The Druk Amitabha Mountain Monastery in Kathmandu is home to hundreds of young nuns rewriting their place in the Buddhist hierarchy, while using kung fu to spread a message of human rights and gender equality in villages across the Himalayas.

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Kung Fu Nuns kick gender stereotypes, strike a pose for equality

The Druk Amitabha Mountain Monastery in Kathmandu is the home of hundreds of young nuns rewriting their place in the Buddhist hierarchy, while spreading a message of human rights and gender equality in villages across the Himalayas through kung fu.

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The Kung Fu Nuns of Drukpa Order strike a traditional pose with their fans during a training session at the Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery in Kathmandu. 
This is the home to hundreds of 14 to 30-year-old nuns, rewriting their place in the Buddhist hierarchy, while empowering girls from villages across the Himalayas - through Kung Fu.

The Kung Fu Nuns of the Drukpa Order strike a traditional pose with their fans during a training session at the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

This is the home of hundreds of nuns between 14 and 30 years old, who are rewriting their place in the Buddhist hierarchy, while using kung fu to spread a message of human rights and gender equality in villages across the Himalayas.

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While many of the Himalayan Buddhist nuns like Jigme Karuna Chosdon joined at a young age, there is no age limit and the call to faith is always a personal choice. Some have left jobs as policewomen, teachers and veterinarians - with 25 new girls joining the Nepalese nunnery last year alone. Soft spoken and yet confident in her testimony, the journey to faith of 29-year-old Jigme Migyur Palmo is echoed by many: "When his Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa came to our village and talked about how important girls are, and how important it is to provide equal opportunities, I was very inspired." His Holiness was the first to put Buddhist nuns in positions of leadership, in an effort to shift of power dynamics - and gave teachings meant only for monks. "From then, I decided to become a nun." 

The Durkpa lineage of the Himalayan Buddhists is led by a monk known as His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, who rewrote the rules about females being seen as second-class citizens and gave nuns leadership positions and teachings meant for only monks in an effort to shift power dynamics. With nuns in India and Nepal less valued in past decades, the number of which was much lower than it is today.

"After we arrived, there was a lot of change. His Holiness has always been someone who has spoken out for women empowerment and gender equality, so our nuns have always been different from others. We have had many opportunities that other nuns will never have." The monastery is just 27-years-old but is a home to more than 1,000 Buddhist nuns that rotate through its doors.

Like Jigme Karuna Chosdon, many of the nuns joined the order at a young age. Around 25 young women and girls from India, Nepal and Bhutan came to the Nepalese nunnery last year alone. Some have left jobs as policewomen, teachers and veterinarians.

The nunnery opened almost 30 years ago with a mission to promote gender equality and empower the nuns, who have in turn taken it upon themselves to empower all women. There are now more than 1,000 Himalayan Buddhist nuns in the Drukpa Order who rotate among nunneries across India and Nepal.

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In the process of being indoctrinated as a Himalayan Buddhist nun, an electric razor skims the scalp of each woman shortly before maroon robes are donned. "Hair is our most treasured jewel as a woman," confesses Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, one of the longest-serving nuns at Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery. "Our head is shaved though to break this deep attachment." In its place, the women search for internal purpose and satisfaction.
Cycling from Kathmandu, Nepal to Ladakh, India over a period of three months they stopped at every remote village possible. "Sometimes we stayed in gurdwaras, sometimes we stayed in temples, and sometimes we stayed on Muslim ground near a Masjid," recalled Lhamo. When language became an obstacle, they went to journalists and media to communicate their messages on their behalf: "If we can ride bicycles, your daughters can farm," they would say. "They are worth keeping!"

When girls and women are inducted into the nunnery, their hair is shaved off with an electric razor just before they don maroon robes.

"Hair is our most treasured jewel as a woman," said Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, one of the longest-serving nuns at the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery. "Our head is shaved though to break this deep attachment.”

The nuns were a conspicuous sight on a recent 5,200-mile bicycle trip from Kathmandu to Ladakh, India, with a mission to bring a message about the value of girls and the dangers of human trafficking. In this region, girls are often viewed as a burden and female fetuses are aborted, or girls are married off young or sold.

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Established just 30 years ago, the Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery is home to hundreds of the more than 1,000 Himalayan Buddhist nuns in the Drukpa Order that rotate between monasteries across India and Nepal. Though large in number, they were not exempt from the deeply rooted cultural restrictions and stereotypes assigned to them as females in the region. With growing independence and equality introduced through His Holiness, came harassment and even violence from the more conservative pockets within the Himalayas - deeming the transfer of power to women as heretical and blasphemous. Instead of backing down, His Holiness brought in a dedicated Kung Fu master from Vietnam to train the nuns in defending themselves, with the hope that physical fitness would inspire confidence. And it worked. who were injured. A few in every village had died. Someone in the village had lost someone."

The Kung Fu Nuns of the Drukpa Order faced harassment and even violence from conservative pockets in the Himalayas when their leader, the Gyalwang Drukpa, promoted the nuns, once second-class citizens, to positions of leadership and teaching that were previously open only to monks. As a result, the Gyalwang brought in a dedicated kung fu master in 2008 to train the nuns in self-defense and with the hope that physical fitness would also inspire confidence.

“His holiness has always been someone who has spoken out for women empowerment and gender equality, so our nuns have always been different from others. We have had many opportunities that other nuns will never have,” Jigme Konchok Lhamo said.

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Each Kung Fu session begins and ends with running laps around the temple and highest-most point of the Monastery. The technical skill is regarded as less important than the physical conditioning, with little individual meaning given to the snapping of fans and waving of swords. Though initially excited, the nuns knew it would be difficult. "We felt ourselves become strong, physically and mentally," explained Jigme Tsering Chorol, who has been training since Kung Fu was introduced. "And we asked ourselves why other girls couldn't be taught the same."

