We are very pleased to report that the debate courtyard expansion at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute is now complete. The improved courtyard provides an additional 2,500 square feet of covered area. With 60% more covered area than the old debate courtyard, all the nuns can have shelter as they practice daily monastic debate.
This big project was kindly funded by Tibetan Nuns Project donors. We are extremely grateful to the donors and the entire team for their hard work and dedication which has resulted in this elegant structure, totally in keeping with the original design.
Before the debate courtyard was expanded there was not enough sheltered space for the nuns to debate. The improved courtyard has an additional 2,500 square feet of covered space along with other improvements such as sliding windows on the back and sides of the courtyard to prevent rain coming in.
The nuns are already using the courtyard for their daily debates. Monastic debate is of critical importance in traditional Tibetan Buddhist learning. Through debate, nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning. Without training and practice in debate they are unable to attain higher academic degrees such as the Geshema degree.
The Impact of the Improved Debate Courtyard
In the spring of 2022 the Tibetan Nuns Project launched a fundraising campaign to expand and improve the debate courtyard at Dolma Ling.
Over the years, the number of nuns at this large non-sectarian nunnery increased to over 260 nuns. The existing debate courtyard was too small and at least two-thirds of the paved area was open to the elements, so many nuns were forced to debate in the open under the hot sun. When it rained, as it does throughout the summer monsoon season, the unprotected space was unusable.
In an attempt to create more shelter the nuns have been stringing up tarps for years as they practice monastic debate. The area near Dharamsala experiences one of the heaviest monsoons in India and the sun is also fierce.
During their debate sessions, pairs of nuns spread out across the courtyards and even onto the adjoining grassy areas and steps. Some distance is required between the pairs or groups of challengers and responders. The aim of the project was to provide enough covered space to shelter the nuns as they do their daily practice of Tibetan monastic debate.
Work on the courtyard began in January 2022. The first phase involved protecting the upper courtyard from rain by enclosing the back and sides with sliding windows that can open to allow ventilation during the hot season.
Work on Phase 1 to improve the debate facilities at Dolma Ling. This part of the project involved enclosing the back and sides of the existing debate courtyard to prevent rain coming in.
The steel roofing over the upper section was also extended on all four sides to prevent rain from blowing in. Finally, an additional row of stone seating was added at the back and sides of the courtyard in front of the windows.
Nuns debating in front of the new windows at the back of the debate courtyard. Because of its reputation for providing excellent teachers and the best facilities for nuns to study, the number of nuns applying to join Dolma Ling has increased substantially. In 2022, 32 nuns joined the nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam
In the early autumn of 2022, the Tibetan Nuns Project office in India signed a contract with the contractors for Phase 2 of the expansion project. On September 29th, the architect for the project came to assist the contractor with the positioning of the 8 new pillars for the extension roof.
Phase 2 of the debate courtyard expansion began in October 2022 and involved excavating and building 8 more columns and extending the roof.
The nuns were very involved in the design of the new space and in discussions with the architect and engineers. Building specifications for this high-risk seismic zone were made and the extension complies with current building standards. In addition to the eight new columns, there had to be tie beams and two additional below-ground-level columns because they are building in previously filled land.
The Important of Tibetan Buddhist Debate
Dolma Ling is unique because it offers a 17-year curriculum of traditional Buddhist philosophy and debate, as well as modern courses in Tibetan language, English, basic mathematics, science and computer skills. Training in Buddhist debate, the extensively practised method for examining philosophical, moral and doctrinal issues, is an essential part of monastic education in the Tibetan tradition.
Until recently, Tibetan nuns did not have the opportunity to fully study and practise Tibetan Buddhist debate, a process that uses logical enquiry to build a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy. The Tibetan Nuns Project has worked hard to make this opportunity available to nuns by including debate as a core part of their education, which enables them to extend their use of logic and deepen their understanding of the arguments asserted in the texts they are studying.
Before: Tibetan nuns practice debate on the grass under a makeshift shelter of netting. Since the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded in 1987, nuns are training in debate for the first time in the history of Tibet.
“Opening up education to the women, particularly in conjunction with training in debate, has been transformative for the nuns,” says Dr. Elizabeth Napper, US Founder and Board Chair of the Tibetan Nuns Project. “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.”
The practice of debate takes many years to master fully and is critical to the nuns’ ability to assume roles as fully qualified teachers of their tradition.
We are very grateful to everyone who has contributed to providing this unique opportunity to build capacity and equality for the nuns, to help ensure that a centuries-old tradition of learning continues to expand to include more nuns, and to foster the dharma for future generations.
It’s back to school time! Today, we’re taking you inside classrooms to show how you’re helping provide groundbreaking learning opportunities for Tibetan Buddhist nuns.
Inside a classroom at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in May 2022. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. The Tibetan Nuns Project aims to elevate the educational standards and the position of women. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
Educating the nuns is the core of our work. In the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of nuns escaped from Tibet. The overwhelming majority of the nuns were illiterate. Most of the them had had no education in their own language. While in Tibet they were also denied education in their religious heritage.
Photos taken by Olivier Adam in May 2022 at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. The top left photo shows Geshema Tenzin Kunsel teaching. The bottom left photo shows nuns leaving one of the Tibetan classes. The nunneries in India are helping to preserve Tibet’s religion, language, and culture.
The Tibetan Nuns Project created an education program for nuns from the ground up. “Today when I see those nuns who didn’t know how to read and write their own names now have Geshema degrees, it is amazing. In a way, 30 years is a long time, but when it’s creating history it is not very long,” said Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor to the Tibetan Nuns Project.
