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Buddhadharma : Spring 2012
SPRING 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 51 In Manali, she had felt unhappy and lost. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. That’s a common sentiment for an eighteen-year-old, but something happened at her next stop. In Dharamsala she met some fellow backpack- ers and they stayed together in a cramped, rustic guesthouse in Bagsu Nag, a village north of the town’s Tibetan hub of McLeod Ganj. It was 1990 and the rows of guesthouses, cafes, and souve- nir shops that today line the streets of McLeod Ganj did not exist. “There were no fancy, flashy hotels. It was one-tenth of what’s here now,” she said. Bagsu Nag, now a favorite spot for Israeli backpackers and Punjabi day-trippers, was “just a vil- lage with farmhouses.” The guesthouse where she stayed was so small that she slept on the floor. One morning, she opened her eyes and calmly watched bedbugs crawling up the wooden bedpost. Somehow a strong, peaceful feeling came over her. “I thought, ‘I’ve come home’,” she recalled. “There was some- thing about the atmosphere here. I decided to stay longer.” She did a one-month introduction to Buddhism course at Tushita Meditation Center, above McLeod Ganj, and also studied with an independent Indian teacher. She had plenty of questions about Buddhism and was often overwhelmed. She went on retreat but found she didn’t know enough about the dharma to meditate. At Tushita, she was introduced to a seminal text by the seventh century Indian scholar Dharmakīrti. It fascinated her and she longed to study more. In April 1991 she took her first vows and became a nun. In those days, Tushita was isolated and the surrounding area heavily forested. For two years Kelsang lived in a hut near Tushita, with an outhouse in woods where leopards roamed at night. There was no running water so she carried water to her hut every day. Sometimes when she wanted to shower she walked to Tushita to use their facilities. After two years, she moved back to McLeod Ganj, where she stayed in nunneries for about a year. At the time, accommodations for nuns were scarce. When she started tak- ing classes at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, her teachers helped her find a room in a dormitory owned by the institute. The room was closer to Kelsang’s classes but the conditions were difficult. The toilet was shared by more than twenty people, mostly men, and there was a water shortage every few days. People stored water in plastic buckets for the days when the pipes ran dry. Poor accommodations weren’t the only challenge. Her classes at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics were in Tibetan— especially daunting since she didn’t speak the language yet. “I didn’t understand much in class,” Kelsang said. Still, she was thrown into intense debating sessions with monks early on. Few Tibetan nuns debated because they did not have ready access to debate teachers. To her surprise, she grew to enjoy the noisy sessions. “I loved the logic,” she said. “It was so helpful and a better tool to understand the scriptures.” Debating also helped her learn Tibetan. There were no lan- guage textbooks available in Dharamsala then, so she did lan- guage exchanges with Tibetans who in turn practiced English with her. Kelsang recorded these lessons and listened to them over and over again. Tibetan spelling is difficult, she noted, but after many years of self-study, she was able to speak, read, and write Tibetan. Kelsang’s objective was to study the dharma, not explicitly to earn the geshe degree. At first she didn’t want to take the annual exams, but her teachers at IBD had her do the same work as the monks in her class, including the three-hour writ- ten exams and the debates, which are analogous to an oral exam. When her graduation finally came, she was nervous—but not about academics. She had to overcome her trepidation about shaking the Tibetan status quo. “I didn’t want to be the only one,” she said. “I wanted other nuns to do it. I didn’t want to stick out in this way.” In public, Tibetan nuns, monks, and teachers say they are happy that a woman, who happens to be a foreigner, finally earned the geshe degree. The institute—especially Kelsang Damdul—was undeniably steadfast in its support of her over the years. Exile administration officials seemed pleased about her accomplishment as well. But, she said, there were rumbles of opposition, even from nuns and other women. Male-dominated Tibetan Buddhism is entrenched in tradition and is not easily open to change. “Not AMY YEE is an American journalist and writer based in New Delhi. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, among other publications, and is a former correspondent for the Financial Times. She has written extensively about Tibetan issues since 2008, and is working on a book about Tibetan exiles in India. ➤ continued page 82 ANJALIKAURAMYYEE