Category Archives: Buddhist Nuns Stories

The story of a Tibetan Buddhist nun

This is the story of a Tibetan Buddhist nun living in exile in India. In August 2018 she is taking her final set of examinations for the Geshema degree. This highest degree, equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism, was until very recently only open to men. To protect this nun’s privacy and the safety of her family still in Tibet, we have not used her name or the some of the details of her home.

I was born in 1968 in a village in eastern Tibet situated on the hillside of a thickly wooded valley. Above our village was our pastureland and further north there are rocky mountains. There were about 25 semi-nomadic families living in our village when I lived there.

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Traditional Tibetan prayer flags flutter in front of snow mountains.

Our winters are very cold, like all the other places in Tibet, but the summer temperatures are quite high. Crops like corn, peas, and wheat grow very well there. Our herd consisted of only yaks and dris (female yaks). We didn’t live on the mountains permanently like the nomads.

During the summer months, we stayed in small yak hair tents called masong pitched on the higher grasslands and, in the winter, we returned to the farm. All the village animals were tended by one designated person during the winter when there wasn’t much work to do. In summer, during the calving season, all the animal owners returned to the mountains and pitched their tents, where they remained for the entire summer.

My parents and three of my brothers still live at our home in Tibet. I am the only daughter. My youngest brother is a monk studying in a monastery in South India. I never went to school in Tibet. I spent my time at home tending the animals. There was work in the village, but I always chose to be up on the mountains with the animals.

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Nun’s bag and robe. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

At age 18, I became a nun. In 1989, I joined a group of pilgrims from Lithang who were doing a prostration pilgrimage from Lithang to Lhasa to see the holy temple called the Jokhang.

[Note: A prostration pilgrimage is a form a Tibetan Buddhist worship in which the person stretches out full length on the ground, marks the spot where her or his fingertips reach, and stands and steps forward to that spot, then prostrates again. Through prostrations, Tibetan Buddhists seek to purify the body, speech, and mind, freeing oneself from delusions, negativity, and any bad karma. It is a form of spiritual devotion and mental training that, like other forms of Buddhist practice, was banned by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. The large group of over 150 Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks who undertook this pilgrimage from Lithang to Lhasa performed prostrations for the entire distance – about 1,200-miles. Here’s a short video showing a Tibetan Buddhist nun and a lay person prostrating in Lhasa.]

Lithang is about two days by car from my home. I was with the group from the very beginning of the pilgrimage. We gathered at Lithang and then prostrated eastward to Menyak to see the famous Pai-lhakhang, the temple dedicated to Palden Lhamo, the guardian deity of Tibet.

We returned to Lithang after six months and then made our journey towards Lhasa. The pilgrimage took us almost two years to complete. On the way, I learned to read and write Tibetan. We prostrated during the day and in the evenings we studied by the light of oil lamps and candles. It was a hard pilgrimage. We couldn’t do the whole distance from Lithang to Lhasa by prostrations because the group became too large after a time and it was impossible for such a large group to keep moving. So we would stop at a few places for months, do a number of prostrations, and then move again until we reached Lhasa.

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This nun was one of this large group of pilgrims from Lithang who did prostrations for over two years. When they escaped from Tibet and arrived in India, there was no space at existing nunneries to accommodate them. The Tibetan Nuns Project cared for them and other nuns and eventually built two new nunneries, Dolma Ling and Shugsep.

At Lhasa, we could not enter the holy city because there was trouble in the Tibetan capital at the time and the Chinese were fearful of the attention such a large group might attract. We were instead diverted to southern Tibet to another holy city, Shigatse. From Shigatse, we went on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. At Kailash, Yonton Phuntsok Rinpoche [a lama from Kham and the leader of the pilgrimage] decided to leave for India, and I, along with many other monks and nuns, followed him into exile. He made all the arrangements for our escape and we didn’t have to do much.  We came to Dharamsala via Nepal and have remained in Dharamsala ever since.

