Gendered Tibet

thoughts on the intersection of Gender, Feminism and Tibetan Culture

Category: Serta Larungar

On Unethical Silence and Interceding in Violent Conflicts

Content Warning: description of domestic violence

I knew something was wrong. Dekyi and I always danced in the town square every day at six o’clock. She even prepared her dinner early in order to be on time for circle dancing. She was naturally graceful, her fingers completing the curve of her arms as she danced, every move perfect, smiling, joyful. She was considered a leader in the local dance circle and someone to watch if you didn’t know the steps. Everyone knew and respected her for being a successful local businesswoman, as well as for her Buddhist piety.

She cared for me like a sister, worrying when I left my ‘home base’ (her hotel) to travel in Kham alone. She gave me protection strings and amulets, and a paper with mantras and spells on it, which she exhorted me to keep on my person at all times while I traveled. I did stop having car accidents after that.

We had often made dinner together, going to the market and sautéing vegetarian dishes in the small private room where the hotel security guard slept at night. She liked to put on her favorite Tibetan music videos; mostly the ones that praised the lamas of Serta Larung Gar, where she worshipped every summer, living with the nuns.

It was in that room that I would find her, curled up and crying on the ground, while her husband beat her in a drunken rage. From that room we would run, holding hands as we climbed up the mountain, pulling each other, up and away from him. Her friends almost convinced me that everything was fine, although they clearly knew it was not. They had known her for much longer and were aware of her husband’s drinking and womanizing habits.

Although I met her every day like clockwork, I almost missed it, almost didn’t walk the two hundred feet to her hotel to see if something was wrong. It wasn’t the first time that this had happened. Everyone in that town knew each other’s business.

When I reached the hotel, I could hear her crying as her little sister tried to plead with him to stop. Ran inside to see her being hit by her husband, son of the most powerful local businessman in town. Saw him kick her, and stagger drunkenly to fall on the bed. The bed that we usually sat on, laughing and talking.
I had never seen him or heard of him before, three months into living in this town, into being accepted into the daily fabric of these people’s lives. I didn’t even know that she was married. She lived like a nun, and none of our friends had ever mentioned him. Silences are meaningful, too. But everyone knew who he was, including the local police, who were used to talking him down.

First I called his father.

He wasn’t willing to come collect his son, citing the privilege of marital privacy. Nobody would shame him by actually witnessing his actions. What about her, I said…why should she suffer in silence, without even the help of her friends, who were a mere two hundred feet away, pretending ignorance for the sake of his pride. There’s something about the acknowledgement that has power. Violence witnessed by others cannot be obscured in the same way. Without the inertia that concretizes around these silences, we can move forward to intervene, breaking the stigmatization that leaves victims to fend for themselves.

Then I called the police. It’s almost never a good idea in any country, but I did it.

Dekyi was pleading with him, begging him to calm down. As he staggered up from the bed again, I placed my body in front of hers, gathered up every ounce of my imagined privileged status as a foreigner, and stood my ground between them, glaring at him. I was scared, but I felt nearly protected in that instant by my “status,” by the fact that if he hurt a foreigner he just might face real consequences. That’s what I believed at the time. In truth, there’s nothing that truly protects a woman in these circumstances no matter where she lives. I could see in his eyes the calculation taking place – of whether or not he could cross that line, whether or not he could use violence on me, too.

The police arrived. They tried to soothe him.

They were taken aback when they realized who called them, and whom they had been called to police. “Silly foreigner,” they said, “that’s between a husband and wife. Who are we to interfere?”

It’s not a bad question. Who are we to insert ourselves into others’ lives? But more importantly, who are we if we stay away?

Of course, I yelled back at the police. Told them angrily in my taxi-driver inflected Sichuanese that they were the ones who misunderstood, and that he was not legally allowed to beat her. She’s a person, I yelled, jabbing my finger in the officer’s face in my own small fit of impotent rage. But law can be an empty signifier in a frontier town.

When I realized that the police weren’t going to detain the son of a locally important personage, I realized the boundary of my privilege and how stupid I had been to expect anyone to defend her.

