Bringing the ruckus: The Buddhist kung fu nuns taking their message of empowerment to women and girls across the world

In the West, perceptions of kung fu are reflected by our pop culture. Generations of kids who grew up binge watching Bruce Lee movies have gone on to create art that uses kung fu as a touchstone, from one of our greatest living storytellers, rapper Kendrick Lamar, styling the tour and videos supporting his 2017 album DAMN. around the ancient martial art, to a series of box office smashing movies about a gifted animated panda.

In the East, specifically in China, kung fu is a national symbol viewed with reverence and seriousness. As The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos wrote, a film like Kung Fu Panda “could only be made by a foreigner because Chinese filmmakers would never try to play with such solemn subjects” as kung fu or pandas. The idea of flipping kung fu conventions on their head at all, never mind creating something that portrays it as zany and cartoonish, is outlandish and disrespectful.

For a very select group of people, myself included, kung fu is intrinsically linked with seminal New York City rap group, Wu-Tang Clan, whose name is a bastardisation of the style of kung fu practiced on Wudang mountain in China’s Hubei Province. Their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), is so steeped in kung fu lore, that the themes and sounds of the record have become synonymous with it. It presents kung fu as something heroic, aggressive, violent, masculine.

“Actually kung fu is not for fighting or causing pain, it is for self-defence. It was the same for Shaolin monks. They would stay in retreats alone in the mountains, where there were robbers and thieves, so it was just to protect themselves. The Bodhidharma taught kung fu to monks for self-defence, not fighting or violation.” This is how Jigme Konchok Lhamo, rightly, shoots down my Wu-Tang Clan-influenced misconceptions about kung fu. She is a nun from the rather special Himalayan Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Here, the traditionally patriarchal makeup of Buddhist orders of monks and nuns has been subverted, and it is these young women who have taken the lead.

The nuns practice kung fu at their monastery home

A part of the mission they have taken upon themselves includes going into communities – so far, in the towns surrounding their monastery in Nepal, as well as parts of the northern Indian region of Ladakh – to teach women and girls how to defend themselves using the much mythologised techniques of kung fu.

Being branded as ass-kicking kung fu nuns is an eye-catching and unusual headline but when I speak to Konchok, and her fellow Drukpa nun Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo, at Trust Conference, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual human rights and anti-trafficking seminar in London, at which they have been asked to take part in an onstage panel, it is the dedicated and inspiring humanitarian work they do in the region which they eruditely and excitedly want to discuss and impress upon.

“We travelled a long distance to bring a message to young girls,” says Wangchuk. “They can be as strong and as powerful as a man, if you give them what they want and what they need; if you give them a chance.”

Konchok takes over: “I think that it’s an opportunity. They need the right lead. Girls maybe wouldn’t have believed before that they could do that. That’s how kung fu came in.” Wangchuk emphasises her point: “You always hear about Shaolin monks right? But what about kung fu nuns? That’s a huge thing!”

Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo practicing kung fu at the nuns' monastery home

They both have this fizzing energy – finishing each other’s sentences and always united in what they believe. Multiple times during our conversation, they will speak in spontaneous unison. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up; but their passion for their service pulls me through.

“After learning kung fu we became more confident. We were physically and mentally strong and it even helps us with our meditation in our spiritual lives,” Konchok tells me. “Just because we practice and teach kung fu doesn’t mean we don’t follow our spiritual path too. We do each and everything side by side.

“We have been learning to play drums, and to perform the dragon dance – all the things that girls were prohibited from doing in the early days of our order. So it’s not just kung fu, we have been doing all the things that society says girls and women can’t do, and that’s in terms of our Buddhist nunnery life also.”

The nuns lead one of their kung fu workshops

The Buddhist lineage the two young women belong to wasn’t always as forward thinking and unconventional as it now seems. In 2008, the Gyalwang Drukpa, the leader of the Drukpa line, began to instigate reforms that brought the order’s nuns to the forefront, and started their new tradition of dispersing thoughts that prioritise the fight for women’s equality and empowerment.

“People think that nuns should stay inside a nunnery, serving monks, washing their clothes, acting like a waiter or something,” says Konchok. “They say we have to be peaceful, always meditating, (they begin to talk as one) in retreat, praying, chanting, sitting, doing nothing. We have a higher level of thinking here.

“In our lineage, our monks have always supported us and shown us respect. We are equal,” emphasises Konchok.