 [A note about the escape from Tibet: Like most Tibetans, this group escaped on foot over the Himalayas to Nepal. It took the group 27 or 28 days to make this harrowing journey into exile. The group was ill equipped and was forced to hide during the day and walk at night in order to avoid detection. Once in Nepal, they went to the Tibetan Reception Center at Kathmandu for medical care and to register as refugees. Now the border is heavily patrolled and freedom of movement inside Tibet is severely restricted, so it is virtually impossible for Tibetans to escape.]

The Tibetan Nuns Project took care of us from the very beginning. I saw Dolma Ling Nunnery come alive from barren land into becoming this popular center of learning where people flock to get a place. All the nuns who were with me on the pilgrimage are also at Dolma Ling. The study course here is for 19 years and I have now completed all 19 years of Buddhist philosophical studies.

Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist nun

Four nuns and a small tent on the empty plot of land where Dolma Ling Nunnery was built. The nunnery is now home to about 250 nuns.

At Dolma Ling we have a computer room. Nuns who received training from overseas volunteers with support from the Tibetan Nuns Project then taught us and there are many nuns who are interested in learning. I have learned basic computer skills for many years now and I feel so proud.

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Computer training for Tibetan nuns by volunteer, Harald Weichhart, 2009.

I feel so privileged to be a part of this institute, and I am thankful to everyone who made this possible for us. I am happy here, and Dolma Ling will be my home for many years to come.
                       

Behind the Camera: Showcasing Nuns’ Media Team Photos

The Nuns’ Media Team at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute near Dharamsala in northern India is a special group of women. They tell stories through photos and stories matter.

Traditionally Tibetan Buddhist nuns have been a quiet and faint presence in the world. They have had little or no opportunity to tell their own stories or document their own lives. Now the nuns, through the Nuns’ Media Team, are increasingly able to share their own news and images.

In this blog, we’d like to showcase some of the photographs taken by the Nuns’ Media Team and tell you about an exciting new project to provide cameras to all 7 nunneries that we support.

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The Nuns’ Media Team is able to capture intimate portraits like this one of two nuns reading Tibetan.

The nuns who form the Nuns’ Media Team initially received training from overseas volunteers. As they are empowered and gain in skills, they are also less reliant on non-Tibetan photographers.

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The Nuns’ Media Team captured this candid shot of a tug of war during celebrations of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday. It was a rare opportunity for the nuns to take a break from their studies and nunnery chores.

Now they are now passing on their knowledge to other nuns. Venerable Delek Yangdron, the supervisor of the Nuns’ Media Team, has trained several nuns in still and video photography, in interview techniques, and in cutting and editing footage to make videos. The nuns have already produced a series of videos on life at Dolma Ling, the Tibetan Nuns Project, and Shugsep Nunnery.

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This atmospheric shot of nuns lighting butter lamps at Dolma Ling Nunnery was taken by the Nuns’ Media Team. Over time they have developed their skills in taking photographs in low-light conditions.

While we at the Tibetan Nuns Project are extremely grateful to the many photographers who have shared their images with us, we know that these volunteers can only visit the nunneries for short periods, and that they can never truly have the access and understanding that Tibetan Buddhist nuns themselves can have to nunnery life.

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These smiling faces of nuns wearing knitted items donated by Wool-Aid were captured by the Nuns’ Media Team. The nuns are able to capture relaxed portraits like these.

One professional photographer said this about empowering diverse communities with cameras: “Indeed, the beauty behind documentary photography doesn’t reside in the taking of the images, but in the access and the depth with which you can document a phenomenon or a subject.”

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The Nuns’ Media Team is in a unique position to document life at the nunnery. Here the nuns of Dolma Ling undertake the big task of cleaning the pond reservoir.

Currently the nuns write, edit, and publish their own annual magazine in Tibetan and also supply photographs for the annual Tibetan Nuns Project calendar that is an income earner for all of the nunneries. These are both achievements to be proud of given than so many nuns were illiterate on arrival in India.

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Tibetan nuns are able to capture with respect scenes like this in the prayer hall at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

One of our board members, Robin Groth, has generously offered to match gifts up to a total of $1,000 towards the Media Equipment Project to provide all 7 nunneries with a camera.

