Category Archives: legacy

Brian Harris: Story behind iconic Laughing Nuns photo

My name is Brian Harris. My wife Paula and I have left legacy gifts in our wills for the Tibetan Nuns Project as a way of continuing our support of the essential role that Tibetan nuns play in the ongoing transmission of the Buddha’s teaching.

Almost 30 years ago, in 1989, I travelled to India to take photographs and gather sound recordings for a special exhibition called India: Eye to Eye. My journey took me to Dharamsala, the heart of the Tibetan exile community and home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

It was on this trip that I encountered the Tibetan Nuns Project. The Tibetan Nuns Project would become one of the charitable organizations that I chose to help with my photographic projects.

Brian Harris, Tibetan Nuns Project, laughing nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dharamsala, Tibetan Buddhism, nunnery, Buddhist nunnery, legacy gift to Tibetan Nuns ProjectLaughing Nuns: The Story Behind the Photograph

It was lunchtime at Geden Choeling Nunnery when two nuns stepped out of the main entrance to the shrine hall. As soon as I spotted the lead nun holding a gong in one hand and a mallet in the other, I realized this might be a good photo opportunity. I pointed my camera and took one photo.

This was before digital cameras were common, so it was almost six months later when I was back in Vancouver and I finally developed the rolls of film from that trip. When I saw the photograph for the first time, I was stunned by its beauty and power. It wasn’t the photo I imagined I had taken. I had thought I’d taken an image of a nun banging on a gong. Instead, it was a marvelous display of two nuns in full-bodied, infectious, joyful laughter. Little did I know that it would become an iconic image – one that so many people have come to identify with the Tibetan people’s indomitable spirit and light-hearted, warm character.

Brian Harris, Tibet, nun receiving blessed water, Giving and Receiving

Over many years, my association with the Tibetan Nuns Project has been a two-way relationship resulting in friendships and a deep satisfaction in knowing that my photographic gifts and project funds have been useful and kindly received.

The reciprocal relationship of receiving while giving that I experience with the Tibetan Nuns Project is, I think, beautifully portrayed in this image I took on my first trip to Tibet in 1987.

The photo above is of a nun humbly receiving blessed water offered by a Ganden Monastery monk. The blessed water is being given from a simple teapot rather than the traditional , more ornate vessel, because many of the valuable ritual implements were plundered during the violent occupation of Tibet several decades before. [Tibet has been under Chinese occupation since the 1950s. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, “More than 97 percent of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed and the number of monks and nuns living in the monasteries was reduced by 93 percent,” according to the 10th Panchen Lama’s famous petition submitted to the Chinese government on the conditions inside Tibet.]

An element in this photograph that I have always liked, but particularly appreciate more recently, is the fact that the face of the monk is in soft-focused shadow. In the Theravada tradition, there was and is a custom of a monk holding up an elaborately embroidered ritual fan in front of his face while teaching the Dharma. This symbolizes the impersonal nature of the teaching, thus reminding both listener and speaker that it’s the Dharma that is the primary teacher or wisdom source, not the individual giving the teaching or recitation.

In closing, I’d like to suggest that you join me in leaving a lasting legacy to help the nuns, by including a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project and share your intention by emailing info@tnp.org or calling 1-206-652-8901.

If you include a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project before the end of March 2019, I will send you signed prints of both photos as a special thank you. Just contact the Tibetan Nuns Project office by emailing  info@tnp.org or calling 1-206-652-8901.

May all beings be happy and free of distress!

Brian Harris