Monday, April 14, 2014

Encountering the Nuns of Zanskar

Dominique Butet
Photography by Olivier Adam
To view the original French version of this article (with photos) click here.

Zanskar, situated at the extreme northwest of India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is an isolated valley above 13,000 feet. It’s one of the most elevated areas to be populated in the Himalayas. There, in the heat of the summer on paths of wind and dust, it is not unusual to come across lively undulations of red fabric, capped by orange hats of felt—so go the nuns! Many nunneries have been established there, perched high over the valley.

Today, Zanskar has ten nunneries, nine of which belong to the Gelugpa order. Some, such as Karsha and Dorje Dzong, are close to Padum, the capital, while others such as Pishu are much more isolated. Some house up to twenty nuns, while others house barely seven or eight. Some have a school, others do not—or not yet. In the winter, when all pipelines freeze, the nuns have to travel far down to the river to fetch water, breaking the ice and then ascending again quickly to find refuge in rooms where the ceilings have so little insulation that snow and cold seep in. But it’s the profound isolation that one needs to survive, an isolation that only long rituals can transcend. Nonetheless, all have the uncompromising will to exist and flourish, mingling religious fervor with an incredible sense of collective life where all ages cohabit, from nine to over eighty-four!

The largest of these communities is Karsha, with twenty-two nuns and a school maintained by the village. Its school buildings stand directly in front of the monastery. The majority of the Karsha nuns are initiated in the tantric yoga of Vajrayogini, the dakini that is the essence of all Buddhas. Invited to a puja that celebrates the full moon, we attended their renewal of Mahayana vows, a long ceremony punctuated by generous offerings and tsog. One nun, when questioned about her life at the nunnery, tells us “Suffering arrives through the will of others, but happiness—that depends on our own will.” Every evening, they practice meditation and visualization relying on the female embodiment of their protective divinity. The preliminary steps of this tantric initiation imbued with asceticism prepare the nuns for the intensity of celibacy awaiting them, while helping at the same time purify their doors of perception.

In July 2012 excitement welcomes us to Dorje Dzong. The seven nuns there are undertaking the enormous project of building a school, located approximately a hundred meters below the original nunnery where the foundation dates back to the fourteenth century. Tirelessly, these women dig and transport sand, shape bricks of mud, and support the team of workers on-site. There is no time for them to attend the Tibetan classes offered this summer by Palden, a young teacher sent from Dharamsala. Work takes priority!

The two eldest nuns, spry at eighty-one, harvest barley, washing it in the river and packing the grain in bags after drying. In their harsh day-to-day life, mantras accompany them, constantly recited. In spite of the difficulties of their lives their spirits seem young and their innate joy ever-present. During a break in the garden, Tsering Puttin hides her face in the flowers, bursts into laughter, and plays with us and our camera by making faces. Then suddenly, she straightens up and while reciting prayers, proceeds to climb the steep path to the nunnery where a puja for Tara will be celebrated. On her way, she picks a few daisies she will place as an offering on the temple altar.

Further over in the valley, in the town of Pishu, the elder nuns there also overflow with a natural spirituality. Almost eighty-seven, Kunzom Dolma circumambulates around the temple in little steps for one hour every evening. She stops on occasion to catch her breath, resting on her cane. Another nun, eighty-three-year-old Tsering Dolkar, sits outside in front of her room and turns her prayer wheel with devotion. Mantras flow from her mouth while she removes shells from peas or fills her drum of water at the well. Everything in her breathes practice. It should be noted that in this community, the nuns traditionally dedicate themselves to chod. Founded by Machik Labdron in the eleventh century, this practice includes a meditation in which one’s own body is visualized as dismembered and offered to demons. Arising from this practice comes a state of freedom from fear and great detachment.

The younger nuns tell us of their future, of their desire to deepen their grasp of the teachings, and their hopes to take English lessons. They bemoan the lack of teachers and think of leaving to pursue their studies in Dharamsala at a better-structured nunnery in a more urban setting.

Offering answers to questions about life, survival, and spiritual engagement, three days of teachings are given by the Dalai Lama at the Photang [the Dalai Lama’s residence] of Padum in late July, culminating with the initiation of Avalokitesvara. All of Zanskar is present, many wearing gleaming peraks [headdresses] and their most beautiful costumes. The nuns, draped in their simple red robes, are seated in the front rows near His Holiness. He delivers targeted messages, simple yet significant. He urges the cultivation of profound joy and underlines the specifics of the teachings that are so true to Buddhism—keys to the Dharma—the study that serves to achieve goodness and perfection. His Holiness points to the necessity of a good education for all, both girls and boys, and the importance of recruiting good teachers. The Dalai Lama invites the Zanskaris to take advantage of winters and study Buddhist texts in their homes or monasteries, and to turn their backs on alcohol, a true curse in areas submerged in snow. Finally, he stresses training the mind through regular practice of meditation and recitation of mantras, the only path that protects us from negative emotions and helps us to overcome suffering.

The extraordinary fervor of these three days, punctuated by a foundational initiation, will undoubtedly have given each the strength to pursue a path of a spiritual practice that is deeply rooted in daily difficulties, wherever the location—whether in the city, the countryside, or the frozen expanse of the snow-clad Himalayas.

All photos courtesy of Olivier Adam; Dharma Eye

Dominique Butet

Dominique Butet was born in 1968. She studied geography and became a teacher, first in France and then in Morocco, where she got a taste of other cultures. After meeting Olivier Adam in 2010, she discovered Buddhism during a visit to nunneries around Dharamsala, India. In partnership with Olivier, a photographer, she decided to document the daily life and stories of the nuns by interviewing those who fled from Tibet to India. Together Dominique and Olivier decided to extend the project to nuns across the Himalayas. Dakinis, their series on the Buddhist female universe, also contains recordings of rituals. During July and August 2012, Dominique and Olivier explored the nunneries of Zanskar. At the moment they are working in Nepal, and planning to visit Mustang and Bhutan in the near future. Dominique is a writer for the French magazine, Regard Bouddhiste.

Olivier Adam

Born in 1969, Olivier Adam is a physicist and a graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Over the years he has become a photographer and now teaches at Auguste Renoir, a photography school in Paris. For several years he has been studying Tibetan culture and Buddhism, attending Kalachakra classes taught by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Olivier belongs to a humanist tradition and rituals, women and their universe hold an important place in his photos. He has worked on the books Kalachakra: un Mandala pour la Paix, published by Editions de la Martinière, and Le Dalaï Lama: Appel au monde, published by Éditions du Seuil. Since 2008 he has been interested in the lives of Tibetan nuns in exile. He began documenting their stories at five nunneries near Dharamsala and went further to meet former political prisoners—nuns who were granted shelter in the Western world. Dakinis, a series on the Buddhist female universe, consisting of sounds and interviews collected by Dominique Butet (Olivier’s wife), now extends to nuns across the Himalayas. This project is made possible through collaboration with the Tibetan Nuns Project and the Jamyang Foundation. Olivier is a also a regular photographer for the French magazine Regard Bouddhiste.

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