Slate (Double X)
October 8, 2009
At least that’s what the current one says.
The Dalai Lama is known as a symbol of peace, compassion, and nonviolence. During his visit to Washington, D.C. this week, it is no surprise that he will receive another award for his work promoting human rights.
Far lesser known is his role as a feminist. In 50 years of exile from Tibet, this self-professed “simple monk” has been the driving force behind the growing prominence of women in Tibetan exile society. He has even suggested that his next reincarnation could and should be a girl. “Woman is more compassionate and has more power to understand and feel the needs of others as compared to man,” he said at a press conference last November in Dharamsala, his exile home in northern India.
That the Dalai Lama—believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of compassion—should return to the world as a woman is a radical notion that perturbs even open-minded Tibetans, men and women alike. And despite his wishes, the 15th reincarnation will very likely be a boy, just like all the prior ones.
But in other arenas, the Dalai Lama’s long-standing support for more power and status for Tibetan woman has had a steady impact since he fled into exile in India in 1959. He explained his commitment to empowering woman in a documentary called Women of Tibet: A Quiet Revolution: “Everywhere half of population is women. Women’s participation in building up society is very important, especially in the preservation of Tibetan culture.”
In the film he also spoke admiringly about a milestone in Tibetan history known as Tibetan Women’s Uprising Day. On March 12, 1959—just days before he fled his homeland — about 15,000 women spontaneously gathered in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa in an unprecedented display of peaceful protest against China’s invasion of Tibet.
Those women were “heroines,” says the Dalai Lama in A Quiet Revolution. It was “as if they already knew the feminist movement!” He laughs gleefully as though he has told a hilarious joke. At the time, Tibet was closed to the outside world. To a Tibetan, Simone De Beauvoir and Betty Friedan might as well have been Martians.
“But of course they had no idea … I think that is perhaps in Tibetan history the first time. Women’s movement. That’s, I think, very remarkable!” the Dalai Lama marvels.
Perhaps shaped by that display, the Dalai Lama fought for women from early on. When he established an exile government in Dharamsala in the 1960s, he went out of his way to include women in his “experiment” with democracy.
Inclusion was a radical step, since women did not openly participate in politics in Tibet and were traditionally seen as the “jewel of the home,” according to the Tibetan saying. Girls typically did not attend school unless they were from well-to-do families. But shortly after fleeing to India, the Dalai Lama’s first priority when he was still in his early 20s was to set up a Tibetan school for children. Girls should attend these schools in equal numbers as boys, he decreed.
He extended the inclusive policy up the education ladder to geshes, the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a Ph.D. that takes roughly 18 years to complete. Until the Dalai Lama started to press the idea of women geshes in the 1980s, most Tibetan Buddhist nuns did not take part in rigorous religious training nor did they receive much formal education.
Today at Dolma Ling, a nunnery about 30 minutes’ drive from Dharamsala, there are more than 200 nuns. About 15 of them aspire to become geshes and are at different stages of their studies.
The Dalai Lama has insisted on opening the geshe degree up to women despite initial skepticism from religious leaders and the general Tibetan community.
“People never dreamed of nuns getting this degree. They thought women were not allowed,” says Rinchen Khando, director of the nonprofit Tibetan Nuns Project, which is based at Dolma Ling and provides education and aid to nuns.
Of 700 nuns who are part of the Tibetan Nuns Project, about 40 are on track to earn the highest religious degree, including Delek Wangmo, a 29-year-old from Tibet studying at Dolma Ling. She has wide cheekbones and a friendly smile. Her head is shaved to a fine stubble. Wangmo is 10 years into her studies for a geshe degree. “When I was in Tibet I never thought I could get such a good opportunity as now,” Wangmo told me.
Obstacles for nuns still do exist. According to Tibetan tradition, it was considered prestigious for a boy to enter a monastery for religious studies. But serious religious training for girls was not a priority. The numbers today still indicate this bias. In India, home to about 120,000 exiled Tibetans, there were more than 27,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and just 1,600 nuns in 2002. Today, there are 223 monasteries, but only 23 nunneries in India, according to the religion department of Tibet’s exile administration in Dharamsala.
Even with the big step of letting women study to be geshes, there’s still a catch: Because of an esoteric technicality, women are currently barred from studying the Vinaya text, an important Buddhist text necessary for the geshe degree.
The Dalai Lama’s commitment to the cause drives many nuns to forge ahead in spite of the uncertainty about full ordination. Tenzin Zangmo, a tall Tibetan nun at the Jamyang Choeling nunnery in Dharamsala, is approaching the last year of her geshe studies that began back in 1988. “His Holiness gave us the chance,” says the soft-spoken 40-year-old. “He tell us, you learn Buddhist philosophy, then one day we make one way to get degree.”
Tibetan women have also made their mark in politics and activism. Khando, who happens to be married to the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother, helped establish the Tibetan Nuns Project in 1987 as part of the Tibetan Women’s Association, a nongovernmental organization with 17,000 members today.
In 1993 she became the second woman to serve as a Cabinet minister in the Tibetan exile government. She was also a founding member of the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA), which was revived in 1984. Its original incarnation was established in 1959 in Tibet but dissolved with China’s takeover.
In the 46-member Tibetan exile parliament, a quota established in the early 1990s calls for at least six women members. There are currently 11 female members of parliament but Khando says even that’s not enough. And though there have been several female Cabinet ministers since 1990, men still far outnumber women in the high ranks of the exile government.
Though she recognizes the fight is not over, Khando credits the Dalai Lama for inspiring how far women have come. She remembers that in the early 1980s at an annual meeting in Dharamsala of the major Tibetan NGOs, the Dalai Lama publicly observed that women were not playing a prominent role in activism. “Some of us used to sit and talk and say we should be more active as women,” Khando says. But it wasn’t until that speech that they realized, “Oh, this is really the time,” Khando recalls. “Without him I don’t think we could have done as much as we’ve done as women.”