Tag Archives: Geden Choeling Nunnery

Brian Harris: Story behind iconic Laughing Nuns photo

My name is Brian Harris. My wife Paula and I have left legacy gifts in our wills for the Tibetan Nuns Project as a way of continuing our support of the essential role that Tibetan nuns play in the ongoing transmission of the Buddha’s teaching.

Almost 30 years ago, in 1989, I travelled to India to take photographs and gather sound recordings for a special exhibition called India: Eye to Eye. My journey took me to Dharamsala, the heart of the Tibetan exile community and home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

It was on this trip that I encountered the Tibetan Nuns Project. The Tibetan Nuns Project would become one of the charitable organizations that I chose to help with my photographic projects.

Brian Harris, Tibetan Nuns Project, laughing nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dharamsala, Tibetan Buddhism, nunnery, Buddhist nunnery, legacy gift to Tibetan Nuns ProjectLaughing Nuns: The Story Behind the Photograph

It was lunchtime at Geden Choeling Nunnery when two nuns stepped out of the main entrance to the shrine hall. As soon as I spotted the lead nun holding a gong in one hand and a mallet in the other, I realized this might be a good photo opportunity. I pointed my camera and took one photo.

This was before digital cameras were common, so it was almost six months later when I was back in Vancouver and I finally developed the rolls of film from that trip. When I saw the photograph for the first time, I was stunned by its beauty and power. It wasn’t the photo I imagined I had taken. I had thought I’d taken an image of a nun banging on a gong. Instead, it was a marvelous display of two nuns in full-bodied, infectious, joyful laughter. Little did I know that it would become an iconic image – one that so many people have come to identify with the Tibetan people’s indomitable spirit and light-hearted, warm character.

Brian Harris, Tibet, nun receiving blessed water, Giving and Receiving

Over many years, my association with the Tibetan Nuns Project has been a two-way relationship resulting in friendships and a deep satisfaction in knowing that my photographic gifts and project funds have been useful and kindly received.

The reciprocal relationship of receiving while giving that I experience with the Tibetan Nuns Project is, I think, beautifully portrayed in this image I took on my first trip to Tibet in 1987.

The photo above is of a nun humbly receiving blessed water offered by a Ganden Monastery monk. The blessed water is being given from a simple teapot rather than the traditional , more ornate vessel, because many of the valuable ritual implements were plundered during the violent occupation of Tibet several decades before. [Tibet has been under Chinese occupation since the 1950s. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, “More than 97 percent of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed and the number of monks and nuns living in the monasteries was reduced by 93 percent,” according to the 10th Panchen Lama’s famous petition submitted to the Chinese government on the conditions inside Tibet.]

An element in this photograph that I have always liked, but particularly appreciate more recently, is the fact that the face of the monk is in soft-focused shadow. In the Theravada tradition, there was and is a custom of a monk holding up an elaborately embroidered ritual fan in front of his face while teaching the Dharma. This symbolizes the impersonal nature of the teaching, thus reminding both listener and speaker that it’s the Dharma that is the primary teacher or wisdom source, not the individual giving the teaching or recitation.

In closing, I’d like to suggest that you join me in leaving a lasting legacy to help the nuns, by including a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project and share your intention by emailing info@tnp.org or calling 1-206-652-8901.

If you include a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project before the end of March 2019, I will send you signed prints of both photos as a special thank you. Just contact the Tibetan Nuns Project office by emailing  info@tnp.org or calling 1-206-652-8901.

May all beings be happy and free of distress!

Brian Harris

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.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, housing, nuns living in tents, Dharamsala

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.”

housing, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, rented house for nuns

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.

housing for nuns, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

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.

The 2015 Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate in Dharamsala

The 2015 Great Winter Debate Event, also known as the Jang Gonchoe, took place at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India and started on October 3rd. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this special annual event.

