Reflections from Swe Nunnery

By Jessica Benjamin

In the fall of 2007 I departed from America and made the long journey to Ngawa, a small town in the Amdo region of Tibet. There I was fortunate enough to spend one and a half months living at Swe Nunnery, completely immersed in the daily lives of the nuns. I took over 1,000 photos and 7.5 hours of video footage (which will soon be made into a short documentary), all in the hopes of capturing a little bit of the spirit of the nunnery to share with others. The nuns opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I feel incredibly grateful to have had such an extraordinary experience. In the following paragraphs I’ll try to capture in writing some of that experience and to convey a sense of the world that thrives on the mountain.

Most of my days began at 6:30 or 7am, a full two hours after some of the nuns had risen to do their morning meditation. After a breakfast of tsampa or rice and leftovers from the night before, the day would begin in earnest. Because there was no real adherence to the weekday/weekend divide, each day’s activities would be decided simply by what needed to be done. Some days this meant going into Ngawa to buy food or supplies, other days it meant hitching a ride to a nearby temple to pick up a statue for the main meditation hall at the nunnery or setting up tents for a six day nunnery-wide party. Others still it meant accomplishing smaller, but by no means less important tasks: chopping and collecting firewood, fetching water from the well, washing clothes in the stream. The nuns used every last bit of the mountain and worked the earth in ways I’d never before seen. The lack of electricity at the nunnery meant that there would only be a few hours worth of candle or solar-powered light after dinner, and I couldn’t have been more grateful for the early bedtime. I woke up unsure of how each day would unfold, but I knew that at the end of it I would invariably be exhausted and at peace.

I was continually impressed and inspired by the nuns’ unfailingly positive attitude toward everything they encountered. Be it frigid temperatures, manual labor, or dry wells, they never complained; quite the opposite – they always had smiles on their faces and laughter not too far behind. If someone needed a helping hand, they would lend it, no questions asked. This was a true community. The nuns worked and played and prayed as one. They treated each other as family would, with the same level of affection and cooperativeness and respect. There was an unmistakable feeling of unity and harmony and togetherness that emanated from the nunnery, apparent to me after only a few days of living there. These qualities are essential for life on a mountain – the nuns are literally facing the elements up there, and they can’t do it alone.

When they weren’t working or talking over cups of milk tea, the nuns were doing what they came to the nunnery to do – dedicating themselves to the Buddhist path. They prayed, they meditated, they studied ancient texts, they practiced playing different religious instruments, and on one memorable occasion they even let me participate with them in a two day silent meditation. Apart from the fasting, it was an enjoyable experience. The nuns really worked for their titles, having little choice otherwise. Many of them were not educated, and because traditionally nuns are not afforded the same education opportunities as are monks, this meant that they had to study doubly hard on their own or with other nuns. Due to lack of funding, they were also forced to build their main meditation hall entirely by themselves. The nuns I spoke with told me of carrying the planks of wood on their backs up the mountain, mixing all of the materials together, and constructing the building over a period of 2-3 years. They recall it as one would a dream, still unsure of how they managed the incredible feat. And now, three years later, they finally have enough money to hire painters. When I left they were just finishing up the outside; it looked beautiful.

At times I found that I couldn’t even get around the nunnery once without being pulled into house after house to “ja tong” (eat and drink) or “dug” (sit). The nuns didn’t speak any English, so our conversations would always be full of wild gesticulations and as-yet-uncharted facial expressions. There were plenty of animals to keep me company, though: one shy dog, two ducks who waddled around together, one inexplicably combative rooster, and two clever but whiny cats, not to mention the horses, donkeys, and yak who could usually be seen grazing outside the houses. Other times I’d wander around, pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t staring at a postcard. No, that was just the view from the mountain.

I’m still pinching myself. My experience at Swe Nunnery is beyond words, although I’ve tried my best here to overcome that idiom. I know I’ve made some truly great and genuine friends, and I fully intend to return one day soon. For now I’d like to do what I can to raise money and awareness for the Jonang Nuns. It’s my way of showing them the same respect and love they afforded me for two months. When I came to Tibet I was told to “expect the unexpected.” I certainly did not expect to be welcomed into such a unique community so immediately and without reservation. What I learned from that community could not have been gleaned anywhere else, leaving me starry-eyed and wanting more. It was the type of learning I could only get on a mountain, in Tibet, surrounded by sixty of the most loving and hard-working individuals I’d ever met

About Jessica

Jessica is a graduate of Harvard University. She received a travel fellowship to spend the 2007-2008 year in Tibet, Nepal, and India living with and teaching Buddhist nuns. She was Jonang Foundation’s first intern.

The Jonang Nunnery Project