Using Himalayan Hermitess as a Text for Ninth Graders
This past week I returned to Phillips Academy for a second interview with my former colleagues in the history department. While there, many questions came my way regarding further inclusion of China into the curriculum. As it stands now, the ninth graders spend about a week or two studying China as it pertains to the Mongol empire, notably the Yuan Dynasty and the preceding Song Dynasty. After that brief glimpse, China does not appear again until U.S History tackles Richard Nixon’s memorable 1972 trip. Hence, their questions for me: “how would I incorporate China more readily into the curriculum? What would I choose to focus on?” Knowing that time is an issue in a school curriculum, I suggested a few quick changes they could incorporate immediately, such as a day or two spent looking at the histories of non-Han areas and peoples of the empire, including Tibet and its inhabitants. Too often, especially with the younger students, teachers skim over Chinese history with disregard towards the minority populations. As such, an autobiography such as Himalayan Hermitess could be a fascinating means by which Tibetan history enters into the ninth grade curriculum, even if it is just for two or three class periods.
Ninth graders are, by nature, an inquisitive group of students and a reading of an autobiography, like Orgyan Chokyi’s, would thus need to be supplemented with a historical and cultural framework – similar to the who, what, when, where, and why questions we use to evaluate primary sources. Prior to their reading Kurtis Schaeffer’s 2004 translation of Chokyi’s autobiography, students would need a succinct lesson on the basic tenets of Buddhism. Here, a basic text like Joseph Adler’s Chinese Religious Traditions would suffice as it provides clear explanations of Buddhist concepts such as samsara and suffering, two of the major themes that characterize Chokyi’s work. The next step to understanding the world of Orgyan Chokyi would be a lesson on the geography of the region. As Schaeffer explains, Orgyan Chokyi lived a difficult existence in a difficult land. As a child, Chokyi lived in a family without love and in a world seemingly without hope. She spent her early years herding animals and in the process saw many of them killed and injured – events that led her to deep emotional suffering. Her small community, deep in the Dolpo region of the Himalaya Mountains, presented Chokyi with few options. Like the other women of the area, she was expected to work diligently in the rural sector and to take care of her family at home. This life provided very little happiness and substance, thus she embarked on a path to become a Buddhist nun and to participate in a life of peaceful meditation away from the clamor and unhappiness of everyday life in Dolpo.
Schaeffer describes Orgyan Chokyi’s work as both a hagiography (“a story of a saint”), and a “micro history” that has the ability to “reveal something about Buddhism in a particular time and place” (Schaeffer, 5 and 8). In such a context, he evaluates Chokyi’s work in regards to gender, politics, and Tibetan Buddhist religious traditions. What is critical here, and Schaeffer warns us against, is the temptation to generalize and apply Chokyi’s experience to all women, or all nuns, in a mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century Buddhist society. Chokyi’s experience is in fact quite atypical. Very few women had the opportunity to remove themselves from the cycle of poverty and rural life that Dolpo offered. To be accepted by a Buddhist master, and to be granted the privilege of quiet reflection away from society’s expectations, was a rare occurrence and one that Chokyi cherished. Thus, students, especially those as young as ninth graders, must be reminded that the significance and the popularity of such a text does not necessarily mean it is entirely representative of the experiences of one gender, one religious group, or one family. As Schaeffer describes it, Himalayan Hermitessis “an important source for understanding” the society in which Chokyi’s trials and tribulations occurred, many of which centered on her gender and the personal suffering she hoped to alleviate by becoming a Buddhist nun (9).
The issue of gender and established roles however, is one that is not solved full stop by entering into a religious community, as Orgyan Chokyi quickly discovers. Schaeffer points to the teaching of another Buddhist monk, Tenzin Repa, whose “writings reveal a tension between [the] institutional support” of a monastery, and “his views on the nature of women. Though he did give teachings to women, he nevertheless held them to be heavily subject to desire, and associated them explicitly with samsara” (36). To Tenzin Repa, “ ‘[t]he beautiful and desirous noblewoman is carried away by life. The seed of samasara, [she] spreads sloth and quarrel’” (Schaeffer, 37). This statement alone is enough to launch a discussion, for ninth graders are not immune to issues, and the history, of gender discrimination. Hence, the barriers Orgyan Chokyi encounters in relation to her own teacher could prove to be a fertile ground for discussion. Why were women considered by both their families and their Buddhist teachers to be less worthy and capable compared to men? Why did Orgyan Chokyi so fervently desire to be reborn as a man (or at least not as a woman)? In answering these questions students need to grapple with issues of economy, culture and religion. Additionally, students must take into account the fact that Tenzin Repa’s statements, as Schaeffer discusses, “may represent a variety of competing perspectives” as others were often responsible for recording the teacher’s sayings (38). Addressing these kinds of issues can be frustrating for young students who have not yet been exposed to contested history. As such, works by Tenzin Repa and Orgyan Chokyi are to be considered valuable for bringing to attention issues such as these and for raising awareness about the conditions some women experienced in their quest for spiritual enlightenment.
What is presented above is a brief glimpse at what teaching Himalayan Hermitess to a group of ninth graders might entail. While the subject matter, and therefore the degree of religious understanding, is more complicated than those of the traditional texts used at the ninth grade level, Himalayan Hermitess presents young students with an interesting opportunity to examine the role of women and religion on a very minute scale. At it’s most basic, it is the story of a woman who seeks inspiration and solace in religion and, along the way, encounters suffering, rejection, and strife. These are indeed topics that ninth graders are familiar with, and to be able to connect such a story with the overarching themes of a particular unit on China, or even religion, is an important step to exposing students to new and important information.