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Nuns in Mongolia

It was evening when we arrived with Lama Zopa Rinpoche at the Dechen Ling Nunnery in Ulaan Baatar. Only pieces of the surrounding ruins of the old monasteries, destroyed during the Communist years in Mongolia, could be seen through the darkness. The lit gernunnery (a ger is a Mongolian yurt), nestled in the center of these skeletons of monasteries, was warm, and lined with religious paintings, statues and heaps of offerings. As one young Mongolian woman in saffron robes gave us bowl after bowl of everything from mare’s milk to curd and sweets, the abbess began to explain the history of the nunnery.

Bakula Rinpoche asked the abbess to start this nunnery and named it Dechen Ling. It has twenty-one handmas (typically translated into English as "nuns," but which includes any woman living in any vows of morality). In fact, in Mongolia, handmas are mostly lay women. At the two nunneries I visited in Ulaan Baatar, I saw only one woman in robes, and the rest were lay handmas (although there are actual nuns, but they were not present). Both of these nunneries also have lay abbesses.

To better understand the present situation of Dechen Ling and other nunneries in Mongolia, one must first consider Mongolia’s history. As the abbess of Dechen Ling noted, traditionally in Mongolia there was no idea of educating women in the Dharma. Also, novice ordination for nuns (getsulma) was offered for the first time in Mongolia’s history in 1993 by Bakula Rinpoche, and it’s been only ten years since Mongolians were allowed to practice Buddhism. It is primarily the older generation that remembers Mongolia’s strong Buddhist past, and thus there is a general impression that Buddhism is an "old people’s religion."

Mongolia’s monasteries are struggling to reconstitute themselves and clean up the remnants of the Communist era. During part of the reign of the Communism in Mongolia, the government wished to maintain the appearance of religious freedom and so created the 9-5 job of "monk." The monasteries paid these employee "monks" and at the end of the day that "monks" would return home to their families. In Mongolia today there are still a fair number of employee "monks" left over from the days of Communism. Although it is neither a highly-respected nor well-paying job, it is still a way to eke out a meager living.

In this state of disrepair, most of the monasteries are unable to offer clear role models of monastic life. Although there are monasteries attempting to reset these boundaries, the process is slow.

As monasteries themselves are struggling, nunneries are left to establish and shape their own future in Mongolia. Nunneries face not only the difficulties of recovering Buddhism after nearly seventy years of Communist rule and destruction, but also must establish space to practice in a country that traditionally has not even offered the possibility of ordination to women and where opposition arose when such ordination was introduced.

As Mongolia slowly struggles to re-establish Buddhism, visiting teachers such as Lama Zopa Rinpoche offer desperately needed teachings to the nuns, monks and lay people of Mongolia. With these and other opportunities for education, including studying abroad, the progress of nunneries and monasteries in Mongolia can happen.

Financially these nunneries subsist mostly on local donations and find it difficult to fund new facilities to accommodate the growing number of women interested in becoming handmas. Sadly, their current facilities hardly fit even the present number. Dechen Ling consists of two small gers. The women there must take turns doing pujas and other practices, as all twenty-one cannot fit into one yurt. They also take turns living at the nunnery.

TUGSBAYASGALANT NUNNERY, also in Ulaan Baatar, has one small main building and a ger. There is sleeping space for only two handmas, who come from distant places in Mongolia. The rest must return to their family homes each night.

Tubsbayasgalant laid the foundation for its new building, intended to house the nunnery and Center for World Buddhists, in 1993, but has not been able to build any further due to lack of money. Larger facilities would allow them to not only accommodate more handmas but also provide sufficient space to invite lamas to come to teach. This would improve their opportunities for Buddhist education tremendously.

They also hope to have retreat facilities for both their own handmas and for international Buddhists. A few of the handmas (all nuns) from Tugsbayasgalant have had the opportunity to study abroad in Dharamasala, India (at Garden Choling and Norbulingka) and in Korea, aiding the education of the nunnery in general. Despite the financial hardships, the handmas at both nunneries proceed with much spirit and perseverance.

Lama Zopa has agreed to guide the handmas of Dechen Ling and has encouraged them to take novice ordination soon. Rinpoche also has plans for a new nunnery in Mongolia. In the meantime, Ven. Gyatso from the new FPMT center in Mongolia will teach courses to the handmas of Dechen Ling.

If the development of Mongolia’s nunneries can be used as a gauge for the progress of Buddhism in Mongolia, it seems the spirit of Buddhism is still very much fresh and alive, and with some more work and support, hopefully one day soon Mongolia can once again become a center for Buddhism in the world.

— Emily D. Porter

From Mandala: Buddhism in Our Time, March 2001, page 16. To learn more about Mandala go to its website at