Category Archives: Dharamsala

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Tibetan Buddhist nuns offer long life prayers to His Holiness the Dalai Lama

On March 1 2018, Tibetan Buddhist nuns from all five Tibetan schools of Buddhism including Bön will offer long life prayers to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The special ceremony will take place at the Main Temple in McLeod Ganj above Dharamsala. The event will be graced by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, long life prayers,

Photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama courtesy of Olivier Adam.

The long life prayers are being offered as a mark of gratitude to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his continued care and support offered to the Buddhist nuns.

As the Tibetan Journal reported, the historic ceremony also aims to fulfill His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s compassionate vision for the welfare of all sentient beings.

We look forward to sharing more news and photos of this special event.

How Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Live: Housing Then and Now

The Tibetan Nuns Project was created in response to a huge influx of nuns who arrived in India after escaping from Tibet. Finding shelter and creating long-term housing for the nuns was an urgent task.

Unlike monks who escaped and who had the option of joining established monasteries in India, there were no nunneries to go to for the nuns arriving in India. The two nunneries (Geden Choeling and Tilokpur) that were in and around Dharamsala, the home in exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the destination of choice for most Tibetan refugees, were both crowded and struggling.

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This archival photo shows one of the many exiled Tibetan nuns living in tents in India.

Housing for nuns in the early days

“We had a huge influx of nuns from Tibet after 1987 – nuns who had been to prison and tortured,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, founder and director of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

“Many had had to leave their nunneries in Tibet because they had been on demonstrations. Because of that, they were imprisoned and not allowed to go back to their nunneries. The only option for them was to escape and come to India via Nepal. This was one of the very pressing reasons for the Tibetan Nuns Project to come into existence – so that we could shelter and look after these nuns, and so they could have an education.”

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Nuns studying inside one of the rented houses before the Tibetan Nuns Project built two new nunneries.

“All these nuns arrived from Tibet with nothing, in bad health, 99% not knowing how to read and write, traumatized in the prisons, beaten by the prison guards, with damaged kidneys and all kinds of health problems. And here we were trying to set up nunneries and a system of education for them… It was amazing how our international friends came forward to help us financially,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal.

In the early days, four houses were rented in Dharamsala by the Tibetan Nuns Project to accommodate the newly arrived nuns.

Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Napper, co-director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, describes the housing situation in the late 1980s and 1990s:

“The Dolma Ling nuns were housed in a very dark, rented house with bunk beds three high – 18 in a room. They cooked outside in an outer cooking area with a canopy over it.”

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, housing, outdoor kitchen

In the early days, before the Tibetan Nuns Project built Dolma Ling and Shugsep nunneries, the nuns cooked outdoors in temporary structures.

“The situation for the Shugsep nuns wasn’t much better. We were able to move the Dolma Ling nuns down to a rented house and give the Shugsep nuns the small house that they had been in. It, too, was way too small. 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.”

“Bit by bit we built things, like a bathroom toilet block. Every bit of it was a struggle. But more nuns kept coming. Every time we thought we had the space OK, more nuns would come, so it would get overcrowded again. That was why we had to build a whole new nunnery. Both nunneries –Dolma Ling and Shugsep – started out in really overcrowded, substandard housing.”

Construction of the new Shugsep Nunnery in India began in January 2006. The nuns lived for ten years in damp, crowded conditions while the nunnery was being built.

housing for nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project archive, Tibetan Buddhist Nuns building

While they were living in rented housing, the nuns helped build the new nunneries. This archival photo shows nuns working to build Dolma Ling Nunnery. The nunnery took 12 years to build and was officially inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on December 8, 2005. It is now home to over 230 nuns.

Housing Now

Betsy Napper describes the housing situation now for Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling and Shugsep nunneries.

“The housing is still simple and basic. The standard configuration is two nuns to a room. Each nun has a bed, a table, a bench, a little storage area where she can put her books for study and practice, and a little area where she can set up an altar. Only nuns who are very senior or who have special responsibilities get single rooms.”

Dolma Ling Nunnery, nun's room, housing, Tibetan Nuns Project

Inside a nun’s room at Dolma Ling Nunnery. The accommodation is still very simple, with basic furniture, shared rooms, and no heat. In the winter, the temperature will drop to 50 degrees Fahrenheit or 10 degrees Celsius. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

“Of course there’s no way at all to afford heating. Heating is impossible. None of the nunneries are heated. In the winter, the nuns will try to sit outside in the sun because the buildings are cold.”