I grabbed Dekyi’s hand and we ran up the mountain to the only place I could think of where he wouldn’t follow us to claim his wife; the foreign missionary hostel, something of a liminal space in the complex layers of local political geography. We spent that night in a place neither of us had slept before. Her hotel no longer represented home, a place where we had found wholeness and comfort.

Nobody wanted to shame her, that’s what they said afterwards. They had mostly good intentions. But she and her sister had to deal with that violent man alone, without the support of anyone in their community, without recourse to the systems of law and governance that were supposed to endow them with rights. We become imbricated in systems of gendered violence, turning a blind eye. All of us, regardless of where we live.

So why did I intercede, when everything and everyone told me not to? Partly because I knew I could use my position to protect her if only for that moment; partly out of guilt for every time I’d been afraid to speak up or help another woman in need. And because I know exactly how it feels to be the target of a man’s anger.

I could feel our friends’ disapproval of my active interference in what they considered a private matter. As for myself, I have considered this carefully over the years since this incident, still wondering if I did the right thing. Wondering if crossing that line was a violation of cultural rules around taboo silences that I, an outsider, should have respected. But it is the recollection of the look of pained relief on her face when I grabbed her hand and we ran together that reassures me.

Ultimately, I have to do what I feel is right for the person I am truly responsible to – my friend, my fellow human. Cultural relativism can leave us believing we are doing justice to some vague ideal of so-called respect even as we betray ourselves, letting silence replace the necessary ethical considerations. In my opinion, I would be failing my friend if I let such relativistic tendencies silence me, just because we are from different cultures. Ethically, I consider male violence an international problem, a common thread that runs through women’s experience of the world, and wherever I see it I will fight back to the full extent of my ability. If I were to suspend this ethical imperative merely because I am in someone else’s cultural world, I would be betraying my commitment to feminism.

After that day, he couldn’t hide anymore. Her uncle, a lama, negotiated a separation between them. Now she is a nun, and I will see her when I return to Eastern Tibet.

Reflections on a Heart Healing Ritual

I had ‘heart heat.’ My heart was small, hot, and closed, she said. As the woman, a khandroma (dakini), scratched the flesh of my back, digging, creating red grooves of raised pain and relief, she said, “You need to expand your heart.” My first thought – fear. Will it hurt? Second, how to expand a heart? The scratching, the heat, her touch. A ritual in a small stuffy room, women only, that gestated a bodily transformation. Breaking raised blood vessels, leaving welts on my back the rich maroon color of a monastery freshly painted, she scratched, crooning sweet comforting words. Blood moved and changed under my unbroken skin. The old vessels my blood moved along were destroyed and new pain erupted.

Later that day, as I sat fidgeting, receiving the tantric empowerment from my female lama, I pondered their seemingly different modes of attaining wisdom. The khandroma is a ritual healer and tantric consort, and the female lama is a celibate nun who teaches religion to thousands of women and writes texts on monastic vows, among many other subjects. Two Tibetan women living Buddhist wisdom through very different, and yet uniquely Tibetan, modes of religious life. They are complementary members of this local world created by the Buddhist community that gathers in Eastern Tibet. Doing ethnography in what is now the largest nunnery and dharma encampment in the world, I encountered these two respected figures, who each tried their best to instill some wisdom in me.

If we allow ourselves to be disrupted by suffering in the world to the extent that our variously-sized hearts allow, scholarly wisdom must be constantly interrogated and re-contextualized in order to be of any use to us. In that light, I have tried to unpack this experience I had with healing. Seeking to understand how wisdom is practiced in a living Tibetan Buddhist community, I found myself giving up my ethnographical intentions, willingly becoming an inhabited body initiated into the ritual community, ripped open, healed, and instilled with a tantric god. I asked the khandroma to heal me, and she spoke gentle wise words that cut my heart like a knife through butter. Those few words shine like the famed Buddhist wish-fulfilling jewel, always offering the eye new facets, new meanings and interpretive possibilities. I let the khandroma lacerate my back with her caring fingertips. I accepted the pain. Moving forward, letting these experiences inform a new sense of self and context, I am still integrating them into my new heart.

