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Tilokpur Nunnery and the Great Yogi Tilopa

Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling is situated at Tilokpur in Himachal Pradesh, northern India. Their lineage comes from the great Indian Yogi Tilopa (988-1069 CE) and was passed on to Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and to His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa.

The nunnery is built near the cave of Tilopa, who meditated there for 12 years and attained enlightenment. The cave is located above a river and is a place of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists.

Tibetan nuns puja opposite cave of Tilopa

The nuns perform a puja on the riverbank opposite the cave of Tilopa.

Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling is the oldest Kagyu nunnery outside of Tibet. It provides housing and education to over 110 nuns and overlooks a small town in the lush foothills of the Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh in northern India. The nunnery is about 40 kilometers from Dharamsala and is near the highway from Mandi to Pathankot.

young Tibetan Buddhist nun performs a puja at Tilokpur

A young Tibetan Buddhist nun takes part in a puja at the nunnery. The nuns have been practicing new pujas as well as the damaru (drum) and bells as they work to improve their ritual skills such as chanting and the use of different musical instruments.

There are two branches of Tilokpur Nunnery. The older compound, called Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling, is now home to about 20 senior nuns who engage in intensive meditation practices and perform daily prayers. It is also home to 11 of the nunnery’s youngest nuns who are being given a basic education in Tibetan, English, and math. The newer branch of the nunnery, called Drubten Pemo Gaype Gatsal, is located down the hill and accommodates nuns engaged in intensive studies. There the nuns have classes in Tibetan, English, Buddhist philosophy, debate, and computing.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating outside the nunnery

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating outside the nunnery

The nuns at Tilokpur range in age from 9 to 88 and many are from very poor families. Most are Tibetan, but there are also nuns from the Indian Himalayan regions of Kinnaur, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, and from the Mustang region of Nepal.

Tilokpur Nunnery was founded in the early 1960s by Mrs. Freda Bedi to assist nuns arriving in India after escaping from the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Freda Bedi (1911–1977) was a British nun ordained by the Karmapa. As Sister Palmo she became famous as the first Western woman to take ordination in Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan nuns debate at Tilokpur

The nuns debate at the nunnery. Debate is a vital part of Tibetan monastic education. For the last two years, the nuns have participated in the Kagyu nuns’ debate session held every winter.

Establishing the nunnery was fraught with difficulties. According to a biography of Sister Palmo, Lady of Realisation, the nuns and Sister Palmo lived in grass huts as the nunnery was being built. The huts were accidentally destroyed by fire and, though Sister Palmo survived, she lost many precious Tibetan Buddhist texts that she was translating into English.

Sister Palmo wrote: “Our gonpa… the nunnery… building is something of an odyssey. We are clearing bricks and mud from the floor of the ruined fort on the top of the hill. Seems like a mountain. Tibetan and India labour with the nuns of all sizes, including me, carrying stones for an hour a day. Our little nuns carry pebbles.”

Tibetan Buddhist nun and her teacher

A nun studies with her teacher. The new academic year started in March and subjects include Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan, English, and math.

Tilokpur remains a relatively small nunnery and, in the past, the nuns there had been hampered in their abilities to develop and sustain themselves by the general lack of education.

The Tibetan Nuns Project began supporting the nunnery in 1992 and has helped Tilokpur Nunnery start regular classes in Tibetan, Buddhist philosophy, and English. The Tibetan Nuns Project has also helped the Tilokpur nuns purchase new books, including Buddhist philosophy and math textbooks.

The nunnery office is now also better equipped technically with a new computer, fax, and printer and two nuns have completed a month-long computer-training course. The nuns have also formed a management committee that is administering the internal activities of the nunnery. About 100 nuns at Tilokpur are  sponsored through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Buddhist nuns worship near cave of Tilopa

The nuns worship by the river near the cave of Tilopa.

Tilopa gave his most famous student Naropa a teaching called the “Six Words of Advice”, the text of which survives only in its Tibetan translation. This profound teaching has been translated into English in both a short and longer form and goes as follows:

Don’t recall – Let go of what has passed
Don’t imagine – Let go of what may come
Don’t think – Let go of what is happening now
Don’t examine – Don’t try to figure anything out
Don’t control – Don’t try to make anything happen
Rest – Relax, right now, and rest

Tibetan Butter Sculpture

The art of making sculptures out of butter has been practiced for over 400 years by monks in the monasteries in Tibet. This highly revered artistic tradition is now being preserved by monks and nuns in living in India as refugees.

Tibetan nuns making butter sculptures for Losar

Tibetan nuns decorate a traditional offering box for Tibetan New Year or Losar with colorful butter sculptures.

Butter sculptures can be huge and impressive or tiny and intricate. They are used as offerings or as part of elaborate rituals and celebrations, particularly during Losar, Tibetan New Year.

Tibetan butter sculpture

A nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India makes an elaborate colored flower out of butter.

It is the practice in Buddhism to offer flowers as a tribute to Buddha statues on altars. However, in winter when no fresh flowers can be found, flowers sculpted from butter are made as an offering.

butter sculptures, Tibetan New Year, Losar, chemar bo

Elaborate and colorful butter sculptures of flowers and Buddhist sacred symbols decorate an offering table for Losar or Tibetan New Year. These sculptures were made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery in northern India. In the lower left, you can see a sheep or ram made of butter.

Butter has always been highly valued in Tibetan culture. Its availability and its malleable quality in the cold climate of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas made it an ideal material for sculpting.

Tibetan butter sculpture sheep or ram

A Tibetan Buddhist nun creates a sheep out of butter as she learns the ancient art of making Tibetan butter sculptures.

Making butter sculptures requires painstaking skill, learned from an excellent teacher and through years of practice. Like the famous Tibetan sand mandalas, butter sculptures are a unique Tibetan sacred art that is handed down from teacher to student.

The increasing shortage of well-trained and skilled butter sculptors in Tibet means that it is crucial that in India the nuns learn this religious art as part of their course of studies in order to keep it from dying out.

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make butter sculpture

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make butter sculpture

At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India, nuns have been learning how to make butter sculptures from their excellent teacher Gen. Karma-la. He carefully takes them through all the steps and the significance of each butter sculpture technique. He says the nuns make excellent students, with their keen sense of color and design, their nimble fingers, and their endless patience.

The Need for a Butter Sculpture Workshop

Creating butter sculptures in the hot climate of India is, as you can imagine, problematic. The workshop room must be cool and have access to cold water in which to lay the butter and cool the nuns’ fingers.

Until now, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery have been using a makeshift space at the nunnery that gets very hot. They are only able to make sculptures during the very coldest months. Now a suitable space has been located in the nunnery that, with renovations, will be ideal.

materials for Tibetan butter sculpture

Rounds of butter, dyes, and other tools for making butter sculpture are laid out in preparation for making butter sculptures for Tibetan New Year at Dolma Ling Nunnery.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is raising funds to help create a butter sculpture workshop at Dolma Ling Nunnery. The total cost of the project is US $2,500, but at the time of posting this blog $500 dollars had been raised, so only $2,000 is needed to fully fund the workshop.

To support the creation of the butter sculpture workshop you can:

  1. Make a gift online at https://tnp.org/butter-sculpture-workshop/
  2. Call our office at 1-206-652-8901
  3. Mail a check to:
    The Tibetan Nuns Project
    815 Seattle Boulevard South #216
    Seattle, WA 98134 USA

Thank you for your help in preserving this ancient art that, with the occupation of Tibet, is so under threat.