Kung Fu Nuns

Martial art becomes a means of spiritual empowerment for the Buddhist nuns of Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery in Nepal.

Prayer flags

Prayer flags flutter in the wind in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital and largest city, about an hour away from the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery.

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In Search of Buddha’s Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads (The Experiment Publishing, 2015) by Christine Toomey shares the hidden world of women who dedicate their lives to Buddhism. Toomey’s journey across three continents brings to light the stories of those who have redefined strength, perseverance and peace in the face of opposition, imprisonment, and exile. The following excerpt introduces the devoted nuns of Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery, including their unconventional practice of martial art.

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Turning Tradition Upside Down

At the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery, nestled in mountains an hour’s drive from Kathmandu, each day begins at 3 a.m. with the sound of a bell. Dawn will not seep across the highest Himalayan peaks for sev­eral more hours. As the young nuns stir from sleep, only a dim light filters through the dormitory windows from lit pathways beyond.

No words are spoken and no glances exchanged as the young women slip from their beds and wrap their slender frames in burgundy and saffron robes. First, an underskirt and shirt without sleeves, worn even on the coldest of days. Over this, a wide lower robe is folded and tucked at the waist. Finally, a long shawl, a zen, is tossed around the shoulders to keep out the chill. After smoothing out sheets and blankets, each woman steps up onto the firm mattress of her bed and sits cross-legged facing the wall against which her pil­low rests. Each then turns within, entering the realm of meditation.

While most of the sisters spend the next two hours treading their own inner path, repeating secret mantras and recitations given to them individually by the head of the Buddhist order to which they belong, alternate groups of nuns take it in turns to follow a very dif­ferent form of practice. Instead of monastic robes, they lift a different set of clothes from the storage boxes under their beds: loose brown trousers and long-sleeved martial-arts jackets cinched at the waist with a cloth sash. Tying the laces of white canvas shoes, they pass quietly from their dormitories into the night air.

It is mid-October when I join them and together we snake up a stairway that leads from their residential complex, along a steep incline bordered on either side by scented flowers and shrubs. The stairs lead to a large hall in front of which stands a giant gilded statue of the Buddha. If the weather is too cold, the nuns take up formation inside the hall. But today, as it is warm enough to practice outside, I follow the women as they climb three further flights of stairs onto the roof and space themselves out with a few low whispers. As their instructor brings the group to order they draw their feet together, pull two clenched fists back towards their waists and stand waiting.

At the opening command they raise their arms to shoulder height, thrust their right fist into their left palm and spring into such sharp action that it seems a temporary affront to the calm devotions of those meditating below. In the background, the only sound is a gentle symphony of cicadas, but high on the nunnery roof the peace is now pierced by the shouted instructions in the practice of kung fu. With each position counted out, the nuns move through a series of steps that flow from graceful hand gestures through fierce air punches and swinging chops to soaring kicks and acts of fighting.

Most of the exercises are carried out with each nun going through the motions individually, either with bare hands or with the long fighting sticks known as bo staffs. The most startlingly beautiful are performed with blood-red fans swirled above the head and around the nuns’ waists. At times the fans are spun open, at others flipped closed, the effect more dance than martial art. Other exercises involve two nuns sparring, circling each other with clenched fists, thrusting, shoving, grabbing the other’s neck in the crook of their arms and pushing their opponent to the ground. Some of the moves are conducted with the fighting sticks held in both hands and used as both shield and weapon. As each series of maneuvers comes to an end, the nuns again draw their fist into their palm then push their open hands slowly down by their sides. It is only this subtle closing movement that returns to the women the gentle demeanor of their monastic calling. What I am witnessing in this striking predawn display is more than 1,000 years of tradition being turned on its head.

For more than a millennium this practice of kung fu was reserved only for monks, its roots lying far to the north in the legendary Chinese monastery of Shaolin. It was here in the fifth century that kung fu was said to have originated, after Bodhidarma, an Indian prince turned Buddhist monk, set out to take the teachings of the Buddha to China. On finding temples there vulnerable to attack by thieves, and many of the monks struggling with the rigors of mon­astic life, the monk devised a system of fitness and defense that drew heavily on the ancient traditions of Indian yoga. Like yoga, Shaolin kung fu developed from an observation of the way animals move. Over the centuries the Shaolin monks incorporated many different animal postures into their practice until eventually the mastery of many of these styles developed into a form represented by a dragon. Unlike the fire-breathing dragon of western mythology, the Chinese dragon is a powerful spiritual creature.

