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Faith and fists
can move mountains

Cheerful kung fu nuns smash through tradition to bring healing and hope to the remote countryside.

By TARU BAHL
Ladakh, June 2014

Martial arts are no longer a male preserve. Nuns practice kung fu at a Himalayan monastery

Martial arts are no longer a male preserve. Nuns practice kung fu at a Himalayan monastery. - Photo: Women's Feature Services

IN 2013, few hundred Buddhist nuns, monks and followers, along with several Rinpoches, undertook a strategic walk of over 500 kilometres through the Sri Lankan countryside with His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, who heads the Drukpa School in Ladakh, one of the independent Sarma schools of Tibetan Buddhism. While the high point of this effort was the coming together of two nations – one of which is still trying to emerge from a long period of internal strife – for the cause of peace, equally remarkable was the fact that the nuns in this group were as prominent as the monks. In fact, no special concessions were doled out to them just as they were not restricted from doing anything the monks did.

Nuns trekking in a foreign land is indeed an uncommon sight, something that the Buddhist tradition has not practiced. But this is not the only move that has been initiated by this order to bridge the gap between the status of the nuns and monks. A vibrant spectacle greets visitors at the Druk Amitabha Mountain in Nepal, home to the world’s biggest Buddhist nunnery, where more than 550 nuns, aged between 12 and 30 years, from Bhutan, Nepal, as well as Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim in India, practice the martial art of kung fu, traditionally forbidden to women. Rhythmic, graceful and power-packed, their exhilarating cries of victory resonate in the otherwise quiet landscape.

Indeed, they have broken a number of misguided, age-old customs. Not only do they practice kung fu as a means of self-defence and to keep fit, they have also started to perform the traditional ‘pujas’ and the dragon dance, once considered as strictly male preserves

The basic idea for this pioneering programme germinated as a result of His Holiness’ effort to provide equal stature to the nuns within the Buddhist traditions. Over the ages, misogyny has settled into the religion and women have been allowed enlightenment, but only up to a certain level. “But since Buddha never wanted or professed this discrimination, the kung fu nuns have become the most public manifestation of our efforts at female emancipation. Indeed, they have broken a number of misguided, age-old customs. Not only do they practice kung fu as a means of self-defence and to keep healthy and fit, they have also started to perform the traditional ‘pujas’ and the dragon dance, which are considered strictly male prerogatives,” says the forward looking religious leader.

For the peace-loving, regulation-abiding nuns, who hail from serene mountain regions, the relevance of learning kung fu seems an enigma. But the movement has become a symbolic expression of unshackling women in Buddhist nunneries. Today, they are role models for the community and global messengers for spreading the positive message that anyone can contribute to tackling the various challenges the world faces. According to the Drukpa, “Kung fu has been introduced as part of the nuns' training regime to give them strength, both inner and outer. It is merely a means to allow women, who have been standing behind men for thousands of years, to come to the forefront. Kung fu is my little action and contribution to support gender equality.”

Jigme Wangchuk, 16, is from Bhutan and Jigme Karuna, 22, belongs to Darjeeling in India. They have been with the Hemis nunnery in Leh and have received training in kung fu for four years, having enrolled in the martial art programme headed by the Vietnamese master Jigme Gendun at the Druk Amitabha Mountain Centre. Typically, the Hemis nuns spend around four years in Nepal to learn kung fu before coming back and dedicating their lives for religious and social causes.

For the two young nuns, the kung fu training was initially an unbelievable reality. But as it sank in, they began to feel their inner, fearless self awaken. Soon, their body adapted to the rigours of the physical exercise and their mind opened up to limitless possibilities. Later, they embarked upon their Buddhist studies with greater enthusiasm and began the pursuit of making their lives, within and outside the nunnery, more meaningful. “It was like opening the floodgates of our imagination and reaffirming our belief in our potential. The link between physical energy and mental and spiritual prowess became clear as the two fused together,” remarks Wangchuk.

They practice basic medical services, spearhead community outreach, and are totally independent and self-sufficient. They can take care of the estates under their charge, right from managing maintenance to electrical and plumbing works

In Ladakh, under the Drukpa’s leadership, what goes on within the haloed precincts of the monastery and the nunnery is no big secret. Being open to the outside world, hectic activity goes on here throughout the year as different initiatives are planned for the benefit of the local community, from tree plantation drives to medical camps to large feasts. People from far off places trek up to the monastery to meet the Drukpa, who is accessible and empathetic. By giving the nuns an opportunity to hone their skills and identify other areas of specialisation, the religious leader has placed the community’s needs upfront, addressing them through non-confrontationist and sustainable methods.

Nuns Jigme Choedar and Jigme Choying live in Delhi and are studying to become doctors in traditional medicine under the tutelage of Dr Tsewang Dolkar Khangkar. With an abundance of medicinal plants in the Leh-Ladakh region, and the faith of the locals in their curative properties, these nuns will soon be able to give treatment to thousands of Ladakhis who are unable to avail of the facilities at the government primary health centres due to harsh climatic conditions and other issues of access. Says Choying, “There is a wealth of knowledge in holistic medicine. This will come in handy while treating common ailments through methods like pulse reading, urine analysis, astrology as well as traditional Himalayan remedies prepared from medicinal plants, herbs and minerals.” She feels blessed that she will be in a position to save so many lives and provide succour, especially to the aged, who reconcile to their ailing and painful condition, accepting it as their fate. “When science is there we can surely be a medium to bring hope,” she adds, with a sparkle in her eye.

For Jigme Tingdzin Zangmo, Jigme Migyur Palmo and Jigme Karuna Yangchen, bright and meritorious students, their desire to go for further studies was fulfilled when His Holiness gave them a go-ahead to apply for a Masters programme in Buddhist studies at Oxford University in the UK. And that is not all. They practice basic medical services, spearhead community outreach programmes, and are totally independent and self-sufficient. They can even take care of the estates under their charge, right from their maintenance to electrical and plumbing. But more important than these outwardly visible developments are the mental and psychological developments that have happened within the nuns in particular, and society, in general. This empowerment has been a true collaboration of the scientific and spiritual community with the nuns playing an active role.


Article provided by the Women's Feature Service

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Robyn Witherspoon (24 June, 2014) – USA
It's heartening to see women taking a more hands-on approach to spirituality and care giving.

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