Category Archives: Buddhist Nuns Life

Life at Tibetan Buddhist Nunneries During COVID-19 Pandemic

Here’s our monthly update on life at some Tibetan Buddhist nunneries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tibetan Nuns Project supports seven nunneries in northern India.

This month, India reported a surge in COVID-19 cases even as the nationwide lockdown eased. India now has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world. Hospitals are swamped in the worst-hit cities of Mumbai, New Delhi, and Chennai. Experts predict that the infection rate in India will continue to rise through July. On June 19, a new lockdown will go into effect for the 15 million people in Chennai.

This is worrying news for the tens of thousands of Tibetans refugees who live in India. The Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala has issued special guidelines for nunneries and monasteries.

The nuns are doing their best to adhere to physical distancing, the use of face masks in public spaces, hand and respiratory hygiene, and environmental sanitation.

Health checks for Tibetan Buddhist nuns during coronavirus pandemic

Tibetan Buddhist nuns get their temperatures checked during health checks at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Geshema Exams Postponed

Each year, the nuns sitting various levels of the four-year Geshema examinations gather together for one month of final exam preparations and then for about 12 days of exams.

The Geshema exams, normally held each August, are being tentatively postponed to October 1. This year’s venue for the Geshema exams will be Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.

Nuns often travel long distances to take the exams, such as from Nepal and South India. With the number of COVID-19 cases in India rising and with stricter travel rules from Nepal, the committee decided to postpone the exams to lessen the risk of infection. Last year, all 50 nuns took who took Geshema exams passed.

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

The nunnery is closed until the end of June. The nuns are still not getting together in groups so there are no classes, pujas etc. In lieu of face-to-face classes, some philosophy teachers are recording their lessons using an mp3 player and sharing the files with their students.

Each year, during the holy month of Saga Dawa, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute read the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon or Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha.

Saga Dawa Tibetan Buddhist nuns reading Kangyur 2020

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling maintain physical distance while reading the Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha. Photos courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

After finishing the reading the Kangyur texts, the nuns had a two-day break with free time to themselves.

COVID-life Dolma Ling, Two Tibetan Buddhist nuns wearing masks

COVID life at Dolma Ling. Thank you for helping to support the nuns during this difficult period.

Shugsep Nunnery and Institute

The nuns at Shugsep have been organizing a few classes each day and have now decided to follow their normal schedule. They are once again performing pujas or prayers, so if you have a puja request you can make it here.

The Shugsep Khenpo and the senior nuns who were in Bylakupee, South India, have returned safely to the nunnery and are currently in two weeks of quarantine.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery

According to the latest news, all the nuns at Sherab Choeling nunnery are safe and well. To mark Saga Dawa, the nuns read special puja texts including:

– Yum Puthi Chunyi (a full reading of all the 12 volumes of the Perfection of Wisdom in the Kangyur, the 108-volume set of the words of the Buddha)
– Dolma (the Tara puja)
Dukkar Tsezung for all sentient beings (This a long-life ritual focused on Sitapatrā, Goddess with the White Umbrella, who appears from the Buddha’s uṣṇīṣa.)
– Reading pages from each Kangyur book (Called shal chad, this is the “opening and partial reading of the entire canon. To read it all would take too long so each volume is opened and a bit of it read.)

Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Saga Dawa

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery marked the holy month of Saga Dawa with prayers, the lighting of butter lamps, fasting, and vows.

During the holy month of Saga Dawa, the nuns also received puja requests from villagers for their late family members and for their own well being. The nuns also offered Menla, the Medicine Buddha ritual as requested by many people. Most of the nuns fasted during the entire month, taking no meals after lunch. On the 15th of the holy month, they took Thekchen Sojung, the eight Mahāyāna vows.

Earlier Updates on Life at Tibetan Nunneries During the Pandemic

Since March, we’ve been providing regular updates on life at some Tibetan nunneries in India during the coronavirus pandemic. Each update has photos and news from some or all of the seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. Here’s a list of earlier updates:

Latest News on Coronavirus Lockdown and Tibetan Nunneries

Here is the latest news on the coronavirus lockdown at the Tibetan nunneries and how the nuns in India are coping.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns distribute food during coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus lockdown, Dolma Ling nuns, food relief

Compassion in action. Tibetan Buddhist nuns from Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute share their rations with 100 of the poorest village families near the nunnery. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

New Statement from His Holiness the Dalai Lama on May 3rd

On Sunday, His Holiness the Dalai Lama issued a new statement calling on people to come together and give a “coordinated, global response” to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said we must focus on what unites us as members of one human family and reach out to each other with compassion.

His Holiness said, “Our human capacity to reason and to see things realistically gives us the ability to transform hardship into opportunity. This crisis and its consequences serve as a warning that only by coming together in a coordinated, global response, will we meet the unprecedented magnitude of the challenges we face. I pray we all heed ‘The Call to Unite’.”

Tibetan Administration Extends Coronavirus Lockdown

On May 1st, the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala called for an additional 30 days of lockdown for nunneries, monasteries, Tibetan settlements, old age homes, and schools.

