Author Archives: Tibetan Nuns Project

First Geshemas complete Buddhist Tantric studies program

On February 1 2019, a special ceremony was held in Dharamsala, India to celebrate the completion of the new course in Buddhist Tantric studies by nuns who have previously earned their Geshema degrees.

Kalon Venerable Karma Gelek Yuthok of the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration attended the event which was held at Gyuto Tantric Monastery.

At the ceremony, the first 23 of the 36 Geshemas received certificates for completing the groundbreaking course in Tantric studies.

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Following a special ceremony, the first Geshemas with their certificates in Tantric studies. They received their certificates from Kalon Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok of the Department of Religion and Culture. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Phende/CTA

Other honored guests at the ceremony included Khenpo Thupten Tenzin; Senior Abbot Tsering Topgyal of Gyutoe Monastery; Gaden Choeling Khenpo; Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor for the Tibetan Nuns Project; and Nangsa Choedon, the Director of Tibetan Nuns Project in India.

The program in Tantric Buddhism for nuns who had attained their Geshema degrees was started in 2017. This groundbreaking new program provides these dedicated senior nuns training in tantric theory, rituals, and mind-training techniques used by those engaged in advanced meditation. This level of training is an essential part of studies for Geshes and is a required step enabling them to be fully qualified for advanced leadership roles, such as being an abbot of a monastery.

Kalon Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok congratulated the Geshemas on achieving such a milestone and applauded the hard work of the various institutions behind this success. He thanked all the previous kalons (ministers) and staff who worked to make this historic achievement possible.

Geshema, Tantric studies, Kalon Ven Karma Gelek Yuthok conferring certificate to a Geshema Tenzin Phende CTA

Kalon Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok of the Department of Religion and Culture confers a certificate to one of the Geshemas who completed the program in Tantric studies. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Phende/CTA

Kalon Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok stressed the need to combine traditional and modern education to acquire in-depth knowledge.

“The number of monks and nuns in exile is decreasing. Even those in Tibet are being topped by the Chinese Government. So we must look into the necessity as per requirement to further develop our infrastructure. It is in the best interest to have better quality than to have quantity. So we must start improving the qualities of those existing to enhance further,” he said.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal reflected on more than 30 years of efforts of the Tibetan Nuns Project. She urged the Geshemas to serve the community, saying, “It is the highest level of women’s empowerment entrusted on Tibetan women.”

Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Geshemas,

Rinchen Khando Choegyal, the Tibetan Nuns Project’s Founding Director and Special Advisor, embraces one of the Geshemas who completed her Tantric studies. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

Khenpo Thupten Tenzin said, ”The conferment of Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns was a longstanding aspiration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and reflects a historic milestone. Now you have obtained both Sutras and Tantric teaching.” He also spoke about the need to preserve Tibet’s rich culture and traditions.

Gadhen Choeling Khenpo and head of Board of Geshema Degree Examination gave a vote of thanks.

The Geshemas who completed their Tantric studies received an special audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on 31 January 2019.

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On 28 January 2019, the Geshemas took both written and debate (oral) exams. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

The historic decision to confer the Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns was announced in 2012 by the Department of Religion and Culture following a meeting of representatives from six major nunneries, the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and the Tibetan Nuns Project.

The Geshema degree for nuns or Geshe degree for monks is comparable to a doctorate in philosophy. The degree is conferred after at least 21 years of rigorous study of the five main Buddhist texts and a four-year exam process involving both written and oral (debate) exams and a thesis.

This post uses some photos, quotations, and other information from Tenzin Phende’s news story “Chorig Kalon attends completion of one year Tantric course for Geshemas” published on February 1 2019 by the Central Tibetan Administration.

Tibetan Buddhist Holidays 2019

This is an illustrated list of some of the major Tibetan Buddhist holidays in 2019, as well as some other important dates in the Tibetan calendar.

Tibetan Buddhist holidays, Tibetan Nuns Project calendar, 2019 calendar

Front and back of the 2019 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar available through our online store.

Each year, the Tibetan Nuns Project publishes a calendar with the Tibetan Buddhist holidays and other important ritual dates, plus the phases of the moon, inspirational quotes, and major US and Canadian holidays. This beautiful 2019 calendar is available from our online store. Know that, by buying this calendar, you are helping to provide education, food, shelter, and health care for over 700 Tibetan Buddhist nuns living in northern India.

February 5 2019: Losar (Tibetan New Year)

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute celebrate Losar. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is a very special time of year. This year, February 5th is the first day of the Earth Pig Year of 2146 according to the Tibetan calendar. Losar-related rituals fall into two distinct parts. First, the nuns, like all Tibetans, say goodbye to the old year and let go of all its negative or bad aspects. Part of this involves cleaning one’s home or room from top to bottom. After that, the Losar or “new year” is welcomed with prayers and by inviting all good, auspicious things into our homes and our lives. Special food is prepared such as such as khapse and a  noodle soup called guthuk. See this recipe for vegetarian guthuk.

March 10 and March 12: Tibetan Uprising Day

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Nuns, monks, and lay people hold Tibetan flags and banners as they take part in a demonstration in Dharamsala, India to mark March 10th, Tibetan Uprising Day. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

While not a Tibetan Buddhist holiday, March 10th is a very important date in the Tibetan calendar. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising. Around the world, Tibetans and their supporters remember and pay tribute to all those who have sacrificed their lives for Tibet’s struggle. An estimated one million Tibetans have perished and 98% of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed under the Chinese occupation.

