Under an elemental blue sky,with rugged mountains framing them,a group of 20-odd Buddhist nuns,clad in maroon robes and with their heads shaven,punched the air with clenched fists. They were practising kung fu. Even three years ago,that would have been a sight unseen at Naro Photang nunnery in Shey,near the Ladakh capital Leh. It was a privilege reserved for men,for the monks.
Among the women was Jigme Wangchuk,a 15-year-old Buddhist nun from a monastery in Kathmandu,who was in India to attend the annual Drukpa Council that concluded last week at the Hemis monastery in Ladakh. Before she stepped out for kung fu practice,Wangchuk spoke about how she was barely six,a Class II student in Bhutan,when she realised she wanted to be a nun and practise dharma. Her mind,she said,was firmly made up to give up the material life even against the wishes of her parents. While it is common for some Buddhist families to give away children born after their second child to dharma,Wangchuk insisted her parents loved her too much to agree. They were sad and told me I was too young to lead the tough life of a nun. But I was sure, said the young girl,who is fluent in English,Hindi,Nepali and the Bhutanese Drukpa language,and showed a remarkable confidence for her age. It is very difficult to be a nun. We have to prove ourselves. For me,it was difficult to concentrate while meditating; but then it got better,and I found meaning, she said.
The perfection of a nun would be attained if she achieved the highest levels of concentration and when she knew everything about dharma,she said. She was equally kicked about mastering the ancient martial art. I love kung fu. It makes me feel healthier and it helps in improving my concentration, Wangchuk said. The morning after the kung fu session,she led the dragon dance at the Hemis monastery which too,till 2009,was a male preserve.
Like her,other nuns have benefited from a new line of thinking in the Drukpa sect. Consigned so far to the domestic chores of washing and cleaning,and told to live with the belief that they were meant to serve the men so that they could be reborn as monks and gain enlightenment,women had little avenue for growth in the spiritual hierarchy. Women,even nuns,have always been considered secondary and it needs to change now. There is an improvement in the nuns life with promoting gender equality,and that gives me great encouragement, said the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa,spiritual head of the nearly 1000-year-old Drukpa lineage,which follows the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. The sect was established in 1206 and has followers across Tibet,Bhutan,China,Nepal and India.
The Gyalwang Drukpa visited Vietnam in 2008,and was inspired by Vietnamese nuns engaged in combat training. He decided to introduce the martial art and invited a Vietnamese master to the Druk Gawa Khilwa monastery in Kathmandu. At the nunnery in Leh,the martial art was introduced in 2010,and about 400 nuns learn kung fu at the two monasteries now. While training and practice will soon turn them into instructors,for now the nuns are trained by Dang Dinh Hai,a third generation Vietnamese kung fu master.
Over the last five years,in Ladakh and Kathmandu,nuns have been encouraged to step out of the nunnery and the confines of a wholly domestic life. They were a part of the massive tree plantation drive initiated after the flash floods of 2010 washed away several villages in Ladakh. They also work as volunteers at the SNM district hospital in Leh.
Jigme Rigme Lhamo,36,who came to the order in 1999,said kung fu training has made the nuns more confident,though the many moves to ensure gender equity in the order faced staunch resistance. A lot of people complained before they reached an understanding and got helpful. When we first performed the dragon dance,the keepers of dharma did say the world was coming to an end, she said.
Lahmo studied till Class IX in one of the best schools in Ladakh. She lived with her family in Nubra Valley before becoming a nun. While her parents wanted her to become an engineer,Lahmo was inspired by Mother Teresa and wanted to help people. My parents didnt want me to become a nun; they were very unhappy with my decision. But I am happy being a nun. If I had stayed back with my parents,I would have been able to only help them. Now I can help more people, she said. The nuns,who start their day at 3 am with a dose of kung fu and two hours of meditation,said that the tough physical exercise sustained them through the days routine,which,besides cleaning and cooking,includes meditation,prayers,learning Tibetan grammar,Buddhist philosophy,English and computer classes.
While it was discomfiting to see a 15-year-old lead the life of an ascetic when girls her age are occupied with ambitions,games,and toys of a different order,Wangchuk was dismissive of such concerns. She chuckled and said she loved her dharma friends. There is nothing lacking in this life. I get to learn the scriptures and I will only get better. I play cricket and football too. I watch a lot of movies. I have seen all the kung fu movies, she said.