High in Zanskar Valley, 154 humble and devoted Buddhist nuns — in nine nunneries accessible by road only part of the year — ask for very little. In this remote valley in the Himalayas, many live without heat, water, and electricity. Some of the nuns are children, as young as four years old — and the oldest nun is 88.
Compassionately guided by Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, Gaden Relief Projects (GRP) distributed funds to support these nine nunneries located in the Zanskar valley. In October of 2019, it was my honor to travel to the region to distribute $10,000.00 USD amongst the nine nunneries supported in the Zanskar — money that goes a long way in this remote region.
Photos from Visit to the Nuns of Zanskar.
Report by Irina Safonova
Despite hardship, there are ready smiles on the faces of these 185 nuns. I saw their faces light up when I offered simple, personal presents – things we take for granted — such as warm sweaters, reading glasses, and socks. GRP funded survival essentials such as solar lanterns and warm blankets. Even the smallest things make measurably improve the quality of life of these kind-hearted nuns.
Even though life is difficult there – little heat in winter, limited food, unreliable electricity — the nuns are happy. They are nourished by their Buddhist practice.
Karsha Kachod Grubling Nunnery
The kindness of these nuns is matched only by their willingness to work. The nuns of Karsha Kachog Grubling Nunnery spent fifteen years hauling rock, working with mortar and plaster, helping to build a decorated prayer hall — with the generous help of nearby villagers who donated their time. Now, this lovely prayer room serves their community well.
I stayed in a guest room — with a breathtaking view. They hosted me last year, so this was the return of old friends happy to see each other. I can’t express enough gratitude to the nuns for taking care of me: little nuns were sent to my room non stop with anything I possibly could need: food, drinks, solar lantern, invitations to join them in the communal room.
Construction of the large, well-decorated prayer hall started in the late seventies and took 15 years to complete. built by the generosity of villagers who had been working largely without pay. the nuns hauled rocks to the site and collected dirt, silt, and water from the streambed far below to make mortar and plaster.
14 adult nuns and 21 child nuns
There are 14 adult nuns and 21 child nuns. The school for the little nuns contains two small classrooms, a small kitchen, and a residential cell for the teacher. They receive an education with lessons in English, math, Buddhist philosophy, debate, and Tibetan grammar, from May to September, taught by a visiting monk, who comes from The Central Institute of Buddhist Study (CIBS) in Leh. I did enjoy the spectacle of watching to young nuns learning Buddhist debate. They were very excited to be learning this practice!
Little nuns share living space with older nuns. The Nunnery doesn’t have enough room for separate living space for girls. They would like to build a residence and school for the little nuns to live, play, and study together.
Adult nuns have a part-time teacher, a geshe from South India who comes in the summer. Last year the were studying Buddhist philosophy and were amazed to learn about cause and effect. This year the were studying rituals.
Tungri Phuntsog Ling
I next visited the nunnery at Tungri Phuntsog Ling. The prayer hall on their grounds is built around a temple that is approximately 500 years old.
There are 13 adult nuns and 13 child nuns at Tungri — the youngest is four and oldest 86 years old.
The child nuns have a basic education provided from May to October by a visiting nun, who comes from Leh. Generally, adult nuns do not have the opportunity to study Buddhist philosophy and ritual practice. Instead, the older nuns teach the newer nuns the ritual practices they know.
There has never been a teacher at the nunnery — and it is very important to the nuns to acquire a teacher.
Most of the villages in the Zanskar valley practice Buddhism. Villages close to nunneries support them by making requests and small donations for the pujas the nuns provide. Tungri is supported in this way by a nearby village. Some of the nuns’ cells are in need of repair.
Tungri nunnery also gets some help from occasional tourists. Tourists will visit the older nunneries and make a donation. They will tour their temples. (Unfortunately, the newer nunneries don’t have this way to gather funds.)
Tungri, like the other nunneries, depends on hydroelectricity generated by the river. Unfortunately, in the fall — as the river slowly freezes up — the hydro is interrupted.
In the bleak and cold of winter — when they need it the most — there is mostly no electricity.
One way we hope to help in future is with solar panels for each of the nunneries. The nunneries all have running water in the summer, mostly from glacial runoff.
During the winter this freezes up so the nuns must collect water for daily use.