The Indian lockdown was set to expire on May 3rd and on Friday it was extended for another two weeks to May 18th. However, the Central Tibetan Administration has called for a full 80 days of lockdown for Tibetan communities scheduled to end on June 5th, coinciding with the full moon day of Saga Dawa.

Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay said the curve in India is rising daily and that the risk of transmission will be greater than ever, given India’s densely packed population. He advised Tibetans in settlements to avoid coronavirus hotspots and not to come to Dharamshala, for the safety of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration. He praised the relief efforts of various monastic institutions and others and asked those distributing food to the poor to maintain social distancing.

Tibetan nuns, Dolma Ling, coronavirus lockdown, food distribution

Sharing is caring. The nuns at Dolma Ling gather rice, flour, sugar, cooking oil, and tea from their rations to share with their poorest neighbours. These Indian families are day laborers unable to work and afford food during the coronavirus lockdown. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

Update on Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar

At Dorjee Zong Nunnery, a 700-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in Zanskar, the younger nuns from nearby villages have temporarily left the nunnery to stay with their families. These young nuns cannot stay at Dorjee Zong during the lockdown because there is not enough space to house them in separate quarters or to follow safe social distancing measures. Their elder siblings who have returned home are helping the younger children with their studies.

Seven elder nuns remain at the nunnery and spend most of their time reciting mantras and following their daily rituals. Two senior nuns are taking care of the nunnery complex and the two cows. Since they have the time, they are growing barley and vegetables.

To cope with the severe winters at this remote, high-altitude nunnery, each September the nuns stock up on rations, vegetables, and other essentials, storing enough to get them through May of each year. Soon the roads will open and in June the nuns will once again have access to fresh supplies.

Last year, Dorjee Zong Nunnery began an exciting expansion project. The plan is to build new housing blocks, a prayer hall, kitchen, dining hall, and storeroom. Good progress was made in 2019 during the short construction season.

Dorjee Zong Nunnery, Zanskar, Tibetan Buddhist nunnery

Down the hill from ancient Dorjee Zong Nunnery, a number of new buildings are being constructed. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown mean that further construction will likely be delayed.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be a problem with construction this year. Since most of the labor force comes from Nepal, they may not be able to work due to the strict guidelines imposed by every Indian state. We will continue to report back as we get fresh news.

Life in the Nunneries Under Lockdown

All the nuns and staff are fine, at the time of writing this post.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling social distance and pray, coronavirus lockdown

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery practice social distancing while praying. The nunnery is home to about 240 nuns. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

The nuns are reciting prayers and mantras in their rooms and when they go for kora, circumambulating the nunnery complex. The nuns are spending a lot of time studying on their own.

At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, the nuns shared their food rations with 100 poor village families. The local village administration asked the nunnery for help because many people cannot work and are suffering. This is a very stressful time for people who depend on work to eat, so the nuns were happy to share their food with them.

coronavirus lockdown, life under lockdown, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Dolma Ling

Outside the gates of Dolma Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist nun sanitizes vegetables during the coronavirus lockdown. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

The nuns have also made sure that the two single women employed by Dolma Ling are still being paid even though they are unable to work since the lockdown. These women were also given extra food rations.

The nunneries remain shut. The nuns are being vigilant and guard the gates, making sure no one comes in without good reason and taking sanitization precautions. Shopping for essentials is proceeding smoothly for all the nunneries.

coronavirus lockdown, Dolma Ling, Tibetan Buddhist nuns chores

Even under lockdown, chores continue. The nuns at Dolma Ling work together to clean the large drinking water reservoir. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

In Himachal Pradesh, home to five of the nunneries, the curfew situation has eased slightly.  People are allowed out for morning walks from 5:30 am to 7 am. From 8 am to 12 pm, people may go out to buy essentials and motor vehicles can travel without government passes. The government has allowed many shops to stay open during these hours.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns wearing masks, doing chores at Dolma Ling

Life under lockdown at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute include chores, prayers, and studying on one’s own. Photos courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is very grateful to Charles-Antoine Janssen for his generous gift of over 3,500 masks for the nuns at various nunneries.

donated face masks, Charles-Antoine Janssen

In April, Mr. Charles-Antoine Janssen, Founder and Managing Partner at Kois Invest in Mumbai, donated more than 3,500 masks to the Tibetan Nuns Project for the nuns at various nunneries.

The Tibetan Nuns Project office gave 500 masks to the Nuns’ Committee at Dolma Ling for distribution to nuns and staff and has contacted the other nunneries so that the masks can be quickly collected. The Dolma Ling nuns offered a puja gift for Charles-Antoine Janssen, his wife, and two sons.

Update on the Sherab Choeling Nuns

As we reported in April, in mid-February 44 of the nuns from Sherab Choeling travelled to the town of Hamirpur so that they could continue their philosophy classes.

Then the coronavirus lockdown happened and all classes were suspended. After lots of hard work, the nuns were able to arrange for two buses to take them and their two teachers back to Sherab Choeling. To maintain social distancing, the nuns had to sit apart, requiring more bus space that would be needed under normal circumstances.

