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Originally published Friday, May 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Daughters of Wisdom": All work — and some joyful play — in a utopian monastery

"Women are born into suffering," says a Buddhist nun in Bari Pearlman's mesmerizing documentary "Daughters of Wisdom. " No doubt. But for the Tibetan...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Daughters of Wisdom," a documentary written and directed by Bari Pearlman. 68 minutes. Not rated; suitable for middle-school kids and up. In Tibetan with English subtitles. Grand Illusion.

"Women are born into suffering," says a Buddhist nun in Bari Pearlman's mesmerizing documentary "Daughters of Wisdom."

No doubt. But for the Tibetan holy woman voicing that observation, the statement has a profound double meaning. The nuns of Buddhist monastery Kala Rongo — set in an Edenic valley in Nangchen, below monolithic peaks of white-and-pink rock — believe the labors and burdens of women in the ordinary world are major distractions from the pursuit of enlightenment.

Yet Kala Rongo is no picnic, either, despite many scenes in the film of spontaneous joy suggesting the happy, Tibetan-like paradise of Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" was really onto something. Women of all ages live an austere if colorful existence at Kala Rongo, working outdoors, building additions to the monastery, cooking and cleaning.

On top of that daily, chop-wood-carry-water ethic, the more ambitious seekers of a clear mind — trying to become free of the cycle of reincarnation — spend years in intense meditation. Cut off from family and friends, they can spend most of their days painfully cross-legged in tight boxes.

But perhaps the greatest trial for the nuns of Kala Rongo is their uniqueness. Before the Communist Chinese army banned Buddhism and began destroying spiritual and education centers in Tibet, Nangchen was a haven for such places, serving men and women alike.

With the crackdown beginning in 1958, the lama who created and guided Kala Rongo fled to America. It took many years for the Chinese government to approve the reopening of the monastery, and even then the nuns had to work against a cultural bias claiming women are unfit for the discipline of their practices.

Pearlman's remarkable access to events at Kala Rongo — including the emotional return of its founding lama a few years ago — dismisses such silly arguments. The rigors of meditation and communal living are hard but not harsh. The nuns who speak to Pearlman in humble, hushed voices clearly have a sense of freedom living beyond the wants of mainstream life. One nun even received permission from the lama to live in a cave.

The film's subject matter is compelling enough. But what really makes "Daughters of Wisdom" a magical experience is the way Pearlman captures life in that valley. Open and expansive, the endless green fields and hills below those bold peaks have a utopian quality, full of the laughter of people engaged in work and play (a tug-of-war contest with a long rope is an unexpected treat). Kala Rongo and a couple of other structures, including a new monastic college, blend gracefully with the fantastic, natural backdrop.

If this is what slowing the cycle of existence looks like, one could do worse.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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