A river nearly encircles the huge, sprawling hermitage home of the many thousands of Tibetan Buddhist nuns of Yarchen Gar in Kham, Tibet. (A smaller cluster of monks live on the opposite bank.) Like Larung Gar, it is alive with Buddhist study of every kind, but the nuns here focus on practice rather than philosophy – tiny meditation huts dot the hillside leading to a huge shining statue of Guru Rinpoche, and spread out around the edges of the encampment. After mastering some fundamentals, nuns undertake a meditation retreat of 100 days in these minute huts – never leaving except for bathroom breaks – eating what is brought to them and meditating night and day. Nuns were working on the huts in mid-October as I visited, in preparation for the start of the retreat, and I cannot imagine how cold it will be in even just a few weeks, since it is icy when the sun goes down (though hot enough to shed a jacket in the scalding Tibetan mid-day sun.)
Between study and practice, the nuns haul and hammer everywhere throughout the camp (“Gar” means literally a Buddhist encampment), driving tractors, carrying water balanced on sticks across their shoulders or heavy barrels or logs strapped on their backs. They pound on the ramshackle huts jammed together in every possible space, laying cinder blocks for new ones and hammering up repairs on old ones.
But mostly they practice – an afternoon session at the nuns’ prayer hall is a bee-hive of activity and prayer. One whole section practices mandala offerings. Another makes prostrations, and others study texts in small groups. The day I was there was full of teachings: first, a huge morning wang (empowerment) offered by the Yarchen Gar head, Aseng Tulku, attended by the whole camp it seemed. That same afternoon, another cavernous hall was more than half filled with students attending a teaching by one nun, and at the same time, other nuns walked around with FM radios, listening in on yet another teaching by another nun at the camp. It continued into the evening. At 9pm or so, we went up the hill to Aseng Rinpoche’s area, to find a room of a few hundred people, listening to more senior students give short oral teachings in front of Rinpoche, as training. With some other lay folk, my little group of three approached Rinpoche during a break between nuns’ talks for a blessing. He has a kind and serious demeanor, and gave us blessings with a little upside-down bowl shaped cloth on a handle, on our heads, and some blessing cords he blew on in benediction.
It did my heart good to see and hear and feel the prayers weaving through this city of nuns, and to see everywhere their cheerful, kind faces, but there is too a wish that the nuns could live in much better conditions. There is no infrastructure to speak of – all the roads are bumpy dirt tracks, and there appears to be no piped water except communally, and not enough or decent toilets, to the degree that folks just go in a big dirt space not far from the river bank. I only hope that one day they can live in the decent and healthy conditions they deserve, but for now it is clearly only the superb level of spiritual training that sustains and nourishes them.