Sisterhood is powerful | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 16, 2024

A nunnery in northern India offers a full slate of classes, leading for the first time to the highest academic degree for Buddhist scholars.

Diana Reynolds Roome | May 2007 issue
In the spacious courtyard, the voices of nuns are raised in rapid-fire argument in their native Tibetan language, a sound regularly punctuated by bursts of laughter, clapping and foot-stomping. The noise reverberates off the white-and-maroon walls of the nunnery’s gompa (“temple”).
Here in Dharamsala, in the far north of India, 220 Tibetan nuns are engaging in the highly demanding art of Buddhist theological debate for the first time in history. No mere intellectual exercise, the practise requires intellectual rigour, mental flexibility, confidence—and plenty of clapping and stomping to emphasize the more obscure points of Buddhist philosophy—hardly behaviour traditionally sanctioned for Tibetan religious women. But everything here is new—including the nunnery itself, consecrated by the Dalai Lama a little more than a year ago.
Many who have found refuge here fled Tibet under difficult circumstances. Some watched as their nunneries were destroyed; others were imprisoned and tortured for peacefully demonstrating against the Communist regime in Tibet, for refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama or even for owning pictures of him. The treacherous journey through Himalayan passes and past Chinese border guards also took its toll. Last fall, as a group of ­Tibetans tried to walk over a high pass toward the Nepalese border, Kelsang Namtso, a 17-year-old nun, was fatally shot by the guards and left to die, while others were arrested. According to some reports, Kelsang had been on her way to Dolma Ling.
Tibetan nuns’ training has traditionally been far less rigorous than that of monks, who maintain libraries, study philosophy and engage in debate according to their monastery’s lineage or tradition. By contrast, ­women’s religious lives have been dominated by prayer, ritual and memorization. This new opportunity for education is a beacon for many Tibetan ani (“nuns”), 90 percent of whom are illiterate when they arrive at Dolma Ling.
But the nunnery offers a full slate of classes, leading for the first time to the highest academic degree for Buddhist scholars, the Geshe, for those who wish to pursue it. And with the Dalai Lama’s support, an effort is underway to remove the obstacles that have prevented women from gaining full ordination as nuns.
This remarkable development is due, in large part, to the international staff and volunteers of the Tibetan Nuns Project, who have devoted almost two decades of fundraising, planning and organizing to get to this point. By getting an education, as well as learning practical skills involving crafts and computers, hundreds of nuns at Dolma Ling, Geden Choeling, Shugsep and Tilokpur—sister nunneries in the Dharamsala region—are working hard toward greater independence. The nuns at Dolma Ling even helped build their campus, hauling sand and stones to save labour costs.
As painful as it is, exile is beginning to bring the Tibetan ani advantages they might never have had in their own land.
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