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Being a Buddhist Nun

Being a Buddhist Nun

The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas

Kim Gutschow

ISBN 9780674012875

Publication date: 07/15/2004

They may shave their heads, don simple robes, and renounce materialism and worldly desires. But the women seeking enlightenment in a Buddhist nunnery high in the folds of Himalayan Kashmir invariably find themselves subject to the tyrannies of subsistence, subordination, and sexuality. Ultimately, Buddhist monasticism reflects the very world it is supposed to renounce. Butter and barley prove to be as critical to monastic life as merit and meditation. Kim Gutschow lived for more than three years among these women, collecting their stories, observing their ways, studying their lives. Her book offers the first ethnography of Tibetan Buddhist society from the perspective of its nuns.

Gutschow depicts a gender hierarchy where nuns serve and monks direct, where monks bless the fields and kitchens while nuns toil in them. Monasteries may retain historical endowments and significant political and social power, yet global flows of capitalism, tourism, and feminism have begun to erode the balance of power between monks and nuns. Despite the obstacles of being considered impure and inferior, nuns engage in everyday forms of resistance to pursue their ascetic and personal goals.

A richly textured picture of the little known culture of a Buddhist nunnery, the book offers moving narratives of nuns struggling with the Buddhist discipline of detachment. Its analysis of the way in which gender and sexuality construct ritual and social power provides valuable insight into the relationship between women and religion in South Asia today.


  • Solidly based on over a decade of fieldwork, Gutschow successfully dispels a number of stereotypical misconceptions about Buddhist monasticism in general and Buddhist nuns more specifically. She places monasticism in its necessary political and economic spheres, while not ignoring the pragmatic aspects of lived Buddhism. Being a Buddhist Nun transports women and nuns from their marginal peripheral position in Buddhist history to its ideological center.

    —Frank J. Korom, Boston University


  • 2005, Joint winner of the Sharon Stephens Prize


  • Kim Gutschow is a Lecturer in Anthropology and Religion at Williams College and Professor of Anthropology and Public Health at the University of Göttingen.

Book Details

  • 376 pages
  • 0-15/16 x 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press