Category Archives: Dolma Ling Nunnery

Tibetan Buddhist nuns pray for victims of Australian fires

In January of 2020, the world’s attention turned to Australia, where the worst wildfires experienced in decades have destroyed homes, displaced people, killed animals, and left large swaths of the country devastated.

In light of this tragedy, one thousand butter lamps were offered by the Tibetan Nuns Project on behalf of all our nuns and staff, praying to give strength to the victims to overcome this disaster.

Offering of Tibetan butter lamps for victims of Australian bush fires

“We want to express our sadness, love, and support for all those affected by the devastating Australian bush fires, for the vast species of wildlife that have been destroyed, and for every soul that has been hit at varying degrees. May all heal with the love, support, and care of people around them. May one never lose hope to work towards a holistic space for everyone to live in.”

Those Tibetan Buddhist nuns in India who have sponsors living in Australia are very concerned about the safety and well-being of their sponsors.

Tibetan Butter Lamp Offering

Offering butter lamps is deeply ingrained in the Tibetan tradition. Butter lamps are part of traditional daily Tibetan puja and serve a variety of purposes, including aiding focus and meditation, providing a symbolic flame to light the path towards liberation, and facilitating the cultivation of merit for those who sponsor the lamps’ fuel which is usually butter or oil.

Tibetan butter lamps may be offered for many occasions, such as when you or someone you know is in trouble. They may also be offered when someone is starting a new venture, to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or graduation, or to say thank you.

Tibetan butter lamp offering for victims of Australian fires

Tibetan butter lamp offering to the victims of the Australia bush fires. Photo taken at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Message to Australians

On January 8, 2020, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote to the Australian Prime Minister to express his sympathy and deep sadness about the bushfires that have caused such devastating damage.

Portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Olivier Adam

Portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Olivier Adam. In January, His Holiness expressed his sorrow over the bushfire devastation in Australia in a formal letter to the Australian Prime Minister.

Writing to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison from the holy city of Bodh Gaya, His Holiness said:

“It is simply heart-wrenching to see reports of these ferocious infernos, while the personal bravery of so many volunteers who have come together as firefighters is an inspiration.

“I offer my condolences to the families of those who have died and to the many people who have lost their homes in these fires.

“It is also becoming increasingly clear that a great number of birds and animals have died in the fires — this is also very distressing.

“I would like to commend your government and the respective state governments for the measures they have taken to provide victims with necessary support and assistance.

“I am heartened by the generous solidarity being shown by the global community for those who have been affected. Disasters like this remind us that humanity is one community. Even on an individual level, each and every one of us must take steps to counter global warming.

“As you may know, I have been able to visit Australia quite regularly over the years and have been deeply touched by the friendship and affection Australians have shown me, as well as the interest they have taken in my efforts to promote human values and peace of mind.” 

Tibetan Butter lamp puja

The sign with the 1,000 butter lamps says, “Offering of Butter Lamps by the nuns for the victim of Australian bush fire. There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”  by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

Keeping the nunneries strong and healthy

It takes a lot of work to maintain the nunneries that we support.  In 2019, a long list of maintenance and repair projects were completed at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

On behalf of the over 240 nuns at Dolma Ling, thank you to everyone who gives to the Maintenance Fund.

carpentry work to maintain Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, Dolma Ling maintenance projects

Suresh, the longtime carpenter at Dolma Ling, hard at work fixing damaged windows.

On seeing the list of completed projects, one supporter wrote:

“From a homeowner’s perspective, for the small cost, so much was accomplished. The volume of the work impresses me and for such a small annual investment. It is work focused on sustainability, environmental effects and impact, and living harmoniously with the Earth. Yay!”

We hope this report conveys the enormous impact of your gifts to keep Dolma Ling a strong and healthy place for the nuns to live and study.

Here’s a list of 36 Dolma Ling maintenance projects that were completed in 2019 thanks to your generosity.

