Dr. Tashi Zangmo

Dr. Tashi Zangmo with Nuns, Bhutan Nuns Foundation

Dr. Tashi Zangmo is the Director of Bhutan Nuns’ Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 2006 to help improve the well-being and education of nuns in Bhutan and enable them to contribute to the cultural and spiritual values of the larger society.

Buddhism – A lifelong interest

Dr. Tashi Zangmo related that since the very beginning she was very interested in Buddhism and in helping nuns. To begin with she said she wanted to be a nun herself, not only because of her own interest but also because at the time Wamrong had only one school and her elderst sister also happened to be a nun. However, as fate would have it she became the first girl child sent to school from her village. She attended the only school in Wamrong, which was quite a distance from her village till the sixth grade and then came to Thimphu.

Dr. Tashi said that she went to school in Thimphu then began working for the government as a secretary. She was into her fourth year of service when she learnt about Buddhist studies at Varanasi from a monk. She was told that the Centre for Higher Tibetan Studies (CHTS) in Varanasi, India. She was informed that the CHTS in Varanasi, started accepting women applicants other than monks and laymen and she saw this as an opportunity to have a deeper understanding of Buddhism and to set her on a path of learning and research.

She said she was the third batch of laywomen inducted into the course and again she was the first woman to go from Bhutan. That was when she really started helping nuns in her village and realizing that she could do so much to support nuns.

After she graduated from CHTS, Varanasi with a BA Degree in Buddhist Philosophy in 1995, she had the opportunity to go to the United States to study at one of the first Women’s college (Mount Holyoke College) in the US and earned her second BA Degree in Developmental Studies in 1999. Then she continued here higher education in the US and received her Master Degree and PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. While as student in the US for several years, Tashi managed to work at the University as well as managed many other odd jobs and was able to provide support to the nunnery in her village. Besides her own earnings, few of her close friends in the US have been a great support to this project.

On issues and challenges facing nunneries and beginning the foundation

Dr. Tashi says that she never thought she would begin such a foundation. But she used to always feel that it would be really worthwhile to have a foundation that would reach out to every nunnery requiring support in the country.

Dr. Tashi Zangmo with young nuns

She says presently there are 25 nunneries in the country and they vary very much in size with small nunneries housing 12 nuns to bigger ones with 150 nuns. Some of the bigger ones are being supported by few well known Rinpoches in the country and are actually doing quite well. However, there are many which do not have much support and struggle to exist by themselves. And this is what motivated her to start the foundation.

She says that there were and there still are a lot of challenges. She says nunneries have nuns ranging from ages 6 to 70 years and there is not much care or opportunities for learning and in most cases nunneries were functioning without a curriculum and without qualified teachers. She saw that they would just spend their days reciting their daily prayers and as a parent herself, she realized that the women and their parents and families needed the hope of learning and of spiritual attainment.

Dr. Tashi said the other challenges were poor living conditions, the lack of basic necessities such as toilets and bathrooms for hygiene and sanitation purpose. Leave alone classroom and library spaces, she says the nuns do not even have proper living quarters.

Dr. Tashi says that historically it was not common for families to send their girls as nuns like it was for families to encourage at least one boy to become a monk. She says during the course of her work she feels there are 3 reasons why someone becomes a nun or why parents sent their girls to become nuns – there is one group where women, after coming of age decide to become nuns of their will to pursue spiritual lives, the second group are the young girls whose parents decide to send them to nunneries because they cannot afford to send them to regular schools and so they see the nunneries as a form of alternative education and the third group is made up of girls and women who really want to get away from poverty or are fed up of their worldly lives.  

Dr. Tashi said that she is not able to understand how nunneries have survived so far without organized support from the Dratshang or the government, but she says the foundation was started not to retaliate or criticize but to just help the nuns. After working for few years in the foundation she feels that the nunneries are worried about the overall issue of ownership and she could sense resistance. However, Dr. Tashi says that the foundation is working to support and more importantly to sustain the nunneries. And she says this is becoming more difficult as our country is developing rapidly and traditional practices such as begging for alms is seen more and more as a shameful practice and other than that even community offerings were decreasing over time.

