Sakyadhita Spain held an international conference on 12 December 2020 to discuss the interconnected topics of female Buddhist practitioners and the climate crisis. As we look back on 2021 and the environment- and gender-related crises covered in the news, we can see that gender and environmental injustice are inseparable.
In this article, I highlight a group of female Buddhist practitioners who are an inspiration to us all. Famously nicknamed the “kung-fu nuns,” the Drukpa nuns are named for their affiliation to the thousand-year-old lineage founded by the first Gyalwang Drukpa (1161–1211), which has been sustained and supported wholeheartedly by the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa. Most of the nuns live in Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery in Nepal, with others residing in India and Ladakh. At Sakyadhita Spain’s conference, they spoke a little about the part they play in breaking the traditional dogma of gender roles and how their activities positively impact their environment and communities.
Two eloquent and internationally minded teachers from India, Jigme Khenmo Tingdzin Zangmo and Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, spoke on behalf of the nuns. Although they were asked if they would introduce themselves and explain their main environmental activities, it quickly became evident that their message of gender equality was equally important.
Along with their Buddhist practice, social activism and humanitarianism form a big part of their work. They noted that gender roles remain stubbornly entrenched in society, with significant gender prejudice, animosity, and criticism, especially in the Himalayan region. Women—in the family and in the monastery—are expected to babysit, clean, cook, and help out to the point of becoming slaves to male expectations. These nuns emphasized their tireless campaign for “gender equality, practicing environmental sustainability, raising awareness of human trafficking, rescuing the stray dogs and wounded animals through the region, and supporting relief work like the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.” Everything, they said, “is done with the greatest efforts to respect and honor Mother Earth.”
Every year, a team of nuns cycle across thousands of kilometers to some of the remotest parts of the region. Everything they need is taken along with them as they stop to collect litter along their way, clearing up the environment, and recycling or reusing when they can. They undertake this arduous journey to reach out and help educate people in isolated villages about local environmental issues.
In 2017, a group of nuns covered 4,500 kilometers from Kathmandu to Ladakh in northern India, meeting people along the way and educating them on how to keep the rivers and land free from choking under the influx of modern materials. Everyone can work together and that is how we make a difference: the nuns went on to say that they have introduced weekly cleaning campaigns in Ladakh and Kathmandu, which have attracted thousands of volunteers. They advocate the principle of the three “Rs”: Reduce. Recycle. Re-use.
In deepening the practice of what they preach, the nuns work with a UK-based recycling NGO to rebuild houses for those who lost their homes during the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. They continue to explore practical and useful recycling methods for local communities.
“Do you consider that these kinds of activities can encourage other monastic communities like yours to do the same thing?” the nuns were asked.
The nuns replied that regardless of religious reasoning, they felt that they were encouraging every community they are in touch with to become active and help combat the biggest crisis we are facing as a global family: the climate crisis: “As we have been working in this field for 20–25 years, we have seen people change. Now, whenever we go cycling in town, we see more people cycling, which is a good sign for the environment, but also good for our health. We see people organizing more cleaning campaigns, and they are planting more and more trees. We hope we can all inspire each other to be more compassionate and be more empathetic in this world.”
The nuns were listed in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010 after participating in a remarkable drive in Ladakh to plant 50,000 trees in 33 minutes. They engage in high-profile activities like this to draw attention to and combat the climate crisis.
Jigme Khenmo Tingdzin Zangmo and Jigme Yeshe Lhamo were asked: “How is Mother Earth present in Buddhism?” They reminded us that, quite simply: “She is our Mother. We wouldn’t exist, regardless of how smart we think we are now; we wouldn’t even be a thought, if the Earth wasn’t able to give us form and survival. We are utterly dependent upon her. And that it is from her and with her, that we have the glorious possibilities of beautiful living.”
“From the spiritual perspective, [Mother Nature] represents the emptiness, and from the emptiness everything exists. The two wings of enlightenment, compassion, and emptiness, these two are the main practices in Buddhism. Without Mother Nature, nothing can survive.”
Then there was another question: “Do you consider that being a woman influences your decisions in favor of the environment?”