The thousands of nuns who form the community at Larung Gar sacrificed everything else in “worldly life;” gave up everything extraneous to the quest for wisdom. These brave women severed family ties, left friends and lovers behind, and cut off the possibility of seeking any support other than refuge in the quest for wisdom itself. They have created an environment harmonious with Tibetan Buddhist ontology, a world where noise, speech, bodily actions, thoughts, and bodies themselves are transformed into karmic potentialities conducive to enlightenment. I went from having questions for them, to having my heart and life changed by them.

My female lama initiated me into the meditation which installs the tantric deity in your heart. There’s a space there now, created from releasing the clenched pain of shutting suffering out, a strength that I didn’t have before expanding my heart. When a tantric god lives in your heart, you are supposed to be transformed, becoming unafraid of how deeply the world can affect you. It’s a form of self-confidence that radically de-centers the self, connects you with the ritual community, and keeps you aware of the larger welfare of humanity. It breaks your heart open.

So, I let myself be transformed by their expectations and their concerns for my heart. I felt the pleasing lilt of her sweet voice flow over me like liquid, as she hurt me in order to make my heart better. Something probably changed through this bodily healing encounter with the khandroma. Honestly, she could have just as easily been referring to my mind rather than my heart. Ask a Tibetan to point to their ‘mind’ and they will touch their heart. For her, it was a deficiency of heart-mind capacity which I could solve by re-envisioning my entire life with the braveness to accept what truly living out the quest for wisdom does to our hearts and minds: it changes them. It expands them, painfully, accompanied by the dull ache of lack – cracking open the familiar walls we once depended on to keep us safe from fear, separate from the world’s suffering.

Suffering should destroy our plans and our preconceptions, leading us to engage authentically with the world because of, and not in spite of, suffering. My present understanding requires that I remain uncomfortable in my position, re-framing my own capacity. I expand the walls of my heart, breathing and experiencing the world’s suffering, listening, hoping to do justice to my commitments.

Nomad woman carrying child

“Drolma Girl” and the Curious Controversy of the 6387 Sheep

Drolma with Lamb
This is Drolma Yangchen, born in Danma, Upper Kham. She writes under the pen name Danza Drolma, and on September 1st, she (with the backing of her NGO devoted to releasing animals) bought 6387 sheep headed for the slaughter*. That’s where the controversy started, at least this time around. And that’s when she became “Drolma Girl.”

This is certainly not the first time Tibetan social media has debated this ‘hot topic.’ Should the increasingly common practice of purchasing and ‘releasing’ animals continue, or is it a misguided, albeit Buddhist attempt to save animals that ultimately increases the cycle of death and suffering by contributing to economic demand?

This is, however, the first time (to my knowledge) that a female laywoman such as Danza Drolma has been the public face of such a monumental ‘releasing’ event. That led to my current exploration of how gender is shaping the discourse around this issue. How are people reacting to a laywoman’s large-scale release of animals, as opposed to the more common (male) lama-led releasing parties? Not that the latter are without their detractors. But why now, why her, and why is she suddenly Drolma Girl (sgrol ma bu mo, 卓玛姑娘)?

Let me sketch out a rough timeline of the events so far:
On Sept. 1st, 6387 sheep purchased by her NGO, Snowland Releasing, for over 5 million RMB.

Trucks full of sheep

Subsequently, pictures, including the above, were published on their WeChat platform by herself and the NGO. Initially she received a lot of praise for her act, with the traditional Tibetan feminine virtues of compassion, generosity, and beauty being consistently (and somewhat predictably) invoked.

Then the 6387 sheep were released. Accounts differ as to whether they were released ‘into the wilderness,’ as it were, likely allowing animal traders and butchers to re-capture and re-sell them, or whether the sheep were responsibly distributed to nomad families (who would be bound to care for them but not permitted to kill them). That’s when things really got heated, as Tibetans all over social media started taking this issue apart point by point.

Currently, the voting public agrees with Danza Drolma, with 44% preferring her to use the 5 million RMB for ‘releasing,’ 30% saying the money should go towards education, and 12% in favor of buying medicine with the funds (two of the major arguments made by the opposing camp).

