The idea for our association was born during the production of the documentary film Tara in the summer of 2000. While filming we spent more than 6 weeks at Jangchen Chöling monastery in Spiti valley, where we accompanied the nuns in their everyday life, building a greenhouse or teaching English. We helped to decorate the monastery for a possible visit by H.H. the Dalai Lama and we took care of their monastery, so that they could visit him at the Kalachakra in nearby Ky Monastery. All this resulted in a close relationship with Padme, Dölma, Chicham, Kelsang and all the other women and girls who chose to live in the monastery.
On 23 February 2019 an avalanche hit Yangchen Choling monastery causing extensive external damage. Thankfully, no lives were lost. The roof of one building was damaged and the second building, the nuns' living quarters, was buried in snow. When the snow started to clear in spring, the whole extent of the damage became apparent. The costs for repairs and rebuilding had been estimated at approx. 55.000,- EUR.
A fundraising through GoFundMe by far surpassed our initial goals. With your generosity we were able to collect a total of 9.750 EUR, that were then directly transfer to the monasteries account in support of the necessary repair work. By now, all damages have been repaired.
The Spiti-Help association was founded by Wolfgang Rebernik, Michael Verius, Tara Krajanek, Michael Puffinger, Sylvia Naschberger and Christian Esposito as a result of the above-mentioned film project. This was in response to the wish of the nuns of Yangchen Chöling monastery to support the people of the Spiti Valley by helping with medical care.
One focus of the association is the preservation of traditional Tibetan medicine in the Spiti Valley. Twice a year, herbs are collected under the guidance of Tibetan doctors and processed into medicine in winter. Spiti-Help provides ingredients that have to be procured outside the valley.
In cooperation with AZW Innsbruck, two nurses travelled with us to the Spiti Valley in 2006. They gave the nuns lessons in basic hygiene and first aid.
In addition, the monastery is supported with donations for specific purposes, e.g. the purchase of firewood, supplies for the winter, or the purchase of water filters.
Currently, the aim is to ensure a stable, year-round water supply. For this, a stream has to be caught and channelled to the monastery. This will also benefit the nearby village of Pangmo by providing it with running water.
Lahaul/Spiti is the largest district in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, covering 12,210 m2. Approximately 45,000 people live in the numerous valleys, which are surrounded by the 5400m - 7000m high Himalayan mountains (just under 3 people/km2). It is bordered by Ladakh to the north, Tibet/China to the east, Kinnour to the southeast and the Kullu Valley to the south.
Spiti, which translates as "land in the middle“, is divided into the regions of Shan (around Taboo), Pin (Pin Valley), Bhar (around Kaza) and Tud (Losar region). Climatically, the region is a high desert. The cultivation of crops, such as peas and parley, is possible only where fields can be irrigated.
In 1960, due to the construction of the Leh-Manali road as well as the road across the Rothang Pass and through the Chandra Valley, the region was first opened to vehicular traffic. Because of its close proximity of the Tibet/China border, the Indian government did not allow foreigners to visit the Spiti Valley until 1991.
In the last 10 years, the valley has become a popular tourist destination for trekking and alternative travel. This, as in many other places, has had not only positive impact on the local population and has brought with it its own set of new problems.
Originally, the nuns lived in a converted cave above the village of Pangmo. However, lack of space and scorpions made them change the location. The new monastery was built below the cave, where with the help of the villagers, the nuns built living quarters, classrooms and teachers' quarters.
About 6 kilometres from Pangmo, in Morang, another monastery for women, Sherab Chöling, was established in 1995. H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama personally visited and blessed the two monastic schools in the summer of 1996.
These schools are unique as they combine spirituality and the daily lives of women. This helps the nuns to become economically self-sufficient. Programmes for education in Buddhist culture, philosophy, languages, handicrafts and health care are designed to combine the best of traditional and modern knowledge. With diligence and dedication, these women strive to overcome their disadvantages in education and economic status. With increased training and thus increased self-confidence, they acquire social and spiritual authority within the community. This enables them to make valuable contributions to the preservation of culture, to health care and further development of the community.
The role of women in Buddhism is necessarily a subordinate one, as it is said that one cannot attain enlightenment in a woman's body. One can prepare oneself through spiritual practice to attain a male body in the next birth or births and only then one then gets the opportunity to break the circle of rebirths to enter nirvana.
Just like today, Indian society at the time of Buddha was strongly patriarchal. Buddha did not want to admit women into the Sangha, the community, for fear that this might cause dissension. Buddha's aunt and stepmother, Pajapati, nevertheless asked him to ordain women as nuns. Buddha shook his head three times. Pajapati then did something very radical. She and several other women shaved their heads, put on robes and followed Buddha and his monks. Only after the intercession of Ananda, Buddha's confidant, were the women admitted to the Sangha. However, this was not done without imposing stricter vows on the women. One of these vows was that they would always be subordinate to their male colleagues, even if they were much younger and less experienced than the nuns themselves.