The Tibetan Nuns Project also helps women and girls from the remote and impoverished border areas of India such as Ladakh, Zanskar, Spiti, Lahoul, and Arunachal Pradesh. The women and girls from these areas are usually given far less education than men and boys. The nunneries give them a chance for education that they would not have otherwise.
Dorjee Zong Nunnery in located in the remote, high-altitude area of Zanskar in northern India. Girls and women in the Himalayan regions have traditionally been given far less education than men and boys. All photos courtesy of Olivier Adam.
What the Tibetan Nuns Study
A primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to assist nuns in reaching the same level of education as the monks. Each of the four traditional schools of Tibetan Buddhism has its own specific curriculum and degrees, but they also share a great deal. All are based on the teachings of the Buddha and the Indian commentaries that developed to explicate them.
Exactly which commentaries the nuns most rely on varies between traditions as do the number of years of study, but there is uniformity as to the basic topics. All the nuns study:
Logic and Epistemology, which provide the basic tools for advanced philosophical study
Perfection of Wisdom for understanding of the Buddhist path
Middle Way for understanding of Buddhist philosophy, and
Sherab Choeling Nunnery in India’s Spiti Valley is one of seven Tibetan Buddhist nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. This year, nuns from this remote nunnery will take part in the inter-nunnery debate which brings together hundreds of nuns for one month of intensive training in monastic debate. All photos by Olivier Adam.
At most of the seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, courses are also offered in Tibetan language, English, and computer skills, as well as in ritual arts such as sand mandalas and butter sculpture. The smaller nunneries in more remote areas are at earlier stages in the educational process.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns taking part in a Tibetan calligraphy competition
In addition to providing basic educational requirements, the Tibetan Nuns Project seeks to elevate the educational standards and the position of women within the monastic community. To prepare the nuns for positions of leadership and moral authority in a culture that is going through challenging times, it is essential to combine traditional religious studies with aspects of modern education.
Why Educating Tibetan Nuns Is So Important
It is a historic time for Tibetan Buddhist nuns and Tibetan Buddhism.
Inside Tibet, nuns and monks are under constant surveillance and are unable to freely practice their religion. There’s a very great risk that the priceless wisdom and teachings of Tibetan Buddhism may be lost.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, patron of the Tibetan Nuns Project, has said, “The Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is something precious which we can be proud of and should strive to preserve.”
An essay in the English classroom at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute. The original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was completely destroyed and then partially rebuilt by the nuns themselves. However, the nuns faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities and many escaped into exile in India. Shugsep was re-established in exile by the Tibetan Nuns Project.
It is also a time of opportunity for Buddhist women. Never before have Tibetan nuns been able to receive the same education and the chance to study and sit for the same degrees as monks.
For the first time in the history of Tibet, nuns can take the Geshema degree, roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism.
Our focus with the Tibetan Nuns Project has been on helping the nuns to gain the top degrees within their Tibetan Buddhist traditions, so that they could reach the same level of academic proficiency in those traditions as the monks. Our further hope is that they will go on to teach other nuns so that teachers do not always have to be monks.
Geshema Delek Wangmo teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. She and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel made history when they were hired in 2019 to teach the nuns there. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam
Your support has helped bring about these major educational accomplishments:
The creation of groundbreaking education program for nuns
Providing debate training for nuns for the first time in the history of Tibet
Thank you to everyone who sent good luck messages to the nuns taking their Geshema exams this summer! We’ve compiled all the messages and will share them with the nuns before the exams begin on August 7th.
The Geshema degree (or Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. Until recently, this degree was only open to men.
Due to the pandemic, the Geshema exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021. The nuns have been waiting for a long time for this educational opportunity. The candidates are gathering on July 6th at Geden Choeling Nunnery for a month of final exam preparations.
A smiling Tibetan Buddhist nun enters her Geshema exams equipped with ruler and pens. The written and oral exams last two weeks and are based on 17 years of study. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.
Here’s a little video about the 2018 Geshema exams. [Can’t see the video? Click here.]
Geshes and Geshemas are the most educated monastics, carrying much of the responsibility for preserving the Tibetan religion and culture.
The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree makes them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.
Nuns cluster around the bulletin board at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute to read good luck messages sent from around the world to nuns taking their exams in 2018. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.
Some Short Facts About the Geshema Degree
The Geshema Degree is roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. For males, it is called the Geshe degree.
It is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Until recently, this highest degree could only be earned by monks.
In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first female to receive the Geshema title.
The historic decision to confer the Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns was announced in 2012 by the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Administration, following a meeting of representatives from six major nunneries, Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and the Tibetan Nuns Project.
Candidates for the Geshema degree are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts.
To qualify to begin the Geshema process, nuns must score 75% or above in their studies to be eligible to sit for the Geshema exams.
On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a special graduation ceremony held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.
Today is the first day of spring, but is it really goodbye winter at Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in northern India?
Visit two nunneries with videos and photos to see the life of the nuns in winter.
Winter at Sherab Choeling Nunnery
Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote, high-altitude Spiti Valley is one of seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. It was founded just over 25 years ago to educate Himalayan Buddhist nuns who would otherwise have no opportunity to receive any formal schooling or spiritual education.
Sign for Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Indian Himalayas. The nunnery is very secluded and is at almost 4,000 feet or 1,200 meters altitude.
