsang Gyatso (1996) and Trungpa (1982).
16 Cf. Turner (1969: 97). Monasticism may well exemplify the liminal state so exhaustively catalogued by Turner (1969: 106). Total obedience is required towards ritual norms and sacred instruction, while kinship rights are suspended and uniform clothing is adopted. Novices are expected to submit to a certain suffering, simplicity, silence, unselfishness, sexlessness, anonymity, homogeneity, and equality. Vows to fast, maintain lifelong celibacy, and eschew romantic attachments to others require absolute adherence.
17 Although, strictly speaking, their vows forbid them from killing, most Zangskari monastics do eat meat. They interpret the law by eating meat which was slaughtered by a passing Muslim visitor or by eating meat from livestock that have died a 'natural' death, which includes following off a cliff or sudden death in their stalls.
18The Geshe had received the Vajrayogini empowerment from the head of Ganden monastery, who had transmitted the same initiation to his foremost pupil, the 14th Dalai Lama.
19 Compare Ortner's (1983, 1989) descriptions of the founding of a Sherpa nunnery in Nepal which indicate that although local nuns initiated the fundraising, they first needed to secure the legitimation of a male monastic, the head of Tengboche monastery.
20 As the nuns still quip: "We carried every rock in Tandzin's new house on our back. Maybe we should call the house bcu gcig zhal bla brang instead..." They pun by calling Tandzin's private house a Labrang, a term ordinarily reserved for monastic institutions founded by important monks. Unlike monasteries, most nunneries do not have a Labrang or treasury, since they have such small endowments.
21 After the Geshe had made his pleas, the nuns held so-called "begging beer" parties (slong chang) in three nearby villages in order to solicit wood for the subsidiary beams and wooden lattices used in constructing traditional Zangskari roofs. The nuns carried this wood on their backs for up to 30 km to their construction site, as there was still no vehicular transport within Zangskar in those days.
22These murals include the Buddha Shakyamuni, the 16 Arhats, Tsongkhapa and his two disciples, a group of protectors (chos skyong) such as Phyag na rdo rje, 'Jigs byed, mGon po phyag drug pa, and rDo rje rnal 'byor ma, and the lineage holders for the nun's Vajrayogini practice.
23 Gutschow (1997, 1998) compares the ritual calendars of the nunnery and monastery in Karsha village.
24 Turn by turn, a single nun serves as sponsor for the rituals held on the 10th and the 25th, while two nuns serve as sponsors for the more extensive rite on the 15th of each Tibetan month. Each ritual roughly demands: 1.3 kg of butter for tea and butter lamps, 7 kg of roasted barley flour for the communal offering cakes (tshogs), 10 kg of wheat flour for the breads (except on the 10th when no breads are served), one bottle of beer or buttermilk as leavening agent for the breads, a handful of salt, two handfuls of loose green tea, and a plateful of tshogs zas, which includes an assortment of fried dough, sweets, biscuits, and dried meat to go along with the offering cakes.
25 According to An-Che (1994), at Labrang Monastery in Amdo, the Great Prayer Festival involved a population of 3,600 monks who consumed 45 yaks, 6,000 kg of rice, 10,000 kg of butter, and 12,000 kg of raisins. The total cost of running the festival for 15 days was estimated at $46,710 in 1940 terms.
26 In the course of the Great Prayer Festival, both the monastery and the nunnery hold their annual fasting ritual (smyung gnas). A comparison of the economic outlay for the monastery's rite versus the nunnery's rite may illuminate the disparity between the two institutions. In 1994, the monastery's fast consumed: 1,500 kg of grain for the beer, 7,000 Rs worth of meat, 930 kg of butter, 1,700 kg local flour, 700 kg baking flour, 400 kg rice, and 2,000 flat breads. In contrast, the nunnery's fast only used: 60 kg of grain for beer, 1,000 Rs worth of meat, 31 kg of butter, 200 kg local flour, 20 kg baking flour, 20 kg rice, and 100 flat breads.
27 Karsha nunnery fares worse than a comparably sized Sherpa nunnery described by Fürer Haimendorf (1976: 127) and Aziz (1976). The fields of Tashi Gonpa provided 2,025 kg of grain annually which was divided amongst the 23 nuns and their teacher. Each nun received about 84 kg of grain per year, equivalent to 1/5 of her annual grain consumption. The 2.6 kg of grain which Karsha nuns receive per year from the collective is a pittance in contrast.
28 The length of the festival has increased from its initial run of five days to an average of 20 days in recent years. The total monetary donations ('gyed) a single nun earns in the course of the entire Great Prayer Festival has increased sharply. In 1995, each nun received 206 rupees, while five years earlier, she may have earned only 100 rupees. More than ten years ago, she might have earned 30 rupees, while 30 years ago, she earned less than 10 rupees.
29 T.S. Eliot, "The Hippopotamus". The hippo in Eliot's poem, serves as an apt metaphor for the community of nuns, who may appear substantial but are indeed quite fragile. While the monastery receives its donations from far afield, the nuns must strike out far and wide on foot to build and maintain their monastic community.
