Nepal’s Kung Fu Nuns Are Using Martial Arts For Peace
In the world of the Buddhist monastic system, the role of nuns is often one of a second-class caretaker: cook, clean and carry on with the nominal tasks seen as beneath the skill set of their male monk counterparts. Hundreds of nuns from a Buddhist sect called the Drupka (or Dragon) Order in Tibet are using martial arts to change that practice, and along the way they’re showing how kung fu has helped give them the strength and confidence they call upon daily in their ongoing fight to raise awareness of a variety of issues and causes.
That Nun Life
Generally speaking, the words kung fu and nun typically don’t go together. The occurrence is almost as conflicting as a vegan wearing leather. Since traditional nuns aren’t ordinarily seen in the public, the media paints the ideology of the nun-life to be completely filled with obedience and virginity.
Adorned in modest clothing and head coverings, it is hard to envision a proverbial nun engaging in a Bruce Lee-inspired roundhouse kick. However, the powerful and unapologetic nuns of the Gyalwang Drukpa monastery are reinventing how the world sees physical and spiritual strength. Their mission? To use the ancient practice of martial arts to promote gender equality and essentially, save the world.
The Nuns of the Monastic Community
In the Buddhist faith, monks and nuns are seen as spiritual pillars who serve as thoughtful examples of wisdom. Their disciplined lifestyle is met with the expectation of receiving ultimate enlightenment at the end of their earthly journey. Because monks and nuns place a high value on spirituality, certain behaviors are considered destructive in nature. Marriage, sex, employment and vanity are only a few of the sacrifices these individuals make. It is with their hope that this disciplined lifestyle will increase their divine connection to be “rid of the bonds of habitual thought and behavior.”
Despite popular misconceptions, the spiritual aspect of Buddhism places a welcoming emphasis on equality; specifically between men and women. However, societal influences misconstrue the original orthodox Buddhist teachings. Certain monasteries place women in a subservient position while adorning men, or monks, with lofty titles of leadership. This gap in responsibility shields women from being all that they are capable of achieving. In fact, some subcultures even disregard women the right to basic humane respect.
A Powerful Connection
Because of this skewed viewpoint, one man sought to change how traditional Buddhism designated rights to women. His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the progressive schools of Vajrayana Buddhism quoted, “The Buddha explained very clearly that all beings, regardless of male or female, have the potential to attain Buddhahood.
They all possess the primordial Buddha nature, and therefore they deserve an equal chance of enlightenment.” In 2008, a trip to Vietnam sparked his interest in kung fu training. The nuns there were being trained in martial arts as a protective means. After witnessing how powerful and utterly astonishing this connection was, the Gyalwang Drukpa brought the practice back to his temple.
Brawn, Brains and Beauty
This empowering message rings loudly amongst the spiritual community of the female nuns of the Druk Gawa Khilwa Abbey monastery of Nepal. The aforementioned Gyalwang Drukpa sought to redefine how religion and society view women in religion. The female disciples of the Lord Buddha are 2,500 years in the making of progression. Although traditionally clad and sporting a fierce buzzcut, these mighty nuns pack a punch — literally.
At the crack of dawn, myriads of maroon-ensembled women can be seen practicing kung fu martial arts at the Buddhist temple. With legs spread and elbows crossed in karate style motion, their stance is nothing short of energizing. While many would assume that women nuns would possess domesticated duties, the Gyalwang Drukpa places a stark emphasis on learning self-defense tactics.
This empowering belief system serves as a protection and symbol of reformation amongst a rather patriarchal society. Daily, over 350 nuns, primarily from impoverished areas of India and Tibet, gather at 5 AM to receive their martial arts training. These lovely ladies aren’t only trained in fight, they are also taught how to handle weaponry; something usually reserved for men in combat.