Buddhist debate, Buddhist women, Tibetan nuns, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, Jang Gonchoe

Nuns gather for a formal debate presentation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on October 31. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, OHHDL

This year 359 nuns from 7 nunneries in India and Nepal took part in the month-long debates, with the event fully funded by the Tibetan Nuns Project. The $100 scholarships given by Tibetan Nuns Project donors cover costs such as transportation, food and accommodation. Continue reading

Nuns at annual Jang Gonchoe debate session give presentation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama

On October 31 nuns from seven nunneries who were taking part in the annual inter-nunnery debate, the Jang Gonchoe, gathered at the main temple in Dharamsala and gave a special debate presentation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.Tibetan Nuns, Buddhist nuns, debate, Buddhist Tibet, Dalai Lama, Dharamsala, Tibetan Nuns Project

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the nuns’ Jang Gonchoe debate session. Prior to 1995 the Jang Gonchoe was open only to monks, but now Tibetan Buddhist nuns are building their own strong tradition of debate.

According to a report on the event on the Dalai Lama’s website, His Holiness addressed the nuns and congratulated them twice, noting that there are nuns who have almost completed their study of Buddhist philosophy and who will take their final exams to qualify as Geshemas next year. The Geshema degree is the equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist studies.

Jang Gonchoe, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Buddhist debate, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Nuns Project

His Holiness the Dalai Lama addressing nuns gathered for the annual debate session. Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL

His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke at some length about the importance of reason and understanding in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He told the nuns, “This is the 21st century and we need to understand the Buddha’s teachings in the light of reason. When we teach, we need to do so on the basis of reason. I’ve met followers of the Pali tradition, monks from Thailand who are scrupulous in their observance of Vinaya [the monastic rules for monks and nuns]. I asked them whether they explain the Four Noble Truths according to reason or citing scriptural authority. They answered that they rely on the authority of scripture.” Continue reading

Breaking News: Third Round Geshema Exam Results Are In

The much-anticipated Geshema Exam results have just arrived. The results have been sent to the respective nunneries and have been announced to all the nuns.

The third round of Geshema Examinations took place from May 1-12, 2015 at Jangchub Choeling Nunnery in Mundgod in southern India. 37 Tibetan nuns took part in this round of examinations split as: Continue reading

Tibetan Losar Prayers and Ceremonies in Dharamsala

This is a guest post about Tibetan Losar celebrations at two Buddhist nunneries in India by Dominique Butet and with photos by Olivier Adam.

Last month, on 19 February 2015, my partner Olivier Adam and I participated in the ceremonies for Tibetan New Year or Losar at Geden Choeling Nunnery in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala in northern India.

In the very early morning, at 3:30 a.m., the 135 nuns of the nunnery were already sitting in the temple, beginning their Losar puja or prayers with great dedication.

We shared cups of traditional Tibetan salty butter tea with the nuns. Then two nuns brought the offering of tsampa (roasted barley flour) around to everyone so that we could celebrate the start of the new year by throwing tsampa into the air and wishing everyone “Losar Tashi Delek” (Happy New Year) with pure, joyful smiles.

Buddhist Nuns chemar Losar ceremony

Two nuns carry a chamar bo, an open, decorated box with one half filled with chamar, made of roasted barley flour or tsampa and the other half filled with roasted barley. People are invited to take a pinch of the chemar then offer a blessing with three waves of the hand in the air, then taking a nibble. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Inside the temple, the sound of the prayers grew to fill the entire space and the nuns’ voices were accompanied by bells and Tibetan hand drums (damaru). We were each served sweet rice with dry fruits, followed by a delicious tsampa soup served with all sorts of nuts and dates. Just as sweet tea was brought to the temple, we were also each given the authentic khapse, the deep-fried pastries served at Losar. They come in all sizes, but the ones we were given looked like two big open ears! (You can learn more about khapse by reading this Tibetan Nuns Project blog about these New Year’s cookies.)  Continue reading