In the Summer of 2004, I was invited by Lama Norlha Rinpoche, the abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Upstate New York, to join him on his regular visit to his homeland of Nangchen, in remote northeastern Tibet. I was familiar with his humanitarian efforts in Nangchen, where he had been a young monk before his monastery was destroyed and he escaped to India in 1958. "Come make a film about how my people have lived for centuries, before it all changes," he said. So in July 2004, my bag full of protein bars and my veins full of hepatitis vaccine, off we went.
If we likened Tibet's most media-documented and commonly touristed city of Lhasa to Manhattan, Nangchen would be located somewhere in the mountains of Wyoming. It is a remote and rural area with an average altitude of 14,000 feet, situated along the source of the Mekong River. Since 1986, Lama Norlha Rinpoche has created schools for children and established medical clinics there, and rebuilt the Korche Monastery of his childhood. In 1990, he founded Kala Rongo Monastery exclusively for nuns, and later, one of the only monastic colleges for women in all of Tibet. These were the most radical of all his projects, and were met locally with great controversy and skepticism - Why did women need to be educated? Why did they need to practice Buddhism full time? What could a group of nuns possibly contribute to the community? And that was clearly the story I wanted to tell.
From my Western feminist viewpoint, the subservient role of Tibetan women was a travesty, though sadly not at all uncommon in the world. I was therefore eager to meet a group of empowered nuns who had broken free of their gender constraints and were taking their futures into their own hands. Instead, I found only the tiniest beginnings of anything resembling what we would define as a 'feminist revolution' at Kala Rongo. The nuns were much more reserved and shy than I had expected, more grateful and diligent about the opportunities given them than fierce or outspoken. But in their own way, they were completely fulfilled and liberated by their chosen path. So when I finally abandoned my pre-conceived notions about what radical social change should look like, I discovered the power of their transformation-in-progress in the subtleties of their personal stories.
This is how DAUGHTERS OF WISDOM came to be an experiential presentation of the nuns, told in their own words from their particular place of freedom and choice that they experience on their own terms.
There were mice crawling across us to get to the cheese storage room on the other side of our sleeping quarters. There was a lot of rice and sautéed green vegetables with no nutritional value, and rancid butter. There were sudden hail and snow storms. There was a lot of waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And an abundance of kindness and generosity and openness and patience on the part of our subjects as they got used to our question after question that forced them to reflect on their lives probably for the first time. (At first, the nuns were coy even at the request of their names, before they explained that "It’s weird to say our names. We never do it.") We always invited our subjects to ask us questions as well, which usually ran along the lines of "How many yaks does your family have?" and "How many of your family members do you live with?"
In the end, my intention is to present to audience members the direct experience of the lives of others being lived simultaneously but very differently from their own, and through that, to remind us that constructed social and political ideologies should always defer to the authenticity of humanity, and not visa-versa. I think that this is the single most powerful unifying force we have in this time of unrest and uncertainty throughout the world, and the nuns of Kala Rongo have much to teach us about it.