Kung Fu Nuns

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


| May 2016



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.

Fotolia/anyaberkut

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.