A young Buddhist nun walked on stage and assumed position. Knees bent, back straight as a rod, arms across chest with fists clenched, and a stony resolve in her eyes, she looked straight ahead at the silent crowd. Four other nuns stepped on the stage and placed a pile of red bricks on her thighs and another pile on her shoulders. All four then proceeded to take another big brick each, and stood around the nun in the centre. Next, with what sounded like a haii straight from a Bruce Lee movie, all four nuns brought down the bricks in their hands onto the brick pile that was balanced on the nun in the centre. As the brick-pile turned to rubble, all five nuns walked off nonchalantly as the gathered crowd took a second too long to register the feat before breaking into an applause.
All the five young women are part of a big group of Buddhist nuns, popularly known as the Kung Fu Nuns, who were in the city recently to showcase their martial arts and dragon dance skills, as well as to promote Tibetan culture. The event held at the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts was an initiative of Live to Love, an international non-profit organisation that works in several areas such as education, heritage preservation and environmental protection. The Kung Fu Nuns belong to the Drukpa lineage, one of the branches of new Tibetan Buddhism, which has its most important monastic centres in Tibet, India and Nepal.
Gyalwang Drukpa, head of this school of Buddhism, sees Kung fu as the best practice to attain compassion and unity for all. Nuns have long been viewed in lesser light — secondary at best to their male counterparts. The Drukpa nunneries, however, have changed that lopsided equation, and Gyalwang Drukpa, reverentially called His Holiness, has definitely been instrumental in the whole process. Most nuns consider his speeches as singular moments in their lives when they decided to embark on the path to self-discovery, spirituality and strength.
Jigme Yanchan Ghano hails from a remote village in Nepal, at 14 years of age, is the youngest member of the kung fu Nuns group. Ask her about what prompted her to be a Kung Fu nun and Ghano is quick to credit the Drukpa. “His Holiness would often come to our village to teach important things about Dharma,” she says. “It is since then that I have been keen on learning more. I realised that Dharma is the greatest part of one’s life.” This quest for Dahrma has kept Ghano and nuns like her away from their families, sometimes for years. But, she does not really see it that way. “They do visit me,” she says of her family. “But I do not miss staying away from home. I have many friends back home who are not nuns. They understand me and the choice I have made.” Then, almost as an afterthought, she adds, “Their fathers and mothers do not approve of the idea. They believe that it is very hard to be a nun and do not want their daughters to be nuns. I don’t understand why they think so though.”
The regime that Ghano and the other young nuns follow is holistic as much as it is demanding. The nuns start their day at 6 am with a morning pooja. After breakfast, they split into four groups and go cycling, walking, take meditation classes or general studies. Kung fu classes are slotted for the evenings — two hours of rigorous martial arts everyday. But Ghano doesn’t mind the tight schedule. And definitely not the challenges that practising kung fu daily can pose to the body. “I have been practicing kung fu since I was eight-years-old. It has made me stronger, both physically and mentally. It has made me healthy and helped me concentrate better.”
These nuns have shown that what men can do, women can do too. At times, even better. Their skill and dedication turns the skewed notion on its head that physical sports like kung fu are a man’s preserve. “Many people say that boys can do many things that girls cannot,” says Ghano in her quiet and confident way. “I don’t think so. When we put our mind to something, we can do it.”
Konchok Lhamo, her 20-year-old colleague, agrees and says that these days there is nothing that differentiates men and women in the monasteries and nunneries with respect to one’s capabilities. Traditionally, the dragon dance performance was restricted to men only, but in the past two years, nuns have been performing this dance. Lhamo too credits the Drukpa for her choice to become a nun. “I was very inspired by His Holiness and his teachings,” she says. “That is definitely the strongest reason I chose this path.” Lhamo believes there is no sense of competition between the nuns and the monks.
The Drukpa himself is not very comfortable with the idea of empowering women. He points to the subtle implications of the term ‘empowerment’. “I am not very happy to talk about empowerment of women. We do not really need to empower women,” he reiterates. “They are powerful enough already. That needs to be recognised by all of us. I do not like the terminology “women’s empowerment”. The phrase to be used is gender equality. And that is what our movement is working for.”
The Drukpa adds somewhat spiritually that the world is so full of gender disparity that we “cannot just sit and meditate”. “The Buddha himself would not be there if his mother was not there. Neither would I be here without my mother.”