In the past, Tibetan Buddhist nuns have had few opportunities for education. Most of the nuns who escaped on foot over the Himalayas from Tibet were illiterate on their arrival in India. Until recently, women were not allowed to study for higher degrees such as the Geshema degree, roughly equivalent to a PhD.
Tenzin Norgyal, the English teacher organized a nuns’ science fair fin 2019. Now he has created a special book project for his students.
Much progress has been made and the Tibetan Nuns Project is deeply grateful to all our supporters.
Four Illustrated Stories by the Nuns
Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute is dedicated to higher Buddhist education for Tibetan Buddhist nuns from all traditions.
Recently the English teacher at Dolma Ling, Mr. Tenzin Norgyal, assigned a special book project for his class. He understands the importance of creativity and inter-disciplinary learning.
Here are some of the sweet stories written and illustrated by the nuns.
This first story teaches the importance of being happy with what you have.
In “My Chapter” Kalsang tells the moving story of her escape from Tibet and joining Dolma Ling Nunnery.
This third story talks about combining wisdom and effort in our brief lives.
Finally, the story of Yak Gapa illustrates the need to help each other.
The Tibetan Nuns Project believes that education is the key to empowerment. We work to give nuns the resources to carve out independent, creative identities for themselves.
Tibet’s unique religion and culture are under great threat. The nuns from Tibet who were once denied equal access to education and the opportunity to practice their religion freely are the teachers and leaders of the future.
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
In the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, the 250 Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute grow many flowers to beautify the nunnery.
A selection of the many types of flowers that the nuns grow.
Dolma Ling is a unique center of higher learning for Tibetan Buddhist nuns in India. The nuns helped build the nunnery, laboring to carry bricks and mortar, dig the foundations, and landscape the lush flower gardens that are a refuge for birds and insects. The Tibetan for Tara is “Dolma”, and thus “Dolma Ling” means “Place of Tara”.
Each year, the nuns at Dolma Ling hold a flower competition to celebrate His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6th.
The nunnery is set in a serene area of Himachal Pradesh. It is surrounded by green terraced wheat and rice fields, with beautiful views up towards the snow peaks of the nearby Dhauladhar mountain range. The town of Dharamsala, home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, is about a 20-minute drive away.
Judging the annual flower contest at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute
Video Tour of the Flowers of Dolma Ling
For Buddhists, it is traditional to offer flowers to the Buddha. Flowers are significant as offerings because their freshness, fragrance, and beauty are impermanent. They are a reminder of the Buddha’s teachings that all things are impermanent.
Dolma Ling nuns carry flowers to beautify the debate courtyard for the Tibetan Nuns Project 30th anniversary celebration in 2017.
Monastic robes date back to the time of the Buddha over 2,600 years ago. The robes are a mark of identity, clearly distinguishing members of a monastic community from lay people. The disciplinary texts for monks and nuns contain many guidelines on robes.
Originally, the robe was just one rectangular piece of cloth carefully wrapped. Over time, each Buddhist tradition has developed its own set of rules and robes and settled on a color.
A young Tibetan Buddhist nun learns how to wear monastic robes. Photo by Olivier Adam
The Different Colors of Monastic Robes
The original rules about monastic robes are recorded in the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon and these include rules about color. The Pali Canon says the robes of fully ordained monks, may be dyed “tinting them red using the bark of the bāla tree, or using saffron, madder, vermillion, āmalakī, ocher, orpiment, realgar, or bandujīva flowers.” It is also said that the robes should be made using a dye that was readily available, not something expensive or special.
These natural dyes, created from various plants, minerals, and spices such as saffron gave the cloth used in southeast Asia a yellow-orange color. Hence the term “saffron robes”. The Theravada monks of southeast Asia still wear these spice-color robes today, in bright orange as well as shades of curry, cumin, and paprika.
The colors of Buddhist monastic robes vary depending on the tradition and on what was readily available. Also, the color of female monastics robes sometimes differs from that of male monastics, even in a shared tradition.
In Thailand, monks wear orange and saffron robes and nuns wear white robes. In Japan, monks’ and nuns’ robes are traditionally black, grey, or blue. In Korea, robes are black, brown, or gray. In Tibet and in the Tibetan diaspora, both monks and nuns wear maroon or burgundy red robes.
These charming monk and nun dolls are handmade by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. The dolls’ robes are made from recycled nuns’ robes. Each doll has its own mini mala, a set of prayer beads. We sell them in our online store to help the Tibetan Buddhist nunneries.
Of the various Buddhist traditions, Tibetan Buddhism has perhaps one of the more complex variety of robes. Although the main color of Tibetan robes is burgundy, the historical yellow of monastic robes is still present in both nuns’ and monks’ robes.
Cloth for Monastic Robes
The cloth and sewing pattern of monastic robes has ancient symbolism. Like the wandering holy men at the time of the Buddha, the first monastics wore a robe stitched together from rags.
The Buddha instructed the first monks and nuns to make their robes of “pure” cloth, meaning cloth that no one wanted. They scavenged in rubbish heaps and cremation grounds for discarded cloth and cut away any unusable bits before stitching the pieces together to form three rectangular sections of cloth. The humble nature of the cloth itself represented detachment from the physical world in pursuit of enlightenment.
Vinaya texts insist that robes should be clean at all times and should be dried in the open air. This, of course, is a challenge during the monsoon. Photo from Tilokpur Nunnery courtesy of Olivier Adam.
