Ani Kinzang Choden

The path to enlightenment for nuns like Ani Kinzang Choden is not as simple as sitting on a cushion under a tree. A practitioner must diligently apply “skillful means” that enable him or her to adapt to local circumstances and be of benefit to others. Ani Kinzang practices skillful means through her work as a farmer. Recognizing the needs of nuns in Bhutan, she dedicates her life to doing whatever is necessary to create better conditions for nuns in which to practice.

Growing up in her village of Mukazor, Ani Kinzang worked as a “cowgirl”, helping tend cattle in her family’s ancestral field. She enjoyed it, but she felt a higher calling. There was always a slight unease with the mundane life. Whenever she had free time, she met with her uncle, who would teach her about Buddha’s life and different prayers, such as the Barche Lamsel (“Purification of Obstacles”). At his suggestion, she ran away from home to seek out the monastic life against her parents’ wishes at the age of 14.

“Girls in Bhutan become nuns to seek the spiritual life and understand the dharma (“truth”). We are inspired by the belief that as nuns, we can contribute to the wellbeing of all sentient beings through prayer and action. If I stayed a farmer, I don’t think I could truly feed my family. Our land was not suitable for most farming. As a nun, I could accumulate wisdom.“

For nuns like Ani Kinzang, life is very harsh. Most nunneries are located in very remote areas with sparse facilities and accommodations. Unlike the monasteries for men which are beneficiaries of state or private support, nunneries in Bhutan receive no government funding and limited private support. In her nunnery at Samdencholing, the austere living conditions made practice difficult. “Before, we didn’t have slippers to wear. We had to wear tattered robes. We even didn’t get enough food to eat. It’s difficult to meditate when you don’t have enough food and hot water.”

The nunnery received a boon of support from the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, a nonprofit that began to provide food and basic supplies for the nuns based there. While she was grateful for this muchneeded support, she knew the nuns needed more, especially for those seeking an opportunity for long-term retreat. In Bhutan, it’s not uncommon for practitioners to enter silent meditation retreat for as long as three years to exclusively dedicate his or her time to training the mind to develop qualities such as wisdom and compassion. For this, Ani Kinzang would need land. But she would not need to acquire any new land – only repurpose the old.

Due to the harsh and arid nature of the land, her family had abandoned their ancestral land to resettle in Tsirang, a lower altitude province located in Southern Bhutan, where they grew rice and more commercial crops like cardamom and oranges. While in the nunnery, she received a notice from the government that her land was on the verge of being reclaimed. In Bhutan, the government reclaims land of absentee landlords after three years of inactivity.

To save her family’s land, she offered the land to her spiritual teacher, Goembo Tulku. He accepted but on the condition that she complete an assignment - to build a drubkhang (“retreat center”) for other nuns. In her devotion to her teacher, Ani Kinzang readily obliged. The only issue was financing the construction. She needed Nu 300,000 (approximately $6,000) to purchase the materials for seven meditation rooms with a kitchen, toilet, and running water. How could a nun finance this? “My lama gave me an idea - to use the land itself to raise the funds. He said that because it is connected to a meritorious end, farming could become part of my practice.”

Though the land was harsh, it was not totally arid. With advice from her brother-in-law, she began planting different commercial trees: bamboo, walnut, pear, and tshenden shing (sandalwood). Some of these she would try to sell; others, like tshenden shing, she would use for making grounded incense powder and the wood choeshum (“a traditional prayer shrine”).

But just as in meditation practice, she encountered obstacles. Animals continually gnawed away at her trees and often uprooted them. Sucking insect pests caused damage by removing sap from the plant tissues. She turned to her teacher for a solution.

“When my teacher heard about the problem, he asked me to collect some sand from the land. He did a Sampa Lhundrup (“wish fulfilling”) prayer over the sand to bless it and told me to spread it near my fence. After that, animals came with much less frequency!”

Still, income from the produce sales was slowed by lack of logistical support, especially since she lacked any access to any form of transport. In 2012, she heard from her brother-in-law about “the tree that will grow where nothing else will” – the hazelnut tree. “I’d never seen or heard about the tree before. But to hear that I wouldn’t have the burden of bringing everything to market was a huge relief. I wanted to try.”

Two years into growing, Ani Kinzang’s starting to see the promise. Her vigilance in caring for the plants has kept 80% of her plants alive and growing. While she still has a long way to go before she’s able to establish the drubkhang for nuns, she sees the tasks as none other than her spiritual practice. She’s even borrowed her brother’s brick-maker to dry press her own bricks. She makes 50 a day right after her morning prayer. “This life is precious. We cannot waste it. I only hope that by planting trees such as hazelnuts, I can help others move closer to enlightenment.”