The reply from the nuns was: “I think that being a woman has disadvantages and advantages. In the Himalayan region, women are not treated equally. They are not given the same rights or the same opportunities as men.”
But they also made the case that it is this suppression that makes women more compassionate and adds to their drive to improve in areas such as education for girls, as well as a general appreciation for the opportunities that they are given. The nuns are eager to celebrate the successes of women who are setting good examples and often emulate them, therefore spreading the proactive work of women who have had to work that much harder to prove themselves in an otherwise patriarchal society.
“The women are already strong, as head of a household, they have often raised a family, taking care of all around them,” the nuns explained. “Women are naturally very good at everything. They are naturally nature lovers, they are naturally environmental lovers, and they are really good at everything, not only only taking care of children. You know, they are very good at taking care of older people, they’re very good at taking care of the sick. . . .
“So I believe that girls and women have a special gift from nature. As a girl, or as a woman, we should never think that we cannot do or that we are a kind of second-class person; that we should step back or stay behind. We should never think that . . . we should be full of encouragement and we should be full of confidence. We should think that we have every possibility, all the capacity to do and contribute all our beautiful nature to this world.”
Everything—and they do mean everything—at Druk Amitabha Monastery is done by the nuns: “We are very proud to be women,” they proclaimed unapologetically. This is also the advice they want every girl and woman to fully embrace within themselves.
“One of the main distinctive characteristics of your training is martial arts. Why did you start this activity and how do you balance the practice of this martial art and your meditative approach?” came a question.
“We are a yogic lineage. Our Drukpa lineage is well known for yoga coming from the Vajradhara, from Naropa, the Great Indian saint of Mahasiddha. Until now, all our gurus were yogis. So, we are practicing based on the yogic exercises and yoga—external yoga. Inner yoga we have always been practicing. That is one of our main practices. But the external yoga is very much emphasized in our lineage. Yoga is one of the streams in our lineage, that’s why kung-fu is attractive to us. We requested His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa [their root guru] to give us permission to practice Kung-fu, which he was happy to do.”
This is something that these women felt very proud to be able to do. They explained that the physical discipline of a martial art added to their mental practices by strengthening the physical body and their inner attitudes, meditation, and method in practicing Mahamudra. At this point, they wished much gratitude to their Vietnamese kung-fu master and sangha, who have tirelessly taught and supported them over the years.
Possibly the most poignant of the two reasons that the nuns feel martial arts training is a valuable asset to the skill set of women is that: “Generally, women and girls are looked down on and treated as secondary people. Especially in the Himalayan region.” They pointed out that reports of abuse against girls and women continue to be a daily occurrence. Rape and cruelty against young girls are commonplace. Learning martial arts is as simple as being able to defend oneself from the very real potential of being assaulted. The nuns have a strong desire to train as many girls as possible to help save them from the terrible suffering that many have already experienced; to give the girls the courage and strength to stand strong.
Global statistics of domestic and sexual abuse against women are frightening. Teaching young men and women to be decent and respectful human beings is surely one of the most fundamental practices of every parent. Women, too, can be terribly abusive, of course. However, most violent and sexual crimes against men and women are committed by men. Something clearly needs to improve in the social education of many men. In the meantime, teaching women, especially young girls who are all too often victims of sexual crimes—as well as other forms of physical, mental, and emotional abuse—how to protect themselves is clearly an imperative.
With that said, these women are fearless! By the very definition and usage of the title “Jigme,” they remind us that fear, in spiritual terms, is often based on selfish reasoning. The fear of “what will happen to me if this or that happens?” is a fear that can be considered relative but ultimately it is based on false grounds. The deeper nature of reality means that there is nothing to be fearful of at all. And with this perspective, one realizes that fear is groundless. In this way, we are all called to be fearless.
We are invited to embrace and embody our own “Jigme” epithet. It is nothing less than a calling.
In the face of the environmental crisis, the message of the nuns is concise and clear. Gender is irrelevant. No matter how small an effect you may feel you have, we all have to do something. Reduce. Recycle. Reuse.
Their overriding message consists of more than words. They are showing us, by their example, how to change the world.
Leh plants record 50k saplings in 33 min (The Times of India)