Voting for Life

Why is this situation seemingly coming to head at this moment in time? This is certainly not the first time Tibetan social media has taken up the issue of releasing animals (see pretty much anything Prof Thubten Phuntsok has done on social media since 2011). However, this seems to be the first time that a ‘releasing’ has been performed by a woman on this grandly orchestrated scale, with such a public (female) face fronting it. Dare I suggest that denizens of social media may feel more comfortable criticizing a laywoman than a male monastic? Or is it, to some detractors, merely the most obvious abuse of this already dubious system of accumulating merit?

How is the lens of gender affecting the public’s perception of her performative ‘releasing’ act?

There is certainly a possibility in my mind that the female performance of what seems to some to be a rejection of a key element of traditional Tibetan pastoralist culture (the largely female-driven maintenance of the family livestock from birth to death) was received more critically by laypeople far more accustomed to listening to the Buddhist arguments of monks and lamas than the impassioned pleas of a pious laywoman. I get this impression from reading the tone and content of the arguments made, as well as the comments.

For those of you interested in what I am basing these thoughts on, below are some of the relevant social media posts.

The responders seem to fall into two camps. The pro-life camp is epitomized by leading public intellectual Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru, who advocates strict adherence to no-killing by using Buddhist religion as a justification, and who regularly leads large groups on ‘releasing’ trips. He has written much on the subject, and as I mentioned earlier, he was not without his detractors (see Prof. Thubten Phuntsok as mentioned above). The second camp can be generally described as pragmatists (although they themselves use the word “rational”). Their arguments follow economic, social, and occasionally cultural lines (i.e. the destruction of pastoralism as a viable way of life if all nomads adopt such practices).

For a good discussion of the pragmatist camp, see Twelve Rashomon’s page, the article “Discussing Rational Release: Drolma Girl’s Release,” by Tashi Dorjé. Translated here in a great blog post by Séagh Kehoe.

Here is a piece by Rongwo Rangtsol agreeing with Danza Drolma’s performance of release by arguing that she’s bringing the livestock back to the grassland and therefore supporting the continuation of nomadic life.

One of the more popular satirical representations of the controversy of Drolma Girl can be found here.

This creepily cheery cartoon depicts her as a well-meaning dupe, tricked (likely by the oft-maligned Serta-based anti-killing movement) into advocating enlightened values, while the duplicitous butchers take the opportunity to fleece the locals twice over. The image, while of her smiling happily attired in traditional robe, is a negative representation. While her motivation may be virtuous and compassionate (if a bit air-headed), her grasp of the situation is less than would be desired by, say, an economist. This is, unfortunately, not the place where I can delve deeper into the representation of the ‘muslim butchers’ on the right-hand side, but please note it is also clearly problematic. Nobody comes out of this cartoon unscathed; nomads, butchers, and female performers of social change all come out looking bad.

Many comments extol her beauty while mourning her supposed lack of wisdom (a recurrent theme), like this one left by commenter “Sonya.”
“桑娅 – 我认为,美女应该把这笔巨资投入到藏区教育,会有更多的福报,而且还能起到切实的作用。无奈!有钱也可以这么的仁心!
Sonya – I think this beautiful woman should invest heavily in education in Tibetan areas; there will be more merit, but [the money] can also be used more pragmatically. How frustrating! So many benevolent acts also [could be done] with money.”

I find it informative that many of the arguments against her ‘releasing’ of the 6387 sheep invoke the very same traditional Buddhist ideas of religious merit and virtue that Danza Drolma herself is hoping to promote, as she says, through words and images, with the support of her organization.

Leaving her the last word, as surely I should, here Drolma-la, in response to the controversy, says:
“Even if this doesn’t result in virtue, it’s impossible for it to become a sin.”

I see some very gendered language and cultural concepts in operation here, and will be keeping a close eye on how this controversy develops. There are those who are calling her a khandroma…

Drolma posing for pictures with sheep

For those of you unfamiliar with modern Tibetan practices, the purchase and release of livestock is considered a very meritorious activity as it saves the lives of animals who are about to be killed. Many Chinese (Tibetan) Buddhists who are students of Khenpo Tsultrim Lodru of Serta Larungar also engage in this practice, sometimes purchasing and releasing thousands of fish into the lakes and rivers around Chengdu.

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