The Story of a Nun from Geden Choeling: Gyaltsen

The names have been changed to protect the identity of the individual and her family.

I was born near Lake Nam Tso in Tibet. I had two elder sisters, two elder brothers, and two younger sisters. We lived in a big, black tent most of the time, allowing our herds of sheep, goats, and yak to graze. We traveled by horseback. We lived a pure nomadic lifestyle.

I used to go with my sister Ngawang to take the goats and sheep out to graze. I learned how to control them by watching other people. We had a whip and I would whistle to the dogs to herd the sheep. At night we would bring the sheep into a pen because we had many problems with wolves.

It was bitterly cold and it was always snowing. We lived in sheepskin coats with the wool turned in towards our skin. It would be so cold that the men’s moustaches would freeze! We would cook inside the tent on yak-dung fires. There was a big hole in the centre of the tent so that the smoke went straight out. We used oil lamps and candles for light at night.

For entertainment we held picnics and we sang songs and danced and drank chang (Tibetan barley beer) — such as at Losar (New Year) and weddings.

Each month the Chinese came and collected taxes in the form of butter, cheese, meat, and animal skins. They took everything quite freely and gave us a little money in exchange for only at the fraction of their value.

My sister became a nun one year before me. When I told my parents that I also wanted to be a nun, they were pleased. My cousin came to Sera monastery with me and I offered my hair to Geshe Senge-la. I was 20 at the time. I then entered Gari Nunnery, situated high in hills behind Lhasa. There were only 26 nuns, so it was very quiet — like my life as a nomad.

The nunnery had been destroyed following the Chinese invasion of 1959, so we lived in caves, going outside to do our prayers. We had no comforts at all. When the snow fell and it blew inside our cave we had to dig it out with our bare hands. The rain also caused problems.

The money to build the nunnery had been raised by the older nuns. It took six years to rebuild and it was still not complete when I left. These nuns were very well educated and had memorized many texts. All the sacred books had been thrown into a pyre when the nunnery was destroyed so they were rewriting the texts from memory. There was no time to teach Buddhist philosophy but they planned to begin once the nunnery was finished. Sometimes Geshe came and taught us.

In 1989, I took part in the pro-independence demonstrations and was arrested. When I was in prison I was severely tortured. I was kept in prison for seven months and after my release I returned to Gari for 20 days. The old nuns nursed me because I was so ill. The Chinese came to Gari and announced the names of the nuns who were to be dismissed — I was one of them. So I returned to my family for two months. My mother spent a long time talking with me because I was still in a state of shock and was silent and withdrawn.

The nuns at Gari called me back and so I returned for five months. I couldn’t understand why they had asked me back, until I heard it was an order from the Chinese in order to prevent me from participating in further demonstrations.

I decided to leave for India. I made my escape with my prison-mate’s brother. He took me close to the border in his truck along with forty other people. I came to Dharamsala because I wanted a blessing from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. At the time I didn’t know about Geden Choeling. When I first arrived at the reception center in Dharamsala, it was so crowded with refugees that I had to sleep on the roof, just wrapped in a blanket. Now, at last, I am very happy to live here at Geden Choeling.