March 12th 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan Women’s Uprising. Sixty years ago, following the National Uprising Day on March 10th, thousands of Tibetan women gathered  in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa to demonstrate for Tibetan independence.

June 17 2019: Saga Dawa Düchen

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Every year, during the month of Saga Dawa, over a period of several days, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery read the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon or Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

The most important month in the Tibetan lunar calendar is Saga Dawa, the 4th month which runs from June 4th to July 2nd 2019. The 15th day of this lunar month, the full moon day, is called Saga Dawa Düchen. Düchen means “great occasion” and this day is the single most holy day of the year for Tibetan Buddhists. In 2019, Saga Dawa Düchen falls on June 17th. Saga Dawa Düchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana of Buddha Shakyamuni. In other Buddhist traditions this occasion is known as Vesak or is sometimes called Buddha Day.

Saga Dawa is known as the month of merits. Tibetan Buddhists make extra efforts to practice more generosity, virtue, and compassion in order to accumulate greater merit. Tibetans believe that during this month, the merits of ones actions are multiplied. On the 15th day of the month the merits of one’s actions are hugely increased.

July 6: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Birthday

His Holiness the Dalai LamaAround the world, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6th will be celebrated with happiness and prayers for his good health and long life. This year His Holiness the Dalai Lama turns 84. The nuns will pray and make special offerings of tsok, khataks (prayer scarves), and sangsol (incense offering) to His Holiness. It’s a day of celebration with special food, such as Tibetan momos, the steamed savory dumplings that are much loved by Tibetans around the world and that are often made on Tibetan Buddhist holidays.

July 16: Universal Prayer Day

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns hang new prayer flags on Universal Prayer Day. Photo courtesy of Nuns Media Team.

Universal Prayer Day or Dzam Ling Chi Sang falls on the 15th day of the 5th month of the Tibetan Lunar calendar, so in June or July. It is a time for spiritual cleansing. Tibetans hang prayer flags and burn juniper twigs.

August 4 2019: Buddha’s First Teaching

Called Chokhor Düchen, this important day falls on the fourth day of the sixth lunar month. This day is the third “great occasion” (düchen) in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. It celebrates the first teaching by the historical Buddha, named Siddhartha at birth and commonly known as Shakyamuni Buddha. On this day, over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha gave the teaching of the Four Noble Truths in Sarnath, shortly after attaining enlightenment in Bodhgaya. This event is known as the “turning of the wheel of dharma”. In Theravada traditions, this event is remembered on Dhamma Day, also known as Asalha Puja, and is generally marked on the full moon of the eighth lunar month. To celebrate Chokhor Düchen, Tibetan Buddhists make pilgrimages to holy places, offer incense, and hang prayer flags.​​

November 19 2019: Buddha’s Descent from Heaven

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns praying. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Another “great occasion” or düchen in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar is Lhabab Düchen. This date commemorates the Buddha’s descent from the heavenly realm following his visit there to teach his deceased mother. Lhabab Düchen occurs on the 22nd day of the ninth lunar month, according to Tibetan calendar. On this day, the karmic effects of our actions are multiplied millions of times. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, people engage in virtuous activities and prayer to gain merit and to mark this special occasion.

February 24 2020: Losar (Tibetan New Year)

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Butter sculptures and offering made by the Tibetan nuns for Losar, Tibetan New Year.

Losar in 2020 falls on February 24th, 2020 and is the Year of the Iron Mouse 2147 in the Tibetan calendar.

Tibetan Buddhist Holidays in 2019 and the Tibetan Nuns Project Calendar

It is still possible to order copies of our 2019 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar. It’s a great way to keep track of the Tibetan Buddhist holidays and all the special events throughout the year.

 

Why we sponsor Tibetan Buddhist nuns

We receive so many inspiring and beautiful messages about why people sponsor Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

In this blog post, we want to introduce you to Nancy, Judith, Beth and others and share their stories. We hope their words will inspire more people to sponsor a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Many nuns in India still need sponsors. The cost is just $1 a day; the return is priceless.

Today, January 8 2019, we’re launching a campaign to get sponsors for 60 nuns in the 60-day countdown to International Women’s Day, March 8th. Please join us by sponsoring a nun and spreading the word about our sponsorship program. March 2019 is also significant because it is the 60th anniversary of both the Tibetan Uprising Day (March 10th) and the Tibetan Women’s Uprising (March 12).

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“I support the Tibetan Nuns Project because I believe women should have the same rights as men in learning the Buddhist teachings. This program gives Tibetan nuns the opportunity to embrace their spiritual path and embark on a life as a nun who can then share their knowledge and understanding of the teachings with others.” Photo of nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery courtesy of Olivier Adam

Empowering and Educating Women

Ninety-one per cent of Tibetan Nuns Project supporters surveyed say that they give because they “value equality of access to education for women and believe that nuns should have the same opportunities as monks.”

Chris says, “The UN has multiple reports showing how the status of a country or culture is only as strong as the support of their women, and supporting the Tibetan Nuns Project helps not just the individual women, but the Tibetan community overall. Having female role models in any profession will encourage the children of Tibet to see the worth in all beings, not just men.”

