Lam Rim on the RoadOct 05, 2021
Introduction to the Tsum Valley Rachen Nunnery Service Project
In a hidden valley in the high Himalayas of north western Nepal, near the Tibetan border, a group of nuns preserve the practice of Tibetan Buddhism at Rachen Nunnery. Kathmandu is the nearest city, a mere 5 or 6-day trek away – by foot, or donkey, if you’re lucky. Chants from the daily puja are carried by unceasing wind – prayers for the benefit of others echoing throughout the Tsum region.
Tsum Valley, often referred to as “Beyul Kyimulong” – the Valley of Happiness, has been home to Dharma practitioners since the 8th century. Padmasambhava, Milarepa, and many other mystics have practiced in the region. Its energy is highly conducive for meditation and spiritual attainment. Beyul’s are secret valleys said to be open only to those with a pure mind and heart. Just imagine the kind of being with enough virtuous karma to be born in such a place.
Living in a sacred space inevitably comes with challenges. Located at a high elevation in a remote area, the winters are cold with limited indoor heating, there is little vegetation, and electricity is solar powered, which means if the sun is not shining, there is no power. Food is scarce and dependent on weather conditions. Walking through rough terrain is the main mode of transportation, although sometimes you can ride by horse or donkey.
Living in these harsh conditions does not harden the hearts of the nuns. Instead, they spend many hours each day in a compassionate ritual – the Cittamani Tara puja is one of their main practices, in which they make offerings and pray for the well-being of others.
Several hours walk away is the secluded Mu Gompa monastery. A small group of Buddhist monks live here, on top of a hill that sits at 4000 meters (2.5 miles) above sea level. The sangha (community of monks and nuns) at these two residences is unique. Most of them have life-long practices and maintain their vows from childhood through old age.
Tsum Valley is the birthplace of Geshe Tenzin Zopa, a Tibetan Buddhist monk of the Mahayana tradition who was asked to oversee the restoration of Rachen Nunnery and Mu Gompa in 2003. Geshe-la (a term of endearment for an accomplished Tibetan Buddhist teacher) radiates compassion and joy. Although I’ve only met him virtually through Zoom, his benevolent energy is palpable. Currently a resident teacher in Australia, he has been unable to travel to his homeland in Tsum or anywhere else for that matter. Still, he thinks of the Tsum sangha regularly and how he can benefit them.
Across the world, just north of the bustling New York City, one of Geshe-la’s students, Dr. Miles Neale holds virtual dharma classes for a community of individuals aspiring to live contemplatively. Advances in technology and the unexpected blessings of the COVID pandemic have allowed his program to expand globally with students located around the world. Full of enthusiasm for the dharma and compassion for living beings, Miles is a truth-seeker who values freedom and works to find meaning in what seems to be a world falling apart. Every few years, Miles introduces a service initiative in which the community raises funds to provide support to the sangha – the nuns and monks who preserve the treasured teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.
I first heard of the idea for our next service project while spending time with Miles and his family in the idyllic island of Homer - Ithaca, Greece – where together we learned about nostos, or homecoming. It was a timely lesson. Miles said something like, “Geshe-la wants to plant 500 fruit trees for the Rachen Nunnery in Tsum Valley where he is from. He looks after these nuns, but hasn’t been able to go home in years. Do you think people would be interested in helping?”
Of course! This summer, forest fires burned wildly throughout the Mediterranean, on the West Coast of the United States and Canada, and in Siberia. Millions of acres of forests, not to mention residential areas, were destroyed. A result of climate change, but also of human greed and selfishness. Huge amounts of carbon emitted by the fires fuelling the cycle further. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to support Geshe-la’s dream and help regenerate our beautiful planet?!
Geshe-la has already accomplished several aims toward developing infrastructure at Rachen Nunnery and Mu Gompa, thereby improving the general living conditions of the sangha. With tireless compassion, he wishes to do more. It turns out, planting an apple orchard is just part of his vision.
The Contemplative Studies Program community will be raising money to make a generous contribution to the following initiatives:
- Plant 500 Apple Trees. The main purpose of this orchard will be to provide nutrition to the nuns at Rachen, the monks at Mu Gompa, and any visitors. Vegetation is scarce, and there are almost no fruits at present. The trees will be purchased from a supplier in the Himalayas with the same climate to ensure their successful growth.
- Build a New Water Tank. The main purpose of the water tank will be to provide daily water supply for the nuns at Rachen. It will also serve as an irrigation system for the orchard. This water storage is vital because with the current infrastructure, their water supply dries up in winter.
- Build Handicap-Accessible Bathrooms. The goal is to construct two facilities, one at Rachen Nunnery and one at Mu Gompa. Currently, there is only one common bathroom at each location, which is far from where the nuns and monks sleep and requires them to go out into the cold during the winter months. Imagine having to bundle up every time you had to use the bathroom! Many of the sangha members have problems with their knees and back due to the harsh climate, and some already use wheelchairs, so it is difficult to access the current facilities.
In a collaborative effort, Rachen Nunnery will purchase the materials, hire the builders, and manage the execution of the projects. Geshe-la will provide financial oversight. The sangha will plant the trees. We will provide the financial resources to make it happen.
In October 2022, Miles and a group of sincere, adventurous students will go on pilgrimage to Tsum Valley with Geshe Tenzin Zopa organized by the prestigious Sacred Earth Journeys. We will delight in his homecoming, meet the sangha at Rachen Nunnery, and see the fruits of our offerings. The merits of all supporters – donors and volunteers – will be recognized at the site during a dedication ceremony led by Geshe-la.
A few words of wisdom from Geshe-la about the project. I hope you can glean his loving spirit.
“Keep rejoicing in every step – like climbing each step on the gradual path.”
Learn how to support the Rachen nunnery here.
Erica Saccente After 15 years in NYC, Erica decided to pursue a lifelong dream to live abroad. Letting go of the fear of disappointing others, she is following the call of her own heart. As she continues to work remotely as a contemplative psychiatric nurse practitioner, she will practice the art of surrender - having trust, listening to her intuition, and embracing a path of uncertainty. She will express her reflections of the Lam Rim through her love of writing and photography. Join her on the journey!
On Instagram: @butterflyez