Nepal is around 80 percent Hindu, followed by 10 percent Buddhist. Like most societies, in addition to different religions, urban and rural lives can often be a mystery to each other. We typically highlight multi-cultural experiences through the eyes of Westerners. Shanti Regmi's essay offers the perspective of a Nepali learning about the women and girls at a rural Buddhist nunnery in her own country.
Looking upon the appearance of nuns, I always had the same questions on my mind, why do they have a bald head? Why don’t they have a long hair? Why don’t they put on lipstick, eyeliner on their eyes, or nail polish on their fingers like so many girls do? And many other deeper questions about their lives.
The day came for me to get answers of to these curiosities while traveling with Aythos to conduct jewelry making training at the nunnery of Gangyul in the Helambu area of Nepal. This training was to teach the nuns to make jewelry that they can sell in Nepal and international markets, to help them raise money for the nunnery. On the way I am asking myself, isn’t this a strange training? The nuns are asking to learn jewelry-making, though they won’t put any of it on themselves.
With the help of an Everything Organic Nursery volunteer, Samantha, we began the training. Using local materials, like stones wherever possible, three styles of earrings were practiced and it didn’t take long for the nuns to bring their own sense of creativity into their work. If you thought, like me, that nuns would struggle to make jewelry since they don’t wear it, you would be mistaken. Their designs were creative and beautiful.
A Chance to Talk
The next morning, I was enjoying the stunning beauty of the nature from the nunnery. Even from a distance, I could smell the food from the kitchen and was drawn to it. Being polite, I stood outside the kitchen door with expectation that the nuns would call me inside. As soon as they saw me, I was invited in. They offered me a cup of the milk tea along with tasty aloo paratha (seasoned potato bread).
I began eating with a bit of nervousness, knowing the questions I was about to ask my generous hosts, not sure how they would take them. My first question was, why don’t you have long hair? One of the nuns replied, “having a long hair doesn’t make anyone beautiful; a beautiful soul makes someone beautiful.” With nothing more to say she kept quiet and went back to making breakfast. I was satisfied with her answer but a bit stunned at how comfortable she was with her answer and the depth so quickly conveyed in few words.
I ate my breakfast while my mind took some time, but eventually asked my next question about a typical day in a nun’s life. They told me each days’ transitions are brought in with the ring of the bell, the first starting 4 am for worship and prayer and then breakfast at 7 am. After breakfast they have lessons until lunch, around 11, followed by some rest. At 2 pm they begin cleaning, gardening, and preparation for dinner, after which they continue studying and usually go to sleep around 10 pm.
Even the Children are Leaders
There are 17 nuns in the nunnery of Gangyul, Helambu between the ages of 9 and 43 years old. There is a tradition of appointing a leader among the nuns with no restrictions for age. As a leader, the nun has to take responsibility for the whole nunnery. She has to assign tasks to other nuns such as cleaning rooms and the property of the nunnery. She also has to look after the kitchen inventory and report to the Head Monk if supplies need to be ordered.
The Head Monk in the nunnery says,” Giving the nuns the role of a leader will polish their leadership skills for the future. Each nun learns to face and handle the obstacles of daily life. I want to see them being independent so that they can run this nunnery after my life.”
After hearing the words of the Head Monk, it made me realize the source of nuns’ courage, patience, kindheartedness, and devotion that makes them so special. It’s not the life of an average Nepali girl. It takes a lot of courage in each step of life. We need courage to have a bald head in a society where a long hair is seen as beautiful. We need courage to wake up at 4 am; we need courage to cook food for large number of people. And yes, we need courage to survive in the world without electronic devices that have become an essential ingredient of a good life. It is really a matter of courage to lead a very simple life with no expectation of love, wealth, success, or prosperity but still leading a life of happiness and satisfaction.
It was a great field visit with an opportunity to observe the life of nuns so closely. Indeed, the nunnery in Gangyul has become one my favorite places to visit, where I would never get tired of visiting. On behalf of Aythos, I will always look forward to working on programs with the nuns in the nunnery and learn from the nuns in return.
Aythos seeks to foster health and sustainable livelihoods in Himalayan communities. This story is about the value of asking respectful questions and thoughtful understanding. By sharing stories, we hope to inspire others to be curious and want to make a difference in people’s lives. We encourage your comments on these issues and your encouragement for the subjects of these stories. Please donate today to make sure we can make a difference in their communities.