Kung Fu nuns and dragons

By Punya Srivastava

May 2014

A visit to the Druk Amitabha Monastery, Kathmandu, and meeting with His Holiness, opens up a new window to the world of Tibetan Buddhism for Punya Srivastava



We should never forget the importance of women and children in society,” said His Holiness, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, sitting in his spacious and ornately decorated room, strewn with thangkhas and mandalas. We were at the Amitabha monastery, one of the grandest of the Drukpa lineage of Buddhism. Belonging to the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and known as the ‘red hat sect’, the monastery celebrated HH’s birth anniversary  on March 11. HH is said to be the 12th reincarnation of the Indian Buddhist saint Naropa who named the lineage after dragons (or druks) followed by a sacred dream. The weeklong event started with the Phowa retreat, a Vajrayana Buddhist meditation practice that is described as ‘the practice of conscious dying’. Around 15 to 20 thousand people attended the celebrations rich with various cultural programmes and Buddhist rituals. The confident young nuns gave a presentation of their Kung Fu skills, followed by the traditional dragon dance.

Indeed, the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery, home to the Kung Fu nuns, a first in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, is receiving much recognition and appreciation across the world. It accommodates around 300 nuns who came from Ladakh, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kinnaur and Lahaul, Spiti.

In dialogue with the media on the occasion of his birthday celebrations, HH was at his candid best flight, “Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings are deeply embedded in my heart. He said that we have to give the space and chair to women, and I think we did a good job of creating awareness about the importance of women in our community,” he said. HH has been the moving force behind the drastic change in the way the order traditionally approached nuns. “I am giving these young nuns the opportunity to be self-reliant. Many of them are training to be general physicians, dentists and eye doctors. Many from our nunnery are sent to Malaysia to study acupuncture, to Delhi for studying medicines, and to Europe too,” he added.

He started the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery mainly with the motivation to lift up the status of nuns in his small community. HH does not want his small community of nuns to suffer the social or cultural discrimination that has existed for so many generations. “I am training monks and nuns equally. Whatever the monks are getting, the nuns get them too. This is because I strongly believe that nuns can serve society, the people and beings just as much as their male counterparts, through the practice of Buddhist philosophy,” he elucidated.

Women to the fore

Indeed, it was heartening to see young nuns, 15-16 years old, fervently carrying out their tasks and leading the preparations amidst the clamour of innumerable visitors during the week-long event. “Aap India se ho?’ enquired Khandro Jigme, a girl of 15 with dancing eyes and a spunky demeanour while taking care of a stall offering prayer scarves. “Yes,” I said. “Main bhi. Kinnaur se. Ye bhi wahan se hai,” she said, nudging her friend, a shy girl of the same age, who just smiled at me. They both had come to the nunnery six years back to get ordained and learn the tradition, just like many others who belonged to the Himalayan region of India. On being asked what they learn, she merrily recited her routine comprising  study of the scriptures, meditation, study of various contemporary subjects, Kung Fu training and community work. Seeing their undaunted enthusiasm despite a rigorous routine was quite inspiring.

However, the place was not only teeming with monks and nuns, but also with devotees from Bhutan, Brazil, France, Germany, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, Peru, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and the United States too. The popularity that HH and his endeavours enjoy was quite evident by the humongous turnout. Yeshe, from Australia, one among the many foreigners, sat quietly in the community kitchen, sipping her po cha or the salty butter tea. She looked quietly at ease with her surroundings that juxtaposed her with the ochre-robed, shaven-headed nuns of Druk Gawa Khilwa. “When I first came to India, and later on followed HH on his padyatras, I was surprised to see a large number of people who don’t eat meat. And that is what struck me quite hard – the compassion. The philosophy is not a mere concept here; it is practised, without making a show of it,” she observed, her bright blue eyes smiling into mine. Yeshe, or Claire (her Christian name), converted to Buddhism 20 years back; and sold her business three years back to serve the local sangha. I was quite amazed to see the faith that she had in the teachings of the Buddha. “It is wonderful to see so many people from different parts of the world come together, bound by a single thread of faith,” she remarked.

“The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to realise the need of the hour, and work towards them with a compassionate heart,” said HE Khamtrul Rinpoche. This resonates with what HH says about including the laymen – the locals – in the spiritual and holistic evolution of society as a whole. Following the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy of getting enlightened for the benefit of others, the monastery not only focuses on empowering the monks and nuns, but also the masses. “For example, in Ladakh, the girls do not want to be nuns but they do want to do something worthwhile with their lives, to serve the people, the villagers, and the world. And this fire is ignited within them by looking upto the nuns and the monks. But yes, we have a long way to go to empower the masses. However, I don’t want the people to become monks and nuns. I want them to become better human beings who serve the world in their own capacity,” he remarked.

HH, the Gyalwang Drukpa, has been involved with various social and environmental initiatives. He is the founder and spiritual director of the award-winning Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India, that emphasises modern education while preserving local culture. He founded a not-for-profit international humanitarian organisation, Live to Love, in 2007 which has Aamir Khan and Michelle Yeoh as its global ambassadors. In September 2010, the United Nations honoured HH with the Millennium Development Goals Award for his efforts towards ‘creating compassion into action’. He was also named the ‘Guardian of the Himalayas’ by Waterkeepers Alliance (Foundation) for his conservation efforts in the Himalayas in September 2013.

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