How Buddhist Nuns Restored This War Correspondent’s Faith In Humanity

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In a remote Buddhist nunnery outside Kathmandu, Nepal, a group of young nuns wakes up at 3 a.m. every day to practise kung fu, a form of martial art use both for exert and spiritual growth.

The kung fu nuns at Druk Gawa Khilwa Buddhist nunnery are just one community among the dozens that journalist and writer Christine Toomey describes in her volume, In Search of Buddha’s Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads.

Published in the UK in 2015 and released in the U.S. in March by The Experiment Publishing, Toomey’s book depicts the lives of Buddhist nuns around the globe, from San Francisco to Dharamshala. Along the style, she dispels some of the delusions people have about these spiritual girls.

Like Buddhist monks, nuns entering monastic life shave their heads, don robes, and take vows to live simply and follow the precepts of the tradition, often after years of intensive examine and practise of meditation.

“One very common misperception is that women who choose to become Buddhist nuns are somehow running away from life, whereas I observed the opposite to be true, ” Toomey told The Huffington Post. “Most of those who choose this path make it their business to deal on a daily business with some of the most profound and intractable problems of human existence.”

The decision to dedicate one’s life to deep meditation and reflection isn’t an easy one, and Toomey said it “takes courage” to choose such a track. In addition to meditating, many of the nuns she witnessed and interviewed expend ample hour doing physical labor, teach, volunteering in prisons and hospice centers and more. In some parts of the world these women also encounter deeply ingrained sexism that constructs it difficult for them to attain full ordination.

“There has been resistance, for instance, to them accessing higher levels of Buddhist teaches and to them advancing from the stage of a novice to full ordination, ” Toomey said in an interview with The Experiment.

What, then, would draw a woman — or young girl, as it is sometimes — to become a Buddhist nun?

The book trailer for In Search of Buddha’s Daughters , above, demonstrates just how young some of the girls are when they embark on their path. Toomey interacted with trainees as young as 10 years old. Some are forwarded to nunneries by their families but many choice the route on their own accord — whether to escape from a difficult household situation or simply because they feel it is their calling to do so.

Toomey said she found that many of the women she spoke with shared a “deeply questioning nature” that resulted them to a monastic life. One of her interviewees, a former BBC journalist who joined Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen Buddhist community Plum Village in the south of France, told her: “It was a selection I made to understand life and understand myself, to mend, transform, learn and do it in such a way that I can share this with others.”

The healing tales of the nuns had an impact on Toomey, too, who built a career around reporting in conflict areas and has witnessed the impacts of war, terror, rape, and religion persecution around the globe.

“After so many years spent writing about conflict, I realized that much of it focussed on violence directed towards women and children, and a kind of sadness had settled in my bones, ” she told The Experiment.

That intensified for Toomey when both her mothers succumbed within a few months of one another just before she set off on her travelings to research for the book.

“Encountering such female wisdom restored my faith in the ability of the human spirit to flourish, despite sometimes appalling adversity, ” she told The Experiment.

One of the most staggering narratives from the book centers around Tenzin Palmo, a British Buddhist nun who expended 12 years living alone in a remote cave in the Himalayas. She went on to found a nunnery, with some 70 nuns in her care.

Read an excerpt of Tenzin Palmo’s story from In Search of Buddha’s Daughters below 😛 TAGEND

Courtesy of The Experiment

At the time of her ordination as a novice,[ Tenzin Palmo] was just twenty-one and only the second Western woman to be ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition( the first was another indomitable English-woman, Freda Bedi, founder of the Dalhousie school ). Following her ordination, Tenzin Palmo went to work as Khamtrul Rinpoche’s assistant and saw herself the only female living among 100 monks, all trained to keep their distance.

In addition to intense impressions of isolation and loneliness, she immediately hit a spiritual glass ceiling. Chauvinistic stances, which for so long in Tibet had reserved the heights of spiritual endeavor for monks and relegated nuns to subservient positions, continued to prevail in monastic communities in exile. The monks, though kind, said prayers that in her next life she would have the good fortune to be reborn a man. Despite her deep devotion to Khamtrul Rinpoche, after suffering years of such therapy, Tenzin Palmo became persuaded her spiritual path lay in a different direction.

With his bles, she undertook to become the first Western woman to follow in the footsteps of male yogis, or spiritual a doctor who, through the ages, have retreated to remote caves for long periods of seclusion. Traveling by foot over a high Himalayan pass, she tried solitude in a remote corner of Himachal Pradesh called Lahaul, close to India’s border with Tibet, an region renowned as a place conducive to meditation. Once there she eventually determined a small cave perched at nearly 4,000 meters–the height of some of the tallest peaks in the Alps–that would become her refuge for the next twelve years. The cave was little more than an indent in the mountains, a space she closed in with a simple brick wall, window, and door, dedicating her a living region of approximately three by two meters.

During the twelve years she spent alone in this cave, Tenzin Palmo survived snowstorms, avalanches, the attention of wolves, even a snow leopard, and temperatures plunging to -35 degC in the winter months that lasted from November to May. On a small stove she cooked simple snacks of rice, lentils, and vegetables–supplies brought up to her occasionally by local villagers. Her days began at 3 a.m. and were divided into three-hour periods of intense meditation. During one stretching of three years, she neither assured nor spoke to a single spirit. Tenzin Palmo was thirty-three years old when she entered her mountain retreat and forty-five when she was forced to emerge by a policeman who scrambled up to her eyrie to advise her that her visa had expired.