Carpentry Work

Suresh, the longtime carpenter at Dolma Ling, completed the following projects in 2019:

  1. Fixed leaks in the slate roof before the monsoon rains began.
  2. Repaired various damaged windows.
  3. Put up protective splash covers on the outside doors of His Holiness’ suite on the top floor of the temple building.
  4. Made 6 bulletin boards for the housing blocks so that the nuns do not have to tape notices on the walls, spoiling the paintwork.
  5. Cleaned the café gutters and checked the café roof.
before and after leak repair

before and after leak repair Dolma Ling 2019

Roofing, Repair, and Maintenance Work

  1. Extensive repairs were made to the multiple bathroom blocks at Dolma Ling, including to the floors, pipes, and to the windows and doors which were damaged by water. The toilet and bathroom areas were, in some cases, 20 years old because the nunnery was built in stages. Many of the water pipes were corroded and needed replacing. Urgent action was needed to prevent further degeneration of the building structure.
  2. Filled holes and gaps in the stone and slate paving throughout the nunnery complex.
  3. Cemented the area in front of the septic tank to help with drainage.
  4. Repaired the slate flooring in the nuns’ bathhouse and the stairs of the teachers’ housing block.
  5. Cleared and filled holes in gardens and courtyards and improved drainage.
  6. To prevent dampness in the nunnery guesthouse and to facilitate drainage, workers dug a two-foot ventilation gap between the back wall of the building and the land behind it. This was money well spent as the condition of the ground floor of the building is very much improved. The building is to be painted this winter.
  7. Created steps and filled in the guesthouse garden.
  8. Built a clothes-washing area for the nuns by installing half-round concrete pipes into the water channel. This was carried out efficiently and with the least disruption to the nuns’ washing area.
  9. A tree was removed which was dripping water onto the windowsill of a nun’s room making it constantly damp inside.
  10. Painted the doors of the tofu-making building.
  11. Replaced the valves in the pump house.
  12. Tested the water from the bore well and the water filtration system. The water was found to be clear of coliforms and heavy metals but has a large amount of iron and some turbidity which will need to be filtered out.
  13. Built an overhead water tank stand. This is part of a larger project to pipe water from the bore well in the front garden to an overhead tank from which it will be filtered and fed to the kitchen, dining hall, and to the shed where there is a water boiler which the nuns use to fill their thermos flasks for their rooms.
  14. Started work on the repair and cleaning of the solar panels. The nuns need to remove all deposits that have collected inside the solar collectors, replace leaky valves, and check and clean all the panels and piping regularly to keep the system running. The bulk of the work has been done on all three solar units but has revealed some problems that will need to be fixed in 2020.
  15. Painted large sections of the nunnery including three of the six housing wings, the dining hall, and the courtyard external faces of the corridors, dining building, and the temple.
  16. Hung curtains in the prayer hall. There have been recent cases of thefts in temples because thieves get tempted by seeing images and ritual items through the clear windows of the hall.
painting the Tibetan nunnery

Regular re-painting of the Nunnery buildings is essential. Since the construction of the first wings at Dolma Ling, over 20 years ago, we have made efforts to re-paint the buildings in rotation every three years. However, the last time the first three nunnery wings were painted was in 2015 so a good deal of repair work was also overdue, especially in the bathrooms.

Blacksmith Work

  1. Three ventilating skylights were added to the bathhouse to prevent the build-up of humidity within the building. These have been very simply made and installed and are very effective.
  2. The blacksmith who put the guttering on the retreat huts also installed guttering and downpipes to stop water damage down the sides of the building.
  3. Put up fencing and a gate on the ground floor of the senior teachers’ house to prevent staff children from falling.
  4. At the nuns’ request, four small gates were added to the entrances of the staff and teachers’ residences and an office, to prevent stray dogs from taking refuge inside the buildings.

bathroom repairs Dolma Ling maintenance 2019

Protecting the Retreat Huts from Monsoon Rains

The eight retreat huts built and inaugurated in 2014 are now occupied by nuns in retreat and by the newly qualified Geshemas.

