American Buddhist scholar, translator and author Betsy Napper gave up her job at California’s prestigious Stanford University in 1990 to work full time in Dharamsala, India, helping His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s sister-in-law Rinchen Khadro run the Tibetan Nuns Project, which is building Dolma Ling Nunnery and The Nuns Institute for Higher Studies. “I had opportunities that were not available to Tibetan women, she told Ven. Robina Courtin in June, during a brief trip back to America to work on the 1996 Tibetan Nuns’ Calendar. “I was really interested in doing something to help change that situation as a way of giving something back.” Betsy got her Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from the University of Virginia in 1985, after which she taught Tibetan at the University of Virginia and for a year was a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford.
Why did you give up your career, Betsy?
“I wasn’t really enjoying the academic life at Stanford. And also, as they don’t do Tibetan there, they had me teaching courses on Confucianism and Taoism and things I didn’t really know much about. Basically I was doing a job that any number of people could have done. What I like about what I am doing with the Nuns’ Project is that I am using my own particular set of skills, talents and interests.
One of the things that I became aware of somewhere along the line was that I’ve been really fortunate: all the best scholars from the Gelugpa tradition came to the University of Virginia while I was there and taught extensively, so I got a wonderful education. And when I went to India I would be able to get an audience with His Holiness and to ask questions about whom to study with. And if he recommended people and I went to them and said, “His Holiness suggested you teach me,” the likelihood was that they would say yes.
At some point I realized I had had opportunities that weren’t available to Tibetan women, I had sort of slipped onto this lucky track. So I was really interested in doing something that would help change that situation as a way of giving something back.
Also, I realized that I had had a totally male education, that I had been exposed entirely to the men of the Buddhist tradition. I was interested in finding more out about the women, so I started to look around at what was going on with nuns. I very quickly discovered that there was a great deal of unmet need and there were a lot of things I could do to help meet that.
In the spring of 1990, after I left Stanford, I went to India and was staying at Ganden Chöling Nunnery in Dharamsala. I was looking around to see what the situation was with the nuns and discovered that the Nuns’ Project was pretty dormant. A group of us got together and decided to work hard to set something going again. We developed a plan to make a nunnery and an institute of higher studies.
We were actually much more focused on the institute of higher studies. We had a donation of money to buy land, the purchase was underway, and then suddenly in December ’90, January ’91, all these nuns turned up from Tibet with nothing. They were camping out beside the road so we had to shift our focus very quickly from the long-term goal to the immediate one of just caring for all of these people.
There’s so much work to be done on the basics. Many of these nuns from Tibet are illiterate and we’re having to provide basic education. So in a sense it’s all right that we haven’t built the institute of higher studies yet because we’re still creating the student body who can engage in higher studies.
Is the plan to create nun teachers?
Yes, the goal is very much to have nun teachers: to have nuns teaching in their own nunneries, to have nuns going out into the community in various roles, as teachers, as health workers; to really give them a more active and more leadership role in their community.
There’s nothing to stop the nuns from being teachers. There’s no official anything – except their own lack of self-confidence.
And very old habits and attitudes.
That’s true. But it can be overcome by education. If you think about the fact that thirty years ago the lay women weren’t educated either and now they’re an equal part of the educational system and probably fifty percent of the teachers. There’s not a problem. There’s nothing holding them back.
The monastic institutions are conservative, they’re pretty dug in as all male institutions are, so it may be a slow transition, but I think it can happen. His Holiness is completely behind it, he’s absolutely supportive, so I don’t see why it won’t happen.
You are co-director of this project with Rinchen Khadro, aren’t you?
Yes. Rinchen Khadro is the overall head and the major force that makes it happen. And she’s our main fund raiser. She’s incredible. I’m utterly impressed by her. She’s doing this out of her devotion to Dharma.
When she was elected as Minister of Education in the government-in-exile she had to resign all non-governmental posts, but the nuns, bless their hearts, sent a petition to His Holiness requesting that she be allowed to stay with the Nuns’ Project, which was granted.
It must be good for the nuns to see examples like you.
Well, it certainly gives them an example of someone who is able to do things. But all of my academic stuff means nothing to them. The men understand, they have this way of checking you out, but since the women don’t have the study background it’s not the same for them. So it’s definitely good training to do this work just for the sake of it, not for anything else I get out of it. It’s a great leveler of pride!
Are the nuns young, old? And are they coming from Tibet or are they local?
There are old nuns, but they’re mostly young, eighteen to mid-twenties. They’re almost all from Tibet. Either they’ve been politically active and are fleeing or it’s just that conditions have been so repressive in the nunneries that they’ve come.
The strength and courage they show to get to India is admirable. They don’t have any education or skills, so there’s a lot of training to be done, a lot of work to getting them up to speed. They’re not sophisticated and they’re not articulate and eloquent. But there’s a wonderful quality to them, there really is.
Many of them showed such forcefulness in their decision to become nuns: if it meant running away from home to do so, they did it. I don’t know that they all know what they’re getting into when they become nuns, but they really try.
They think Westerns are so quick to take vows and then give them up, and they don’t have that same choice. In a sense it’s good, it helps them tough it out.
They come from such a traditional society. The ones who are choosing to be nuns are mostly still living a traditional way of life, and becoming a nun is a choice not to marry and have a householder life.
I’m very struck by the amount of devotion they have. They’ve had no overt religious education because their parents didn’t dare say a word to them. When you listen to the nuns who’ve been in prison, it’s so impressive to see the extent to which they don’t hate the oppressor, that they forgive the oppressor.
Is there any kind of consciousness among Tibetan nuns about full ordination?
No, it’s not much of an issue, certainly not with the Dolma Ling nuns. They have far bigger problems to deal with. They’re struggling with food and shelter and basic education, and full ordination doesn’t make a whit of difference!
It comes up a bit more with the Ganden Chöling nuns, who’ve been around longer and are more aware. They’re on to the fact that they can’t really complete their studies without full ordination, they can’t become a geshe – which is something I hadn’t realized before. My own opinion is that as their educational level comes up and they get their act together, this thing will sort itself out naturally.
How big in terms of money is this project?
We’ve probably spent about US$250,000 so far on building; we’ve managed to raise that much. And we probably need another $500,000.
And those funds are coming from where?
All over and mostly in very small dribs and drabs. A thousand at a time.
The project gets much support?
There’s a lot of interest and support. Many Western women are interested in helping nuns; they have also become aware that the nuns tend to be at the end of the line. We’ve gotten a lot of support from within the Tibetan community, although the levels of support for women are less than the levels of support for men.
Western women often go to His Holiness and ask, “Well, why isn’t it better for the nuns?” And they think he’s going to wave his magic wand and make it better. It doesn’t happen like that, and it’s just not even the way it should be. At some point, basically, the women just have to take care of themselves.
And that’s what’s happening.