Ten Years of Empowering Female Monastics: Bhutan Nuns Foundation Extends Reach with New Training Center

By Craig Lewis
Buddhistdoor Global | 2019-06-14 |
The Bhutan Nuns Foundation (BNF) operates under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck. Image courtesy of the BNFThe Bhutan Nuns Foundation (BNF) operates under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck. Image courtesy of the BNF

Working diligently to educate and empower female monastics in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, The Bhutan Nuns Foundation (BNF), a non-profit organization operating under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangdoen Wangchuck, has made great strides since its foundation in 2009 in its mission to improve living conditions for Bhutanese girls and women in nunneries, and to enhance access to basic and higher education for Buddhist nuns.

The BNF has chalked up an impressive list of achievements in its 10-year history, not least of which is the long-awaited BNF Training & Resource Centre (TRC) on the outskirts of Bhutan’s capital Thimphu. Although the project is highly dependent on external funding, remarkable progress has already been made in constructing the necessary infrastructure and drawing up detailed plans for training programs and initiatives.

Dr. Tashi Zangmo with nuns and children at the 
BNF Training & Resource Centre.
Image courtesy of the BNF

“The Training & Resource Center is envisioned as a vibrant, dynamic institution that will focus on enabling nuns, women, and girls—primarily those at the grassroots level—to become skilled and empowered, promoting the well-being of themselves and others,” explained BNF Executive Director Dr. Tashi Zangmo.

Once fully operational, the BNF’s training center will provide a broad curriculum teaching life skills and social engagement for female monastics and lay women following the spiritual path. Courses will include counseling training, hospice and basic healthcare, palliative care, leadership and management, and teaching methodology for Buddhist nuns who will then go on to teach. In addition, the center will provide meditation retreats for lay women conducted by resident nuns, Nungey instruction (a fasting practice widely practiced in Bhutan as a means of physical and spiritual purification), as well as classes in qi gong, tai chi, and yoga to help the nuns stay physical healthy.

The BNF Training & Resource Center in Thimphu. Image courtesy of the BNFThe BNF Training & Resource Center in Thimphu. Image courtesy of the BNF

“We have three of our nuns already residing at the Training & Resource Center and since March they have been running a learning program for the children of the laborers who are engaged in completing the center’s infrastructure,” Dr. Zangmo observed. “We are running a basic Montessori-style study course for the kids, blended with Buddhist values and practices, such as saying simple prayers while eating and drinking, helping them understand the importance of not taking anything for granted, and so on.

“We plan to run the learning program until the construction project is completed—but who knows where it will lead? We might even be able to continue after the center is complete if everything goes well!”

Most Bhutanese—about 75 per cent of a population of some 735,000 people—are Buddhists. And while the nation’s holistic approach to economic management and social development, under the now-famous banner of “Gross National Happiness,” has resulted in a healthy level of growth and low inflation over the last 20 years, life in Bhutan is not without very real challenges, even for those who find their calling in the Dharma. Female lay practitioners in particular face major obstacles in accessing opportunities for spiritual and practical education. A decade ago, the BNF observed that many rural nunneries offered poor living conditions and lacked conducive learning environments—a situation that has since improved substantially.

Headquartered in Thimphu, the Bhutan Nuns Foundation has taken up the challenge of being an advocate for Buddhist nuns, helping to bring them up to par by providing qualified teachers, training courses, workshops, and conferences, and helping to improve their physical infrastructure—especially for those who lack proper living quarters, classrooms, and bathrooms with running water. Working with about 28 Buddhist nunneries across the country, the BNF educates and trains nuns to become community leaders and teachers, ensuring that each nunnery maintains adequate, healthy living conditions, and providing a practical, hands-on education for the female monastic population. 

The foundation aims to enable female monastics to create self-sufficient monastic communities that not only provide a healthy environment for Buddhist study, but also enables them actively engage with and contribute to lay society, and play a role in preserving the kingdom’s unique Buddhist and cultural heritage:

  Providing quality education to Buddhist nuns to become effective community teachers, health workers, and counselors.

•  Training nuns, and women and girls in grassroots communities, to have at least one employable skill for the economic sustainability of themselves and nunneries or families.

•  Strengthening the capacity of nuns and women—particularly the heads of nunneries and grassroots women’s groups—in leadership and management.

Study time for children at the Training & Resource Center. Image courtesy of the BNFStudy time for children at the Training & Resource Center. Image courtesy of the BNF

Dr. Zangmo herself was born and raised in one of the most remote and rural areas of the kingdom, yet due to her determination and passion for education, was able to pursue higher education in India and the US, eventually graduating with a PhD from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

“The number of nuns at the training center will increase, of course. We plan to have a maximum of 27 nuns residing there in the future, who will be trained as trainers so that they can train other nuns in the country,” Dr. Tashi noted. “We have been organizing Dharma talks by a few qualified nuns in Bhutan since June 2014 and we are going to organize Dharma talks by nuns soon at the TRC, as well as short reading retreats and sharing among women—both lay Buddhists and nuns

“To honor Her Majesty the Queen Mother’s 60th birthday on 21 June, we plan to mark the inaugural Bhutan Nuns Foundation Day, which we will observe with a prayer ceremony by 21 nuns and a Dharma talk by one of the senior nuns in Bhutan at theTRC’s temple.”

The children arrive at the TRC with their school bags. Image courtesy of the BNFThe children arrive at the TRC with their school bags. Image courtesy of the BNF

Some of the training courses already delivered to nunneries throughout the country over the 10 years of the BNF include child protection and child rights; menstrual hygiene and reproductive health; life skills education; disaster management and preparedness; nutrition, physical health and sports; non-formal education; teaching methodology; and providing English language teachers to at least 11 nunneries. These and other training course have been designed and implemented in collaboration with UNICEF, UNFPA, SNV (Netherlands Development Organization), Bhutan’s Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, the National Commission for Women and Children, and the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan.

“Another project that we have started at the training center recently is Reiki healing sessions, provided three days each week by Ani Rinzin Lhamo, one of our nuns who is a doctor of indigenous medicine,” added Dr. Zangmo.

Ani Rinzin Lhamo provides traditional medical treatment at the TRC. 
Image courtesy of the BNF

“Although I’m overjoyed and surprised by the progress we’ve already made at the training center, there are still a few more structures to finish, including the conference hall, administration block, and renovation and expansion of the ancient temple building that stands on the site. We hope to complete everything by 2021,” said Dr. Zangmo. “We’re looking for technical support to train and run the programs as we go along—either individual supporters or institutions interested in partnering with the BNF.”

Sandwiched between political and economic heavy-hitters China and India on the edge of the mighty Himalayan mountain range, the tiny Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan is perhaps best known for prioritizing “Gross National Happiness” over the shortsighted acquisitiveness of economic growth, and for its sustainable approach to environmental stewardship. The kingdom is also unique in being the world’s only remaining Vajrayana Buddhism nation. The spiritual tradition is embedded in the very consciousness and culture of this remote land, where it has flourished with an unbroken history that dates back to its introduction from Tibet in the eighth century by the Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche.

About 75 per cent of Bhutan’s population identify as Buddhists, according to data for 2010 from the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, with Hinduism accounting for the majority of the remainder. Most of Bhutan’s Buddhists follow either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma school of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Construction work at the Training & Resource Center is still underway. Image courtesy of the BNFConstruction work at the Training & Resource Center is still underway. Image courtesy of the BNF
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