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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Empowerment in exile

October 4, 2010

Transforming lives through education for 20 years
by Meredith Lawrence
Common Grounds
October 2, 2010

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.

Benefit talk for Tibetan Nuns Project
Monday, October 25
7:30pm (reception to follow)
$10 suggested donation.


Shalom Synagogue
710 East 10th Avenue, Vancouver

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.
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