Sherab Choeling Nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, social distancing

Sherab Choeling nuns stand apart in circles at a checkpoint en route back to the nunnery. To get back home to Sherab Choeling Nunnery during the coronavirus lockdown, the nuns had to rent two big buses and sit apart from each other.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns’ food and delicious vegetarian recipes

Today we’re taking you behind the scenes to some of the Tibetan Buddhist nunneries supported through the Tibetan Nuns Project. You’ll see what the Tibetan Buddhist nuns eat and how they prepare their food.

Scroll down for four recipes for delicious vegetarian food that you can cook at home.

Tibetan vegetarian recipes collage

A collage of food photos from the Tibetan Buddhist nuns, including vegetarian Tibetan momos, top right. The photo on the left is courtesy of Dustin Kujawski. The photo of Tibetan momos in the top right is courtesy of YoWangdu.

The nunneries in India follow a simple vegetarian diet. The nuns’ diet is influenced by Indian food and local ingredients. With your support, their nutrition has greatly improved over the years.

Tibetan Buddhist nun checking rice

A nun on kitchen duty checks rice. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a typical breakfast might be a piece of flatbread, some cooked mixed vegetables, and tea. Lunch is the main meal of the day and is often rice, two kinds of vegetables, dal, and sometimes fruit. Dinner is often a noodle soup and maybe a steamed bun.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns cooking breakfast

The nuns on kitchen duty at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute rise just past 3 a.m. to start preparing breakfast for the over 280 nuns and staff at the nunnery. In this photo by Brian Harris, a nun is making Indian-style flatbreads on a griddle.

vegetable storeroom at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

It takes a lot of vegetables to feed about 250 nuns. A few years ago, the kitchen at Dolma Ling was expanded and this new storage room was built. It is designed to keep birds and animals out and has a special chopping area.

For 2,500 years, since the time of the Buddha, it has been considered an act of merit to give food to monks and nuns. As Milarepa, the great Tibetan yogi and poet, said, “The practitioner and benefactor offering food create the cause to achieve enlightenment together.”

In the seven nunneries in northern India supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, the nuns work together to prepare food for the entire nunnery. While the nunneries do their best to be self-sufficient, all of them are still heavily reliant for food support through our sponsorship program and through general donations.

young Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery eating

Young nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti sit in the warm sun and eat. The nunnery is located in the remote, high-altitude region of Spiti in northern India. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Good health and nutrition are essential for the nuns to be able to study. The majority of nuns came to India as refugees from Tibet and most arrived destitute, malnourished, and ill. As refugees without their families and traditional communities to support them, they rely more than ever on the compassion and generosity of others. Providing the nuns with a steady supply of nutritious food makes a dramatic difference in the energy they are able to devote to their studies.

Tibetan-Buddhist-nuns-roasting-tsampa

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute roast barley to make tsampa, the staple food of the Tibetan people. Once roasted, the barley is ground into flour and mixed with Tibetan tea for a high-energy meal.

Food at Remote Nunneries

The nuns in remote nunneries, such as Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti and Dorjee Zong in Zanskar, have difficult living conditions. These two nunneries are located in high-altitude, arid regions where the growing season is short. The nuns face long, harsh winters and must stock up on supplies of food and cooking fuel well before the onset of cold weather.

kitchen at Tibetan Buddhist nunnery Sherab Choeling

The simple kitchen at Sherab Choeling Nunnery is one of the warmest parts of the nunnery in winter. During the coldest months, the nuns hold their classes, prayers, and meetings in the kitchen because it is warmer and helps to save wood.

At Sherab Choeling Nunnery, the nuns work hard during the summer months to grow food for the long winter. During the summer, the nuns grow spinach, beans, peas, and wheat.

Tibetan Buddhist nun working in greenhouse in Spiti

The nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Indian Himalayas have three greenhouses where they mostly grow spinach. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Vegetarian Recipes

recipe for Tibetan noodle soup thenthuk

Tibetan noodle soup, thenthuk. This comfort food is a common noodle soup in Tibetan cuisine, especially in Amdo, Tibet.

Here are some recipes from past blog posts for typical dishes that the nuns eat.

Daily Life at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti Valley India

In the remote Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, lies Sherab Choeling Nunnery, currently home to about 65 Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Many of the nuns are sponsored by Tibetan Nuns Project donors.

Tibetan Buddhist nun studying

Many young girls seek admission to Sherab Choeling, but due to lack of facilities and sponsors, it is not possible for all to gain entrance. The Tibetan Nuns Project helps by raising awareness, finding sponsors for the nuns, and helping them to fundraise for the further development of the institute.

We just received lots of photos showing daily life at Sherab Choeling Nunnery that we wanted to share with the sponsors of the nuns and with Tibetan Nuns Project donors worldwide.

Nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

The nuns after their annual result ceremony. Many of the nuns are holding sweaters, vests, and hats knitted and donated by Wool-Aid.