*Gutschow, Kim 2000. Yeshe's Tibetan Pilgrimage and the Founding of a Himalayan Nunnery. In Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming Against the Stream. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, ed. London: Curzon Press. Pp. 212-228.
Monache in quota - D Repubblica 17 marzo 1998 - 92
Ladakh Monache in quota
Vita quotidiana di dodici religiose buddhiste in un convento nido-d'aquila sulle vette all'Himalaya
di Elisabeth D. Prasetyo
Sono le sei del mattino al villaggio di Karsha, dove si erge un monastero aggrappato alle rocce rosse della montagna e dove i mulini vengono azionati dai torrenti di neve sciolta. Basta un solo sguardo per cogliere tutto: gli abitanti del villaggio e, in alto, le monache buddhiste con i loro abiti color porpora. Poi ecco che si leva improvviso un fischio discreto, affettuoso: è una donna-lama che soffia in una conchiglia gigante, quasi a voler lanciare un appello capace di collegare le montagne più alte del mondo con un oceano assolutamente inaccessibile. Il convento si chiama Chubchizhal. È un ammasso di mattoni di terra essiccata incastrati nulle aride rocce dell'Himalaya, a 3.800 metri di altitudine, in una zona dell'India conosciuta come "Piccolo Tibet" o Ladakh-Zanskar.
Qui conoscevo solo Lobzang Dolma, una monaca anziana, di trentacinque anni, e l'anello di ferro con un turchese incastonato che lei mi regalò dopo la notte che un anno prima avevo passato nella sua cella. Avevo trovato riparo nel convento dopo una marcia estenuante durata dieci giorni, a quote comprese fra i 4.000 e i 5.000 metri. Ma una rivolta dei buddisti zanskarpa aveva interrotto il nostro sonno e mi aveva obbligata a fuggire dal convento prima dell'alba. Mi ero ripromessa di tornare in condizioni migliori...
La mattina del 31 luglio siamo partiti da Leh, capitale del Ladakh, con la jeep piena di tè, zucchero, latte in polvere e biscotti per le religiose di Chubchizhal, approfittando della riapertura della strada, chiusa per 8 mesi in inverno. Il viaggio dura 48 ore su una pista da vertigine, che sembra condurre diritta in cielo. Dobbiamo passare in mezzo a un ghiacciaio, che sembra sul punto di sciogliersi da un momento all'altro. Ed ecco le acque grigie e impetuose del fiume Zanskar, il ponte in filo di ferro e, finalmente, il villaggio di Karsha.
Ancora mezz'ora di marcia rapida e arriviamo al convento, che ricordavo come una sorta di labirinto snodantesi lungo il fianco della montagna. Infatti si compone di una ventina di casupole in terra, ognuna con una cucina e una specie di bagno (un buco senz'acqua) al piano terra e, sopra, una cameretta con terrazza per far asciugare il fieno, il legno e lo sterco di mucca e yak, unico combustibile per l'inverno. Ogni monaca vive in una casetta indipendente e si dedica alle proprie attività secondo i propri ritmi. Gli unici impegni collettivi sono rappresentati dalle puja, le cerimonie di preghiera che si svolgono al mattino, più volte al mese, nella sala di meditazione dell'unico edificio comune del convento. In cucina ritrovo Lobzang Dolma che mi riconosce immediatamente e mi getta le braccia al collo. Il suo corpo sa di fumo, sterco, polvere e cimici, ma anche il mio, che consideravo "pulito", emana uno strano odore di sudore e tossine.
Dolma è molto indaffarata a preparare litri di tè salato al burro rancido per il grande lama Lobzang Khedup che da tre giorni viene ogni pomeriggio al convento per insegnare i testi filosofici tibetani. Quest'anno Dolma è stata nominata "maestra di canto", cioè responsabile delle assemblee di preghiera e della gestione del convento. Ogni tre anni, le monache si riuniscono per designare chi soffierà nella grande conchiglia, chi accenderà il fuoco in cucina, chi servirà il tè durante le assemblee. Dolma porta un nome degno delle sue nuove responsabilità: è l'equivalente tibetano del nome sanscrito Tara, la principessa Luna di saggezza che si rifiutò di cambiare sesso, e arrivare all'"Illuminazione", per continuare a servire gli altri in un corpo femminile.
Il mito narra che dopo aver meditato per mille miliardi di anni, la principessa raggiunse la conoscenza suprema e divenne Tara, "Colei che salva", il Buddha femmina più venerato del Tibet. E pensare che della maggior parte delle monache del Ladakh e dello Zanskar non si parla mai, né nei libri eruditi sulla regione, né nelle guide. Come se non esistessero. Sono più di cinquecento ma i visitatori di passaggio non le notano. Spesso le confondono con i monaci: stesso abito color porpora, stesso cranio rasato, stesso cappello a punta in lana arancione, stesso sacco di tela gialla.