“Hot water has always been a struggle. 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.”

Thank you for sponsoring the nuns

The over 700 nuns in India supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project could not be given shelter without your support. We hope that this blog post helps to show the impact of your sponsorship gifts.

There are always nuns who wish to join the nunneries. One of the biggest obstacles is finding enough sponsors. If you would like to learn more about how to sponsor a nun and to see a video about the impact of sponsorship gifts, please visit our sponsorship page.

housing for nuns, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

Making a dream come true. Thanks to supporters around the world, the Tibetan Nuns Project was able to build two large nunneries and also support 5 more. This archival photo shows a holding a model of Dolma Ling Nunnery in front of the construction site in the early days of its 12-year construction.

Tibetan Buddhist prayers or pujas by the nuns

Prayers have power. Buddhists believe that prayers can help relieve suffering and overcome obstacles. It is a belief that is shared by many of the world’s religions.

Tibetans recite mantras and prayers to purify the mind, to deal with negative emotions, to increase merit, and to invite help from the Buddha and various enlightened beings or deities.

Buddhist nuns saying prayers

Offering butter lamps is deeply ingrained in the Tibetan tradition and sometimes as many as 10,000 are offered. Butter lamps may be offered for many occasions, such as when someone is starting a new venture, to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or graduation, to say thank you, or when you or someone you know is in trouble. This photo shows nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery offering 1,000 butter lamps and saying prayers as part of a sponsored puja for someone who was ill. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns pray daily. They also perform pujas, which are special ceremonies in which prayers are offered to the Buddha and other deities to request help, to receive blessings, and to purify obstacles due to past karma or actions.

butter lamps, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dolma Ling, Dharamsala

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery prepare hundreds of butter lamps for a special puja.

How to request a Puja or Prayers

You can ask the Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India to perform prayers and pujas on your behalf.

People around the world are able to sponsor pujas or prayers through our Tibetan Nuns Project website. You can sponsor prayers in honor of loved ones, friends, family members, or even pets who may be suffering from obstacles, ill health, or who have passed away.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to request prayers by the Tibetan nuns.

torma, Tibetan Buddhism, Dolma Ling

Tibetan Buddhist nuns prepare tormas for a puja. Tormas are figures made mostly of flour and butter used in tantric rituals or as offerings. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

There are many different types of prayers or pujas to choose from, depending on your wishes and the problems that you wish to overcome. Full descriptions of each puja and its use are available on our website in the Prayers and Pujas section of our online store.

When requesting a puja or prayers from the Tibetan Nuns Project please provide information about who the prayers are to be directed to and for what purpose. The funds given to the nuns to sponsor pujas are used to purchase supplies and also help to support the nunnery as a whole.

A gift of prayer is something very special. As soon as we receive your request for a puja or for the offering of butter lamps, we will send you a thank you message by email. As soon as possible after that, the nuns will send a confirmation note to you from India to let you know that the puja has been performed. Continue reading

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

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Tibetan Nuns Project

Our 30th anniversary is an opportunity to thank our supporters and to take stock of the many historic milestones made possible through their compassion for the nuns. The support of our donors will be remembered in the history of Tibet and for future Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

Here are just some of the accomplishments:

  • Creating a ground-breaking educational program for nuns;
  • Feeding, clothing, housing, and educating almost 800 Tibetans nuns thanks to our sponsors;
  • Building and establishing of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a non-sectarian nunnery;
  • Constructing and re-establishing Shugsep Nunnery in India;
  • Establishing the annual inter-nunnery debate, the Jang Gonchoe;
  • Laying the groundwork for higher degrees for nuns; and
  • Awarding of the Geshema degree for the first time in the history of Tibet.
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Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India throw tsampa (roasted barley flour) in the air as part of the traditional celebrations of Losar, Tibetan New Year. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

In the coming months, we will be sharing more news about ways in which you and our wonderful global family can connect, such as through house parties and through online sharing of news, photos, and videos to commemorate this milestone.

We will be holding a gathering at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India and Institute in India on October 2nd 2017. For information, please contact us at info@tnp.org

The importance of debate in Tibetan Buddhist monastic education

Monastic debate is of critical importance in traditional Tibetan Buddhist learning. Through debate, nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning.

The following video is a great primer on Tibetan Buddhist debate by nuns. It’s taken from a longer video made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery in northern India and it answers many of the frequently asked questions about monastic debate, such as the meaning of the hand movements.

