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Bad Karma Beware: Meet the Kung Fu Nuns of Nepal

by Hillary Brenhouse, Time Weekly - The word out of central Nepal is so startling that it sounds almost mythical. Every day at 4 a.m. in the Kathmandu Valley, far from the birthplace of kung fu, 200 nuns of the Tibetan Buddhist Drukpa sect - a school not associated with the Chinese martial art - are said to assemble to throw punches. Weather permitting, the young women have been seen practicing on the roof of the Naro Assembly Hall of the Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery, set against forested mountain and the open sky. The nuns describe their hour-long routines: spreading apart their feet and planting them down decidedly in the so-called horse stance, bringing thumb together with forefinger to form a crane's beak with their hands, striking down and then back again, lunging forward and taking off with soaring kicks. "We all like it very much," 17-year-old Jigme Konchok Lhamo says in a phone interview. "Everyone does it, except those nuns who are very old." In other words, morning kung fu sessions are only open to nuns under 25.

Kung fu came to the nunnery in 2008, after His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the Drukpa school, saw nuns in combat training while he was on a visit to his followers based in northern Vietnam. "I was inspired because these Vietnamese nuns exhibited tremendous self-confidence and strength, not only in their movements but also in their attitude toward people outside their own enclosed community," he says. Kung fu has long been established in the country, having moved south from traditional martial-arts centers in China, including the famous Shaolin Temple, which was founded by a separate Buddhist sect, Chan (or Zen, as most Westerners know it).

His Holiness took back to Kathmandu not just the idea of introducing martial arts, but also four experienced Vietnamese Drukpa nuns to serve as teachers. The Buddhist leader was keen on keeping the program all female, insisting that bringing in learned monks as instructors would only reinforce gender stereotypes. The physical and spiritual empowerment of women is high on his list. "Before coming here," he says, "girls who had become nuns in different parts of the Himalayas in search of independence mostly ended up doing household chores in the monasteries and sometimes in their own gurus' family homes."

That the young Vietnamese women, all of them in their early 20s and themselves trained by men, are passing their new expertise forward is a testament to how far Buddhist nuns have come. Martial-arts historians agree that there were almost certainly nuns in the Shaolin Temple but that it's unlikely they received martial-arts training due to their lesser status. In any case, they would not have gone on to coach. But after just two years of instruction, a handful of quick-learning Nepalese nuns are said to have begun trying their hand at teaching and now reportedly help lead morning lessons.

Martial-arts training is great exercise, supplementing the nuns' yoga classes. But it was also introduced to help with their Buddhist practice. "Our meditation gets easy with the kung fu," says the young nun Konchok Lhamo. "It helps us to sit up straight, to learn how to concentrate." The continual repetition of moves builds control and focus, thought to be an asset to any discipline requiring intense concentration - all things useful for young women who are expected to sit in the same position for hours and sometimes undertake retreats during which they cannot speak for months at a time.

The Vietnamese Drukpa nuns only began their own martial-arts training in 1992, when their local religious head, the Most Venerable Thich Vien Thanh, initiated the practice at the Tay Thien nunnery. There were only three nuns then. Now all 80 of the nuns there are said to spend sunup sparring. Many of them are eager to join their four sisters in Nepal, so they can be closer to the Gyalwang Drukpa and also try teaching. Initially, the nuns were trained in combat techniques by soldiers from the Vietnamese military. But in the past few years the program has become more formal, and male students of kung fu grandmasters have gone from the cities to teach the women a mixture of Shaolin methods and specifically Vietnamese martial arts. Tay Thien's head nun Jigme Samten Wangmo, who is Vietnamese but goes by her Tibetan religious name, says that one of these indigenous styles, Kinh Thuat, "was created by the generals and warriors of the Tran Dynasty who defeated the invader Genghis Khan." Her nuns have never had to fight off intruders themselves. Says Samten Wangmo: "Perhaps that's because hearing that we have kung fu, strangers are afraid of getting close to our place."

In other times, it might have been odd for kung fu practitioners in Nepal to be learning Chinese or Vietnamese fighting forms. Thomas Green, editor of the just published Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, calls it "an adventure in globalism," noting that knocking down boundaries in this way is now commonplace. "In a very nationalistic period, for instance, Taekwondo was the Korean martial art," he says. "But with the Buddhist nuns, what you have is a community that crosses national lines." Regardless of the particular type of kung fu being disseminated there, "this effort at pride, strength, self-actualization is something that is certainly filling a need with these women."

And the nuns' effort is likely to go even more global in the coming year. Once they are prepared, several of the more skilled Kathmandu nuns may be asked to pass on their abilities at a third Drukpa nunnery, the Dongyu Gatsa Ling in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a former librarian from London who established the nunnery in the late 1990s, caught the Nepal nuns demonstrating their newfound knowledge one evening during the annual Drukpa Council last year. The presentation stunned the crowd. "Frankly, it brought the house down," says Tenzin Palmo. "I think the monks and lamas were very envious."

Tenzin Palmo says taking kung fu to her own nunnery "would help the nuns build self-esteem, which is one of the things, on the whole, young nuns lack. They're not trained to have confidence. They're trained to be deferential, especially in the presence of males." Learning martial arts would also give them the means to defend themselves should local men ever get any ideas. "You just need one group of young guys at a wedding or something to get drunk and suddenly remember that there's a whole community of young women in the vicinity," says Tenzin Palmo.

She is currently in negotiations with the other nunneries to invite girls over, but is concerned that her own nuns - whose days already are heavy with yoga classes, Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan- and English-language lessons - will not be able to fit anything else in. But the nuns couldn't be more enthusiastic. Says Tenzin Palmo: "They just see themselves as kung fu heroines."