These weapons aren’t run of the mill, either. The ki am, for example, is an elongated sword roughly 30 centimeters (12 inches) in length. The nunchaku (that’s right, nunchucks) is also used prominently in their training. In orthodox teachings, the power of prayer is emphasized as a mighty weapon. However, the nuns here have a drastically different mantra.
One nun who spoke to Reuters said, “People think that because we are nuns, we are supposed to stay in the temples and pray all the time. But, praying is not enough.” They view spirituality as a connecting force between faith in a higher divinity and community purpose. Their means of achieving their full duty rests on their actions. The women are so well equipped in the art of kung fu, they have even performed at London’s Olympic Park and CERN.
Women Are Strong as Hell
The nuns begin their kung fu training as early as 10 years old. Daily, they undergo three sessions that require strict discipline. Photos of the women alone portray beautiful images of strength and confidence. Konchok, a nun in the monastery stated, “Kung fu helps us to develop a certain kind of confidence to take care of ourselves and others in times of need.” Their exercises are lovely demonstrations of selflessness.
The Gyalwang Drukpa has been advocating for the empowerment of women since 2009. He stated, “My karma (mission) is to take care of women and nuns. In our culture, no matter what they do, they are always second to men. I am fighting this attitude.” In fact, until recently, women were prohibited from engaging in ancient martial arts exercises. Therefore, this organized initiative is quite revolutionary in comparison to previous generations.
Because women are seen as submissive, weak individuals, they are often victims of unsolicited attacks. By teaching them traditional kung fu methods, the women are able to properly defend themselves against possible attackers. Jugme Wangchuk is a 15-year-old nun who has been studying kung fu for three years, speaks highly of the provided exercises. “We feel safer when we have to go downtown or shopping on our own.”
Almost every nun in the monastery possesses a black belt; the highest degree of martial arts. Messing with them would be an unfortunate decision for any regretful attacker!
They are even able to break bricks with their bare hands, something widely popularized in the Western world. Although martial arts have been used as a means of entertainment, the male influence on the culture is dominant. When contemplating the cultural influencers widely represented in kung fu films, a vast majority are men. Women are often portrayed in a secondary or sensual light as opposed to exuding power.
Self-Confidence and Awareness
Although martial arts provides action-packed entertainment and killer moves, there really is a hidden art behind the “hi-ya!” Martial arts has been used as a means to connect the mind, body and soul through concentration. This integrative form of meditation emphasizes self-confidence and awareness.
Jigme Konchok, a five-year practitioner explains, “I need to be constantly aware of my movement, know whether it is right or not, and correct it immediately if necessary. I must focus my attention on the sequence of movements that I have memorized and on each movement at once. If the mind wanders, then the movement is not right or the stick falls. It is the same in meditation.” This exercise enables them to be alert when navigating the streets of Nepal when possible danger could strike.
Trample the Patriarchy
Their spiritual training goes far beyond impressive moves and dangerous weaponry. Martial arts as a practice embodies what it means to be a strong person. Lhamo, one of the nuns, explains how kung fu isn’t focused on violent behavior. “Kung fu is not meant to attack people or fight with them. It prepares you for enduring difficult situations,” she says. “In fact, the ancient definition of kung fu is “human achievement.” For the women of the Druk Gawa nunnery, their human achievement emphasizes gender equality in an extreme sense.
The Gyalwang Drukpa’s efforts to preserve and create sustainable rights for women doesn’t stop with kung fu. The women of the monastery are able to receive a quality education on a wide variety of skills, including plumbing, electrical, administrative duties and language development.
Empowerment, Purpose and Worth
They are given the privilege of managing on-site facilities and even group prayers. Outside of the monastery, monks are traditionally the ones engaging in these “masculine” activities. This provides a source of empowerment, purpose and worthiness to the women of the temple. They are even given lessons on advocacy by engaging in community efforts.
Being There When Tragedy Strikes
When the nuns aren’t breaking boundaries with nunchucks or slicing bricks in half, they are pillars of the community. In 2015, a dangerous earthquake rocked the city of Nepal. Nearly 9,000 individuals died, with intense physical damage being done to residential and historical structures. Amongst this devastating loss was visible damage to the nun’s sanctuary.
