India: May the ‘Project’ be With You

Dharamsala (Women’s Feature Service) – It has been 12 years since Phuntsok Lamdon Toelung, 30, made the Dolma Ling Monastery, near Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh (HP), her home. As a Tibetan nun, who was behind bars from 1989 to 1992 in the Gutsa and Toelung prisons in Lhasa City, Tibet, Phuntsok has some very painful memories. She was thrown into jail because she had been part of a public protest in Lhasa against the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

“At Toelung prison, we had to write a weekly report. Once, a nun was put into the punishment cell just because her writings were defiant. We demonstrated within the prison against this treatment. But when she came out of the cell, I was thrown in there for nine days,” Phuntsok recalls. Before she was let out, Phuntsok was warned that if she ever told the others of the torture she had undergone in the secluded cell, her prison term would be increased.

After her release, she went back to the Mechungri nunnery from where she had studied to become a nun. Unfortunately, Mechungri had a policy of not accepting ex-prisoners and Phuntsok had to live there in hiding since the police used to occasionally raid the nunnery. One day, she finally decided to leave for India.

In Dharamsala, the capital of the Tibetan Government in Exile, Phuntsok managed to get audience with H.H. the Dalai Lama. It was “a dream come true” for her. She took refuge in the Dolma Ling Monastery. Managed by the Tibetan Nun’s Project (TNP), which is under the patronage of Tibetan Women’s League and supported by the Dalai Lama, Dolma Ling is home to the scores of refugee nuns who come to India. “Here, we study the Tibetan language, English, Buddhist philosophy, general science and social studies. My wish is to study hard and serve my country in every way I can,” she says.

When the Project began in 1987, its main purpose was to support the educational and health care needs of the Tibetan nuns in India. Today, besides providing for around 650 nuns living in six nunneries, it plans to build the Sakya Nuns College, a housing facility; and the Sherab Choeling Institute, a religious educational institute for the women of Spiti.

The TNP has worked towards improving the standards of food, sanitation, medical care, basic education and training in the nunneries in and around Dharamsala. In addition, it has introduced a sponsorship programme for nuns from all religious orders of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and even for those living on their own or in retreat.

Most of the nuns, who come to India after trudging miles in the snow and slush, are illiterate, as they come from nomadic or pastoral communities. Also, traditionally, Tibetan nuns, or ‘ani’ as they are known, are not encouraged to study philosophy like the monks – their main focus is on prayer.

However, at Dolma Ling, a non-sectarian monastery, English, Tibetan and computer-training are a part of the curriculum for Buddhist nuns. They enroll for a 13-year study programme in the religious tradition after which they are eligible for a Geshe degree, the equivalent of a Ph.D. Along with this they study the necessary traditional ritual arts and crafts.

According to Dolma Tsering, Project Coordinator, TNP India, it takes about seven years for the nuns to finish the Pharchin (Perfection of Wisdom) course, the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts degree. Thereafter, while some go in for a three-year rigorous study of Madhyamika, to enrich their understanding of Buddhist philosophy, others opt for a Rignay course – Tibetan language and literature. On completing the Rignay, the nuns can undergo the teachers’ training programme and become Tibetan language teachers in their own nunnery or in other Tibetan schools. Dolma Ling has 14 teachers – six teach Buddhist philosophy, four teach Tibetan language, three teach English and one teaches rituals.

As a test of skills, a special month-long inter-nunnery debate session is organised. “Buddhist philosophy, the main focus of study here, is further strengthened by a debate session called ‘Jang Gonchoe’. In this style of debate the nuns and monks stamp their feet and clap their hands to make a point. It is usually held in an open courtyard,” reveals Tsering.

Of course, the nuns are really happy that they have an opportunity to study. “The TNP helped me with my studies. Qualified teachers are always there to assist us. We are also able to learn the use of computers every day. I am very grateful to TNP for providing us with such a study programme,” says Tenzin Choeden, 28, who has studied Buddhist philosophy for 11 years, as well as the Tibetan language. She had arrived in Dharamsala in 1990.

Besides education, the other major concern of TNP is health. “The facilities are limited. The six nunneries we support – Dolma Ling, Shugsep, Geden Choeling, Tilokpur, Sakya and Sherab Choeling – only have a small clinic each. Since 1996, we have made provisions for the nuns to be trained as health care providers. But they are trained to treat only minor illnesses. All major cases are referred to the Tibetan Delek Hospital, run by the Tibetan Government in Exile, and other local hospitals. Sometimes they are referred to hospitals in other states in India as well,” Tsering explains.

Incidentally, the TNP also lends support to nuns who are not associated with any monastery. Currently, there are about 138 such nuns under their care. They usually approach the project through the Mcleodganj office. Most of them are too old to study and stay in retreat. So, the TNP helps them by providing a monthly stipend, medical assistance and a yearly shoe allowance.

While the good work of TNP is funded through donations and individual sponsors, at least the Dolma Ling Nunnery hopes to become self sufficient in the long run.

In an effort to do so, the nuns make products such as dolls, door hangings and cloth bags that are sold through an online store – “Dolma Ling nuns make cards and envelopes by recycling waste paper. We also have a tailoring section where they make items such as robes for nuns, door curtains with Tibetan symbols on them, small bead bags, cellphone cases, monk’s shopping bags and apron bags. These products are on display at a small shop in the nunnery. Some of it is also exported,” says Tsering.