Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Garu Nunnery
by José Ignacio Cabezón
Section 2 of 4


A statue of Pa Dampa SanggyéPha dam pa sangs rgyas at Garu Nunnery.

Tradition has it that the famous Indian master and founder of the “Pacification” (ZhijéZhi byed) school, Pa Dampa SanggyéPha dam pa sangs rgyas, came upon the site at one point in his peregrinations throughout Tibet.17 Stopping to rest on a boulder, he was approached by a white cow who offered him her milk. After drinking, Pa Dampa SanggyéPha dam pa sangs rgyas continued on his way, but the cow would not stop following him, so he turned to her and said, “Mother (amaa ma), please stay here!” No sooner had he said these words than the cow dissolved into a nearby boulder, and at that moment the letters a ma emerged as self-arisen letters on the boulder’s surface. This boulder with the self-arisen letters – called the “amaa ma boulder” – can be seen at GaruGa ru to this day. Pa Dampa SanggyéPha dam pa sangs rgyas then realized that this was a sign that a monastic institution should be founded at this site. There only remained the question of whether he should found a nunnery or a monastery for male monks there. As he was contemplating this, he heard the enchanted sound of goddesses from atop a nearby pass called Tama DonyakRta ma do nyag.18 Looking up, he saw goddesses dancing there. Because he had seen female deities, he took this as a sign of the fact that he was to found a nunnery at the site, and he gave it the name “Dance Gompa: Place of Meditative Equipoise” (Gargön Samten LingGar dgon bsam gtan gling). Before 1959, there was a square stone throne that was reputed to be the place where Pa DampaPha dam pa sat as he performed the so-called “site investigations” (sachésa dpyad) to determine the exact place on which to build the nunnery, but this throne apparently has been destroyed.

The first nuns who lived at GaruGa ru were of course followers of Pa Dampa SanggyéPha dam pa sangs rgyas, and therefore practiced the various meditational techniques of the Pacification school. Over the period of several centuries, however, the oral tradition of the Pacification system “deteriorated,” and the one contemporary written account of the nunnery available to us states that the nuns, of their own volition, approached the great eighteenth-century GelukpaDge lugs pa master (and abbot of Pabongkha Hermitage [Pabongkha RitröPha bong kha ri khrod]), Drakri Gyatso TayéBrag ri rgya mtsho mtha’ yas.19 They asked him to become their lamabla ma, and to take responsibility for the nunnery.20 He agreed, and for the past two centuries the nunnery has been under the aegis of the Drakri lamaBrag ri bla mas, who have acted as both patrons and as the spiritual leaders to the institution. It was a tradition for the Drakri lamaBrag ri bla ma to come to the nunnery in the latter half of the fifth Tibetan month every year to conduct memorization exams, and this tradition was maintained up to 1959. Since the re-founding of the nunnery in the mid 1980s, the former administrative head (chandzöphyag mdzod) of the Drakri Lama’s estate (Drakri LabrangBrag ri bla brang) has substituted for Drakri RinpochéBrag ri rin po che, who today lives in exile in India. He comes to the nunnery at least once a year to administer these exams.

Two nuns take a break from kitchen duties to pose for a picture.

Before 1959, the nunnery was responsible for doing rituals for the Tibetan government – for example, accumulating repetitions of the “Prayer to the Twenty-One Tārās” at certain specific times throughout the year.21 These ritual commissions on behalf of the Tibetan government were transacted through the intermediary of the Drakri Lama’s estate. It was probably also because of its formal relationship to this lama’s estate (labrangbla brang) that the nunnery was considered a “state monastery” (zhunggöngzhung dgon). Such a status brought with it not only economic but also social privilege; for example, the nuns were entitled to have an audience with the Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma every year in the Norbu LingkhaNor bu gling kha, the Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma’s summer palace, during the eighth Tibetan month.

Before 1959, it was the elder nuns who were responsible for the day-to-day administration of the nunnery. Nuns occupied the position of:

  • “senior teacher” (loppönslob dpon): responsible for overseeing all internal work and external relations, and therefore the functional equivalent of an abbot
  • chant leader (umdzédbu mdzad): responsible for making preparations for (as well as for leading) ritual events, and
  • two “representatives” (chimispyi mi): responsible for the financial affairs of the nunnery, for external relations (e.g., to patrons), and for fundraising; they were also the main conduits to the Drakri Lama’s estate.

Nuns also occupied minor posts like temple attendant (gonyersgo gnyer). Even today the nuns divide the administrative work of the nunnery among themselves according to seniority, holding each of the various offices for fixed terms.

Having been deprived of all sources of income after 1959, in order to survive, the nuns turned to growing and selling bamboo for a period of time. The Cultural Revolution, however, brought an end to this. The nunnery was forcibly depopulated and much of it was destroyed. Fundraising for reconstruction began in 1980. A group of fourteen former nuns asked for permission to rebuild, and were able to gather 390,000 ¥ from the Tibetan laity, and 20,000¥ from the local government authorities. The work of rebuilding the nunnery began in 1985, and was completed in a short time.

[16] The account that follows is based largely on GarloGar lo, chapter 2, 17-19, although I have supplemented this with some additional information found in Lhasé GöntoLha sa’i dgon tho.
[17] Lhasé GöntoLha sa’i dgon tho gives the more precise date of 1113 for the events that are about to be recounted.
[18] Lhasé GöntoLha sa’i dgon tho, 31, calls this Mo Barha NyakMo barha nyag.
[19] Of course, since history is always written “by the victors” – in this case the GelukpaDge lugs pas – we do not know whether in fact the nuns asked to be incorporated into the GelukDge lugs school or whether they were forced to do so. Whatever the case, it should be noted that PabongkhaPha bong kha is the hermitage closest to GaruGa ru, and that simply from a geographical viewpoint it makes sense to administratively locate the nunnery under the aegis of PabongkhaPha bong kha. Eventually the Drakri lamaBrag ri bla mas moved their base of operations from PabongkhaPha bong kha to Drakri Hermitage (Drakri RitröBrag ri ri khrod), perhaps during the life of Gyatso TayéRgya mtsho mtha’ yas himself.
[20] Lhasé GöntoLha sa’i dgon tho, 31, states that this took place in 1792.
[21] For the complete ritual cycle of the nunnery, see Lhasé GöntoLha sa’i dgon tho, 33-34.
Garu Nunnery , by José Ignacio Cabezón

Table of Contents

  1. Location and Layout
  2. History
  3. Glossary
  4. Notes
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