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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Daughters of Wisdom

Tibetan women on the Buddha path

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MainlandChina has been in denial over Tibet ever since Mao’s army invaded the mountainous theocracy. Communist China consistently denied that Tibet was a nation with a distinct history. China denied the aspirations of Tibetans after forcing them to endure mass murder, cultural genocide and the colonization of their country by Chinese immigrants.

China denies all these things, but reality keeps poking the Beijing regime in the eye. The recent rioting and worldwide protests are not the prelude Mainland China had scripted for the Beijing Olympic Games. With the Chinese authorities clamping down hard on Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, attacking them as centers of protest and focal points of national heritage, one wonders about the fate of the nuns in the documentary Daughters of Wisdom. Director Bari Pearlman’s deliberately paced film is sensitive to the rhythm of existence at the remote Kala Rongo monastery, a walled compound rising from the grassy pit of a remote valley surrounded by steep, stony mountain walls.

The women of Kala Rongo are blithe yet determined, as resilient against all difficulties as palm trees bending to gale-force winds. Some overcame resistance from their families to their choice of the monastic life. Some may have taken the vow to escape the burden of being female in a man’s world. The monastery’s male founder, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, understands one of the institution’s purposes as raising the status of women by giving them education and opportunities to choose a path away from the responsibilities of wives and mothers.

The women have dedicated themselves to the way of the Buddha, which involves trying to live in the present, free of desire and attachment to worldly things. Some historians believe that Buddhist monks influenced the growth of monasticism in the Christian East, which began in Egypt and spread around the rim of the Mediterranean and into Roman Catholic Europe. Similarities between life at Kala Rongo and the Eastern Orthodox monasteries at Mount Sinai and Mount Athos are striking. The nuns rise with the sun and conduct the days within a structure of ritual and work, a calm ecstasy aroused by monotony. The ceremonies of primal chanting and drumming amid burning candles and incense and a pantheon of images induce a sense of connection with the mystery at the heart of life.

The nuns appear to lightly carry their burden of gardening and herding goats and yaks. The latter, great-horned woolly beasts produce butter, milk and cheese, wool for clothes, blankets and tents, and dung for fuel. Any surplus is taken to a nearby town and sold to provide for the community’s needs. Although a few of the nuns retreat to hermitage caves, most are engaged while disengaged from the world.

Scenes from the town show a society perched between ancient and modern. Most of the residents, even some of the nuns, ride motorcycles. Traffic comes to a halt, however, as a giant black pig waddles across the main street, looking neither left nor right.