Winters are tough at Sherab Choeling and this year was no exception. In February it was snowy and cold with temperatures dropping down to -8°F or -22°C.
The 62 nuns at the nunnery have many winter chores such as carrying water, washing dishes at an outdoor pump, and shovelling snow. There is very little heat in the nunnery, aside from the stoves for cooking.
The nuns wash their dishes at an outside pump and fetch water for the nunnery.
With the rise of the highly transmissable omicron variant in the early part of 2022, the nuns did more activities outside. Despite the cold weather, they studied and ate their meals outdoors as much as possible.
Every winter, the Tibetan children who live near the nunnery have a long winter break. This year, the Geshema nuns at Dolma Ling wanted to help the children improve their Tibetan reading and writing skills. These nuns hold the highest degree in their tradition, roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
Here’s a slideshow of the Geshemas teaching the children. Can’t see it? Click here.
Despite the pandemic, the nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery have all been well and the academic year has gone smoothly. They recently send these photos and an update on life there. Thank you to everyone who has sponsored a nun at Sherab Choeling! We hope you enjoy this post about daily life at this remote nunnery.
Fresh snow on the mountains above Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti. The nuns took this photo on October 21st, 2021 and it also shows the newly paved road leading up to the nunnery. The road enhancement was done by government.
Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Spiti Valley of northern India is one of the seven Tibetan Buddhist nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. It is a non-sectarian nunnery that recognizes the beauty and value in all Buddhist traditions.
The nuns’ daily routine is to have prayer sessions in the morning, followed by regular classes and internal debate sessions. Nunnery kitchen and cleaning duties are shuffled amongst the nuns.
Currently 62 nuns live there. The youngest nun at the nunnery is around 13 while the eldest nuns are in their 60s.
The nuns practice debating in the sun-filled corridor of the nunnery. Learning traditional monastic debate is an essential component of working towards higher academic degrees, such as the Geshema degree, equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
The nunnery is very secluded and lies in the village of Morang at 4,000 meters altitude. It was built in 1995 by 20 nuns and their teacher to address the problem of the inadequate education of women in the region.
Traditionally women in this region have suffered from many social and educational disadvantages. Many have been deprived of any kind of education, and this institute is the first in Spiti to provide women with the opportunity to overcome these disadvantages.
One of the nuns on kitchen duty cooks flatbreads on the stove that also serves to help heat the room. The nuns have a simple vegetarian diet.
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.
The nuns at follow a 17-year study program. The curriculum is designed to educate the nuns in Buddhist philosophy, meditation, Tibetan language and literature, plus a basic education in English, Hindi, and math. The broad education is intended to provide the nuns with necessary skills to educate future generations of nuns and the communities from which they come.
A Tibetan Buddhist nuns makes what looks like tea and tsampa (roasted barley flour) using an improvised whisk made of thin sticks.
The senior most nuns are in Uma class. The nunnery’s two philosophy teachers have been very encouraging to the nuns and and have been telling them to prepare themselves mentally to achieve the Geshema degree.
The nuns have a simple vegetarian diet and grow some of their own food. The nuns have three female cows which are cared for by the nuns. They now have three greenhouses and had a good crop this year of radishes and spinach. Since the greenhouses are so successful, two nuns each from Pin Nunnery and Khowang Nunnery came to Sherab Choling to learn how to grow vegetables and take care of the greenhouse.
Also this year, the nuns set up an underground water tank to irrigate their fields. In 2019 there were reports of a water crisis in the Spiti Valley from inadequate snowfall and retreating glaciers. Lakes, ponds, and streams that once helped irrigate fields are drying up.
Nuns lining up for a simple meal at Sherab Choeling Nunnery.
Morning prayers by the light of solar lamps at Sherab Choeling Nunnery. The nuns are making the Mandala Offering Mudra, a complex sacred hand gesture that is a symbolic offering of the entire universe for the benefit of all sentient beings.
The nuns are very grateful to Shaptung Rinpoche who sponsored the cost of making a seven-foot Lord Buddha statue for Sherab Choeling. It was from Tso Pema and the nuns were able to get it moved to the nunnery in October 2021. The statue is now in the big hall which is being painted and will be used in future as a simple community prayer hall.
First snowfall this season at Sherab Choeling Nunnery. The photo was taken by the nuns in the early morning on October 21st, 2021.
The nuns share chores. Spiti is a cold desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas in north-eastern part of Himachal Pradesh in northern India. The name “Spiti” means “the middle land”, that is the land between Tibet and India.
Your generosity supports over 800 nuns in 7 different nunneries in northern India from all religious orders of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Map showing the 6 nunneries and one nuns’ college in India where your donations to the Tibetan Nuns Project support nuns.
Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. The Tibetan Nuns Project aims to elevate the educational standards and the position of women.
The majority of Tibetan Buddhist nuns left Tibet because of the repressive political situation. In the 1980s and 1990s in particular, a steady stream of nuns arrived in Dharamsala in the Himalayan region of northern India seeking refuge. These brave and dedicated women wished only to live, study, practice, and teach in accordance with their spiritual beliefs. Ranging in age from early teens to mid-80s, the nuns came from all parts of Tibet and from many different backgrounds.
Your support also helps women from the remote and impoverished border areas of India such as Ladakh, Zanskar, Spiti, and Arunachal Pradesh. Women and girls from these areas have traditionally been given far less education than men and boys. Your generosity gives them a chance for education. Finally, your donations also support some nuns who are not living in nunneries, but who prefer to live on their own. They are often older nuns interested in meditative retreat rather than in learning higher Buddhist philosophy.
