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Tibetan Buddhist nuns take a page from Catholics

By Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun November 6, 2010

Vancouver, Canada -- If there's a silver lining to the 50-year exile of Buddhists who've fled Tibet to escape Chinese rule, it may be the greater role and much improved quality of life that is evolving for women who devote their lives to their faith.

Even in the free Tibet, life for nuns was difficult, said Rinchen Khando Choegal, the sister-in-law of the Dalai Lama who served for 10 years as education minister in the Tibetan exile government and now devotes herself to an educational initiative for nuns. Most had little or no education before they took their vows, she said, and few, if any, formal learning opportunities once they joined.

And it was much worse for the 2,000 or so religious women who in recent decades have fled Tibet to work and study at the Dalai Lama's new home in Dharamsala, India, or the handful of other South Asian communities where about 140,000 exiled Tibetans congregate.

"Many had been imprisoned, and tortured in prison," Choegal said. "Their health was very poor. They were living in fear."

So her Nun's Project, started 23 years ago but becoming a full-time endeavour for her only for the last five, began with health and security. It then progressed, with considerable success, into education.

Her Nun's Project today involves about 700 women, roughly a third of the Tibetan nuns in exile. Those who've joined recently must be at least 17 years old and they come with basic education, which is provided to almost all Tibetan exile children by the government in exile. But her initial participants were as young as 13, and most had no education at all.

Today, her "successes" are fully qualified to work at high levels in community-serving sectors such as health and education. Several are within reach of highest-level degrees.

"The purpose of these degrees is not to look for high-paying jobs," she said. "They are supposed to have learned about the deeper values in life, what life is all about, and what they are supposed to be doing as a human being. It's to develop altruism, selflessness and living for others."

So the inevitable result is not only to provide a much better and more satisfying quality of life for the women who have devoted their lives to religion, but also a skilled and dedicated pool of workers who benefit the whole community.

This fits well with the transformation in Buddhist outlook that is taking place under the guidance of the Dalai Lama, she said. He has encouraged his followers to not only pursue a path to personal enlightenment, but also to engage in helping others.

Choegal, who was in Vancouver last week on a fundraising tour to recruit support for her work, said much of her vision for what is possible for Buddhist nuns flows from her own education. The daughter of uneducated Tibetan parents, she came to India as a young and unschooled teenager, but she managed to get first into a school run by Protestant missionaries and, when she excelled there, a college run by Catholic nuns.

"I loved the stories from scripture," she said. "And I developed a lot of respect for the nuns, who were so devoted to the community.

"You go to their rooms -- they're bare. And I think that's a great thing, to have no belongings. But wherever they're called, they go in the service of humanity.

"I gained so much respect for that.

"I think I put a lot of things into my nunneries because of that. Service to the community. Dedication to what you believe in. Love of simplicity. This is very much Buddhist philosophy as well, but I saw the Catholic nuns actually practise it."

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