Gaden Relief Projects

Helping Tibetans preserve their unique culture.


Report to Chuchikjall Sponsors 1999

Dear Sponsor:

The nuns of Chuchizhal Nunnery send their deepest blessings, warmest regards, and pray for your continued health, happiness, and peaceful progress towards enlightenment. In the year of the rabbit (1999), the nuns continue to be grateful for your generous contributions and pray that this Dharmic connection continues. As they joke, perhaps one day they may be reborn in the West and have a similar opportunity to repay your kindness by sending money to those of you who will reborn in the East, maybe even in Zangskar. They tell me that your future rebirths in a Buddhist land are secured, because you have sent precious gifts to such a distant nunnery and thereby have shown your compassion and dedication to the principle of dependent origination. The question of rebirth is a constant subject of speculation between us. I figure that they must have been New Englanders in a previous lifetime for they seem to understand so easily what I am doing, while they muse that I may well have been a Zangskari person in my prior life because I seem to take to a life of butter, barley, and barren landscapes.

You may be wondering why and how your contributions make a difference to the nunnery's ritual calendar. Your contributions fuel the butter lamps and provide for meals at some of the most important and auspicious rituals at Karsha nunnery. Your contributions helped fund the fire sacrifice held just around the winter solstice in honor of their guardian deity, Vajryogini, as well as the Thousand Auspicious Offering Rite rite held on the Buddha's birthday at the close of the Great Prayer Festival. At both of these rituals, each nun must deliver a kilo of butter to the nuns' assembly. While this butter fuels some of the lamps and flavors the green tea drunk by the nuns and visiting monks throughout these ceremonies, many other expenses are involved. Your donations cover miscellaneous ritual expenses such as decorations for the ritual cakes, blessing scarves, butter lamps, kerosene oil for cooking, and the rice, lentils, oil, and spices to feed the participating monastics.

Karsha nunnery's ritual calendar is constrained by the generosity of local and foreign sponsor and the skill of the nuns serving as stewards. Due in part to your donations which have shamed the locals into spending more for nunnery festivals, the villager's donations at Karsha nunnery have increased sharply. Most rituals at the nunnery are funded by individually solicited donations from the village or by spontaneous donations of which yours is an example. For example, the tri-monthly prayer sessions are funded by a rotational system in which every nuns, turn by turn, serves as a steward. The steward (gnyer pa) must solicit barley, butter, and other ritual foods from her family or acquaintances in the village below. The steward is responsible for bakaing the breads and cooking the tea which is served in the course of the all-day prayer sessions held on the 10th, 15th, and 25th of each lunar month, dedicated respectively to Guru Padmasambhava, the Lord Buddha, and theTibetan saint Tsongkhapa.

As living conditions have risen and the nunnery's prestige has grown due in part to your sponsorship, the Karsha nuns have been able to expand and extend their nunnery's ritual calendar. For example, the Great Prayer Festival (sMon lam chen mo) only lasted five days when it was first instituted at the nunnery some 30 years ago, while it now lasts roughly three weeks. This festival is held at Karsha nunnery in simulation of the festival founded in Lhasa by the the reknowned saint Tsongkhapa in 1408. While it was held in Lhasa every year for over half a millennium, the tradition came to an abrubt halt when the Chinese invaded Lhasa in 1959, forcing the Dalai Lama and his monks to flee to India. After 1959, the festival continued to be held outside Tibet at monastic institutions throughout the Indo-Tibetan borderlands of which Karsha nunnery is one among many.