Geshema, Geshema graduation ceremony,

TNP board member Judyth Weaver congratulates the nuns who received their Geshema degrees at a historic graduation ceremony in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Alice writes, “As a female Buddhist, I’m acutely aware that it’s women who carry the majority of lay communities, but there are so few examples for us to look up to in the sangha. It’s important to me that female sangha receive the support they need to flourish.”

Karen said, “I feel that it is very important for women to become teachers of this wisdom. Tibetan Buddhism can teach the world many things… love, compassion, patience, forgiveness, responsibility, and the list goes on. This wisdom must be extended to all who are interested in it, not just monks. I have found that women have a great ability to share and take care that comes very naturally, so women will help expand this wisdom.”

“I care about Tibetan refugee issues”

Preserving Tibet’s unique religion and culture is a big motivator for sponsors and other donors.

Beth writes, “I am deeply impressed with the spirit, faith, and strength of the people of Tibet, and I want to do anything I can to help them. Supporting a nun with her basic needs and education is a small thing that I can do.”

Maria said, “I am appalled by the atrocities that the people of Tibet have gone through! This support is the least that my family can do.”

Diverse Voices

While it is traditional for Buddhists to practice dana (generosity), the first of the ten perfections, and to support monks and nuns, a great many of our sponsors are not Buddhist. Here are some stories from our diverse global family.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Nancy writes, “Although I am not a Buddhist, I have learned so many valuable life lessons from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It feels right to give something back, and I enjoy the personal connection I have with a nun. Participating in the Tibetan Nuns Project is a good antidote to feelings of helplessness or despair when faced with all the injustices in the world.”

“I am Cherokee (American Indian) and I totally understand how important it is to support people who have lost their lands and may be in danger of losing their language and ancient traditions.” Naniwea

“As a Black American (historic ethnicity – U.S. slavery descendant), I feel very connected to what is happening to the Tibetan people in their own country. As a woman of color, I am especially interested in learning more about the lives and concerns of the women of Tibet, and especially the Buddhist nuns.” Marian

Judith wrote, “I am a Christian (Episcopalian) feminist for whom Buddhism provides enrichment and much that appeals to my overworked mind in terms of clarifying what matters. I believe in freedom, education, and equality for women and for men. I am very disturbed by the ongoing destruction of Tibet and its magnificent culture and religion and believe strongly in the goals and purpose of the Tibetan Nuns Project.”

“Although not a Buddhist, I have always been drawn to the plight of the people of Tibet. The last 20 years of my life I have often been touched by the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and I consider him a hero and wonderful humanitarian. When I saw this organization and the wonderful work they were doing with the female refugees, I was quite touched and knew I had to be involved, even in a small way. I would love to visit the project some day, but for now, I love getting the lovely letters from India. I’m so proud to see how much the project has grown in the last couple years and so proud of the nuns and their educational and spiritual progress.” Julia

sponsor a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

You can sponsor a nun for US$360 a year and pay monthly, quarterly, or annually. Photo of nuns lining up for food courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Click here to learn about sponsoring a nun.

Rejoicing the 2018 Jang Gonchoe and Geshema Graduation

October and November was an extraordinary time. Over 600 nuns came together for the 24th annual Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate. At the conclusion of this month-long educational event, ten nuns more nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees. This blog post shares news and videos of these two special events.

The 2018 Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate

The annual, inter-nunnery debate called the Jang Gonchoe was held at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal from 3 October to 4 November 2018. More than 600 nuns from nine nunneries in India and Nepal attended this powerful educational opportunity.

Monastic debate is the traditional mode of study of the profound texts of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Through debate, the nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning. For many nuns, taking part in the Jang Gonchoe is an essential component of working towards higher academic degrees, such as the Geshema degree, which is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Here’s a video by Tizi Sonam showing the inter-nunnery debate.

Prior to 1995, there was no Jang Gonchoe for nuns, although Tibetan monks have held their Jang Gonchoe for centuries. The chance to have nuns from many nunneries gather and intensively debate with each other is a relatively new opportunity for ordained Buddhist women. The Tibetan Nuns Project has been fully supporting the Jang Gonchoe for nuns since 1997. Next year will be its 25th year.

In 2014, the Tibetan Nuns Project launched a Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund so that this vital educational opportunity may continue for years to come. Unfortunately, we’re still a long way from reaching our goal for the fund. You can learn more here. 

The fact that so many nuns wanted to attend this year’s event is a testament to both its incredible value as a learning opportunity and the nuns’ growing confidence. In the early years of the Jang Gonchoe, it was difficult to find nuns to participate because they lacked confidence and felt uncomfortable to join in. Now the nuns are eager to take part. They know what an important chance it is for them to gain skills in debating and to help them with their studies.

In past years, the number of nuns who participated in the Jang Gonchoe was also limited by the ability of the host nunnery to accommodate and feed visiting nuns from other nunneries. However, Kopan Nunnery is a large nunnery and had the facilities and capacity to house many nuns, so many more nuns were able to attend this year. We are extremely grateful to our supporters, including the Pema Chödrön Foundation and the Rowell Fund for Tibet/ICT, whose generosity enabled so many nuns to take part by helping with their food and travel costs.

