The sun barely touched ground and morning sky is yet to show but the path at Druk Amitabha Nunnery in Kathmandu, Nepal is already filled with the roaring sounds of drums. It’s barely 5 AM but the nuns at the nunnery are already practicing Kung Fu which can be heard in the little cries of energy which punctuate their movements. One leg folded forward and the other one stretched out backward, these nuns kicked in the air repeatedly, trying to gain perfection in the series of impeccable kicks. Wearing the mandatory traditional tight dark red outfit suited for this practice, an incredible energy can be felt from the subtle balance of these postures and around these nuns too.
Meet the Kung-Fu Nuns. To put it in simple words the Buddhist nuns who are trained in performing the traditional marital art form of Kung Fu. Ideally, one can meet Kung Fu Nuns at Druk Gawa Khilwa (DGK) nunnery in Kathmandu, Nepal where they get trained & taught a mixture of martial arts along with the meditation. Kung Fu was introduced to these nuns with a simple motive of empowering the young women & promotes gender equality in Buddhism.
In Buddhism, like many religions, the voices of women have traditionally been muted. But the leader of the 1000’s year old Drukpa Lineage, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa changed it all with the introduction of Kung Fu to the nuns, to bring them at par with men
It’s a known fact that Buddhist nuns across the world are considered inferior to the monks. According to His Holiness he knew he had to do something for the nuns when he witnessed the pitiful condition they live in while growing up in India and Tibet. It was him who wished that the nuns of his lineage – who live in two convents, one in Ladakh and the other one in Nepal – practiced Kung Fu. Although nuns have usually carried out only household chores in Buddhist monasteries, the nuns of DGK, who come from places as far apart as Assam, Tibet and Kashmir, are taught to lead prayers and given basic business skills. Nuns run the guest house and coffee shop at the abbey and drive 4X4s wheels to Kathmandu to get supplies. But the breakthrough was the introduction of kung fu in 2008 shortly after the Gyalwang Drukpa visited Vietnam and observed female martial arts practitioners.
Undoubtedly this 30-year-old nunnery is a unique example of gender reversal in the rarefied world of monastic life, where monks often occupy the premium positions, leaving nuns to the tedious chores. But the Kung Fu nuns learned the skills at par to the men: plumbing, electrical fitting, computers, riding bicycles, the English language and, of course, praying.
Every day, the nuns of the Drukpa lineage practice like this for two-three hours, tirelessly repeating the various movements taught by their teacher who visit them twice a year from Vietnam. During his visit, the nuns have three daily trainings, which mean six hours of intensive practice.
Apart from perfecting them in body postures, these nuns also gets trained in handling few traditional weapons based on their individual caliber. These include the swords, sticks etc. There are also more selective one like bricks breaking by means of a mass which is performed on special occasions only like on the birthday of His Holiness. It is performed after consciously checking the emotional state of the performer
The youngest is aged eight while the oldest is 45. These nuns are followers of Theravada Buddhism, a path followed mostly by Tibetan refugees who fled from their homeland. Kung Fu to them is more like a meditation and exercise than a combative tool.
That was in 2008 when his holiness made the announcement of introducing Kung Fu. The nuns who were present at the time admit that they were surprised and excited at the same time at the thought of practising something new and special. They feel much safer and are capable of protecting themselves
Kung Fu also helps them develop self-confidence, subduing the shyness. They now dare to speak up fearlessly. The nuns began learning kung fu in defense of accepted gender codes in the Buddhist monastic system. But over time, they have not only harnessed the ancient Chinese martial art for meditation only. Now they are use their skill and energy in community development running the campaigns against toxic waste and spreading the messages of women empowerment
In 2015 when Nepal was hit with a massive earthquake, these maroon-dressed nuns actively participated in the relief programme, rather than sitting aside. They would trek to the nearby villages to remove the rubble from people’s homes and clear pathways. They would distribute food to the survivors and help pitch tents for the night shelter. Early this year these nuns peddled around 2200 km from Kathmandu to Delhi to spread the message of women empowerment and importance of ecological balance amid economic development. The cycle ride was spearheaded by His Holiness himself.
These nuns surely are happy to find a new way of living life. They wish to continue the practice and continue learning more which impacts their personality in positive way. It is this motivation which allowed them to perform the Dragon Dance – traditionally reserved for monks –in homage to their lineage. A true inspiration these Buddhist nuns say they use this combat system for personal benefit and make sure men and women are at par with each other with no discrimination
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P.S. : This post was first written for BBC Travel