Today is the first day of spring, but is it really goodbye winter at Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in northern India?
Visit two nunneries with videos and photos to see the life of the nuns in winter.
Winter at Sherab Choeling Nunnery
Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote, high-altitude Spiti Valley is one of seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. It was founded just over 25 years ago to educate Himalayan Buddhist nuns who would otherwise have no opportunity to receive any formal schooling or spiritual education.
Sign for Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Indian Himalayas. The nunnery is very secluded and is at almost 4,000 feet or 1,200 meters altitude.
Winters are tough at Sherab Choeling and this year was no exception. In February it was snowy and cold with temperatures dropping down to -8°F or -22°C.
The 62 nuns at the nunnery have many winter chores such as carrying water, washing dishes at an outdoor pump, and shovelling snow. There is very little heat in the nunnery, aside from the stoves for cooking.
The nuns wash their dishes at an outside pump and fetch water from for the nunnery.
With the rise of the highly transmissable omicron variant in the early part of 2022, the nuns did more activities outside. Despite the cold weather, they studied and ate their meals outdoors as much as possible.
Every winter, the Tibetan children who live near the nunnery have a long winter break. This year, the Geshema nuns at Dolma Ling wanted to help the children improve their Tibetan reading and writing skills. These nuns hold the highest degree in their tradition, roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
Here’s a slideshow of the Geshemas teaching the children. Can’t see it? Click here.
The heavy rains which fell on July 12th are set to continue for the next several days and the India Meteorological Department has issued a Severe Rainfall Alert. Authorities have told tourists to avoid Himachal Pradesh due to the present situation.
Dharamsala is the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile. Many Tibetan refugees live there and it is the site of many Tibetan Buddhist nunneries and monasteries.
Dramatic videos after a cloudburst in McLeod Ganj, upper Dharamsala, show several cars being swept away as muddy water rushed through the hillside town. The rains also damaged many buildings. The local airport in Gaggal cancelled all incoming flights.
The Nuns’ Media Team at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute have helped capture the situation through video and photographs. Here’s a video of the rains at Dolma Ling. (Can’t see the video? Click here.)
Dolma Ling Water Supply Damaged
The monsoon damaged the water channels and lines that provide 80% of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute’s water. As the rains abated on July 13th, the nuns, staff, and teachers from Dolma Ling worked all day with local people on repairs. Without these channels the nunnery could face an acute water shortage. By the end of the day, the supply lines were fixed and the nunnery was able to access the water that they needed. Here’s another video. (Can’t see it, click here.)
A senior Tibetan Buddhist nun from Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute has been selected for the Emory Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars program. She is one of 7 monastics chosen to study science for two years at Emory University in Atlanta starting in September 2021.
A senior nun from Dolma Ling, Venerable Kelsang Lhamo (bottom right), has been selected as one of 3 nuns and four monks to study for two years at Emory University as part of the 6th cohort Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars Program. She and the other 6 monastics are to start at Emory University in September 2021 following a preparation course in South India. Photo from Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars Program.
Venerable Kelsang Lhamo was one of three nuns from Dolma Ling who applied for the program and sat qualifying exams. She has finished her studies at the nunnery and opted not to pursue a Geshema degree.
Born in 1988 in McLeod Ganj in upper Dharamsala, Venerable Kelsang Lhamo was studied at the Tibetan Children’s Village School in Choglamsar, Ladakh before becoming a nun at Dolma Ling.
The Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars Program is part of the Emory-Tibet Science initiative started in 2010 to support monastic science education. Over the past 10 years, 30 monastic scholars have completed the program and returned to serve their monastic institutions.
On March 16th, the newly selected science scholars began intensive training in math, science, English, and computer skills at Drepung Losel Ling Meditation and Science Center in South India. This course aims to prepare the scholars with the knowledge they need in advance of their two-year residency program at Emory University.
The three nuns and four monks will join the university in the fall of 2021 and focus on deepening their understanding of the basic sciences.
Training Monastic Science Leaders
The Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars Program is designed to develop and nurture Tibetan monastic science teachers by providing college-level science education at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
The aim is to ensure the long-term sustainability of science education within Tibetan monasteries and nunneries in India. The scholars program, named after His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is supported by the Dalai Lama Foundation and Emory University. The program is part of the wider Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns taking part in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative in 2019. Photo from the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative Facebook page.
As The New York Times wrote in 2013, a big challenge in teaching science is the lack of a Tibetan lexicon for many scientific terms. “How does one create new words for concepts like photosynthesis and clones, which have no equivalent in the Tibetan language or culture? How does one begin to name thousands of molecules and chemical compounds? And what of words like process, which have several levels of meaning for Tibetans?” Over recent years, thousands of new scientific terms have been added to the Tibetan language.
