HOURS OF SILENCE AND HARD WORK
Some Buddhist nuns use iPads. Others live in huts without electricity. And some are made to serve monks meals and bathe in their bathwater. A review of Christine Toomey's In Search of Buddha's Daughters, originally published in The Wall Street Journal in 2016.
The question of how much of oneself a writer should insert in a book is always a tricky one, but it is particularly thorny when writing about Buddhism. Buddhist faith centers on letting go of the ego, and many of the women Christine Toomey interviews for her new book are fleeing from some version of themselves. The women come from East and West and span a broad range of backgrounds, from princess to pilot, but all share a desire to shed worldly trappings and search within. “For me, to become a nun is to erase the past,” a former writer of erotic fiction tells her in Japan. Some of the nuns Ms. Toomey encounters refuse to even discuss their lives before Buddhism. Why should the author?
That question hangs over “In Search of Buddha’s Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads,” as Ms. Toomey, a former foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, travels around the world staying with nuns from Burma to California, drawing the reader inside their unexpectedly fascinating lives. The vows they have taken vary from one culture to the next—in Nepal, nuns pledge to sleep only on beds that are the length of a forearm or less from the ground, while in Japan sexual activity is allowed. In general, though, the women sleep and eat very little, maintain long hours of silence and work hard.
In Nepal, Ms. Toomey meets a former police officer who left her husband and son to join a nunnery where women study kung fu. In Dharamsala, India, she talks to a Korean-American woman whose parents rush her from the car on visits home so that the neighbors won’t see her shaven head. In England, the author interviews a former host of the fast-paced car show “Top Gear,” who concluded that she craved solitude after a publicity stunt briefly landed her in jail. Alone in a cell, she tells Ms. Toomey, “I realized I needed to go away somewhere and sit quietly.”
Structured as a travelogue, “In Search of Buddha’s Daughters” is almost encyclopedic in its cataloging of spiritual seekers. Ms. Toomey writes of elderly nuns, teenage nuns, psychoanalyst nuns, whistleblower nuns, nuns who were poor, nuns who were rich, nuns who were Catholics, nuns who were drug addicts, nuns who were married and nuns who are still married. Woven in among these stories is an examination of the secondary role that women play within much of Buddhism.
Despite following a credo that upholds the importance of the feminine, some Buddhist traditions do not permit women to be fully ordained. Ms. Toomey tells of nuns who are expected to serve monks their meals and bathe in their bathwater. The Dalai Lama once said that he may be reborn as a woman—a remark to which an English nun who spent 12 years meditating in a remote Himalayan cave retorts, “If he ever got reborn as a woman, they would never ever recognize him.” Many of the women Ms. Toomey meets are richly portrayed, especially in the West, where Buddhism’s introduction was mixed up with the Beat movement, hippie mysticism and Leonard Cohen—whose Zen teacher, incidentally, was recently accused of groping and sexually harassing female students over a span of decades.
Throughout much of the narrative, the author appears as a distant observer, revealing little about her motivations and dreams. The reader learns that she has attended Oxford and trained as a yoga instructor, that she was drawn to Buddhist nuns after her mother died, and that—perhaps the only truly revealing personal detail—as an adolescent she nearly joined the cult Children of God.
Yet “In Search of Buddha’s Daughters” is peppered with passages that hint at a dawning spiritual discovery. At times while reading, I wondered if the book would end with Ms. Toomey being ordained. “[I]n the company of the extraordinary women I am meeting, my way of asking questions of the world is changing,” she writes. Over 100 pages later, she repeats that it is “in the wise company of Buddhist nuns that I have begun to glimpse some of the deeper truths I have sought for a long time.” But she never addresses what those deeper truths are, or what spiritual questions drove her to write the book in the first place.
That is a missed opportunity. Absent any real narrative arc, the book becomes a long string of vignettes—albeit memorable ones. At a northern California hermitage that is leading a movement for full gender equality within Theravada Buddhism, Ms. Toomey describes women who live in tiny huts deep in the forest without electricity or running water, relying on solar camping showers and basic cooking equipment. She watches as the hermitage’s founder consults an iPad—charged using solar panels—to determine the time of day at which the sun will reach its zenith and signal that she must fast until the following morning. Later, Ms. Toomey talks to a young Harvard-educated Thai nun at the hermitage who confesses: “There are times when I’m doing walking meditation and I get this urge to break out in some hip-hop moves.”
Such splendid details carry the book a long way, as the author travels across the world, joining nuns as they wake at 3 a.m., perform their chores and endure grueling meditation sessions. Ultimately, though, the reader may be left wondering: Where, in this quest to detach from the ego, is Christine Toomey?