Robin Groth says, “I spent my career as a broadcast journalist and documentary producer, telling stories of people’s lives, and witnessing historical events. Now I can help the nuns give voice to their own stories of survival, hope, educational equality, and empowerment. What a joy to be part of a project enabling the nuns to record, preserve, and share their culture and accomplishments with the world.”

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Sometimes members of the Nuns’ Media Team are able to travel to other nunneries and capture images there, like of these nuns debating at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. We hope we can provide each nunnery with a camera.

Look for photos from the nuns on our new Tibetan Nuns Project Instagram account.

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Poster showing the Nuns’ Media Team based at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

Tibetan photographer with a compassionate eye: Delek Yangdron

Venerable Delek Yangdron is one of the most senior nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India. She arrived in India the winter of 1990 as part of the first group to join the newly founded nunnery. Almost illiterate on arrival, she began her education in Buddhist studies and is now the leader of the nuns’ Media Team and is a skilled photographer and videographer.

Her determination and story of academic and professional success are inspiring.

Delek Yangdron Tibetan Buddhist nun

Venerable Delek Yangdron’s path to academic and professional success has been long and difficult. She now heads the Media Team of nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India.

Delek Yangdron was born in Lithang in the eastern Tibetan province of Kham, surrounded by open grasslands and snow-capped mountains. Born into a nomad family, she helped care for the family’s animals, moving the livestock in search of better pastures. Sadly, her father passed away when she was just seven and her mother died in 2000. During her time at home in Tibet, Delek Yangdron never had the opportunity to go to school or to study.

In the late 1980s, a lama from Kham, Yonten Phuntsok Rinpoche, decided to organize a special pilgrimage from Parlhakang in Kham all the way to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Delek Yangdron joined the group of over 150 pilgrims. Continue reading

Delek Palmo’s Story and the Impact of Sponsoring a Nun

We’d like to tell you the story of one nun, Delek Palmo, so that you can understand and appreciate the enormous impact that sponsorship gifts have on the lives of the nuns in India.

Delek Palmo, shown in this archival photo courtesy of Susan Lirakis, was one of the first batch of nuns helped by the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Delek Palmo, refugee nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, escape from Tibet

This archival photo courtesy of
Susan Lirakis, shows Delek Palmo sitting on one of the beds donated to the nuns after their escape from Tibet.

Her journey to India and freedom was nothing short of epic.

Delek Palmo was born in Lithang, Tibet in 1970 and became a nun at 19. She took her ordination vows with her lama, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who years later, in 2002, was arrested by Chinese authorities and became a prominent political prisoner. Human Rights Watch concluded that the case against him was the culmination of a decade-long effort by Chinese authorities to curb his efforts to foster Tibetan Buddhism. He died in prison in 2015.

In 1989, Delek Palmo joined a large group of pilgrims whose aim was to travel from Lithang to Lhasa, a distance of 1,200 miles.

“The pilgrimage to Lhasa took two years to complete because we did prostrations all along the way,” says Delek Palmo. “We would do prostrations in the rain and our clothes got wet and dirty and we could not wash them out every day.”

“When we got close to Lhasa, the Chinese police refused to let us enter the city as there was a meeting of some kind going on and they did not want us attracting attention. We had traveled for nearly two years and now we were prevented from reaching our goal.” Instead, the police loaded them into trucks and interrogated them for hours at a police holding center.

Denied access to the holy sites in Lhasa and fearful of the police, Delek Palmo and the pilgrims changed course to Mount Kailash. From there, she and most of the group decided to escape to freedom in India.

It was winter and the pilgrims were ill equipped. They had no winter clothing, no proper shoes, or even enough food to eat for such an expedition. The journey on foot over the Himalayas to Nepal took 27 days.

“We walked at night as our group was very large and the Chinese police would catch us if they found out that we were leaving to India,” she reported.

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Handing out supplies to newly arrived nuns in Dharamsala. The nuns escaped from Tibet and arrived in a refugee community already struggling to survive.

Delek Palmo and 41 other nuns from the group arrived in Dharamsala seeking sanctuary and a nunnery in which to study and practice. It was their arrival that was one of the catalysts for the creation of our sponsorship program which now supports over 700 nuns in India.

