The Path to Enlightenment: The Journey of a Buddhist Nun

Editor’s Note: The Following was written by Tashi Namgyal about Ven. Sonan, whom we featured in this blog a couple of weeks ago, when she won an Outstanding Woman in Buddhism Award. It was originally published in Bhutan Today (Thurs, April 12, 2012), and is reproduced here by permission.


Ven. Sonam

From a 16 year novice nun, to a master practitioner, and finally, to setting up a first dharma retreat and practice center in Phuntsholing, this is a story of a 34 year old Bhutanese nun, who despised all the materialistic cravings and ventured out to practice “Dharma” as her sole purpose in life, a destination, in today’s modern world is seldom sought and achieved by a Bhutanese women.

Ani SonamWangmo (Venerable Tenzin Dadon), as she is known to the outside world’s quest for spiritualism began when set on the journey of her life, forgoing attending college to join the religious community in 1993 after graduating high school when other girls of her age were fancying going to college, getting a job, getting married, owning houses and cars, and all the glitz and glamour attached to it.

Although being bred in the capital city, Thimphu, for most part of her life, she did not have a slightest inclination towards leading a bureaucratic and aristocratic life as a layman. Instead, she was adamant to pursue her goal at such a young age despite some initial resistance from her family.

For 13 years, she pursued a systematic monastic education, which was and to a large extent still not available to nuns in Bhutan at that time, at Jamyang Choling Institute (a non-sectarian Nunnery Institute) in Gharoh, Dharmasala in Himachal Pradesh, India.

“That was the place where my first bonding with religious took place, learning Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan language, and literature,” she said. “There was no looking back since then.”

An advocate of Buddhist women’s issues, especially among nunneries in Himalayan region, she has participated in Nine Sakyadhita International Conference for Buddhist Women, as a presenter, translator, and moderator.

Her proficiency in different dialects proved to be of immense help. She is fluent in English, Tibetan, Dzongkha (Bhutanese), Hindi, Nepali and almost all the local Bhutanese dialects. She was honoured with Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards for her contribution towards Vajrayana Buddhism in the Himalayan Region last month in Thailand.

Also addressed as Choela (honorific term for nun), she holds a Masters in Arts (MA) degree in Buddhist Studies from Delhi University, India. She received her sramaneri (Tibetan Getsulma) ordination from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, in 1999.

At present, she is pursuing her Ph.D. in Gender and Religion at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, focusing her thesis on nuns in Bhutan with the aim of improving the status and living conditions of nuns in the country.

Upon completion of her doctoral degree, she hopes to establish a Buddhist retreat and practice center in Phuntsholing, known as SamtenNgedonGatsel Ling which literally translates into “Celestial Garden of the Concentration on Ultimate Truth”.

Venerable Sonam Wangmo first conceived the idea in 2009 for nuns in Southern Bhutan as there is currently no place available for retreat and nunneries in the border towns.

The center will be constructed on 0.4 acre plot of land in Phuntsholing, nesteled in the tranquil mountainous area of Darjegang, overlooking Phuntsholing town and Jaigaon.

According to the project design of the center, there will be a main shrine hall, six retreat houses, and four units of Nuns’ living quarters, a kitchen, dining area and bathrooms for small community of Nuns.

“The land purchase, survey and preliminary conceptual layout have been completed. The next phase is the engineering design followed by construction which is scheduled to commence in 2013,” venerable told Bhutan Today.

“This small yet significant dharma retreat with practice center will be home to about 10 to 15 nuns, specially those who have no place to practice.”

Reiterating the insufficiency of nunneries to house the growing number of nuns in Bhutan, she pointed out that many nuns stay with their families and does household chores and babysits as a means of basic sustenance.

“These nuns spend most of their productive hours working which leaves them with little time for dharma practice which defeats the very purpose of spiritualism.”

She feels that Bhutanese women have been traditionally sidelined in religious education as more opportunities are accorded to monks. Therefore, many nuns and laywomen still have to go to India and Nepal to study Buddhism.

Highlighting the dire need for more practice and retreat centers to fulfil the spiritual aspiration of nuns and laywomen in Bhutan, she said: “The Samten Ngedon Gatsel Ling project hopes to fulfil, in part, this aspiration for the benefit of nuns and eventually, laywomen in Bhutan.”

She will also be one of the beneficiaries of this project, as she studied in India for 13 years and upon completion of her studies she too has no place where she can enter into a long and even short term retreat.

Originally hailing from Thrisa village in Shingkhar Gewog under Shemgang Dzongkhag, venerable Sonam Wangmo said that going back to the family home is not only non-conducive for dharma practice, but also “limits the potential of one who has spent so many years acquiring training in Buddhist studies.”

In the years to come, she hopes to share her dream place with her fellow nuns in Bhutan as they face the same predicament.

Meanwhile, back home in Bhutan, her family members are all in tears, but out of “sheer joy for the wonderful journey she chose in her life.”

“I don’t know how to express my happiness and the happiness my daughter has given to all those Buddhist followers around the world. My last wish has been fulfilled and i feel i have lived this long to witness how my tiny 16-year old daughter went all the way, fighting numerous hurdles to achieve what she always wanted to be,” her 75-year old mother told Bhutan Today.

“I wish her father was alive to be part of this unique journey,” she said, reminiscing the memories of her late husband.

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