Category Archives: Shugsep Nunnery

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

We need your help

We have a kind of stinky problem. It’s also an urgent one.

The septic systems are failing at two Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in India, Shugsep  Nunnery and Dolma Ling Nunnery. This poses a health risk to the nuns and their neighbors. The nuns need your help before the situation gets even worse.

The repairs to both septic systems must be made before the arrival of monsoon rains at the end of June.

septic repairs, Buddhist nunneries, septic system

Properly functioning septic systems are vital for the health and well-being of the nunneries and their neighbors.

Unfortunately, both nunneries are entirely dependent on their septic systems to treat both sewage and greywater. There are no main sewer lines or sewage treatment systems nearby that they can tap into.

We need $6,500 to repair the septic system at Shugsep Nunnery and $6,200 to repair the septic system at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Can you help?

Donate here.

This is not just a smelly problem for the nuns and the surrounding community. Without urgent repairs, there is the very real danger of outbreaks of disease such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis. Learn about all our Current Needs here.

Shugsep Nunnery – then and now

Shugsep Nunnery and Institute inaugurated in 2010 is one of two large nunneries built and fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project.

The nunnery is a dream come true for the nuns, many of whom came from the original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet.  The nuns risked their lives fleeing their homeland to seek sanctuary in India. They wished for nothing more than to live, study, practice, and teach in accordance with their spiritual beliefs.

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The Tibetan Nuns Project re-established Shugsep Nunnery in exile in India, purchasing land below Dharamsala. The nunnery is now home to about 85 nuns, many of them from the original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet. Bottom photo courtesy of Dustin Kujawski

This is a video made in 2006 that tells the story of Shugsep Nunnery.
Can’t see the video? Click here.

See our Current Needs at Shugsep Nunnery

Oppression and Escape

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was completely destroyed and the nuns were ordered to leave. Although the nunnery was partially rebuilt in the 1980s by the nuns themselves, the nuns faced constant harassment by Chinese authorities.

In 1987, many of the Shugsep took part in peaceful demonstrations in Lhasa calling for religious freedom and basic human rights. As a result, they were expelled from the nunnery. Many of the nuns were imprisoned and tortured.

In the early 1990s, many nuns from Shugsep Nunnery fled Tibet seeking freedom and a safe place to practice their religion.

Their escape was perilous and difficult and they faced frostbite, starvation, and arrest. They trekked through the snow-covered Himalayas for about 17 days to Nepal and then finally sought refuge in Dharamsala.

One nun describes her journey to freedom after almost three years of imprisonment and torture in Tibet:

Fearing for our lives, we walked for one month in the mountains. We were weak and sick. We were without food for days. By divine grace, we met some Western tourists trekking with a Nepalese porter. They gave us food and clothing and treated our frostbite. On the roadside, we found four Tibetans who had died from the cold: a boy, a monk, a lady, and a soldier. We carried their valuables to give as offerings at the temple in Dharamsala, as they would have wanted.

Shugsep Jetsun, Shugsep Nunnery, Tibet, Tibetan Buddhist nuns,

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

The Story of Shugsep

Shugsep Nunnery and Institute follows the Nyingma school of Buddhism and traces its rituals and practice to some of the most illustrious female practitioners in Tibetan history, including one of the most famous teachers of her time, Shugsep Jetsun (1852-1953).

The late Tibetan scholar, Lobsang Lhalungpa, visited Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet in the early 1940s and met Shugsep Jetsun. He wrote, “She was an extraordinary woman, small in stature, with a serene face radiating compassion and sensitivity… 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.”

In the main temple at Shugsep Nunnery in India the nuns have special items belonging to Shugsep Jetsun, including her hat.

The Rebirth of Shugsep Nunnery in India

Shugsep Nunnery was re-established in northern India near Dharamsala and is now home to about 85 Tibetan nuns.

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Tibetan Nuns Project Founder and Director, Rinchen Khando Choegyal (left) with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the inauguration of Shugsep Nunnery on December 7, 2010.

After fleeing to India, the Shugsep nuns wished to remain together to maintain the unique Nyingma traditions of Shugsep. At the time, there were almost no facilities for the nuns in exile and they were forced to camp by the side of the road. The Tibetan Women’s Association stepped in to look after them. Then the Tibetan Nuns Project, with wonderful support from donors, took responsibility for their long-term care and support.

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A group of Shugsep nuns in India in the early 1990s following their escape from Tibet.

