• Photo gallery: A Sisterhood In The Himalaya
By Chick Alsop
Special to The Advertiser
Our crowded jeep bumped and lurched its way through small villages in the Zanskar Valley of Northern India. Normally this isolated Himalayan valley is a peaceful enclave, but this was no ordinary day. All around us, pilgrims were on the move. On foot, carrying children and leading animals, they kicked up dust as they strode into the sunrise. Other travelers, on top of buses, trucks and jeeps, were all dressed in their finest. All were anticipating the arrival of their beloved spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
In the jeep with me was Karma Lekshe Tsomo, an American Buddhist nun. Twenty years ago, she rode into Zanskar on horseback to promote educational opportunities for Buddhist women. Today she is respected as the founder of the Jamyang Foundation, which sponsors eight nunneries in the valley.
A multitude of 30,000 welcomed His Holiness with flowers, prayer scarves, juniper fires, horns, drums and chanting. He opened his three days of teachings by reminding his followers that he possesses no magical powers. The teachings were filled with passion, emphatic gestures and his trademark laughter. The message was powerful. Little did I know that I would soon be immersed in a culture that can teach the same lessons without uttering a word.
ARRIVING IN ZANGLA
The rickety old bus was jammed. I pushed my way in, stepped over a baby yak and squeezed into a seat next to an old pilgrim. I was happy to finally be on my way to Zangla village to begin my stint as a volunteer English teacher in one of Karma Lekshe's nunneries. It was stifling hot and four of us were crammed into a seat made for two, but my mind was elsewhere. The nuns did not know I was coming. How would I be received? How effective would my untried teaching skills prove to be? Suddenly there was a loud bang as the overloaded bus broke a spring and began leaning precariously. The baby yak was terrified and started to cry. We limped slowly into Zangla as the sun was setting.
The Zangla monastery rests at 12,000 feet, perched high on a ridge above the Zanskar Valley. As I climbed the steep road, a nun approached to help with my bags. I quickly explained who I was and soon found myself surrounded with warm smiles, laughter and helping hands. We shared a sumptuous meal of fresh vegetables and curried rice and talked late. I slept soundly in the comfortable guest room that was to be my home for the next five weeks.
At dawn the next morning I stood in a cool, rarified world of perfect stillness, entranced by the vast scene of shimmering snow peaks and green fields before me. The mystical writer Paul Brunton worshipped the Himalayas as nature's most divine jewel. He wrote, "To live amongst these colossal massifs is a memorable blessing." As early rays began to sparkle on the whitewashed walls of the monastery, I too felt very blessed.
At breakfast, the nuns asked me to help them install solar lights in their rooms. Although I was daunted by the monastery's complete lack of tools, we forged ahead. Using my Leatherman tool, I soon found myself racing to keep pace. In short order, the nuns felled a dead tree and erected a pole. When wire failed to reach, they punched holes through thick brick walls. All day we toiled, and when the lights came on the nuns laughed, cheered and thanked me profusely. I congratulated them, for the accomplishment was theirs. I was astonished by how hard they worked. My journal entry that evening — WOW!
WALKING THE COW
The nuns named me Acho Le (Big Brother) and began teaching me about their home. My students would be the 10 nuns, ages 30 to 74, who lived in the monastery. Kitchen duty rotated with two nuns doing all the cooking for one week. The shopkeeper, accountant and shrine-keepers held their jobs for a year. To relieve the cooks, I took the daily job of walking Paushi, the milk cow, to the upper pasture.
The monastery ran smoothly. The cow got milked, the greenhouses weeded and the walkways swept. I began to sense something unusual, a subtle energy at work — something more than people simply doing their jobs. The Dalai Lama said, "As Buddhists, we do not believe in self-theory. We believe in the interconnectedness of all beings." As he taught, the nuns selflessly lived. If a shrine-keeper needed a day off, someone else gladly polished the sacred water bowls. When I struggled carrying nun Chamba's heavy propane tank, she did not thank me. The spirit of helpfulness being so naturally and deeply ingrained, my helping hand was simply taken for granted. This was the magic of Zangla.
Chodron, one of the quieter nuns, taught me about her job as shrine-keeper of the monastery's 500-year-old dukang (prayer hall). Every day she polished and refilled the sacred water bowls, lit the butter lamps and purified the sanctuary with smoke from a smoldering puja pot. Following her chores, she would move to a side altar and, using her bell, chant scripture. As our friendship grew, so too would Chodron's courage in the classroom.
The nuns already had a basic understanding of English, and my goal was to teach them how to converse with visitors — how to describe their monastery, their faith and their lives as nuns. I greeted them saying, "Good morning, Chomo Les (favorite nuns), I am so happy to see you." They always laughed. They attended faithfully and with an eagerness that often extended class overtime.
There were stumbling blocks. In the Himalayas, there is a misbelief that women are born inferior. If I complimented a nun on her excellent penmanship, she was apt to reply, "My writing is no good." Another misbelief is that beyond the age of 30, the ability to learn is greatly reduced. However, on the day Chodron, 56, came to me seeking extra help, I knew we were making progress.
We took a field trip to the monastery's old dukang. I peppered the nuns with questions. What story is this mural telling? Why do all protector deities look so angry? Is this the Buddha or a bodhisattva? Lengthy discussions ensued. I took notes. We had fun. I learned the meaning behind the four points of prostration, proper technique, how to hold my hands. When I attempted to sing the sacred mantra, "om mani padme hum," the nuns kindly held their laughter.
KINDNESS ALL AROUND
All of us can aspire to the bodhisattva ideal — cultivating the will and compassion to serve others. The nuns lived their lives as such.
After prayer, class and chores, they delivered tea and chapattis to harvest workers in the fields. They helped out by carrying hug loads of wheat, barley and grass on their backs.
When visitors arrived late, they sacrificed evening meals so the guests could have second helpings. They never complained. "My religion is kindness," said the Dalai Lama, and it abounded in Zangla.
The spirit was contagious. My long anticipated agenda of weekend trekking and photography was given up in favor of more class preparation. Although an early riser, I stayed up late at night polishing water bowls. I never felt better.
During our last class, "Appreciation Day," I told the nuns all the reasons I admired them. It had been an honor to teach them. They honored me with an invitation to stay for the winter.
During my weeks in the monastery, I never heard an unkind word. The nuns lived harmoniously as a true sisterhood.
Their lives were simple and uncluttered. What they taught me, by example alone, will be with me always. The Dalai Lama said, "Dedicate your life to the welfare of all sentient beings and your happiness will come about naturally." The nuns were the happiest people I have ever known.
I dreaded saying goodbye, but at the bus stop the nuns surprised me by climbing aboard.
They insisted on taking me to the market, concerned I would not have enough food for my trip home. I should have known.