As the biggest study facility of the Gelukpa (Yellow) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Labrang Monastery provides a rich variety of subjects with a rigorous research attitude. It includes many institutes, and one of the most important is the Wensi Institude, the only open school institute in the monastery. It is said that those who are permitted to enter the institute should master the Five Principal Subjects, and it needs at least 15 years to finish all the courses required by the institute. Some spend their entire lives there. Very few of the students can obtain the Doctor of Divinity degree, the highest degree in the institute, and those who do will be at least in their 50s. Students in the institute come from Tibet, Qinghai. Sichuan and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
Our tour guide Zhaxi came to the institute three years ago, and he is working as a tour guide to make preparations to be enrolled by the Wensi Institute. The students have to rely heavily on their families. Their food is either sent by their family members or carried to the institute by themselves when they come back from their vacations. If they want to sleep in the monastery, they have to do some work or hand some money to their masters, some of whom also tutor their students.
Study is the life for young monks in the monastery, and they have only oral exams. Wherever we went, we could see young monks reading or reciting Buddhist scriptures attentively. They live in low mud rooms near the monastery along winding roads. Passing these shabby houses, we could see from the doorway four or five monks sitting in a group, facing the wall and reading scriptures.
The Buddhist Nunnery of Xiahe County is one kilometer away from Labrang Monastery. The life of the lamas in the monastery is to study, and the life of the nuns is to read scriptures. As a female, I was very curious and concerned about the life of the nuns. As I was about to leave the Tibetan Medical Institute for the Nunnery, I saw a nun wearing the same purple kasaya as the lamas, and with very beautiful eyes. She sat under the porch of a room, looking at me very shyly. I tried all my best to speak kindly to her, and finally she opened her mouth. She spoke perfect Mandarin, with a slight Beijing accent. She reminded me of the monks in the Labrang Monastery, they spoke fluently in Madarin and English with clear pronunciation and perfect accent. Perhaps it was the vast plateau that has given them such beautiful voices.
Her name is Zhoi'ma, a country fellow of Zhaxi. She became a nun when she was 11, and came to the nunnery to redeem her vow when she was 19. She has spent 6 years of her youth in the nunnery. Zhoi'ma is tall and strong with rosy cheeks, full of vigor, with no trace of any disappointment. I can't understand why she had spent six year in the nunnery. Thinking about her future, I asked her if she would resume secular life to give birth to children when she redeems her vow. She shook her head firmly. "Why?" I pressed. "Because I like this kind of life, and I feel very happy," she answered, "Are you married and have any children?" She began to ask me, and I answered her. In Tibet, people feel proud to send their children to the monastery or munnery, no matter how hard their life might be. Zhoi'ma is highly respected in Tibetan society.
From Zhoi'ma, I got to know that nuns will have to endure more than the monks physically and spiritually. They lead a very hard life; they don't have any important religious ceremonies; no living Buddhas and scholars; and no villages and tribes to supply them; they even have fewer visitors than the monastery to burn incense. They rely completely on themselves for their lives. They will even have to repair the houses, carry water and grain by themselves and do all the hard labor with their weak bodies. When they die, their male family members are forbidden to attend their soul releasing ceremony. Besides, there are also many religious restrictions for them. They are not allowed to chat with outsiders, nor get in touch with males, and not allowed to wear expensive clothes.
How can Zhoi'ma feel happy and enjoy her life so much with so many restrictions? Some other nuns have given me exactly the same answer when I asked them my question. People in the world have different concepts of what constitutes happiness. For these nuns, they have got rid of all the excitement, sorrow and cheerfulness of secular life, and are enjoying another happiness in their process of scripture reading and studing.
I took a photo for Zhoi'ma, her beautiful and shy smile will be in my memory forever.