The 9 nunneries that took part this year were:

  1. Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, near Dharamsala, India (min. 35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  2. Geden Choeling Nunnery,Dharamsala, India (min. 35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  3. Jamyang Choeling Nunnery, Dharamsala, India (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  4. Thujee Choeling Nunnery, South India (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  5. Kopan Nunnery, host nunnery, Nepal
  6. Jangchup Choeling, Nepal (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  7. Jangsemling Nunnery, Kinnaur, India (24 nuns and 1 teacher)
  8. Jampa Choeling Nunnery, Kinnaur, India (16 nuns and 1 teacher)
  9. Yangchen Choeling Nunnery, Spiti, India (14 nuns and 1 teacher)

The Geshema Exams and Graduation

From August 15-26 2018, 44 Tibetan Buddhist nuns sat various levels of their four-year Geshema exams. These rigorous written and oral (debate) exams were held at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Here are the results of the exams:
Fourth and final year exams: All 10 nuns passed
Third year exams: All 8 nuns passed
Second year: 11 of 14 nuns passed
First year: 8 of 12 nuns passed
The nuns who did not pass will have the option to re-sit their exams next year if they wish.

At the conclusion of this year’s Jang Gonchoe, held at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal, the ten nuns who passed their fourth and final Geshema exams in August took part in a formal debate process called damcha.

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Nuns line up to debate with the Geshemas in the damcha. This joyous and inspiring event was held for two days on November 3rd and 4th and was the final formal step in the Geshema graduation process. Photo courtesy of Tizi Sonam

The 2018 Geshema Graduation Ceremony was held on November 5th at Kopan Nunnery with teachers and about 600 nuns from at least 9 nunneries in India and Nepal in attendance.

Here’s a video made by Tizi Sonam of the 2018 Geshema graduation ceremony at Kopan Nunnery. 

The graduation this year of ten more Geshemas brings the total number of nuns with this degree to 37, including the German-born nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who was the first-ever Geshema.

This is the third year in a row in which a group of nuns completed the challenging four-year exam process. In 2016, Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when 20 nuns received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony in South India. Last year, another 6 nuns graduated at a ceremony at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree will make them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

The Impact of Your Support of the Nuns

The impact of your support goes far beyond providing funding to cover food and travel so the nuns could take their exams and attend the inter-nunnery debate. We are deeply grateful to all our donors for helping nuns receive the same opportunities for deep study and practice as monks have always had and for supporting these devoted women to become teachers and to contribute to their communities.

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Ten new Geshemas surrounded by Tibetan Buddhist nuns on the steps of Kopan Nunnery in Nepal, following the Geshema graduation ceremony on November 5 2018. Photo courtesy of Tizi Sonam

By furthering the education of hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, you are also helping to foster the dharma for future generations and to preserve Tibet’s rich religion and culture at a time when it is seriously under threat.

By helping to further educational opportunities like the inter-nunnery debate, you are encouraging more intense study and practice, increasing the nuns’ knowledge and confidence, and empowering these dedicated women to become great teachers in their own right. Thank you!

Recipe for Tibetan Noodle Soup, Thenthuk

Here is a recipe for Tibetan noodle soup, called thenthuk (འཐེན་ཐུག་). This comfort food is a common noodle soup in Tibetan cuisine, especially in Amdo, Tibet. Traditionally it would be made with mutton or yak meat. Links to four other recipes, including vegetarian momos, are at the bottom of this post.

Recipe for Tibetan noodle soup, Tibetan recipes, Tibetan soup, thenthuk,

Traditionally, thenthuk would be made with meat, but the nuns in India eat a vegetarian diet. This is a meat-optional recipe. Thenthuk is one particular kind of Tibetan noodle soup. It’s name means pull-noodle soup.

Tibetan noodle soups are generally called thukpa. Thenthuk (pronounced ten-took) is one kind of thukpa. It is easy and fun to make your own noodles.

You can download a PDF of the recipe here. At the end of the blog, there are links to other recipes for Tibetan food, including vegetarian momos.

Ingredients for Thenthuk

Serves 2

Noodle Dough

1 heaping cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup water, room temperature
1/4 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper
1 tsp oil

Broth

2 or 3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger, finely minced
1 small onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped into thin strips
1 large tomato, roughly chopped
4 to 5 cups vegetable or other stock
2 green/spring onions, chopped
cilantro, a few sprigs, roughly chopped
handful of spinach
soy sauce or salt to taste

Recipe for Tibetan noodle soup, Tibetan recipes, Tibetan soup, thenthuk, ingredients for Tibetan noodle soup

Ingredients for Tibetan noodle soup, thenthuk.

Noodle Instructions

In a bowl, combine the dough ingredients, mix well and then knead for 4 minutes. Cover and leave to stand for 5 minutes. Roll or flatten out the dough and cut into long strips and then make the broth.

Soup Instructions

In a large pot on medium heat, sauté garlic, ginger, and onion in oil for 1 minute. Add carrots and tomato and gently sauté for one minute. Add most of the stock and bring to a boil. Adjust the amount of stock later depending on the soup to noodle ratio you prefer.

Put the noodle in the soup by draping the strips over your hand and tearing off pieces of about an inch in size, throwing them into the boiling soup. Cook for 2 minutes until the noodles are cooked and the stock is boiling. Add the chopped green onions, cilantro, and spinach and cook for about 30 seconds. Season with soy sauce or salt. Serve immediately.

