I’m sitting in my room at the Gechak Ling Nunnery in Chobar Hills near Kathmandu on an ordinary Thursday reflecting on my daily life here and my life back in Denmark. I am here for seven weeks as a volunteer mindfulness teacher for the Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s School project. It strikes me that already after four weeks, I have developed new daily rituals as I get used to life here in the nunnery. Getting up early in the morning as the whole nunnery starts to move at 5 am when the first morning prayers start. The chanting of the nuns, the bells and drums, the horn of the conch, I have fallen in love with this sacred music as it starts the day. Even the barking and howling of the many dogs and puppies, the pigeons flying in the open hall trying their best to build their nest in the top window over my room, the hens crackling and the rooster crowing just outside my window, all these sounds are now familiar to my ear’s gate and I find them homely and comforting as they remind me of all the activities in these lively spiritual buildings. In this nunnery you are never alone. Actually about 120 nuns reside here as well as some of their teachers, the older nuns and some monks and like myself a few Westerners who are here as volunteers. All living side by side in harmony and respect for one another, sharing what we have and helping whenever we can.
In the morning we are served hot water and a breakfast mostly consisting of tibetan bread like pancakes or nan, served with a hot vegetarian dish or sometimes egg. Together with the daily luxury, my 3-in-1 powder coffee with milk and sugar from one of the few supermarkets in Kathmandu, it is a very nice meal to begin the day on. Hot water is one of the real luxuries so the morning wash is mostly very fresh and cool! Toilet paper is also one of the daily luxuries and the fact that one of our toilets is of Western stylish is somehow also one of the small things in daily life that I have come to appreciate, though I do gradually improve my skills in managing the hole in the ground! When there is no water as it often happens here, then you cannot flush the toilet, clean your dishes in the washing room or have your hot coffee. It’s as simple as that. So you do appreciate when the water is running here!
What I really learn from living with the nuns has to do with simple, happy living. My first week on a pilgrimage up in the old Tsoknyi Gargon Ling Nunnery in Muktinath in the Himalayas close to the Tibetan border gave me so many episodes where I came in contact with what really matters in life.
I found that in these surroundings where you do not have clean drinking water, no stable electricity or wifi for that matter, only simple ingredients to cook from, like rice, flour, egg, root vegetables, yak meat etc., you somehow get along and adjust to the environment. You get to appreciate the small things and you take nothing for granted. I came in contact with basic human existence!
Far away from my normal environment with all the daily comfort in my house such as toilets that flush, a dishwasher and washing machine, a daily hot shower, fresh ice-cool water from the ice-machine, nice espresso from the coffee machine, the warm fireplace and soft electric spotlights in my cozy living room, I suddenly find it all dispensable here where we learn to adjust to the circumstances. And to be honest I do not really miss it, because here is something more valuable that replaces it, and that is my own inner peace and happiness.
However, what I find is not dispensable for me is human contact. When I have a laugh with my wonderful and always smiling and joyful students who’s age is from 5 to 19 years old, or when I share the good company of the really sweet and engaged schools teachers, or when we sit in the small kitchen in the Shedra drinking hot water with our meals even when the light is missing, those are in fact the best moments. Being with others and sharing their company is totally free of any costs and it lifts the quality of life. We share our company because that is really what is essential for everyone. Human relations, help, support, ”I see you and you see me”, is what’s feeding our souls. I come to believe that this is really what makes us happy, even under hard or poor circumstances. Imagine what a smile sends out to others. Here the nuns are satisfied and happy with the conditions and they smile and spread their love everywhere they come and go. In Denmark I sometimes have the craving of isolating myself from others, going to remote places and meditating and in daily life appreciating just doing my own things in my own way. I normally call for people’s company and have my social rendez-vous scheduled a long time ahead. There can be days when you really need a smile and a happy encouragement from another fellow human, and when you may feel as the most lonely person in the world. In the West we are becoming more and more isolated and many people are suffering from lack of contact. According to new scientific studies the root of many physiological, psychological and mental diseases is actually loneliness and isolation. We are simply not born to be alone and it is our basic human right to share our lives with others. Somehow the feeling of living together with the nuns here in this big four floor building where they are sitting outside my door chanting from early morning to evening, is really nourishing for my soul. I have come to really value other people’s presence in a new way and I know that I am not really happy alone.
