Empowerment in exile

Transforming lives through education for 20 years

by Meredith Lawrence


Imagine being imprisoned and tortured for peacefully demonstrating for your right to religious and cultural freedoms. Imagine having to flee your home to escape persecution because of your spiritual beliefs and never being able to return to your homeland. Then imagine making a new life for yourself in a foreign country and finding the strength and courage to devote your life to the study and practice of your religion. This is the story of hundreds of ordained Tibetan women who now live as refugees in northern India.

Inspiration is often born out of necessity. For Rinchen Khando Choegyal, director of the Tibetan Nuns Project and former head of the Tibetan Women’s Association, that is exactly what happened. In 1987, many years after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, there was already a well-established Tibetan exile community living in and around Dharamsala, India. That year, when a large influx of nuns arrived in Dharamsala, with no possessions and nowhere to go, the idea for the Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP) was born. In the beginning, the only goals were to secure housing, medical care and basic education for the nuns.

The nuns who arrived in Dharamsala were compelled to leave Tibet in search of religious freedom and study. Under the Chinese government, traditional Tibetan Buddhist study is highly controlled, permitting only the right to basic prayer. Practice beyond this is a punishable crime. In search of the freedom to study their religion, the nuns who arrived in Dharamsala made the dangerous, month-long journey out of Tibet, arriving in Dharamsala illiterate and without housing.

As plans to care for the women progressed and as more nuns arrived, the Tibetan Nuns Project, with Rinchen Khando Choegyal at its head, emerged. Twenty years later, TNP is an integral part of the Tibetan exile community, supporting, educating and empowering more than 700 refugee nuns.

Many of the nuns who arrive in Dharamsala have been tortured, imprisoned and starved. One nun recounts, “We were arrested so many times, we suspected that Chinese spies were involved… Finally, we were released and sent back to the Tibetan border. I knew that if I returned to Tibet, we would be killed, so we decided to try to get into Nepal again. We walked for one month in the mountains. We were weak and sick and went for eight days without food.” In most cases, the nuns arrive without money or possessions and without knowing how to read or write, having had little opportunity to learn more than basic prayers.

Today, with the support and guidance of TNP, these courageous women have access to the full breadth of Tibetan Buddhist teachings as well as a modern education, including classes in math, English, history, computer skills and health-care training. In addition, TNP established the first higher education institute devoted exclusively to the nuns, which offers them the equivalent of a Masters degree. While their lives are simple, the nuns of the Tibetan Nuns Project today lead amazingly empowered lives, which they could not do in Tibet as it is currently governed.

Traditionally, nuns have not been able to study to reach as high a degree as the monks. It is extremely important the nuns have the opportunity to study both their religion and affairs of the modern world. With this education, nuns have the tools to ensure that their culture is sustained. A nun who is educated can pass this knowledge on to the members of her community, including the means with which to interact with and understand the society of the world in the 21st century. No matter what the future of Tibet holds, these women are committed to the study and preservation of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture.
It is important to remember that these women have suffered nearly unimaginable trials, many of them having been tortured for their beliefs, and they are living their lives in exile, far from their homeland. “If I was given the choice, I would have done this in Tibet,” says Rinchen Khando.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal
Rinchen Khando Choegyal

Benefit talk for Tibetan Nuns Project

Monday, October 25
7:30pm (reception to follow)
$10 suggested donation.

In this informative talk, Rinchen Khando Choegyal, director of the Tibetan Nuns Project and Dr. Elizabeth Napper talk about the transformative effect advanced education has had on the exiled nuns, the Tibetan exile community and the preservation of the Tibetan culture.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal is a native of Tibet and escaped with her family to India in 1959. She is the second woman in the history of Tibet to be elected as a cabinet minister in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (1993-2001) and is a founding member of the Tibetan Women’s Association. She is married to Ngari Rinpoche, the youngest brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and lives in Dharamsala, India. Dr. Elizabeth Napper has worked full-time with the Tibetan Nuns Project since 1991. As co-director, she has helped develop new curricula that combine traditional Tibetan Buddhist studies with a modern education. She is author of Dependent-Arising and Emptiness, co-author of Fluent Tibetan, editor of Mind in Tibetan Buddhism, and co-editor of Kindness, Clarity and Insight by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.