The Shugsep nuns, together with other escapee nuns, were temporarily housed in two buildings in Gambir Ganj on the hillside below McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. They had no beds and few blankets. The kitchen was set up outdoors, and they shared one cold-water spigot among them. Thanks to the sponsorship of Tibetan Nuns Project donors and the Tibetan Women’s Association, conditions steadily improved.

The Tibetan Nuns Project was able to purchase for the nuns the small piece of land with two small buildings where they had been living on the outskirts of Dharamsala. Initially there were plans to enlarge their facilities there, but that proved impossible. So a new piece of land a half hour below Dharamsala was acquired.

Construction of the new nunnery began in 2003. The Tibetan Nuns Project had been fundraising for the rebuilding project for a number of years. Once construction began, a major donor stepped up and promised to support the project through to its completion, and so the building project moved ahead steadily.

In May 2008, 58 Shugsep nuns moved into the completed first phase of their new nunnery which included a housing wing, 5 classrooms, a library, lecture hall, dining hall, and kitchen. Phase 2 of the creation of Shugsep Nunnery in India included the building of two further housing wings, a prayer hall, an office, a clinic, the solar shower facility, and a guesthouse. This was completed in 2010.

Shugsep Nunnery Today: A Place of Refuge and Education

The majority of the nuns studying in Shugsep Nunnery in Dharamsala came from the original Shugsep. In Tibet they had little education. For decades, the nuns at Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet were primarily engaged in learning scriptures and meditation and lived the aesthetic life of hermits in caves on the hillside.

By contrast, Shugsep Nunnery in India offers the nuns a 9-year academic program of Buddhist philosophy, debate, Tibetan language, and English. Thanks to Tibetan Nuns Project supporters, the nuns now have a safe place to practice their religion, access to education, and the opportunity preserve their unique Nyingma traditions.

Take a guided tour of Shugsep Nunnery today with this video made in October 2017, courtesy of Dustin Kujawski in October 2017. Can’t see the video? Click here.

We have a number of projects that we need help with at the nunnery.

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Two Shugsep nuns in the 1990s.

What do Tibetan Buddhist nuns study?

We are often asked what the Tibetan Buddhist nuns study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

A Guided Tour of Shugsep Nunnery

We want to take you on a guided tour of Shugsep Nunnery. It is one of the two Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in India built and fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Shugsep Nunnery is home to about 85 Tibetan Buddhist nuns.  The nunnery was re-established  in exile in India and was officially inaugurated in December 2010.

Here’s a special video we created in October 2017, with thanks to volunteer film-makers Evan Kezsbom, Jalene Szuba, and Dustin Kujawski.

A Nyingma nunnery, Shugsep traces its rituals and practice to some of the most illustrious female practitioners in Tibetan history. In the previous century, Shugsep Nunnery was home to one of the most famous teachers of her time, Shugsep Jetsunma.

The original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was completely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and the nuns were forced to leave. Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was partially rebuilt in the 1980s by the nuns themselves, but the nuns faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities.

The majority of the nuns studying in Shugsep Nunnery near Dharamsala in India come from the original Shugsep in Tibet. Here, in exile, the nuns have a safe, peaceful place to study. They have the opportunity to be educated and to participate in a nine-year academic program of Buddhist philosophy, debate, Tibetan language, and English.

letter from Shgusep nun, Shugsep Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

This English essay by a nun at Shugsep describes her joy and love for her nunnery, her “second home”, and her gratitude for the donors and sponsors who support the nunnery. Photo courtesy of Dustin Kujawski.

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.

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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 Chöd practice – cutting through the ego

Every Sunday night, the nuns of Shugsep Nunnery and Institute in northern India practice a special ritual called Chöd (pronounced chö) also known as “The Beggars Offering” or “Cutting Through the Ego.”

Chöd, which literally means “cutting through”, is a spiritual practice that aims at cutting through the hindrances or obscurations of self-cherishing thought and ignorance, the greatest obstacles on the path to enlightenment.Chod, Buddhist nun, Tibetan Nuns Project, Brian Harris, Shugsep Nunnery, nun prayers

The tantric practice of Chöd originated in India but was greatly developed in Tibet by the great female practitioner or yogini of the 11th century, Machig Labdrön. She originated a new lineage of the practice that is the only tantric Buddhist practice that was introduced back to India from Tibet.

Shugsep Jetsun Rinpoche (1852–1953), Abbess of Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet, was also an exemplary practitioner of Chöd and was a recognized incarnation of Machig Labdrön.

