In the remote Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, lies Sherab Choeling Nunnery, currently home to about 65 Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Many of the nuns are sponsored by Tibetan Nuns Project donors.
Many young girls seek admission to Sherab Choeling, but due to lack of facilities and sponsors, it is not possible for all to gain entrance. The Tibetan Nuns Project helps by raising awareness, finding sponsors for the nuns, and helping them to fundraise for the further development of the institute.
We just received lots of photos showing daily life at Sherab Choeling Nunnery that we wanted to share with the sponsors of the nuns and with Tibetan Nuns Project donors worldwide.
The nuns after their annual result ceremony. Many of the nuns are holding sweaters, vests, and hats knitted and donated by Wool-Aid.
The nunnery was founded in 1995 with the goal to educate Himalayan Buddhist nuns who would otherwise have no opportunity to receive any formal schooling or spiritual education. It is a non-sectarian nunnery that recognizes the beauty and value in all Buddhist traditions.
The nunnery is very secluded and lies in the village of Morang (between Manali and Tabor) at 4,000 meters altitude. The nuns have difficult living conditions. They often face long harsh winters and heavy snowfalls.
The nunnery was built in 1995 by 20 nuns and their teacher and was consecrated that year by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There is the main building, a prayer hall, a classroom, an office, a kitchen, and a storeroom.
Traditionally women and girls in this region have suffered from many social and educational disadvantages. Many have been deprived of any kind of education. Sherab Choeling Nunnery was the first religious educational project for Spiti women, providing women and girls with the opportunity to overcome these obstacles.
Typically, women who live in remote areas like Spiti and who are interested in studying or practicing their religion have very few options. The Tibetan Nuns Project was approached by the nunnery in 2006 to help them develop their institution and the nunnery was accepted into our sponsorship program.
The nuns at Sherab Choeling follow a 17-year study program. The curriculum is designed to educate the nuns in Buddhist philosophy, meditation, Tibetan language, and literature, in addition to basic education in English, Hindi, and math. The broad education is intended to provide the nuns with the necessary skills to educate future generations of nuns and the communities from which they come.
The nuns practice Tibetan Buddhist debate. 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.
Although the area of Lahaul-Spiti is part of India, ethnically, the people are descended from Tibetans and the majority are devout Buddhists. They have preserved an ancient Tibetan culture, speaking an old dialect of the Tibetan language, as written in Tibetan scriptures.
During the coldest months, the nuns hold their classes, prayers, and meetings in the kitchen because it is warmer and helps to save wood.
The nuns have difficult living conditions. They often face long harsh winters and heavy snowfalls. During winter the region is cut off from neighboring villages so the nuns must stock up their daily supplies well before the onset of cold weather.
The frozen reservoir. Washing clothes and dishes in freezing-cold water is a challenge.
With the help of volunteers, the nuns have been able to set up three greenhouses where they mostly grow spinach. Before winter, the nuns must stock up rations of food and fuel.
Summer is the most important and busy season at the nunnery. The nuns must work hard in the fields and store firewood for the winter in addition to concentrating on their studies.
The nuns are very positive about their future and someday want to be able to serve as teachers back in their villages.
A Tibetan Buddhist nun at Sherab Choeling Nunnery holding gifts from her sponsor. We’d like to thank all our sponsors of nuns at Sherab Choeling for their support. We are always looking for more sponsors for nuns at the seven nunneries we support in northern India.
We’d like to thank all our sponsors of nuns at Sherab Choeling for their support. We still need more sponsors. To sponsor a nun please visit https://tnp.org/youcanhelp/sponsor/
Like a university campus, Shugsep Nunnery and Institute has dormitories, classrooms, a library, dining halls, a kitchen, offices, meeting rooms, gardens, a temple, and more.
There are also systems that support daily life there such as power, water, sewage treatment, and so on. The heavy monsoon rains and the harsh environment of northern India are hard on the nunnery complex.
Handwritten essay by a Tibetan Buddhist nun at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute about her second home. Photo by Dustin Kujawski
We’re happy to report that, thanks to generous donors, two major projects at the nunnery were just completed: the replacement of the temple floor and the repair and painting of the metal roof.
Here’s a thank you video about the temple floor with “before” and “after” photos.
Here’s a list of projects that we’re working on funding. Some are urgent because of the imminent arrival of the monsoon.
Painting of the nuns’ dormitories
Solar panel roof repair
Water tank repair
Mold removal and prevention
Security system for the nunnery and grounds to avoid break-ins
The total cost for all of these projects is $21,650.
