In many Buddhist countries, nuns have been denied the opportunities for study that have been given so freely to monks. While there have been numerous great female practitioners in Tibet, since they have had no education, they have also usually had no voice. Thus, they have made very little impact on society, they have not become teachers, and they have not written books. And few books have been written about them.
Before my guru, His Eminience the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, passed away, he requested that I start a nunnery. In 1999, I established Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery for young women of the Drukpa Kargyu lineage. We have twenty-four nuns, ages fifteen to twenty-six, from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions of Ladakh, Spiti, Kinnaur and Nepal. I want to give these young nuns the kind of education and training that I did not receive. When I look at them, I think, If I were their age, what would I want to be taught? How would I want to be guided and encouraged?
Many prominent lamas, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have given this project spiritual support. When our group of young nuns went to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness, he said to them, “Whether you are born into a male or female body, if you practice and study, there is nothing you cannot accomplish.” This was very important for them to hear.
We have within our tradition a special yogic lineage passed down from Milarepa. These yogis, called togdens, have lived in caves in the Himalayas. They are fully ordained monks, but they wear dreadlocks and white skirts. There was also a female lineage of nun yoginis, known as togdenmas, but none are known to have survived the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Khamtrul Rinpoche formally asked me to revive the tradition of these yoginis, with its long, rigorous and austere training involving many years of retreat. It is a sacred commitment in my life to do so. After our nuns have studied for at least five years, some nuns will enter longer retreats and we will then decide which are ready to dedicate their whole lives to practice. Some of these may then be selected by the togdens of Khampagar Monastery to be trained in the togdenma tradition.
In the future, as funds permit, we plan to found an international retreat center to serve both nuns and lay Buddhist women from around the world who want to be in a place that is quiet, safe and conducive to their practice. At the nunnery, we hope also eventually to reintroduce the higher (bhikshuni) ordination for nuns—in order to give the nuns the opportunity to realize their full potential. All too often, nuns live as tight little buds and die as withered buds. They have no chance to be fertilized and watered, to benefit from the sunshine of encouragement and teachings so that they can unfold their petals.
In the sixteen years since this article was written, the number of nuns at Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery has grown to over 100, including eight nuns who are in longterm retreat training to be togdenmas or yoginis and have already completed ten years in retreat. In 2019, eighteen senior nuns graduated as Acharyas. The ages of the nuns now extend from seven years old to early forties. To find out more, visit www.tenzinpalmo.com.