In the Chöd ritual, practitioners visualize symbolically offering their own bodies, for the sake of others, as a tantric feast to sentient beings. This is a brave way to exchange oneself for others and develop compassion, and a quick method to realize emptiness.Chod ritual at Shugsep Nunnery
During the ritual, the nuns immerse themselves in a combination of chanting, music, prayer and visualizations. It is said that by engaging every aspect of one’s being this practice can effect a “powerful transformation of the interior landscape.”

While reciting the Chöd rite the nuns are accompanied by the sound of several Tibetan instruments: the damaru or hand drum, the kangling, a reed instrument, and the Chöd drum, which is larger than the hand drum.

There are both simple and elaborate forms of the practice. In the elaborate form, the Chöd practice is accompanied by offerings of ritual barley cakes, fruit, and other foods, and also involves a special Chöd dance performed as an offering to the spiritual teachers, deities, dakinis, and dharma protectors.chod altar at Shugsep photo TNP
This special dance is sometimes performed during funeral processions and involves visualizations of dakinis leading the spirit of the deceased person to a pure realm. This ritual is felt to remove the inner, outer, and secret obstacles of the deceased person.
Chod practice, Shugsep, Buddhist nun, prayer, chanting, Tibetan bell, Brian Harris, Tibetan Nuns Project

About Shugsep Nunnery

Shugsep Nunnery and Institute in northern India is one of the two nunneries built and fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. Many of the nuns now in India came from the original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet. They had been expelled by Chinese authorities for their political activities on behalf of Tibet and escaped over the Himalayas to practice their religion in India.

Shugsep Nunnery was re-established in India in 1992 and the newly built nunnery was inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on December 7 2010.

This important Nyingma nunnery traces its rituals and practice to some of the most illustrious female practitioners in Tibetan history. In the 20th century, Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was home to one of the most famous teachers of her time, Shugsep Jetsunma.

Following the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1959, the nuns were forced to leave Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet and the nunnery was completely destroyed. Although the nunnery was partially rebuilt in the 1980s by the nuns themselves, the nuns faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities.

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

Daily Life of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns: Part 1

What do the nuns do every day? The nuns do much more than study and pray.

The seven nunneries in India that the Tibetan Nuns Project supports through our sponsorship program are complex institutions that require a lot of work to run smoothly. The largest of them, Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, functions like a non-sectarian monastic university and is home to over 230 nuns and staff. Just feeding that many people each day is a challenge.

This blog post is a photo essay showing some of the many tasks that the nuns at the various nunneries do in addition to their studies and their Buddhist practice.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns collecting fodder

Nuns with fodder for the cows.

Buddhist nun milking a cow

Milking time at Dolma Ling Nunnery near Dharamsala. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

The nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute have been keeping cows for the past 20 years. The nuns have 7 milking cows, as well as five calves and two older cows. The cows provide milk to meet Dolma Ling’s daily needs. Many of the nuns grew up as nomads in Tibet, so daily milking presents no problem.

Buddhist nun working in greenhouse

Growing food at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Indian Himalayas. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

At  Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley, the nuns work hard during the summer months to grow food for the long, harsh winter. Several years ago, people from the nearby village donated a piece of land to the nuns where they now grow spinach, beans, and potatoes. The nuns have three greenhouses where they mostly grow spinach. The head nun has also donated her share of a field to the nunnery so the nuns have also been able to grow peas and wheat.

making tsampa

Roasting barley for tsampa.

Nuns from Shugsep Nunnery prepare tsampa by roasting barley and then grinding it into flour. Tsampa is a staple of the Tibetan diet and is mixed with butter tea. There’s a tradition of throwing pinches of tsampa in the air during many Tibetan Buddhist rituals. Continue reading

Shugsep Nunnery celebrates 5th anniversary of inauguration

December 7, 2015 marks a very special anniversary for the Tibetan Nuns Project and the nuns of Shugsep Nunnery. It is the fifth anniversary of the inauguration of Shugsep Nunnery and institute by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is also a celebration of the bravery, determination, and dedication of the nuns of Shugsep, many of whom were imprisoned and tortured in Tibet and who escaped to India seeking freedom and education.

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Inauguration of Shugsep Nunnery by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on December 7, 2010.

Shugsep Nunnery was re-established in northern India on the outskirts of Dharamsala and is now home to over 50 Tibetan nuns. Many of those nuns risked their lives fleeing their homeland to seek sanctuary in India. These nuns wish nothing more than to live, study, practice, and teach in accordance with their spiritual beliefs.