The funds from GRP were distributed to the nuns at Tungri, along with reading glasses to the older nuns.
Sani Kachod Ling Nunnery
The next day we visited Sani Kachod Ling nunnery, which is a Kagyu nunnery located next to a Baden monastery.
There are 8 adult nuns. They practice Vajrayogini and Chod under guidance by their teacher, an accomplished yogi Monk from Baden monastery. The nuns have instruction in Buddhist ritual and practices, provided by the monastery. In the future, the nuns hope to construct retreat rooms and do three-year retreats.
The nunnery had just completed building a common area for the nuns to use for communal cooking and eating. The building erected by the local villagers, who provide the labor as a donation — but as volunteers, it took several years to complete.
In the winter, only one nun at the time can do three-month Vajrayogini retreat, as there is only enough solar-powered light for one — and the other nuns need to clear the snow and see to running the nunnery. There is no hydro in the winter, so we gave them three solar lanterns we had bought in Padum.
The nuns plant vegetables, and flowers, and grow whatever they can. Their gardens were still there for me to see during my visit. The picture above is the local greenhouse.
They have planted some trees on the grounds, mostly poplars that help prevent landslides. The trees don’t grow naturally here but they hope to plant more seedling trees on the grounds.
Padmasambhava spent five years in this cave, giving instruction to five female students.
I had planned to go to see the cave myself, but when I found out the nuns from Sani planned to go there to do Puja, we arranged to go together. We climbed two hours up the steep mountain to the cave. You genuinely can feel the very special energy of this cave where Padmasambhava meditated and taught, especially after centuries of Buddhist practice. It’s a privilege not only to have an opportunity to visit this cave — and to be there together with Sani nuns.
Pishu Namgyal Choling Nunnery
The next visit was to Pishu Namgyal Choling nunnery.
This nunnery is Nyingma. Pishu was founded sometime in the 19th century, although the oldest prayer hall existed long before the nunnery. The roof of the temple is in need of repair, leaking so badly that the scriptures and most precious items must be kept in the communal room. There are six quick-witted nuns. the oldest is 90-years old and still goes for the pujas in the village — an hours walk away.
The main income for the nunnery comes from donations from pujas requested by the local village — and the very occasional tourist visiting the temple.
In the past there was a resident teacher providing instruction — so a few of the elderly nuns received very good teachings and have been able to pass these on to the younger nuns.
They are Chod practitioners and some of them have also completed a three-year retreat — an amazing accomplishment with considering the harsh living conditions.
The nuns were given 3 solar lanterns, reading glasses, and the funds from GRP.
Zangla Byangchub Choling nunnery
The next day we went to Zangla Byangchub Choling nunnery. There are 10 adult nuns and 15 child nuns living there.
The temple on the grounds is approximately 500 years old. This nunnery is located near one of the more well-off villages which was once the traditional seat of a local king. Compared to the other nunneries we visited, they appear to be quite well supported.
Still, many of their basic needs are not met. They need new latrines, a passive solar water house, like in Karsha, containing a cement water storage tank that prevents freezing. The school for the children is very small — see the photo above — and enlarging it would make it more comfortable for study. They also need school supplies.
This past summer the adult nuns were fortunate to have a visiting monk, a Geshe, who provided them with instruction in Buddhist philosophy and ritual practice.
Instruction for the little nuns is provided by one of the adult nuns who has studied in Leh. She is quite passionate about educating the little nuns. She also gives them English language instruction. The children spoke well enough to perform a concert for me in English!
Last year after my visit to Zanskar one of the little nuns from Zangla became very ill, needing surgery. Zasep Tulku Rinpoche raised funds to pay for Stanzin’s medical bills.
I was able to visit with her, and then with her family. The nuns were all very grateful for the help with this situation.
Manda Padma Choling nunnery
Next, I visited Manda Padma Choling nunnery.
There are 10 nuns, the oldest of them is 40 years old. This nunnery is fairly new compared to the other nunneries and not well supported so the nuns are struggling to keep the nunnery going.
Still, when the money from GRP distributed to them, they said they felt its “too much” — even though they need a new temple. The existing one has a small room next to a communal room, and has no tables or rugs for the floors. We took the nuns to Padum to buy them winter jackets and shoes. GRP funds paid for installing a second layer of glass to insulate the windows in the common room. The nunnery has no proper kitchen for them to cook together.
