Until 1949, the region of Nangchen, where the great majority of the Tsoknyi nunneries are located, was an independent kingdom in Eastern Tibet, with its own language and its own government. It is now a county in the Qinghai province of China. Nangchen is so remote that before 1949, it was entirely outside of Chinese or Tibetan influence, and even today it is rarely visited. The entire region lies above 10,000 feet. Despite its high altitude, much of Nangchen is grassland, dissected by the steep gorges of rivers that converge to form the Mekong. The population has traditionally been comprised largely of nomadic or semi-nomadic herders, known for their excellent horsemanship and fierce fighting. In1994, the French explorer Dr. Michel Peissel described Nangchen as, “The remotest, largest, and most secretive of the many little kingdoms of the much-feared Khampa tribes,” and, “… no doubt the last of the truly unexplored old Tibetan kingdoms.”
The Tsoknyi nunneries were founded in the 19th century by Tsang Yang Gyamtso, who was commanded by his teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche I, to build nunneries in order to provide female practitioners with the same opportunities as men to learn and practice the most advanced teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.
Nangchen is famous for its meditators – yogis and yoginis who practice with great persistence and determination and who attain great realization. The region is known as gomde, literally “land of great meditators.” Even in this environment, the Nangchen yogini nuns are famous for their accomplishments in profound yogas and meditation, particularly in ‘tsa lung‘ (practices such as tummo or inner heat), Dzogchen (the highest meditation), and chöd (cutting through all clinging to ego), which derive from the Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The tradition of the Tsoknyi nuns thrived for a century, growing to 4000 women living in 40 nunneries scattered throughout the mountains of Nangchen.
But all that changed when, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, all 40 nunneries were destroyed and the nuns were dispersed. Many of the nuns were sent to Chinese work camps or escaped back to their nomadic families. Some were killed. But a handful of nuns hid in caves where they continued to practice in secret. Most of the texts were lost, but the nuns managed to keep their tradition alive in their minds. After 20 years, these nuns began to regroup and rebuild their nunneries, stone by stone. Gradually others joined them. By the time that Tsoknyi Rinpoche III visited them in 2003 for the first time, he realized that through the efforts of the older nuns, this sacred tradition had been kept alive and was taking root in a new generation. Despite extreme physical hardships and primitive living conditions, today’s remaining elder nuns are passing on their spiritual heritage to a new generation.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche III took on the responsibility of helping them survive; today approximately 3000 nuns receive his support in approximately 35 nunneries. Most of the nuns are under 45 years old, a new generation that has joined the nunneries after they were rebuilt from the ruins of the Cultural Revolution.
The majority of the nuns come from the local nomad population; and most of them have traditionally relied on their families for support. The nunneries’ yearly schedule includes breaks in the summer during which the nuns can go home to help their families with harvesting crops and herding yaks, returning to the nunneries with a share of the crop in the form of tsampa, the flour made from roasted barley that makes up the staple of their diet. Butter and tea (which they add to the tsampa) are the other staple foods. In recent times, forced urbanization or resettling of the nomadic families in permanent housing has begun to erode this traditional, family-based support system upon which the Nangchen nuns have relied.
The nuns’ story is one of dedication and tenacity. Typically, they perform many of their spiritual practices in a group, teaching and helping each other all their lives. Many nuns do three-year, nine-year, or even lifetime retreat. Today, as originally established by Tsoknyi Rinpoche I and Tsang Yang Gyamtso more than 100 years ago, most nunneries include a three-year retreat for all nuns, followed by entry into one of 16 practice houses. Alternating periods of maintaining daily upkeep with retreat, the Nangchen nuns remain in practice for the rest of their lives.
In retreat, the nuns’ daily routine is one that has been followed by yogis and yoginis for hundreds of years, including four three-hour meditation sessions per day. At night, most remain sitting in a meditation box, mingling meditation and sleep.
Many of the nuns are accomplished masters of difficult yogic practices. At Gebchak Gompa, they perform a yearly ritual to demonstrate their mastery of tummo, the yoga of inner fire. In mid-winter temperatures far below freezing, approximately 100 nuns sit all night, wrapping wet sheets around their bare torsos, drying the sheets with the heat of the practice. Just before dawn, the nearly-naked practitioners perform a long procession around the nunnery, pausing to wet their sheets in barrels of icy water at the four corners and drying them as they walk. This very rare and awe-inspiring event, as well as the realization attained by these nuns, have gained them respect and renown throughout Tibet. In a culture where female practitioners have struggled to gain respect, the Tsoknyi Nangchen nuns have risen to a high level of status, with many monks and lamas seeking their teachings and instruction.
The power of the nuns’ practice is evident in the atmosphere of harmony and cooperation within the nunneries. Also, they have a profound impact on their surrounding communities. The communities and villages that surround the nunneries have become more peaceful and markedly happier, as violence and alcoholism have been reduced by the contact between the traditionally fierce Khampa nomads and the nuns. The nuns serve the community through spiritual support and counseling, helping with ceremonies at the time of death and so forth. This is a tangible example of the power of their spiritual influence.
The values that the Tsoknyi Nangchen nuns embody – peace, love, and compassion – affect the entire community and continue to branch out to the rest of the world. The nuns’ lives exemplify the power of living Dharma and its realization that transform the hearts and minds of all.