Shugsep is an ancient Nyingma nunnery that traces its rituals and practice to some of the most illustrious female practitioners in Tibetan history. It is one of two nunneries built and fully supported by Tibetan Nuns Project donors.
The 85 nuns who live and study at Shugsep work hard to keep their nunnery strong and healthy, but, unfortunately, there are many jobs that are beyond their ability. They need outside help. Thank you!
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:
Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, near Dharamsala, India (min. 35 nuns and 2 teachers)
Geden Choeling Nunnery,Dharamsala, India (min. 35 nuns and 2 teachers)
Jamyang Choeling Nunnery, Dharamsala, India (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
Thujee Choeling Nunnery, South India (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
Kopan Nunnery, host nunnery, Nepal
Jangchup Choeling, Nepal (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
Jangsemling Nunnery, Kinnaur, India (24 nuns and 1 teacher)
Jampa Choeling Nunnery, Kinnaur, India (16 nuns and 1 teacher)
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.
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.
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!
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Spiti Valley shovel deep snow to clear a path around the nunnery.
Although the nuns at Sherab Choeling nunnery are used to long, hard winters and having to shovel a lot of snow and stock up on supplies, some winters pose extra challenges for them.
For example, during the winter of 2014-2015, the weather in the remote Spiti Valley was so severe that the nuns at Sherab Choeling out of cooking gas. For over two months they had to rely solely on firewood to cook.
Nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley of northern India clear snow from the roof of the nunnery.
The heavy snowfalls in the area that winter meant that the nuns were unable to get supplies and all the local villages were cut off. In order to fetch water from the nearby village, the nuns had to clear a path through waist-deep snow. Thankfully the nuns had enough stores of vegetables and tsampa (roasted barley flour) to last them through the winter months.
Snowfall at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Indian Himalayas.
The nuns at Sherab Choeling work hard to prepare for winter, when the region is cut off from neighboring villages. They stock up their daily supplies well before the onset of cold weather. During the summer months, the nuns grow food to store for the winter months. The people in a nearby village have given the nuns a plot of land where they now grow spinach, beans, and potatoes. The head nun also donated her share of a field to the nunnery, so the nuns are able to grow peas and wheat.
During the coldest months, the nuns hold their classes, prayers, and meetings in the kitchen because it is warmer and helps to save wood.
The simple kitchen at Sherab Choeling Nunnery.
Of course none of the nunneries are heated, not even the large ones like Dolma Ling and Shugsep. There is simply no way to afford heating. In the winter, the nuns will try to sit outside in the sun because the buildings are cold. Tasks such as washing their robes in the stream and drying them outdoors become even more challenging during the cold months.
Although the nuns have difficult living conditions, the quality of their food, housing, and shelter has vastly improved in the past 30 years since the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded. In 2016, generous donors helped with a water project at Dolma Ling Nunnery, part of which was to build a hot-water boiler. The boiler is conveniently located adjacent to the dining hall where nuns are able to fill their thermoses and take them to their rooms.
“Hot water has always been a struggle,” says Co-Director Dr. Betsy Napper. “We were able to put in solar hot water and make bath houses for both Dolma Ling Nunnery and Shugsep Nunnery so that the nuns have an option of bathing with hot water. We also got hot water into the kitchens, using solar panels at both nunneries.”
Compassion in action. During the cold winter months, the nuns at Dolma Ling will sometimes feed the wild plum-headed parakeets. This photo was taken by one of the nuns and was featured in our 2015 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar.
Winter months are a quieter time in the nunneries because some nuns travel to see their families or attend teachings elsewhere, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings in south India last winter or his teachings in Bodhgaya this winter. After Losar (Tibetan New Year), all the nuns return and resume their studies.
The snow mountains above Dolma Ling Nunnery. The nunnery is located on the foothills of the Dhauladhar range (literally the White Range) of the Indian Himalayas.
We send a warm “Tashi Delek” and express our heartfelt thanks to all our sponsors and donors – new and old – for your kindness and generosity. You are the truly the heart of our work. To learn how you can sponsor a nun, visit our sponsorship page.
Since its inception in 1987, The Tibetan Nuns Project has set out to assist nuns from all parts of Tibet and from all the different Tibetan Buddhist lineages without preference or distinction.
While our initial concept was to help refugees from Tibet access their educational tradition, over the years we have received increasing numbers of requests for religious education from nuns from the Himalayan regions on the border between Tibet and India: Ladakh, Zanskar, Spiti, Lahoul, and Kinnaur.
