Kunsang Dolma might have had a more ordinary life, if it hadn’t been her turn to be the family representative at the annual ten-day prayer session at their local village temple when she was 15 years old. An event peripheral to that obligation changed the path she was on, which would have been an arranged marriage to a local boy and raising children to help with the farm work. For those of us reading it however, this is no ordinary life, but an insight into an ancient culture and one courageous woman who survives its harshness, revels in its deep, spiritual wonders and travels outside all that she knows to become the wife of an American citizen.
The consequence of that event sets her on the path towards becoming a Buddhist nun, something she had previously considered but had been rejected by her parents, so she and a friend decided to run away from their village to ensure it happened, without parental consent.
While she doesn’t remain a nun all her life, ironically the second major turning point in her life that moved her away from being a nun towards marriage and a life in America was not dissimilar to that which motivated her action towards pursuing a monastic life in the beginning. This is a true story, however I am reminded of all those turning points in the life of the fictitious character Ursula’s in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and the significant power that one event can have to alter the direction of a young woman’s life.
Kunsang shares her upbringing with a quiet, practical, honest voice and it is a childhood and adolescence we see as difficult, though in the context of where she lived, a small Tibetan village, it was quite like many other villagers and something she now looks back on with appreciation and an incessant longing, having left it all behind. It is in leaving a difficult way of life and family behind us, in making it no longer attainable that the deepest yearning for that which was willingly fled, is often felt.
Her parents married at 15 which is not uncommon, however they were unable to conceive until they were 28 years old, something that came as a relief as being farmers, children are essential to their survival as future workers. Kunsang was the youngest of 8 children and by the time she was born, there were sufficient children to manage the farm work; it was this fact that enabled her to have an education.
At the time, there was no birth control, so after thirteen years without a child, it looked like they definitely weren’t going be able to have any children, which are essential to help with work on the farm. My father’s sister already had two kids and felt sorry for my parents’ situation, so when she was pregnant a third time she told my father, “Look, this is my third child. I’m going to give him to you.” The baby was twenty-two days old when my parents took him home. After that, my mother started to have her own babies. My parents always thought that my adopted brother Yula had brought them good luck.
Kunsang eventually makes a pilgrimage to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama and during her time here she meets her future husband, narrating the heart-breaking, tedious administrative process they must overcome to be together and the struggles she will face even when they succeed. It is a moving story of a life we can hardly imagine and a journey that crosses many boundaries most of us will never have to traverse, to hike over terrain while risking one’s life, to encounter a revered spiritual leader, create a way to support oneself financially in a foreign country alone and to raise your children in yet another country which will become their home, but never yours.
Reading stories like Kunsang’s is not just an eye-opener into another culture and way of life and another way of dealing with life’s issues, it invites us to practise empathy and patience in the way we interact with foreigners in our own country. Kindness and compassion are there in abundance if we choose to offer them to others and it is stories like Kunsang’s that motivate us to want to extend it.
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.