Other Tibetan Recipes

We have four other Tibetan recipes on our blog:
Recipe for vegetarian momos
Recipe for Tibetan hot sauce
Recipe for Tibetan noodle soup, gyuthuk
Recipe for dal (Not a Tibetan dish, but one that is eaten often by monks and nuns in India)

Thank you to Venerable Lobsang Dechen

Venerable Lobsang Dechen, Co-Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, is retiring after working on behalf of Tibetan Buddhist nuns for almost three decades.

A nun from the age of 13, Venerable Lobsang Dechen studied at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) in Dharamsala until Class 10, before completing her schooling at the Central School for Tibetans in Mussoorie.

Venerable Lobsang Dechen

Archival photo of Venerable Lobsang Dechen working at the Tibetan Nuns Project office in India.

She then attended St. Bede’s College, a women’s college in Shimla, and received her B.A. Degree followed by a B.Ed. Degree from Pubjab University in Chandigarh. With her teaching credentials, she returned to Lower TCV where she taught English and geography from 1984 to 1991.

In 1992, she left her teaching career to join the Tibetan Nuns Project to advance its efforts to make educational opportunities available for nuns throughout the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Since then, she has helped to establish a system in which nuns could be nurtured into educated, confident young women.

Venerable Lobsang Dechen, Betsy Napper, Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Tibetan Nuns Project

Venerable Lobsang Dechen (left), with Rinchen Khando Choegyal and Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Napper. This photo of the three directors of the Tibetan Nuns Project was taken in October 2017 at the celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Because Venerable Lobsang Dechen is a nun, her work towards the betterment of nuns has been very encouraging for the nuns. We will always be very grateful for her hard work, patience, dedication, and teamwork.

Venerable Lobsang Dechen, Geshemas, Geshema, Geshema Namdol Phuntsok,

Venerable Lobsang Dechen, Co-Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, speaking to the Geshemas at the Geshema graduation ceremony at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, Karnataka, India on December 22, 2016. The nun she is speaking to is Geshema Namdol Phuntsok from Kopan Nunnery, who attained the highest marks in the Geshema examinations. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

She has personally seen the nuns grow mentally and emotionally into stronger women, and move beyond the unthinkable situations they had faced in Tibet. After years of effort, it is wonderful thathe has seen the nuns graduate with the Geshema Degree (Geshe for monks), a great milestone in the history of Tibet.

Though we would have liked her to continue working with the Tibetan Nuns Project, we wish her all the best in life.

Venerable Lobsang Dechen

Collage of archival photos of Venerable Lobsang Dechen working to help the nuns.

Brian Harris: Story behind iconic Laughing Nuns photo

My name is Brian Harris. My wife Paula and I have left legacy gifts in our wills for the Tibetan Nuns Project as a way of continuing our support of the essential role that Tibetan nuns play in the ongoing transmission of the Buddha’s teaching.

Almost 30 years ago, in 1989, I travelled to India to take photographs and gather sound recordings for a special exhibition called India: Eye to Eye. My journey took me to Dharamsala, the heart of the Tibetan exile community and home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

It was on this trip that I encountered the Tibetan Nuns Project. The Tibetan Nuns Project would become one of the charitable organizations that I chose to help with my photographic projects.

Brian Harris, Tibetan Nuns Project, laughing nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dharamsala, Tibetan Buddhism, nunnery, Buddhist nunnery, legacy gift to Tibetan Nuns ProjectLaughing Nuns: The Story Behind the Photograph

It was lunchtime at Geden Choeling Nunnery when two nuns stepped out of the main entrance to the shrine hall. As soon as I spotted the lead nun holding a gong in one hand and a mallet in the other, I realized this might be a good photo opportunity. I pointed my camera and took one photo.

This was before digital cameras were common, so it was almost six months later when I was back in Vancouver and I finally developed the rolls of film from that trip. When I saw the photograph for the first time, I was stunned by its beauty and power. It wasn’t the photo I imagined I had taken. I had thought I’d taken an image of a nun banging on a gong. Instead, it was a marvelous display of two nuns in full-bodied, infectious, joyful laughter. Little did I know that it would become an iconic image – one that so many people have come to identify with the Tibetan people’s indomitable spirit and light-hearted, warm character.

Brian Harris, Tibet, nun receiving blessed water, Giving and Receiving

Over many years, my association with the Tibetan Nuns Project has been a two-way relationship resulting in friendships and a deep satisfaction in knowing that my photographic gifts and project funds have been useful and kindly received.

The reciprocal relationship of receiving while giving that I experience with the Tibetan Nuns Project is, I think, beautifully portrayed in this image I took on my first trip to Tibet in 1987.

The photo above is of a nun humbly receiving blessed water offered by a Ganden Monastery monk. The blessed water is being given from a simple teapot rather than the traditional , more ornate vessel, because many of the valuable ritual implements were plundered during the violent occupation of Tibet several decades before. [Tibet has been under Chinese occupation since the 1950s. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, “More than 97 percent of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed and the number of monks and nuns living in the monasteries was reduced by 93 percent,” according to the 10th Panchen Lama’s famous petition submitted to the Chinese government on the conditions inside Tibet.]