In addition to their daily debate practice, each year in India, hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist nuns from nunneries in India and Nepal gather for a special, month-long inter-nunnery debate called the Jang Gonchoe. This annual inter-nunnery debate takes place each autumn and is a critical part of the nuns’ education, allowing them to really “up their game” so to speak. Continue reading

Daily Life of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: Part 2

The other day we published Part 1 of Daily Life of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns.

Since we had so many great photos, we decided to do Part 2 to give you a better idea of the many tasks that the nuns do in addition to their studies and practice.

As we said in Part 1, nunneries are complex institutions requiring a lot of hands-on work by the nuns to function smoothly. As you will see from the photos below, the nuns take an active role in running the nunneries. For instance, at Dolma Ling Nunnery, the largest of the 7 nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project and home to over 230 nuns, there is a nuns’ committee that oversees the various aspects of nunnery life.

Geden Choeling Nunnery exams

Nuns at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala taking exams. In addition to their studies and Buddhist practice, Tibetan Buddhist nuns perform many other tasks to keep their nunneries running smoothly.

These leadership roles include kitchen managers who do the purchasing for the kitchen and are often directly involved in cooking; treasurers who are responsible for nunnery finances, running the nunnery store, and making purchases for the nunnery; and the keeper of the temple who makes the daily water offerings, lights the butter lamps, escorts visitors, and keeps the temple clean.

Buddhist nuns handicrafts

Collage of photos showing some of the handicrafts and the shop at Dolma Ling Nunnery.

One of our goals at the Tibetan Nuns Project is to help the nuns achieve more self-sufficiency through skill building and income-generating projects. The nuns at Dolma Ling make a range of handicrafts such as prayer flags and malas for sale in the nunnery shop and through our online store. In spite of the various self-sufficiency projects, the nunneries still need outside support. The nuns are not in their own country. They are refugees and do not have access to major sources of revenue within India.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns shovel snow from the nunnery roof

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti shovel snow from the nunnery roof.

At Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote region of Spiti in the Indian Himalayas, the nuns must often shovel the snow in winter. This photo shows them shovelling the nunnery roof. During the winter of 2014/15, the weather was so severe that the nunnery ran out of cooking gas. For over two months the nuns had to rely solely on firewood to cook. The heavy snowfalls in the area 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. Continue reading

The Tibetan Buddhist holy month of Saga Dawa

Saga Dawa is a very important month in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. This year, Saga Dawa, the fourth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar, started on May 7th and runs until June 5th 2016.

The 15th day of the lunar month, the full moon day, is called Saga Dawa Düchen. Düchen means “great occasion” and this day is the single most holy day of the year for Buddhists. This year Saga Dawa Düchen falls on May 21 2016. In other Buddhist traditions it is known as Vesak or is sometimes as Buddha Day. Saga Dawa Düchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death (parinirvana) of Buddha Shakyamuni.

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A young Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery reads scriptures to mark Saga Dawa. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo.

Since 1999, the United Nations has marked this sacred Buddhist day each year with a special message from the UN Secretary General. The UN Vesak page states, “Vesak, the Day of the Full Moon in the month of May, is the most sacred day to millions of Buddhists around the world. It was on the Day of Vesak two and a half millennia ago, in the year 623 B.C., that the Buddha was born. It was also on the Day of Vesak that the Buddha attained enlightenment, and it was on the Day of Vesak that the Buddha in his eightieth year passed away.”

This year’s message from the UN Secretary General highlights the primary role that women can play in promoting peace, justice, and human rights. Continue reading

First batch of Geshema candidates sit their final round of exams

This month twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns are making history as they take their fourth and final round of examinations for the Geshema degree. Those who pass will receive their degrees in December 2016 from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony in India.

The Geshe degree (Geshema for women) is equivalent to a Doctorate in Buddhist Philosophy and is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.

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A Geshema candidate on day 1 of the Geshema examinations being held this year at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India. Photo courtesy of Venerable Delek Yangdron.

Once only open to men, the opportunity to get the Geshe degree was opened to women in 2012. The Geshema examinations represent a huge milestone for Tibetan Buddhist nuns and this batch of 20 nuns will be the first Tibetan women with this highest degree in the history of Tibet.

This year’s Geshema examinations are being held at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India from May 1 to 12th 2016.  Continue reading