Arya Tara School: Practical Compassion with Vocal Support

Features Issue 18 Aug, 2010
Text by Sujal Jane Dunipace / Photo: Frances Klatzel

Amidst the chaos and dust just north of Samekushi chowk, Arya Tara School sits as an island of peace and learning.  Opened in the winter of 2000 by Tibetan nun and world-renowned singer Ani Choying Drolma, this free boarding school is working to carry out a profound vision: assisting young Buddhist nuns to get a full secular and Buddhist education, enabling them to fulfill their potential and act on their vows of compassion in practical ways, as teachers, health care workers, and other community leaders.

Walking through the massive carved wooden doors of Arya Tara School, visitors are welcomed with a joyful chorus of “Tashi delek!” “Namaste!” “Hello!” and “How are you, miss?”, as shy smiles flash and small hands reach out of magenta robes to clasp together namaste- style or offer warm handshakes.

In the classrooms, the twenty student nuns settle down behind their small Tibetan-style prayer tables to concentrate on English, dharma, Tibetan, math, and science studies.   They take this opportunity seriously. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns in the Himalayas have received only very limited education.  Most cannot even write their own names properly and usually only learn to recite Buddhist prayers, rather than engaging in extensive study of the dharma as their male counterparts often do.  The nuns at Arya Tara have come from poor villages in Nepal, India and Tibet. Although they range in age from seven to twenty-two, many had never been to school before, and many of their families had searched many years for a decent school that they could afford.  Three of the nuns must walk twelve days from their village to reach a bus that will bring them to Kathmandu; many others have faced different but comparable obstacles in attitudes, lack of resources around them, and so on.

Alyssa Kobriger, a volunteer English and art teacher at Arya Tara, says,  “ I can’t believe how eager these girls are to learn.  They’re like sponges; they soak up anything you can offer them!”    Those who have known Arya Tara students from the beginning remark on their great improvement in English fluency, understanding of the Buddha dharma, knowledge of the world,  and general evolution as more compassionate and capable young women.   In addition to classes and studying, each nun takes on responsibilities for the school (such as helping with shopping or laundry), and each older nun serves as mentor for a younger nun.   The academic assignments are also a bit different from standard schools; for example the advanced English class recently wrote an essay on the meaning of compassion, and the beginning class answered questions about life in their villages and the people¹s needs.

Ani Choying Drolma, the organizing force behind Arya Tara School, is a round-faced 31-year-old Buddhist nun born in Boudha and trained at Nagi Gompa, in the forest of Shivapuri on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley.  Throughout her years at Nagi Gompa, Ani Choying was inspired by Nagi Gompa abbot Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.  He believed that women are completely capable of awakening to their enlightened nature; acted consistently with altruism, putting others needs before his own; and encouraged young Choying that she could do anything she put her mind to.  As an adult, Ani Choying realized that many of her sister nuns shared a strong desire to help local people, but did not have the abilities to do so effectively.  She was aware of and admired many community projects- clinics, schools, and even universities- established by educated monks.  Thinking about all this, she had a vision:  why not establish a school for nuns to receive a formal, practical education?

Fortunately, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche had also imparted to Ani Choying another great gift, personally teaching her the art of melodic traditional Buddhist chant, while simultaneously helping her develop a deeply resonant voice and intently focused concentration.  In 1996 Ani Choying began to record this traditional chant with Steve Tibbetts, a successful experimental musician and western disciple of Tulku Rinpoche.  They soon produced a CD and embarked on a worldwide concert tour.  The combination of reverberating melodic chant and sounds more familiar to western ears proved to be immensely appealing, and the collaboration was more successful than either Ani Choying or Tibbets had ever imagined.  With the funds raised through these endeavors, Ani Choying established the Nuns Welfare Foundation of Nepal, the parent organization for Arya Tara School.

Using her contacts from the first concert tour,  Ani Choying built a network of fans and supporters who helped plan additional concerts tours and gave financial, technical, and volunteer assistance for the Nuns Welfare Foundation and Arya Tara School.   As this circle of supporters expands outwards, Ani Choying is expanding and refining the reality of her dream.

Already the first phase of construction of a new school building in the peaceful Buddhist community of Pharping is near completion, and Arya Tara is planning to move operations there next winter.   If good fortune holds, gradually facilities and staff will grow to accommodate up to one hundred on-going students.   And the Nuns Welfare Foundation is planning to support Arya Tara graduates to reach their goals of practical compassion:  to give scholarships for further training, seed grants to start projects, etc.