In the sitting room at Kashmir Cottage, situated between the main town of Dharamsala and the area that is the seat of the exiled Tibetan government in India, I shared a pot of ginger tea with Rinchen Khando Choegyal, founder and director of the Tibetan Nuns Project and wife of the younger brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I enjoyed the resonant cadence of her voice as she described the history of the project and the work of women, lay and monastic, in keeping alive the teachings of the Buddha and the richness of Tibetan culture amid the hardships of exile.
Rinchen Khando was born in eastern Tibet; her parents, from a farming and business background, were, as she put it, “well-to-do, but very devout and simple people.” At the end of 1958, her family came to India for a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya and Varanasi. The plan was to leave the young Rinchen in India to attend a boarding school run by Catholic nuns. But before her parents returned home, the Chinese invaded Tibet. Since then, her family has lived in India. “Because we were already in India in 1959,” said Rinchen Khando, “we were saved.” They’d left behind almost everything they had.
In 1987, together with other activist women in the exile community, Rinchen Khando established the Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP). The project is committed to education, empowerment and improved status for ordained Tibetan women. It now supports over 700 Tibetan nuns living in North India.
According to Elizabeth Napper, Tibetan scholar and codirector of the TNP since 1991, “Opening up education to the women, particularly in conjunction with training in debate, has been transformative for the nuns. Not only have they been given access to the full intellectual richness of their Buddhist tradition but also, through debate, they have been trained to actively engage with it in a way that gives them confidence in their knowledge. Their body language changes from the traditional meekness of nuns to that of women who occupy space with confidence in their right to do so.”
In a trip to Dharamsala in January 2013, I visited two nunneries supported by the TNP. At Shugsep Nunnery, which follows the Nyingma tradition, many of the nuns are from the original Shugsep in Tibet, which was destroyed in 1959 and partially rebuilt in the 1980s by the nuns themselves. One of the senior nuns at the new Shugsep told me about her own escape from Tibet at age 20, after having spent two months in prison. Traveling on foot at night through the mountains, she and two other young nuns managed to survive along the route by exchanging prayer services for food and shelter.
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