Simplifying My Life
Sitting in the courtyard of the nunnery, I eat my delicious breakfast of chapatis, salty hot milk tea and bitter vegetables. The sun is rising over the foothills of the Himalayas, the mountains so close they take my breath away. My heart rings with joy. I am here for a few months of meditation retreat.
A Typical Day On Retreat
A typical day on retreat at Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery can include: early morning puja (chanting prayers) by the nuns, breakfast on the terrace outside the retreat compound sitting on the ground in the already hot sun, meditating in my room, walking meditation outside, lunch seated on the cobbles while watching the crows gliding on the thermals, an afternoon rest, meditating in the temple while it is empty, and attending an evening puja in the temple.
It is a relief to let all social niceties drop away. No worries about how I look, no worries about saying and doing and interacting.
As a visiting meditator, I am given 3 meals a day, which arrive wordlessly in the retreat kitchen in a tiffin. The food is nourishing, delicious and uncomplicated. There is no talking with other meditators, and we are encouraged to avoid nonverbal contact as well. It is a relief to let all social niceties drop away. No worries about how I look, no worries about saying and doing and interacting. All I have to pay attention to is the practice I have come to do.
To support slowing down into retreat, I pay attention to the soles of my feet as I walk from my room to the kitchen. Over the weeks, my squeaky shoes gradually become soundless. I slow down enough to open the door gently, easily, without a noise. Some days are calm, some hours are blissful, some hours are painful. The experience keeps changing and gradually the calm deepens.
How the Nunnery Came to Be
The seed of this adventure began some years ago when I read the book “Cave in the Snow”, about Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Fifty years ago she came from England as a young woman, seeking Buddhist training amongst the Tibetans in India. She has created a nunnery for Himalayan women, so that they may be fully supported in their Buddhist training.
The nunnery has expanded to included younger women and girls. The nuns are provided with books and classes that included the expected spiritual subjects as well as math and science. They have good teachers and spiritual instruction from high lamas. They are taught yoga and meditation and how to play the musical instruments used in the pujas. “Oh, I would like to go there” I thought to myself, dreaming of retreat and India.
My First Impressions of the Nunnery
So many times I felt a mixture of gratitude and thrill that I was in India. I was so glad to be there. Two years ago I went with friends on a Buddhist pilgrimage to India. On my way from Dharamsala to the monastery of Sherabling near Bir, I had dropped in at Dongyu Gatsal Ling (DGL) nunnery. I wanted to see Tenzin Palmo’s nunnery.
When I entered the Tibetan temple at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, a glorious scene greeted me. Each wall was full of paintings of the divine feminine.
When I entered the Tibetan temple at DGL, a glorious scene greeted me. Each wall was full of paintings of the divine feminine. By that time, I had been in several Tibetan monasteries, and relished the colourful and rich artwork. However, being surrounded by the sacred female imagery, something in me melted, yielded. “Yes, I can be part of this, as a woman”. I stood there with tears running down my face. I made an aspiration prayer, to return and do retreat at DGL nunnery, if possible.
Becoming a Retreatant
Two years later I arrived at DGL, to settle in to retreat. In order to do retreat at DGL, one must apply. The retreatant needs to be under the guidance of a teacher and have an established meditation practice. The nunnery is clear that the visiting meditator needs to be self-reliant and have previous experience with self guided retreats, preferably of 2 months or more.
The nunnery offers no instruction and no guidance. As it is a nunnery, they accept applications from women. The retreat space is shared with other women, and every meditator has her own room. Even though I don’t know the Tibetan language, the major pujas (prayer services) were powerful and moving.
There is chanting; there are blessings offered in the form of an elixir poured into one’s hand which one slurps up; there is music and drums and cymbals which pulls one along a river of feeling; there is a feast offering. During the 4 hour puja, by the time one has received 15 or 20 offerings of blessings and food, the heart is overwhelmed. I found the experience washed over me, and an unknown clench in my heart dissolved.
The nunnery is located in a rural area, surrounded by fields, some forest, some habitation. However it is not the quiet pastoral environment we think of in North America as necessary for retreat. It was a full-on, rich acoustic environment: melodic Hindu prayers from the local temple in the evening, dance music from the wedding celebrations, band music from school events. All this mixing with the trumpeting call to prayer from the temple, and then the chanting, horns and drums from inside the temple.
I felt such joy to hear all of these different aspects of the holy life in India, mixing with daily life in India. It was a rich feast for the senses and the spirit.
About the Author
Luinda Bleackley While Luinda always expected to travel, it wasn’t until she was 60 that the circumstances came together to fulfill that dream. She is grateful for the rich memories, now that the future of travel is uncertain.
Photo Credits by Author unless otherwise noted
The Nuns of Dongyu Gatsal Ling
Photo Credits: Interior and Exterior photos of Temple and Nuns (above) DGL Nunnery