The nunnery was founded in 1995 with the goal to educate Himalayan Buddhist nuns who would otherwise have no opportunity to receive any formal schooling or spiritual education. It is a non-sectarian nunnery that recognizes the beauty and value in all Buddhist traditions.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti Himachal Pradesh

The nunnery is very secluded and lies in the village of Morang (between Manali and Tabor) at 4,000 meters altitude. The nuns have difficult living conditions. They often face long harsh winters and heavy snowfalls.

The nunnery was built in 1995 by 20 nuns and their teacher and was consecrated that year by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There is the main building, a prayer hall, a classroom, an office, a kitchen, and a storeroom.

nuns studying at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

Traditionally women and girls in this region have suffered from many social and educational disadvantages. Many have been deprived of any kind of education. Sherab Choeling Nunnery was the first religious educational project for Spiti women, providing women and girls with the opportunity to overcome these obstacles.

Typically, women who live in remote areas like Spiti and who are interested in studying or practicing their religion have very few options. The Tibetan Nuns Project was approached by the nunnery in 2006 to help them develop their institution and the nunnery was accepted into our sponsorship program.

The nuns at Sherab Choeling follow a 17-year study program. The curriculum is designed to educate the nuns in Buddhist philosophy, meditation, Tibetan language, and literature, in addition to basic education in English, Hindi, and math. The broad education is intended to provide the nuns with the necessary skills to educate future generations of nuns and the communities from which they come.

Nuns at Sherab Choeling practice Tibetan debate

The nuns practice Tibetan Buddhist debate. Training in Tibetan Buddhist debate is an essential part of monastic education in the Tibetan tradition. Until recently, Tibetan nuns did not have the opportunity to fully study and practice Tibetan Buddhist debate, a process that joins logical thinking with a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

Although the area of Lahaul-Spiti is part of India, ethnically, the people are descended from Tibetans and the majority are devout Buddhists. They have preserved an ancient Tibetan culture, speaking an old dialect of the Tibetan language, as written in Tibetan scriptures.

firewood for winter at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

During the coldest months, the nuns hold their classes, prayers, and meetings in the kitchen because it is warmer and helps to save wood.

The nuns have difficult living conditions. They often face long harsh winters and heavy snowfalls. During winter the region is cut off from neighboring villages so the nuns must stock up their daily supplies well before the onset of cold weather.

Winter at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

The frozen reservoir. Washing clothes and dishes in freezing-cold water is a challenge.

greenhouse and supplies at Sherab Choeling Nunnery 2019

With the help of volunteers, the nuns have been able to set up three greenhouses where they mostly grow spinach. Before winter, the nuns must stock up rations of food and fuel.

Summer is the most important and busy season at the nunnery. The nuns must work hard in the fields and store firewood for the winter in addition to concentrating on their studies.

taking care of the cows at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

The nuns are very positive about their future and someday want to be able to serve as teachers back in their villages.

sponsor a Tibetan Buddhist nun

A Tibetan Buddhist nun at Sherab Choeling Nunnery holding gifts from her sponsor. We’d like to thank all our sponsors of nuns at Sherab Choeling for their support. We are always looking for more sponsors for nuns at the seven nunneries we support in northern India.

We’d like to thank all our sponsors of nuns at Sherab Choeling for their support. We still need more sponsors. To sponsor a nun please visit https://tnp.org/youcanhelp/sponsor/

Here is an audio recording of the nuns reciting the Lama Chopa or Guru Puja recorded in 2015 by the French photographer, Olivier Adam.

 

Life during the monsoon

In India, the monsoon starts in late June and lasts until September. While the torrential rains are vital for agriculture and bring relief from scorching summer heat, the monsoon can also be deadly, causing floods and landslides. Less disastrously, the monsoon brings daily obstacles to everyone. Here’s how the nuns cope with the challenges of life during the monsoon.

At times this summer, the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, was the rainiest place in India. In August, it was headline news when monsoon rains broke a 60-year record and 292.4 mm of rain (over 11.5 inches) fell in 24 hours in Dharamsala, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and location of Geden Choeling Nunnery. The nearby Tibetan Buddhist nunneries of Dolma Ling, Shugsep, and Tilokpur have also been hit by close-to-record rainfalls this summer.

The Challenges of Life During the Monsoon

Here’s a video taken in July 2018 by the Nuns’ Media Team showing the rains at Dolma Ling Nunnery. The deep drainage ditches that weave around and through the nunnery complex to prevent flooding were almost overflowing.

Tibetan Nuns Project, Buddhist nunneries, Tibetan nunneries, Tibetan nuns, Buddhism in India,

Five of the seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project are located in parts of northern India that receive some of the heaviest rains in the country. Only Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti and Dorjee Zong in Zanskar are spared the monsoon deluges, but they face other problems such as water shortages.

You Need a Good Roof

To cope with the monsoon, you need a good, solid, and well-maintained roof. In the early days of the Tibetan Nuns Project, before new nunneries were built, the nuns who had escaped from Tibet had to camp by the side of the road. The nuns were eventually moved into tents and a series of houses rented by the Tibetan Nuns Project, but the roofs couldn’t always cope with the monsoon rains. Dr. Elizabeth Napper recalls the house used by the Shugsep nuns: “Every available space was filled by a bed; even under the stairs there were beds. The structure was poorly built and rain would run down the walls during the monsoon. It was damp and moldy in there. It was awful.”

