Two Impressive Nunneries; One Amazing Advocate of Tibetan Women’s Education

Jan. 3

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I’d planned to head up the hill to McLG on the 3rd, but an offer from Rinchen to come along on a tour of the two nunneries she directs was too good to pass by. She has a driver in a big SUV and she, Norman, and myself are off to the first site: Shugsep Nunnery.

Shugsep Nunnery is the most recent project now completed for Rinchen. It has 80 nuns, two to a room, engaged in academic and religious studies. According to the description on the Tibetan Nuns Project website (tnp.org/nunneries)…

“Shugsep, a Nyingma nunnery, traces its rituals and practice to some of the most illustrious female practitioners in Tibetan history. In the previous century, Shugsep was home to one of the most famous teachers of her time, Shugsep Jetsunma. The nuns followed a routine primarily of memorizing scriptures and meditating, living as ascetic hermits in caves in the hillside. Following the cultural revolution in 1959, the nuns were forced to leave Shugsep and it was completely destroyed. Although the nunnery was partially rebuilt in the 1980′s by the nuns themselves, the nuns have faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities.

The majority of the nuns studying in Shugsep Nunnery in Dharamsala come from the original Shugsep. Here they have the opportunity to participate in a nine-year academic program of Buddhist philosophy, debate, Tibetan language and English. Their teachers come from Penor Rinpoche’s monastery, Namdrol Ling, in southern India.”

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The classrooms and library are rather sparse (Tantra Sudies room almost totally empty) but the kitchen is very well appointed and no one is going hungry here. Norman and I are VIPs and are shown around by an attractive Tibetan women who, despite her generic Tibetan women’s clothes, sports a __ on her neck, but no wedding band on her finger.

The contrast of her standing beside a young nun who gives commentary that our guide translates is both obvious and profoundly cultural. One woman is in the world, the other protected from its insistent imperfections and cruel gender roles (sort of, depending on her interaction with the male priests sent from Penor Rinpoche’s monastery down south to teach). He died in 2009 and his reincarnation was discovered shortly thereafter, with an enthronement coming this year.

We come upon two monks doing research about the ordination of nuns. This is an initiative long-promoted by HHDL but grudgingly accepted by the monasteries and elder monks themselves. And yet it is moving forward via the Tibetan Govt.’s office of religion. Tibetan Nuns Assn. and Rinchen have been champions of this cause for decades, so now she feels pretty good that there will be an initial report issued soon. Each committee is made of two monks and three nuns, and reports on various aspects/dimensions of the issue as mandated by a central committee. It’s complicated but historically unprecedented work which should, after the transition period, help nuns contribute more equally to monastic and social improvement.

At Dolma Ling, reached after a bone-rattling ride, we see the library (with its full set of the Vajrayana Buddhist canon smuggled out of Tibet), the living quarters, the debate courtyard and its canopy, a little farm for cows that provide milk and poop, the prayer hall, and the recently completed retreat huts.

(the entire image is done in appliqué needlework)

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I am stunned to look inside and see no windows to the outside even though the mountains are impressively available as teachers. That part about a retreat I just don’t get.
Something about holding a pyramid-shape that encodes the 8 auspicious symbols? HHDL does it as well?

The facilities are just amazing, and Rinchen should be duly satisfied that she has accomplished so much in such a short time (about 15 years).   According to the Tibetan Nuns Project website:

“Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute is fully funded by the Tibetan Nuns Project and was the first institute dedicated specifically to higher Buddhist education for Tibetan Buddhist nuns from all traditions. It is unique in that it offers an 18-year curriculum of traditional Buddhist philosophy and debate along with modern courses in Tibetan language, English, basic mathematics, and computer skills. The nuns also receive training in the ritual arts such as sand mandala and butter sculpture. The nunnery was successfully completed after twelve years of hard work and was officially inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on December 8, 2005.

Currently, 228 nuns are fully engaged in study, practice, nunnery work, and self-sufficiency projects. This year, after completing the five major topics needed to master a Geshema degree, 10 nuns appeared for the first year Geshema exam in May 2013. Some nuns have completed their studies and are teaching in Tibetan schools. In the future we will be seeing more nuns graduating and taking on the important role of teachers, both in the nunneries and throughout the Tibetan exile community.

Our discussion at lunch is one she doesn’t really want to address right now: will there be nuns in 20 years time, given the pull of pop. culture, higher education, and shifting demographics? Why will a young woman want to become a nun?
I think there is value in the Catholic model, where study, devotion, and spiritual advancement are coupled with improving the greater good. The activism and courage of Catholic nuns is a stellar example of social justice in action. I hope Rinchen will consider this dimension as a possibility.

There’s much more to say, but the sun is gone, the street noise has become intolerable, and I’m thinking of a retreat to my room to enjoy the view and last light.

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