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Where EAST meets the Northwest

SISTERS OF FAITH. Nuns perform a processional ceremony with traditional drums and instruments to welcome a visiting Lama in Daughters of Wisdom. (Photo/Bari Pearlman, courtesy of BTG Productions)

From The Asian Reporter, V18, #4 (January 22, 2008), page 10.

Tibet and Buddhism from a female perspective

Daughters of Wisdom

Directed and produced by Bari Pearlman

Distributed by BTG Productions

By Toni Tabora-Roberts

Imagine an elderly woman circling a temple over and over again as a meditative practice intended to help her karma. Imagine a young woman affectionately guiding a herd of yaks on the mountainside. Imagine a group of young women gathered in a room, studying texts.

These are some of the observant images captured by Bari Pearlman in her documentary Daughters of Wisdom. The film visits Kala Rongo, a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of northeastern Tibet exclusively for nuns. "The 16th Karmapa has given me a prophecy that I should build Kala Rongo Monastery exclusively for nuns," notes Lama Norlha Rinpoche. The Nangchen region where the monastery is located boasts a lot of Tibetan Buddhist history, and is a prime location for important spiritual leaders such as Guru Rinpoche (an early Buddhist leader said to have brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet) and Yeshe Tsogyal (one of few powerful female spiritual leaders and a lover of Guru Rinpoche).

For centuries, Tibetan culture has been dedicated to the study of Buddhism. When China reasserted sovereignty over Tibet in the 1950s, they began systematically dismantling much of Tibetís Buddhist cultural heritage, reportedly destroying more than 6,000 temples. In the U.S., the Tibetan independence movement has long become a cause cťlŤbre, revealing stories of peaceful Buddhists fighting for freedom against the communist Chinese government.

Recent decades have given birth to resurgence in Buddhist study, much of it sponsored by monasteries and supporters in the West. Kala Rongo is a part of that movement to revitalize Buddhist culture in Tibet, and is notable for its unique efforts to include women in the traditionally male-dominated arena of higher Buddhist pursuits.

One thing I greatly appreciate about this film is it doesnít seek to glorify Tibetan culture. Other films Iíve seen on the subject take a more heavy-handed approach in admiration of enlightened monks, simple mountain folk, and their oppression by evil communist intruders. Daughters gives you some of these images, not just in a sympathetic light, but also in a very honest and revelatory way.

As we visit Kala Rongo we meet a variety of nuns, mostly young women who became nuns as early as age 11. Ochi Drolma shows how she built a garden at the monastery so they donít have to go into town for vegetables. Phunsok Tsomo walks us through the retreat center where nuns are able to dedicate themselves to an isolated three-year retreat traditionally reserved for monks. Yankpuk reveals what attracted her to Kala Rongo, "We donít do any kind of work that harms living beings. Thatís why I became a nun."

In a highlight for the monastery, its founder, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, pays a visit. Witness a Buddhist party complete with music, dancing, and games (tug-of-war), as well as the expected prayers and chanting. The Lama visits not only to give teachings and blessings, but also to help move the nuns toward self-leadership. He helps them to elect a Leadership Council who will take on the running of the monastery.

In addition to seeing life at the monastery, we also get a taste of their lives outside. Tsering Chodron takes us a half-dayís walk from Kala Rongo to visit her family, who survive as yak herders. Tsur Tsu shows the hermitage she built with her brothers, a simple room inside a mountain cave where she lives.

As we meet each nun, it becomes evident that being a Buddhist nun is a tremendous privilege for these women, who would otherwise do difficult manual labor with their families in order to survive. As nuns they are offered lives unburdened by the "sea of suffering" of the material life (as one nun put it), and they are provided an opportunity for education, not just in Buddhist teachings, but in the basics of reading and writing.

We also learn that even here in Tibet, among these idyllic, peaceful mountains and enlightened Buddhist cultural heritage, women are still oppressed and considered second-class citizens. "Men are different than women. They donít suffer as much. They can go anywhere they want," says Tsering Chodron. Her sister had also wanted to become a nun, but had to stay at home to help the family. Itís even more remarkable then to have a place like Kala Rongo, empowering them in a way not traditionally seen before.

Kenpo Tsera Dorje, abbot of the monasteryís shedra (monastic college), notes, "Historically, the monastic colleges were only for monks, not nuns. So people have the idea that nuns arenít as good students as monks. Now we build shedras for nuns and peopleís attitudes are changing Ö Now people regard our shedra highly. Itís pretty historic."

Rather than an in-depth, story-driven documentary, Pearlman offers an engaging pastiche of images, snapshot-narratives, anecdotes, and ruminations that together reveal an enlightening impression of these womenís lives.

Daughters of Wisdom is screening at the Hollywood Theatre for one more weekend, January 26 and 27. For more information, including show times, visit <www.filmaction.org/engaging>. To learn more about the film, visit <www.daughtersofwisdom.com>.