Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery and the Yogini Tradition

The following article is from the Winter, 2003 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.
images Ven. Tenzin Palmo with nuns of Dongyu Gatsal Ling

BY TENZIN PALMO

Tenzin Palmo spent 12 years meditating alone in a Himalayan cave. Her experiences, recorded in Cave in the Snow, a book written by Vicki Mackenzie, have received a lot of media attention. Tenzin Palmo's new book, Reflections on a Mountain Lake, is already in its second printing.

People often ask me for the history of how our Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery came into being and the rationale behind its formation.

In 1968 I was a young western nun in my mid-twenties working as a secretary for my lama, the VIII Khamtrul Rinpoche, who had been the head of the 200 Drukpa Kargyu monasteries in Kham, Eastern Tibet. Having left Tibet in 1959 with 25 of his monks, Khamtrul Rinpoche had established a community first in Kalimpong and later in the Kangra Valley not far from Dharamsala where His Holiness the Dalai Lama is situated. At this time Rinpoche headed a small monastery and a community of lay people from his region.

I had first met with the VIII Khamtrul Rinpoche on my 21st birthday and three weeks later received my first monastic ordination when my head was shaved and I donned robes. Then I remained with Khamtrul Rinpoche and his community, working as his secretary and teaching English to the small monks. The monastery in those days had about 80 monks and among them was a small group of yogis who are known as togden. In Kham these togden, although fully ordained monks, lived in caves in the hills above the monastery of Khampagar and they wore long, matted dreadlocks wound up on their heads and white lower robes and a red and white stripped shawl. His Holiness the XVI Karmapa assured me that even in Tibet these particular Khampagar togdens were revered and considered very special. Their lineage is associated with Rechungpa, one of the heart sons of Milarepa.

images Ven. Tenzin Palmo with nuns of Dongyu Gatsal Ling

Rinpoche had told me that in Kham he had a nunnery of about 400 nuns. At this nunnery there was also a group of togdenma or yoginis who were also considered very advanced in tantric practices and realisations. There is a special transmission called the "Rechung Nyen Gyu" [Ras.chung sNyan.brgyud] dealing with the inner yogas which contains a section especially for female practitioners. Actually I have met a few lamas who had visited this nunnery. Males were not allowed direct entrance therein but could sit in a gallery and look down on the assembly hall. They reported that the togdenma sat in rows very straight backed and unmoving during the rituals, with their long dreadlocks hung over a rope stretched behind them.

As far as we know the togdenma lineage ceased to exist in Kham after the communist takeover since no nuns managed to escape into India. One afternoon Khamtrul Rinpoche took a long white silk scarf (ashi khata) and placed it around my neck with the words, "I will always pray that you can re-establish the lineage of togdenmas which, as you know, has died out." Therefore I have always felt it a sacred commission to bring back this most precious female tradition before it is too late.

Another time Khamtrul Rinpoche and I were looking out across the hills from Tashi Jong where his community of monks and laity are now situated. Rinpoche remarked that he would like me to establish a nunnery since there was nowhere in our Drukpa Kargyu tradition for nuns to be educated and properly trained. However at that time I merely muttered something incomprehensible since I had neither the means nor the ability to even think how to start a nunnery!

Apart from in Tibet there are also many Drukpa Kargyu areas in the border regions, such as Bhutan (which is called "Drukyul" or "Land of the Dragon" since the state religion is Drukpa Kargyu), Ladakh, Zangskar, Kinnaur, Lahaul & Spiti and parts of Nepal. Although there are nuns in these border lands they are usually uneducated and have little opportunity for meditation practice. Often the nuns are merely household servants or work for the monasteries. I lived for 18 years in the Himalayan valley of Lahaul which lies at about 12,000 feet and is cut off by snow from the rest of India for more than half the year. For the first six years I lived in a small monastery and there I saw how the monks were in the temple receiving teachings, performing rituals and undertaking retreats, while the nuns were in the kitchen doing the cooking! Many of the nuns were intelligent and devoted but they simply had no opportunity to advance their understanding and knowledge.

