Jim McMahon

Throughout the history of Buddhism, women in the Himalayas who sought to practice spirituality as equals with male monks were stigmatized. Religious leaders confined them to chores such as cooking and cleaning and barred them from physical exertion, leading prayers, singing, and participating in the philosophic debates encouraged among monks. But recently, a group of Buddhist nuns in Nepal has begun to change all that. Every day, these nuns swap their maroon robes for brown uniforms to practice kung fu, the ancient Chinese martial art. They say it’s an important part of their mission to achieve physical fitness and gender equality. The Kung Fu Nuns, as they’re known, also lead prayers and go on monthslong walking pilgrimages to pick up plastic litter and make people aware of climate change. Not everyone favors this modern approach; the nuns say they’ve faced verbal abuse from conservative Buddhists. But that doesn’t deter them. About 800 nuns have trained in martial arts basics, with around 90 going through intense lessons to become trainers themselves. “We are changing [the] rules of the game,” says Konchok Lhamo, a Kung Fu Nun. “It is not enough to meditate on a cushion inside a monastery.”