Seven Tibetan Buddhist Nunneries in India
Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute is a non-sectarian nunnery that was built and is fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. It was the first institute dedicated specifically to higher education for Tibetan Buddhist nuns from all traditions. The nunnery is now home to 247 nuns and is a model educational institution.
Shugsep Nunnery and Institute, of the Nyingma tradition, was built and fully supported by the Project, and traces its lineage back to some of the greatest female teachers in Tibetan Buddhism. Shugsep is home to about 92 nuns.
Geden Choeling Nunnery, of the Gelug tradition, is the oldest nunnery in Dharamsala and is home to about 178 nuns. It is located on the wooded slopes of McLeod Ganj in Upper Dharamsala. The nunnery had absorbed a steady stream of refugee nuns since 1975.
Tilokpur Nunnery, of the Kagyu tradition, is home to about 89 nuns. Built near the cave of the great Indian yogi Tilopa, Tilokpur Nunnery (also known as Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling) overlooks a small town about 20 miles from Dharamsala. It was founded in 1966 by Mrs. Freda Bedi, a British nun who was ordained by the previous Karmapa.
Sakya College for Nuns is not a nunnery but a college for nuns. Home to almost 60 nuns, it was inaugurated in 2009 in Mundawala near Dehradun. The college offers a full course of studies followed by the monks at Sakya College.
Sherab Choeling Nunnery in a non-sectarian nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley. It has about 62 resident nuns who pursue a rigorous course of study, the first of its kind for women of that region.
Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar is an ancient nunnery dating back to the 14th century. It has a long tradition of meditating nuns, some of who are famed for having reached high levels of realization and attainment. It is home to about 20 nuns. The nunnery is now going through a very important and exciting transition with a major construction project started in 2019 to build new classrooms, a housing block, kitchen, storerooms and more.
Other nuns and nunneries that we help include nuns not living in nunneries and nuns on retreat.
Cooking for about 250 nuns a day is a challenge, especially during the pandemic. This spring, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute asked for your help to buy an electric rice cooker, a dough-making machine, a refrigerator, and two new gas burners.
The kitchen equipment has arrived now and the nuns are happy because their daily tasks are safer and easier.
Helping the Nuns Cook Rice Safely
“We are very happy with the new rice cooker. Now we just have to wash the rice, put it in the rice cooker, add water, close the lid, and press the cook button. So easy and safe! We don’t have to worry about the hot rice water,” said one nun. It also saves on fuel costs and produces better, more nutritious rice.
Venerable Samten Dolma, the nun in charge of the kitchen this year, said, “Before, I had to check regularly to see if the rice was cooked perfectly or not. Now, with the new rice cooker, I don’t have to worry about rice being undercooked or soggy.”
“The rice is so delicious now and every time it is evenly cooked.” The new rice cooker can cook up to 77 pounds of rice safely and efficiently. The nuns eat rice every day, so it’s a huge help to them.
“Every day five nuns have to prepare a day’s meal,” said a nun on kitchen duty. “In the morning while preparing lunch, we used to have two nuns in charge of the rice and three nuns to cut and prepare the lunchtime vegetables. But now, with the rice cooker, it is so much easier. All five nuns can cut and prepare vegetables for lunch. While we eat our lunch, we can use the dough machine to prepare the dough for the evening. Now we have more time on our hands.”
With the old way of cooking rice, the nuns were always in danger of being scalded by the boiling water and steam. Detail of photo by Brian Harris.
Before the nuns got the rice cooker, it took a long time to cook rice in a huge caldron over one of the two large gas burners. When the rice was half cooked, the excess water had to be poured off – a very risky operation. It took two strong nuns to pick up the pot and carry it across the kitchen to the drain. This operation had to be done quickly and carefully to avoid scalding from the boiling water and losing the steam.
Having the new electric rice cooker means that the rice cooks more evenly and keeps more of its nutritional qualities so it is better for the nuns’ health.
The New Dough Maker
Each day the nuns on kitchen duty prepare traditional Tibetan bread and steamed buns for hundreds of nuns. Until now, the nuns had to mix the dough by hand which was very labor intensive and less hygienic than using a machine.
“The dough machine saves us a lot of time and energy! I never knew it was this easy to knead dough.” The nuns bought a 55-lb (25 kg) capacity dough maker. Before photos by Brian Harris; after photos by Dolma Ling Media Nuns.
On special occasions, the nuns make paratha (fried flatbreads) and khapse which are fried Tibetan biscuits. At Losar, Tibetan New Year, every member of the nunnery gets a large bag of khapse to celebrate Tibetan New Year so preparing large quantities is a great deal of work.
Before, as in this photo, the nuns had to knead dough by hand. Now mixing dough by machine takes only 15 to 20 minutes, so it is much easier to prepare multiple batches for bread, buns, and noodles. Normally the nuns up to 20 kg (44 pounds) of flour at a time.
New Refrigerator Saves Costs and Prevents Waste
Dolma Ling’s refrigerator was very old and broke down in the spring. Thanks to our supporters, the nuns were able to buy a new fridge in time to store food during the summer heat.
When the old refrigerator broke down, you kindly helped the nuns buy a new one, just in time to keep food from spoiling during the intense summer heat. The temperature in the kitchen regularly reached 97 degrees.
The nuns follow a vegetarian diet. Without a fridge, vegetables, fruits, milk, butter, and tofu quickly rot. It is not possible for the nuns to get fresh supplies of everything daily so they need to buy for more than one day. They are happy to have the fridge to safely store perishable vegetables and fruit to avoid wastage and save money.