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Tibetan Nuns Project Founder and Director, Rinchen Khando Choegyal (left) with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the inauguration of Shugsep Nunnery on December 7, 2010.

The Story of Shugsep

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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

Shugsep Nunnery and Institute follows the Nyingma school of Buddhism and traces its rituals and practice to some of the most illustrious female practitioners in Tibetan history, including one of the most famous teachers of her time, Shugsep Jetsun (1852-1953).

The late Tibetan scholar, Lobsang Lhalungpa, visited Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet in the early 1940s and met Shugsep Jetsun. He wrote, “She was an extraordinary woman, small in stature, with a serene face radiating compassion and sensitivity… 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.”

Oppression and Escape

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was completely destroyed and the nuns were ordered to leave. Although the nunnery was partially rebuilt in the 1980s by the nuns themselves, the nuns faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities.

In the 1980s and 90s, prior to their life in exile in India, a large number of the nuns from Shugsep Nunnery participated in peaceful demonstrations in Lhasa. As a result, they were expelled from the nunnery and many were also imprisoned and tortured.

In the early 1990s, many nuns from Shugsep Nunnery fled Tibet seeking freedom, hope and a safe place to practice their religion. Their escape was perilous and difficult and they faced frostbite, starvation and arrest. They trekked through the snow-covered Himalayas for about 17 days to Nepal and then finally sought refuge in Dharamsala.

One nun describes what happened to her after she took part in a freedom demonstration in Lhasa:

“My friend threw a rock and the Chinese police arrested us both. We were imprisoned and tortured. We escaped and reached the Nepalese border, where we were arrested again. We were imprisoned this time for two years and nine months in Sikkim. We were placed in six different prisons, where we met many monks and nuns who had also tried to enter India. Finally we were sent back to the Tibetan border. Fearing for our lives, we walked for one month in the mountains. We were weak and sick. We were without food for days. By divine grace, we met some Western tourists trekking with a Nepalese porter. They gave us food and clothing and treated our frostbite. On the roadside, we found four Tibetans who had died from the cold: a boy, a monk, a lady, and a soldier. We carried their valuables to give as offerings at the temple in Dharamsala, as they would have wanted.”

After fleeing to India, the Shugsep nuns wished to remain together to maintain the unique Nyingma traditions of Shugsep. At the time, there were almost no facilities for the nuns in exile and they were forced to camp by the side of the road. The Tibetan Women’s Association stepped in to look after them and then the Tibetan Nuns Project, with wonderful support from donors, took responsibility for their longterm care and support.

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A group of Shugsep nuns in India in the early 1990s following their escape from Tibet.

The Shugsep nuns, together with other escapee nuns, were temporarily housed in two buildings in Gambir Ganj on the hillside below McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. They had no beds and few blankets. The kitchen was set up outdoors, and they shared one cold-water spigot among them. Thanks to the sponsorship of Tibetan Nuns Project donors and the Tibetan Women’s Association, conditions steadily improved.

The Rebirth of Shugsep Nunnery in India

The Tibetan Nuns Project was able to purchase for the nuns the small piece of land with two small buildings where they had been living on the outskirts of Dharamsala. Initially there were plans to enlarge their facilities there, but that proved impossible, and so a new piece of land a half hour below Dharamsala was acquired and construction of a new nunnery began in 2003. We had been fundraising for the rebuilding project for a number of years. Once construction began, a major donor stepped up and promised to support the project through to its completion, and so we were able to move ahead steadily.

In May 2008, 58 Shugsep nuns moved into the completed first phase of their new nunnery which included a housing wing, 5 classrooms, a library, lecture hall, dining hall, and kitchen. Phase 2 of the creation of Shugsep Nunnery in India included the building of two further housing wings, a prayer hall, an office, a clinic, the solar shower facility, and a guesthouse. This was completed in 2010.

The majority of the nuns studying in Shugsep Nunnery in Dharamsala come from the original Shugsep. In Tibet they had little education. For decades, the nuns at Shugsep nunnery in Tibet were primarily engaged in learning scriptures and meditation and lived the aesthetic life of hermits in caves on the hillside. Shugsep Nunnery in India offers the nuns a 9-year academic program of Buddhist philosophy, debate, Tibetan language and English. Thanks to Tibetan Nuns Project supporters, the nuns now have a safe place to practice their religion, access to education, and the opportunity preserve their unique Nyingma traditions.

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Two Shugsep nuns in the 1990s.