These nuns pack a mean punch

KUNG FU NUNS

These nuns pack a mean punch

PHYSICAL PROWESS Kung-fu not only teaches the nuns self-defence, but also helps them develop important mental and social  skills.  PIC BY THE AUTHOR

Deceptively weak and soft-spoken, Jigmet Konchok Wangmo from Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal Pradesh and Jigmet Migyur Palmo from Ladakh, both 20 years old, can throw a mean punch, if ever such a situation arises. Something which you wouldn’t associate with Buddhist nuns. The two are among the 150 nuns, who are trained in kung-fu.

As a young school girl, every time she watched kung-fu movies, Konchok felt like learning the martial art form. But never in her wildest dream did she imagine that one day she would learn kung-fu in unusual surroundings — in a nunnery.  When she was 17 she decided (against her father’s wish) to become a nun and joined the Druk Amitabha Nunnery, Kathmandu, Nepal.

The founder of the nunnery, 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual head of the Drukpa (dragon) lineage introduced kung-fu classes three years ago (2008) after watching nuns practising kung-fu in Vietnam. He was told that it helped the nuns concentrate better, and made them self-reliant. The Vietnamese Drukpa nuns only began their own martial-arts training in 1992, when their local religious head, Thich Vien Thanh, initiated the practice at the Tay Thien nunnery. Gyalwang Drukpa took back to Kathmandu not just the idea of introducing martial arts, but also four experienced Vietnamese Drukpa nuns to serve as teachers.

Kung-fu not only teaches the nuns self-defence, but also helps them develop important mental, social, emotional and behavioural skills such as memorisation, concentration, discipline, self-esteem, perseverance and healthy living habits. It helps them sit straight-backed for many hours during meditations, ceremonies and teaching.

“Women empowerment is one of my main goals. Women are considered secondary to men, even among Buddhist monks. I think this is unfair because they have a lot to contribute. Therefore I started from my nunnery. The male-dominated kung-fu and dragon dance are not the only things to empower women. Education, including Hindi, English, computer skills and life skills can promote confidence in women,”  says the spiritual leader with modern ideas.

Nuns have been forbidden from performing kung fu for centuries, but the nuns of the Drukpa lineage have broken centuries of tradition to cross barriers of male dominance which have excluded them from some practices and learning, and kept them secondary to the monks.

The Shaolin monks in China, learnt the martial art to defend themselves from passing bandit. It was introduced for health reasons by an Indian Buddhist priest named Bodhidharma (Tamo in Chinese), who visited a Shaolin temple.

Tamo, who joined the Chinese monks, observed that they were not in good physical condition. They spent hours each day hunched over tables where they transcribed handwritten texts. The Shaolin monks lacked the physical and mental stamina needed to perform even the most basic of Buddhist meditation practices. Tamo countered this weakness by teaching them moving exercises, modified from Indian yoga, which were based on the movements of the 18 main animals in Indo-Chinese iconography like the tiger, leopard, snake and dragon among others. He did not, however, introduce kung-fu, which existed in China much before his arrival. The ancient martial art is popular even in big Mahayana Buddhist monasteries. They believe that a sound mind comes from a sound body.

Dragon dance

The recent achievement of the Drukpa nuns of Kathmandu and Ladakh has been the successful performance of the male-dominated dragon dance, also a part of kung-fu.

The dragon dance performed by 50 Drukpa nuns was the highlight of the 3rd annual Drukpa Council held in August this year at the Shey Naro Photang nunnery in Ladakh.

Each of the five coloured dragons was held by 10 nuns. The Dance of the Dragons has typically been performed only by all-male teams in the Himalayan traditions.

The nuns had to move each unwieldy, tubular dragon in coordination with the beating drums, the task requires technique, concentration and determination. The dragon dance requires the same kung fu costume, and similar demands and skills. The most difficult step is to run along with the dragon. The dragon dance requires ten people to move together at the same time. Besides, the dancers also need to take intricate cues from the drum beats to make the dragon head move in synch.  The dragon must be flexible and lively. They have to jump very high and also need to lift the stick very high. The dragon must move like a serpent, body and head in one sinuous but shifting rhythm. Letting the dragon touch the ground is sacrilegious.

In Ladakh, it has always been thought that nuns wouldn’t be able to live up to these expectations. But the nuns proved otherwise with their stunning performance. Indeed, none can match these kung-fu nuns.

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