She felt that in comparison to the monks and dratshangs, who were well organized since the time of the Zhabdrung, nuns and nunneries started very late and so there is a huge gap. She also feels it is because the nuns never realized nor made any claims and were in a way content. Dr. Tashi said that as a development worker she sees its very hard for them and their needs are obvious but it is not up to her to tell them what they want and what they have to do, they need to realize and believe to sustain and value the development and changes.

On gender differences

Dr. Tashi believes that gaps and gender differences have always existed in societies and it is also true for Bhutan. Women are made to behave in a certain way and so she says it is not the fault of the nuns that they are unable to raise their voice.  She said that culture has a lot to do with such differences and even though in Buddhism we are supposed to respect, love and be compassionate to every sentient being, the way our society is functioning today, differentiates and perpetuates inequalities. But Dr. Tashi hopes that with time things will change and wherever there are gaps we will be able to close them and help each other to come together.

Dr. Tashi shared that for her friends and professors visiting from America, the absence of women in decision-making positions, the different treatment and respect accorded to monks and nuns etc. were immediately visible, which is not so for us. She said that we all want to say that in Bhutan we don’t suffer from gender discrimination and we always tend to compare with other countries in the region, but she says we should instead compare with the best.  

However, she says that we are seeing positive trends and we are seeing more women leaders and to keep this momentum Dr. Tashi feels that women should support each other and accord women leaders the same respect as their male counterparts.  She related that khenpos from Mysore recently told her that though they now had nuns who had graduated at same level as the monks and were given teaching responsibilities, they refused to sit on their designated seats for teachers and instead sit on the floor. She says that as most women, they are not ready to accept their roles and titles and even the students were not prostrating as is traditionally required to be made to teachers before receipt of teachings. Therefore, Dr. Tashi felt that women need to value leadership roles and at the same time accord the same respect to other women in leadership positions.        

Similarly, Dr. Tashi felt that men should be willing to accept women in leadership positions and give them equal respect. She said that there is a lot to be done on both sides but usually when people discuss gender inequality they believe it to be a woman’s issue when the word gender applies to both men and women. Dr. Tashi felt that as a society we should realize and reflect on gender issues and not be stuck following archaic cultural beliefs but be flexible and rational. And citing the example of women not being allowed to enter goenkhangs, she said that are segregations related to religion and most of it may be man-made beliefs and differences, but nobody has given time and thought to research and deeply understand such beliefs and instead accept them blindly.

However, Dr. Tashi feels that not believing is also not a solution but as a society it is better to find a balance and not be rigid and extreme. She feels that the problem is people and the society’s resistance to change when in reality everything is changing, every day, every minute.  She says that we do not have to undo everything in one day but try to make and adjust to little changes and maintain a balance in the society.

Message for young girls and women

The only message she has is to dream big, to never give up one’s passion and to think beyond our own selves for the good of others. She encourages the youth to have the spirit of volunteerism and shares that whenever she is approached by young volunteers to teach in nunneries she feels inspired and happy and it makes her feels that the younger generation can think beyond themselves.

Dr. Tashi also thinks that determination is important in life. She looks back at her own life and achievements and feels that it was her strong determination that made her overcome difficulties in life starting with being the first girl child in her community to be sent to school and to fulfill the many expectations from her family and the community. In addition to determination she says one needs to have a positive attitude and transform hardships and unpleasant experiences into lessons and strengths to achieve the highest.

Where she sees the foundation in five years’ time

Dr. Tashi said that the foundation’s goal is to be able to provide support to all nuns throughout the country. She said that the foundation would work to train nuns and provide them with life skills education and help them become more confident as individuals and as nuns.  She said that would also aim to have nun teachers in every nunnery. The foundation’s vision will also be to support nunneries to works towards self-sustainability and to engage the nuns socially as health and hospice workers. In addition, the foundation is also thinking of establishing a training center for the nuns, a common space where all of them can come and learn.