La maggioranza lavora nelle famiglie del villaggio, alcune persino come manovali nella costruzione delle strade. Molte ancora oggi non hanno ricevuto una grande istruzione sui testi sacri tibetani. L'arrivo del grande lama Lobzang Khedup, in vacanza nel suo paese natale per una settimana, provoca dunque una rivoluzione discreta e silenziosa. Su consiglio di una donna lama, ha deciso di approfittare della vacanza per istruire le sorelle dello Zanskar, dopo aver saputo che, nel Tibet occupato dalla Cina, oltre la metà delle manifestazioni per l'indipendenza vengono guidate dalle monache e che molte di esse sono state imprigionate e torturate. A Chubchizhal sono in tutto una dozzina, sedute secondo un ordine di anzianità decrescente: la più vecchia ha 66 anni, la più giovane, una novizia, soltanto 11.
La ragazzina ha scelto spontaneamente di diventare monaca? La domanda rimane senza risposta. In un paese così isolato e spogliato, nessuno sceglie di essere quello che è: la libertà non consiste nella possibilità di scegliere, quanto nel saper trarre il massimo da ciò che offrono le circostanze . Nella sala di meditazione, immersa nella penombra, il lama spiega un testo tibetano mentre le monache sgranano il rosario e a volte si appisolano. Dalle due minuscole finestre si intravede la collina punteggiata di chorten, i campi d'orzo, la vasta pianura arida che scende fino al fiume, lo attraversa e risale sulle montagne dalle vette innevate che superano i 6.000 metri, e incombono su di noi come le mura di una prigione.
Al termine della lezione, la monaca più anziana ci racconta la storia del convento. Quando ha preso la tonaca, a 25 anni, c'erano soltanto altre cinque religiose. Le rovine dell'antico convento sono ancora visibili, come la piccola cappella coperta di affreschi del XII secolo e consacrata ad Avalokiteshvara, il bodhisattva della compassione, con otto braccia e undici volti, ciascuno dotato di un Terzo Occhio. "Vent'anni fa", spiega, "due delle cinque monache si misero in marcia lungo il fiume gelato, unica via di comunicazione in inverno, per raccogliere i fondi necessari alla costruzione di un nuovo convento. E si occupavano anche di fabbricare i mattoni e di portarli in cima alla montagna".
Oggi il convento di Chubchizhal è completamente indipendente, non è soggetto all'autorità di alcun monastero, ordine o figura religiosa superiore. Dopotutto si tratta soltanto di donne votate alla castità, senza marito, senza figli, che hanno saputo trasformare il disprezzo in coraggio per organizzare una vita comunitaria nella massima libertà. È praticamente impossibile seguirle in tutte le loro molteplici attività. C'è chi parte all'alba per andare a fare legna per cuocere l'orzo mentre le altre dormono ancora; chi decide di passare la notte nella minuscola terrazza sotto le stelle, circondata dallo sterco di mucca; chi scende a mezzogiorno al fiume gelato soltanto per tagliarsi i capelli con un paio di grosse forbici, stanca delle pulci e dei pidocchi. Grayseket scende spesso in paese per ascoltare la radio del negozio perché non ha i soldi per comperare delle pile nuove per la sua radiolina. Poverissime e poco istruite, serve del villaggio, le monache hanno una grande forza di carattere e una bontà immensa.
Il mattino seguente noto alcuni bambini accanto alla novizia. Sono figli delle monache? No, ci rispondono. È capitato che una monaca rimanesse incinta, ma è stata subito bandita dal convento e dal villaggio con il viso cosparso di fuliggine. La puja è un'occasione di festa per le monache, che si rimpinzano di farina d'orzo inzuppata nel tè salato. Fra una preghiera e l'altra, ridono e scherzano come collegiali. Stamane, però, la cerimonia si fa improvvisamente seria quando nella sala entra un uomo anziano. Dopo essersi inchinato, fa alle monache una domanda che rimane senza risposta. Allora scoppia in lacrime, ma le monache non si lasciano intenerire. L'uomo, un "intoccabile", deve maritare la figlia tre giorni dopo e deve preparare duemila chapati (un tipo di pane) da distribuire durante la cerimonia. Non può farsi aiutare dalle donne della famiglia per non urtare la suscettibilità degli invitati che potrebbero declinare l'invito ed è venuto a supplicare le monache di dargli una mano. Le monache rispondono di essere troppo occupate, fra le lezioni di inglese al mattino e quelle di filosofia al pomeriggio. Alla fine sei monache accettano di aiutarlo, ma solo il giorno seguente, dopo le lezioni del lama.
L'indomani, le monache si fanno aspettare, attardandosi nelle botteghe in paese a chiacchierare e a fumare una sigaretta prima di raggiungere la casa del fabbro che le accoglie come regine. Passano la notte accanto alle pietre roventi su cui vengono cotti i chapati e all'alba si rimettono in marcia verso il convento, dove arrivano in tempo per l'ultima lezione del lama. Il mattino della nostra partenza una vecchia religiosa ci prega di accompagnarla in auto al colle di Pensi-là, a 4.000 metri, dove pare che la sua mucca si sia rotta una zampa. In viaggio, la monaca non fa che offrire piselli, stringermi la mano e recitare mantra. Ancor oggi, mi sembra di sentire il calore della sua mano e il sapore dolce dei piselli crudi.