An element in this photograph that I have always liked, but particularly appreciate more recently, is the fact that the face of the monk is in soft-focused shadow. In the Theravada tradition, there was and is a custom of a monk holding up an elaborately embroidered ritual fan in front of his face while teaching the Dharma. This symbolizes the impersonal nature of the teaching, thus reminding both listener and speaker that it’s the Dharma that is the primary teacher or wisdom source, not the individual giving the teaching or recitation.

In closing, I’d like to suggest that you join me in leaving a lasting legacy to help the nuns, by including a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project and share your intention by emailing info@tnp.org or calling 1-206-652-8901.

If you include a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project before the end of March 2019, I will send you signed prints of both photos as a special thank you. Just contact the Tibetan Nuns Project office by emailing  info@tnp.org or calling 1-206-652-8901.

May all beings be happy and free of distress!

Brian Harris

2018 Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate at Kopan Nunnery

Around 600 Tibetan Buddhist nuns from at least 9 nunneries in India and Nepal have gathered at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal for 2018 Jang Gonchoe, the annual inter-nunnery debate.

Running from October 3 to November 4 2018, this special event brings together nuns and teachers for intensive training in Tibetan Buddhist debate.

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Sheltered under tarps, about 600 Tibetan Buddhist nuns from at least 9 nunneries in India and Nepal gather at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal to practice Tibetan Buddhist debate for one month. Photo courtesy of Kopan Nunnery

Training in Tibetan Buddhist debate is an essential part of monastic education in the Tibetan tradition. Until recently, Tibetan nuns did not have the opportunity to fully study and practice Tibetan Buddhist debate, a process that joins logical thinking with a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

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A photograph of nuns at the opening ceremony of the 2018 inter-nunnery debate at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal. Photo courtesy of Kopan Nunnery.

The annual debate session for nuns has been an integral part of the nuns reaching their current level of excellence in their studies. It is critical to fostering the nuns’ ability to pursue higher degrees, such as the Geshema degree, which is roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism. Since 2016, 36 nuns have passed the rigorous written and debate exams to become Geshemas – a historic milestone for Tibet. This achievement would not have been possible without the intensive training that the inter-nunnery debate helps provide.

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Taking part in the annual inter-nunnery debate allows nuns to gain knowledge and build confidence. By debating with nuns from other nunneries, they can “up their game” and prepare for higher degrees. Photo courtesy of Kopan Nunnery

Dr. Elizabeth Napper, Co-Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, said, “Opening up education to the women, particularly in conjunction with training in debate, has been transformative for the nuns. Not only have they been given access to the full intellectual richness of their Buddhist tradition, but also, through debate, they have been trained to actively engage with it in a way that gives them confidence in their knowledge. Their body language changes from the traditional meekness of nuns to that of women who occupy space with confidence in their right to do so.”

If you wish to see many more photos of this year’s event and video footage of the nuns debating, visit the Kopan Nunnery Facebook page. 

The Importance of Tibetan Buddhist Debate and the Jang Gonchoe

Although Tibetan monks for centuries have held the Jang Gonchoe, prior to 1995, this form and level of learning was not open to nuns.

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About 600 nuns gather for the start of the 2018 Jang Gonchoe at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal. Photo courtesy of Kopan Nunnery.

In 1995, the Jang Gonchoe for nuns was started. Since 1997, it has been fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. We are extremely grateful to the supporters of this year’s event and of our Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund.

The inter-nunnery debate is a unique opportunity to build capacity and equality for the nuns, to help ensure that a centuries-old tradition continues and expands to include the nuns, and fosters the dharma for future generations. The Jang Gonchoe also helps empower Tibetan nuns to become great teachers and examples for their nunnery communities. The host nunneries also gain the experience of putting on a large and complex event. In 2017, the Jang Gonchoe was held at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been very supportive of the education of the nuns and has praised their debating skills. His Holiness has said, “Nowadays, the Nalanda tradition of approaching the Buddha’s teachings with logic and reason is only found amongst Tibetans. It’s something precious we can be proud of and should strive to preserve.

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At the Jang Gonchoe, nuns have the opportunity to debate with nuns from other nunneries. This build confidence and skill. Photo courtesy of Kopan Nunnery

The Importance of the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund

The Tibetan Nuns Project, with the support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has played a critical role in opening up this learning opportunity to women. Although all Tibetan nuns and nunneries are welcome to take part, the main obstacle to wider participation has always been lack of funding. There are more nuns who wish to attend than there is funding to support them with their travel costs and for food during the month-long event.

An average of 7 nunneries takes part each year:

  • Dolma Ling Nunnery & Institute – participant since 1995
  • Jangchup Choeling Nunnery – participant since 1995
  • Jamyang Choeling Nunnery – participant since 1995
  • Geden Choeling Nunnery – participant since 1995
  • Khacho Ghakil Ling, Nepal – yearly participant
  • Thugjee Choeling Nunnery, Nepal – yearly participant
  • Buddhist Education Centre, Kinnaur – yearly participant
  • Drikung Nunnery – participant once
  • Dongyu Gyatseling Nunnery – occasional participant
  • Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Spiti – occasional participant
  • Yangchen Choeling Nunnery, Spiti – occasional participant
  • Jampa Choeling Nunnery, Spiti – occasional participant
  • (The nuns from the latter three nunneries now hold their own inter-nunnery debate session each year in Spiti.)

