Kinship, karma, and kung fuNepali nuns from a centuries-old Buddhist order redefine what it means to be of service
“My name is Jigme Konchok Lhamo, and I am a Kung Fu nun.”
During summer nights, on grounds illuminated by solar-powered lights, Lhamo and her sisters practice kung fu at the Druk Amitabha Nunnery near Kathmandu, wielding swords, sticks and paper fans.
The forested hills surrounding the nunnery echo with shouts as they kick, punch and lunge. The kung fu nuns work and live at the nunnery, better known as Seto Gumba, and belong to the centuries-old Drukpa lineage of Himalayan Buddhism.
On this morning, Lhamo and Jigme Migyur Palmo sit side by side, clad in maroon robes and red hats, as they speak to Nepali Times over Zoom. The nunnery remains shut off to visitors because of Covid-19 risks to the nuns who live and work at close quarters.
On the wall above hangs a portrait of a smiling Jigme Pema Wangchen, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa and the leader of the Drukpa order. Lhamo smiles as she talks about her family – she was born and raised in Lahaul-Spiti in India’s Himachal Pradesh and attended Catholic school until she saw the Gyalwang Drukpa one day when she was 12.
The course of her life changed forever after she heard him speak. “I was so inspired by what he said about the need for equality in society, I decided then that this was the path I wanted to take,” she says.
But back at home, Lhamo’s parents were against her decision. It took three days of “shouting and crying” for her parents to finally, and reluctantly, allow their daughter to go become a nun so far away.
“My parents would rather I became a doctor or a lawyer,” she explains. That was 15 years ago, and Lhamo has been based in Kathmandu ever since.
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For Palmo, however, becoming a nun was the natural course. She was born and raised in a devout Buddhist family, all of whom were disciples of the Gyalwang Drukpa.
“My parents had always wanted one of their children to become either a nun or a monk,” she says. “And it was something I wanted as well.” So Palmo came to Nepal when she was 13, and has been at the nunnery for 17 years.
But even though she had been ready and willing to spend her life as a nun, the initial days after coming to Kathmandu were difficult. “The first thing I had to learn was to wake up early in the morning,” Palmo recalls.
Indeed, the nuns begin the day at 3AM with a two-hour meditation, after which they convene at the main temple for morning puja and prayers. After a frugal breakfast, they attend various lessons, including English, Tibetan, music, painting, photography, and drama.
Those who do not have classes scheduled are scattered around the monastery doing chores. The nuns are adept at gardening, electrical work, construction, and general upkeep around the monastery.
“We have electrician nuns, construction nuns, nuns who cook, solar panel nuns, you name it,” says Palmo.
On summer evenings, the nuns gather in the open for their daily kung fu practice. And as the days get cooler and shorter, they shift practice to mornings.
Gyalwang Drukpa encouraged the nuns to take leadership roles as well as learn skills that allowed them to be self-sufficient in running of the nunnery. But their involvement in such tasks, largely seen as jobs for men, did not go down well in the conservative pockets within the Himalaya. Some nuns even got threats of physical harm for challenging gender norms.
That is when the Gyalwang Drukpa realised that the nuns also needed self-defence training. As luck would have it, some nuns from Vietnam were visiting the institution at the time who knew kung fu. The nuns saw them practicing daily, and joined the visitors.
“It was fascinating to see our Vietnamese sisters practice kung fu,” recalls Palmo. “They had been here for a while, and we had become friends. So it was not difficult to ask them to show us some moves.”
More nuns became interested, and in 2013 the Gyalwang Drukpa hired a professional to teach them the martial art form to the 500 nuns from ages six to sixty from across Nepal, India, Bhutan and Tibet.
Among them is Jigme Yangchen Ghamo, who joined the nunnery when she was ten years old. As a child, Ghamo and her family made frequent trips to the nunnery for prayers and celebrations. She was born in Ramechhap and raised with her two siblings in Kathmandu.
“I remember coming to the nunnery with my family,” says Ghamo, who has now been there for 12 years. “The nuns were so hard working and dedicated that I immediately thought that this was the path I should take.”
Her parents were not too happy, but Ghamo persisted. “Who would want to send their child away? But I refused to go to school, and the possibility of me growing up without an education finally convinced my parents to let me go,” she adds.
The first few days were difficult with just two others who were the same age at the nunnery. But a few weeks later, Ghamo began her kung fu training and she says it has helped her keep physically and mentally fit.
“When I was ten years old, kung fu was just a part of my daily routine, it was something I had to do,” notes Ghamo. “But over the years, I have realised how valuable it has been to me.”
And as they worked to master the craft, the nuns decided to use their knowledge to help other young girls and women protect themselves.
“While we learned, we thought about the women and girls out there who are being bullied, harassed or suffering abuse at the hands of family,” explains Palmo. “We thought that we should also share our learning with them.”
Their self-defense workshops have taken the nuns across the Himalaya from Ladakh to Kathmandu and Delhi to train not just other nuns, but young students as well. The interactions also allowed the nuns to not just teach, but also learn about the world outside the nunnery.
As nuns, they say, they did not face harassment to the same degree, so they had no idea what a girl’s life was like in Mumbai, or Chandigarh, or Kathmandu. Lhamo says she learnt from her kung fu students about how unsafe they felt in public buses and trains. “Those conversations were eye-opening for us,” says Lhamo.
Many of the young girls who were trained by the nuns went on to join karate and other self-defense classes, and they often share their progress with the nuns who taught them.
“Even if we have made a difference in one person’s life,” adds Migyur, “it makes a big difference in ours.”
And while their kung fu and humanitarian work have earned them recognition and acclaim across the world, there are also prejudice, criticisms and people passing judgment.
“There was criticism over our cycling uniforms when we went on our cycle yatra,” Ghamo says. “How could we be expected to ride in our robes? But if we worried about the backlash we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”
People would question why the nuns, who follow a religion that stands for peace, were practising a martial art form.“We are first and foremost Buddhist practitioners,” says Lhamo firmly. “We have never intended to fight.”
Ghamo agrees: “Martial arts is not about maiming, killing and violence, it is a discipline. Maybe people have been watching too many kung fu movies.”
Read also: Karate Travellers in Kathmandu, Monika Deupala