By Irina Safonova
This past fall I travelled to Zanskar in an effort to reconnect and deliver financial aid to the Buddhist nunneries we have supported there since1991.
Zanskar is most isolated of all Himalayan valleys; it is situated at an elevation of 3500 metres above sea level and it takes two long days to reach it by car from Leh. All 7000 sq. km of Zanskar is an underdeveloped area where existing use of natural resources is limited due to the low level of technology and very harsh environment. Cell phone reception there is unreliable and internet connection still missing. Zanskar is connected to rest of the country by only a single lane of highly damaged road. This road too remains open for just 7 months a year. People there still live in small scattered communities, extremely isolated from the rest of the world. The Zanskaris’ main occupations are cattle-rearing and farming of land. Land suitable for cultivations scarce.
In August 2008, our spiritual director Zasep Rinpoche, John Huizinga, and Celeste Kilmartin, acting as representatives of Gaden Relief, visited and assessed each of the nine Buddhists nunneries. After the retirement of Kim Gutschow and Lauren Galvin from the Zanskar Nunnery Project we lost consistent connection with the nunneries. The last financial aid from GRP received by Zanskar nuns was delivered by a volunteer in May 2014. We have had no connection with the nunneries since then.
I arrived in Zanskar in mid of October 2018,on crisp, clear sunny day. I stayed at the Karsha Kachod Grubling nunnery, in a guest room with absolutely breathtaking views of the central valley. I am grateful to the Karsha nuns for their immeasurable generosity and warm hospitality. They were very accommodating during my stay at the nunnery.
At the request of the nuns, monk from the Karsha monastery, who was teaching young nuns English and math, accompanied me on all visits to the nunneries, acting as translator while I conducted a survey of the conditions and needs of each of the nunneries . I would like to express my gratitude to Lobzang for his tireless work in translating and introducing me to culture and customs of Zanskar.
Nine nunneries are home to 185 nuns, aged 4 to 88 years old. 73 of whom are little girls.
Much help is needed for these nuns, just to provide the necessities for daily survival. The needs and the resources at each nunnery vary considerably—some nunneries have several hours of electricity per day or solar panels, as well as assembly halls, classrooms and residential cells, while other nunneries may have the bare minimum of residential cells with no communal kitchen or educational facilities. Manda Padma Choling, Rizhing Dorje Dzong and Bya Dolma Ling nuns are living in extremely dire conditions, suffering a lack of food and heating sources, a shortage of goods including shoes and clothing. Some nunneries have little or no means of support locally.
The most critical areas of need are food, heat, education, water and light.
The installation of smokeless stoves and solar panels, along with charge controllers to support lighting and heating needs, construction of educational facilities, water delivery and storage systems at all of the nunneries, would help improve living conditions and ability to continue their ritual and meditation studies even throughout the long, dark, and cold months of winter isolation.
Also passionately expressed by the nuns was the hope for having a visiting dharma teacher.
Eight of the nine nunneries have no access to Dharma teachings. The emphasis of their study is on memorization of prayers, which they recite at the daily prayer assemblies. They feel Dharma teachings are very important, as a benefit for themselves and all beings. They also feel that opportunities to deepen their understandings are necessary for the practice of wisdom and compassion.
Dharma teachers arranged from South India would be able to access the nunneries only during the warm months of April-September. Most of the nunneries have a room available to accommodate a visiting teacher. A salary for a visiting teacher of 1000 rupees per month (appx 200CA) would be provided.
Only Karsha nunnery has thus far had partial funding available to arrange for a visiting teacher from South India. The nuns have greatly appreciated the opportunity to study Buddha Dharma with a teacher for the past two seasons. Such teachings have been very significant, the nuns stated, in deepening their understandings and their practice. The youngest nuns are now receiving Dharma teachings from a visiting monk; monk from Karsha monastery teaches them math and English.
The younger nuns attend government run schools in a nearby villages or study under the supervision of senior nuns who teach them to read and write. Some of the nuns have received Buddhist teachings and a basic secular education in Leh and Dharamsala , then have became teachers themselves of younger nuns in their own nunneries.
The needs survey found some of the nunneries require the building or repair of classrooms, residential cells, meditation cells, kitchens, prayer halls and greenhouses, the planting of trees, and construction of outdoor toilets.
In the absence of proper healthcare facilities, people in Zanskar are still dependent on the Ayurvedic system of Tibetan medicine known as Amchi. But this system of medicine is not sufficient enough when it comes to dealing with serious disease or the need emergency treatment.
This was shown recently when we received a call for help in the second part of November 2018. A young 9 year old nun, from the Zangla nunnery, became very ill and was transported to the emergency unit of Leh hospital. From Leh she was flown to a hospital in Delhi, for complex craniotomy surgery. Although part of the medical expenses were covered by the Indian health system, the nunnery and young nun’s relatives were left to pay outstanding bills of approximately $1000.00 (CA). GRP provided funds to cover these medical expenses.
When the needs survey of the nine nunneries was completed nuns representing each nunnery gathered in the town of Padum ,for lunch together and to receive the distribution of financial aid. On behalf of GRP I was able to deliver $8000.00( USD). Funds were divided according to the needs of each nunnery as established by the survey. We also provided the Manda nuns with shoes and stove for their communal room. They were approaching winter wearing worn out shoes and without any means to keep warm while doing practice together.
Meanwhile, an all-weather road under construction has been slowly making its way into the heart of Zanskar along the river. It’s been 10 years in the making and perhaps another 10 to go. The road comes with many hopes. It will bring new life to people of Zanskar.
GRP will continue extend support and deepen relationship with Zanskar nuns, the women who are seeking enlightenment.
Nuns fervently pray that in the future their hopes and dreams be fulfilled for the benefit of all beings, to propagate the teachings, and to bring peace and happiness to the world. When one wishes to serve people and wear the robes of love and compassion, nothing can stop them.