It is telling, then, that the nuns of Gawa Khilwa belong to the Drukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, druk being the Tibetan word for both ‘dragon’ and ‘thunder’.

As the first blush of sunlight bleeds over the horizon, the nuns draw their morning kung-fu practice to a close. A deep rumble of drums can be heard in the distance and high on the roof of the nunnery’s main temple I see the silhouettes of two figures blowing hard into gold-and-jewel-encrusted conch shells. This piercing bugle call is the Buddhist call to prayer. It is barely 5 a.m. and two hours of elaborate ritual and worship in the temple will follow before the nuns and I sit down to breakfast.

The ferocity of these morning exercises at Gawa Khilwa seems the antithesis of spiritual endeavor. But this practice I am privileged to have observed not only builds the women’s physical and mental strength, it also instills in them a growing sense of confidence. This is an entirely new experience for Buddhist nuns, who, through the centuries, have often been neglected and overlooked.

Origins of Buddhism

From the moment I began planning this journey, I wanted to start here, on this rooftop in Nepal. Seeing young nuns engaging in kung fu seemed to offer the perfect introduction to a story of spiritual empowerment. That it was happening so close to the place where the Buddha was born more than 2,000 years ago added to its symbolism. But this is not a straightforward tale, nor was it to be an easy one to follow, as I began to realize on the tortuous route to Gawa Khilwa.

When I descended through the smog to Kathmandu airport in the autumn of 2012, I knew little about Nepal. I knew that today it is one of the poorest countries in the world, beset by the aftermath of ten years of Maoist insurrection. This conflict only petered out in 2006, when the King of Nepal agreed to restore parliamentary dem­ocracy. Two years later, a Maoist-led parliament reduced the king’s status to that of a figurehead and declared the country a republic. But it was not the self-declared Maoists who dealt the Nepali royal family its harshest blow: rather, the bloody vengeance of a lovelorn prince. In 2001, fueled, many believe, by rage at his parents’ disapproval of the woman he wanted to marry, Crown Prince Dipendra had gone on a bloody rampage in Kathmandu’s Narayanhity Palace, gunning down almost every member of the royal family before committing suicide. To rid Nepal of the murdered royals’ ghosts, a high-caste priest volunteered to take on the negative karma of the tragedy by donning the king’s golden suit, shoes and sunglasses and riding an elephant out of the Kathmandu Valley into symbolic exile.

But as I arrive in Kathmandu it feels as if the departed spirits of these murdered royals still breathe misfortune on those who remain in their former kingdom. When I leave the airport, I discover a place sunk in chaos. The city’s roads are dug up, its buildings are crumbling, the streets are full of hawkers and beggars, and it has the unenviable reputation of being one of the most polluted cities in Asia.

For centuries the country’s strategic position, caught in a pincer between China and India, meant that trading caravans laden with silk, wool and salt traversed high mountain passes here, bestowing great wealth on Nepal. As Kathmandu grew rich, many gilded pagodas and ornate temples, both Buddhist and Hindu, were built in the city. But those who pass through Kathmandu today leave a slurry of waste. Rubbish is piled high along the city’s roads and throughout the countryside beyond. Nepal’s greatest good fortune now is that its mountainous north contains ten of the world’s four­teen tallest mountains, including the highest point on earth, Mount Everest. With an appetite for adventure, hordes of foreign trekkers and mountaineers descend on Nepal each year in ever-growing numbers. Yet even the base camps around these high peaks are now strewn with the detritus of a throwaway modern society.

This seems an incongruous location to seek the origins of Buddhism. But it was here, in the far south of modern Nepal, in a ramshackle town called Lumbini, that the man who came to be known as the Buddha, or ‘Awakened One’, was born. At the time of the Buddha’s birth, around 480 BCE, Lumbini lay in a small north Indian kingdom ruled from Kapilavastu, the capital, by a tribe of kins­men known as the Sakya. For this reason the Buddha is sometimes referred to as Buddha Sakyamuni, or ‘Sage of the Sakyas’.

Buddha’s Life 

There are many versions told of the Buddha’s life, though few details exist of the time before he became a wandering monk. Certainly his youth must have been more complex than the later poetic tales suggest, but for the purposes of this book their version of events will suffice. According to legend, the Buddha was born into great privilege, as a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, whom sages immediately predicted would one day become either a great ruler or a revered holy man. To ensure that his son succeeded him on the throne, King Suddhodana virtually imprisoned him within the walls of a royal compound and, in order that he should never want to leave, made his life one of luxury and ease. As a young prince, Siddhartha was provided with three palaces for the three seasons of the year and was surrounded by beautiful courtesans. His marriage to a cousin, Yasodhara, resulted in the birth of a son, Rahula. But by the time his son was born, Siddhartha was twenty-nine and over­come by curiosity about the world.