Without the fridge, they would be restricted in what they could buy and their diet would have been more monotonous. Especially during the pandemic, everyone looks forward to lunchtime. Now, the nuns can use different vegetables such as tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, and spinach which need to be kept chilled. With the new fridge, the nuns and staff are healthier and happier!
As cases of COVID-19 rise in India, we know that many are concerned about the health of the Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Here’s what we know now. We will try to provide updates as often as possible.
Tibetan Nunneries Observe Precautions
The majority of the nuns are Tibetan refugees and part of a wider Tibetan diaspora while others are from remote border areas of India. Living in close communities, with classes, prayers, and shared rooms and bathrooms means that nuns are very vulnerable to the coronavirus. If the virus were to enter a nunnery, it would spread rapidly.
In the nunneries that we support, the nuns chose to be very cautious from the beginning of the pandemic and have continued that care, with almost all the nuns remaining within the monastic compound and visitors from outside not allowed.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling register to get vaccinated. They began registering at the end of April.
So far, the nuns are safe. “All the nuns and staff are well here. We are being very cautious,” said staff at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, home to almost 250 nuns. “As the situation in India is not good, we have decided to keep the office and classes closed for a week.” Dolma Ling is the largest nunnery supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project.
“Luckily nuns in all the nunneries are fine and busy with their day to day schedule,” we were told on May 2nd.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute registering last week for vaccinations.
At the end of April, nuns began registering to get vaccinated. The nuns had to register in groups of four. Four is the most who can register under one phone number, according to guidelines.
The Tibetan nunneries in India have been taking strong precautions against the coronavirus since the pandemic first broke out. Some nunneries closed to visitors in the first week of February 2020, shutting their gates and monitoring anyone who came in or out.
The nunneries have benefited from an extra level of health care from the Department of Health of the Central Tibetan Administration. As early as January 24, 2020, the Department began issuing guidelines to the monastic communities and to the Tibetan diaspora as a whole. Just one week after the WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11th March 2020, a special Tibetan COVID-19 Task Force began working to mitigate the potentially catastrophic impact of the disease, particularly in Tibetan refugee settlements.
His Holiness received his first dose on 6 March at the local government hospital. According to the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (OHHDL), the entire staff and security details of His Holiness, including those living in the residence, were also vaccinated.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama again encouraged everyone to get the vaccine. He described it as “something helpful” for the greater good of humanity and he has tried to bolster public confidence in the vaccine.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama receives the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine on March 6, 2021 at the government hospital in Dharamsala, HP, India. Photo/OHHDL
His Holiness the Dalai Lama returning to his home in Dharamsala after taking the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on March 6th. Detail of photo by Tenzin Jigme, CTA.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama used the opportunity of his first vaccine to make a strong public statement about the importance of getting vaccinated. He said, “In order to prevent some serious problem, this injection is very helpful and good. So those other patients should take this injection for greater benefit.”
View His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s statement about COVID-19 vaccines here.
Tibetans Caught in India’s COVID Wave
A Radio Free Asia report on May 3, 2021 provided an update on how Tibetans in India are being caught in the rising numbers of COVID-19 infections as another wave of the pandemic hits India.
With more than 300,000 new infections a day for over two weeks, India is struggling.
In Dharamsala, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s exile government, there is a shortage of vaccines at Delek Hospital. Delek Hospital is the largest Tibetan hospital in India. A doctor told Radio Free Asia that the hospital has now put an end to a program aimed at inoculating Tibetans age 18 and over.
“For now, we don’t have any vaccines in Delek Hospital, but we have a few options we are working on,” Dr. Tenzin Tsundue told RFA’s Tibetan Service.
“One idea is for us to collaborate with larger hospitals, as the amount of vaccines we would need would be too small for us to order directly from the supplier.”
Since last week, almost 140 Tibetans living in Dharamsala have tested positive for COVID-19. The numbers of Tibetans infected are rapidly rising as the virus spreads through the community, Dr. Tenzin Tsundue said.
“I urge Tibetans to get vaccinated in government hospitals now if they get the chance,” Dr. Tsundue said, adding, “Don’t wait for the Delek Hospital to get more vaccines. This is a matter of necessity now, not of choice.”
Young Tibetan Buddhist nuns at the remote Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Spiti Valley of northern India wear masks during class. Photo from July 2020.
Some Monasteries Hit by COVID-19
83 Tibetan Buddhist monks have tested positive at Sakya Monastery in Dehradun, capital of northern India’s state of Uttarakhand, according to Radio Free Asia and sources at the monastery said.
So far, we have no news that any nuns at nearby Sakya College for Nuns have been infected. The nunnery is situated in Manduwala, about 12 miles from Dehradun and is home to about 55 nuns.
According to Radio Free Asia, Sakya Monastery had under lockdown for a year, but staff had often gone out to purchase supplies in a nearby town.
“We are isolating our monks, and no one is in serious condition yet, but a few of them have shown low oxygen levels, and so we have had them admitted to the Dekyiling Tibetan Hospital,” one source at the monastery said.
“The 83 monks who were infected are among the 225 Tibetans in Dehradun who have tested positive for COVID-19 during this second wave of the pandemic in India,” the anonymous source told Radio Free Asia.