They arrived in a refugee community that was struggling to survive. Delek Palmo, like her sister nuns, needed the basic necessities of life—a roof over her head, a bed to sleep in, nun’s robes, simple food, education, and a safe place to practice her religion.

Delek Palmo is nun #35 and was one of the first nuns to be sponsored. In December 2016, she received her Geshema degree from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism. She is now a senior nun, a teacher, and a leader in her community.

This is the power of your sponsorship gifts.

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Taken earlier this year, this photo shows Geshema Delek Palmo (back row, far right) together with the other Geshema nuns from Dolma Ling Nunnery and with some of the first nuns that arrived from Lithang, Tibet.

You are helping brave, dedicated and compassionate women on their path. Thank you!
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Interview with a Geshema nun: Tenzin Kunsel

The following is an interview from May 2014 with Venerable Tenzin Kunsel who, at the time, had just completed her second round of examinations for the Geshema Degree, a degree equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism. Since this interview was made, Venerable Tenzin Kunsel has successfully completed all four rounds of her examinations. In July 2016 it was announced that she and 19 other nuns will formally receive their Geshema degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony at Drepung Monastery in South India on December 22nd 2016. Venerable Tenzin Kunsel is one of the first Geshemas (female Geshes) in the history of Tibet.

portrait of Tibetan Buddhist nun Tenzin Kunsel

Venerable Tenzin Kunsel who will become one of the first Geshemas in the history of Tibet

Background

I was born to a simple family near Lhasa and I came to exile in 1991. When I was in Tibet, we were not given a Buddhist education; instead we had to do prayers for the people who made offerings at the nunnery. It was really disappointing as well as sad that we were not given the education we needed. I strongly felt that the best way to become educated in Buddhist studies was to come to India. Along with 75 other newly arrived nuns, I came to Dolma Ling Nunnery. Today I am here for the 2nd round of the historic Geshema examinations.

Q: How has being at the nunnery made a difference in your life?
A: When I first reached Dolma Ling Nunnery, its facilities weren’t as good as now. But I never lost hope. Many times, my family pressured me to go to school rather than the nunnery. But I never wanted to go to school because I thought I would not get a proper Buddhist education.

After being admitted to the nunnery, I started my studies from the basic education. It gave me special comfort and peace of mind, making me strongly feel that I had not made the wrong decision to join the nunnery in India.

Q: If you could speak directly to the sponsor who is helping you get education, food and health care at the nunnery, what would you say to that person?
A: I always feel grateful and fortunate to have sponsors who are truly kind. We are from totally different worlds with no blood relation, yet they still extend financial as well as moral support. It is partly because of the sponsor that I am one of those lucky nuns able to grab the rare opportunity to obtain the Geshema qualification.

I also feel that the sponsors are much more generous than my own parents. Parents are bound with the universal responsibility for looking after their own child, but our sponsors are never bound with the responsibility to look after me and take care of me like their own child. I always pray for their happiness and success in their lives. Continue reading

A long journey to an amazing result: one nun’s story

Born into a simple family in eastern Tibet, Lobsang Dolkar, became a nun in her teens. With no opportunity to study, she spent her days in household chores and tending livestock. Being a nun meant reciting mantras and doing prostrations.

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Venerable Lobsang Dolkar, one of the first Dolma Ling nuns

When her brother married, she became free to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa where she made friends with another nun. They decided to go to India to attend
the 1990 Kalachakra being given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Caught twice crossing into Nepal and handed back to the Chinese, their third attempt was successful.

Lobsang Dolker had not planned to stay in India, but her friend convinced her it was no use returning to Tibet and they should instead enroll in the newly founded nunnery, Dolma Ling.

She is among the first batch of nuns who entered the study program and at the same time helped with its construction. It was a joyous moment in 1994 when they moved into newly constructed rooms and had a home in India. Sadly she did not see her parents again; they passed away two years ago.

When she began her studies, it was hard for her to grasp what was being taught since she had had no previous education. But she never gave up. She feels that the opportunity to earn the Geshema Degree is very special and is grateful to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his continuous support of  nuns’ education. Access to this degree encourages nuns to persevere.

