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Three hundred nuns from the Druk Gawa Khilwa Buddhist nunnery near Kathmandu are learning kung fu from the masters of Nepal’s Drukpa monastery.

In a break with centuries of tradition, others from as far away as the Himachal Pradesh area of India have traveled to the monastery seeking not only to learn self-defense, but to become kung fu instructors so they can teach the skills to others.

“As a young boy growing up in India and Tibet I observed the pitiful condition in which nuns lived,” says His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual head of the Drukpas. “They were considered second-class while all the privileges went to monks. I wanted to change this.”

Traditionally, nuns have carried out only household chores in Buddhist monasteries. Gyalwang has overturned that practice as well. Nuns who are still coming from places as far apart as Assam, Tibet and Kashmir are being taught to lead prayers and given basic business skills. Nuns run the guest house and coffee shop at the abbey.

The breakthrough was the introduction of kung fu three years ago, shortly after the Gyalwang Drukpa visited Vietnam and observed female martial arts practitioners there, writes Syed Zain al-Mahmood in the British newspaper the Guardian, in an article re-published on the Internet by the Buddhist Channel, who writes:

Sister Karuna, a soft-spoken young nun from Ladakh in the north of India, says kung fu has given the nuns self confidence and also helps in meditation. “We love kung fu,” said Karuna, as she prepared to swap her maroon prayer robe for a martial arts suit with a bright yellow sash. “Now we know we can defend ourselves. We also have the fitness for long spells of meditation.”

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a former librarian at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, says she will introduce kung fu at the nunnery she has set up in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

“It’s excellent exercise, good for discipline, concentration and self-confidence,” says Palmo. “Also, when any young men in the area know nuns are kung fu experts, they stay away.”

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