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Between Monks and Monkeys

Life in a Tibetan Buddhist Nunnery

INDIA | Sunday, 19 April 2015 | Views [1683]


I am extremely fortunate to be living and teaching English for 3 and a half months at the Tibetan Buddhist nunnery of Jamyang Choling, near Dharamshala, India.

What is life in a nunnery like? First, it’s a very peaceful and tranquil place to be. It has well designed, solid buildings set around the grounds in a thoughtful way, so the overall space is well used. It has lots of trees – including what I’m sure are going to be well laden mango trees in the pre-monsoon time. It’s pleasant to walk around, and it’s very clean and tidy, because the nuns do a big community clean-up for three to four hours every Saturday afternoon.

It’s evening. The main sounds that I can hear at the moment are nuns chanting their memorisations on the roof of the building near to me, a few voices of nuns or villagers calling to one another, and birds singing and cheeping.

The variety of birds here is wonderful, from flocks of quarrelsome, shrieking mynas to swooping green parakeets, hoopoes, crows, swallows, finches, magpies, bulbuls, doves, drongos, and even the occasional kite.

The other wildlife that you often see is monkeys.  One or two monkeys or small groups of them visit quite regularly, stalking over the roofs, swinging through the trees in the cow paddock, and sorting through the rubbish area near the incinerator. They keep an eye on any humans they spot, and it’s advisable not to make eye contact.

I also give the three resident cows a very wide berth, having been gored in the leg during my first week here by Nyima, a brown cow with sharp horns and an evil attitude. I am not the first person she has attacked. It’s not all tranquillity in a Buddhist nunnery! Fortunately the doctor at the nearby clinic did a great job on the rather deep and scary looking hole in my leg, at a very reasonable cost, and it recovered well.

On the more welcome side, I have two very cute little grey/black geckos living in the gap between my mesh windows and my glass windows. 

Now for the human inhabitants of Jamyang Choling. What can I say about the nuns? They are a delightful bunch of people. As students, they are lively and interested, and most are not at all shy about trying out their English conversation. They are confident and happy within their own small community of around 120 people, aged between 14 and about 40. They get on very well with one another, they laugh a lot, and they have a very positive attitude to life, considering their demanding schedule.

They get up at 5.30am, and their whole day is spent doing puja (prayers), having philosophy and other classes, studying, memorising Buddhist texts and practising their debating. Breakfast is at 7am, lunch at 12, afternoon tea at 3pm and dinner at 5.30pm, followed by prayers, debating and study. Even the young nuns of 14 rarely get to bed before 10.30pm, and the bell gets them up again at 5.30am the next morning. Their only day off is Sunday.

There are two English teachers, a nun and a lay student, who teach English grammar, reading, writing and so on. My job is to focus on English conversation, and to encourage the nuns to practise their speaking and listening skills. I teach about eighty students at several different levels, from beginners to students whose English is quite good.

As well as the nuns, there are five lay students here.  Jamyang Choling is unusual in that it allows lay students to live on the premises and take part in all aspects of the nuns’ curriculum, including debating. Several of the nuns I know started as lay students and then decided to become nuns.

The nuns and lay students work very hard at Buddhist philosophy and other subjects. Most of their teachers are monks. Debating is one of the most entertaining – and visible - parts of the nuns’ curriculum.  Tibetan Buddhist debating involves clapping, stamping and other actions to emphasise a point, and it can be very interesting to watch, even if you don’t understand what they are talking about. The nuns debate outside twice a day for at least an hour, before lunch and after the evening puja (prayer) session, so the evening quiet is frequently broken by sounds of frenzied clapping and shouting. To begin with I thought there was some sort of domestic dispute or village ruckus going on, until I went out into the night with my torch and found the nuns happily debating away in the darkness.

As well as the English teachers who I have already mentioned, all the other jobs in the nunnery are done by the nuns. There is a group who work in the kitchen, cow-nuns, a couple who run the small shop, and three or four who cook food for the restaurant which is open in the evenings. There’s even a nun who is responsible for the water and electricity. One of my senior students is the Disciplinarian, which sounds fierce, but it basically means that she looks after the general welfare and health of the nuns. Another couple of senior nuns work in the office which just across from my room. A lot of the jobs, such as those in the shop, restaurant and kitchen, are done on a rotation basis.

The nunnery sits in the middle of an Indian village. Near the nunnery is the local Hindu temple, so there is frequently quite a lot of religious competition going on in the morning and evening, what with the nuns chanting pujas, and recorded singing or chanting emanating from the temple.

This is a very fertile area, and the houses in the village have blooming gardens, many trees and brightly coloured flowers.  We are up on a hill, and below me, as I walk to the main road to catch the bus, is a wide valley of gently terraced fields, with not a straight line among them, burgeoning with wheat and other crops. At the moment the bright green is starting to turn a little, and by autumn it will be golden. With the distant snow-covered mountains as a backdrop, it is a very beautiful sight. It's a lovely walk to the bus stop, as long as you don't mind being constantly gawked at. I've got used to it, as I am the only foreigner living in this area. A friendly "Namaste" is a good ice-breaker, but it is pretty well the limit of my Hindi. 

The bus (or if I'm lucky, a jeep taxi) takes me from Gharoh via a number of extreme bends in the road and some groaning uphill climbs, to Dharamshala. There I catch another crowded bus or packed jeep for the half hour climb to McLeod Ganj. Here there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to give the diet a bit of variety, but there are also many, many Indian and foreign tourists, so it's noisy and crowded - quite a culture shock after the tranquility of Gharoh.

I'm very lucky to have been offered a room at Jamyang Choling's McLeod Ganj head office, which I can use whenever I come up to town. A number of the senior nuns live in Mcleod Ganj, and the general administration for the nunnery is taken care of here. The nuns also rent out rooms on a long term basis to foreigners, including Western-born Buddhist nuns and lay students who are studying Buddhist philosophy or learning the Tibetan language. The nunnery building is situated near Kirti monastery, not far from the Dalai Lama's temple, with a stunning view down the Kangra Valley.

People constantly visit the busy office staff, and the atmosphere is always open and welcoming. Many Tibetans commission pujas from the nuns at Gharoh, for sickness in the family, new ventures, or general well-being. The donations paid for these prayers help to finance the nunnery's daily costs, in addition to generous regular sponsorships from Jamyang Choling's foreign supporters and friends. 

All in all, whether in McLo or Gharoh, this is a very special place, and I feel really privileged to have been able to share the lives of the nuns of Jamyang Choling. 

To learn more about Jamyang Choling, check out their website.  http://www.jamchoebuddhistdialectics.org/ Or see theri Facebook page: Jamyang Choling Nunnery.





Tags: buddhist, dharamshala, india, jamyang choling, mcleod ganj, nun, nunnery, tibetan



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