The Bhutan Nuns Foundation (BNF), which works to educate and empower Buddhist nuns in the remote Himalayan kingdom, has announced the long-awaited formal opening and commencement of the BNF’s Training & Resource Center (TRC) on the outskirts of the Bhutanese capital Thimphu. Coinciding with the birthday of Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangdoen Wangchuck and National Nuns’ Day in Bhutan, the opening of the TRC on 21 June marks the culmination of years of dedicated work by the nuns and supporters of the BNF, and stands as a monument to positive social change and female empowerment through socially engaged Buddhism.
“The long-held dream of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation has finally come to fruition,” Buddhist activist and BNF executive director Dr. Tashi Zangmo shared. “We are very happy to thank all of our supporters and well-wishers around the world for their continued support in making this dream come true. We have opened the doors of our Training and Resource Centre to 10 graduate nuns from Sanchhen Dorji Lhendrup Nunnery in Punakha, and two other nuns who have graduated from Taktse College of Language and Culture Studies in Tongsa. They will be the first batch of nuns to reside at the TRC and receive training of trainers (TOT) at this newly completed center.”
Operating under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangdoen Wangchuck, the BNF is a non-profit organization striving to improve the day-to-day livelihoods of Buddhist nuns in the Kingdom of Bhutan and to enhanced their access to basic and higher education. The BNF aims to empower and educate Bhutanese girls and women to improve their living conditions as well as the economic vitality of rural villages, in turn helping to preserve the kingdom’s rich Buddhist culture in the face of rapid development.
“If it were not for COVID-19, we would have inaugurated the center with the participation of our supporters and representatives of Buddhist nuns from around the world,” said Dr. Zangmo. “However, we hope that we will still have this opportunity once the world overcomes the pandemic.”
The BNF’s Training & Resource Centre will provide a host of programs teaching life skills and social engagement education to female monastics and lay women who are following the Buddhist path. Courses will include counseling training, hospice and basic healthcare, palliative care, leadership and management, and teaching methodology for Buddhist nuns who will go on to teach. In addition, the center will also provide short retreats for lay women conducted by the resident nuns, along with regular short meditation courses, Nungey instruction (a Bhutanese fasting practice used as a means of physical and spiritual purification), as well as classes in qi gong, tai chi, and yoga for the nuns.
“The nuns residing here and preparing to receive the training feel very fortunate and are looking forward to gaining the knowledge it provides and to disseminate it to the larger society. One or two qualified nuns from various nunneries will participate on ongoing basis,” Dr. Zangmo explained. “A training framework manual titled Nuns’ Empowerment Through Capacity and Skills Development, was also launched. Composed of 38 modules, the training manual is expected to build the leadership capacity of the nuns. The foundation will train them in counseling, self-sufficiency, leadership and management, and help them to provide spiritual guidance to women and others interested in embarking on a spiritual journey.”
Dr. Zangmo, who was born and raised in one of the most remote and rural areas of Bhutan, pursued higher education in India and the US, eventually graduating with a PhD from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. In 2009, she established the Bhutan Nuns Foundation (BNF), which she now runs. The foundation works directly with about 28 Buddhist nunneries, educating and training nuns to be community leaders and teachers.
“We would like to thank everyone out there who has been part of this project directly or indirectly. Without everyone’s generous support, this would not have been possible,” Dr. Zangmo shared. “While some of the TRC’s structures are still a work in progress, the majority of the much-needed buildings are ready for use, thus we decided to go ahead and begin the training program.”
Sandwiched between economic heavy-hitters China and India on the edge of the mighty Himalayan mountain range, the tiny Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan is perhaps best known for prioritizing “Gross National Happiness” over the shortsighted acquisitiveness of unrestrained economic growth, and for its sustainable approach to environmental stewardship. The kingdom is also unique in being the world’s only remaining Vajrayana Buddhism nation. The spiritual tradition is embedded in the very consciousness and culture of this remote land, where it has flourished with an unbroken history that dates back to its introduction from Tibet in the eighth century by the Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche.
Most Bhutanese—about 75 per cent of a population of some 770,000 people—are Buddhists. The majority of the remaining 25 per cent, mainly people of the Lhotshampa ethnic group of Nepalese descent, practice Hinduism. Most of Bhutan’s Buddhists follow either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma schools of Vajrayana Buddhism.
While the nation’s holistic approach to development has resulted in a healthy level of growth and low inflation over the last 20 years, life in Bhutan is not without very real challenges, even for those who find their calling in monasticism. Female lay practitioners in particular face major obstacles in accessing opportunities for spiritual and practical education, and nearly all of Bhutan’s rural nunneries have poor living conditions and lack conducive learning environments.
The BNF has been working diligently and without fanfare to correct this imbalance, ensuring that each nunnery maintains adequate, healthy living conditions, and providing practical, hands-on training for the female monastic population. The foundation aims to enable female monastics to create self-sufficient monastic communities that not only provide a healthy environment for Buddhist study, but also actively engage with and contribute to lay society.
“I would also like to emphasize that without Her Majesty the Queen Mother, the foundation’s patron and constant inspiration, none of this would have been possible,” Dr. Zangmo concluded. “Therefore, the nuns of Bhutan and the BNF staff offer their thanks to Her Majesty for her unconditional, motherly, compassionate guidance, and for being there for every step we took toward accomplishing this dream. May the Buddha and bodhisattvas be always with us.”
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