As it takes 11 already fully ordained monks or nuns to fully ordain a monk/nun (bhikkhu/ bhikkuni), the lineage of bhikkunis could never establish itself in Tibetan Buddhism. Because if this, there are officially no fully ordained nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Should a woman wish to join the Sangha, she can only take the subordinate position of a sramanerika, novice. However, this means that many doors open to monks remain closed to nuns.
In the early 1980s, a group of nuns ordained in the Tibetan tradition found themselves seeking full ordination. Among them was Karma Lekshe Tsomo, an American nun from Hawaii. She was fully ordained in Korea, along with many other women. Since then, she has played an important role in the struggle for equal rights for Tibetan nuns in particular and Buddhist women in general. In 1987, Karma Lekshe Tsomo founded "Shakyadhita", The International Association of Buddhist Women, www.sakyadhita.org and has since supported many nunneries in the Himalayan regions of Lahaul/Spiti, Ladakh, Zanskar and Kinnour. These monasteries are usually the only opportunity for women to receive an education and lead a spiritual life.
Buddhism was originally widespread throughout India, but disappeared over the centuries in many parts of the sub-continent. Only in some regions of the Himalayas, mostly remote and difficult to reach, such as Assam, Zanskar, Ladakh and Spiti, did it survive. The Spiti Valley is a barren land surrounded by the high peaks of the Himalayas, in whose remoteness the inhabitants have preserved their unique cultural heritage for generations.
Economic problems, mainly caused by the disruption of the traditional wool trade with the now Chinese Tibet, have led the men of Spiti to move to the big cities of India in search of work. The women left behind in the valley bear the sole responsibility for their livelihood and the family. Traditional values from Buddhist culture, which has been practiced in Spiti for more than a thousand years, are still the basis of community live. "Metta", loving-kindness, as well as care for children, the old, the weak and the disabled, has been the core of women's spiritual practices for centuries. In winter, during the long months of seclusion, crafts and religious meditation, teaching and prayer are a welcome change from the freezing cold outside.
Traditionally, women's work centres around the home. Spinning wool, knitting, caring for family members and tending to livestock and fields. Women's spirituality and education is thus primarily focused on the home and hearth. Mainly due to the lack of educational opportunities, have women rarely succeeded in excelling as spiritual leaders. Although Buddhism has flourished here since the 8th century, there has never been a traditional centre of study for women.
Women in the Himalayan monasteries work hard to become economically self-sufficient and to play an important role in the preservation and transmission of their culture. Many young women are ready for admission to one of the monasteries, but have to wait until more such centers for training can be built. Yangchen Chöling was the first monastery in the region in 1985 to enable girls and women to follow this path.
Tibetan medicine is based on a holistic approach. It strives for the inner balance of the forces in the body. According to Tibetan medical teachings, the causes of diseases are based on the three mental poisons of hatred, ignorance and greed. They are directly related to the three central body energies or body principles: bile (Tibetan: ripat), phlegm (bekän) and wind (rLung). These are not comparable to our homonymous terms, but stand for specific energetic states and forms.
Bile shows itself in the form of body heat, phlegm in the form of liquid and wind as movement. In a healthy body, the body’s principles are in balance. These three principles of the body manifest through the five elements of earth, water, air, fire and space. Tibetan medicines works primarily through the sensation of taste; taste is part of the healing effect. There are six different tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot, tart). This is why, for example, Tibetan tea blends available in Europe have a very distinct taste.
The system of traditional Tibetan medicine essentially comprises of around 700 recipes, mostly composed of a large number (up to 100) of mainly herbal ingredients. Diagnosis involves a highly developed system of pulse analysis. In addition to medicines, behavioural and dietary instructions also play an important role in therapy as well as therapies such as massage, acupuncture, acupressure and cupping.
Tibetan medicine (Tib: gso-parig-pa, "the knowledge of healing") is one of the oldest medical systems in the world. It was created in the 8th century, recorded in writing out of the medical traditions of Asia and the teachings of Buddha. The medical traditions of Indian medicine (Ayurveda), Chinese medicine (TCM), Persian medicine (Unani, heir to the ancient Greek medical tradition) and the shamanic medicine of the Himalayan region were integrated in one system.
In its present form, Tibetan medicine is based on the fundamental scripture Gyüshi (or Four Tantras of Medicine) written in the 12th century. It describes around 1600 diseases and thousands of remedies.
laugh & pray
Together with the nuns and the author Christl Finkenstedt, we produced the book "Laughing and Praying. Nuns in the Himalayas". It is a very personal view into the life of the nuns, their everyday life in the monastery and their position in the community of the valley.
Currently the book is available as an e-book with numerous pictures, interviews and video sequences in Apple's Books Store. An e-pub and a "print on demand" version is in the works. All proceeds from sales go to the monastery.