Tag Archives: history of the Tibetan Nuns Project

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.

Delek Palmo’s Story and the Impact of Sponsoring a Nun

We’d like to tell you the story of one nun, Delek Palmo, so that you can understand and appreciate the enormous impact that sponsorship gifts have on the lives of the nuns in India.

Delek Palmo, shown in this archival photo courtesy of Susan Lirakis, was one of the first batch of nuns helped by the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Delek Palmo, refugee nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, escape from Tibet

This archival photo courtesy of
Susan Lirakis, shows Delek Palmo sitting on one of the beds donated to the nuns after their escape from Tibet.

Her journey to India and freedom was nothing short of epic.

Delek Palmo was born in Lithang, Tibet in 1970 and became a nun at 19. She took her ordination vows with her lama, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who years later, in 2002, was arrested by Chinese authorities and became a prominent political prisoner. Human Rights Watch concluded that the case against him was the culmination of a decade-long effort by Chinese authorities to curb his efforts to foster Tibetan Buddhism. He died in prison in 2015.

In 1989, Delek Palmo joined a large group of pilgrims whose aim was to travel from Lithang to Lhasa, a distance of 1,200 miles.

“The pilgrimage to Lhasa took two years to complete because we did prostrations all along the way,” says Delek Palmo. “We would do prostrations in the rain and our clothes got wet and dirty and we could not wash them out every day.”

“When we got close to Lhasa, the Chinese police refused to let us enter the city as there was a meeting of some kind going on and they did not want us attracting attention. We had traveled for nearly two years and now we were prevented from reaching our goal.” Instead, the police loaded them into trucks and interrogated them for hours at a police holding center.

Denied access to the holy sites in Lhasa and fearful of the police, Delek Palmo and the pilgrims changed course to Mount Kailash. From there, she and most of the group decided to escape to freedom in India.

It was winter and the pilgrims were ill equipped. They had no winter clothing, no proper shoes, or even enough food to eat for such an expedition. The journey on foot over the Himalayas to Nepal took 27 days.

“We walked at night as our group was very large and the Chinese police would catch us if they found out that we were leaving to India,” she reported.

escape from Tibet, Tibetan nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project

Handing out supplies to newly arrived nuns in Dharamsala. The nuns escaped from Tibet and arrived in a refugee community already struggling to survive.

Delek Palmo and 41 other nuns from the group arrived in Dharamsala seeking sanctuary and a nunnery in which to study and practice. It was their arrival that was one of the catalysts for the creation of our sponsorship program which now supports over 700 nuns in India.

They arrived in a refugee community that was struggling to survive. Delek Palmo, like her sister nuns, needed the basic necessities of life—a roof over her head, a bed to sleep in, nun’s robes, simple food, education, and a safe place to practice her religion.

Delek Palmo is nun #35 and was one of the first nuns to be sponsored. In December 2016, she received her Geshema degree from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism. She is now a senior nun, a teacher, and a leader in her community.

This is the power of your sponsorship gifts.

Delek Palmo, Tibetan nun, Tibetan Nuns Project, escape from Tibet, refugee nuns

Taken earlier this year, this photo shows Geshema Delek Palmo (back row, far right) together with the other Geshema nuns from Dolma Ling Nunnery and with some of the first nuns that arrived from Lithang, Tibet.

You are helping brave, dedicated and compassionate women on their path. Thank you!
Tibetan nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, sponsor a nun

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Tibetan Nuns Project

Our 30th anniversary is an opportunity to thank our supporters and to take stock of the many historic milestones made possible through their compassion for the nuns. The support of our donors will be remembered in the history of Tibet and for future Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

Here are just some of the accomplishments:

  • Creating a ground-breaking educational program for nuns;
  • Feeding, clothing, housing, and educating almost 800 Tibetans nuns thanks to our sponsors;
  • Building and establishing of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a non-sectarian nunnery;
  • Constructing and re-establishing Shugsep Nunnery in India;
  • Establishing the annual inter-nunnery debate, the Jang Gonchoe;
  • Laying the groundwork for higher degrees for nuns; and
  • Awarding of the Geshema degree for the first time in the history of Tibet.
Losar, tsampa, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan New Year, New Year celebrations

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India throw tsampa (roasted barley flour) in the air as part of the traditional celebrations of Losar, Tibetan New Year. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

In the coming months, we will be sharing more news about ways in which you and our wonderful global family can connect, such as through house parties and through online sharing of news, photos, and videos to commemorate this milestone.

We will be holding a gathering at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India and Institute in India on October 2nd 2017. For information, please contact us at info@tnp.org