In the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas, there exists a group of devout women known as the “Kung Fu nuns”.
The women belong to an 800-year-old Buddhist sect called Drukpa, meaning dragon in Tibetan, and have garnered global attention for their unique blend of meditation and martial arts.
The nuns trade their traditional maroon robes for umber brown uniforms every day to practise the ancient Chinese martial art, Kung Fu. For them, it’s more than just a physical exercise; it is a spiritual mission to achieve gender equality and physical fitness while adhering to Buddhist beliefs that promote an environmentally friendly lifestyle. According to Ms. Lhamo, a 34-year-old nun who came to the nunnery from Ladakh, India, around twelve years ago, Kung Fu also helps them take care of others during crises.
Their unique approach to spiritual enlightenment and physical wellness has attracted attention from across the Himalayan region and beyond. Their practices serve as an inspiration to those seeking to challenge gender norms and lead a more mindful lifestyle. Throughout history, women seeking to practice Buddhism as spiritual equals with male monks in the Himalayas have been stigmatised by religious leaders and social customs — restrictions have often barred women from participating in intense philosophical debates encouraged among monks, leaving them confined to tasks such as cooking and cleaning inside monasteries and temples. They have also been forbidden from leading prayers or singing, let alone engaging in activities involving physical exertion.
However, in recent decades, things have started to change.
A growing number of nuns have risen up to challenge the restrictions, with those belonging to the Drukpa sect are at the forefront of this battle for change. The sect began a reformist movement 30 years ago under the leadership of Jigme Pema Wangchen, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa. He was determined to disrupt centuries of tradition and lead nuns who could carry the sect’s religious message beyond monastery walls. Their practices have since grown, and are serving as a testament to the growing influence of women in the Himalayan Buddhist community and the ongoing fight for gender equality.
“We are changing the rules of the game,” said Konchok Lhamo, a 29-year-old nun from the sect. “It is not enough to meditate on a cushion inside a monastery.”
The nuns not only show a remarkable display of physical and spiritual strength — they are also fighting climate change. Not content with being confined to traditional roles within the walls of the temple, they walk on months-long pilgrimages to pick up plastic litter, and promote green transportation.
For the past 20 years (with the exception of a break due during the recent pandemic), the nuns have cycled an impressive 1,250 miles from Kathmandu to Ladakh high in the Himalayas to raise awareness about sustainable transportation. During their journey, they stop in rural areas of Nepal and India to educate people on the importance of gender equality and girls’ education.
Their commitment to gender equality and the environment is proving that spiritual and physical strength are not mutually exclusive. Their perseverance and dedication are inspiring women across the world, and despite the numerous challenges they have faced along the way, the Kung Fu nuns remain resolute in their mission and their message of gender equality and social and environmental awareness continues to spread.