We associate travel and vacations with indulgence, but what if a travel experience was all about the joys of simplicity? An account of living in a Tibetan nunnery.
Ever thought of spending your holiday in a nunnery instead of staying in hotels? Well, that’s what I did in June this year (2014). As part of a program called Gurukul 2014 by the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was staying in a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in lower Dharamshala.
Most people have a very fixated image of how a nunnery looks like: austere and minimalistic living, strict and silent environment, conservative and orthodox. Having only been acquainted with Catholic nuns via movies, convent schools, etc, that’s the image I had of a nunnery and was quite sceptical when we were told we would have to live there and follow the rules.
But Dolma Ling Nunnery & Institute, which is situated in Sidhpur in lower Dharamshala has been a pleasant surprise. Dolma Ling has been built and fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, a project set out to provide facilities for education and to empower and improve the overall status of ordained Tibetan women. The Dolma Ling Institute is dedicated specifically to higher education for Tibetan Buddhist nuns. It offers an educational program previously unavailable to women, starting with basic literacy and leading to the highest level of Buddhist philosophical education.
Where spirituality goes high tech
Besides the traditional studies, His Holiness the Dalai Lama put a lot of emphasis on being up to date with the time and to study and understand science. Therefore, the nuns also have courses in English, mathematics, social studies and computers. The nunnery has its own clinic where Phuntsok Wangmo who first completed her education and then became a doctor before dedicating her life to monastic living, is available for an hour at the evenings, providing first aid and medication for minor illnesses, and attending emergency cases at any time.
The nunnery houses eight retreat huts which the nuns themselves helped to build. Then, there is a debate courtyard. Daily practice of philosophical debate, called Jang Gönchoe is an essential aspect of the traditional Tibetan study program. Next comes the most impressive building of the nunnery, i.e, the media center. It is a center for media and language training, and includes an income-generating cafe operated by the nuns. The Dolma Ling Nunnery believes that technology is the pen and paper of our time and hence the nuns have shown great interest and aptitude in learning how to communicate their as well as stories of the Tibetan community to the wider world.
The Dolma Ling Nunnery believes that technology is the pen and paper of our time and hence the nuns have shown great interest and aptitude in learning how to communicate their as well as stories of the Tibetan community to the wider world.
Harald Weichhart, an Austrian, has been giving continuous training to a large group of nuns on InDesign, Photoshop, video- making skills, video editing and photography. After the successful completion of their video- making course, the nuns made a documentary on Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, the trailer of which can be seen here:
Apart from this, 10 nuns from Dolma Ling are preparing for the prestigious Geshema degree (equivalent to a PhD), which is the highest degree in Buddhist philosophy. Earlier, the nuns were not allowed to take this exam, but with the continuous support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the dedication of the nuns, this opportunity has been made available to them.
A different kind of vacation
When I first arrived at the nunnery, I was sceptical. But as time passed, I started loving this place. The joy of living your life differently, something which you’d have never imagined before is ecstatic. Though it’s difficult, for example, if you don’t get up at 6 AM, you miss breakfast, dinner is at 7 PM and you need to switch off your lights at 11.30 and go to bed come what may, I still enjoyed my short stay here.
The nuns are very friendly and cooperative. They thank us for coming and staying with them, although it should be the opposite. We live a very basic life here; we don’t have fans, although it gets quite hot sometimes. We don’t even have a mirror in the wash rooms and wash our clothes near a small stream next to our rooms. We have simple Tibetan food but the big heart with which they serve us makes up for all lost luxuries.
Although evenings are usually free for the nuns, they offered us a meditation class on our request. They bring us food and medicines to our rooms whenever anyone falls sick and always have a warm smile to make us feel welcome and at home. Sometimes they come over and we chat for hours on topics varying from politics to philosophy. The nuns here are quite well informed on what’s happening in the outside world.
I have made friends with young as well as old nuns, spend time with them and tried to help with the chores. This experience has given me a lot to think about and reflect and I’m sure to bring a lot back with me after my one month stay at the Dolma Ling Nunnery.