Here in the nunnery we live with open doors side by side and a nun always has her sisters. In fact she belongs to a sangha, a community which functions as a support for everyone’s practice and well-being. I have come to love these nuns, and I have come to admire them so much. Their strength, their discipline, their dignified aura and still their sweetness and warm hearts. They represent to me the best qualities of a woman’s nature. I can see myself in them, like ”if they can do it, so can I”, and it’s so motivating to have role models both for my own practice and my whole perspective on life, when I get sucked too much into the samsaric wheel of everyday’s attachment or self-centredness.
From many Westerner’s perspectives it is so sad to be a nun, as it is for many people regarded as a very poor life, both materialistically and in terms of living and enjoying life fully in terms of our human needs and pleasures. Life as a nun is for some looked upon as a very bad destiny, as the poor soul must be just miserable living under such humble conditions, not having her own property, a partner, a close family, let alone a career and status! From the normal worldly outside perspective it is not at all attractive nor interesting. But they could not be more wrong, as in fact the life of the anis, in this case the Tibetan nuns, is far from poor! On the contrary it is very, very rich. I have had the great pleasure of becoming their friend and getting to hear some of their personal stories.
At the Muktinath nunnery I was invited to the room of the Ani Pema Chodron who is 30 years old and has been a monastic since she was 15, fully by her own choice. She told me about herself and it would be wrong to say that she felt sorry to be a nun. On the contrary she felt like the lucky one. She explained that becoming a nun is actually an extremely great luck and indeed an honor for many of the families. In the Tibetan tradition it is natural that the middle daughter of the family becomes a nun. Most of them choose for themselves, some from a very young age and others later in their early twenties. From Pema’s point of view, the nun life is a life in luxury in the sense that you do not have to get married, support a family, have kids and work hard to earn your living. Life as a nun is protected, you are socially strongly connected to your dharma sisters, which means that you are belonging to a supporting community, you are fed and accommodated and you do not need to occupy your mind with wordly obscurations such as how to maintain your financial, social or cultural standards.
Life is more simple and yet fully present and engaged. They get up at 5 am early in the morning for the pujas, then they study or work, do meditations and prayers again in the evening and normally go to bed around 11 pm. Their daily schedule is very much alike but many of them also travel to other nunneries and if you are among the really lucky ones, you get the opportunity to go on retreat, where the most attractive one is for three years, three months and three weeks, often done as a group retreat with your fellow sisters. Retreating in this sense means doing pujas, prayers and meditation, mostly six sessions a day without any distractions. You don’t go to retreat for your own well-being or stress-release in this tradition. You go to pray for the peace, happiness and freedom of suffering for the whole world, as the matter of fact for all the six realms! Having done a three year retreat is regarded as the graduation for all monastics. You may come out as another person, free of ego-clinging and selfishness, free from worrying and attachment to things that only occupies our minds and gives us suffering. You find you own inner fearless warrior and love for all living beings. You may become a genuine bodhisattva, so to speak.
In the Gechak Ling Nunnery I have a new friend and dharma sister Tsering Youdon, 39 years old and she has been a nun since age 19. She comes from a village Dolpo in upper Mustang and has lived in one of the nunneries near the Tibetan border. When I ask Tsering about why she became a nun, she tells the story of herself as a young girl who saw how the women in her village got married, had children and hardly got any education. She often thought of her late mother and her wish to have different opportunities in her own life made the nun life attractive. Tsering is someone extremely clever and well educated and is now one of the Genla’s, teachers for the young nuns. Nuns in the Tibetan tradition are highly respected, yet there is still a tremendous work to be done for nuns to be accepted in the same way as the monks. It is said that H.H. the Dalai Lama actually cried some years ago when he realized the hard conditions for female Buddhist scholars and practionners within this old and still very conservative Tibetan monastic order. Since then he and other masters like Tsoknyi Rinpoche have done a massive effort to improve the status and possibilities for female monastics.