During the summer of 2017, the nuns noticed that water was flooding through the land during heavy monsoon downpours and causing problems inside the huts and to the access paths, as well as water logging parts of the gardens.

drainage work for retreat huts at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute 2019

The eight retreat huts, completed several years ago thanks to generous donors, are occupied by nuns in retreat and by the newly qualified Geshemas. Drainage work was needed to prevent flooding during the monsoon.

The following work to fix the retreat huts was done between June and October 2019:

  1. Drains were dug and lined to ensure that water flows efficiently into the main drain behind the huts.
  2. The guttering was installed on all 8 huts so that the water from the roofs does not splash back against the walls.
  3. Each hut has two downpipes on opposite corners of the building, which takes water efficiently into the drain.
  4. The drainage system has been made to accommodate the water from the downpipes.

We are confident that these arrangements will be effective in channeling the monsoon rainwater away from the buildings. This will reduce dampness and make the retreat huts more comfortable and healthier for the occupants.

work to prevent dampness in Dolma Ling guesthouse copy

The nunnery guesthouse is an income-generating project for the nunnery where visitors can come and stay. To prevent dampness in the guesthouse and to facilitate drainage, workers dug a two-foot ventilation gap between the back wall of the building and the land behind it. This was money well spent as the condition of the ground floor of the building is very much improved. The building will be painted this winter and will have a new lease on life.

Masonry Work

A mason named Bablu and his assistants were hired to carry out the general repair work required including:

  1. Filled holes in the paving.
  2. Re-set the levels on the septic tank in front of the café to enable water to drain better.
  3. Repaired the slate flooring on the teachers’ house stairs and in the bathhouse.
  4. Built a low stone wall in the garden between the office and the teachers’ house to improve the possibility of creating a nice garden for the rose trees which are planted in that area.
  5. Created a drain at the bottom of the kitchen stairs to help remove excess water that collects there.
  6. Tiled the torma room floor. The nuns decided to make new surfaces on which they make tormas out of black granite and also requested that the floor be tiled so that it could be kept as clean as possible, befitting the room in which these special ritual offering cakes are made.
  7. Tiled the wall in the dining room behind the serving table. The wall was badly marked and is much easier to keep clean now that it is tiled.

Work to be Done in 2020

Dolma Ling is a bit like a university campus, with many buildings, housing blocks, and systems. In the harsh climate and heavy monsoons of northern India, there is always work to be done to keep the nunnery complex strong, safe, and healthy.

For this reason, the Tibetan Nuns Project fundraises each year for the Maintenance Fund.

Here are just a few of the projects to be done in 2020:

  1. Fix the café roof with bituminized surfacing.
  2. Stop the dripping from the overhead pipes in the debate courtyard.
  3. Paint the guesthouse, the clinic, and the lower teachers’ house, all of which are urgently in need of doing as they have not been painted since 2015.

Science Fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

In November 2019, a group of nuns held a science fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The nuns chose topics such as the water cycle, environmental issues, the solar system, and the human digestive system. Since clean drinking water is an important issue, some nuns conducted simple experiments of home-made water filters.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in Dolma Ling science fair

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in Dolma Ling science fair

The science fair was held in the main courtyard of the nunnery and was organized with the help of the nuns’ English teacher, Mr. Tenzin Norgay.

Tibetan Buddhist nun explains science fair poster

A Tibetan Buddhist nun explains her science fair poster on the human digestive system to her sister nuns. The science fair also gave the nuns a chance to practice their English and public speaking skills and helped them build confidence.

“It was an extremely beautiful and thoughtful exhibition,” said Tsering Diki, manager of the Tibetan Nuns Project office which is based at the nunnery.

The posters and displays were written in English and the event was an excellent example of inter-disciplinary learning because the nuns used their English skills to express scientific ideas.

