Today we interviewed Rinchen Khando, who founded the Tibetan Nuns Project in the 1980s, and is the sister-in-law to the Dalai Lama. She has devoted her life to helping improve the lives of Tibetan nuns living in exile.
During the interview, we asked her about what qualities she thought women would bring to the Tibetan monastic society once they achieved an equal status to the monks. She responded by saying that if the nuns live the Vinaya , equality will naturally come. She said that there is no reason to worry or fight about it. Equality will come if the nuns understand and embody what they are studying. Her pragmatic view struck me. I appreciated that fact that she was able to look at the long-term picture and focus on the positive.
Rinchen Khando is an incredibly smart and sincere woman. The clarity, insight, and humility with which she answered every question we asked was inspiring. Before we asked our questions she gave us a little background on the Dolma Ling Nunnery and how the Tibetan Nun’s Project first got started.
During our interview I was especially interested in her response to my question, “How did your experience in the Buddhist tradition and education help the nuns regain inner peace while dealing with the trauma of prison?” When first arriving, she explained, they were in immensely poor health. She told us that many of them were held prisoner by the Chinese and arrived to her traumatized, frost bitten and homeless. There was nowhere near the necessary room to accommodate the nuns, so many lived in tent houses while they slowly found the funds to build the nunneries. Many of them had damaged kidneys from being kicked while imprisoned. They had damaged joints from the treacherous journey and their spirits where hurt from the brutality they experienced.
Rinchen Khando spoke of their healing process, saying that access to hot water essentially transformed their health and that love helped to heal them emotionally. She said that pills would have helped in the short term but that the hurt would have still been there when they wore off. She said that a specialist helped and the nuns’ faith helped, but that nothing heals the heart like the love of a mother. She was able to provide the nuns with this love. Every time something went wrong, for example the water wouldn’t work, the nuns would call for her and she would support them. She put to words what I have already experienced but had never named; that pills, hospitals, and machines can never heal a saddened soul; only a loving soul can do that. I fought back tears as she spoke. I saw that her words were met with the wide grins of my “family” who also knew that she was right.
She said that in her experience, nothing is more powerful than a woman’s love. She said that women of our generation don’t have to fight anymore; we need to be proud of the strength we have and be empowered in who we are. I think Rinchen Khando articulated the lessons India has taught me over these past two weeks. Although I have never before seen such poverty, I have also never before seen such love. This love has been shown to me at Pardada Pardadi, Sri Ram Ashram, Tibetan Children’s Village, and the Dolma Ling Nunnery. Through visiting these amazing places I have learned that helping people is not impossible or hopeless, it comes through loving them.
In my experience it is rare that an interview leaves a positive, lasting impression, that expands and improves my perspective on ethics and leadership. However, both of our interviews yesterday did just that. Both Rinchen Khando and Samdhong Rinpoche imparted deep knowledge and wisdom and embodied a manner of kindness and respect that fully aligned with their teachings. These intellectuals bridged the gap between Buddhist philosophy and its practical application. Their experience in effecting genuine change in society and politics gave them unique insight. This is why they are among my favorite interviewees to date.
I was particularly interested in Samdhong Rinpoche because he had held the position of the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile and I wanted to understand how he maintained discipline in his Buddhist beliefs while negotiating with the Chinese government. The first thing I noticed during the interview was the intense thought Samdhong Rinpoche gave to our questions. Before responding he paused, for long periods of time, to formulate his opinions rather than launching into a premeditated, censored speech. His humble nature was revealed in his willingness to admit when he did not know the answer to a question. Yet, he still took the time to reflect on it and he managed to consistently give us great insight into topics that he has clearly pondered for most of his long life.
I was fascinated by his thoughts on the future of the Tibetan people. He did not believe in the conservation of Tibetan culture simply for the sake of its survival. Countless cultures have changed and disappeared throughout the conflicts and changes in human history; he believed that Tibetan Buddhist philosophy would endure because it has value and relevancy to the modern world.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Samdhong Rinpoche was his capacity for patience. This is derived, in part, from his belief in the Hindu philosophy of Karma Yoga. This philosophy states that work is your duty and rewards should not be expected. His ability to implement this ideal, even in such severe circumstances as the dealings with the Chinese, showed me the practicality of it. If this sense of duty can apply to circumstances with such high stakes, then surely I can apply them in my own life to improve my capability for patience and happiness.