Tsering who has become a dear friend of mine lives a life here in the nunnery with great happiness and bliss. She would not change it for the whole world. As she describes it, life is uncomplicated and she can focus only on her dharma practice. In fact this means that she gets up early in the morning for the prayers and thereafter she is fully occupied with teaching the young nuns in Tibetan and in monastic rituals, such as preparing the offerings for the shrine and all the many different preparations it takes to perform the daily pujas. In this way her day is fully occupied with dharma practice as it influences her body, speech and mind in all activities. She has a little saving in the bank and her only real concern is if she should become seriously ill and would need an operation. Still her life is fully satisfied.
Next year she will start her first 3 years retreat in a group with around 21 other nuns, which means that her daily life will be practice from 3.30 am in the morning to 22 pm in the evening only interrupted by their meals and some few hours of sleep. In this tradition she and her fellow retreatants will start the retreat by performing the long version of the ngöndro during the first six months. For any Buddhist practitioner it is known that these 100.000 preliminary practices are not for chickens, and although she has already done it twice before, she looks forward to start again with joy and happiness. Those are the rules and as she expresses it: ”The Buddha showed us a way and then we can see for ourselves if we like, and if we like it’s good to continue, and if we don’t like, we can choose for ourselves to stop.” For me it is breathtaking to meet a sincere practitioner as Tsering and the other nuns, and I find a new motivation to start the ngöndro (again, again) but this time with more grounding and resolution. As she encourages me: ”You can do each practice for one year in your own pace, and then the next and the next… while you are working and taking care of your family, no problem. After you say to yourself: ”I did a good job!”
When it comes to my own reflections about my life back home and my experience living here in the nunnery, I honestly appreciate the life here to such a high degree that in my dreams I could imagine living here with the nuns, to deepen my practice and enjoy the very simple and uncomplicated lifestyle. With this said, I know that this is not a bed of roses to live in a developing country and I would not leave my children and dear ones back in Northern Europe. But the simplicity that this lifestyle represents surely attracts me!
I reflect on why and how much my life in Denmark is very much based on systems and regulations and how complicated and rigid we sometimes think and act. We are used to so much structure that it’s hard to go out of the box so to speak and surrender to the natural flow of things. We seem to be unable to break the walls of our own narrow-minded perception where everything has to do with achievements. We are constantly striving for something more or better than what we have or are, and very easily trapped in the hamster wheel, craving for things and conditions to fill our needs which are often constructed by ourselves or others. How to get a bigger car, a better couch for the living room, the new women’s or men’s fashion, the next luxury romantic spa weekend with our partner, the newest devices, the highest career and finest Ph.D. titles etc. We spend so much time and energy in showing our success by our amount of materialistic goods and achievements and we keep on running faster and faster to get them, just to be replaced by the next necessities, and the next. It seems to never really stop this samsara of modern life. I feel I have grown tired and fed up with this lifestyle and I know that it will never give me true happiness or inner peace.
How relieving it would be to live a more simple life. To get off the consumer train. To be content with the basic things in life, such as we do here in the nunnery where we appreciate the hot water, the daily meals, the clean air (compared to the high pollution in Kathmandu). Life without all the speediness that pushes more and more people over the edge with stress, anxiety and even depression.
When it all comes down to zero, what we really need as humans are warm and harmonious relationships to others, to have people around us with whom we share our basic humanity such as seeing and being seen. To be in contact with the spirit of our souls and to find a meaning for our existence. A meaning which includes doing something that benefits others and where there is less focus on me, my and mine. What I learn here in the nunnery is that life in its’ simplest and purest form makes me really, really happy!
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