Now, thank goodness, all the nuns we support have more solid roofs over their heads. Their dormitories, classrooms, dining halls, kitchens, and libraries can remain dry. However, to remain strong these roofs must be maintained.

In September, we are launching a big project to repair and paint all the metal roofs at Shugsep Nunnery. We need help from our global family of supporters to make this happen. Learn more about the Shugsep Roof Project here. The roof is already rusting in places and, unless the painting is done this fall, the roof will fail.

Wear Plastic Shoes

Puddle jumping is a daily activity during the summer monsoon. There’s no point wearing leather shoes, which will only be destroyed by the damp. To keep one’s feet healthy and as dry as possible, plastic shoes and sandals are essential footwear for the nuns.

shoes outside of classroom, life during the monsoon, Tibetan nuns footwear, plastic sandals, how to cope with the monsoon, life during the monsoon

Nuns shoes outside of a classroom at Dolma Ling Nunnery on a nice day in May. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

The Art of Drying Clothing

One of the biggest challenges of life during the monsoon is laundering and drying clothes. This is true for everyone in India, but the situation for Tibetan Buddhist nuns (and monks) can be even trickier. Nuns and monks are traditionally allowed only two sets of robes so washing and, above all, drying robes during the monsoon is hard. The nuns seize opportunities when the sun is out to hang their robes and other clothing on fences etc. and, during showers, under overhanging balconies. The humidity is so relentless that things just don’t dry.

life during the monsoon, nuns clothing, coping with the monsoon, life during the monsoon

Nuns’ clothing drying on the nunnery rooftop. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The Challenge of Staying Healthy

Frequent rains make people more vulnerable to illness, especially through exposure to dirty water and the increase in waterborne diseases. During the monsoon, a number of illnesses increase. We are so grateful to the donors who helped with the urgent septic system repairs at both Dolma Ling and Shugsep. The repairs were completed in June before the onset of the monsoon, so this made both nunneries much safer for the nuns. Even so, the nuns must very careful about washing their vegetables during monsoon season to avoid contamination.

Secondly, getting partially wet or totally soaked from the rain water destabilizes your body temperature and makes you vulnerable to sickness. Fungal infections caused by wearing damp clothes and shoes are also a risk.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, nunnery life, life during the monsoon

Nuns washing vegetables. The monsoon rains bring an increase in water-borne illnesses. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

Making Friends with Animals and Insects

Just like humans, animals want to get in out of the rain. The nuns sometimes find that they have visitors to their nunneries, such as snakes, spiders, centipedes, and scorpions. Also, all that standing water becomes a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, which are vectors for many diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Dengue fever is communicated through mosquito bites and the most common symptoms are sudden onset of fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, and skin rashes. Some patients also develop symptoms which include vomiting, diarrhoea and loss of appetite.

Previously malaria and dengue have not been a problem for the nuns, but the risk may increase as the climate warms up and the storms become more intense. On August 31 2018, the Hindustan Times reported that so far during this rainy season there have been over 1,500 cases of dengue in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the location of five of the seven nunneries we support.

Drainage Ditches Are Essential

Without drainage ditches to channel the water away, the nunneries would be flooded. The nuns work hard year-round to keep these all-important drainage ditches clean and working. One of the projects we’re working on this fall is to improve the drainage in and around the 8 retreat huts at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Some of the Geshema nuns are staying in the retreat huts while taking their two-year course in Buddhist tantric studies. We need to add gutters and drainpipes to the hut roofs huts so that the rainwater does not damage the walls and we need to add drainage ditches all around to prevent flooding. You can learn more about the project here. 

Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, coping with the monsoon

The nuns of Dolma Ling Nunnery clean the nunnery paths and drainage ditches daily. Photo courtesy of Dustin Kujawski

Mudras: Meaning of Sacred Hand Gestures

Mudras are sacred hand gestures or positions that used to evoke a state of mind. The Sanskrit word “mudra” means “seal”, “mark”, or “gesture”. In Tibetan the word is ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ or “chakgya”. Each of these sacred hand gestures has a specific meaning. Many of them symbolize major moments or events in the Buddha’s life.

mudras, sacred hand gestures, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

In this beautiful photo by Olivier Adam, an elderly nun in Zanskar shows a novice nun how to make the Mandala Offering Mudra.

8 Mudras and their Meaning

Sacred hand gestures or mudras are often depicted in Buddhist art. In this blog we’d like to share descriptions and images of some common mudras. The list here is not exhaustive.

The Earth Witness Mudra

When Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was meditating under the Bodhi tree, he was assailed by the demon Mara, who tried to disturb his mind. Mara represents the passions that trap and delude us. Siddhartha refused to be tempted from the path to enlightenment and he called on the earth to witness his worthiness to become enlightened, saying, “The earth shall be my witness, I will not let myself be seduced.” In the Earth Witness Mudra, (also known as the Bhumisparsa Mudra or Gesture of Witness), the historical Buddha is seated in the meditation posture and touches the earth with the fingertips of his right hand, palm facing inwards. The left hand is placed in the lap with the palm facing upwards.

earth witness mudra, Buddha, thangka,

In this detail from a thangka print, the historical Buddha is depicted seated in meditation and calling the earth as his witness.