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute science fair 2019

The science fair was held in the main courtyard of the nunnery and was organized with the help of the nuns’ English teacher, Mr. Tenzin Norgay.

The nuns’ science fair was held by the Lorig class, which is a junior class at the nunnery. Many of the senior nuns were in Bodh Gaya for the month-long inter-nunnery debate, called the Jang Gonchoe.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in science fair

Tibetan Buddhist nuns in the courtyard at Dolma Ling review the science posters and displays.

The science fair offered the nuns many learning opportunities and integrated many subjects into one project, such as English reading and writing, critical thinking, problem-solving, graphic arts, and public speaking.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns science fair at Dolma Ling 2019

The science fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute helped the nuns learn both science and English, as well as research and presentation skills.

It was a fun chance for the nuns to gain confidence in speaking. It makes science relevant by allowing students to conduct research and experiments based on their own interests.

Nuns presenting science posters at Dolma Ling science fair

Nuns presenting science posters at Dolma Ling science fair

As the photos show, the nuns created scientific posters, models, and dioramas to convey their various topics. The bright, engaging posters also show the creative use of recycled materials.

solar system projects at Tibetan Buddhist nuns science fair

For the science fair, the nuns chose topics of interest to them such as the solar system, the human digestive system, the water cycle, and environmental issues such as clean water.

The nuns presented their posters and displays to the group. Tsering said, “Visually seeing things when being explained makes a bigger impact on our memory as well.”

Water filtration project at Dolma Ling Science Fair

Clean drinking water is an important issue for health. As part of the science fair, nuns conducted simple experiments of home-made water filters.

Every year since 2014, nuns from Dolma Ling take part in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a four-week program held at Drepung Loseling Monastery in South India. During the event, Tibetan nuns and monks are taught the philosophy of science, physics, neuroscience, and biology. The course is presented by faculty members from Emory and other distinguished universities with assistance from the Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars.

Students attend classes for six hours a day and are tested on the last day of each course. Classes consist of lectures, discussions, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments. In 2018, eight nuns from Dolma Ling attended.

Thank you to everyone who has supported our Teachers’ Salaries fund!

Human digestive system display by nuns

This display of the human digestive system shows the creative use of recycled materials.

Visit Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar Through Beautiful Photos

Dorjee Zong Nunnery

Dorjee Zong Nunnery is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist nunnery located in the remote area and high-altitude area of Zanskar in northern India, near Ladakh.

The nunnery is one of the oldest centers in pursuit of monastic education in Zanskar. Founded in the 14th century, it has a long tradition of meditating nuns, some of who are famed for having reached high levels of realization and attainment.

remote Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar by Olivier Adam low res

Currently, there are about 25 nuns at the nunnery. The eldest are in their 80s, while the youngest is about six. In the past, the nuns at Dorjee Zong did not have the opportunity to engage in rigorous philosophical studies, but their education program is improving. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

The nunnery was founded about 700 years ago by Master Sherab Zangpo, renowned as the Bodhisattva from the upper region of Tibet. He was one of the chief disciples of Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar by Olivier Adam

Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar by Olivier Adam

There have been a number of highly accomplished practitioners who devoted their entire life to dharma at this nunnery. Khandroma Yeshi Lhamo, popularly known as Jomo Shelama, was one of those highly realized practitioners from the nunnery.

Young nuns study at Dorjee Zong Nunnery Photo by Olivier Adam

Young nuns study at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. The girls and women from this area have traditionally been given far less education than boys and men. The nunnery gives them a chance for an education that they would not have otherwise. Though the young girls live and dress and nuns, they do not take vows until they are old enough to understand. Photo by Olivier Adam

At present, the nunnery is very small and basic and seeks to provide education and guide the nuns in community service. The nunnery was accepted into the Tibetan Nuns Project’s sponsorship program in 2009. Currently, about 19 of the nuns are sponsored thanks to Tibetan Nuns Project donors.

Nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery photo by Olivier Adam

Nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

School Bus Project

One of our urgent projects this summer is to purchase a school bus for Dorjee Zong Nunnery so that the young nuns can continue their education. Without it, nuns aged 13-15 will have to stop going to school. 

The nuns need the bus to make the 12-mile round-trip journey to the government school where they will study as day students. Currently, there are 9 teenage girls who have completed Grade 5 and who need the school bus so that they can continue their education. At the government school, they can study up to Grade 10. In the future, there will be more girls who will need the school bus which can seat 20 students.

Only $4,041 is needed to fully fund the school bus.

Our wish is to complete the funding before August 25th. The nunnery needs to buy the bus from Leh, Ladakh and get it to the nunnery before winter snows block the roads.

Young girls studying at Dorjee Zong Nunnery.

Young girls studying at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The girls began primary school at the nunnery. There they can study from Class 1 to Class 5, but the nunnery is unable to provide higher studies. Girls from the Himalayan regions of India traditionally have had little access to education. Nunneries like Dorjee Zong provide them with opportunity. More families are sending their girls to the nunnery to get an education.

young nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar

The young nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery need a school bus to make the 12-mile round trip journey to the local school to continue their education past Grade 5. When they joined Dorjee Zong at ages 6 or 7, the girls began primary school at the nunnery. There they can study from Class 1 to Class 5, but the nunnery is unable to provide higher studies. Photo of Dorjee Zong Nunnery courtesy of the Venerable Delek Yangdron

The school bus and the access to further education it will provide education are the keys to empowerment. The young girls dress as nuns but have not taken vows. Once they are old enough to decide for themselves, they can choose to take nuns vows and begin their monastic education.

To help purchase the school bus you can:

  1. Make a gift online at tnp.org
  2. Call our office in Seattle, US at 1-206-652-8901
  3. Mail a check to: The Tibetan Nuns Project (for school bus)
    815 Seattle Boulevard South #216, Seattle, WA 98134 USA
  4. Give a gift of securities
Tibetan Buddhist nun Zanskar Olivier Adam

An elderly Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar. Note the rugged terrain in the background. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Future Photos from Dorjee Zong Nunnery

This blog post features some of the many stunning photographs by our supporter, Olivier Adam.

We’re delighted to tell you that, thanks to the donors to our Media Equipment Project in 2018, the nuns at Dorjee Zong now have a camera and can document life and important milestones at the nunnery (like the school bus, we hope).

One of the nuns from Dorjee Zong traveled this summer to our headquarters in India at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute to get the camera and receive training, as well as for other nunnery business. She said she very happy to receive the camera because she would now be able to share with Tibetan Nuns Project supporters pictures and videos of the nuns.  She was never able to do so in the past.

young students at Dorjee Zong Nunnery by Olivier Adam

Some of the young girls studying at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

 

Historic accomplishment as Geshemas hired to teach nuns

Two nuns with Geshema degrees have been hired to teach Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Tenzin Kunsel, Dolma Ling nunnery, nun from Tibet, Geshema, 2019 Message

You’re making dreams come true! Geshema Tenzin Kunsel always dreamed of getting an education and
becoming a teacher. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

This is an important milestone for the nuns. For the first time, Tibetan Buddhist nuns are being taught these topics by other nuns, rather than by monks.

Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks.

One of the goals of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to elevate the educational standards and the position of women. To this end, the project created a groundbreaking education system aimed at both preserving Tibetan culture and equipping and empowering the nuns to live and become leaders in the modern world.

The two Geshemas hired this spring as teachers are Geshema Tenzin Kunsel (right) and Geshema Delek Wangmo.

The Geshema degree, which is equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, is the culmination of at least 17 years of study.

The Geshema degree was only opened up to the nuns in 2012. Now there are 37 Geshemas and these dedicated women are a beacon of inspiration to all the other nuns.