The ultimate goal of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative is to build a bridge between two complementary systems of knowledge by educating future scientific collaborators who can contribute to new discoveries in the science of mind and body. The program is designed to give Tibetan monastics new tools for understanding the world, while also providing them with fresh perspectives on how to employ and adapt time-tested, Buddhist, contemplative methodologies for the relief of suffering in the contemporary world. Additionally, scientists and science educators are encouraged to learn more about the Buddhist science of mind and what it can contribute to the understanding of human emotions, the nature of consciousness, and integrative approaches to health and well-being.
The scholars are primarily selected from Tibetan monastic institutions participating in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative science education program. They represent all the major Tibetan Buddhist schools, including Tibet’s indigenous Bon religion.
Since the start of the program in 2010, five cohorts of 30 scholars have completed the program. The fifth group graduated from their 2-year residency program in May 2021.
Upon the completion, the monastics return to their institutions to take up leading roles in the science education programs such as teaching science classes, serving as liaisons between Emory and their home institutions, and coordinating logistics for the annual summer intensives science courses that are part of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative.
In addition, the scholars participate in Buddhism and science dialogues and seminars, collaborate on research projects with scientists, and give presentations on various scientific topics.
Tibetan Buddhist Nuns and Science
Since 2014, nuns from Dolma Ling have taken part in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a four-week program held at Drepung Loseling Monastery in South India. During the course, Tibetan nuns and monks are taught the philosophy of science, physics, neuroscience, and biology. The course is presented by faculty members from Emory and other distinguished universities with assistance from the Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars.
Nuns presenting science posters at a Dolma Ling science fair in 2019.
The nuns and monks attend classes for six hours a day and are tested on the last day of each course. Classes consist of lectures, discussions, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments. In 2018, eight nuns from Dolma Ling attended.
In 2017, in collaboration with the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative initiated a 6-year science program for nuns from five major nunneries in India.
The first nuns selected as Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars were two nuns from Jangchub Choeling Nunnery in Mundgod, South India. They were part of the 4th cohort of scholars to study science at Emory University and they completed their residency there in 2019. Both served as translators for the summer program of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative held at Drepung Loseling Monastery in 2019.
Here’s the latest news from India about vaccinations and a COVID update from some of the nunneries.
Many Dolma Ling Nuns Get Vaccinated
As we reported on May 4th, the almost 250 nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute had started registering for vaccinations in April. However, as coronavirus cases in India surged, vaccines ran out. We’re happy to report that in May, many nuns at Dolma Ling, the largest nunnery we support, were able to be vaccinated.
A nun from Dolma Ling receives her first vaccine in May. In May, 178 Dolma Ling nuns aged 18-44 from received first vaccinations. All nuns and staff over 45 have also received both dose of Covidsheild.
The vaccination roll out in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh was by age. The nuns and staff of Dolma Ling as well as the Tibetan Nuns Project India staff aged 45 and over have now received both shots of Covishield from the Tibetan Delek Hospital, the Zonal Hospital, and close by centers.
Himachal Pradesh opened up vaccinations for those aged 18-44 on May 17th. In the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh, there are around 46 vaccination centers and 5 days in May for vaccinations: May 17th, 20th, 24th, 27th and 31st.
It was difficult in the beginning for the nuns to book appointments because the website kept crashing. Only a handful could book for vaccination. However, after downloading an alternative booking application, the nunnery slowly picked up the pace and around 70 nuns and staff were able to book and get their first dose of Covishield on May 27. A further 108 nuns were able to book for May 31st, the final day available for the vaccinations.
It was a Herculean task to get bookings for vaccines in May because the website kept crashing. The nuns persisted and many of the nuns at Dolma Ling aged 18-44 were able to get their first dose.
Tsering at the Tibetan Nuns Project office said, “I guess Tara has blessed us as we know others are facing a tough time getting themselves booked for vaccine.”
“Even those with high-speed internet and fastest fingers are at their wits’ end as there is no guarantee that they will get a spot,” the paper said. “Slots open for a fraction of second, one blink and they are gone.”
After overcoming obstacles of booking and transport, Tibetan Buddhist nuns from Dolma Ling wait to be vaccinated at one of the 46 vaccine centers set up in Kangra District in May 2021.
Booking vaccinations wasn’t the only problem the nuns faced. Safe transport was another major issue. None of the 46 vaccination centers was within walking distance of the nunnery. And since the state of Himachal Pradesh is still in lockdown, the nunnery had to organize safe transport for the nuns to and from the vaccination centers.
