While Nepal is by no means the worst place in South Asia to be a woman, it probably couldn’t be counted as one of the best, either. For example, the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Index surmised that school attendance for girls and boys was more or less equal, but that men still outstrip women in literacy rates by 24 percent, as only 47 percent of women in the country can read. There is one group of women, however, who are fighting hard to buck this trend.
But they’re not activists or feminist intellectuals. In fact, they’re nuns who belong to the 800-year-old Drukpa sect of Buddhism. The most widely-practiced religion in Bhutan, Drukpa is popular throughout Himalayan areas. Its name means “dragon,” though it additionally relates to the clap of thunder.
Drukpa has also attracted many Western converts and places a stated emphasis on meditation. However, it wasn’t until more recently that it began to appeal to women in particular. This new shift is arguably thanks to the sect’s head, His Holiness The Gyalwang Drukpa, who is the 12th earthly incarnation of the Drukpa spiritual leadership.
The 53-year-old Vietnamese master holds deeply-felt views on gender equality that were instilled in him by his mother. However, institutionally at least, Buddhism itself has not always been widely sympathetic to issues of women’s rights.
Traditionally, women who chose to dedicate their lives to the Buddhist path took on subservient roles, often cleaning and cooking for the monks. Additionally, they were also discouraged from strenuous physical activity and performing certain Buddhist dances.
The Gyalwang Drukpa, then, felt that it was down to him to help redress the gender imbalance seemingly latent in Buddhist monasticism. He told the BBC, “When I was very small, I was already thinking that it was not right to suppress women in our society.” However, when he was older, he recounted, “I started to think, ‘What can I do for them?’ Then I thought what I can do is to build a nunnery and then give them an opportunity to study and practice spiritually.” And that’s exactly what he did.
Druk Amitabha Mountain was originally intended to serve as a location for a family home. However, it apparently became unsuitable for this purpose when The Gyalwang Drukpa’s mother saw lots of insects being killed during construction activities. After that, she said the ground should be used for philanthropic purposes “so that the millions of insects killed there would be directly or indirectly liberated.”
And so the Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery was born. Originally housing just 30 nuns, it is now home to around 500. For the most part, the nunnery is self-sufficient, relying on its coffee shop, souvenir shop and guest house for income. But the reason why the number of nuns living at Druk Gawa Khilwa has mushroomed is perhaps even more impressive.
It’s because women and girls are attracted to the nunnery for the progressive, active roles it designates for nuns. After all, at Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery they can learn meditation leadership, some business skills and, perhaps most surprisingly, kung fu.
Yes, these nuns – who previously would have performed menial tasks and whose religion promotes non-violence – are rigorously trained in a Chinese martial art. The Gyalwang Drukpa first got the idea on a visit to Vietnam, where he witnessed nuns being taught the same kung-fu drills that Viet Cong troops used during the Vietnam War.
Intrigued by what he saw, The Gyalwang Drukpa subsequently brought a quartet of the young Vietnamese women back to Nepal. There, they were asked to help teach kung fu to the nuns at Druk Gawa Khilwa, as a supplement to their yoga and meditation practices.
And it certainly seems that the move was a resounding success; the nuns took to these new lessons with gusto. In fact, they jumped at the chance to engage in an activity that would aid them with their meditational skills as well as their fitness and confidence.
As one teenage nun named Rupa Lama told the BBC, “It’s good for our health. Meditation is very difficult and if we do kung fu, then afterwards meditation becomes much easier.” Another, named Konchok, declared, “It’s very helpful for our safety. If somebody teases us or something, then we can hit them and be more powerful.”
While Buddhism has a reputation for non-violence, this comment is understandable given the issues faced by some women in countries such as Nepal, India and Pakistan. After all, child marriages and honor killings still occur in South Asia, and there is another fast-growing menace that increasingly threatens women in this area: human trafficking.
However, in spring 2015, a more immediate threat struck very close to home – two earthquakes ripped through Nepal, killing nearly 9,000 people and causing untold devastation and displacement. And when this natural disaster struck, the nuns’ kung-fu training came in very handy indeed.
That’s because when the earthquake shook the nunnery to its core, those inside were seemingly able to use their kung-fu-honed reactions to escape from the building. According to the Washington Post, the nuns “jumped through shattered glass windows, smashed open rattling doors and dived over a collapsing staircase.”
And so it turned out that the nuns’ practice of kung fu had serious practical benefits beyond meditation. However, it was what came after the earthquake that would truly test the nuns’ resolve. With the villages surrounding their monastery having been completely devastated, the women set about providing humanitarian aid and assisting with the clear-up.
But despite hunger and lack of shelter, there was another danger on the horizon for the people of Nepal – one that women and children were particularly vulnerable to. With people finding themselves in desperate situations, and as many as 40,000 children becoming orphaned, the country consequently became a target for human traffickers.
The nuns of Amitabha Drukpa Mountain, however, didn’t stand by and let this happen. In fact, far from the world-retreating ascetics typically associated with monasticism, the women forcefully engage with such social issues. In fact, they organized an almost-2,500-mile bicycle trek from Kathmandu to Leh (a city in northern India) to shine a spotlight on the plight of women and girls in Nepal in the wake of the earthquake.
Completed in September 2016, the arduous journey through the Himalayas – which trumps the Tour De France in both length and difficulty – is a testament to the outstanding resilience and commitment of these kung-fu-fighting, feminist nuns. As one young nun named Jigme Konchok Lhamo explained to Reuters, “We wanted to do something to change this attitude that girls are less than boys and that it’s OK to sell them… women have power and strength like men.”