A quiet revolution is taking place in Ladakh, an ancient Himalayan community, of 100,000 situated just inside India's northern border. Tibetan Buddhism has thrived here for 1,000 years and Buddha's teachings (the Dharma) have been preserved intact in this remote land cut off from the world during the winter months by the Himalayan snows. in this traditional enclave, one of the most traditional groups of all is stepping forward: Buddhist nuns.
Forty years after China invaded Tibet, growing awareness throughout the world of Tibetan Buddhist practices and history is serving as a bulwark against the disappearance of one of the world's great traditions of peace, compassion, and scholarship. The role of nuns in Ladakhi society is becoming a vital part of this preservation of Tibetan Buddhism outside of occupied Tibet.
Over the centuries, a vast difference has grown up between Ladakhi monks, who are educated and respected, and nuns, who are servants and labourers. While monks have reached the highest levels of attainment -- in religious practice as well as education, teaching, and the hierarchies of their religion -- nuns have often been limited to manual labour. On ordaining, nuns are often left to fend for themselves -- to follow their vows without training in how to do so; to work as domestic servants in family homes due to a lack of nunneries; or to live at nunneries whose raison d'etre was to grow food and weave robes for monks, feed visitors travelling to monasteries, and work in the monastic kitchens. Illiteracy is common and nuns have lacked the religious training that would enable them to deepen their Buddhist practice and develop their spiritual potential.
Three years ago, the Ladakh Nuns Association sprang up. Its leader is Ani Palmo, a dynamic 30-something Ladakhi woman who was ordained as a nun while pursuing a degree in Tibetan Medicine in Dharamsala, India. Asked to speak on the status of Ladakhi nuns at an international conference of Buddhist women in Ladakh's capital, Leh, in 1995, Palmo first had to investigate their living conditions.
"I was shocked," recalls Palmo. "Some nuns didn't have enough to eat or decent clothes to wear. Many had never had a single Dharma teaching." What they did have, she added, was a strong devotion to the Dharma, to their communities, and to their sister nuns. Since the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Ladakh as well as Tibet, has shown a keen interest in the education and advancement of nuns, Palmo decided that the nuns' devotion could be put to a higher use.
She convinced Sras Rinpoche, Ladakh's foremost Lama and abbot of Rizong, a Ladakhi monastery, to serve as President of the association she proposed, an endorsement necessary in this traditional society. Today, Palmo, as co-ordinator, is the "driving force" behind the association, overseeing activities from the office of her medical practice in Leh. At Rizong, a group of newly-ordained young nuns has been installed and, in-between stints cultivating fields, tending cows, milling barley flour, and weaving cloth, the nuns now study Buddhist teachings, Tibetan, English, and other subjects. For the first time, some foods are supplied by the monastery to the nunnery, freeing time for study.
Last summer, the association widened its impact, organizing a training session in Zanskar, a remote mountain valley bordering Ladakh whose nuns have also had little opportunity for teachings. …