Karen Greenspan experiences for Lion’s Roar on this brave group of Himalayan Buddhist sisters, who champion gender equality and respect for the surroundings.
“Which strategy to Seto Gumba?” my taxi driver calls out the window each jiffy. Amid the morning cacophony of honking horns, development buzz, and the grating of metallic store gates being pushed open for enterprise, we wind our approach up the slim, snaking streets of the outer ring of Kathmandu. Every shopkeeper, pedestrian, and driver questioned responds with the offhand wave of an arm indicating, “Up the street.” So, together with different sputtering, noisy automobiles, we proceed up the steep incline.
Lastly, we break freed from the site visitors to finish our ascent to Seto Gumba—the “White Monastery”—which is the locals’ title for the Druk Amitabha Mountain Monastery advanced. It sits excessive above the dusty, congested hustle and bustle of Kathmandu and feels a world away.
The location was acquired in 1989 by His Holiness the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa, the dynamic non secular chief of the Drukpa lineage of Himalayan Buddhism. It’s now residence to Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery, a middle for non secular follow and humanitarian causes. Approaching the monastery, I’ve my first glimpse of the Drukpa nuns and their hands-on stewardship. They’re forming a roadside cleansing element.
The Drukpa nuns are trailblazers, fearlessly addressing gender equality, the surroundings, and different points demanding compassionate social motion. Within the well-liked press they’re often known as the “Kung Fu Nuns” due to their rigorous each day follow of the martial artwork, which they use to spark dialogue and lift consciousness concerning the poor remedy of girls and women in Nepal and India. This previous fall they made their first journey to america to obtain the distinguished Sport Changer Award from the Asia Society, along with attending discussions on the United Nations about human trafficking in post-earthquake Nepal, all of the whereas rocking audiences with demonstrations of their martial arts abilities.
I arrive at Seto Gumba with its a whole bunch of multicolor, strung prayer flags fluttering within the wind, crisscrossing and connecting the pristine white buildings. Drukpa nun Jigme Choeky greets me together with her smiling face and excellent English. She got here to the nunnery from her village in North India when she was eighteen years outdated. She’d been impressed by her cousin, a nun at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, which is headed by the famend English librarian turned Drukpa nun, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.
Though the Drukpa nuns obtain lots public consideration for his or her kung fu abilities, I used to be drawn to go to them for an additional purpose—their follow of cham, the sacred dances which are a vital ingredient of Vajrayana Buddhist ritual and follow. These dances are an outward expression in addition to an inside strategy of Vajrayana, which holds bodily embodiment to be the important floor on which enlightened transformation takes place. The cham dances have historically been off limits to Buddhist nuns.
In response to Lopon Jigme Tingdzin, the top administrator of the abbey in addition to the dance grasp who maintains and teaches the dances, the Gyalwang Drukpa entrusted the nuns to carry out spiritual rituals and prayers again in 2001. Then, two years later, he personally started educating them cham as a part of the rituals they had been studying. After observing nuns in Vietnam working towards kung fu, he initiated kung fu coaching for the Drukpa nuns in 2008.
Gyalwang Drukpa is an honorific title given to the non secular head of the thousand-year-old Drukpa custom. The present Gyalwang Drukpa, who’s the twelfth within the lineage, has been a relentless champion of gender equality. He based his first nunnery in 1992 and immediately he’s answerable for 4 communities of feminine practitioners—three in Ladakh and the nunnery at Druk Amitabha in Kathmandu.
In part of the world the place women and girls typically have little worth or company over their lives, many have joined underfunded nunneries merely as a refuge from poverty or tough conditions at residence. The Drukpa nuns, who’re devoted to non secular follow and repair to others, are setting an inspiring instance of monasticism as a really significant life choice for girls of the area.
The 350 nuns presently at Druk Amitabha adhere to a demanding schedule. They start every day at 3 a.m. with meditation and morning puja (ritual). Following breakfast, they attend courses in sacred dance, mandala choices, English, Tibetan, kung fu, and many others. After lunch they stick with it with courses, textual content memorization, night puja, one other two hours of meditation, and mattress at 10 p.m. A mere couple of tea breaks punctuate the afternoon and night.
