Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 11, SPECIAL COMMEMORATIVE ISSUE
While in Dharamshala on assignment for the London Times to write about the Tibetan refugee situation, Christine Toomey met a Buddhist nun and became intrigued by her story. This set her on a path to better understand what leads women to choose the difficult life of an ordained nun and what life is like for these nuns. Her search was also driven by a quest to relieve the suffering in her own life. To better understand Buddhism and the life of female monastics, the author traveled to a number of monasteries in the East and West. Although, as she anticipated, many women ordain after experiencing trauma, she also found a number of women coming from wealth, fame and good fortune who felt compelled to ordain by their desire to experience deeper meaning in their lives.
The author is not a Buddhist scholar, or even a practicing Buddhist. She comes to Buddhism to better understand the suffering she witnessed as a reporter in numerous war zones and her personal suffering. She brings her keen eye for detail and a journalistic perspective to this endeavor. Although there is some personal practice involved in her journey, and she does write about some of the Buddha’s teachings, the core of her reflections are on the environments she witnesses and the women she meets. Her masterful descriptions of the places she visits create an intimacy with the land for the reader. The same is true with the descriptions of the nun’s lives, although the emotional reality of these women is less palpable.
Although the writing is highly readable and the women she interviews are fascinating, essential aspects of Buddhist female monasticism are not amply examined for a book about the Buddha’s daughters. She interviews many Tibetan nuns in Nepal, India and the West, some Theravadin nuns in the West and in Burma, and female Zen monks in Japan and at Plum Village in France and some other smaller European groups. But in her travels, she neglects some of the most developed and interesting places where female monasticism is practiced, such as in Korea, Taiwan and Sri Lanka. Her trip ends at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was developed that took more than 100,000 Japanese lives. This final chapter is more of a reflection on death than an insight into female monasticism.
Over all, one quote that stuck out for me in Buddha’s Daughter’s was by a nun named Munissara:
When I questioned why she felt it was not possible to go ‘all the way’ in reaching a spiritual understanding as a lay practitioner, she compares the difference to that of a student of a foreign language attending a weekly class, rather than living in the country where the language is spoken. ‘To me it seemed like it would be something I needed to do full-time,’ she says, ‘Like being a professional, rather than a dabbler.'
I feel I need to respond to the dabbler reference. When we lift up our sisters of the cloth, it is not necessary to denigrate the path of the householder. The third Zen patriarch Sengtsan wrote, “…All dualities come from ignorant inference.” Some women are called to the monastery, some to the home. Because a woman is choosing to lead the householder life does not mean she is a dabbler. Her devotion is forged in the heat of everyday life. All are awakening in their own way.
Although this book is well written and highly readable, it would have been useful if the author had chosen to focus on either the state of nuns today and why women choose to ordain or on her personal exploration into death and human suffering. Her choice of subjects and countries visited, while interesting, seem random; and at the end of the book, she draws no firm conclusions about the state of female monasticism. For this reason, the book may leave the reader with only a partial perspective of female monasticism today and only a dim understanding of the transformation the author experienced.
Toomey’s book leaves out much about female monasticism today that can be found in Grace Shireson’s Zen Women, Elise DeVido’s Taiwan’s Buddhist Nuns or Michaela Haas’ Dakini Power, among others. However, the book might especially be enjoyed by readers who are new to the world of female Buddhist monasticism.
In Search of Buddha’s Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads by Christine Toomey. Order from Amazon.