Editor’s note: This story was reported and photographed in January, before the global pandemic. The text has been updated to reflect the activities of the nuns aimed at COVID-19 prevention.
By Windsor Johnson, July 5th, 2020, Goats and Soda
Jigme Yeshe Lhamo squats in a powerful kung fu stance. As she raises her 18-inch sword, it flashes in the sunlight against the backdrop of the Himalayas. It’s a crisp January morning at Amitabha Drukpa Nunnery in Kathmandu Valley, home to more than 800 Himalayan Buddhist nuns ranging in age from 6 to 80.
Sporting maroon-colored robes and shaved heads, the sisters cartwheel, punch, kick and land in splits. They wield spears and dance in formation with paper fans. Lhamo, 31, says practicing the martial art has given her confidence.
When she was 12, Lhamo nearly drowned when she fell over the guard rail of a bridge and plunged into the freezing cold river below. She had to undergo surgery for multiple fractures in her right leg, an injury that disqualified her from pursuing her dream of joining the Indian army.
“Becoming an Indian officer was everything to me. I was very sad and depressed and crying all of the time and I stopped eating.” says Lhamo.
Lhamo’s depression only started to lift a few years later when she met Jigme Pema Wangchen.
He’s the the head of a 1,000-year-old Buddhist sect called the Drukpa — which means a person from Bhutan or of Bhutanese descent. He’s known as the Gyalwang Drukpa.
Jigme Pema Wangchen — regarded as the twelfth incarnation of the Gyalwang Drukpa — works to promote gender equality by establishing schools, medical clinics and meditation centers throughout the Himalayas.
He traveled to Lhamo’s village in Ladakh, India, in 2005 to hold a series of empowerment workshops for women.
“He encouraged me to take charge of my life and pursue opportunities that are not usually afforded to women in this part of the world,” says Lhamo.
Lhamo says it was through the teachings of the Gyalwang Drukpa that she was able to gain confidence in herself and pursue her dream of helping others. It was also the moment that she decided to become a nun.
Her parents called the idea crazy. “They were so mad. They told me that I didn’t know anything about Buddhism and that I was too young to make such a choice and that I had to continue my studies to become an engineer or a doctor,” says Lhamo, who ended up running away from home at the age of 16. “My mother and father wouldn’t allow me to go so I got on a bus and traveled to Nepal. It was scary but I knew I needed to go.”
The Fearless Ones
Lhamo arrived at the Druk Amitabaha Mountain nunnery just outside of Kathmandu and started her new life with a new first name. All of the Drukpa nuns are known as Jigme, which means “fearless one.”
For centuries, women in the Himalayas who sought to practice spirituality equally with men have risked being ostracized. They are forbidden from leading prayers, singing or being fully ordained. Tasked with the chores of cooking and cleaning, nuns are told if they’re “well behaved” they can come back in their next lifetime as monks — and only then can they become enlightened.
Jigme Yeshe Lhamo ran away from home at age 16 to join the nunnery. Now 31, she says that says practicing the martial art of kung fu has given her confidence.
Uma Bista for NPR
About ten years ago, the Gyalwang Drukpa set out to change that. Inspired by his mother, who worked to break down gender stereotypes, he put the nuns in leadership roles. He encouraged the nuns to take part in religious rituals traditionally reserved for their male counterparts and gave them the highest level of teachings, called Mahamudra. Monks in his sect then had to ingratiate themselves to the nuns (or more accurately, formally request the teachings from the nuns). This shifted the power dynamic.
“Monks within the Drukpa lineage celebrate what the nuns do,” says Carrie Lee, former president of Live to Love International, a non-governmental organization that has partnered with the nunnery for nearly 20 years. “However, monks from other sects believe that if a woman touches something it’s considered tainted and they have to throw it away, so [the nuns’] work is still not widely accepted.”
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