Lobsang says that, in the beginning, she was scared to sit the Geshema exams, but she never thought of backing out because she did not want younger nuns to accept failure without trying hard for their degree. In May she successfully passed Year 2 of the four-year exams. All being well, she will be a Geshema in 2017.

Looking back on how far she has come, Lobsang appreciates the importance
of education and is grateful to all the teachers and staff for their dedication to the nuns.

We are looking for more sponsors. You can sponsor a nun for less that $1 a day and help provide food, education, shelter and health care. 100% of your sponsorship gifts go to India. Learn more at https://tnp.org/youcanhelp/sponsor/

Shugsep Jetsun, the Story of a Tibetan Yogini

The great female master Shugsep Jetsun Rinpoche (1852–1953) was revered as one of the last century’s best known woman teachers. She was the Abbess of Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet and passed away in 1953 at the age of 101.Tibetan yogini Shugsep Jetsun

Jetsun means “reverend” or “venerable”. She was also known as Lochen Chönyi Sangmo, as Ani Lochen (Ani means “nun”), and as Jetsun Rigdzin Chönyi Sangmo. Many consider her one of the most influential women in Tibetan spiritual history.

This great yogini was a recognized incarnation of Machig Labdrön, a renowned Tibetan Tantric yogini born in 1055. She was also an exemplary practitioner of Chöd, also known as “The Beggars Offering” or “Cutting Through the Ego.”

Many extraordinary stories are told of her remarkable abilities, such as the time on retreat when she left her body and “died” for a period of three weeks and visited the Copper Coloured Mountain Paradise of Guru Padmasambhava.

The late Tibetan scholar, Lobsang Lhalungpa, visited Shugsep Jetsun in the early 1940s at Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet and he wrote of her great spiritual beauty, even into old age. He said, “During my first two-week visit, I met with Jetsun Lochen for several hours a day, sometimes in the company of her main disciples. She was an extraordinary woman, small in stature, with a serene face radiating compassion and sensitivity. Only her white hair betrayed her age… In her presence we felt an awesome power that permeated our whole stream of being… Her teachings and blessings have given me inner strength and inspiration ever since. To me she was the personification of the great woman teachers of Tibet.” Continue reading

One of the first Geshema nuns: The Story of Venerable Delek Wangmo

Venerable Delek Wangmo’s journey to the Geshema exams has been a long, arduous and sometimes dusty one.

She is one of the first batch of Tibetan nuns who are sitting the 4-part exams for the Geshema degree, equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. The culmination of 17 years of rigorous study, this is  a level of scholarship and Buddhist training that was previously almost exclusively available to men.

Here is her story.

Venerable Delek Wangmo smiling

Venerable Delek Wangmo in her room at Dolma Ling Nunnery. This photo and the photograph below are both courtesy of Brian Harris.

Continue reading

A Day in the Life of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

Here’s your ticket to India…

With these two videos you can sit back, relax and explore the sights and sounds of life at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, located near Dharamsala in northern India.

The photos of Tibetan Buddhist nuns in the video and the soundscape below are courtesy of Brian Harris. We hope you enjoy this bit of armchair travelling.

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

Continue reading

Empowering nuns to tell their own stories

Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Most of us take for granted our ability and opportunity to tell and share our stories. In wealthy nations, we’ve been privileged to have access to the education and tools such as computers and cameras that allow us to document our personal stories, messages and creative projects.

Not everyone has this opportunity. The Tibetan nuns have been among the world’s most disadvantaged in this regard. Not only did they face horrific human rights abuses prior to their escape, many of them received little or no education in Tibet and were illiterate on arrival in exile.

picture of 4 Tibetan Buddhist nuns at computers

Computer and media training at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo courtesy of Harald Weichhart who spent a month at Dolma Ling in May 2013 and has visited the nunnery 2 other times to offer training to the nuns in film-making, video editing, photography, design and Photoshop.

“I was 19 years old when I reached Dharamsala and was first introduced to formal education,” says Delek Yangdron. Delek was among a group of 40 nuns who arrived in Dharamsala from Lithang, Tibet in 1990 after a 28-day escape to Nepal, trekking over the Himalayas at night to avoid capture. Continue reading