During secret night-time journeys beyond the palace walls, he is said to have come across four sights – of a sick man, an old man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic – none of which he had ever been allowed to see in his life of indulgence. When he turned to his char­ioteer to ask if sickness and death would eventually be part of his life too, the answer, that they would, is thought to mark Siddhartha’s awakening from innocence and prompted him to seek an alternative existence. After gazing tenderly at his wife and child as they slept, he set out secretly one night from the palace and for the rest of his life lived as a simple monk, wandering widely through the Ganges plains of northern India.

Following years of extreme asceticism, he is said to have sat down one day beneath a bodhi tree where, after weeks of intense medita­tion, he came to a series of realizations. His enlightenment embraced a deep understanding of the true nature of human suffering and a way of being released from it, into a state sometimes referred to sim­ply as nirvana, principally by banishing ignorance and craving. These realizations formed the basis for teachings that spread so widely across the globe that today more than half of the current global population is said to reside in parts of the world where Buddhism was once a dominant force.

At the start of my journey, I understand little of the rich and complex world of Buddhist teachings. I know that 2,500 years ago the Buddha summed up the reality of human existence in what came to be known as the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is a clear rec­ognition that in life there is suffering, and the second that we suffer because everything is impermanent, but because we don’t want to accept that fact, we cling to what we think will make us happy and our attachment only makes us suffer more. The third and fourth truths recognize that there is an end to suffering and this can be achieved through a way of life summed up as the Noble Eightfold Path, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right con­centration. The endless cycle of clinging and suffering, referred to in Buddhist teachings as samsara, is the condition in which humans everywhere are said to find themselves. Acknowledging this is as relevant today as it was in antiquity.

A Different World

For the jet-lagged traveler, the journey from Kathmandu to Gawa Khilwa nunnery is itself an initiation into the sorrows of mankind. After leaving the polluted city’s choked thoroughfares behind, the steep, deeply pitted road leading into the mountains is precarious and prone to frequent landslides. More than once I clamber out of the taxi to lighten its load as its wheels spin, trying to gain purchase on loose gravel, unnervingly close to the edge of a precipice.

From some distance away, as the taxi twists and turns, I begin to glimpse a striking white edifice that towers above the valley. As we draw closer I get a sense of the size of the nunnery: not just one building but a complex of many, adorned with traditional designs of brightly colored tiles around the eaves. The tall steel gates of the nunnery remain firmly shut as we draw up to the main entrance. One of the persistent power cuts that besiege Nepal has disabled the elec­tric lock. Beyond the metal grille, I watch a portly nun disappear into the bowels of a gatehouse with a wrench in her hand. Minutes later she emerges, rearranging her robes and smiling broadly. A generator growls to life, the gates swing open and I enter a different world.

By now it is already early evening and after being shown to my room in the nunnery’s guest quarters, I am left to my own devices. Most of the nuns are busy with their duties, so I take a stroll alone through the grounds towards a large hall.

In front of the hall, close to the towering gilded Buddha, are a number of smaller dragon statues. This is one external sign that Gawa Khilwa is a seat of the Drukpa, or Dragon, order, a branch of one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, known as the Karma Kagyu, or ‘Red Hat’ tradition, the titular head of which is the Seventeenth Karmapa, regarded by some as a possible spiritual successor to the Dalai Lama. The Drukpa order was founded eight centuries ago and over the course of hundreds of years, many of its followers became adepts at a powerful form of spiritual practice believed to lead to enlightenment within a single lifetime.

I have only just begun to unravel the complex threads of different Buddhist lineages, but I am struck that the head of the Drukpa order, known as the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa, chooses to live for most of the year here at Gawa Khilwa nunnery rather than in a monastery like most other senior male lamas. His encouragement of the nuns in practicing kung fu is only one aspect of a highly unusual degree of support he shows the women in his care. Most significant of all is his direct teaching of the nuns. This breaks with Buddhist tradition, which, throughout much of history, has held nuns to be inferior to monks. So much so that in the past many were treated as little more than domestic servants in monastic settings.


Reprinted with permission from In Search of Buddha's Daughters: A Modern Journey Down Ancient Roads by Christine Toomey and published by The Experiment Publishing, 2015.