The two Geshema teachers endured a lot to reach this historic status. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel had to leave school in Tibet at age 12. (She tells her story in a video interview.) Geshema Delek Wangmo (below) was illiterate when she arrived in India after escaping from Tibet.

Delek Wangmo, Geshema, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

Your support in action. Delek Wangmo could barely read when she escaped from Tibet. Now she holds the Geshema degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Like the other nuns from Tibet, they risked their lives to escape to India for the chance to freely practice their religion.

After graduating as Geshemas, both nuns completed further studies in Tantric Buddhism. This groundbreaking program launched in 2017 for the nuns has enabled the graduates to become fully qualified teachers of their complete tradition.

Until now, Tibetan nuns never had the opportunity to be educated at this high level.

We thank His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his support. We are also very grateful to our global family of supporters for helping to educate, feed, clothe, and house the nuns.

Here is a list of projects we’re working on now and that need funding.

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week

The first full week of May is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, so we’re taking this opportunity to celebrate the teachers at Tibetan Buddhist nunneries. Springtime is also the start of a new academic year at the nunneries in India so it’s a fitting time to honor the teachers who educate the nuns.

“Educating women is powerful,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor for the Tibetan Nuns Project.

“It’s not just about books. It is also about helping nuns acquire the skills they need to run their own institutions and create models for future success and expansion. It’s about enabling the nuns to be teachers in their own right and to take on leadership roles at a critical time in our nation’s history.”

teacher appreciation, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project, education of women, Tibetan nuns

A monk teaches Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. As more nuns take the highest degrees in their traditions, such as the Geshema degree, they will be qualified to teach. 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.

Because historically nuns have not had access to formal education, very few nuns are qualified to teach. The good news is that the situation is now changing. More nuns are receiving the highest degrees in their traditions.

Who Teaches the Nuns

One of our ongoing tasks is the recruitment of qualified teachers for the various nunneries that we support.

The teachers we employ in the seven nunneries we support are both monastic and lay. Monks (often Geshes and Khenpos) from the large monasteries and training institutes of the various Buddhist traditions teach Buddhist philosophy and debate.

March 2019 marked a big milestone. Two nuns with Geshema degrees were hired to teach Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. For the first time, nuns are being taught these topics by other nuns, rather than by monks. This achievement would not have been possible without the global family of supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

teacher appreciation, Delek Wangmo, Geshema, Tibetan Nuns Project, educating women

Photo of Delek Wangmo and other senior nuns in 2013 by Brian Harris. When she escaped from Tibet she could barely read. Now she is one of two Geshemas hired in March 2019 to teach at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

English is taught in the nunneries by lay women and men educated in the Indian university system. For the Tibetan language, we employ mostly young women and men who have come from Tibet in recent years. Recent refugees often have stronger Tibetan-language skills than their Indian-raised counterparts. Once they have completed a teacher-training course at nearby Sarah Institute, a branch of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, we and many other institutions in the exile community hire them to teach Tibetan language, literature, and grammar.

teacher appreciation, Geden Choeling Nunnery, education of women, Tibetan nuns

Teaching a Tibetan class at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Supporting the Nuns’ Teachers

The ultimate goal is to empower the nuns to become teachers and leaders in their own right and to help preserve Tibet’s unique culture and religion.

In addition to funding the salaries for teachers at the seven nunneries directly supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, each year we fund the salaries at a number of small nunneries in remote regions.

The annual cost of one teacher’s salary ranges from $1,500 to $5,000, depending on the location of the nunnery and the skills of the teacher, so the total annual budget for this program is approximately $40,000. We are very grateful to all those people who support our Teachers’ Salaries Fund.

What Do the Nuns Study

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.

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

At most nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, courses are also offered in Tibetan language, English, and computer skills, as well as in ritual arts such as sand mandalas and butter sculpture. The smaller nunneries in more remote areas are at earlier stages in the educational process.

teacher appreciation, Shugsep Nunnery, education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A lay teacher at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute teaches geography to the nuns. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

The Power of Educating the Nuns

Before the Chinese takeover of Tibet, there were at least 818 nunneries and nearly 28,000 nuns living in Tibet.