When I ask Tenzin Palmo about her period of solitude in the mountains, she deftly sidesteps the question. Talking about such an intimate spiritual experience is, she has argued, akin to a person discussing their sex life; some people like to talk about it, others don’t.

Much of the discipline and forms of love she practiced during those long years of solitude belong, in any case, to some of the more esoteric practices in Tibetan Buddhism known as Tantra, many of which remain largely secret to all but those who have advanced far enough along the road of practise to be able to truly see their meaning. Even the Dalai Lama acknowledges he hesitates to try to explain Tantric ritual and practise to those who do not have a deep understanding of Buddhism, as they are too often misconstrue. Some of this practice relies on complex visualizations during meditation to challenge fixed views of reality and the self. These visualizations are sometimes represented in intricate paintings.

I find myself wondering if Tenzin Palmo undertook such paint, though I can hardly imagine conditions in a damp mountain cave being conducive to the generate of spiritual art. “Have you any reminders from that time? ” I ask, unsure what to expect. At this, Tenzin Palmo disappears into a side room and returns with a framed image in her limbs. I am taken aback both by its delicate beauty and by its graphic detail. The paint illustrates a pubescent daughter, altogether naked, with full breasts and vagina bared. She is wearing a necklace of human skulls and in one hand holds a beaker overflowing with blood. Pressed under one foot is a small red figure, symbolizing the quashing of anger–and under the other a figure representing greed. I recognize it as a paint of Vajrayogini; often referred to as a female Buddha, she is an important meditational figure in Tibetan Buddhism. When I ask Tenzin Palmo again if she is able to talk a little about the spiritual practices she undertook in the cave, “Those centered perhaps on this paint? ” she declines again with a simple “no, ” polite but firm. The painting is returned to its instead unceremonious place on top of a fridge in an adjoining room.

Some have described those who become masters of esoteric Tantric meditation as “quantum physicists of inner reality, ” with a profound understanding of the nature of the intellect and of consciousness. Realise how little I would understand were I to ask a physicist to summarize the intricacies of quantum science, I let the matter rest.

Instead, I ask about a topic with which Tenzin Palmo clearly feels more at ease: how far nuns have come since the days when she first ordained. “In the last twenty years there has been quite a revolution, ” she begins. “Not only are nuns now living in well-run nunneries, they are also being taken seriously.” The leading role she herself has played in changing traditional attitudes of nuns is not to be underestimated. […]

By now, Tenzin Palmo is fully into her step and talks of how the seventy nuns in her care are not only trained to a high level but also encouraged to cultivate self-confidence. While they do not engage in kung fu like the nuns at Gawa Khilwa in Nepal, they instead practise yoga–fully dressed in monastic robes. One morning, shortly after dawn prayers, I join them and am touched by the sight of young novices furiously tucking yards of maroon cloth between their legs to preserve propriety as they roll themselves up into inverted postures. Subsequently the same day, I attend a team-building workshop designed to help the nuns develop leadership skills.

What strikes me is the women’s clear enjoyment of life here, despite their arduous schedule. One day I follow this program, beginning long before dawn with meditation and chanting sutras, followed by a full academic day, then more chanting late into the evening, and find my eyes quickly shutting as I sit cross-legged on a cushion at the back of the meditation hall. By contrast, the nuns seem alert and enthralled; when the power cuts out and the hall is plunged into darkness, a handful of nuns softly light storm lanterns as the majority continue chanting without missing a beat.

In my final hours at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, Tenzin Palmo takes me on a guided tour of the nunnery. As we set out I can see that she is tired and ask if she plans to go once more into retreat. She rolls her big blue eyes and lifts her hands upward in supplication. “Who knows? ” she says, with a shrug. I sense that the spiritual stardom and frequent teach tours have taken their toll on a woman whose nature is more suited to quiet reflection and journeying inward. But I also sense in her an understandable feeling of deep accomplishment at having made such a center of devotion for future generations. As we pass through the nunnery’s immaculate modern classrooms, library, sleeping quarters, dining hall, and temples, young nuns gently bow and smile greets. Tenzin Palmo is clearly much loved, and the high standards she expects of her charges seem to be met.

Before we part, Tenzin Palmo expresses her heartfelt conviction that living as a Buddhist nun is as relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago. One of the unfortunate characteristics of the growing interest in Buddhism in the West, she argues, is the decreasing focus on monasticism. “The whole emphasis of Buddhism in the West is on the lay community. As an expression of the results of this growing secularization, there is a lot of understanding of Buddhism on an intellectual level, but very little joy and devotion.

“I suppose the reason we get so much support for our nunnery is that people see how happy our nuns are, ” she continues. “They are so relieved to see that there are daughters in their teens and women in their twenties and thirties wholly immersed in analyse the dharma, leading disciplined lives based on abstinence, who are happy.

“This life is not for everyone, ” she concedes. “But knowing that there are groups of monastics who are happy being monastics gives people a sense of proportion, ” she concludes. “I think it’s very important to have a group of people who are living a life based on contentment with little, who live the instance that genuine exhilaration comes from within, from a sense of resulting a life well lived.”

Excerpt from In Search of Buddha’s Daughter: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads, copyright( c) Christine Toomey, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.

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