Each kung fu session begins and ends with laps around the temple. The technical skill is regarded as less important than the physical conditioning. 

“We felt ourselves become strong, physically and mentally,” Jigme Tsering Chorol explained. “And we asked ourselves why other girls couldn’t be taught the same.”

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In the undereducated mountainous region where the words 'feminism' and 'woman empowerment' mean nothing, the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking estimates that 7,000 women and girls are trafficked each year across the Indo-Nepal border. Though amplified in times of crisis, the surge of girls reportedly being sold by poverty-stricken families in past years was the tipping point for the Kung Fu Nuns of the Drukpa Order in taking on the fight for women's rights. "We wanted to raise awareness," emphasized Lhamo, "but we didn't know where to start."

After Nepal was hit by an earthquake in 2015, the nuns traveled to remote villages and saw how poverty-stricken families without money sold girls to traffickers. That’s when they got the idea for a three-month bicycle trip stopping in remote villages from Kathmandu to Ladakh to raise awareness.

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Jigme Konchok Lhamo, an outspoken 25-years-old, is just one of the next-generation Himalayan Buddhist nuns rewriting history. "When people think about a nun, they think of an old person sitting on a mat meditating or doing mantras. But with time you have to change, and it is the 21st Century," Lhamo clearly states. "We believe that actions speak louder than words."

Jigme Konchok Lhamo, 25, is one of the next-generation Himalayan Buddhist nuns changing centuries-old perceptions.

"When people think about a nun, they think of an old person sitting on a mat meditating or doing mantras. But with time, you have to change, and it is the 21st century," Lhamo said. "We believe that actions speak louder than words."

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Too modest to admit their now advanced level of skill, the nuns trained for six years before they launched self-defense workshops in India and Nepal for girls who are at high risk of facing rape or sexual assault. "In six days, we are not able to teach them everything. We teach them specific moves, but we also talk to them and encourage them. We wanted to tell the girls that they should at least have a voice for themselves," explains Lhamo. voice for themselves," states Lhamo.

The nuns trained for six years before launching self-defense workshops in India and Nepal for girls, many of whom face a high risk of rape or sexual assault.

"In six days, we are not able to teach them everything. We teach them specific moves, but we also talk to them and encourage them. We wanted to tell the girls that they should at least have a voice for themselves," Jigme Konchok Lhamo said.

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Today, the nuns are seen as local heroes and respected by Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists alike, practicing the sport every evening in their monastery shortly before sunset, after starting the day at 3am. Girls are learning the words 'molestation' and 'rape' for the first time, as the nuns transcend all religious and cultural barriers though self-defense workshops - teaching nearly 400 girls to date. "We do not choose the girls; whoever wants to come can," explains Lhamo. There are of different religions and backgrounds," explains Lhamo, stressing the importance of removing any and all religious elements. "Once the religion comes in, there are too many restrictions and hurdles. We do not spread Buddhism, we spread humanity."

The nuns begin their day at 3 a.m. and practice kung fu every evening shortly before sunset. They have now given self-defense workshops to almost 400 girls across India and Nepal. At the end of October, they received the 2019 Asia Game Changers award from the Asia Society in New York.

"We do not choose the girls; whoever wants to come can," Lhamo said, explaining that girls of all religions and backgrounds are welcome. "We do not spread Buddhism, we spread humanity."

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The Kung Fu Nuns of the Drukpa Order know that if they cannot defend themselves, they cannot defend others. Vulnerable girls are armed not just with physical moves, but an education on how an equal society works. "Every girl has a dream; every girl has an aim. We just want to help them find courage." Although the focus is on female empowerment, that doesn't mean the nuns want all of the power to be with women, for, "Until there is equality there will be no harmony, for girls or boys."

The Kung Fu Nuns of the Drukpa Order know that if they cannot defend themselves, they cannot defend others. The vulnerable girls they teach are given physical skills, as well as an education on equality.

"Every girl has a dream; every girl has an aim. We just want to help them find courage," Jigme Konchok Lhamo said.

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Fully immersed in concentration, Kung Fu and meditation are not so different. With so many misconceptions surrounding Buddhism and the sport, "We try to make people understand is that Kung Fu is not for violence, it is for self-defense - to become more confident and stronger," admits Lhamo. "In meditation you have to have the whole of your mind in one place, concentrating. It is the same in Kung Fu, or you could get hurt."

The nuns say that their kung fu skills go hand in hand with their practice of Buddhism. They often need to dispel the idea that kung fu is violent, and explain that it is solely for self-defense. Meanwhile, the concentration they need for kung fu has helped them to be able to meditate longer.

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When not practicing choreographed Kung Fu routines and working to change society through the protection of girls, environmental clean ups and the rescuing of animals, the Buddhist nuns are hard at work in the nunnery. "Everything is taken care of by us. From the main administration office to electrical repair, plumbing, gardening, everything. We take turns so everyone knows each part," explains Lhamo. "Everyone thinks that being a nun is [just] spiritual, but it is not like that. We all have a chance to live whatever life we want to live - not only in mundane ways also."

In addition to practicing choreographed kung fu routines and educating girls in self-defense, the nuns are responsible for the care and upkeep of the nunnery. They run the office, do plumbing work and repair the damage from the 2015 earthquake. They also rescue animals, including dogs, horses and sheep, and give them amusing haircuts including Mohawks and pigtails.

"Everyone thinks that being a nun is [just] spiritual, but it is not like that. We all have a chance to live whatever life we want to live," Jigme Konchok Lhamo said.

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