All of Samdhong Rinpoche’s responses exhibited a mind sharpened by years of study and experience. He projected integrity and compassion in his demeanor. The fact that he gave us an interview despite health issues that caused the cancellation of his trip to the United States told me a good deal about his character. Samdhong Rinpoche lives as a shining example of what an empathetic human being can be. Meeting him reaffirmed my belief in the importance of kindness and in the need to preserve the Tibetan Buddhist culture that has shaped his values.
Looking above the cluttered, dirty streets of the town I see the Himalayas slowly getting smaller, shrinking behind the grass-covered foothills. I think what an amazing adventure these mountains have given us, and how many lessons we learned in the few days we spent here.
Along with our practical lessons, such as learning how narrow a two-way street can be, we learned many life lessons and had many amazing experiences. We got to experience the Tibetan Children’s Village, filled with the kindest, most openhearted refugees one could meet. We met an inspiring monk in the waiting room of the Dalai Lama’s complex, who said that climbing over the Himalayas at the age of eleven, at night with no food, while running from the Chinese, was “a good experience.”
We were able to spend time with the Dalai Lama, the most personable world/religious leaders imaginable. We visited with Rinchen Khando, a woman who has done so much for the Tibetan people, but says the most rewarding part of her work is being treated as a mother to all of the women she has helped. We met Samdhong Rinpoche, an extremely wise and intelligent Buddhist scholar and leader, during whose interview we were unfortunately plagued by talking waiters, banging windows, and power outages.
So many once-in-a-lifetime experiences have happened in just this week alone, who knows how long it will take for us to process it all completely. As I look up at the mountains, I imagine Dharamsala perched on the side of a cliff. I’m going to miss this place. But I can’t wait to get back home to wider streets.
“What is the question that if you knew the answer to would set you free?” My brain decided to flat line as five students from Pathways World School looked at me eagerly. They were awaiting my answer after “democratically” electing that I should go first. After a few moments the wheels slowly began to turn…. What have I never understood?… And there it was, “What would set me free is to understand why some people are born into privilege and others into poverty. Why is it that some suffer and others do not? How is that fair? Well, I know life isn’t fair, but still, what decides the circumstances into which you are born?”
I hardly even realized what I had said until the silence that followed. As the Pathways students stared at me, I thought perhaps I had said something wrong. I quickly ran over what I had said in my head and I realized that I had not misspoken. Perhaps mine was just a question that has not been considered enough.
Today at Pathways World School we spent a lot of time getting to know the kids before the real work began. We toured the school with them and talked about our lives and realized we all have pretty similar tastes in TV shows and music. After we ate lunch, toured, and had tea, we all entered a large carpeted room to start a dialogue between us Mt Madonnians and the Pathwazians, as they like to call themselves. We split into small groups and were given a discussion starter. In my group there were four 9th graders and one teacher from their school. Our conversation ranged from human relationships and ethics, to what an ideal world would look like. I was amazed by how similar their answers were to those from past discussions at home. Many of them were almost word for word. For me, it solidified the idea that, like us, these kids are unique because of their opportunity to receive such a privileged and extraordinary education.
After our discussion ended we participated in an activity called, “The Giving of Gifts.” During this activity we let others know what we appreciated hearing from them. I made my rounds, and complimented all the kids in my group on certain things they said. After I felt that I’d given plenty of gifts I headed toward a group that was socializing and was interrupted by a boy that had been in my group. He came to give me my gift. What he told me made me feel great about being there and gave me a sense of purpose. He said that he is usually a little shy in big groups and that not many of the kids there know him that well. But getting the opportunity to discuss the topics in that environment helped him feel like he could open up. He admitted to feeling sad when we finished our small groups and joined the circle because he had been having such a good time, sharing his opinions. He thanked me for helping him feel comfortable sharing his thoughts. I felt thankful that I had the chance to do so. It is a very rewarding feeling when someone lets you know that you have changed his life, even in a small way. I think that was the first time I’ve heard that from a stranger, and I hope it’s not the last.