The Mudra of Meditation

The Mudra of Meditation (dhyana) is made by placing both hands on the lap, right hand on the left, with the palms facing upwards, the tips of the thumbs touching, and the fingers fully stretched. This mudra helps to calm the mind for meditation and is used for deep contemplation and reflection. The mudra of meditation is a characteristic gesture of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Mudra of Meditation, sacred hand gestures, mudras, Buddha sculpture

This ancient stone sculpture shows the Buddha with his hands in the Mudra of Meditation

The Namaskara or Anjali Mudra

This mudra, while not found in representations of the Buddha or other deities, is commonly used by nuns, monks, and lay people to symbolize devotion, prayer, and admiration. Called the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra, it is used as a common form of greeting in most Asian countries. Anjali is a Sanskrit word which means “salutation” or “to offer” and Namaskar is Hindi for “good day”. To make this mudra, you bring your palms together in front of your heart space, fingers pointing upwards, and thumbs close to the chest, to symbolize honor, respect, and devotion.

Dalai Lama, Olivier Adam, gesture of greeting, mudra, mudras

His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds his hands together in greeting and in offering respect to others. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Mudra of Holding the Jewel or Manidhara Mudra

The Mudra of Holding the Jewel looks very similar to the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra shown above. Also called the Manidhara Mudra, it is made by holding one’s hands together in front but with the palms and fingers slightly arched, holding the precious, wish-fulfilling jewel. This jewel or gem is also depicted in Tibetan prayer flags, carried upon the back of the Lung Ta  or wind horse. This sacred hand gesture of holding the jewel is a mudra of Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. The Tibetan word for Avalokiteshvara is Chenrezig (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་). The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Chenrezig,

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An elderly nun in Zanskar places her palms together in devotion, holding the wish-fulfilling jewel, a mudra associated with Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

The Mandala Offering Mudra

The Mandala Offering Mudra is a complex and sacred hand gesture that acts as a symbolic offering of the entire universe for the benefit of all sentient beings. Performing the Mandala Offering Mudra helps to reduce one’s attachment and to purify the clinging mind. Although this mudra is usually made together with prayers and Buddhist chants, non-Buddhists can also perform it to receive its spiritual benefits.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun performs the Mandala Mudra with her mala (Buddhist prayer beads). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

To make this complex mudra, sit in meditation pose with your back straight. Calm your breathing and visualize offering the mandala – the universe – to the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and all holy beings, giving with great joy and with purity of heart. Place your hands palms up and intertwine your fingers. With the tips of your thumbs, press down on the tips of the opposite little finger. Then, with the bent tips of your index fingers, press down on the tip of the opposite middle finger. Finally, take your ring fingers, unclasp them, and put them back to back, pressing the backs together and with both fingers going straight up through the center. Together the ring fingers symbolize Mt. Meru, the sacred mountain, and the four continents described in Buddhist cosmology.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun in Zanskar performs the mandala offering mudra. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Vitarka Mudra or Teaching Mudra

The Vitarka Mudra (the Mudra of Teaching or Discussion) is a common mudra representing the discussion and transmission of Buddhist teachings. It is formed by joining the tips of the thumb and index finger together to form a circle, keeping the other three fingers pointing straight up. The circle formed by the joined fingers symbolizes perfection with no beginning or end.

This mudra is usually made with one hand, most often the right one, with the hand held upward close to the chest and the palm facing outward. However, the mudra may also be made with both hands held in front of the chest, with each index finger and thumb joined in a circle. When two hands are used, the left palm faces inward and the right palm is turned outward. The Teaching Mudra represents the Buddha’s first teaching after becoming enlightened. It also symbolizes the “Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma” or Dharmachakra. There are a great number of variations of this mudra in Mahayana Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the mystic gesture of Taras and bodhisattvas.

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This sculpture shows the mudra of teaching or the Vitarka Mudra, with the tips of the thumb and index finger joined to form a circle.

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In this detail from a thangka print, White Tara is holding an utpala flower in her raised left hand. The tips of her thumb and fourth or ring finger are touching. This is a gesture of good fortune and shows that, by relying upon her, one may accomplish complete purity of mind and body.

Generosity Mudra or Varada Mudra

The Varada Mudra is the gesture of generosity, charity, and compassion. It is commonly found in representations of the Green and White Tara. This sacred hand gesture represents the granting of blessings, wishes, or even pardon. It also symbolizes the “gift of truth” – the precious gift of the dharma or Buddhist teachings. In the Varada Mudra, the palm faces out and hangs down, usually touching the right leg. This mudra is often used in conjunction with another mudra. The five fingers represent the five perfections: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, and meditation.

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Detail of a thangka print depicting White Tara and showing the outward facing palm and downward hand of the Varada Mudra or Mudra of Generosity.