Water for daily use is drawn from a stream in summer. In winter this stream freezes so the nuns’ journey quite far to collect water from the river. The nuns urgently need a pipe system that will carry water directly to the nunnery.
The nuns and local people collect dung, as there no gas or wood to burn for heat in the winter. The nuns have individual cells but double up in winter so they have fewer rooms to heat.
The nunnery has one cow but no winter barn for it so it must be walked by one of the nuns every fall to Padum, about two days walk — so one of the villagers can care for the cow through the winter. They have a little greenhouse.
Zanskar valley is rich in history, and many significant Buddhist teachers have taught in this area in the past. Many practitioners meditated in the caves and huts over the centuries. Some very ancient meditation huts are nearby. While lunch was being prepared some of the nuns took me for a walk showing me some of these local sites. (Photo inset above and below.)
The nuns also very kindly asked a local tailor sew a vest for me, made from wool from the sheep in the area. I was deeply touched that they would spend money on this when they have so many needs of their own.
Cha Dolma Ling Nunnery
Cha nunnery was visited next. There are 5 adult nuns here. This nunnery is the most remote, with the harshest living conditions.
There is no electricity here. They are outside of cell phone coverage. The nunnery itself is located on a cliff face. A very rough new road to Manali was completed through the area last year.
Before this rough road, the nuns walked for three days overland — one way — just to get to Padum to buy food they would then carry back. Now food can be delivered by truck from Padum, if you’re brave enough to drive the single-lane road winding around the mountains.
The nuns are very devoted practitioners of Tara. Located above the nunnery nearby is an emanation of Tara on the rock face so the nuns are very happy to practice here despite the very harsh living conditions.
The nuns were given 5 solar lanterns, much to their delight, and blankets. The funds from GRP allowed them to buy food and other supplies to get through the winter.
Rizhing Dorje Dzong nunnery
Rizhing Dorje Dzong nunnery was visited next. This is one of the oldest nunneries in the valley. There are seven nuns, two of them 88-years old.
The site has deep historical significance and many religious artifacts.
They have two prayer halls, both about 600 years old.
Historically, Ladakhi monk Byangsems Sherab Zangpo (1395-1457), one of the foremost disciples of the LamaTsongkhapa, commissioned the construction of a statue of Maitreya at the temple site at Dorje Dzong. According to the stories, during the statue’s construction, the features of the deity began to resemble that of a woman rather than a man and it was decided that therefore the monastic site at Dorje Dzong was better suited for a nunnery.
The buildings are very old and slowly crumbling. Tourists occasionally come by to see the historical buildings, which brings in a small amount of income for the nunnery. The nearby road was built by the government and is in a good state of repair.
The nunnery has year-round access to water from a stream nearby that doesn’t completely freeze up in winter, so they are fortunate compared to other nunneries in the valley. A concrete water cistern for water storage was repaired in the summer so water is available when the stream does freeze up.
This is winter kitchen:
We gave them the distribution of funds from GRP. The nuns requested some remedies for arthritis — so when we returned to Padum we bought some and arranged for it to be delivered to the nuns.
Skyagam Phagmo Ling
Skyagam Phagmo Ling was the last nunnery visited. There are fifteen adult nuns and eighteen child nuns.
This nunnery, compared to the other nunneries, is well supported. Solar electricity is available from a nearby government-built solar farm. Several villages nearby provide support to the nunnery. Their prayer hall is relatively comfortable.
This past summer instruction for religious practice was available to the adult nuns from a visiting monk who is a Geshe. Instruction for the child nuns was provided by a nun from the CIBS in Leh. The children are given basic Buddhist education as well as instruction in the usual grammar school subjects.
The nunnery’s main needs are ritual items needed for practice and they dream about a year-round greenhouse.
The funds from GRP were given to the nuns, after which we returned to Karsha nunnery.
Summary of Our Activities in Zanskar Valley
Although the funds distributed to each of the nunneries seems fairly modest by Canadian standards, they significantly contributed to the betterment of the nuns’ quality of life.
Gaden Relief Projects is committed to continuing to fundraise on the nuns’ behalf. They ask for very little, yet need so much. We hope you’ll be part of this fund-raising initiative in 2020.