the flowering nuns

further adventures of tenzin palmo

In the fall of 1999, Tenzin Palmo graced the cover of ascent's issue on Inspiration. She was on the verge of purchasing land in northern India on which to build a Buddhist nunnery for Tibetan girls. An Englishwoman by birth, Tenzin Palmo has been a Buddhist for most of her life, and she is determined to defy the institutionalized belief that liberation can only be attained through the male form. She even spent twelve years alone in a cave high in the Himalayas, cultivating her contemplative practices.

Tenzin Palmo is a dynamic incarnation of the emerging and powerful feminine principle in Buddhism. Her work is both inspired and inspiring, and in this way she is another link in the chain of activism through the ages, the cause and effect of leading by example. She wrote us a letter recently to fill us in on the progress of her inspirational project.

"I lived for many years in one of these Himalayan regions and I saw for myself that essentially the nuns are just servants either to their family or to the monks. And it's a pity because these girls are very bright, very intelligent. As soon as they're given an opportunity to study and to practise, then it's like they're tight little buds which, if they're given enough sunshine and rain and fertilizer, just open up and blossom."

Tenzin Palmo
from "Tenzin Palmo is Watering the Nuns"

Dear ascent,

Within the Drukpa Kargyu tradition, there is a unique lineage of yogini nun practitioners or togdenma that was apparently wiped out at the time of the Communist takeover of Tibet. My lama, Khamtrul Rinpoche, at one time placed a long silk khata (ceremonial scarf) around my neck and said that he prayed that I would re-establish this precious but lost tradition of togdenma. So for me this is a sacred commitment and one that I certainly hope can be carried out by some of our nuns in the future.

From the beginning, I wanted to create a nunnery for girls from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions where they could receive philosophical education and training in meditation. It has been a long and sometimes discouraging task trying to raise both interest and funding for our nunnery project. However, when I began to try to get support, no one had spoken much about nuns from these areas and their needs, so people were willing to listen and make some donations.

We purchased seven acres of land with a sweeping view of the snowy mountains, ideally situated about six kilometres from Tashi Jong. We have engaged a small team of talented young architects from Delhi who use local materials such as stone, mud brick and slate, but with a steel framework to make the constructions more durable and spacious. Apart from the nuns' residence and staff quarters, which should be completed by the end of 2003, we will build a study centre (classrooms and library), a temple and a guesthouse, as funds allow.

In 1998, we received our first group of seven teenage girls from Ladakh and a few nuns from Muktinath in Nepal. Nowadays, we have twenty-four nuns from Tibet and various border areas. They are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-six years.

When this first phase of our building project is completed, we will accept the next group of perhaps twenty to thirty nuns. We already receive so many applications from girls who have heard this is a nunnery that provides the opportunity for both study and practice formerly beyond their reach. In the border regions, most nuns were merely servants to their families or the monasteries and received neither education nor the instruction to practice.

The nuns study Buddhist philosophy and debating, rituals such as chanting, playing ceremonial instruments, making torma and so on. They also study Tibetan grammar and English. Some are learning traditional tangka painting and others practise tailoring and sewing. One has taken a computer course and another is learning to drive our Jeep! We want them to learn how to be self-sufficient, since this is their nunnery and eventually they will be running it themselves.

Now we have also received a learned nun who has been trained at a nunnery in South India. She will assist the Khenpo and also help the nuns learn how to debate, which in the Tibetan system is a very spirited affair! We want the nuns to have role models of learned women from their own culture to help them understand that not only males are authority figures.

For two months every year, the nuns enter into strict retreat and practise together in their shrine room, which is presently the loft of their mud brick house. During this time, they maintain complete silence even though they are living eight nuns to a room. Imagine twenty-four young girls keeping silence for eight weeks! The atmosphere is so vibrant and powerful.

Recently, we all had the great blessing of meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who reassured the nuns that with study and practice there is nothing that they could not accomplish and that the female body is no impediment to enlightenment. This was an important statement for the nuns to hear from such a being of authority since they are brought up in a culture that usually views a female incarnation as a misfortune, the result of some bad karma. They usually hear, "Be good girls, pray hard and next time around you may come back in a male body and then you can really get to work on the spiritual path!"

It is wonderful to watch our nuns slowly revealing their potential like tight flower buds unfurling their petals. Actually, the transformation over these few years has been amazing and encourages all who work with them. Their devotion, dedication and obvious happiness and delight in the dharma is an inspiration for all who meet them. We therefore look forward to these strong roots growing into a towering bodhi tree that will nurture and shelter many beings in coming generations.


Tenzin Palmo

Tenzin Palmo's newest book, Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism, Snow Lion 2002, is reviewed in this issue of ascent.

For more information on the Venerable Tenzin Palmo and her project, the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery and International Retreat Centre for Women:

If you would like to contribute to the building and establishment of Tenzin Palmo's project, the Dongyu Gatsal Nunnery, please send a donation to:
Dongyu Gatsal Ling
c/o Eliz Dowling
3 Nassim Road
#04-02, Nassim Jade
Singapore 258371

Make cheques payable to "Tenzin Palmo"

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