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A post-90s nun’s pursuit of Buddhist wisdom

Yixi Quci talks to one of her peers (not in picture) in front of a scripture hall of Ta Ba Lin, while the rest of over 100 nuns were attending a Buddhist ceremony in Sichuan province on June 17. Photo: Chunmei

Yixi Quci is a 24-year-old Tibetan girl. Unlike many of her peers who may be enjoying their youth in metropolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai, she decided to become a Buddhist nun five years ago.

Wearing a red robe, Yixi carries a shy yet shining look in front of the reporters and cameras.

The first question that came to the minds of the visiting reporters was why a girl at such a young age would become a Buddhist nun, which usually means leaving the mainstream society and living a life of prayer and contemplation in a monastery.

Unable to speak Mandarin, Yixi talked to reporters through a Tibetan interpreter, “My heart is always following the Buddha. I didn’t think too much when I made the decision to be a nun. I came here out of my own will, and I think it’s necessary to behave in accordance with the Buddhist doctrines.”

The nunnery where Yixi is learning Buddhism is called Ta Ba Lin in Chinese. Located at Benzilan Town in Deqin County of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan province, Ta Ba Lin is the only Tibetan Nunnery in Yunnan province. Built in the 1660s, Ta Ba Lin is also the original site of Dong Zhu Lin Monastery, which is seated on the slope of Baimang Snow Mountain and is one of the 13 Lama monasteries built in the 1660s. After being damaged by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, in the 1980s the Chinese government allowed the monks to build a replacement monastery of Dong Zhu Lin about 7 kilometers away from the original site which is now home to more than 100 Tibetan nuns.

In China, besides Tibet Autonomous Region, there are several other below-provincial level Tibetan autonomous regions located in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces, where Tibetans and other ethnic minorities live together. Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is the only Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Yunnan province.

According to Zeren Peichu, head of The United Front Work Department (UFWD) of Deqin County, an agency under the CPC Central Committee created to manage relations with non-Communist Party elite including individuals and organizations, there are now 120 nuns in Ta Ba Lin, and 97 nuns are learning Buddhist scriptures. Besides, there are two Buddhist scripture teachers who have earned academic degrees in India. While most of the nuns are from Yunnan province, some also come from Sichuan province and Tibet Autonomous Region, Zeren said.

Zeren Peichu, head of The United Front Work Department (UFWD) of Deqin County, introduces Ta Ba Lin to reporters on June 17. Photo: Chunmei

Like other nuns in Ta Ba Lin, Yixi devoted most of her time to the study of Buddhist scriptures, spiritual practice and sutra debate.

Sutra debate is a kind of discussion where nuns exchange their views on the doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism. During the discussions the participants become very aggressive because the one who cannot answer the sharp-pointed questions based on the Buddhist scriptures is subject to criticism by her partner. However, this is very helpful for the nuns to better understand the Buddhist spirit, according to Zeren.

One of the halls in Ta Ba Lin where nuns hold sutra debate. Photo: Chunmei

The first thing Yixi does after getting up at 6:30 every day is to go to the scripture hall and chant Buddhist scriptures till 9 o’clock. Between 10 am and 11 am, there will be a scripture learning class at the monastery. After lunch at 12 o’clock, Yixi has a two-hour rest time for herself. At 2 pm, Yixi and her companions hold a sutra debate where they discuss and exchange views on the doctrines of Buddhism. The sutra debate usually lasts until 3:30 pm. Sometimes when some villagers pass away, they will go to the villagers’ home and chant Buddhist scriptures for the family at 4 pm. Dinner time is at 6 pm, and at 7 pm there is another sutra debate. 9 pm is the bedtime.

Life at the monastery is simple and quiet. With nine months of study in Ta Ba Lin, Yixi has a three-month holiday each year when she can stay with her parents and her younger brother, and this is why she doesn’t have too much feeling of nostalgia.

According to Zeren, besides the Buddhist canons, the nuns in Ta Ba Lin are also learning English, mathematics and Chinese literature, while in the past Buddhist nuns were not allowed to learn the Buddhist canons, neither did they have access to Buddhist instruments and academic examinations.

In Ta Ba Lin, nuns cook for themselves. Pictured here is a little kitchen used by nuns. Photo: Chunmei

The average age of the 120 nuns in Ta Ba Lin is 37 to 38, Zeren said, and the one who has lived and studied here for 15 years, the longest time, will probably be able to take an academic examination organized by the Buddhist Academy of China, through which a nun can get a Buddhist academic degree, with two or three more years of study.

Apparently, there is still a long way for Yixi to go to get a Buddhist academic degree, the criteria of Buddhist attainment, but she said what she really wants to do is to devote herself to learning the spirit of Buddhist scriptures and improving herself through Buddhist wisdom.


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