This is a story of two women hermits, separated by great geographical distance, but fairly close in time, and very close in spirit and attitude and orientation. This is also a story of two persons who overcame the misogyny of their cultures, secular and religious, and lived out their transcendent calling to light our path to the Absolute Reality which is the ground of our being.
The first one to be considered is Orgyan Chokyi, a Tibetan Buddhist nun and a hermitess. The dates given for her are 1675 – 1729. There are many remarkable facts about this person, but two just for starters: she actually wrote an autobiography—how unusual and amazing that is for a hermit and a woman in that setting to do so, and then most amazing of all the manuscript was lost until it was discovered in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery sometime around 1990 and recently translated. Otherwise we would not know anything about her! The Life of Orgyan Chokyi is translated into English with commentary in Himalayan Hermitess: The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun, by Kurtis R. Schaeffer
So she was born in 1675 in a remote area of the Himalayas, which today is in the North East part of Nepal. It was a hard life in an arid and rocky terrain, depending on herding for a livelihood (she herded goats); and with the ever-present possibility of warfare, violence, famine, disease, and enforced labor. The religious culture of the institutional lamas formed a kind of religious elite, but popular religiosity (as always and everywhere—including Christianity) was also very prevalent with its many “sacred figures”, magic, and varied superstitions. But for our purposes the key characteristic was the misogyny of the culture, so true of many traditional cultures and carried over into modern society in many hidden ways. This misogyny is then incorporated into religious doctrine and “poisons the well” of each and every religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc. With both religion and culture telling women that they are in fact inferior, they then in turn internalize this and accept it as real and true. In Buddhism there was a tendency to see liberation as for men only, and so a woman had to “become a man” as it were in order to achieve liberation. The same kind of thing you saw happening in the Egyptian desert among the early Christian desert monks, for whom praise for a woman hermit consisted in claiming she had finally “become a man” or was equal now to a man. Femaleness in and of itself was never regarded as a “divine manifestation” or a bearer of “absolute reality.” It’s with this as a background that you need to come to this remarkable woman hermit.
This is from a description of the book by the publisher:
“Himalayan Hermitess is a vivid account of the life and times of a Buddhist nun living on the borderlands of Tibetan culture. Orgyan Chokyi spent her life in Dolpo, the highest inhabited region of the Nepal Himalayas. Illiterate and expressly forbidden by her master to write her own life story, Orgyan Chokyi received divine inspiration, defied tradition, and composed one of the most engaging autobiographies of the Tibetan literary tradition.
The Life of Orgyan Chokyi is the oldest known autobiography authored by a Tibetan woman, and thus holds a critical place in both Tibetan and Buddhist literature. In it she tells of the sufferings of her youth, the struggle to escape menial labor and become a hermitess, her dreams and visionary experiences, her relationships with other nuns, the painstaking work of contemplative practice, and her hard-won social autonomy and high-mountain solitude. In process it develops a compelling vision of the relation between gender, the body, and suffering from a female Buddhist practitioner’s perspective.
Part One of Himalayan Hermitess presents a religious history of Orgyan Chokyi’s Himalayan world, the Life of Orgyan Chokyi as a work of literature, its portrayal of sorrow and joy, its perspectives on suffering and gender, as well as the diverse religious practices found throughout the work. Part Two offers a full translation of the Life of Orgyan Chokyi. Based almost entirely upon Tibetan documents never before translated, Himalayan Hermitess is an accessible introduction to Buddhism in the premodern Himalayas.”
There is also this review of the book in a journal of Tibetan Studies:
Now the book itself might not be everyone’s cup of tea in that it is a long and scholarly tome—the actual autobiography is only about 60 pages long while most of the book is about the Tibetan background and history of this period. At least a couple of Amazon reviewers were disenchanted by what they found—too scholarly I guess. But there is a lovely summary of the whole book and the Life part especially in Hermitary and here is the link to that:
I think the Hermitary summary at the end is just about perfect:
“The Life of Orgyan Chokyi testifies to an arduous path toward solitude. We witness the rigors of spiritual practice culminating in eremitism, a pattern analogous to early Christian practice. The translator points out other analogies with women spiritual figures in the West. Regardless of doctrinal discouragement, Orgyan Chokyi persisted in the methods of meditation, fully conscious of her suffering and her status as a woman. The example of her perseverance encourages the reader to understand that our circumstances and environment, however strong their negative influence, are distinct from mind and consciousness. That any one person could overcome the circumstances of culture, society, family, and institutionalism is an inspiration to the human spirit.”
The other hermitess that we will discuss is Sarah Bishop. She is closer to us in place and time, but actually probably more mysterious in that we have very little information about her. She was born about two decades before the American Revolution in what is now the State of New York, Long Island I believe. During the Revolutionary War British soldiers burned her house down, killed her family and kidnapped her and raped her. She eventually escaped them but never returned to “normal” human society but lived in the woods as a hermitess somewhere on the border of New York and Connecticut. At first, as you can well imagine, it was probably simply the trauma and nightmare of her experience with the British soldiers that drove her into this solitude, but eventually this solitude proved to be healing and it then transformed her life into something transcending all the usual human categories and designations and limitations. It must be remembered that rape is primarily a brutal crime of domination and degradation of the female by the male, and it is toward this wound that her solitude was a healing and an overcoming.
For almost three decades she lived in the woods with a shallow cave as her home. People from the nearby town accepted her in her mysterious presence but had no explanation for what she was about. Here we have several accounts from some contemporaries of hers who happened to have met her in the woods and later wrote about it:
There is a little-known essay by Thomas Merton, written in the late 1950s, and I believe it appears only in the collection Disputed Questions. Its title is “Notes Toward a Philosophy of Solitude.” It is probably his most profound thinking on solitude and the hermit life. And what is striking is that he is not so much interested in the person who has a “clear” vocation to solitude and ends up in one of the recognized monastic orders or as a canonical hermit, etc. The life of these people is very clear and straightforward even if it does involve a lot of interior “difficulties.” No, it is not about these that Merton reflects on here, but rather he ponders those various individuals from various backgrounds who find themselves in an enigmatic solitude, almost inspite of themselves and not because of some clear idea of what they are called to live. This is a solitude that one is thrown into, a solitude that is inexplicable, perhaps even anguish-riddled, perhaps totally unsought for. It is not so much that a person chooses this solitude; rather it is Solitude itself that chooses this person. And this person finds himself/herself immersed in a solitude that they cannot explain to anyone else, but their silence and peace is “telling”—for solitude here is the sacrament of the Deep Self where you are one with Absolute Reality and in communion with all.
But this is not a solitude that is socially approved even by a religious institution, nor by its very nature even understandable to anyone. And the solitary one cannot look into a mirror and see his/her own solitariness as something approvable and commendable. Its bare simplicity, perhaps its “shabbiness,” perhaps its countercultural aspects that make it “unacceptable” in “ordinary society,” perhaps its personal pain, all or any of these are a truly potent “veil” that hides even from the solitary one the true meaning of that solitude. It breaks the bounds of what any society can “recognize.” In a sense this solitude was prefigured by the Divine Cloud in the Old Testament, the mysterious Presence of the Divine. In any case, for Sarah Bishop war and man had brutalized her, impoverished her totally, and dehumanized her completely; but in the subsequent solitude Sarah Bishop discovered something that far transcended both her and our limited humanity and feeble articulations.