Tenzin Dapel worked as a schoolteacher in Switzerland before quitting her job, emptying her apartment and buying a one-way ticket to India in her mid -20s. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 2008in Dharamsala, India, in the same ceremony as Tenzin Nangpel. Dapel is a founding member of Comunidad Dharmadatta, the community’s teacher of lovingkindness (metta) practice and its chantmaster. Dapel would be the best candidate for resident artist, should that position ever be created.
Growing up as an only child in a small village in Switzerland, Dapel could often be found painting, singing from the fullness of her heart or making up stories, most often about all the close friendships her dolls had. Either that, or walking alongside her own best friends, a pair of donkeys from the village. Some of her favorite memories are from her adventures in the forest as a Girl Scout, especially being surrounded by trees and the other girls from her Scout troop.
Dapel’s own plan initially was to become an actress or radio announcer—a plan formulated as a child. However, Dapel has lots of teachers in the family—a grandfather, an uncle, an aunt as well as her father Bernard, and as she grew, their examples also inspired her. When her family pointed out to her that one of her favorite radio announcer had started her career as a schoolteacher, the childhood aspirations and the more mature wishes could flow together, and Dapel embarked on her first career: Teaching young children. In Switzerland, teacher training at the time started at the age of 16 and would-be teachers move quickly to training in the classroom. This appealed to her, because as a teen she was already tired of formal schooling and wanted a trajectory that would take her more quickly to action.
She began teaching in a small town about 15 minutes from the village she grew up in, biking to work every day. Dapel is from the German-speaking part of Switzerland and her home was not up in the Alpine mountains, but lower near blue a lake rather than white peaks, making biking a gentler means of transport than it would be in other parts of Switzerland.
As she embarked on the professional path her father had taken, the presence of her mother influenced her in other ways. Roots can be traced for both her spiritual path and her creative flair to her maternal ancestry. An artist, Dapel´s mother Parami had started practicing Buddhism when Dapel was around 16.
Although Dapel was exposed to images and sounds of Buddhism at home, it was only when she was working as a teacher and beginning to find her own path in life that Dapel began attending meditation retreats. She formed part of a small circle of young people passionate about Buddhism. The friends gathered a few times each year for weekends to meditate together, hike and chat together. Most of the half dozen or so friends in this circle were a bit older than Dapel, and this experience for her was formative. Most had already travelled to the Buddhist country of Sri Lanka or had spent time practicing in India. During these years, Dapel also spent time in various monastic settings – in Plum Village in France with Thich Nhat Hahn’s Zen tradition, and at Chithurst and Amaravati monasteries in England in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. I
After four years teaching children between 10 and 13 years old, Dapel quit her job, emptied her apartment and bought a one-way ticket to India. She lived the opportunity fully, hiking and visiting monasteries in the Indian Himalayas—including a weeklong stay in a nunnery in Ladakh, doing meditation retreats on lam rim and Vajrasattva in Nepal, undertaking a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Tibet with her mother, who traveled from Switzerland to make the circuit around the sacred mountain with her.
After a year of this richness, Dapel returned to Switzerland thinking it might be time to “get serious” about what she was doing with her life. But within a few months of being back in Europe, it became clear to Dapel that her greatest longing was to deepen what she had learned in India, by dedicating her life to the study and practice of Buddhism.
In the end, her path led her back to India, where she made an initial commitment to the monastic path in 2007, while living at the women’s monastic residence of Thosamling in India.
When Dapel met first Damcho and then Nangpel in 2007 in Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, bonds were formed that the three rapidly recognized inwardly as important relationships in their path. Dapel and Nangpel underwent the rigorous pre-ordination training course then held at Tushita Retreat center in Dharamsala, and were accepted as candidates to receive their shramenerika monastic vows together from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India in 2008.
After a year studying Tibetan language at Thosamling, Dapel integrated herself fully into community life together as a founding member of Dharmadatta Community. The community lived its first six years together training in the Himalayan region of India. These years were spent engaging in individual and group meditation and chanting practice, sharing meals and training in community. (Dapel particularly loved the chanting and soon became the community’s chantmaster). As Damcho was then translating narratives about the lives of the very first Buddhist nuns guided by the Buddha for her doctoral dissertation, this early period of Dharmadatta community was lived with the stories of the earliest nuns which Damcho often related during meals or the long train rides they took when on pilgrimage. Dapel forged her commitment to monastic practice as community practice in the intense closeness of traveling and training in India under conditions that were often demanding physically.
These years in India were filled with opportunities to receiving instructions in Buddhist philosophy and practice from teachers of diverse lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Dapel began traveling annually to Nepal to spend two months a year undergoing an intensive course of philosophical studies at Pullahari Monastery in the Kathmandu valley.
Along with the formal training and study, the years in India and Nepal afforded exposure to the traditional context in which Buddhism is practiced in Asia.
In 2012, the nuns of Dharmadatta Community traveled together to Mexico to lead a three-month meditation retreat focused on Vajrasattva practice in which retreatants have the opportunity to review the choices made in this life, learn from their mistakes and place themselves on a clear ethical footing for what follows. At that time, Dapel did not speak Spanish. In the early years, she was the only nun not fluent in that language, and would occasionally muse how good it would be to have more German- or English-speaking members. After seeing the commitment of the lay practitioners in the Vajrasattva retreat, and the opportunity that those relationships gave Dharmadatta to serve, shortly after the retreat, Dapel set herself the task of studying Spanish, a task made much easier when the community relocated to Mexico in 2015. By the time the community offered its second Vajrasattva retreat in Mexico five years later, Dapel was guiding practice in Spanish.
In 2023, as the community evolves, Dapel’s remain firmly convinced that life in community, service to others and the monastic path are her path to liberation. She and other Dharmadatta nuns traveled in 2021 and 2022 to Sravasti Abbey https://sravastiabbey.org to deepen the monastic training with the bhikshuni sangha there.
Living with her sisters on the path in a rural base in the eastern United States, Dapel may have left her days as a Girl Scout far behind, but still manages to live surrounded by trees and other women sharing with her the grand adventure that is the path to awakening. So far, no donkeys, though.