In 2014, the Tibetan Nuns Project launched a special Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund to support the Jang Gonchoe so that this vital educational opportunity may continue for years to come. Gifts to the Endowment Fund help to preserve Tibet’s culture and religion, and also open up a centuries-old tradition to the nuns, empowering them to become great teachers in their own right. The benefit of this is inestimable and will be an enduring legacy for generations to come.

To support the Debate Endowment Fund you can:

  1. Make a gift online – see below.
  2. Call our office in Seattle, US at 1-206-652-8901
  3. Mail a check to:
    The Tibetan Nuns Project
    (for Debate Endowment)
    815 Seattle Boulevard South #216
    Seattle, WA 98134 USA
  4. Donate securities
  5. Leave a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project

Give to Debate Endowment

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The main costs associated with the Jang Gonchoe are food for the nuns for a month and their travel costs to and from the event.

 

2018 Geshema exam results: 10 new Geshemas

The 2018 Geshema exam results are in. All 10 nuns who took their fourth and final exams in August have passed.

This means that, in early November, after a formal debate process and graduation ceremony, there will be 10 more Tibetan Buddhist nuns who have achieved the Geshema degree (called the Geshe degree for monks), which is the highest degree in their tradition and is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism.

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Nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute cluster around the nunnery noticeboard to read this year’s Geshema exam results. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

2018 Geshema Exam Results

The Geshema results were announced this week and are as follows:

  • Fourth and final year: all 10 nuns passed
  • Third year exams: all 8 nuns passed
  • Second year: 11 of 14 nuns passed
  • First year: 8 of 12 nuns passed

The nuns who didn’t pass can re-sit their exams next year if they wish.

The graduation in 2018 of 10 more Geshemas will bring the total number of nuns with this degree to 37, including the German-born nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who was the first-ever Geshema.

2018 is the third year in a row in which a group of nuns completed the challenging four-year exam process. In 2016, Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when 20 nuns received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony in South India. Last year, another 6 nuns graduated at a ceremony at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The Geshema graduates from 2016 and 2017 are currently enrolled in groundbreaking, two-year Buddhist tantric studies program that was started in November 2017 that is funded by generous donors to the Tibetan Nuns Project.

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Exciting news. Nuns and staff gather round the bulletin board at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute to read the 2018 Geshema exam results. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

About the Geshema Degree

The Geshema degree is comparable to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Geshes (monks who hold the degree) and Geshemas (nuns who hold the degree) are the most educated monastics, carrying much of the responsibility for preserving the Tibet’s precious religious wisdom and culture. The Geshema exam process is very rigorous and is the culmination of a 17-year course of study. Each year, for four years, the candidates must take both written and oral (debate) exams for an 11-day period.

Until recently, the degree was only open to men. The opening up of this opportunity for nuns would not have been possible without the support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan government in exile, and high lamas and teachers.

Once they obtain their Geshema degrees, besides being in possession of a treasure of knowledge, the nuns will be eligible to assume various leadership roles in the monastic and lay communities, bringing them one step closer to standing as equals.

Subjects for the 2018 Geshema Exams

From August 15 to 26, 2018, 44 nuns from four nunneries (Geden Choeling, Jangchup Choeling, Kachod Gyakhil Ling, and Dolma Ling) sat for the Geshema exams at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Initially the number was supposed to be 46, but two nuns, one in first year and one in second, were unable to attend their exams.

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Nuns debate as part of their Geshema exams. In 2018, the nuns were examined on debating by four Geshes, one each from Sera Jey, Sera Mey, Ganden Shartse, and Ganden Shangtse monasteries, all located in South India.

Each morning, nuns from two of the four levels completed written papers from 9 a.m. to noon, while nuns from the other two levels underwent debate exams. In the afternoons, from 2 to 6 p.m., the examinees gathered for their debate sessions in front of the examiners.

Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is one of the major subjects for the Geshema candidates, but they were examined on other subjects as well. In philosophy, nuns taking their first- and second-year exams were tested on Perfection of Wisdom (Pharchin) and Middle Way (Madhyamika), while third- and fourth-year examinees were tested on Monastic Discipline (Vinaya) and Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharma). All exams were followed by debate sessions.

In addition to their other exams, nuns in years 1-3, were tested on Tibetan grammar and science. Nuns taking their final year exams were tested on science and history. Each of the final-year candidates also had to write, in advance, a 50-page thesis and they were examined on their thesis papers during the Geshema exams.

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Nuns cluster around the notice board at Dolma Ling Nunnery to read the messages of good luck sent to the Geshema candidates. The good wishes were felt by all the nuns. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

 

 

How to use a Tibetan mala or Tibetan prayer beads

We are often asked how to use a Tibetan mala or Tibetan prayer beads. We hope this blog post will answer some common questions about Tibetan malas.

Through the Tibetan Nuns Project online store, we sell long malas and wrist malas made and blessed by Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery.

What are Buddhist prayer beads?

Malas or Tibetan Buddhsit prayer beads are similar to other prayer beads used in various world religions. Some people have called the mala a Buddhist rosary, but in Tibetan, a mala is called a threngwa (Tibetan  ཕྲེང་བ). Mala is a Sanskrit word meaning “garland”. Malas are used to keep track while one recites, chants, or mentally repeats a mantra or the name or names of a deity. Malas are used as a tool to keep count of mantra repetitions. Mantras are spiritual syllables or prayers and are usually repeated many times.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun performs the Mandala Mudra with her mala (Buddhist prayer beads). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

How are malas used?