Jigme Choeky introduces me to a few of her Drukpa sisters, all clad in radiant crimson robes and beret-style Drukpa caps. As Jigme Choeky makes the introductions, I be aware that every nun’s title begins with Jigme. She explains that Jigme means “fearless one” and is a prefix given to every nun alongside together with her dharma title upon ordination.
I’ve had encounters with underprivileged nuns residing in impoverished circumstances within the Buddhist Himalayas, and in my expertise they’re often shy and retiring. However these Jigmes carry themselves utterly in another way. They’re fearless! They perform as an elite brigade of heroic fashions for girls’s empowerment and guardian protectors of the surroundings.
Their ethos of fearlessness is exemplified by their dedicated participation in a transformational replace of the age-old custom of pad yatra (strolling pilgrimage). The primary “Eco Pad Yatra” in 2009 concerned a whole bunch of Drukpa nuns, monks, and laypeople. They trekked for a number of hundred miles within the high-altitude reaches of Ladakh, clearing rubbish from streams and paths, advising rural villagers about environmental stewardship, and offering spiritual companies.
The yatra has change into a defining annual occasion, every year to a distinct vacation spot. Now they’ve additionally expanded to bicycle yatras. With this innovation they set off on frequent half-day biking pilgrimages via Kathmandu to advertise eco-friendly transportation as they go to sacred websites. You’ll be able to think about the feeling created by a brigade of nuns biking round city en masse—not in monastic robes, however quite, in glossy black and purple biking gear, sneakers, and shades!
We take a stroll across the campus and climb up the central stairway previous the dramatic, gleaming statues of Buddha Amitabha and the fourth Gyalwang Drukpa (the illustrious Pema Karpo), that are located on successive tiers. Then, simply across the nook, there they’re—a gaggle of little shaven-headed novices dressed of their maroon martial arts uniforms, taking a break after their morning lesson. The youngest, Jigme Ratna Devi, is seven years outdated. Throughout the open-sided kung fu pavilion geared up with blue gymnastic ground mats, two achieved nun instructors follow a short however formidable sequence wielding gleaming broadswords. The nuns work with different conventional weapons as effectively, together with sabers, halberds, lances, and nunchaku (two bars connected by a sequence). Their kung fu coaching not solely builds sturdy our bodies, good posture, and self-confidence, it additionally cultivates self-discipline, consciousness, and stabilized focus—abilities vital for meditation follow.
Lopen Jigme Tingdzin shares, “Initially, the kung fu coaching was a totally new and unfamiliar expertise—however thrilling. Coming from a small village in Ladakh, I had by no means even seen it earlier than.” She laughs as she recollects, “It was so tough and painful at first; there have been days we might hardly stroll. Though we had been already dancing cham, we had been unused to the intense stretching and vary of motion. However quickly all of us felt the deep sense of confidence, power, and independence produced by the coaching.”
Lopen Tingdzin now feels kung fu is an indispensable instrument for younger women. Inside a couple of years of starting martial arts coaching, the nuns began providing self-defense workshops for ladies in Ladakh and Delhi. Once I ask if there have been issues for the nuns’ security and safety, she replies, “On this area, ladies all the time really feel susceptible.”
Additional alongside on our stroll, three nuns supply to reveal a easy, lilting dance for me—proper there on the sidewalk. They sing as they transfer in a line in a single path after which reverse course, often lifting one leg within the air. Their arms gently stream with the motion. This dance, which is carried out to a track by the eleventh-
century Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa, is a folksy distinction to the extreme martial artwork type practiced within the close by pavilion. The nuns carry out this explicit dharma dance, referred to as Gurma Cham, for particular events. It definitely feels particular to see it intimately.