Vaccination centers were scattered throughout the region, ranging between 0.5 and 2.5 hour’s drive away. The nuns and staff successfully managed the complex logistics of safely transporting the 178 nuns to and from the various centers. Dolma Ling organized taxis for some nuns and the teachers and staff with cars or motorbikes also helped by taking as many nuns as possible. We are very grateful for their help.
On May 31st, 108 nuns from Dolma Ling were vaccinated. Coordinating safe transport to the various clinics in the region was a big task and we are grateful to the teachers and staff at the nunnery for their help in transporting the nuns and in taking these pictures for this update.
COVID Outbreak at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala
In mid-May there was a small outbreak of COVID-19 at Geden Choeling Nunnery, the oldest nunnery in Dharamsala.
Nine nuns tested positive. Some had a fever and cough. The nuns were quarantined in a separate block of the nunnery and a committee of nuns were designated to care for them, providing meals and other needs. Medical staff from the Tibetan Delek Hospital visit regularly to check on them.
The Tibetan Delek Hospital in Dharamsala distributed Covid Health Safety and management Kits to Geden Choeling Nunnery and 15 other Tibetan institutions around Dharamsala. Items included PPE kits, a pulse oximeter, digital and infrared thermomters, disinfectants, N95 masks, surgical gowns and masks, disposable gloves, an oxygen flow meter with nasal prong, blood pressure machine, and hand sanitizer.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Geden Choeling Nunnery, the oldest nunnery in Dharamsala.
There have been no further outbreaks at the nunnery. One of the nuns who had tested positive had low oxygen level so she was taken to the Tibetan Reception Centre and kept under observation by Central Tibetan Administration Health Department. Fortunately, she is doing well and will return to the nunnery after she finishes 21 days in quarantine.
The other nuns who tested positive but showed no symptoms of COVID-19 will also be finishing quarantine soon.
As cases of COVID-19 rise in India, we know that many are concerned about the health of the Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Here’s what we know now. We will try to provide updates as often as possible.
Tibetan Nunneries Observe Precautions
The majority of the nuns are Tibetan refugees and part of a wider Tibetan diaspora while others are from remote border areas of India. Living in close communities, with classes, prayers, and shared rooms and bathrooms means that nuns are very vulnerable to the coronavirus. If the virus were to enter a nunnery, it would spread rapidly.
In the nunneries that we support, the nuns chose to be very cautious from the beginning of the pandemic and have continued that care, with almost all the nuns remaining within the monastic compound and visitors from outside not allowed.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling register to get vaccinated. They began registering at the end of April.
So far, the nuns are safe. “All the nuns and staff are well here. We are being very cautious,” said staff at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, home to almost 250 nuns. “As the situation in India is not good, we have decided to keep the office and classes closed for a week.” Dolma Ling is the largest nunnery supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project.
“Luckily nuns in all the nunneries are fine and busy with their day to day schedule,” we were told on May 2nd.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute registering last week for vaccinations.
At the end of April, nuns began registering to get vaccinated. The nuns had to register in groups of four. Four is the most who can register under one phone number, according to guidelines.
The Tibetan nunneries in India have been taking strong precautions against the coronavirus since the pandemic first broke out. Some nunneries closed to visitors in the first week of February 2020, shutting their gates and monitoring anyone who came in or out.
The nunneries have benefited from an extra level of health care from the Department of Health of the Central Tibetan Administration. As early as January 24, 2020, the Department began issuing guidelines to the monastic communities and to the Tibetan diaspora as a whole. Just one week after the WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11th March 2020, a special Tibetan COVID-19 Task Force began working to mitigate the potentially catastrophic impact of the disease, particularly in Tibetan refugee settlements.
His Holiness received his first dose on 6 March at the local government hospital. According to the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (OHHDL), the entire staff and security details of His Holiness, including those living in the residence, were also vaccinated.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama again encouraged everyone to get the vaccine. He described it as “something helpful” for the greater good of humanity and he has tried to bolster public confidence in the vaccine.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama receives the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine on March 6, 2021 at the government hospital in Dharamsala, HP, India. Photo/OHHDL
His Holiness the Dalai Lama returning to his home in Dharamsala after taking the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on March 6th. Detail of photo by Tenzin Jigme, CTA.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama used the opportunity of his first vaccine to make a strong public statement about the importance of getting vaccinated. He said, “In order to prevent some serious problem, this injection is very helpful and good. So those other patients should take this injection for greater benefit.”
View His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s statement about COVID-19 vaccines here.