Malas are used to help focus one’s awareness and concentration during spiritual practice. Long malas, as opposed to the shorter wrist malas, have 108 beads. The summit or head bead is called the guru bead or a sumeru. In Tibetan Buddhism, one mala constitutes 100 recitations of a mantra. There are 8 additional recitations done to ensure proper concentration.

What is the meaning of a guru bead?

In Tibetan Buddhism, people traditionally use malas with 108 counting beads and a special, three-holed, finishing bead called a “guru” bead or “Buddha” bead. Often the 108-bead malas have additional marker beads that may or may not be counted and that divide the mala into quadrants, constituting 108 counting beads all together.

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A long Tibetan mala from the Tibetan Nuns Project collection showing the guru bead. The guru bead has three stringing holes and here also has a smaller tower-shaped bead that holds the ends of the string.

The guru bead represents the relationship between the student and the guru or spiritual teacher. To use the mala, you start counting from the bead next to the guru bead. When you reach the guru bead again, it signifies the end of one round in the cycle of mantras.

Once you have completed a full circuit of the mala and reached the guru bead again, you reverse direction by flipping your mala. Then you continue again in reverse order. Most people believe that you do not cross over the guru bead as a sign of respect towards one’s spiritual teachers.

How do you hold and use a mala or prayer beads?

The mala is held with gentleness and respect, generally in the left hand. To use your mala, hold it with your left hand and begin to recite from the guru bead, clockwise around the mala, using your thumb to move the beads. Count one bead for each recitation of the mantra. The first bead is held between the index finger and thumb, and with each recitation of the mantra move your thumb to pull another bead in place over the index finger.

Why is the number 108 sacred?

The number 108 is sacred in many Eastern religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In Tibetan Buddhism malas or rosaries are usually 108 beads plus the guru bead, reflecting the words of the Buddha called in Tibetan the Kangyur in 108 volumes.

How to care for your mala

Malas are sacred objects believed to be charged with the energy of the deity. They should be treated with great reverence.

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An elderly nun at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India gently holds her Tibetan mala. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

As with all sacred objects, such as books and other spiritual instruments, one should keep malas off the ground. If your mala accidentally lands on the ground, you should touch it to the crown of your head and recite the sacred syllables Om Ah Hum, three times.

The mala should not be worn while bathing, or allowed to get wet, as this may weaken the cord on which the mala beads are strung. It is best to remove your mala before going to sleep so that you do not accidentally stress the cord and break it.

The nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute also make and sell mala bags so that malas can be carefully protected.

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A selection of mala bags made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Our online store has a wide range of bags made from different fabrics and in different colors.

Choosing a Mala

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to wear a mala. The Tibetan Nuns Project has different kinds of long malas, each hand strung, knotted, and blessed by nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute near Dharamsala in India. They are made from materials such as semiprecious stones, sandalwood, and bone and they range in price from $15 to $45.

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Assorted Tibetan Buddhist bone malas from the Tibetan Nuns Project

Long malas can be worn as a necklace or wrapped around your wrist. By purchasing these malas, you help provide the nuns with food, shelter, education, and health care – something you can feel great about every time you use your mala.

Our online store also has many types of wrist malas too, ranging in price from $11 to $22, and also made and blessed by the nuns at Dolma Ling. The wrist malas are approximately 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter and strung on elastic to fit most wrists.

Types of Malas

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Our online store sells dozens of types of wrist and long malas, made of wood, bone, and semi-precious stones like amethyst, garnet, jade, and lapis.

Here’s a list of some types of malas and their special properties:

Amethyst is the stone of spirituality and contentment. It balances the energy of one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical bodies.

Garnet enhances internal fire and brings about creative power. It is helpful during feelings of abandonment and brings freshness to one’s life.

Granite helps with balance in relationships, fosters cooperative efforts and facilitates diplomacy. It helps increase wealth while allowing the recipient to remain modest.

Jade assists in dream analysis and grants the user a long and fruitful life. It helps with the transition from this body to the spiritual world.

Lapis provides objectivity, clarity, and mental endurance during times of realizing emotions. It also helps with creativity, organization, and with easing depression.

Malachite creates an unobstructed path leading to a desired goal and helps the user accept responsibility for actions and circumstances.

Moonstone fosters balance, introspection, and reflection. It helps deal with emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual changes, and helps in recognizing “ups and downs”.

Pearl signifies faith, charity, and innocence. It enhances personal integrity, provides focus, and is used to increase fertility and ease childbirth.

Quartz amplifies body and thought energy. It also brings the energy of the stars to the body.

Rose quartz creates harmony and self-love during chaotic situations. It is the stone of gentle love and brings peace to relationships.

Sandstone builds and strengthens relationships and/or groups. It provides insight into deceit and encourages truth.

Tiger eye brings about clarity when dealing with scattered intellectual fragments. This stone is practical and grounding.

Turquoise heals the spirit with soothing energy and provides peace-of-mind. It holds both spiritual and protective properties, and balances the male and female aspects of one’s character.

Visit our online store.

Buying Mala Beads

The nuns buy from local Indian or Tibetan vendors for their beads. The beads are then hand strung and knotted into mala form. Once complete, the malas are then blessed by the nuns. We try to keep our prices reasonable so that our prayer beads can be accessed by everyone.