On a recent fall day in Manhattan, a dozen Buddhist nuns, bald and dressed in humble maroon robes, were puzzling over a matter of grave importance: to wear their sneakers or to take them off.
The nuns were rehearsing for a performance. But the stage was slippery. The grip on their sneakers wasn’t great. One of them had accidentally packed two left shoes.
Someone suggested adding duct tape to their soles. Another thought of performing on gym mats.
But time was running out, so they decided to get onstage.
They cartwheeled. They punched. They kicked and jumped and then landed in the splits. They wielded spears and swords, then danced with paper fans.
These are the Kung Fu Nuns of a 900-year-old Buddhist sect called the Drukpa, which is derived from the Tibetan word for dragon. They were visiting New York from their home near Kathmandu, Nepal, to receive an award for being “inspiring agents of change.”
Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not been allowed to exercise. They are forbidden from singing, leading prayers or being fully ordained. In some monasteries, it is believed that female Buddhists can’t even achieve enlightenment unless they are reborn as men.
“Everyone has this old thinking that nuns can’t do anything,” said Jigme Konchok Lhamo, 25, who has been part of the nunnery since she was 12. (Jigme is a first name that all the nuns share, which in Tibetan means “fearless one.”)
But the spiritual leader of the Drukpa lineage, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, has spent much of his life breaking down those patriarchal Buddhist traditions.
Gyalwang Drukpa doesn’t like “the terminology of empowerment,” he said in a 2014 interview. “That actually means that I have the power to empower them.”
“I’m just moving the obstacles, so that they can come up with their own power.”
In 2008, as part of his mission to bring about gender equality in Buddhism, Gyalwang Drukpa had the nuns learn kung fu to help them build strength and confidence. He has allowed nuns to take on leadership positions and has taught them how to perform and lead rituals.
The all-female monastery he leads has since swelled to around 800 nuns, with the youngest member aged 8 and the eldest around 80. Every day, the nuns wake up at 3 a.m. to meditate for two hours. Then they take a series of classes, including Buddhist teachings that were previously taught only to men, and two hours of kung fu training.
Beyond martial arts, the nuns are also environmentalists who pick up litter scattered around the Himalayas and cycle thousands of miles to promote sustainability. In a region notorious for violence against women and human trafficking, they go from village to village teaching girls self-defense.
In 2015, when a violent magnitude-7.8 earthquake devastated Nepal, killing more than 1,900 people, the nuns sprang into action, delivering aid and food to remote villages that had been destroyed and deemed too dangerous and unreachable by international relief organizations.
“It was very scary for us,” said Jigme Yeshe Lhamo, who described how their truck was hit by falling rocks in an avalanche.
Back at the rehearsal space, a day before the award ceremony in which the nuns were to perform their elaborate kung fu number, one nun quietly murmured: “I’m slipping.”
“It’s O.K., it’s O.K.,” another one whispered.
Their faces never flinched.
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