Fixing the World
One noteworthy report stated, “The earthquake shook the sprawling Buddhist nunnery near this village in the western valley of Kathmandu so violently that the nuns jumped through shattered glass windows, smashed open rattling doors and dived over a collapsing staircase.” They began reconstructing not only their monastery but assisting fellow villagers with rebuilding projects.
From cleaning up debris to providing hot meals for those left destitute, the women truly encompass what it means to be neighborly. Konchok, a technical support manager of the monastery, explained how helping those in their community is a form of spirituality.
Exercising the Spirit
“Community duty is also a form of spiritual exercise, and our strong limbs are now trained to work hard and for long hours.” Their intense education in basic life skills came in handy when participating in their relief work.
Testimonials from local survivors ring with astonishment and appreciation. One woman expressed, “I lost my daughter and my husband in the earthquake. My house is destroyed. I have nothing left. The kung fu nuns said they will give me a hand because I have no older person in my family now to help. I did not ask them for help, they came on their own.”
While rebuilding an entire city off the merits of kindness, the nuns also exposed themselves to the deadly swine flu. Photos show the women dressed in their traditional maroon garb, moving rocks with protective masks and gloves. This shows their heartless and flexible dedication towards helping their community. The earthquake not only contributed to nationwide devastation, it also opened the doors for another pressing issue: human sex trafficking.
Changing Minds, Changing Laws
This natural disaster left thousands of families vulnerable to attack, lacking basic necessities and an overall cut-off from government organizations. Individuals who previously engaged in sex trafficking rings took advantage of this sensitive opportunity. Women and children were kidnapped and sold into the sex trade as a means to provide economic security for those involved.
Prior to the devastation, human trafficking was already a significant issue in Nepal that impacts nearly 500 young women and girls daily. This statistic does not account for the countless victims being exploited for monetary gain under the radar. In Pakistan and other countries surrounding the area, young women are forced into arranged marriages starting as young as 12. This socially accepted approach is somewhat of a currency system that provides monetarily to either the girls family or those responsible for the ordeal.
Although the country of Nepal is steadily attempting to redefine their laws to ultimately prosecute those running the sex trade, their efforts are often too late. This creates an overwhelming threat to the quality of life and endangerment of women. That is until the kung fu nuns swiftly came through to save the day.
Marathons in the Himalayas
In August of 2016, roughly 500 of the warrior nuns completed a 4000 kilometer (2,485 mile) bicycle marathon through the Himalayan Mountainside. They began their mission in Nepal and ended in Leh, India; a journey full of mountainous terrain, rocks and steep valleys. No longer adorned in traditional maroon garb, the women wore pink and orange cycling gear that even Neil Armstrong would envy. Although the kung fu nuns are known for engaging in physical activity, this particular exercise was for a much deeper purpose.
Societal Norms and Values
The women of the Kathmandu are engaging in rather extreme efforts to break these societal norms and potentially demonstrate to their peers their worth. Because a vast majority of the nuns are from these impoverished communities, they understand the magnitude of the human sex trade.
Biking for Inclusivity
Unfortunately, some may have been exposed to the ramifications of this taboo industry. As a result, this epic quest was a from-the-heart effort to raise awareness on this issue. One biker explained, “We wanted to do something to change this attitude that girls are less than boys and that it’s okay to sell them. (this biking event) Shows that women have power and strength like men.”
Out of the 500 endangered young people, only two were reportedly men. Although this statistic may be inaccurate due to the remoteness of the area, the majority of those that make up the sex trafficking population exploit women. This shows the societal impact that sex trafficking has on the entire population of Nepal, thus influencing the overall social climate.
