Article in the Gentle Voice magazine
Interview with Tenzin Palmo at Dongyu Gyatsal Ling Nunnery, near Tashijong, India
by Di Cousens September 2006
Gentle Voice first spoke to Ven. Tenzin Palmo in 2001 and then again in 2004. In this interview we catch up on the progress of her nunnery and the development of the nun’s education. Since 2004, the number of nuns has increased from about 20 to nearly 60. Many buildings have been completed and the nuns, the Khenpo, Ani-la and the staff all have residences on site. At the moment work is continuing on the study centre, including a library, a workshop and a puja hall. A retreat centre is under construction and when these are completed work will commence on the main traditional temple.
A. They come from Tibet and from Himalayan regions such as Ladakh, Spiti and in particular Kinnaur and in the new intake we have got a number of Bhutanese. This will be very interesting. We never had Bhutanese before but suddenly we had quite a few applications, so this will be a new departure.
A. Well, this year  because we have now got a junior class as well as our senior class, the nuns are split in two. They practise together with the two groups in separate rooms and they keep silence the whole time, apart from their chanting. For a group of teenage girls and girls in their 20s this is quite a challenge, but they really enjoy it. They are very, very scrupulous about not speaking. So the younger group are now doing the first two parts of their ngöndro practice. In the first month they did their prostrations and now they are doing Vajrasattva. The senior nuns this year are doing Buddha Akshobhya practice which is special for the Drukpa Kagyu.
A. As far as nun’s development is concerned, it is coming up quite well. One of the main areas which nuns usually lacked was education and now more and more nunneries are having a philosophical educational program so this is a big leap forward. Just recently we got a letter from the Tibetan Religious Office saying that this year’s gathering of the nunneries for the annual debate would be held in Mundgod in the South. So now it has become the tradition for the nuns to come together to debate at different nunneries. This is a really wonderful thing.
A. They are, but the Nyingma nunneries and the Sakya nunneries sometimes come as spectators. They are a little afraid to debate because the Gelugpas have such a mastery of logic which is not so emphasised in the other traditions, so you can’t best them at logic. Of course you could get round this by debating subjects that they are not so good at. But, anyway, it’s very good that so many nunneries now have educational programs. Even those nunneries which don’t have study programs – want them if they can afford it.
One of the problems for nuns is still that monasteries usually have a lama at the head, and one of his functions is to go out and raise funds for the monastery. Nunneries don’t normally have any lama who is raising funds for them. So therefore the nunneries are usually quite poor. And to have a study program, not only do you need some building in which to have the studies, but also you need to pay for a professor. Most nunneries are too poor for this and so it is a bit difficult. Some nunneries, such as Thrangu Rinpoche’s nunnery, have some senior nuns who have studied for many years in Sarnath Tibetan University and they themselves are now the teachers for the nuns. That again is a step forward beyond relying on the monks.
So gradually things will begin to change for the better. Also in Kyabje Penor Rinpoche’s nunnery, a number of nuns have graduated and to all extents and purposes should eventually be able to become Khenmos. Two of these nuns are in our nunnery and are teaching the DGL nuns because we want the nuns to have the example of senior nuns to respect, not always the monks. Our Khenpo Tsering is from Dzongsar Institute and so he is Sakya but very ris-med (non-sectarian) in attitude. Actually his mother was Drukpa Kagyu so he was brought up knowing some of these Drukpa Kagyu prayers. So he feels very at home. He is a very kind and good Khenpo who believes in the nuns and their future.
A. They need to have the opportunities to realise their potential. They need the opportunities for developing themselves intellectually and spiritually. This is the reason why here we give them a training program. For the first six years they do the study program and they do two months every year of strict meditation. At the end of those six years they are asked whether they want to carry on and do more studies – because we hope some of them will become teachers for the future nuns. Or whether they want to go into a three year retreat and then perhaps further years of practice to become what are called Togdenma [Ed: yoginis]. A number of our nuns, especially the Tibetans, are very keen to become Togdenma. It’s their big dream and they are praying sincerely that they should be able to go into retreat and really practice. Now we have to deal with the problem of finding qualified teachers for the nuns when they are in retreat. To find professors is relatively easy but to find good meditation teachers for nuns is more of a challenge.
A. Well, it’s very difficult. Every year the price of building materials skyrockets and so our original estimates are way under. So we are endlessly fundraising. But my feeling is truly that it is all in the hands of Jetsun Drolma [Ed: Arya Tara] and if she wants this nunnery then she has to put out her influence and get the funds as we need it.
A. Well, in the puja hall of the shedra, the monastic college (study centre), the main figure will be Prajna Paramita (the goddess of the Perfection of Wisdom), and on one side will be Jetsun Drolma and on the other side will be Manjushri, because the Khenpo said, ‘Where’s Manjushri?’
Also there will be statues of the Venerable Ananda and of Mahaprajapati, the Buddha’s stepmother. Because Ananda was the one who persuaded the Buddha to allow women into the order. And of course Mahaprajapati was the first nun. Not only had I always intended to do this, but without my saying anything, Dugu Chogyal Gyamtso Rinpoche who had come to advise us on the statues, said that we must have Ananda and the Buddha’s aunt. I was very happy to hear him say so too.
In the main temple, seeing as it will be more open to the public, the main statue has to be the Buddha Shakyamuni, I think. Hindus get very confused sometimes when they go into Tibetan temples and there are no statues of the Buddha. There is Guru Rinpoche and there are various other deities but there is no Buddha. Again there will be Jetsun Drolma and maybe Guru Rinpoche or Buddha Akshobhya. In the retreat centres there will probably be statues of Vajrayogini and maybe Vajrasattva or Vajradhara.