For the past 20 years, unprecedented changes to religious and educational opportunities for Buddhist nuns have been underway in Buddhist worlds across Asia.
“Traditionally, philosophical education was only available to male monastics,” said Suzanne Bessenger, Barbara Boyle Lemon ’57 and William J. Lemon Associate Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Comparative Philosophy.
Bessenger and a group of students will study those changes, which include more opportunities for female monastics, during a three-week trip to Nepal funded by an ASIANetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Fellowship.
ASIANetwork is a foundation that promotes the study and understanding of Asia in the liberal arts, and the highly competitive fellowships provide funding for projects, including flights, room and board, and all research expenses.
The trip was originally planned for the spring of 2020 with a different group of students but was canceled due to the pandemic.
Those students have all graduated, so Bessenger invited Delaney Scott ’23, Jordyn Shumpert ’25, and Kai Miller ’24, all comparative philosophy majors, to join her. Liz Perry-Sizemore, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, is also going on the trip.
They leave next week to begin their journey researching women’s empowerment, education, and feminism in this part of the Buddhist world.
“It’s something I could never say no to,” said Scott, who is missing Commencement for the trip. “I have a passion for learning about other cultures. I’m really interested to see what feminism looks like from a different perspective. I assume it will be a more conservative perspective than mine, but just as empowering.”
Their travels will take them to two areas of Nepal, the Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery, a Vajrayana Buddhist institution in Kathmandu, and Peace Grove Institute, a Theravada-inspired nunnery near the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Lumbini.
“We hope to interview nuns in these places that have implemented some pretty significant changes to the curriculum available to female monastics,” Bessenger said. “They represent two different denominations and two different, innovative educations for the women and nuns there.”
The Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery is one of several nunneries that have become important centers of learning for female monastics working toward the geshema degree, Tibetan Buddhism’s highest academic degree.
“I don’t think we as Westerners, specifically Americans, understand monastic life at all,” Shumpert said. “What interests me is the gray area that nuns exist within. They are not women socially, but also not fully nuns while undergoing monastic education. I really want to learn more about this and how it shatters our limited understanding of monastic life and those that pursue it now.”
The Peace Grove Institute is a home for girls who are ordained as novice nuns. It was co-founded in 2010 to allow a limited number of girls to continue their education in the nunnery, in a culture where girls are sometimes kept home from school after they are betrothed.
“The girls may not remain nuns for the rest of their lives, but they are able to continue their grammar and high school educations, with some of them growing up to pursue nursing training or their own interests in science and Buddhist philosophy,” Bessenger said.
Building trust and relationships with the women will be key to their work. The team doesn’t expect to swoop in and have an immediate rapport with them.
“It will make the work more challenging, but that much more worth it,” Scott said. “Not only will we have answers, but a foundational relationship with these people.”
Miller has been interested in Buddhism since taking a first-year course with Bessenger and expects the trip to build on skills already gained behind the Red Brick Wall. “I’m excited to take what we’ve learned and compare and contrast it with our own ideas.”
The students will document their trip on Instagram, along with a series of reports and presentations that are required for the fellowship. They will also attend and present at the annual ASIANetwork conference next year.
In the weeks leading up to their departure, Bessenger has also been preparing them for another important part of the work: Expect the unexpected.
“When you’re doing this kind of field work, it’s a balance,” she said. “You have your plans, but on the ground, it’s about being open to the opportunities that arise and the people you meet. You need to be willing and confident to pursue those connections and see where it takes you.”Tags: asian studies, comparative philosophy, Suzanne Bessenger