Mudra of Fearlessness or Abhaya Mudra

Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness. The Mudra of Fearlessness or the Abhaya Mudra symbolizes the dispelling of fear. It can look to Westerners like the common hand gesture for “stop”. The mudra is made by raising the right hand to shoulder height, with the arm bent and the palm facing outward. This mudra is more commonly depicted in standing images.

This very ancient hand gesture is also a sign of peace and friendship. Placing one’s hand up and open in this way indicates that one is free of weapons and comes in peace. In Buddhism, the mudra shows the fearlessness and therefore the spiritual power of the Buddha or bodhisattva who makes it.

It is said that the historical Buddha made this sacred hand gesture immediately after gaining enlightenment. At a later time, the Buddha was about to be attacked by a mad elephant. The poor animal had been fed alcohol and tortured by one who hoped to use the elephant as a weapon against the Buddha. The elephant, enraged and in pain, charged at the Buddha and his followers. While others ran away, the Buddha stood calmly, raising his hand in the gesture of fearlessness. He felt great love and compassion for the stricken elephant. In response, the elephant stopped in its charge, became calm, and then approached the Buddha and bowed its head.

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A giant Buddha statue in Hong Kong shows the seated Buddha with the mudra of fearlessness or the Abhaya Mudra

A note about the images of mudras: The thangka prints shown in this blog post were donated to the Tibetan Nuns Project by a generous donor. A range of thangka prints are available through our online store, with all proceeds from sales going to help the nuns. We are very grateful to Olivier Adam for sharing his beautiful photos. Many of his photos are available as cards through our online store. Prints of Olivier Adam’s photographs are available through his Etsy shop, Daughters of Buddha.

What do Tibetan Buddhist nuns study?

We are often asked what the Tibetan Buddhist nuns study.

In addition to providing basic educational requirements, the Tibetan Nuns Project seeks to elevate the educational standards and the position of women within the monastic community. To prepare the nuns for positions of leadership and moral authority in a culture that is going through a very challenging transition, it is essential to combine traditional religious studies with aspects of a modern education.

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Nuns at Shugsep Nunnery learning geography. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

A primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to assist nuns in reaching the same level of education as the monks. Each of the four traditions schools of Tibetan Buddhism has its own specific curriculum and degrees attained, but much is shared. All are based on the teachings of the Buddha and the Indian commentaries that developed to explicate them.

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Nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley at an outdoor classroom. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Exactly which commentaries the nuns most closely rely on varies between traditions as do the number of years of study, but there is uniformity as to the basic topics. Thus, all the nuns study:

  • Logic and Epistemology, which provide the basic tools for advanced philosophical study;
  • Perfection of Wisdom for understanding of the Buddhist path;
  • Middle Way for understanding of Buddhist philosophy; and
  • Tantra for the final level of teachings.

Continue reading

Recipe for Tibetan Hot Sauce

Tibetan hot sauce, called sepen in Tibetan, is a popular accompaniment to Tibetan momos and other dishes.

recipe for Tibetan hot sauce, sepen

Our thanks to Lobsang and Yolanda at YoWangdu Experience Tibet (www.yowangdu.com) for sharing their recipe for Tibetan Hot Sauce or tsepen.

While the nuns hand chop all their ingredients, this recipe can be made with a food processor or blender. Add this spicy sauce to anything you like, but be careful, this sepen is extremely hot! You can adjust the heat of the sauce by reducing the amount of red pepper.

Ingredients for Tibetan Hot Sauce

  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 medium tomatoes (Roma tomatoes work well)
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro
  • chopped 2 stalks of green onion
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup dried red peppers (see the note below)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil for cooking

NOTE: You can adjust the spiciness of this recipe by using less red pepper and/or more of the other ingredients.

Preparation of the Hot Sauce

  • Roughly chop the celery, tomatoes, green onion, and cilantro.
  • Peel and roughly chop garlic.
  • Peel and cut onion in half lengthwise, then slice fairly thin.
  • Slice tomato in thinnish circles.
  • Heat oil in pan on high.
  • On high heat, cook garlic a few seconds, then add onion slices and stir fry about 1 minute.
  • Add celery and whole red peppers, stir fry another minute.
  • Add tomato slices, and stir fry for a minute or so.
  • Stir in cilantro, spring onion, and salt.
  • Cover and cook for about 3 minutes.
  • At this point, everything should be cooked down a bit. Put everything in a blender or food processor until you have a sauce. Stop at the thickness you like.
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Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling chop ingredients for Tibetan hot sauce. The nunnery is home to about 230 nuns. Photo courtesy of Dustin Kujawski

Thanks to Lobsang and Yolanda at YoWangdu Experience Tibet, we have a number of other Tibetan recipes to share with you including:

Tibetan hot sauce, Tibetan food, Dolma Ling Nunnery, sepen

When you make vegetarian food for 230 nuns there’s a lot of chopping involved. Here the nuns have chopped ingredients for their Tibetan hot sauce, using green chilies instead of red. Photo courtesy of Dustin Kujawski

Winter at the nunneries

In northern India, where all the nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project are located, the winter can be harsh and long.