Photo from the remote Spiti Valley in northern India courtesy of Olivier Adam.
Historically, geographically, and economically these northern mountainous regions of India were linked so tightly to Tibet, one might argue as to which country they belonged. Tibet was a vibrant spiritual and cultural hub for China to the east, Mongolia to the north, and India to the south.
Monks would follow the trade routes into Tibet to join monasteries and study with great masters, bringing back inspiration and news from Tibet to the remote mountain valley communities.
Nuns practice Tibetan Buddhist debate at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Indian Himalayas. The nunnery is one of seven nunneries in northern India supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
In 1959 the Chinese seized control of Tibet, severing the age-old connection between the Indian and Tibetan Himalayan regions. Cross-border interchange ceased and, just as Tibetans lost their monasteries and Buddhist culture was assailed, so also the Indian border areas lost their access to higher studies and connection with their Buddhist neighbor.
Where conditions for monks and monasteries are depressed, then those for nuns and nunneries are worse. Young women from the border region who are interested in religion, and who, through the spirit of the 21st century, are motivated to study and reach out at this time when the Tibetans in exile in India are establishing a firm base of monastic education, turn their feet in this direction and seek admission in the established Tibetan nunneries in the communities in exile.
Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Spiti Valley, northern India. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
According to the nuns who come to the Tibetan Nuns Project from these regions, there are few and poor nunneries for them to join and even fewer opportunities for them to study. A nun from Zanskar explains how it is nearly impossible to be a nun in that region because nuns have to struggle so hard for mere survival. Usually they remain in their family homes and receive no education.
Young nuns studying at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti, northern India. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
This is why so many are prepared to take up the great challenge of learning Tibetan in order to join the nunneries in India and study Buddhist philosophy. They will in time become the first women teachers to return to these remote regions to introduce Buddhist learning for women.
During his teachings in Bodhgaya in January 2017, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “We also have here many people from the Himalayan region and there are many monks and nuns from their communities in our monasteries and nunneries. They have made up the numbers since the flow of monks and nuns out of Tibet has declined, something we can be mutually grateful for.”
The most important month in the Tibetan lunar calendar is Saga Dawa, the 4th month. This year Saga Dawa starts on May 26th 2017 and runs until June 24.
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 Buddhists. This year, Saga Dawa Düchen falls on June 9, 2017. Saga Dawa Düchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana of Buddha Shakyamuni. In other Buddhist traditions it is known as Vesak or is sometimes called Buddha Day.
A young Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery reads scriptures to mark Saga Dawa. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo. Continue reading →
On February 16, 2017, the nuns and staff at Dolma Ling Nunnery in northern India held a special celebration in honor of the six Geshema graduates from the nunnery.
The six nuns returned to the nunnery for the ceremony, which included the offering of white katak (or khata), the ceremonial scarves that are offered as a sign of respectful greeting.
A smiling Geshema nun is almost submerged under a huge pile of katak. As part of the ceremony in their honor, the six Geshema graduates sat and received hundreds of white kataks (or khatas) from the nuns, teachers, and staff of Dolma Ling. These ceremonial scarves are offered as a sign of respect and they symbolize purity and compassion.
Also a part of the event was special debate session, called a Dam-cha, in which all of the nuns of the nunnery had a chance to challenge the Geshema’s with debates on difficult philosophical points.
The six Geshema graduates from Dolma Ling are seated during the special debate session.
Traditional Tibetan Buddhist debate is a integral part of monastic education. The nuns of Dolma Ling take turns debating with the six Geshema graduates.
In the spring of 2016, we launched a campaign called “Sustaining Dolma Ling Nunnery” that outlined six projects that the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery asked for help with.
Dolma Ling is a non-sectarian nunnery in northern India near Dharamsala that is home to almost 250 Tibetan Buddhist nuns.
Although the nunnery has a number of income-generating initiatives like the nuns café and the nunnery shop, like other religious communities around the world, the nuns rely on the generosity of a caring community.
Today we’d like to report back to you on progress on all six of the Sustaining Dolma Ling projects. We’re happy to report that three of the six are fully funded and another two are nearly funded.
We really hope that all six can been fully funded and completed by the end of March 2017.
ONLY $167 NEEDED TO COMPLETE THE PROJECT
We are almost there! Only $167 is needed to complete the funding to create a workshop room where the nuns can learn how to make butter sculptures, a sacred Tibetan art that has been practiced in Tibet for over 400 years. Like so much of Tibetan culture, the practice of making butter sculptures is under threat. The nuns at Dolma Ling have an excellent teacher, but they’ve been using a makeshift space. Please help us complete this project. Make a Donation
PROJECT FULLY FUNDED – THANK YOU!
The nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute have kept cows for the past 20 years and currently have 14 cows in their small herd. The cows provide the nunnery with milk and also manure for the gardens. Prior to the completion of this project, there wasn’t enough space for all the cows to be protected when the weather was too harsh for them to be out grazing, such as during the torrential monsoon rains. Thanks to five generous donors – Alix, Anna, Bob, Cindy, and Stuart – the cow shed is now complete. See the full report and more photos here.
PROJECT FULLY FUNDED – THANK YOU!
Twenty-one generous donors came forward to support this project to increase the amount of clean drinking water at the nunnery. Thanks to our global family of supporters, the nuns have now been able to purchase and install three additional water filtering machines at different parts of the nunnery to provide safe, clean drinking water for over 280 nuns and staff residing at the nunnery, as well to build a simple shed to provide hot boiled water. The nuns have made a short video showing the new water boiler in action.
$7,150 NEED TO COMPLETE THE PROJECT
This is a huge project that the nuns really need help with. This year they need to paint the main prayer hall, one of the nuns’ housing wings and the staff quarters. Dolma Ling Nunnery is a large complex of buildings, like a monastic university, that needs repainting every five years. The harsh climate in this part of northern India take its toll on the nunnery buildings and it is essential to regularly repaint and maintain the buildings to avoid more costly repairs in the future. Make a Donation
PROJECT FULLY FUNDED – THANK YOU!
Thanks to seven generous donors, we have fully funded the project to provide 15 tables and 2 stools for the nuns’ rooms at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India. View more photos and our full report here.
Last year a new kitchen was constructed at the nunnery because the nunnery population had more than tripled since the nunnery kitchen was built and the nuns had outgrown the space. Now the nuns need help to equip and furnish the new space including these items:
An enclosed vegetable storage and chopping area to keep birds and animals out.
Environmentally responsible sorting bins for recyclables, compost, waste food suitable to feed to the cows and trash.
A large pot rack for heavy pots, steamers and utensils
A heavy-duty and hygienic wall drainer for washing up
A wall-mounted utensil rack, and
Large metal storage containers for grains such as rice and flour.
If you can help support the completion of the kitchen, we would be very grateful.
The following is an interview from May 2014 with Venerable Tenzin Kunsel who, at the time, had just completed her second round of examinations for the Geshema Degree, a degree equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism. Since this interview was made, Venerable Tenzin Kunsel has successfully completed all four rounds of her examinations. In July 2016 it was announced that she and 19 other nuns will formally receive their Geshema degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony at Drepung Monastery in South India on December 22nd 2016. Venerable Tenzin Kunsel is one of the first Geshemas (female Geshes) in the history of Tibet.
Venerable Tenzin Kunsel who will become one of the first Geshemas in the history of Tibet
I was born to a simple family near Lhasa and I came to exile in 1991. When I was in Tibet, we were not given a Buddhist education; instead we had to do prayers for the people who made offerings at the nunnery. It was really disappointing as well as sad that we were not given the education we needed. I strongly felt that the best way to become educated in Buddhist studies was to come to India. Along with 75 other newly arrived nuns, I came to Dolma Ling Nunnery. Today I am here for the 2nd round of the historic Geshema examinations.
Q: How has being at the nunnery made a difference in your life? A: When I first reached Dolma Ling Nunnery, its facilities weren’t as good as now. But I never lost hope. Many times, my family pressured me to go to school rather than the nunnery. But I never wanted to go to school because I thought I would not get a proper Buddhist education.
After being admitted to the nunnery, I started my studies from the basic education. It gave me special comfort and peace of mind, making me strongly feel that I had not made the wrong decision to join the nunnery in India.
Q: If you could speak directly to the sponsor who is helping you get education, food and health care at the nunnery, what would you say to that person? A: I always feel grateful and fortunate to have sponsors who are truly kind. We are from totally different worlds with no blood relation, yet they still extend financial as well as moral support. It is partly because of the sponsor that I am one of those lucky nuns able to grab the rare opportunity to obtain the Geshema qualification.
I also feel that the sponsors are much more generous than my own parents. Parents are bound with the universal responsibility for looking after their own child, but our sponsors are never bound with the responsibility to look after me and take care of me like their own child. I always pray for their happiness and success in their lives. Continue reading →