I thank you for being with me on this journey of Berkana so far. I am deeply grateful for your valuable readership. I hope so far I have been able to thrill you, inspire you, and help you reflect on the brokenness of our world, which is often joined together by a mosaic of brave and beautiful humans and their myriad cultures. In this bitter-sweet journey of discovering what is starkly different than our own, I hope you have found a reflection of your values in certain people from different cultures or at least have felt empathy towards them. Berkana is here to remind you that our uniqueness and diversity are necessary so that we can learn from each other and progress in harmony. It is to remind you that even if we are so different, we still share similar hopes and aspirations for freedom, acceptance, respect, joy, and love.
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Now without further delay let’s get started with today’s story
In the harsh terrains of the upper Himalayas lives a clan of fierce Dharma sisters. Their childlike faces plastered with bright smiles and gleaming eyes might make them look harmless, even docile. But be warned, these young girls are not to be meddled with. They are the only Himalayan pro practitioners of the deadly martial arts - kung fu. Never thought a submissive non-violent Buddhist nun to represent the femme fatale archetype? Well, think again. Here’s to breaking the stubborn walls of gender stereotypes. These women are subverting the centuries-old traditions that kept them small. They are altering the history of whichever ground they touch with their holy feet. Well, buddha never said the path of enlightenment is not for a spiritual badass.
They lovingly call themselves ‘kung fu nuns’; source: npr.org
Under the Wings of a Dragon
Nun holding a sword in a kung fu stance; source: NBC
It is barely 5 am, and you can already encounter nuns in the courtyard of the Amitabha Drukpa Nunnery flaunting their 18-inch swords. The Sun rises to pierce the cold and crisp air of the Katmandu valley. Its lush golden reflects off their glowing faces and fixed eyes that look like burning ice. The world has never seen before fierce compassion held in a powerful Kung fu stance. Their humble abode is also known as Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery, in other words, the house of the Dragon, which waits patiently to be discovered in the serene backdrop of the mighty Himalayas. The Drukpa Kagyu lineage is a thousand-year-old Buddhist sect led by the enlightened one Jigme Pema Wangchen (the 12th incarnation of Gyalwang Drukpa).
The Master is a persistent and rebellious man. He embodies the ancient Buddhist philosophies of compassion and service while breaking the old oppressive order of things. He is a pro-environmentalist and a gender rights activist. He is the source of true inspiration for these girls who travel from India, Nepal, and Tibet, to Drukpa nunnery in search of truth and purpose. His teachings encompass interconnection between all beings in the universe, and thus he teaches his nuns to act with compassion.
"He encouraged me to take charge of my life and pursue opportunities that are usually not provided to women in this part of the world," says Yeshe Lhamo, a bright young woman from Ladakh. She first encountered Jigme Pema Wangchen when he traveled through Ladakh to hold a series of women empowerment campaigns. Back then, Lhamo was traumatized and struggling with her self-image when her lifelong dream of joining the Indian Army shattered due to a permanent injury in her leg. She fell into a downward spiral of depression which was lifted when she heard Drukpa's speech for the first time. She ran from her home to become a nun at Drukpa Nunnery because her parents did not consent to her choice. She said she has no regrets as, through the teachings of her Master, she learned to regain her self-confidence and found a new and more fulfilling way of serving others.
Himalayan Women and Buddhism
To the world, it might seem inconceivable that the peace-loving and non-violent Buddhist sect can be patriarchal. But the misogyny lingers in the repressive corners of their psyche. At present, the women in the Himalayas are shadows of who they could be. They feel torn between stringent gender roles and their longing for liberation. They are condescended upon for their spiritual aspirations. In general, the rate of violence against women in India and nearby nations is considerably high. And the passive-aggressive ways of Buddhism do nothing to help that. Believe it or not, the Buddhist monks consider women as impure and of lower birth. The nuns were forbidden from heading prayers, chanting, or being fully ordained. They were assigned menial chores like cooking and cleaning. If that is not enraging enough, listen to this - Buddhist nuns are told that if they are dutiful and ‘well-behaved’ in this lifetime, then they can come back in another life as monks to obtain enlightenment. The baffling absurdity in it all is that they imply the low birth of a woman is because of her spiritual inferiority and unholy karma from previous birth. Tibetan vernacular even has a word for woman Kyeman, which means ‘one who is of lower birth’.
An Avalanche of Change
In 2010 things were about to change as Gyalwang Drukpa set about to bring a revolution. Inspired by his mother, who worked lifelong to fight gender stereotypes, Gyalwang Drukpa decided to instill his nuns with leadership qualities. He pushed them to participate in traditionally male reserved religious rituals like holding prayers, chanting and singing. He also imparted the highest form of teaching called Maha Mudra, which is not allowed to learn by nuns of other Buddhist sects. With this massive change, the power dynamics pivoted on its head. Now the nuns are in charge of ordaining the monks. What that means is, to receive formal training within the Drukpa lineage, the monks have to request it from the nuns. Hence, the women of Drukpa nunnery are revered by the monks and appreciated for their hard work and consistency.