Holding a Great Prayer Festival demands considerable organizational as well as fundraising skills. The nun who serves as steward collects donations for an entire year before managing the festival. Once the festival has begun in the most auspicious fourth month when the Buddha is supposed to have been born, died, and gained enlightenment, for three weeks continously, the steward must see ot it that the assembly of nuns, their teacher, and all visitors are fed lavishly. Each day, the nuns receive several meals and a steady supply of butter tea from dawn to dusk, while they chant sutras and prayers to benefit all sentient beings in the Six Realms of Existence. A typical menu during the festival might include: breakfast of sweet tea, fried bread (khu ra), salty barley gruel (skam thug), butter porridge (ldu ru), sweetened barley flour dough (phye mar); lunch of rice and lentils or vegetable dumpling stew (spag thug); a late afternoon snack of flat breads and stewed apricots (pha ting); and a dinner of pea flour paste (bag pa ) and buttermilk (dar ba). The sheer quantity of food during the Great Prayer Festival allows most nuns to bring portions home to their families and relatives in the village. It nicely reverses the more customary scenario in which nuns take food from their families up to their private meditation cells on the cliff. The nunnery is a beehive of activity as distant visitors who have brought gifts are hosted by the nunnery's kitchen with food and beer before they visit with friends and relatives in the village below.

A long history of patronage and privilege has left the monasteries well endowed with thousands of fields held by sharecroppers all over Zangskar while nunneries have little or no land. While most smaller nunneries own no fields at all, Karsha nunnery owns two small fields yielding a crop of 80-100 kg of wheat, peas, or barley. Unlike Karsha monastery which collects thousands of kilos of grain each year in rents, the nunnery does not collect local tithes in cash or kind from surrounding villages. Every year, turn by turn, two nuns are chosen to serve as field stewards (zhing gi gnyer pa). In early spring, the two stewards call upon their male relatives for assistance since women cannot plough or sow seeds, but will smooth the furrows instead. The stewards must weed and water the fields the entire summer. In autumn, the harvest, threshing, winnowing, and carrying grain and straw to the nunnery will be performed by half of the nuns' community each year. The communal grain from these crops feeds visiting guests and nuns during rituals and during communal labor sessions for whitewashing the nunnery buildings and cleaning or repairing the paths and environs after winter avalanches and spring mudslides. After the next year's seed and other expenses are subtracted, each member nun receives a total of eight kg of grain, over a three-year period. The grain is distributed only once every three years when the position of head nun shifts. At this time, a collective audit is conducted by the head nun in front of the entire community of nuns. All outlying accounts, loans, and expenses are cleared before the new incoming head nun takes office. The nuns themselves gather several loads of dung and thistles which feed the communal hearth all winter long.

It has been our aim to fund daily morning ritual sessions at several nunneries just like those held at most male monasteries. Since 1991, a large part of your annual contributions have gone to fund these morning prayer sessions at Karsha nunnery. Every day for five months, the assembly of twenty nuns and their abbot sit for several hours praying for the release from suffering of all sentient beings. Your donations supply the butter, tea, and salt, which warms the nuns sitting motionless in the frigid hall before the first meager ray of winter sun has hit the assembly hall. Yet they all agree what a luxury it is to have the means and time to pray, rather than descending immediately to the village for their daily chores. After the success of these prayer sessions at Karsha, we began three small programs at other nunneries, to hold similar wintertime prayer sessions in 1997. These pilot programs have proved very successful and we hope to continue them in the future. Finally, some of your donations have been and continue to be used to make smokeless stoves for burning dung, the most popular fuel in Zangskar, which is a desert in which trees are only planted with a specific purpose—to provide construction material or animal fodder.

You may indicate on your donation whether you would like to fund only Karsha nunnery, the smokeless stoves, or the pilot programs at Skyagam, Dorje Dzong, and Pishu nunneries. I have enclosed a blessing cord which was blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lmaa when he visited Ladakh in 1998 and photos of the nuns at Karsha, SKyagam, Dorje Dzong, and Pishu nunneries. I beg your pardon for the recital of practical and gastronomical details but such concrete facts often give a better picture than abstract prose. Please do not hesitate to write me about any questions you have about the nunnery or its member nuns. Once again, thank you for your contribution.

Best Regards,

Kim Gutschow

Junior Research Fellow,
Harvard University
July 15th, 1999

Yes! I want to help! Your donations will go directly to the Tibetans in need. Gaden Relief has a sterling record of putting over 95% of donations to work in the Tibetan communities. All of our staff are volunteers and pay our own expenses. So you can rest assured that your donations will be put to maximum effect to help Tibetans.

Click here to donate to Gaden Relief Projects. Click here to contact Dr. Kim Gutschow.