There are nuns who devote their lives to the service of their religion, and there is Jigme Rupa Lhamo, who leads a spiritual life. She is one among a bunch of independent happy souls who has devoted 13 years to martial arts and meditation. She fights with swords, machetes, numchucks, and is quite complacent to lead life on her own terms. “I left home and family at the age of 13 and decided to lead a life outside the standard mode of living, to become a nun. My decision to move into a nunnery has not harmed me and my family in any way. I am independent to do certain things in life, and feel motivated as this art makes me powerful in body, mind and soul. It has helped me build my focus on meditation and stay strong. In fact, my family remembers me more often than I do,” says the 26-year-old accomplished sword fighter, who started learning Kung Fu for self-defence. Today, Lhamo has championed gender equality, physical fitness, environmentally-friendly ways of living, and has respect for all living beings. “Kung Fu has turned my weaknesses into strength,and has helped me work on new tasks every day. That’s why we call ourselves as warriors of peace, sustainability and love,” she says. A stringent everyday routine for Lhamo starts at 3 am with two hours of meditation, daily prayers, followed by breakfast and individual academic lessons throughout the day, ending with kung fu classes from 8pm to 10 pm.
For centuries, Buddhist monks occupied positions of power within the religion — leaving nuns to perform menial chores. But His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual leader and founder of the Drukpa order, encouraged nuns to train in Kung Fu to build confidence as leaders. And these nuns are breaking the stereotype, going beyond praying and meditating to run health clinics, rescue and treat injured animals, learn plumbing, electrical fitting, driving, and cycling; fight against human trafficking, and championing environmental sustainability by manually removing thousands of kgs of plastic litter across the Himalayas. The nuns live in their tight-knit community and are resolved to make choices that influence their entire way of being.
Over 700 nuns of the Drukpa lineage coming from Spiti Valley and Ladakh region, aged between eight and 80, stay in the Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery in Nepal. Those aged between eight and 35 learn, stay and train at the nunnery and believe in the practice and use of martial arts expertise to challenge gender roles. “We train other women in self-defence i.e. a mixture of martial arts and meditation. So we are called the ‘Kung Fu Nuns’,” smiles Lhamo, who was among the first relief workers on the ground to distribute aid during the Nepal earthquake in 2015.
Whether it’s creating awareness about human trafficking or organising bicycle yatras, pedalling thousands of kilometres through rugged terrain and battling hostile weather, the nuns have learned the art of multitasking. “There are many jobs. We all rotate our duties so our days are always full. Some activities include animal rescue and care, music, dance, and theatre. We do our own choreography, and sometimes even compose our own music,” adds Jigme Osel Dipam, a fellow nun who has participated in eco-pad yatra (usually over 400 miles long) on foot to pick up plastic litter, educated locals on environment-friendly ways of living, and taken part in bicycle yatras across India and Nepal to promote world peace and green transportation. “These events take several months at a time to complete, often through rain, snow, wind, avalanches… We’ve seen everything and are proud to have tackled them all very well,” says Dipam.
In addition to this, the Kung Fu nuns have joined the list of change-making heroes this year, and have been recognised at the Asia Society Game Changer Awards this year in New York. Lhamo, Dipam together with a delegation of 10 nuns, have received the award. The list of awardees includes former chairperson and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi (awarded in 2018), actor and activist Dev Patel (2017), iconic architect IM Pei (2016), Internet entrepreneur Jack Ma (2014), Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai (2014). “Our actions have spoken enough to achieve such international recognition. We are happy to receive this. Efforts are always counted and we want to achieve more after this,” says Lhamo, while Dipam nods in assent.