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Kung fu nuns of Kathmandu have all the sharp moves

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on November 09, 2019 Published on November 08, 2019

New life: Kung fu was introduced to the Kathmandu nunnery 11 years ago, breaking a tradition that barred Buddhist nuns from exercising

Members of a remote nunnery in Nepal have been learning and spreading the word on self-defence in villages and towns

The martial art of kung fu is not something one would associate with nuns. But members of the Kathmandu-based Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery of the Drukpa lineage have been practising and teaching kung fu for a while now as the order believes in the philosophy of self-defence.

In 2008, the leader of the sect, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, encouraged the nuns to learn kung fu. The Drukpa lineage, also called the Red Hat Sect, is an ancient Himalayan sect of Tibetan Buddhism that traces its origin to the 11th century Indian Mahasiddha Naropa, an accomplished yogi.

It was hard to begin with, admits 26-year-old Jigme Migyur Palmo, a nun from Ladakh. “We didn’t exercise in our childhood. Our bodies were weak and we had to deal with pain in the beginning. I often thought of quitting, but I slowly understood why His Holiness wanted us to learn it and that motivation helped me through.” Gyalwang Drukpa is an advocate of women’s rights and introduced kung fu to the monastery — breaking a tradition that barred women from exercising -- after observing visiting Vietnamese nuns excel in the art.

The nuns were travelling to the US via Delhi when BLink caught up with them. They were honoured with the Game-changer Award by the Asia Society in New York, a non-profit organisation, on October 24.

Most of the nuns in the contingent were in their mid-20s and ardent kung fu practitioners. Jigme Tontam Wangmo, a nun from Lahaul in Himachal Pradesh, says, “Kung fu has kept us mentally and physically strong. It is like doing meditation, it helps us focus even on our prayers.”

Wangmo has been in the nunnery for over a decade now. “I wanted to become a nun from my childhood. My family tried to stop me, thinking it would be difficult for me, as I was the youngest member. My grandmother, who loved me a lot, told my father that if I wanted to follow the path of dhamma, the family had to respect my wish.”

She is among the nuns who follow the martial art on a regular basis. “Every nun in the nunnery practises it till the age of 35,” Palmo says. As they age, they move on to yoga, which, she says, most find easy after kung fu.

Jigme Rupa Lhamo from Himachal Pradesh decided to join the nunnery when she was 13. “His Holiness came to our village and he talked about gender equality and empowering women. He believes that women should be as free as men, and should do everything that boys get to do for balance in the world. I was very inspired by his teachings and decided that I would become a nun under his guidance.”

The 700 nuns in the convent follow a strict schedule. They are up at 3am, though some even rise at 2, says Wangmo. They meditate till 5 by themselves. From 6 to 8am, they meditate together in the prayer hall.

The hours after breakfast are reserved for classes. The nuns learn to play the instruments that are used in prayer.

“We have classes on philosophy and meditation, as well as language classes for English and Tibetan,” Wangmo says. Some of the nuns take turns to go cycling. “We believe in doing something for Mother Nature, so we cycle in the morning to spread the message of environment conservation,” Palmo says.

Members of the nunnery recently undertook a three-month, 5,200-mile “Bicycle Yatra for Peace” from Nepal to Ladakh in India. They stopped at hundreds of villages to educate people about the environment and against human trafficking. They ran free health clinics, rescued injured animals and manually removed thousands of kilograms of plastic litter from across the Himalayas.

The nuns eat one meal a day. After 8 pm, they practise kung fu by themselves. A teacher from Vietnam also comes for a short spell every year to teach them new moves.

“We go to schools now and then to teach kids about self-defence,” says nun Palmo. “We teach juniors and other Himalayan girls outside the monastery. We had three workshops in Ladakh, and one in Delhi. Recently, there was a camp for girls from underprivileged backgrounds for whom we demonstrated some of our moves. We don’t want every person to learn kung fu specifically, but they need to learn how to defend themselves.”

Learning self-defence is the truest freedom, the nuns hold. “If we learn a bit of martial arts or self-defence, we know how to react in situations of danger. We get confidence and are fearless. By practising kung fu and saving the environment we feel we are doing in real time all the good that we try to achieve through meditation,” Lhamo says.

The nuns hope to inspire more girls from their villages and beyond to live a life of equality — on their own terms — and serve society. And they hope that kung fu will help show the way.

Published on November 08, 2019
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