This month twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns are making history as they take their fourth and final round of examinations for the Geshema degree. Those who pass will receive their degrees in December 2016 from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony in India.
The Geshe degree (Geshema for women) is equivalent to a Doctorate in Buddhist Philosophy and is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Once only open to men, the opportunity to get the Geshe degree was opened to women in 2012. The Geshema examinations represent a huge milestone for Tibetan Buddhist nuns and this batch of 20 nuns will be the first Tibetan women with this highest degree in the history of Tibet.
This year’s Geshema examinations are being held at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India from May 1 to 12th 2016.
The exams are supervised by a special Board of Geshema Examination comprised of representatives from the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan Nuns Project, the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, and six concerned nunneries located in India and Nepal.
The Minister (Kalon) of the Department of Religion and Culture, Mr. Pema Chhinjor, attended the first day of the examinations as a part of the Geshema Examination Board and to witness the beginning of this historic occasion.
Kalon Pema Chhinjor told the media, “The historic decision to award Geshema degrees to qualified nuns was reached in 2012 after a two-day meeting between high lamas, representative of nuns, and members of the Tibetan Nun Project. Nuns who complete 17 years of studies with aggregate of 65 percent can sit for the Geshema examination.”
The Geshema examination process is an extremely rigorous one that takes four years in total, with one round per year each May.
This year total of 44 nuns from five nunneries in India and Nepal — Dolma Ling, Geden Choeling, Jamyang Choeling, Kopan, and Jangchup Choeling Nunneries — are taking various levels of the examinations.
During the 12-day exam period, the nuns must take both oral (debate) and written exams. They are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts.
One of the final-year Geshema candidates, Venerable Tenzin Kunsel of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, said, “There were many hardships while studying the vast subject. However, I feel fortunate and joyous to appear for the examination, which makes the hardship negligible.”
In October 2016 successful Geshema candidates who have passed all four years of their examinations will formally receive their Geshema degrees, fulfilling a longstanding wish of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and marking a new chapter in the development of the nuns’ education.
Supporting education has been a primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project, which was founded in 1987 to provide education and humanitarian aid to Tibetan Buddhist nuns living in India.
A number of the Geshema candidates were illiterate when they escaped from Tibet. To reach this historic milestone, the Tibetan Nuns Project had to build an educational system from the ground up. The Tibetan Nuns Project started with the very basics of educational organization — things like setting up classes, building a curriculum, regular attendance, and taking tests — putting all the components of an educational system in place.
Earning the Geshema degrees will be a turning point for the nuns. This degree will make them eligible to assume various leadership roles in the monastic and lay communities, previously reserved for men.
The Tibetan Nuns Project has created a special endowment fund to support future years of the Geshema examinations. This fund will help ensure that more nuns can become leaders and teachers at a time when their wisdom is so needed.