Category Archives: Tilokpur 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. 

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

Tilokpur Nunnery and the Great Yogi Tilopa

Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling is situated at Tilokpur in Himachal Pradesh, northern India. Their lineage comes from the great Indian Yogi Tilopa (988-1069 CE) and was passed on to Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and to His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa.

The nunnery is built near the cave of Tilopa, who meditated there for 12 years and attained enlightenment. The cave is located above a river and is a place of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists.

Tibetan nuns puja opposite cave of Tilopa

The nuns perform a puja on the riverbank opposite the cave of Tilopa.

Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling is the oldest Kagyu nunnery outside of Tibet. It provides housing and education to over 110 nuns and overlooks a small town in the lush foothills of the Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh in northern India. The nunnery is about 40 kilometers from Dharamsala and is near the highway from Mandi to Pathankot.

young Tibetan Buddhist nun performs a puja at Tilokpur

A young Tibetan Buddhist nun takes part in a puja at the nunnery. The nuns have been practicing new pujas as well as the damaru (drum) and bells as they work to improve their ritual skills such as chanting and the use of different musical instruments.

There are two branches of Tilokpur Nunnery. The older compound, called Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling, is now home to about 20 senior nuns who engage in intensive meditation practices and perform daily prayers. It is also home to 11 of the nunnery’s youngest nuns who are being given a basic education in Tibetan, English, and math. The newer branch of the nunnery, called Drubten Pemo Gaype Gatsal, is located down the hill and accommodates nuns engaged in intensive studies. There the nuns have classes in Tibetan, English, Buddhist philosophy, debate, and computing.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating outside the nunnery

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating outside the nunnery

The nuns at Tilokpur range in age from 9 to 88 and many are from very poor families. Most are Tibetan, but there are also nuns from the Indian Himalayan regions of Kinnaur, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, and from the Mustang region of Nepal.

Tilokpur Nunnery was founded in the early 1960s by Mrs. Freda Bedi to assist nuns arriving in India after escaping from the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Freda Bedi (1911–1977) was a British nun ordained by the Karmapa. As Sister Palmo she became famous as the first Western woman to take ordination in Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan nuns debate at Tilokpur

The nuns debate at the nunnery. Debate is a vital part of Tibetan monastic education. For the last two years, the nuns have participated in the Kagyu nuns’ debate session held every winter.

Establishing the nunnery was fraught with difficulties. According to a biography of Sister Palmo, Lady of Realisation, the nuns and Sister Palmo lived in grass huts as the nunnery was being built. The huts were accidentally destroyed by fire and, though Sister Palmo survived, she lost many precious Tibetan Buddhist texts that she was translating into English.

Sister Palmo wrote: “Our gonpa… the nunnery… building is something of an odyssey. We are clearing bricks and mud from the floor of the ruined fort on the top of the hill. Seems like a mountain. Tibetan and India labour with the nuns of all sizes, including me, carrying stones for an hour a day. Our little nuns carry pebbles.”

Tibetan Buddhist nun and her teacher

A nun studies with her teacher. The new academic year started in March and subjects include Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan, English, and math.

Tilokpur remains a relatively small nunnery and, in the past, the nuns there had been hampered in their abilities to develop and sustain themselves by the general lack of education.

The Tibetan Nuns Project began supporting the nunnery in 1992 and has helped Tilokpur Nunnery start regular classes in Tibetan, Buddhist philosophy, and English. The Tibetan Nuns Project has also helped the Tilokpur nuns purchase new books, including Buddhist philosophy and math textbooks.

The nunnery office is now also better equipped technically with a new computer, fax, and printer and two nuns have completed a month-long computer-training course. The nuns have also formed a management committee that is administering the internal activities of the nunnery. About 100 nuns at Tilokpur are  sponsored through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Buddhist nuns worship near cave of Tilopa

The nuns worship by the river near the cave of Tilopa.

Tilopa gave his most famous student Naropa a teaching called the “Six Words of Advice”, the text of which survives only in its Tibetan translation. This profound teaching has been translated into English in both a short and longer form and goes as follows:

Don’t recall – Let go of what has passed
Don’t imagine – Let go of what may come
Don’t think – Let go of what is happening now
Don’t examine – Don’t try to figure anything out
Don’t control – Don’t try to make anything happen
Rest – Relax, right now, and rest

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

The Tibetan Buddhist holy month of Saga Dawa

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

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

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

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

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