Kung Fu nuns smash convention

Kung Fu nuns smash convention

In Himalayan Buddhism, the religious roles of nuns have long been restricted by rules and customs. But one sect is changing that, mixing meditation with martial arts and environmental activism

Nuns warm up before an early morning kung fu session. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times
Nuns warm up before an early morning kung fu session. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

As the first rays of sun pierced through the clouds covering snowcapped Himalayan peaks, Jigme Rabsal Lhamo, a Buddhist nun, drew a sword from behind her back and thrust it towards her opponent, toppling her to the ground.

"Eyes on the target! Concentrate!" Ms Lhamo yelled at the knocked-down nun, looking straight into her eyes outside a whitewashed temple in the Druk Amitabha nunnery on a hill overlooking Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.

Ms Lhamo and the other members of her religious order are known as the Kung Fu nuns, part of an 800-year-old Buddhist sect called Drukpa, the Tibetan word for dragon. Across the Himalayan region, and the wider world, its followers now mix meditation with martial arts.

A nun walks around a stupa. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

Every day, the nuns swap their maroon robes for an umber brown uniform to practise Kung Fu, the ancient Chinese martial art. It's part of their spiritual mission to achieve gender equality and physical fitness; their Buddhist beliefs also call on them to lead an environmentally friendly life.

Mornings inside the nunnery are filled with the thuds of heavy footsteps and the clanking of swords as the nuns train under Ms Lhamo's tutelage. Amid a soft rustle of their loose uniforms, they cartwheel, punch and kick one another.

"Kung Fu helps us to break gender barriers and develop inner confidence," said Ms Lhamo, 34, who arrived at the nunnery a dozen years ago from Ladakh, in northern India. "It also helps to take care of others during crises."

For as long as scholars of Buddhism remember, women in the Himalayas who sought to practise as spiritual equals with male monks were stigmatised, both by religious leaders and broader social customs.

Nuns demonstrate kung fu. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

Barred from engaging in the intense philosophic debates encouraged among monks, women were confined to chores like cooking and cleaning inside monasteries and temples. They were forbidden from activities involving physical exertion or from leading prayers or even from singing.

In recent decades, those restrictions have become the heart of a raging battle waged by thousands of nuns across many sects of Himalayan Buddhism.

left to right Nuns warm up before practising Kung Fu with swords early in the morning. photos:  SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/nyt

Leading the charge for change are the Kung Fu nuns, whose Drukpa sect began a reformist movement 30 years ago under the leadership of Jigme Pema Wangchen, who is also known as the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa. He was willing to disrupt centuries of tradition and wanted nuns who would carry the sect's religious message outside monastery walls.

"We are changing rules of the game," said Konchok Lhamo, 29, a Kung Fu nun. "It is not enough to meditate on a cushion inside a monastery."

Today, Drukpa nuns not only practise Kung Fu but also lead prayers and walk for months on pilgrimages to pick up plastic litter and make people aware of climate change.

Every year for the past 20, except for a hiatus during the pandemic, the nuns have cycled about 2,00 kilometres from Kathmandu to Ladakh, high in the Himalayas, to promote green transportation.

Along the way, they stop to educate people in rural parts of both Nepal and India about gender equality and the importance of girls.

Nuns practise Kung Fu early in the morning at Druk Amitabha nunnery, on a hill overlooking Kathmandu. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

The sect's nuns were first introduced to martial arts in 2008 by followers from Vietnam, who had come to the nunnery to learn scriptures and how to play the instruments used during prayers.

Since then, about 800 nuns have been trained in martial arts basics, with around 90 going through intense lessons to become trainers.

The 12th Gyalwang Drukpa has also been training the nuns to become chant masters, a position once reserved only for men. He has also given them the highest level of teaching, called Mahamudra, a Sanskrit word for "great seal", an advanced system of meditation.

Nuns offer prayers for the sick or deceased. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

The nuns have become well known both in Hindu-majority Nepal, which is about 9% Buddhist, and beyond the country's borders.

But the changes for the sect have not come without intense backlash, and conservative Buddhists have threatened to burn Drukpa temples.

During their trips down the steep slopes from the nunnery to the local market, the nuns have been verbally abused by monks from other sects. But that doesn't deter them, they say. When they travel, heads shaved, on trips in their open vans, they can look like soldiers ready to be deployed on the front line and capable of confronting any bias.

Nuns participate in Nolsang, prayers offered for the sick or deceased. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

The sect's vast campus is home to 350 nuns, who live with ducks, turkeys, swans, goats, 20 dogs, a horse and a cow, all rescued either from the knife of butchers or from the streets. The women work as painters, artists, plumbers, gardeners, electricians and masons, and also manage a library and medical clinic for laypeople.

"When people come to the monastery and see us working, they start thinking being a nun is not being 'useless,'" said Zekit Lhamo, 28, referring to an insult sometimes hurled at the nuns. "We are not only taking care of our religion but the society, too."

Scriptures are read during morning prayers. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

Their work has inspired other women in Nepal's capital. "When I look at them, I want to become a nun," said Ajali Shahi, a graduate student at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. "They look so cool, and you want to leave everything behind."

Every day, the nunnery receives at least a dozen inquiries about joining the order from places as far as Mexico, Ireland, Germany and the United States.

"But everyone can't do this," said Jigme Yangchen Ghamo, a nun. "It looks attractive from outside, but inside it is a hard life."

Some nuns scroll through prayer texts on iPads, introduced to minimise the use of paper. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

A woman dances around pigeons in Kathmandu, Nepal, where the Drukpa nuns are known for their kung fu expertise. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

Nuns practise kung fu early in the morning. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

Nuns wash their utensils. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

A nun paints a Torma, a figure made of flour and butter that is made as an offering in Buddhist rituals. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

Nuns leave the temple after morning prayers at Druk Amitabha Nunnery. SAUMYA KHANDELWAL/The New York Times

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