Shugsep Nunnery and Institute in northern India was built and is fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. It is now home to about 100 Tibetan Buddhist nuns.
For many years, the nuns have wanted a path where they can practice kora, traditional Tibetan walking meditation. Kora (བསྐོར་བ།) or circumambulation is the act of walking around a sacred place or object such as a temple. Walking around a sacred space generates religious merit and cultivates bodhicitta, the awakened or enlightened mind.
In 2023, the nuns asked for help to build a kora path. Now, thanks to the generosity of 65 Tibetan Nuns Project supporters, the path is finished.
The nuns tell us with big smiles how much they love their new kora path. Each morning, the younger nuns follow the Khenpo five times around the nunnery for exercise!
Here’s a video tour for you. (Can’t see the video? Click here.)
Work on the circumambulatory path began in early 2023 and was completed in October. The sloping terrain and harsh monsoon posed challenges for construction, but the workers did an excellent job and the nuns helped to prepare the land. Railings and steps are important features of the path. The stone steps have been made with iron front edges to ensure that they do not chip and crumble. The new boundary wall at the top of the nunnery provides the nuns with excellent privacy.
The kora path is good for the nuns’ physical and mental health. There was no safe area near the nunnery where the nuns could walk. The main road has no sidewalks and it is not safe for girls and women to be walking in these areas because crimes against women are common.
Our deepest thanks to all those who supported this huge project and made the nuns’ dream a reality!
Here’s a slideshow of the path being built. (Can’t see the slideshow? Click here.)
Work began on the path in the summer of 2023
The steep terrain poses challenges for the path
Nangsa Chodron, director of the Tibetan Nuns Project office in India inspects the path
Looking down on some of the nunnery buildings
Good progress was made in spite of the heavy monsoon.
TNP Board Chair, Dr. Elizabeth Napper, checks progress on the path in late September 2023
Railings are added for safety
Work in progress... The steep slope of the nunnery grounds will provide good exercise for the nuns
The path has a mixture of flat stretches and steps
About Shugsep Nunnery and Institute
A Nyingma nunnery, Shugsep traces its rituals and practices 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.
Following the Cultural Revolution in 1959, Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was destroyed. Although the nunnery was partially rebuilt in the 1980s by the nuns themselves, the nuns there faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities.
Here is a video made in 2006 telling the story of Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet and how it was re-established in India by the Tibetan Nuns Project.
Many of the nuns at Shugsep in India came from the original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet. The Chinese authorities expelled them for their political activities and they escaped from Tibet over the Himalayas to freely practice their religion in India.
In the late 1980s and 1990s many Tibetan Buddhist nuns escaped from Tibet including a large number of nuns from the original Shugsep Nunnery. They lived for many years in cramped conditions before the Tibetan Nuns Project re-established Shugsep Nunnery. It was inaugurated in 2010. Photo from 1991 by Susan Lirakis
In the remote Indian Himalayas lies a 700-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nunnery called Dorjee Zong. The nunnery has a long tradition of meditating nuns, some of who are famed for having reached high levels of realization.
Dorjee Zong is one of seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. During the pandemic, this remote nunnery was even more cut off than usual.
In August 2022, a team from the Tibetan Nuns Project office near Dharamsala travelled for several days over hazardous roads from Leh to Zanskar. The team wanted to check on the nuns’ welfare and the progress of various projects at the nunnery including the major construction project started in 2019.
Nangsa Choedon, Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project in India (middle), Tsering Diki, Assistant Director (left), and Delek Yangchen, one of the Dolma Ling media nuns (right) with the two eldest nuns at Dorjee Zong. These two nuns are both 90 years old.
For over 12 years the Tibetan Nuns Project has been helping this small nunnery with sponsorship of the nuns, teacher salaries, and a big construction project to improve all facilities at the nunnery.
Here’s a video of their visit. Can’t see video? Click here.
The old part of Dorjee Zong is on the hilltop on the left and the new school and other parts of the nunnery are lower down. The pandemic and the short building season at this high altitude have posed challenges.
Dorjee Zong is home to 20 nuns – 13 young nuns and 7 elder nuns. The oldest two are both 90-years-old. The seven elder nuns live at the ancient nunnery on the hill top. They spend most of their time reciting mantras and circumambulating the sacred site. They also take care of their field and greenhouse to stock up supplies for the harsh winters. The younger nuns live and study in the lower and newer part of the nunnery.
The old traditional kitchen at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. The nunnery is one of the oldest centers in pursuit of monastic education in Zanskar.
Girls in the Himalayas are generally given far less education than boys. Girls are often removed from school as early as grade 4, if they are sent at all. The nunnery educates both lay girls and nuns. It gives them a chance for education that they would not otherwise have.
Math class. Lay girls and young nuns study at the nunnery up to Grade 5 after which they take the TNP-funded school bus 6 miles to continue their education.
Girls study up to Grade 5 at the nunnery, after which they travel by school bus for further schooling. The school bus was funded in 2019 by Tibetan Nuns Project donors and is also helping children from the local village attend school.
Construction Project Update
With the support of generous Tibetan Nuns Project donors, the nunnery embarked on an ambitious project to improve all the facilities for the nuns — an important and exciting transition for this ancient nunnery.
Construction started in 2019, but the work has been hampered by the pandemic. Also, the long severe winters and remote location reduce the construction window to around five months.
Nuns’ quarters in the new housing block at Dorjee Zong. Before 2019, the buildings at this 700-year-old nunnery were very basic. There was just one classroom and one main building that was used for everything.
The two-story hostel is finished! The ground floor is now being used as students’ quarters, sufficient for the current number of students. The top floor is being used as the school office, dining hall, staff quarters, and meeting room. Once other facilities are complete, the entire building will be used to accommodate future students.
The new dining hall. In 2019, thanks to generous donors, the nunnery began a major construction project to improve all the facilities for the nuns.
The three-story kitchen and prayer hall building is coming along very well. The ground floor has a big dining hall which will, in future, be used by students, staff, and teachers. The dining hall is designed in local style with mats and low tables. However, they also plan to set up some tables and chairs for visitors.
Prayers before breakfast. The nunnery has two cooks who prepare meals for all residents at the school. The food is healthy and vegetarian.
The first floor has a hall to be used for prayers, workshops, meetings, and teachings. This hall will also be decorated in the local style. Opposite there will be a library and computer room for the students. Six computer desks have already been made and will accommodate two per table. The library’s wooden book shelves will also serve as a room divider.
One of the bright new classrooms being built. In the past, the nuns at Dorjee Zong did not have the opportunity to engage in rigorous studies, but their education program is improving.
According to the original plans, the nunnery was to have separate school blocks, staff blocks, and office blocks. Now, instead of building separate blocks, the construction committee decided to add a second floor onto the existing building. It is more cost effective and will also be warmer; there were not any other sunny building locations.
The side of a new building at Dorjee Zong showing the traditional carpentry work for the windows and doors.
The nuns have been able to get a water connection with the help of the local government. This is very beneficial for the elder nuns as well as for the school. A water storage tank is being set up at the nunnery and the nuns’ committee will see what else needs to be done.
This photo of Dorjee Zong Nunnery was taken prior to the expansion project started in 2019. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.