Tibetans Caught in India’s COVID Wave
A Radio Free Asia report on May 3, 2021 provided an update on how Tibetans in India are being caught in the rising numbers of COVID-19 infections as another wave of the pandemic hits India.
With more than 300,000 new infections a day for over two weeks, India is struggling.
In Dharamsala, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s exile government, there is a shortage of vaccines at Delek Hospital. Delek Hospital is the largest Tibetan hospital in India. A doctor told Radio Free Asia that the hospital has now put an end to a program aimed at inoculating Tibetans age 18 and over.
“For now, we don’t have any vaccines in Delek Hospital, but we have a few options we are working on,” Dr. Tenzin Tsundue told RFA’s Tibetan Service.
“One idea is for us to collaborate with larger hospitals, as the amount of vaccines we would need would be too small for us to order directly from the supplier.”
Since last week, almost 140 Tibetans living in Dharamsala have tested positive for COVID-19. The numbers of Tibetans infected are rapidly rising as the virus spreads through the community, Dr. Tenzin Tsundue said.
“I urge Tibetans to get vaccinated in government hospitals now if they get the chance,” Dr. Tsundue said, adding, “Don’t wait for the Delek Hospital to get more vaccines. This is a matter of necessity now, not of choice.”
Young Tibetan Buddhist nuns at the remote Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Spiti Valley of northern India wear masks during class. Photo from July 2020.
Some Monasteries Hit by COVID-19
83 Tibetan Buddhist monks have tested positive at Sakya Monastery in Dehradun, capital of northern India’s state of Uttarakhand, according to Radio Free Asia and sources at the monastery said.
So far, we have no news that any nuns at nearby Sakya College for Nuns have been infected. The nunnery is situated in Manduwala, about 12 miles from Dehradun and is home to about 55 nuns.
According to Radio Free Asia, Sakya Monastery had under lockdown for a year, but staff had often gone out to purchase supplies in a nearby town.
“We are isolating our monks, and no one is in serious condition yet, but a few of them have shown low oxygen levels, and so we have had them admitted to the Dekyiling Tibetan Hospital,” one source at the monastery said.
“The 83 monks who were infected are among the 225 Tibetans in Dehradun who have tested positive for COVID-19 during this second wave of the pandemic in India,” the anonymous source told Radio Free Asia.
A Tibetan Buddhist nun sews cloth masks. When the pandemic broke out in 2020, the nuns in the tailoring section who normally make robes, prayer flags, Tibetan door curtains etc. began making cloth masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the nuns. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns
Earlier this year, 156 Buddhist monks at Gyuto Tantric Monastery in Himachal Pradesh tested positive for COVID-19. According to reports, most of the monks were asymptomatic. About 15 monks came from Karnataka and Delhi. The first cases were reported on 23 February.
The CTA COVID-19 Emergency Relief Committee continues to provide regular updates on the developing situation for Tibetans in India and elsewhere. In its update on April 30th, the COVID Task Force urged strict adherence to safety precautions.
“The monasteries and institutions are especially cautioned and they are advised to avail isolation rooms for unforeseen situations. Also, given the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, Tibetans are urged to get the vaccines in order to bring the normality back.”
We’ve just received a wonderful batch of photos of the nuns preparing for Losar, Tibetan New Year, and we wanted to share them with you.
This year, Tibetan New Year or Losar falls on February 12th, 2021. The year of the Iron Ox, 2148, begins on this day.
Losar-related rituals fall into two distinct parts. As part of the preparations for Losar, the nuns, like all Tibetans, say goodbye to the old year and let go of all its negative or bad aspects.
Here’s a slideshow for you. If you can’t see it, click here.
You’ll see photos of the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute being taught by Gen. Karma, the ritual arts master. Usually, in the past, the nuns were not tested on the ritual arts such as making butter sculptures, making tormas, and drawing, but this year their teacher wanted to test the nuns to see how seriously they have taken their classes over the years. It takes great practice, precision, and patience to keep up these sacred arts.
You’ll also see photos of the nuns making khapse for Losar. These deep-fried Tibetan cookies or biscuits are are a staple of Tibetan New Year’s celebrations everywhere. The nuns make them in a variety of shapes and sizes.
All the photos were taken by the Media Nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.
This year, because of the pandemic, Losar will be different from previous years. The Tibetan Health Department and the COVID-19 Task Force of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala have called for extreme precautions ahead of Tibetan New Year. They have urged Tibetans around the world to keep the gatherings small and safe.
The vaccine rollout began in India on December 16, 2020. As of the end of January, 152 Tibetan health workers and front line workers had received the first shot of the vaccine.