It was this alternative attitude that inspired Wangchuk to dedicate her life to the order. “When I was small, my thoughts were really big. I hated when people said girls can’t do anything. I loved helping and serving others, and from very early on, I knew I wanted to do this for my whole life. I had heard about what the Gyalwang Drukpa was doing from my uncle, who was a monk within the order, and he said ‘I have the perfect place for you, you can find your dream there’.

“I found this place, and I knew it was where I wanted to be. It meant the opportunity to do anything I wanted – to learn kung fu, to help and give support to other girls, and to help us discover and take heed of our own power.”

The Drukpa nuns greet a small girl in one of the nearby towns

In the historically gendered hierarchy of the religious establishment, achieving what the Drukpa nuns have is especially radical – they are even now entrusted with the secrets to the most esoteric form of meditation, something that was only previously available to male members of the order.

This is even more apparent as we live through #MeToo and ‘Time’s Up’ – a societal moment where women in the western world are finally, though still not always, being listened to when speaking out about experiences of systemic harassment, male privilege and sexual abuse that seem to have infected all walks of life, from Hollywood to the third sector.

Wangchuk, Konchok and their community of fellow nuns not only stand up as an idealistic goal to pursue, but in speaking out and passing on the skills that can instigate physical empowerment through kung fu, they are teaching applicable practical skills, and encouraging women and girls in marginalised sections of the region they live to start making change in their own way.

The Drukpa nuns during their 'bicycle yatra'

“This world says ‘ladies first’, but this phrase is useless if it isn’t applied in real life – there is nothing first in this world for ladies,” says Wangchuk. “It’s often said that our kung fu workshops empower women. And you say this about street papers too – they empower homeless people. But actually, what we are doing is not giving people power but allowing them to discover their own power. We all have our own power – we just need the support and the love to find it.”

Behind the kung fu classes that made them famous, the Drukpa nuns do less publicised, but far more extraordinary work, in the communities surrounding their monastery home. This includes an eco ‘pad yatra’ [walking pilgrimage] to remote villages collecting plastics and other non-biodegradable waste to educate communities about protecting the environment. In the wake of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, they rode bicycles in high altitude through the Himalayas to help with the relief effort – clearing rubble and helping to deliver aid to people in places that even the world’s largest NGOs couldn’t reach. At the same time, they advocated against the spike in slavery, human trafficking and sexual assault that sprung up in the aftermath.

The Drukpa nuns deliver aid in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake

Not only did this make a real, visible difference, it also showed their detractors what 700 Buddhist women could achieve together. “After the earthquake, we heard that girls were being sold because their families believed that they weren’t capable of doing anything to help rebuild,” says Konchok.

“But we have been doing so much work, and doing it ourselves. We told these people: ‘look, we are girls, and we can do it, so why can’t yours? We are from the same place, the same culture; why are you pushing your girls back? You should have faith in your daughters, and encourage them. Why don’t you give them a chance?’ This especially shocked us because we are nuns, but we are also sisters and daughters too.”

Now that they and their fellow nuns are achieving international recognition for their work, they hope that they can inspire a similar change in the wider world. But, of course, being confined to their humble surroundings, they are taking their movement one step at a time.

Konchok explains: “If we leave an impact on one person, and that person impacts on another, eventually we will begin to see people change their way of thinking, until it spreads throughout whole communities. Here [at Trust Conference], we have met all these people who support us and what we do. That makes it seem like a bigger change is coming. We may only affect that change in a small part of the world, but it is still a change.”

At Trust Conference, Wangchuk and Konchok wow the crowd with their high kicks and somersaults on stage. But more impressively, the young women rouse the audience with wisdom beyond their years and an idealism that, perhaps, the older, more experienced attendees have since replaced with cynicism.

The Kung Fu Nuns perform at Trust Conference (Credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation)

They talk about the importance of not only supporting women from an early age, but also better educating boys so that they grow up to respect women. They summarise a vision of equality about which they spoke so enthusiastically to me earlier that day.

“Most boys are told that they have all the power in the house and girls are told to sit silently. But the problem is that’s what has been passed down to them by parents. I want parents to teach their daughters to be strong, to defend themselves. It’s not compulsory that you need to know kung fu or to fight. It’s more the mentality they have to change,” says Konchok.

Wangchuk agrees: “We’re not saying that men can’t change. We can – we have to – change their thinking. But it’s up to parents too. Don’t warn your daughter not to go out; warn your sons to behave well and treat women with respect.

“Until we are all equal, as long as we push one part of society down, no matter whether that be women or some other demographic, we will never achieve peace.”

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