Font Size



Kung Fu nuns put a kick into Buddhism

Neelam Raaj, Times of India (TOI) Crest - A nunnery is usually a place of serenity and quiet contemplation. But on a hillside just outside Kathmandu that's accessible only after a very bumpy 4x4 ride,a group of young Buddhist nuns are showing that karma can come with a kick.

At dawn every day, young women from the 800-year-old Drukpa Buddhist sect exchange their maroon robes for pyjamas and yellow sashes to learn how to chop,punch and roundhouse kick from their Vietnamese master. Lessons in the ancient martial art of kung fu - made famous in the West by the movies of Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan - started here just two years ago, but already the nuns have shown that fists of fury can coexist with meditational calm.

Karuna,a young nun from Ladakh,is one of the best kung fu disciples. "Kung fu improves my concentration and fitness." It's also a way of tackling wayward young men who dare to accost the nuns on their trips outside the nunnery. "Now, we are not scared of them."

It's unusual to see such confidence. Buddhism in this part of the world is a very male preserve with the women usually relegated to tasks like cooking and cleaning for the monks. But at the Drukpa nunnery on Amitabha mountain,the 400 females call the shots. From running the cafe, which serves up a mean cappuccino and banana cake, to running up to town in a four-wheel drive to fetch groceries, the shaved heads do everything they put their mind to Jigme Rigzin Lhamo, a nun from Ladakh, can read architectural blueprints as well as she can read the scriptures.Together, she and her team supervised the construction of the guesthouse that is rented out to tourists,the bio-gas plant and the water tank. "We don't just want to live on offerings that devotees make. Our aim is to be financially independent," says the 32-year-old who manages the accounts for the nunnery and is known to drive a hard bargain with local contractors.


But how do the monks (a small number of them live in the nunnery) take to being bossed around? They are definitely not used to taking orders,admits Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo,who at 21 gave up her job as a librarian in London to take on maroon."But they seem to be taking it well.Gender equality is spilling over from the secular world to the spiritual world," says Jetsunma,who spent 12 years in isolation in a icy cave,a punishing retreat that earned her the popular appellation of 'cave nun'.

Today,she has her own nunnery in Lahaul,which she started because she herself had experienced the frustration of being excluded by the male monastic community."There are plenty of dedicated,intelligent women,but they haven't been given the opportunity," she says."It's the male voice that comes through even in books and teachings."

But there is hope.With nunneries teaching English and computer skills besides martial arts,the number of young women who are drawn to the monastic life has risen dramatically,says Jetsumna who is planning to introduce kung fu at her nunnery.

Back at Amitabha mountain,the nuns from northern India,Tibet,Nepal and Bhutan are shaking the walls of tradition in many other ways."We now perform the cham or mask dance which was earlier the sole prerogative of monks and even the evening prayer ritual called Senge tsewa," says Jigme Mipham Zangmo,who doubles up as driver at the nunnery.


Behind these changes is the leader of the Drukpa spiritual sect,His Holiness The Gyalwang Drukpa,who personally taught the nuns the rituals."Buddha never said women are less important.They have incredible potential which is finally being recognised," says the Gyalwang Drukpa who is the 12th incarnation of the leader of the Drukpa - or dragon - sect of Buddhism.This lineage,a school of Mahayana Buddhism,has followers across Tibet,Bhutan,China,Nepal and India.Though established in 1206,it's only in the last few years that the sect is undergoing a makeover.Buddhist nuns have always spent their lives studying the inner world of the mind.Besides the ancient paths to enlightenment,they are now on the road to empowerment.