Preserving the Dharma: The Encouraging Tale of Buddhist Nuns in North East India

For centuries, Buddhism has played an important role in the culture and religious beliefs of North East India. However, female involvement in Buddhist practice has been largely limited due to entrenched patriarchal social structures and religious institutions. This has been the case since the time of the Buddha himself, illustrating the complex and rich history of Buddhism in the region.

Buddhist Nuns at monastery in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh
Buddhist Nuns at monastery in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh

Today, however, the landscape is shifting, thanks to the growing presence and activism of Buddhist nuns in the region. These pioneering women are courageously challenging long-held beliefs about the role of women in Buddhist practice, and creating new opportunities for themselves within the tradition. By doing so, they are both standing up to patriarchy and upholding the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings on the path to liberation.

At the forefront of this movement is the Jangchub Choling Institute, also known as Gyangong Ani Gompa, a Buddhist nunnery located in the town of Tawang of Arunachal Pradesh. Founded in 1993, the nunnery has become a hub for Buddhist education and practice, attracting women from across North East India and beyond. Today, it is home to over 200 nuns, making it one of the largest and most influential institutions of its kind in the region.

Legend has it that Merak Lama Lodroe Gyatso had a sister who was a nun. As no woman could reside in the Tawang monastery, he constructed a meditation cave for his sister. She was provided provisions from the Tawang monastery. As the number of nuns residing in the meditation retreat constructed by Merak Lama for his sister increased with the passage of time, it eventually turned into a nunnery and came to be known as Jangchub Choeling / Gyangong Ani Gompa.

The nuns of Jangchub Choling are not just studying the dharma; they are actively engaged in spreading it to their communities. Through their work in schools, hospitals, and orphanages, they are bringing the teachings of the Buddha to those who might not otherwise have access to them. They are also breaking down barriers between different Buddhist schools, and collaborating with monks and nuns from other traditions to promote greater understanding and harmony.

But the nuns of Jangchub Choling have persevered and managed to create a successful and sustainable community. Through hard work and dedication, they have been able to build a strong support network among their peers and local monasteries, and have gained recognition from the government. They now have access to proper facilities and resources, and are able to participate in rituals and ceremonies. They are also respected within their communities, and their voices are heard and taken seriously.

The nuns of Jangchub Choling have achieved a level of autonomy and recognition that many other Buddhist nuns in India can only dream of. They are a shining example of what can be accomplished when dedication and perseverance are combined with a commitment to build a better future.

Despite the challenges they faced, the nuns of Jangchub Choling stayed strong and resilient. They created their own governing body and developed an extensive curriculum, which not only includes traditional Buddhist studies, but also English, computer skills, and social work. Furthermore, they have taken on leadership roles within the nunnery, acting as administrators, teachers, and mentors for the younger nuns.

Perhaps most importantly, they have challenged the patriarchal assumptions that have long been embedded within the Buddhist tradition. They have demonstrated that women can be just as devoted, knowledgeable, and competent as men when it comes to the practice of dharma. They have also re-envisioned the role of women within Buddhist communities, asserting that nuns can and should be empowered to serve as leaders in their own right.

The nuns of Jangchub Choling are not simply isolated in their endeavors; they are part of a larger movement across North East India. Buddhist nuns are challenging the patriarchal norms that have long dominated the religion and creating new opportunities for themselves within the Buddhist tradition. This is not only being done through activism, but also through embodying the dharma. By living a life of mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, these women are proving that they can be just as devoted and proficient in spiritual practice as men.

Of course, there is still much work to be done to tackle the deep-rooted patriarchy in North East Indian society and the Buddhist tradition. Women continue to face formidable barriers to fully participate in religious life, and their contributions are often overlooked or not given the value they deserve. It is of paramount importance that we strive to break down these outdated gender-based restrictions and recognize the valuable contributions of women in the religious sphere.

The Buddhist nuns of North East India are transforming the very fabric of Buddhist practice in the region. Through their commitment to the dharma, their activism, and their embodiment of the teachings, they are challenging patriarchal norms and creating new pathways for themselves within the tradition. Their achievements are a testament to the potential of spiritual practice to effect real and lasting positive change – not just in the lives of individuals, but in the wider social and cultural contexts in which we all live. As we take a moment to recognize and celebrate their accomplishments, let us also pledge to support their ongoing struggles to promote equality and justice within the Buddhist community and beyond. (ANI)

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