Tag Archives: Tilokpur

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.

About Saga Dawa

The most important month in the Tibetan lunar calendar is Saga Dawa, the 4th month. This year Saga Dawa starts on May 26th 2017 and runs until June 24.

The 15th day of this lunar month, the full moon day, is called Saga Dawa Düchen. Düchen means “great occasion” and this day is the single most holy day of the year for Buddhists. This year, Saga Dawa Düchen falls on June 9, 2017. Saga Dawa Düchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana of Buddha Shakyamuni. In other Buddhist traditions it is known as Vesak or is sometimes called Buddha Day.

Tibetan nun, Buddhist nun, Tibetan Nuns Project, nun reading scripture, Tibetan Buddhism, Saga Dawa, Dolma Ling Nunnery A young Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery reads scriptures to mark Saga Dawa. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo. Continue reading

Tilokpur Nunnery and the Great Yogi Tilopa

Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling is situated at Tilokpur in Himachal Pradesh, northern India. Their lineage comes from the great Indian Yogi Tilopa (988-1069 CE) and was passed on to Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and to His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa.

The nunnery is built near the cave of Tilopa, who meditated there for 12 years and attained enlightenment. The cave is located above a river and is a place of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists.

Tibetan nuns puja opposite cave of Tilopa

The nuns perform a puja on the riverbank opposite the cave of Tilopa.

Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling is the oldest Kagyu nunnery outside of Tibet. It provides housing and education to over 110 nuns and overlooks a small town in the lush foothills of the Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh in northern India. The nunnery is about 40 kilometers from Dharamsala and is near the highway from Mandi to Pathankot.

young Tibetan Buddhist nun performs a puja at Tilokpur

A young Tibetan Buddhist nun takes part in a puja at the nunnery. The nuns have been practicing new pujas as well as the damaru (drum) and bells as they work to improve their ritual skills such as chanting and the use of different musical instruments.

There are two branches of Tilokpur Nunnery. The older compound, called Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling, is now home to about 20 senior nuns who engage in intensive meditation practices and perform daily prayers. It is also home to 11 of the nunnery’s youngest nuns who are being given a basic education in Tibetan, English, and math. The newer branch of the nunnery, called Drubten Pemo Gaype Gatsal, is located down the hill and accommodates nuns engaged in intensive studies. There the nuns have classes in Tibetan, English, Buddhist philosophy, debate, and computing.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating outside the nunnery

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating outside the nunnery

The nuns at Tilokpur range in age from 9 to 88 and many are from very poor families. Most are Tibetan, but there are also nuns from the Indian Himalayan regions of Kinnaur, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, and from the Mustang region of Nepal.

Tilokpur Nunnery was founded in the early 1960s by Mrs. Freda Bedi to assist nuns arriving in India after escaping from the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Freda Bedi (1911–1977) was a British nun ordained by the Karmapa. As Sister Palmo she became famous as the first Western woman to take ordination in Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan nuns debate at Tilokpur

The nuns debate at the nunnery. Debate is a vital part of Tibetan monastic education. For the last two years, the nuns have participated in the Kagyu nuns’ debate session held every winter.

Establishing the nunnery was fraught with difficulties. According to a biography of Sister Palmo, Lady of Realisation, the nuns and Sister Palmo lived in grass huts as the nunnery was being built. The huts were accidentally destroyed by fire and, though Sister Palmo survived, she lost many precious Tibetan Buddhist texts that she was translating into English.

Sister Palmo wrote: “Our gonpa… the nunnery… building is something of an odyssey. We are clearing bricks and mud from the floor of the ruined fort on the top of the hill. Seems like a mountain. Tibetan and India labour with the nuns of all sizes, including me, carrying stones for an hour a day. Our little nuns carry pebbles.”

Tibetan Buddhist nun and her teacher

A nun studies with her teacher. The new academic year started in March and subjects include Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan, English, and math.

Tilokpur remains a relatively small nunnery and, in the past, the nuns there had been hampered in their abilities to develop and sustain themselves by the general lack of education.

The Tibetan Nuns Project began supporting the nunnery in 1992 and has helped Tilokpur Nunnery start regular classes in Tibetan, Buddhist philosophy, and English. The Tibetan Nuns Project has also helped the Tilokpur nuns purchase new books, including Buddhist philosophy and math textbooks.

The nunnery office is now also better equipped technically with a new computer, fax, and printer and two nuns have completed a month-long computer-training course. The nuns have also formed a management committee that is administering the internal activities of the nunnery. About 100 nuns at Tilokpur are  sponsored through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Buddhist nuns worship near cave of Tilopa

The nuns worship by the river near the cave of Tilopa.

Tilopa gave his most famous student Naropa a teaching called the “Six Words of Advice”, the text of which survives only in its Tibetan translation. This profound teaching has been translated into English in both a short and longer form and goes as follows:

Don’t recall – Let go of what has passed
Don’t imagine – Let go of what may come
Don’t think – Let go of what is happening now
Don’t examine – Don’t try to figure anything out
Don’t control – Don’t try to make anything happen
Rest – Relax, right now, and rest

The Tibetan Buddhist holy month of Saga Dawa

Saga Dawa is a very important month in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. This year, Saga Dawa, the fourth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar, started on May 7th and runs until June 5th 2016.

The 15th day of the lunar month, the full moon day, is called Saga Dawa Düchen. Düchen means “great occasion” and this day is the single most holy day of the year for Buddhists. This year Saga Dawa Düchen falls on May 21 2016. In other Buddhist traditions it is known as Vesak or is sometimes as Buddha Day. Saga Dawa Düchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death (parinirvana) of Buddha Shakyamuni.

Tibetan nun, Buddhist nun, Tibetan Nuns Project, nun reading scripture, Tibetan Buddhism, Saga Dawa, Dolma Ling Nunnery

A young Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery reads scriptures to mark Saga Dawa. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo.

Since 1999, the United Nations has marked this sacred Buddhist day each year with a special message from the UN Secretary General. The UN Vesak page states, “Vesak, the Day of the Full Moon in the month of May, is the most sacred day to millions of Buddhists around the world. It was on the Day of Vesak two and a half millennia ago, in the year 623 B.C., that the Buddha was born. It was also on the Day of Vesak that the Buddha attained enlightenment, and it was on the Day of Vesak that the Buddha in his eightieth year passed away.”

This year’s message from the UN Secretary General highlights the primary role that women can play in promoting peace, justice, and human rights. Continue reading