A Tibetan Buddhist nun sews cloth masks. When the pandemic broke out in 2020, the nuns in the tailoring section who normally make robes, prayer flags, Tibetan door curtains etc. began making cloth masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the nuns. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns
Earlier this year, 156 Buddhist monks at Gyuto Tantric Monastery in Himachal Pradesh tested positive for COVID-19. According to reports, most of the monks were asymptomatic. About 15 monks came from Karnataka and Delhi. The first cases were reported on 23 February.
The CTA COVID-19 Emergency Relief Committee continues to provide regular updates on the developing situation for Tibetans in India and elsewhere. In its update on April 30th, the COVID Task Force urged strict adherence to safety precautions.
“The monasteries and institutions are especially cautioned and they are advised to avail isolation rooms for unforeseen situations. Also, given the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, Tibetans are urged to get the vaccines in order to bring the normality back.”
Since late 2019, the Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute wanted to proceed with two big repair projects, but both had to be put on hold because of the pandemic.
In February 2021, as the number of coronavirus cases in the area dropped, the nuns were finally able to undertake two projects with a significant impact on their daily lives. The nuns are so grateful to the donors that made this work possible.
What a Relief! New Security Wall for the Nunnery
The nuns are finally safe from prying eyes and dangerous intruders.
When Shugsep Nunnery was first built, it was in a small village at the end of a tiny road. However, over time, several new buildings have come up around the nunnery including a large private school with its entrance immediately behind the nunnery grounds.
Fortunately, in designing the nunnery, the plans left a 20-metre distance between the upper housing wing and the back boundary wall. This area is mostly covered in old mango trees. The trees form a buffer between the nuns’ living quarters and the activity of the nearby private school.
Privacy and security have been restored at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute thanks to this new wall funded by Tibetan Nuns Project supporters. The nuns are extremely grateful.
However, because the level of the road behind the nunnery grounds was raised by the school, the perimeter wall which was once an 8-foot-high wall and topped with barbed wire was reduced to just 4 feet above road level. This meant that the nuns lost their privacy and schoolchildren, bus drivers, and passers-by could clearly see over the wall into the nunnery.
Although the nuns tried to be tolerant of being stared at, they were reluctant to sit on their verandas to study and they felt inhibited about using the bathrooms at the end of the building. The situation also became dangerous. There were some frightening intrusions into the nunnery by youths who broke down the barbed wire and climbed over the wall. It was clear that the wall had to be improved as soon as possible.
However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nuns could not raise the height of the wall in 2020. Fortunately, the adjacent private school was closed for the whole year.
The nuns were able to start the work in February 2021, adding another 4 feet in height along the length of the wall in front of the school. Now that the neighboring school has reopened, the view into the nunnery is blocked and the nuns feel very relieved.
The nuns have tidied the area behind the newly repaired wall. They can now use this secluded, shady area under the mango trees as a place to practice Tibetan Buddhist debate.
It is gratifying to see how the nuns’ relief has translated into their efforts to make the area pleasant. The nuns have worked hard clearing and levelling the area under the trees so they will be able to use it as a shady debate yard.
The nuns are extremely grateful to have their security and privacy restored.
Project approved to start: 10/12/19. Start delayed due to the pandemic.
Project started: 15th January 2021
Project completed: 22nd February 2021
Total cost: Rs. 1,17,715 which is roughly US $1,620
Scope of work:
A. Raised wall height with dressed stone, sand, bajari, and cement. Rs. 1,01,715 ($1,400)
B. Provided and fixed poles Rs. 11,000 ($151)
C. Removed old fence wire and re-fixed wire Rs. 5,000. ($69)
No More Leaks: Water Tank Repair
Shugsep Nunnery depends on the large double-story concrete water tank on the slope behind the nuns’ housing wing. The municipal water lines do not provide enough water to cover the needs of the nunnery and the tank is fitted so that it can be supplied by pumping from the bore well. After 12 years, the tank itself was in a very dilapidated condition and was seriously leaking.
After researching the best way to repair the tank, the nuns hired a local contractor to re-seal the inside of the tank with marble chips and to re-plaster and paint the outside. They also needed to repair and replace the plumbing lines.
The nuns had to purchase the marble chip material as a truckload from Rajasthan. The plan was to use the same material to seal the Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute water catchment. The order for both nunneries was placed in October 2019 and, when the materials arrived, they were stored at Dolma Ling because their water project repairs had to be done first. The Dolma Ling work was completed in December 2019.
The newly repaired and painted water tanks at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute. The work was delayed for a year due to the pandemic and the nuns are very grateful that the work was able to be completed.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of repairing the Shugsep water tank was put off until the end of 2020 when, with the reduced virus caseload, the nuns felt secure enough to agree to allow workmen into the back of the nunnery compound. The work was done in stages, fixing one tank and then the other so that the nuns always had some water supply.
The new water tanks look very clean and professionally repaired. The nuns are very happy that the water tanks are working well and no longer leak. The nuns are very grateful to the Tibetan Nuns Project donors for making this improvement to their facilities possible.
Project approved to start 10/10/19. Start delayed due to pandemic.
Project started: 15th December 2020
Completed: 1st February 2021
Cost of contract: Rs.169,720 (approximately $2,335)
Scope of work:
A. Provided and laid marble chips including chipping off and cleaning the old plaster and flooring. Rs. 1,36,720 ($1,881)
B. Removed and replaced water lines and fittings, gate valves unions, etc. Rs. 19,000 ($261)
C. Painted external areas of tanks, pillars etc. using waterproof paint: Rs. 14,000 ($193)
As 2020 draws to a close, we wanted to update you with slideshows and news from all the nunneries and institutions in India that we support. if you sponsor a nun, scroll down to her nunnery and find the associated slideshow.
Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute
HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT DOLMA LING. Can’t see it? Click HERE.
COVID-life Dolma Ling
Due to the pandemic, the nunnery was put on lockdown from March 2020. Many of the nuns’ classes were put on hold until July, but the nuns continued to study on their own and also do prayers for all sentient beings during this difficult time. For safety, the nuns no longer gathered together for morning assembly, meals, or pujas. The nunnery has been closed throughout for outsiders, and staff and teachers were only allowed to go out of the nunnery complex once a week if necessary.
The main gate of the nunnery remains closed and notices have been posted to ensure that no one enters without permission. The nuns created a makeshift gatekeeper room and every day. two nuns wearing masks take turns to guard the gate, with an electronic thermometer, hand sanitizer, and materials to sanitize things such as food and fuel canisters ready to hand. Essentials such as vegetables, rice, flour, and fuel are kept at the gate under the sun for hours and sanitized properly before being brought into the nunnery.
During the holy month of Saga Dawa which this year ran from May 23 to June 21, the nuns once again read the Kangyur, the spoken words of the Buddha, and Tengyur, the Tibetan collection of commentaries to the Buddhist teachings. Together, the 108-volume Kangyur and the 225-volume Tengyur form the basis of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. The texts were divided among the nuns. The nuns maintained physical distancing while reciting the texts in their rooms, on the verandahs, in the dining hall, and in the prayer hall. It took about three days for the nuns to complete the reading of the whole set. The nuns also marked Saga Dawa with the burning of juniper branches.
On August 24, the nuns held their annual academic award ceremony, an event that usually takes place in late March or early April. It was the first time since the pandemic began that the nuns assembled in such a big group. Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor for the Tibetan Nun’s Project, was the guest of honor and other special guests were Mrs. Nangsa Choedon, Director of Tibetan Nuns Project and Mr. Norman Steinberg. The nuns received awards for academic achievement in their classes, the inter-house quiz competition, the handwriting competition, and memorization exams.
Since good nutrition is crucial for health, particularly in times when the immune system might need to fight back. the nuns are regularly making tofu for meals. Fruits and vegetables and juices are given to the nuns. Meals are eaten in the nuns’ respective rooms or apart in the courtyard.
Shugsep Nunnery and Institute
HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT SHUGSEP. Can’t see it? Click HERE.
When the first lockdown of the year was announced, the senior nuns were in Bylakuppee, South India to where they were attending a special teaching from Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche. With the travel restrictions, the senior nuns had to remain in south India for a couple of months. Eventually, the senior nuns were able to return to Shugsep they quarantined for the required period. After the quarantine, they took COVID-19 tests and all tested negative.
To prevent the disease from spreading inside the nunnery, we shut the gate to visitors and all the transactions for prayers were done online. We had the basic necessities delivered to our gate so that we could stay isolated. We also barred the staff and students from leaving the nunnery grounds until and unless it was urgent. Weekend outings for the students were cancelled and the staff were strictly instructed not to leave the premises without permission.
In mid-June, the results of the annual exams for 2019-20 were announced and classes for 2020 officially began in July. At the beginning of August, the summer retreat started and lasted for 45 days from August 4 to September 17. During that period, we organized a lot of debates, essay competitions, and public speaking for the students.
Recently, Shugsep Nunnery and Institute had a drawing competition among the younger students and we are glad that all of them participated and showed their talents. Classes stopped on December 14th for the annual examinations with a study holiday of one week after every test. The examinations begin on December 24th and the last tests will be on January 25th.
HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT GEDEN CHOELING. Can’t see it? Click HERE.
At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, all the major routine activities of the nuns such as in-person classes, debating practice, group religious activities, and other social and cultural gatherings were stopped. However, the ten nuns preparing for the Geshema exams continued to attend regular classes taught by the three Buddhist philosophy teachers. All the other nuns have been learning through online classes run by their respective teachers who also provide notes and homework. The nuns memorize texts and are doing well in their studies in their rooms and are always in touch with their teachers.
In terms of health care and emotional matters, all the nuns are in good health. They received frequent talks and advice from Geden Choeling Nunnery’s Abbot, office administrator, teachers, and Gekoe (Disciplinarian) to keep them mentally strong without any fear and anxiety during this pandemic period.
All the nuns and staff members are restricted from visiting outside places and the market area since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. No visitors are allowed in the institute, except for prayer offerings by the well-wisher. The nuns maintain daily hygiene and sanitation using sanitizing spray for COVID-19.
Finally, the nuns hold regular prayer sessions twice a day from 6-7:30 a.m. and from 3:30 to 4:30 pm.
HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT TILOKPUR. Can’t see it? Click HERE.
Here’s an update on the current condition of Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling at Tilokpur and the nuns’ activities and initiatives over the last couple of months during this pandemic. In general, so far, the 87 nuns are mentally and physically healthy and doing well. To cope with this pandemic, they are strictly following all the basic instructions provided by the government and their medical assistant, such as hand sanitizing, wearing masks, and maintaining physical distancing. The nuns are still not allowed to leave the nunnery except for the kitchen runner. No visitors are allowed to enter the nunnery grounds.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Tilokpur Nunnery receiving handknitted sweaters, hats, and mittens donated by the volunteers at Wool-Aid
In December, the nuns received two large boxes of handknitted sweaters, hats, and mittens donated by the volunteer knitters at Wool-Aid.
