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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.

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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

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.

Video Interview of a Geshema Nun: Determination and Dedication on the Path

Here is a video interview of a Geshema – Tenzin Kunsel.

On December 22, 2016, twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when they graduated with their Geshema degrees. They received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

As you will hear from her story, her long journey to becoming a Geshema was not an easy one.

With gentle humor, she tells her story of overcoming many obstacles on the path to becoming a senior nun and teacher. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel’s extraordinary determination and dedication shine through.

The video was made in October 2017 at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Our thanks to Tibetan Nuns Project Co-Director, Venerable Lobsang Dechen, for providing the English translation and to volunteer film-makers Evan Kezsbom, Jalene Szuba, and Dustin Kujawski.

The Geshema degree is equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy and is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. It could previously only be earned by monks and is called the Geshe degree.

This historic milestone for the 20 nuns was the culmination of decades of study and dedication. In addition to the 17-years of study required, there is a rigorous four-year examination process.

Now Geshema Tenzin Kunsel and the 25 other recent Geshemas who graduated in 2016 and 2017 are starting a brand-new and historic two-year course in Buddhist tantric studies. Although there have been accomplished female practitioners in Tibet’s history, women have never before been given an opportunity to formally study tantric Buddhism.

Traditionally, monks who have attained their Geshe degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism, must also study tantric treatises in order to become fully qualified masters capable of teaching their complete tradition. Monks have always been able to receive these teachings at one of the great tantric colleges.

Geshema, Tenzin Kunsel,

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.

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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.

A Day in the Life of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

Here’s your ticket to India…

With these two videos you can sit back, relax and explore the sights and sounds of life at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, located near Dharamsala in northern India.

The photos of Tibetan Buddhist nuns in the video and the soundscape below are courtesy of Brian Harris. We hope you enjoy this bit of armchair travelling.

Wild Plum-headed parakeets come to Dolma Ling Nunnery for food during the cold months

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