In the early 90s I returned to India in order to teach English to the 12-year-old reincarnation of Khamtrul Rinpoche. At this time the Lamas of the Khampagar Monastery again requested that I should start a nunnery since there was nowhere in our Drukpa or Dragon tradition for women to study the Dharma and practice at a more profound level. This seemed the right time to consider starting a center where young women from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions could be trained in both Dharma theory and practice.

At that time it was difficult to raise funds for this nunnery since I was an unknown western nun and not a famous lama seated on a high throne dispensing initiations and blessings. Also I had no contacts and it was difficult to know where to begin. However, gradually people began to take interest. Later Vicki Mackenzie wrote a book on my life called Cave in the Snow and this established more credentials for our nunnery project. Nowadays we have a wonderful staff of both western and Tibetan helpers. The nunnery is a registered charitable organisation with local Trust members from Himachal Pradesh.

At present at Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery (Pleasure Garden of the Authentic Lineage) we have 24 young nuns from Tibet and the Himalayan regions such as Ladakh, Spiti, Kinnaur and Muktinath in Nepal. These girls are studying Buddhist philosophy and debate, ritual, Tibetan grammar and English. They also do some handicrafts and some are learning about computers. Every year they remain in a 2-month retreat during which they maintain silence apart from the prayers and mantras. They have finished one round of ngondro or preliminary practices. Nowadays they are living in a 100-year-old local mud brick house which is surrounded by tea gardens with a view of the mountains in the distance. They sleep eight to a room and have converted the wood- beamed loft which runs the length of the house into a charming shrine room.

We have purchased seven acres of land nearby which has a stunning vista of the Dhauladhar mountain range. On this land we are constructing the nunnery which will be built using local materials such as stone, slate and mud brick, but using a steel framework to give added dimension and strength. The first stage will include the residences for 80 nuns and the offices-cum-staff quarters. In the future we plan to construct classrooms, library, temple, guest rooms and retreat center as funds permit.

Our first group of prospective nuns arrived about three years ago from Ladakh. They were teenage schoolgirls who had made the courageous decision to leave their families and villages behind in order to come to a new and unknown environment for the sake of learning and practising the Dharma. Soon after Tsoknyi Rinpoche sent four of his young nuns from Nepal. He had asked, "How many nuns do you want me to send? Thirty? Forty?" I replied, "How about three or four to start with..." Some months later this first batch were joined by nuns from Tibet, Kinnaur, Spiti and so on. When they first came the girls were very shy and many did not speak much or any Tibetan especially the Khampa dialect spoken in Tashi Jong. Three years later everyone who met them when they first arrived are amazed at how much more assured and outspoken they are nowadays. They have made a quantum leap in self-confidence and knowledge.

Our plan is to give the nuns a nine-year study course in philosophy of which the first 3 years is almost completed. After five or six years of study they will be asked if they would like to enter into a longer retreat. Some of the nuns really love the practice and are longing to do extended periods of intensive cultivation. After a few years of retreat those capable of being trained for the precious togdenma lineage will be selected. The togdens of Tashi Jong have agreed to oversee their training. At present, as far as we know, this unique lineage is held only by a few old lamas, so it is imperative that some of the nuns should be able to receive this transmission in order to practice and pass it on to others.

images

One afternoon Khamtrul Rinpoche took a long white silk scarf (ashi khata) and placed it around my neck with the words, I will always pray that you can reestablish the lineage of togdenmas which, as you know, has died out.

Once we have moved to the new land we will start to take in more applicants and the nunnery will expand. However we consider the cultivation of the few more compelling than the mere housing of the many.

For me these young women are like tightly furled flower buds. Normally they would live and eventually die as withered buds. But now with the sunshine of encouragement and aspiration and the water and fertiliser of study and practice, they are unfolding their petals and revealing their own inherent beauty. We pray that in the future the perfume of their learning and realisation will waft throughout the three realms.

For tax deductible donations to Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, ONLY in the U.S., please make checks payable to "Four Corners Foundation" and mail to: Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, c/o Jane Kolleeny, 32 Palmer Avenue, Sleepy Hollow, NY 10591, USA.

For donations in other countries please make checks payable to 'Tenzin Palmo' and mail to: Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, c/o Eliz Dowling, 3 Nassim Road, #04-02 Nassim Jade, Singapore 2258371.

Visit our website for current information on the Nunnery, wvyw.tenzinpalmo.com

Back to all Snow Lion Articles