Williams professor lived in Kashmir with Buddhist nuns of Himalayas

By John E. Mitchell, North Adams Transcript, Feb 6, 2005

WILLIAMSTOWN, MA (USA) -- In her new book "Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas," Kim Gutschow recounts her time living with the nuns of in the Zangskar region of Kashmir several months a year over a period of 15 years.

<< Williams College professor Kim Gutschow, right, is shown with Buddhist nuns she lived with and befriended. Submitted photo

Not merely a memoir, Gutschow, an anthropologist and Williams College professor, also investigates the role of nuns within the Buddhist hierarchy that run counter to the American perception.

"You have a set of ideals that look great on paper," said Gutschow, "but once you have an institution, it's very hard to live along those ideals."

Gutschow opted to study nunneries rather than monasteries for her dissertation, a choice that baffled many of the nuns she encountered. Nunneries are not as cherished -- or as wealthy -- as the monasteries.

"People assumed that the nunnery was a second-class institution where if you were foreign, why would you go to this second-class place; why wouldn't you go to the first class place to study Buddhism?" said Gutschow.

Gutschow's experience said otherwise, and she cemented her plans after encountering a group of helpful and sturdy nuns as she made her way through the mountain passes toward Zangskar.

"These were just amazing nuns," said Gutschow. "They'd come back from pilgrimage in South India; they had been to see the Dalai Lama and other important Tibetan religious figures and they had these army surplus bedrolls and these backpacks and these funny glacier goggles. I called them 'the commando nuns,' they were so tough, and they took me under their wing."

The group made their way over glaciers and through permanent snowfields. At one point, Gutschow found herself stuck in a blizzard on top of the pass and had to sit through the night and go back down the mountain to wait out the snow.

"It was a crazy journey," said Gutschow. "In that time, I began to think. I knew I wanted to study women, and I thought maybe one of the places to live would be at a nunnery. I hadn't really thought that would be possible until I met these nuns and they were so open and welcoming of me."

Gutschow did not end up staying at their nunnery, though the offer was made. The "commando nuns" introduced Gutschow to another nunnery that, after a vote, accepted her into their fold.

As Gutschow witnessed it, monasteries are virtual corporations, collecting rent and receiving gifts in order to amass riches, while the nunneries are often destitute. Nuns are forced into farm labor and, in the worst cases, have been subject to floggings and rape.

"Even though nuns and monks as individuals are following the same Buddhist ideals, the nuns, because their institution is impoverished, live much more spartan lives, so in some sense are practicing that renunciation of wealth and desire much more authentically than the monks," said Gutschow.

Much of this dynamic springs from the Buddhist idea of making merit, essentially a way of achieving good karma. The ideal method of making merit is to give to monks.

"It's this weird way in which merit and Buddhism end up creating a hierarchy, creating difference," said Gutschow, "exactly the kind of thing that the Buddha was trying to renounce."

One difference from the Western churches is that Buddhism includes a method of self-regulation that is written into its religious texts. When a monastery accumulates more wealth than it needs, usually the king or the prince or the monks will gather to put the monastery back on the track of Buddhist monastic code.

"We don't think that Buddhism has had the same problems as, say, the high churches of the Middle Ages of corrupt popes running around accumulating vast amounts of wealth," said Gutschow.

Gutschow is now formulating her future with the nuns. As the mother of newborn fraternal twins -- Tashi, a girl, and Krishan, a boy -- she has more to consider these days. Born about three months premature, Gutschow is concerned about how their developing lungs would handle the higher altitudes. A winter trip, understandably, is out of the question until they are older.

"I wouldn't want to inflict that on an unwilling participant," said Gutschow. "Once you're in, it's a little hard to get out, the passes actually close, and there's so much snow that there's a lot of avalanche danger, so then you have to go down this partly frozen river -- but it's only frozen between the between the beginning of January and the middle of February, and it's dangerous, so it's not something you would want to take a young child on."

The nuns have been sending the babies traditional Tibetan Buddhist gifts -- and, though Gutschow's dissertation is long finished, her work with them is not done.

"This community has become about more than a dissertation, it's really been a life-changing experience for me," said Gutschow.

With her stays often lasting half a year, isolated, no phone or fax or, nowadays, e-mail, and cut off from her family and friends for that period, Gutschow describes the experience as intense. The intensity has ended up providing Gutschow with something that she might not have expected to take away from the experience.

"It's deepened my way of being in the world and the nuns have come to mean a great deal to me," said Gutschow. "We exchange letters several times a year; they send things, I send them things. It's a lifelong relationship. I look forward to being 60 or 70 and sitting around chatting with the nuns that I first met when we were all in our 20s."