Drukpa’s constant fight to break down patriarchal norms and empower the nuns within the Buddhist community sparked intense backlash from the more conservative Buddhist sect of the Himalayas. Vile threats of burning down the nunnery started to pour in daily. Many nuns got physically harassed. Instead of backing up, Drukpa double down to build the confidence of his nuns. The Drukpa Nunnery is a modern-day sanctuary for 800 women who often come from abusive and oppressive households. They receive a technically advanced education. The nuns are taught to inculcate a global mindset. They are encouraged to remain informed and to understand the world they live in. They learn many life skills such as plumbing, electrical fitting, typing, and driving. They learn to manage accounts and the other skills necessary to run the businesses on their own. But Drukpa knew something was missing in the blend of skills that his nuns were acquiring. He knew they needed something more, given the anger and hostility they daily encounter just because they are liberated women.
In 2010, when he visited a nunnery in Vietnam, he was impressed by the strength and ferocity of the nuns who were undergoing combat training. He came back to Amitabha, determined that combat training is an essential part of the life of Himalayan women. He soon officially authorized all the nuns of Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery to learn and master the ancient art of Kung fu.
Putting Compassion into Action
From the day a woman chooses the life of service as a nun of Drukpa lineage, she gets a new identity, and with it comes a new name. All the women add Jigme as their first name, meaning ‘the fearless one’. The name is symbolic of the life chosen by a Drukpa nun. It is a path that calls for constant courage, from driving a 4x4 truck 30km to and from Amitabha for grocery shopping to running campaigns all across India to teach self-defense to women. There is simply nothing easy about the life of these girls.
In 2015 when a devastating earthquake ruined several nearby villages in Nepal, they jumped headfirst to bring essentials to the villagers. The situation was so dangerous that even the local rescue teams refused to enter the desolate mountains. However, the nuns did not back down. They trekked to the nearby villages carrying food, water, medicines, and tents for the villagers. They worked days after days removing heavy rocks and boulders with bare hands to clear the roads. And they were doing all this while their own home (nunnery) was completely damaged. Even in the direst of times, the courage shown by these young women exemplifies the true meaning of religion. They proved that the only true religion is the one that embodies empathy and compassion.
The perseverance they displayed during Nepal’s earthquake crisis is the same that they instilled during the kung fu training. According to them, kung fu practice gives them the strength to leverage the odds in their favor in challenging life situations.
The trials of training
"It is better to be a warrior in a garden, than a gardener in a war" -Chinese proverb
The kung fu training in one word is ruthless because it does not replace their daily spiritual practice but is an addition to it. Every morning the nuns wake up at 3 am to meditate for two hours post which there is an hour-long communal prayer service held in the main temple. After their morning prayer, they go for an intense warm-up session in which they run up 200 steps to the top of the nunnery garden and then climb down army crawl style. They repeat this in multiple laps. Post this, they break into different groups and practice various forms of kung fu. They learn to wield weapons like Kiam (swords), Halberd, Lance, Nunchaku (chains attached to two metal bars), and many more traditional fatal kung fu props. They have separate training sessions for agility, flexibility, strength, focus, stamina, endurance, posture, and speed. The training sessions are tests of their patience and perseverance. Kung fu is a way of life and thus takes a long time to perfect. It is safe to say that Kung fu is a lifelong process of being on a path of self-discipline rather than a couple of tricks and techniques to flaunt. It takes the spirit of a warrior to learn the art of kung fu. But most of all, it takes a mind which is empty of all thoughts to master it. For the nuns of Drukpa, it is yet another form of focused meditation. It is a way for them to train and hyper-focus their energy into the practical sphere of physical fitness and self-defense.
The Game changers
The campaign to clean the Himalayas
The earthquake incident was not the only time the nuns took to the roads. In 2016, they hiked up the Himalayas to make it litter-free by literally picking up the waste littered by tourists. On another occasion, they cycled down from Katmandu to Delhi to spread awareness against human trafficking. Every year they also hold week-long self-defense sessions for young girls in Ladakh. They teach the local girls the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch. They also simulate different scenarios of being in the presence of a perpetrator and how to handle it using their knowledge of kung fu.
In 2020 when the pandemic took over the world, they pitched tents on the nunnery grounds to help local people effectively quarantine. They traveled door-to-door in the local villages to spread awareness about COVID-19 appropriate protocols while also distributing utilities like masks, soaps, hand sanitizers, and food. They tried to handle the desperation in those remote places where everyone was either losing livelihood or loved ones, in some cases both. Lhamo says she tried to give people hope by reminding them of the impermanence of it all. That this too shall pass. She says her practice is to face life's difficulties with grace, determination, love, kindness, and compassion. A beautiful combination which only our brave Drukpa nuns can embody.
Over a decade, the Drukpa nuns have created an immense impact in the local and global communities that they worked with. They have invariably touched many lives and inspired thousands of social workers who are now following in their footsteps. As a result of mastering gender equality across Asia and beyond, the all-female group received the 2019 "Game Changer Award" from the Asia Society, a worthy recognition for an exceptional hood of sisters. Here is the full speech by Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, who received the award in New York, on behalf of her institution. She briefly reflects on the integrity and truth of their practices that helped them sail so far in the wild ocean of humanitarian work.
"We still have a lot of work to do, but even if we help one person, it's worth it” says Lamho in a humbling moment of realization.
These right here are the best superhero stories that you will ever need to lift your spirit and help you find courage in your moments of darkness.
Due to some personal duty call, I will take a break from delivering fascinating stories to your inbox for a couple of weeks. I will be back with new inspiring and eye-opening stories from the obscure corners of the world by the first week of December. I have much in store for you, from bizarre stories from Victorian England to the Eden that reside within the Island of Vanuatu, (a much-awaited collaboration with my dear friend Nicola who writes Surrender Now). Meanwhile, go show her some love.
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