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Lessons in being human from the kung fu nuns

The famed Buddhist nuns of the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery in Kathmandu open up about what led them to the spiritual path

A kung fu nun strikes a pose.
A kung fu nun strikes a pose.

I had done my research, watched videos of them in action, yet when I first met a group of Buddhist nuns of the Drukpa lineage in Delhi a month ago, nothing had prepared me for how young they all were. In fact, it is because I had read so much about their achievements as humanitarian workers, long-distance cycling activists and kung fu practitioners that I was taken so much by surprise when I first met the nuns in person.

A representative group from the 800 Kung fu nuns of the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery in Nepal travelled from Kathmandu to Delhi recently on their way to New York, where they were awarded the prestigious Asia Game Changers Award on 24 October for inspiring and applying their unique talent to make the world a better place.

“We train with swords, machetes, numchucks, and more," reads a caption under the photograph of a kung fu nun, or KFN, as they are called on the website. In the photograph, the nun is poised in mid-action, an unsheathed sword in her hand. Originally from India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, the nuns have challenged conventional notions of a Buddhist nun’s life by stepping out of the nunnery and working with communities to promote cleanliness, gender equality, sustainable development and animal welfare. They began learning kung fu to build inner and outer strength in 2008 and their group performances draw thousands of spectators, inspiring a new generation of women to reimagine their own capabilities.

I was meeting the nuns in my capacity as a media trainer, and to start off the day, I asked each of them to share something about themselves that no one else in the room was aware of. It is a seemingly simple exercise, but in a safe space the revelations can often be startling. We found out that Ghamo, the youngest nun in the room, had turned 20 that very day.

“My name means fearless," Ghamo shared, “and today is my birthday." In my trainer’s notebook, I have written “child-nun" next to her name, to remind myself that she is the baby-faced one in the room.

“I seem like I am very talkative, but I crave for solitude. I like to be by myself in museums for hours," said Kunchuk.

“Despite years of training and meditation, I still don’t like myself from inside," confessed another nun.

Rupa, who is also in her 20s, shared that she had been one of the first to enlist for kung fu training. “I was always very naughty and I was sure this would be fun. On the first day, everything seemed exciting, throwing kicks and turning our body at all angles. It was on the second morning that we all realized we had signed up for something really serious. Our entire body was frozen with pain and we still had to stick to our commitment."

During a one-on-one interview with Dipam, I was moved by the candidness with which she shared how much of a loner and misfit she used to feel. “I didn’t feel like talking to people, I felt disinterested in school and socializing, but after I began kung fu and cycling, I felt like I had let go of some weight I had been carrying. Now I have the confidence to take on new challenges," she explained.

“I also have a daughter who sounds just like you," I said, and we both had to pause temporarily to honour that moment of sudden bonding.

Conducting the workshop felt like a day of emotional detox for me. I had dressed carefully in a plain kurta myself, wanting to blend in with the aesthetics of those who have renounced the idea of dressing for vanity.

The kung fu nuns are best known for the gruelling campaigns they embark on, via cycle yatras and long-distance mountain walks, stopping in a new place each night and raising awareness about contemporary challenges like climate change and empowerment of women. They also impart self-defence training to women in the Himalaya in Nepal and India.

“We are the example of what we want to inspire others to do. The impact is magical. People think if these women who are nuns can be so strong and influential, then so can every other woman growing up in communities like ours," shared Kunchuk.

In 2015, when a devastating 7.9 earthquake struck Nepal, the KFN decided to go to remote areas that big NGOs were not able to access and provide relief. Before the helicopters could arrive, they trekked to villages that had been cut off.

The KFN said there has been a significant backlash against their choices. Many people leave angry comments on their social media pages asking why they spend time outside the nunnery leading adventurous lives.

“My name is Migyur. It means unchangeable," said Migyur. “Social work is also a dharma—we choose it for the sake of our motherland. Cutting ourselves away from society and meditating is not enough. We need to channelize our energy towards social change. In the field, people come forward and ask to join us. That is very heartening."

Yeshe shared that when she was growing up in Himachal Pradesh, she had wanted to become an army officer. “But I had an accident and had to have reconstructive surgery on my knee. I was deeply disappointed that my dream was lost."

The same uncle who used to talk to her about joining the army motivated her out of her depression. “You wanted to serve your country, now you have to find a way to serve the whole world," he said. At 16, she heard a sermon on how being a nun was about learning to serve the world and all sentient beings. She found her calling.

Over the course of the day, the KFN shared that they do all kinds of work at the nunnery. “We are trained to be electricians, plumbers, painters—there are nuns who are called electric nuns and plumber nuns. We are trained to do dharma dances that were earlier only performed by monks. We lead the chanting. If we don’t change ourselves, we cannot expect others to change."

Before finishing, I returned to Ghamo for her story. Ghamo had left home to join the nunnery when she was 10.

“Suddenly I was responsible for my self-care and studies. Everyone was older than me and from far-flung villages in different Himalayan areas. In the first year, my parents would come every month and wash my clothes for me."

As I listened to her, the parent within me was bracing myself. “Did you cry a lot at that age?" I asked her.

“I was in class V," she recalled. “My family belongs to the Drukpa lineage and we had attended the annual Drukpa concert where I had seen hundreds of nuns work together and organize everything themselves. All the gurus and great masters spoke and I was very inspired.

“I didn’t cry in the beginning because I had to convince everyone that however hard it was, I was determined. Now my parents are very proud that I am a nun of the Drukpa lineage, although they miss me very much."

The nuns go home to their families for 15 days every four years. When she returned home as a teenager, Ghamo could not recognize anyone apart from her own parents, siblings and grandparents. People from the village would come to meet her and she would whisper and ask her mother who they were.

“My mother would try to shush me. Don’t ask in front of them, they are all your own cousins and relatives." Ghamo enjoyed recalling the moment. “I have become very different from my family. I know less about them and more about the Drukpa lineage now."

“Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?" I asked, as Ghamo’s friends surprised her with a chocolate cake at the end of the day.

“I want to become the perfect nun," she said. “And I want to change people’s perception of what nuns do. We are not suggesting that prayers are not helpful, but as the world is changing, so are we. His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa (who leads the monastery) has created many opportunities for us to come out into the world and walk the talk."

I had expected wisdom and determination in the room and I found it there. I was expecting the nuns to be shy and yet have an easy laughter—and these traits were there as well. What tugged at my heart was the innocence and the earnestness that radiated from them as they shared their personal and work stories.

“When you look back, do you feel that perhaps you are a very special child?" I asked Ghamo.

“Yes," she said promptly.

Sometimes one meets people who expand one’s understanding of what it means to be human. People who are an example of the finest and most precious traits we are capable of. Meeting the kung fu nuns, as they continued on their own unique journey, was one such gift for me.

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