Transcription of video:
Gebchak Gonpa – in their voice
[Gebchak Gonpa is a Tibetan nunnery founded in 1892].
One evening a group of nuns end their week-long Chulen retreat. Chulen, or “Taking the Essence”, is one of the many practices at Gebchak Gonpa. The next day, Yangchen [one of the nuns, or Ani-Las], speaks about her her mentors, her lineage, and life in her nunnery.
On remarkable old nuns, preserving a female lineage…and practice.
Ani-La Yangchen: When the old nuns were ready to pass away, there wasn’t a single one who didn’t die a special death. When I first came, I was too young to appreciate their qualities. Now, looking back, I really feel faith.
Each one died an impressive death. Just by uttering “Phet!” the old nun Sangdron could scare all the kids hovering at the temple doors. They would fall over and run away. Looking back now I see they [the old nuns] had that kind of force about them. They’d always tell us we have to spend our whole lives at Gebchak. We have to fan the flames of practice here and not get scattered.
When those old nuns died, they didn’t complain of any suffering. They’d say, “Look, I’m dying. No point in fussing about it. I’ve no regrets.” They would report no suffering at all. They’d say, “My body has some disease in it, but I’m fine. I’m not suffering.” Most of them talked like that when they were nearing death. There wasn’t a single one who didn’t die an impressive death. Like Pema Lhamo when she died. She saw male and female deities and rainbows holding up the sky. Sitting in lotus position, she joyfully sang mantras as she was dying. There wasn’t a single old Gebchak nun who didn’t die impressively like that.
Looking back, when I first came to the Nunnery, there were almost 100 elderly nuns, and each one died in an impressive way. I was too young then to appreciate it. Now I can see how precious each one of them was. They all died special deaths, those old nuns.
Those days when we were finally free to practice Dharma again [after the repressions of the Cultural Revolution], we prayed so strongly and the lamas were all there. It was an amazing time. Nobody had to press us to do the drubchens and pujas [formal ceremonial ritual thanksgiving performances]. We did them all out of pure enthusiasm. We were so inspired. We felt the Buddhas were really there with us. Each drubchen brought its own powerful blessings. And we were motivated by the blessings. Even though the practices were hard, we were sure of all the blessings they brought. We had that drive on every level (chuckles to herself)…Looking back now…
Question: When the Communist [Chinese Army] invasion started, how did the late nun Tendron save the texts? Did she carry them off on yaks? On horses? How did she do it?
Ani-La: I don’t know how she did it. She valued the texts more than her life — that’s how. By hiding some texts here, some there, she managed to preserve all of Tsang-Yang Gyamtso’s 16 volumes and Ratna Lingpa’s 25 volumes. She saved them all. And after the Cultural Revolution when nuns were gathered at Gebchak again, she returned with all the texts on yaks, and offered them back to the lamas. The old nun Tendron saved all our texts.
The old ritual objects you see in the Kangyur Temple were preserved by the late Ngondrub Chomtso. She unearthed them after the Cultural Revolution. As bursar, she did a lot of work to re-organize the nunnery back then. The late nun Shakya was the ritual- and chant-master. She taught all the rituals and prayers to the new nuns. The late nun Palmo remembered all the yogic practices like tsa-lung and trulkhor and taught them to the new nuns. And the late Sherub Zangmo taught the view [philosophical understanding] and meditation. She placed them in the hands of the new nuns. She passed the lineage to the new nuns.
Those old nuns preserved the entire lineage, the lineage that Tsang-Yang Gyamtso [1848-1909] had first taught the nuns himself. From the basics of making torma [elaborate butter-dough sculptures used in ritual offerings] and playing conch [conch-shell trumpets] to the highest practices. It was his dying wish that the female lineage he established may never be scattered. Those old nuns fulfilled that wish and passed it on to a new generation of nuns.
When the old nun Tendron passed away, all the nuns carried her corpse up to the sky burial site. Normally vultures will descend to eat the body, but this time they didn’t appear. We came back down the mountain worrying that wild dogs would eat her. But the next morning there was no sign that dogs or vultures had been there. Yet not a trace of her corpse was left. And so people said that she’d gone to the Cool Grove Cemetery, the Cool Grove Charnel Ground. People also said it was a sign that she would liberate more sentient beings from the bardo than grains on a platter full of sand [chuckles].
Question: You understood it was because she was a special kind of human, yes?
Ani-La: When I think about her now, I think she was a special being. Usually she wore tattered robes and walked around without any shoes. Her shoes barely had any soles left on them. But when she went to see the lamas she would come to their door dressed in bright new robes, laughing and holding up offerings for them. She wasn’t an ordinary human being. I can appreciate that now. At the time I didn’t understand anything. Now I’ve met many lamas and read the scriptures and I can recognize how special she really was.
Question: Did you actually meet Tendron?
Ani-La: Tendron? Yes. I was here when she returned from central Tibet. A long time ago.
Question: She must have been in her 80s, right?
Ani-La: She had white hair and poor eyesight. She didn’t feel any fear or suffering around her death.
Question: She was happy, wasn’t she?
Ani-La: Yes, she had a happy mind.
Question: Tsang-Yang Gyamtso’s 16 volumes were composed with female practitioners in mind, right?
Ani-La: Yes. They include everything — practice, meditation, different cycles of drubchens. In spring there are seven to nine drubchens, and there are drubchens in winter. Then there are practices —looking at the nature of the mind, the preliminary Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind, 100-day meditation retreats…. There is tummo meditation, meditation while holding the breath, thogyal sky-gazing, illusory body practice to prepare for the bardo. Chod practice, the Sang-Tri Rig-Nga — which is the outer expression of the inner tantras. Whatever inner experience one requires on the path, they include a practice to cultivate it.
Question: Can you explain how after you’ve been through all the Nunnery’s practice stages nuns make time to stay in dark retreat, chulen, 100-days meditation, nyung-nays, and so on?
Ani-La: Yes, we do those. When there is a drubchen we participate in that. In the winter there are eight drubchens. As soon as there is some time in between drubchens, nuns do Chulen and Dark Retreats. Some do 100-days retreats, nyung-nays. Some nuns accumulate prostrations, their ngondros [preliminary purification practices], Vajrasattva mantras. Each nun finds her own space to practice. And no one wastes a minute of time.
Question: Do you do these things because lamas tell you to?
Ani-La: Nobody tells us. No lamas make us do these practices. No disciplinarian. Each nun is motivated to practice out of devotion. We never waste any time [available] for practice. That is the way we live here.