In an attempt to eliminate Buddhism in Tibet, more than 6,000 nunneries and monasteries were destroyed between 1959 and 1980. Monks and nuns in great numbers were imprisoned, tortured, and forced to give up the ordained way of life. Teaching, study, and prayer were strictly prohibited, and religious texts and objects were demolished.

Before the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded in 1987, there wasn’t much education for Tibetan nuns, either in exile or inside Tibet. “Even when Tibet was free, nuns didn’t have much of an education,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal. “Of course, we had wonderful nunneries in Tibet, beautiful ones where the nuns were supported by their family members and treated very well, but mostly what the nuns did was spend their time in praying and meditating.”

“I must say that some nuns were very highly realized meditators, but in the sense of education that you and I know of today, they had none,” she said. “Which is why we are so happy that we have been able to make it possible in exile.”

Tibetan, Tibetan language, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A Tibetan Buddhist nun reads and writes in Tibetan. Most nuns arriving in India had been denied basic educational opportunities in Tibet, including education in their own Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhist religious heritage. The majority of nuns arrived in India illiterate and unable to write their own names. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

“The protection of Tibetan language and its culture is not only about Tibetans in Tibet,” says Karma Tenzin, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. “A proper access to the rich and profound Buddhist philosophy and epistemology is possible only through Tibetan language.”

About Tibetan butter sculptures

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

Tibetan nuns making butter sculptures for Losar

Tibetan nuns decorate a traditional offering box for Tibetan New Year or Losar with colorful butter sculptures. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

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

flower Tibetan butter sculpture

A nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India makes an elaborate colored flower out of butter. Photo by Nuns’ Media Team

It is the practice in Buddhism to offer flowers as a tribute to Buddha statues on altars. However, in winter when no fresh flowers can be found, flowers sculpted from butter are made as an offering. Other popular designs for Tibetan butter sculptures include the eight Auspicious Symbols in Tibetan Buddhism, the four harmonious friends – elephant, monkey, rabbit, and bird – and the sun and the moon.

Tibetan butter sculptures on Losar altar

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

Butter has always been highly valued in Tibetan culture. Its availability and its malleable quality in the cold climate of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas made it an ideal material for sculpting. Inside Tibet, the sacred Tibetan butter sculptures would be made from the butter of dri which are female yaks.

an elaborate Tibetan butter sculpture

A Tibetan Buddhist nun creates an elaborate Tibetan butter sculpture of a ram for Tibetan New Year. She is learning the ancient art of making Tibetan butter sculptures at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Preserving the art of Tibetan butter sculptures

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

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

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make Tibetan butter sculptures

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make butter sculpture. Photos by the Nuns’ Media Team

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

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Mounds of colored butter ready for the nuns at Dolma Ling to make Tibetan butter sculptures for Losar, Tibetan New Year. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Butter Sculpture Workshop at Dolma Ling

Creating butter sculptures in the hot climate of India is, as you can imagine, problematic. Several years ago, generous donors funded our project to create a special butter sculpture workshop at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a non-sectarian nunnery that is home to about 250 nuns.

Tibetan butter sculptures made by the nuns at Dolma Ling for Losar, Tibetan New Year.

Tibetan butter sculptures made by the nuns at Dolma Ling for Losar, Tibetan New Year. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Prior to that time, the nuns at Dolma Ling had been using a makeshift space at the nunnery that got very hot. They were only able to make sculptures during the very coldest months. Now a suitable space has been designated in the nunnery. The.room is cooler and has access to cold water in which to lay the butter and cool the nuns’ fingers.

materials for Tibetan butter sculptures

Rounds of butter, dyes, and other tools for making butter sculpture are laid out in preparation for making butter sculptures for Tibetan New Year at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

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. 

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

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.

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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