Strength Against Stigma
If young women are taught that their lives are meaningless from a young age, it is safe to conclude that self-love is nonexistent. In addition, young men who are exposed to women being exploited may begin to view all women as objects. By their drastic display of strength, the nuns are breaking the stigma surrounding gender roles. They are teaching young women that they can escape the sex trade and develop a sense of self-worth and self-empowerment. Their example sheds an incomparable light on how major acts truly go unnoticed.
Although some orthodox Buddhists look down on the alternative teachings of the Drukpa school, the women are continuing to spread their message of empowerment. In August of 2017, the kung fu nuns began their next step in community fulfillment – education.
The Harsh Numbers
The National Crime Records Bureau found that in 2015, 34,651 cases of sexual assault were reported in India. This rough estimate only scratches the surface of what investigators believe to be a reality. Many women of the community are apprehensive to speak up due to fear, shame, or the fact that they may not be taken seriously. When the nuns realized the implications of this statistic, they began to develop a plan.
Martial Arts for All
They have re-shifted their mission towards teaching women outside of the nunnery the skills they themselves have acquired. This includes self-defense training, language acquisition and, ultimately, confidence. Their kung fu classes may be the first time these young women become introduced to a level of empowerment so great that it was forbidden to women for centuries.
Inclusivity and Embracing Diversity
However, this all-to-frequent cultural blockade does not stop the impeccable nuns from striving for greatness. The classes are non-denominational and open to women of various backgrounds. Now, the message of alternative action is being delivered to areas that need it the most.
The primary takeaway isn’t the pure fascination of nuns doing kung fu. Nor is it their stylish take on modest adornment. Rather, it is their determination to fight against a system that guaranteed their failure. A societal climate that placed their worth as secondary and weak. So much so, the majority of women fear for their lives on a daily basis. The kung fu nuns bridge the gap between spirituality and strength in the most elegant manner.
Attitude and Confidence
Their efforts are inspirational and life-changing for the future population of little girls. The overall sentiments of Jigme Rigzin, a nun from Nubra, India, encompass the inner attitude of these phenomenal ladies. “After we do kung fu we feel more energy, more confidence. Sometimes we [meet other nuns who are] very shy, who don’t say anything. We feel very sad [for them]; we say this is not good. His Holiness always teaches us to say whatever you want.”
Did You Know?
- In 2008 His Holiness, the Gyalwang Drukpa, decided that Buddhism needed to start giving nuns the respect and treatment afforded monks.
- After visiting Vietnam and witnessing nuns there being trained in martial arts, he decided to bring that idea back with him and use it to help the nuns within the Dragon Order.
- He disliked how Buddhist nuns were looked upon by society in general, and began giving them leadership roles within the sect. He also felt they would need the kung fu training to help defend themselves against those that might oppose his changes.
- There are currently 350 nuns ranging in age from 10 to 25 who now take part in thrice-daily martial arts training sessions.
- In 2016, 500 nuns cycled 4000 km (2,485 miles) from Kathmandu in Nepal to the city of Leh in northern India to help bring attention to the issue of human trafficking.
- It was one of four such trips the nuns have done, and with it they hoped to make people aware of the human rights abuses directed at women still going on across South Asia.
- Due to recent severe environmental conditions such as earthquakes, the trafficking of women and female children has skyrocketed in the region.
- Women and children from poorer rural areas are being sold or rented to businesses, homes and brothels in urban areas.
- Besides demonstrating their kung fu prowess, the nuns (many of whom have black belts) preach a message of diversity and tolerance.
- Speaking to Reuters, one kung fu nun had this to say: “People think that because we are nuns, we are supposed to stay in the temples and pray all the time. But praying is not enough.”
Sources and Video
- ‘Kung Fu’ nuns bike Himalayas to oppose human trafficking
- The Kung Fu nuns of Nepal
- How Kathmandu’s ‘kung fu nuns’ sprang into action after the quake
- Buddhist nuns embrace the power of kung fu
- Female Disciples of Lord Buddha
- Becoming A Member Of A Monastic Community
- 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report
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