The Female Renunciant in Exile: (Re)-Invention, Translation, Empowerment

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Chawla, Swati, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Barnett, Richard, History, University of Virginia

Through a focus on the Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP) founded in 1987, my paper argues that exile in India necessitated a translation of “Tibetan culture” for patrons and potential sponsors of the putative “Tibetan cause” in Europe and North America, which in turn led to pedagogical and curricular innovations in Tibetan nunneries. This has led to a re-imagination of the role of the female monastic within Tibetan nationalist culture: from a relatively marginal position (vis-à-vis monks), nuns now occupy a prominent place as ambassadors for the Tibetan cause. Mass migration led to innovations, inventions, and improvisations within Tibetan society in exile regarding the role of women in general, and religious women in particular. Through an analysis of the TNP, this paper asks how migration has occasioned a rethinking among Tibetans about gender relations within their society, and the ways in which a three-generation long stay in India has contributed to this rethinking. A second related enquiry is about the translation of western feminism in Tibetan Buddhist contexts, both through the initiatives of TNP office bearers such as Elizabeth Napper and Phillipa Russell, as well as through TNP’s participation in the worldwide rethinking of women’s roles in the Buddhist sangha. Finally, I explore what empowerment means in movements for gender-equality within TNP nunneries, and ask if these are based on a misreading of these non-Western monastic traditions in Judeo-Christian terms. I make a case for approaching Tibetan exile in India beyond the prism of forced dislocation and loss, and argue that exile became an opportunity for Tibetan Buddhist nuns to reconfigure their position in Tibetan society.

MA (Master of Arts)
migration, feminism, full ordination, Tibetan nuns, empowerment, exile, Tibet
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