Spirit in Exile: TIBETAN NUNS

Susan Lirakis Nicolay

Prior to their life in exile, many of the nuns in Tibet had demonstrated against Chinese rule. As a result, they were threatened, imprisoned, and tortured. Nuns who remained in Tibet held demonstrations in the late eighties and early nineties in Lhasa. Circumambulating the Jokhang Temple in Barkhor Square, nuns would shout, “Free Tibet!” “Chinese quit Tibet!” and “Long live the Dalai Lama!” During one such protest in 1991, Chinese police arrived, tied the nuns' arms behind their backs, hit their faces, and kicked them to the ground. The nuns were taken to Gurtsa Prison to be interrogated. The police demanded to know why the nuns were protesting and beat them with sticks and electric batons. During imprisonment, which for some was three months and for others five years, they were made to kneel on sharp stones for hours, beaten repeatedly by groups of police, and chased by dogs. Due to these beatings, some nuns have permanent internal injuries, hearing loss, or mental impairment. Yet their faith in the Tibetan cause is so strong they are willing to sacrifice their lives.

Many were nuns from Shugsep Nunnery near Lhasa. The nunnery was established by Shugsep Jetsunma in the late nineteenth century and was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the nuns were forced to leave. Although Shugsep Nunnery was partially rebuilt in the 1980s, continued restrictions and harassment by Chinese authorities prompted the flight of a new generation of Shugsep nuns to India in the early 1990s. For those who fled, the trek through the snow-covered Himalayas took about seventeen days, a strenuous journey that threatened frostbite and starvation.

There are now approximately fifty Shugsep nuns living in Gambir Ganj on the outskirts of Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Here, a nine-year program is offered in Buddhist philosophy and practice, Tibetan culture and language, and English. The Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP), established by the Dalai Lama in 1987, hopes to purchase land and to establish a nunnery-in-exile in India for these Shugsep nuns, which will allow unrestricted religious practice and observance of their cultural traditions.

Another forty nuns arrived in India following a pilgrimage from their home in Litang. Starting in 1988, they walked the length of Tibet doing full prostrations, which involves repeatedly taking three steps, then lying prone-stretched out with face and body to the ground. Their goal was to reach Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Wearing Chinese canvas shoes, they would stop at night and ask who had the needle. There were two needles for the group, and the nuns would take threads from their chubas (robes) with which to repair their shoes. Reaching the temple two years later, the nuns were turned away by suspicious Chinese police. Upon being interrogated, the women feared they might be arrested, so they fled. Joined by another twenty-six nuns, the group left Tibet to attend the Kalachakra teachings and initiation given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Sarnath, India, during December 1990. From there the nuns made their way to Dharamsala, arriving in early 1991.

These women, aged twelve to thirty, were temporarily housed in two buildings in Gambir Ganj on the hillside below McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. They had no beds and few blankets. The kitchen was set up outdoors, and they shared one cold-water spigot among them. Under the sponsorship of TNP and the Tibetan Women's Association (TWA), conditions have been steadily improving. These nuns have now been relocated to the Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute for Higher Learning, established by TNP in the area of the Kangra Valley just below Dharamsala. It offers a thirteen-year, nonsectarian curriculum combining traditional and modern programs. Nuns, if they wish, can receive the degree of Geshe (comparable to a doctorate), previously only available to monks.

Tilokpur Nunnery, located about ninety minutes from Dharamsala, is home to over sixty nuns in the Kagyu tradition. These nuns devote a minimum of two hours a day to meditation, and their practice frequently leads to a three-year retreat. Tilokpur has implemented an academic program as well. Both Tibetan language and English are taught. In general, they struggle with the difficulties of balancing the duties necessary to establishing the nunnery with the requirements of study and meditation. TNP has helped to improve medical care and nutrition as well as providing teachers and sponsors to help support the nuns.

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