In terms of education and other activities, the nuns are continuing with their philosophy classes, monastic debate practice, and computer learning in person, with only English classes being taught online. The younger nuns are also learning painting and drawing. The nunnery holds two prayer sessions each day, in the morning and evening, to pray for all sentient beings and for the betterment of this world.
The nuns wrote, “We are making our best attempt not to get caught with any virus in the community so everyone remains safe and healthy. We hope that this pandemic will finish soon and that everyone can enjoy normal living.
Sherab Choeling Nunnery
HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT SHERAB CHOELING. Can’t see it? Click HERE.
When the pandemic hit in mid-February 2020, 44 of the nuns from Sherab Choeling were away from the nunnery in the town of Hamirpur so that they could continue their philosophy classes with their philosophy teachers who were there. Shortly after, the coronavirus lockdown in India happened and all classes were suspended. Eventually, the nuns were able to arrange for two buses to take them and their two teachers back to Sherab Choeling.
The Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley marked the holy month of Saga Dawa as always with prayers, the lighting of butter lamps, fasting, and vows. During the holy month, the nuns also received puja requests from villagers for their late family members and for their own well-being. The nuns also offered the Medicine Buddha ritual as requested by many people. Most of the nuns fasted during the entire month, taking no meals after lunch.
Dorjee Zong Nunnery
HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT DORJEE ZONG. Can’t see it? Click HERE.
DZyoung nuns 2
elder nuns working 1
Dorjee Zong Nunnery is one of the oldest centres of monastic education in Zanskar and has a long tradition of meditating nuns, some of who are famed for having reached high levels of realization. This remote 700-year-old nunnery now provides much-needed educational opportunities for young girls and women.
In 2019, Dorjee Zong began a major expansion project and good progress was made last year. The housing block and the structure of a multi-purpose two-story building were completed before extreme weather shut down construction in October. The two-story building contains the kitchen, dining hall, storeroom on the ground floor and, on the upper floor, the prayer hall and a conference hall.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit India in the spring, we feared that no construction would be possible because most of the labor force comes from Nepal and strict restrictions would prevent their travel. However, in July and August, the nunnery was able to move forward gradually with the building process.
As life after the nationwide lockdown in the spring began slowly getting back on track, the nuns’ committee decided to move forward to complete the interiors of the multi-purpose building with work such as plastering of the floors, electrical work fittings etc. They have also undertaken the construction of the bathroom and toilet block needed to go with the housing block. Around six to seven local village workers were hired for this job because outside laborers were stopped from coming to Zanskar. All labor work this summer was done by local village people under the guidance of the working committee.
Currently, the housing block is being used as living quarters on the ground floor for the young nuns, while the top-floor rooms are being used for multiple purposes including as temporary classrooms, office, and a meeting room.
During the lockdown, the younger nuns from nearby villages temporarily left the nunnery to stay with their families. These young nuns were not able to stay at Dorjee Zong because there is not enough space to house them in separate quarters or to follow safe physical distancing measures. Their elder siblings who have returned home are helping the younger children with their studies.
In 2019, generous donors funded the purchase of a school bus to enable the young nuns at Dorjee Zong to continue their education. The nuns needed a school bus to make the 12-mile round-trip journey to the government school to continue their education beyond Grade 5. The bus has arrived in Zanskar and is ready for use. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the schools in India are currently closed. We will keep you updated.
Sakya College for Nuns
HERE’S A SLIDESHOW OF LIFE AT SAKYA COLLEGE FOR NUNS. Can’t see it? Click HERE.
Like many other nunneries and monasteries, Sakya College for Nuns has been strictly observing lockdown since March this year. Although the lockdown has been lifted in many parts of India, the nuns consider to observe it with great care and caution. The College’s gates remain locked 24/7.
Since the start of the new academic session in July 2020, the nuns’ regular classes are proceeding as usual. Inside the campus, everything looks so normal, just as it used to be during the pre-COVID-19 times, that is with morning prayers, classes, debates, self-study and so on.
The only thing that is missing is the monthly outing that nuns enjoy every month. Because the nuns used to visit the market only about once a month, in that sense the pandemic and the lockdown has not greatly affected the nuns at Sakya College.
Even so, as part of measures to provide emotional health care, a Vipassana meditation master and a yoga expert were invited to give workshops. The College invited Associate Professor Ramesh Chandra Negi from the Central University of Tibetan Studies and an expert in Vipassana meditation in the Theravada tradition to give a workshop for the nuns. The professor gave a 10-day course in Vipassana mediation and advised the nuns to continue the practice.
Some of the nuns claim the course has been of immense help in terms of maintaining tranquillity and peace of mind. They have continued to practice individually since the workshop. As meditation is all about dealing with the mind, the main purpose of the workshop was to help the nuns keep their minds in peace and stress-free throughout the lockdown period.
The College had previously invited Tibetan yoga trainer Tsering Yangzom and, on two different occasions, she conducted a 10-day yoga workshop. This greatly motivated the nuns in keeping their bodies in proper health and shape in order to lead healthy, happy lives.
In the special update in mid-December 2020, the College wrote, “We believe that with the introduction of yoga and Vipassana mediation we ensure that our nuns are relatively more relaxed, healthier, and stronger physically and mentally. This, apart from the daily academic activities and curriculums, always keeps their body and mind busy and active.”
The Tibetan Nuns Project is extremely grateful to all those who sponsor nuns and to all our supporters. Thank you for your compassion and generosity!