This is particularly true for the two remotest nunneries we support, Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti and Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar, both high in the Indian Himalayas.

Sherab Choeling, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, winter in the nunneries, Spiti Valley

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Spiti Valley shovel deep snow to clear a path around the nunnery.

Although the nuns at Sherab Choeling nunnery are used to long, hard winters and having to shovel a lot of snow and stock up on supplies, some winters pose extra challenges for them.

For example, during the winter of 2014-2015, the weather in the remote Spiti Valley was so severe that the nuns at Sherab Choeling out of cooking gas. For over two months they had to rely solely on firewood to cook.

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Nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley of northern India clear snow from the roof of the nunnery.

The heavy snowfalls in the area that winter meant that the nuns were unable to get supplies and all the local villages were cut off. In order to fetch water from the nearby village, the nuns had to clear a path through waist-deep snow. Thankfully the nuns had enough stores of vegetables and tsampa (roasted barley flour) to last them through the winter months.

Tibetan Buddhist nun in snowfall at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

Snowfall at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Indian Himalayas.

The nuns at Sherab Choeling work hard to prepare for winter, when the region is cut off from neighboring villages. They stock up their daily supplies well before the onset of cold weather. During the summer months, the nuns grow food to store for the winter months. The people in a nearby village have given the nuns a plot of land where they now grow spinach, beans, and potatoes.  The head nun also donated her share of a field to the nunnery, so the nuns are able to grow peas and wheat.

During the coldest months, the nuns hold their classes, prayers, and meetings in the kitchen because it is warmer and helps to save wood.

Tibetan Buddhist nun working in kitchen

The simple kitchen at Sherab Choeling Nunnery.

Of course none of the nunneries are heated, not even the large ones like Dolma Ling and Shugsep. There is simply no way to afford heating. In the winter, the nuns will try to sit outside in the sun because the buildings are cold. Tasks such as washing their robes in the stream and drying them outdoors become even more challenging during the cold months.

Although the nuns have difficult living conditions, the quality of their food, housing, and shelter has vastly improved in the past 30 years since the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded. In 2016, generous donors helped with a water project at Dolma Ling Nunnery, part of which was to build a hot-water boiler. The boiler is conveniently located adjacent to the dining hall where nuns are able to fill their thermoses and take them to their rooms.

“Hot water has always been a struggle,” says Co-Director Dr. Betsy Napper. “We were able to put in solar hot water and make bath houses for both Dolma Ling Nunnery and Shugsep Nunnery so that the nuns have an option of bathing with hot water. We also got hot water into the kitchens, using solar panels at both nunneries.”

Wild Plum-headed parakeets come to Dolma Ling Nunnery for food during the cold months

Compassion in action. During the cold winter months, the nuns at Dolma Ling will sometimes feed the wild plum-headed parakeets. This photo was taken by one of the nuns and was featured in our 2015 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar.

Winter months are a quieter time in the nunneries because some nuns travel to see their families or attend teachings elsewhere, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings in south India last winter or his teachings in Bodhgaya this winter. After Losar (Tibetan New Year), all the nuns return and resume their studies.

Dolma Ling Nunnery, snow mountains, Dhauladhar range, Indian Himalayas, winter in the nunneries

The snow mountains above Dolma Ling Nunnery. The nunnery is located on the foothills of the Dhauladhar range (literally the White Range) of the Indian Himalayas.

We send a warm “Tashi Delek” and express our heartfelt thanks to all our sponsors and donors – new and old – for your kindness and generosity. You are the truly the heart of our work. To learn how you can sponsor a nun, visit our sponsorship page.

Video Interview of a Geshema Nun: Determination and Dedication on the Path

Here is a video interview of a Geshema – Tenzin Kunsel.

On December 22, 2016, twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when they graduated with their Geshema degrees. They received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

As you will hear from her story, her long journey to becoming a Geshema was not an easy one.

With gentle humor, she tells her story of overcoming many obstacles on the path to becoming a senior nun and teacher. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel’s extraordinary determination and dedication shine through.

The video was made in October 2017 at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Our thanks to Tibetan Nuns Project Co-Director, Venerable Lobsang Dechen, for providing the English translation and to volunteer film-makers Evan Kezsbom, Jalene Szuba, and Dustin Kujawski.

The Geshema degree is equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy and is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. It could previously only be earned by monks and is called the Geshe degree.

This historic milestone for the 20 nuns was the culmination of decades of study and dedication. In addition to the 17-years of study required, there is a rigorous four-year examination process.

Now Geshema Tenzin Kunsel and the 25 other recent Geshemas who graduated in 2016 and 2017 are starting a brand-new and historic two-year course in Buddhist tantric studies. Although there have been accomplished female practitioners in Tibet’s history, women have never before been given an opportunity to formally study tantric Buddhism.

Traditionally, monks who have attained their Geshe degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism, must also study tantric treatises in order to become fully qualified masters capable of teaching their complete tradition. Monks have always been able to receive these teachings at one of the great tantric colleges.

Geshema, Tenzin Kunsel,