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Book of the month: Great Himalaya Trail

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

We were at the Telegraph Outdoor Show last month, where Gerda Pauler delivered a fantastic talk about her 2012 trek across the Great Himalaya Trail. If you weren’t one of the lucky members of the audience, this month we’ve brought you an extract from the book that memorialises her journey.

Braving three medicinal bottles of Coca-Cola on an unplanned rest day at Bigu Gompa, here Gerda reflects on the disparity between boys' and girls' monastic education. Ironically, she found that the cloistered life offers women more freedom than their traditional societal roles of housekeeper and mother. The 800-year-old Drukpa Buddhist sect, in Kathmandu valley, is showing signs of a revolutionary new way of thinking in Buddhism – nuns serve as teachers, take driving lessons and even have the opportunity to learn kung fu ...

DAY 53

Another rest day that was not planned

After a twelve-hour sleep I feel slightly better and even tinker with the idea of continuing the journey, but walking ten metres to the bathroom tells me that these ten metres are my maximum. We decide to have a rest day at Bigu Gompa; unplanned.

To be quite honest, I hate Coca-Cola and doubt I have drunk more than twelve bottles in the whole of my life. In my opinion, the drink is pure poison (like medicine). But, when feeling sick, taking medicine becomes a necessity and so I declare the day a ‘Coke medicine’ day. Luckily, the shop at the Bigu Gompa Community Lodge has Coke on stock – enough to cure hundreds of sick people. I lie down on the balcony of the building and begin to sip from a bottle, then another, and another … Having emptied three bottles, I feel strong enough to walk to the monastery, 200 metres away from our camp. The success of my self-medication fills me with pride and joy.

Bigu Gompa is a nunnery currently housing more than seventy nuns. A school for girls is part of the convent, and as it is well-known all over Nepal, parents from across the country send their daughters to Bigu Gompa to become nuns. The majority of the girls come from poor families and sending them off means fewer financial problems at home. I ask one of the older nuns for permission to take pictures, but she objects to taking any inside the monastic buildings. ‘You can take pictures of the young novices if you want to’, she tells me. This generous offer is a worthy compensation but, unfortunately, many girls are shy and hide their faces in the folds of wide maroon robes, occasionally giggling and laughing.

The novices get a basic general education, but the standard schooling, including subjects such as mathematics and English, stops after grade five. The English classes, in particular, depend on volunteers from abroad who have enough time at their disposal to stay and hold lessons because the government does not send teachers and the monastery lacks highly educated nuns for this job. After the basic education, the girls will continue reading and studying only religious texts. Usually, the situation is different in monastic schools for boys where teaching general subjects will continue after grade five, providing education equivalent to standard schools.

Why is there a difference? This question can be answered easily. The eight Garudharmas (strict rules) place nuns below monks and consequently nuns are generally considered inferior throughout the Himalaya. Nuns are systematically kept away from sophisticated work and are more likely to be placed in jobs like cleaning and cooking. Men dominate institutionalised religion – even at Bigu Gompa, two lamas are in charge of the monastery.

Regulations like these show clearly that Buddhism is not free from gender-based discriminating, or at least that it is common practice to turn a blind eye to it. The words uttered by Sayadaw U Asabhacara from the International Buddhist Meditation Centre on the 26th of November 1991 show this clearly:
‘Women by nature are not powerful, both in body and mind … When women get power they become proud … It’s a natural happening for men to have control over women… Buddha's preaching is very fair’.

Thankfully, a new way of thinking is beginning to enter Buddhism and ‘revolutionary’ ideas are permeating even the dust-covered monastic life of nuns. Or, at least, they are in Kathmandu valley where the 800-year-old Drukpa Buddhist sect broke with traditions, nuns are usually taught by learned monks, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama sent four experienced Vietnamese Drukpa nuns to serve as teachers. In contrast to most Buddhist sects, the Drukpa nuns learn to lead prayers and receive a basic training in the business skills required to run the guesthouse and coffee shop at the monastery. They can also take driving lessons … after which off they go by jeep to Kathmandu to do the shopping for the convent.

The nunnery even offers martial arts training – after the introduction of kung fu two years ago, the popularity of the nunnery soared. At the moment, a Vietnamese master trains about 300 young Buddhist nuns, who practise kung fu fighting for up to two hours a day. One of the aims is to make the girls and women more self-reliant. Eighteen-year-old Jigme Konchok Lhamo, who came from India to the monastery, explains that kung fu has made the nuns more confident and helped to alter the power balance between men and women in Buddhism. ‘His Holiness wants the nuns to be like the men, with the same rights in the world’, she says and adds: ‘That is why we get the chance to do everything, not just kung fu. We also have the chance here to learn many things, like tennis and skating. And we can learn English and Tibetan and musical instruments’. Bigu Gompa is still some distance from Western ways of thinking, but its style of changing monastic life is playing a vital role in women’s and girls’ emancipation.

Culture and tradition have ruled – and still do so – the life of women in Nepal with hard work in the parents’ home, an early marriage, and then hard work in the husband’s home before giving birth to children (as many as possible – which results in even more hard work). Self-determination over one’s life is a privilege only some women from a few ethnic groups have. Monastic life offers an opportunity to escape the toil and the hardship culture and tradition demands. Ironically, being subject to the strict rules of a nunnery equates to almost unabridged freedom for girls and women.

By the time the sun goes down, my state of health has improved and my well-known appetite is back. Temba is happy when I come to the kitchen tent and ask for Dhal Bhat. This is a good sign, everybody confirms.

Climbing up Amphu Labsta - at 5,800 metres, every move was a 'big thing'! © Gerda Pauler 

The spectacular trail along the Phokosumdo Lake. © Gerda Pauler

Jomma's blue fingernails. Looking like she had come from a photo shoot from a fashion magazine, Jomma joined me as a porter for a week. © Gerda Pauler

Our ice-cold hotel in Lhonak. © Gerda Pauler

Lali Gurans. © Gerda Pauler

A lunch break with my beloved Dhal Bhat! © Gerda Pauler

Click HERE to find out more about the Great Himalaya Trail

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