Lastly we enter the grand Nagarjuna Temple, newly renovated for the reason that 2015 Nepal earthquake. The magnificent inside, constructed to seat two thousand folks, is wealthy with different treasured supplies and elaborate element. My eye is straight away drawn to the big central gold statue of Padmasambhava, often known as Guru Rinpoche. It’s complemented by a background mural painted azure blue with white curlicue clouds and accompanied by golden statues of standing and seated buddhas and bodhisattvas. Thick, darkish wooden columns are ornately carved with numerous niches housing small Buddha statues, whereas further enlightened beings are at the back of the corridor, hovering in a glass gallery.
The nuns and I sit down on the grass-green carpet to debate their cham follow. At their nunnery, they make it clear, “All people learns kung fu and all people learns the dharma dances.” Initially the Gyalwang Drukpa taught them two dances. One was the Nga Cham, a drum dance carried out as a celebratory providing that they dance attired of their common robes draped with golden capes. The opposite was Kunthub Cham, which is carried out to take away obstacles by 4 dancers carrying wrathful masks. Subduing negativity and obstacles is usually enacted via particular cham at first of non secular rituals. These practices and plenty of different facets of cham had been strongly influenced by pre-Buddhist, indigenous beliefs of the area.
Once I ask concerning the preliminary response to their cham performances, the nuns gentle up as they recount that many followers from the lay group cried on the shocking sight. “You see,” they inform me, “everybody has such nice religion in His Holiness and his imaginative and prescient that they had been moved to tears.” I ask concerning the response from the male practitioners and so they haven’t a lot to say. So I pursue this query later with Lopon Jigme Tingdzin.
“After we carried out Kunthub Cham for the primary time, the male practitioners and nice masters in attendance had been shocked,” she says. “It had by no means been completed earlier than. We had been the primary feminine practitioners to carry out dances. Many expressed criticism, and a few masters even referred to as it an inauspicious omen. However we by no means stopped.
“After all, everybody understood that His Holiness was educating us immediately. So, over time it turned accepted and ultimately, even admired. Now the Drukpa monks are accustomed to seeing us carry out cham in addition to act as chant masters for ritual occasions. Nevertheless, outdoors of the lineage, there may be nonetheless criticism.”
The nuns have since added many extra cham to their repertoire, together with a number of dakini dances. For these dakini cham, the dancers put on elaborate silk brocade clothes overlaid with delicate aprons made from bone ornaments. On their heads, they put on wigs of cascading, lengthy, skinny, black braids topped with a five-lobed circlet. The protruding topknot within the middle signifies enlightenment.
Dakini (Sanskrit), or khandro (Tibetan), represents the female precept of knowledge, or spacious consciousness. Nonetheless, dakini dances are historically carried out by slender younger monks—by no means ladies—as cham and all ritual efficiency was a website restricted to males. The truth that ladies are performing them now could be a major improvement. A number of years in the past Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo despatched 5 nuns from her nunnery in North India to Druk Amitabha to study the dakini dances. Now they too are dancing these cham at ritual occasions.
I ask the nuns in the event that they carry out any Shanag Cham. These dances are the only purview of extremely achieved practitioners, and, sure, they carry out them! Decked in robes with copious sleeves, lengthy aprons painted with fierce deities, white boots, and tall black hats topped with symbols, the nuns dance essentially the most highly effective of sacred dances—Zor Cham. The dancers act as wrathful dharma protectors as they carry out mudras holding a three-bladed dagger, a sacred implement utilized in rituals for dispelling obstacles. Zor Cham is a dance part of a seven-day annual ritual. The zor is a pyramidal dough construction into which malevolent spirits are corralled via meditation and prayer. Within the climactic conclusion to the ritual, the zor is hurled right into a bonfire in a symbolic exorcism of negativity. The required preparation for this dance is every week of silent meditation.
The nuns acknowledge that they’ve a singular alternative in performing these dances. The extent of their cham follow and their openness about it’s a telling barometer of change. Although the skin world is wowed by the kung fu chops the nuns have mastered, the truth that they’re equally skillful within the efficiency of cham and different dharma actions has shifted their countrymen’s attitudes on ladies’s potential and gender equality.
These ladies are fearless ones.