Tibetan Monastic Robes
Geography and climate have shaped the evolution of monastic robes. The Buddha is usually depicted wearing a simple robe draped over his body, often leaving his right shoulder bare. This style of robes is still found in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Early Buddhist robes were meant for hot climates and were not warm enough for Tibet’s cold, high-altitude conditions. Hence, an upper and an outer garment are part of monastic robes in Tibetan Buddhism.
Early Buddhist robes were meant for hot climates and were not warm enough for Tibet’s cold, high-altitude conditions. An elderly nun saying the Tara Puja at Geden Choeling Nunnery, Dharamsala. Photo by Olivier Adam
The Tibetan word for robes is ཆོས་གོས་ [pronounced: chos gö], meaning “religious clothing,”. A basic set of robes for a Tibetan Buddhist monastic consists of these parts:
The dhonka, a shirt with cap sleeves. This shirt was added to Tibetan monastic robes in the 14th century, at the time of Tsong Khapa. Because of the cold Tibetan climate, it was felt that the monks needed an upper robe. The dhonka is maroon or maroon and yellow with blue piping. The blue piping has historic symbolism, remembering a period in Tibetan history when Buddhism was almost wiped out. There were not enough monks remaining to bestow ordination, but with the help of two Chinese monks, who always wore some blue garments, they were able to do so. In memory of that help, the blue sleeve edging was made a part of the upper garment.
The shemdap is a maroon skirt made with patched cloth and a varying number of pleats. This is the transformation of the original monastic robe of the Theravada tradition. Monks and nuns no longer wear discarded cloth, but wear robes made from cloth that is donated or purchased. And nowadays the lower robe of Tibetan monastics is simply sewn to look patched.
The chogyu is yellow and worn for certain ceremonies and teachings. Similar to the Theravada robe, it is made of many pieces.
Tibetan lineages wear a maroon color upper robe ordinarily, but generally wear a yellow robe during confession ceremonies and teachings. Photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama courtesy of Olivier Adam
A maroon zen is similar to the chogyu and is for ordinary day-to-day wear.
The namjar is larger than the chogyu, with more patches, and it is yellow and often made of silk. It is for formal ceremonial occasions and is worn leaving the right arm bare.
A dagam is a heavy woollen cape that monastics wrap around themselves when sitting for long periods of time doing meditation or ritual during cold weather.
The tailoring program at Dolma Ling Nunnery had a modest start with a plan to make nuns robes so that the nuns wouldn’t have to go to the market and pay for the service. Now the tailoring program has expanded greatly and is quite successful. In addition to making robes, the nuns make item for sale in our online store including prayer flags, nun and monk dolls, bags, and Tibetan door curtains.
We have joyful news! Thanks to wonderful supporters like you, the Geshema Endowment is funded. It is the next step in helping nuns reach the level of education they need to stand as equals with monks.
We are extremely grateful to the 159 donors to the Geshema Endowment, including the Pema Chodron Foundation, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Frederick Family Foundation, and the Donaldson Charitable Trust.
The Endowment will cover the costs involved in training and qualifying more Geshemas. This includes travel, food, and accommodation for the candidates to attend the exams. It will also cover the cost of administration and materials for the exams. Each new Geshema is also given a set of robes and the yellow hat signifying the holding of the degree.
Joy after the first Geshema graduation ceremony in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
Geshema Exams Starting August 7th
In 2020 and 2021, the pandemic forced the cancellation of the Geshema exams. We’re happy to tell you that the exams are scheduled to take place this summer at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.
In April, the Geshema Exam Committee sent a letter to all the relevant Tibetan Buddhist nunneries. Nuns must submit their completed forms by May 10th for consideration in this round of exams. Before the exams, the nuns will meet for one month for additional studying. They are to report to Geden Choeling by July 6, 2022, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
We don’t know yet how many nuns will take the exams on August 7th. Eleven nuns passed their 3rd set of exams in 2019 and became eligible to take their final round of exams. Unfortunately, they’ve had to wait two years to take their final set. All being well, this fall the world may have 55 Geshemas!
Last winter, Geshemas at Dolma Ling taught children Tibetan reading and writing during the children’s break. It’s one of the many ways the Geshemas are serving the community.
For the first time in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, nuns are assuming various teaching and leadership roles previously not open to women. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel is one of two Geshemas hired in 2019 to teach at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.
The Geshema degree is the same as a Geshe degree; the “ma” indicates that it is awarded to women. To be eligible to take their Geshema exams, nuns must first complete at least 17 years of study.
The rigorous examination process takes four years to complete. Each year, over two weeks, candidates must complete written and debate exams and, in their fourth year, write and defend a thesis.
The Geshemas as Role Models, Leaders, and Teachers
For the first time in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, nuns can assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence not previously open to women.
Every winter the local children near Dolma Ling Nunnery have a long holiday. This year the Geshemas wanted to help them improve their Tibetan reading and writing.
Until recently, there were no nuns fully qualified to teach Buddhist philosophy. Following further study and exams in Buddhist Tantric Studies, the Geshemas are becoming fully qualified as teachers. In March 2019, two Geshemas made history when they were hired to teach Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. For the first time, nuns are being taught these topics by other nuns, rather than by monks. This achievement would not have been possible without the supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project.
In 2019, two Geshemas made history when they were hired to teach Buddhist philosophy to nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo of GesheDelek Wangmo teaching taken by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.
“It has been such a pleasure to watch these nuns assume leadership positions in the nunneries and to go where no women have gone before,” said Vicki Robinson, a Tibetan Nuns Project Board member.
The Geshemas are also beginning to take on other leadership roles once reserved for men. In 2020, Geshema Delek Wangmo was appointed as an election commissioner for the Tibetan government-in-exile during new parliamentary elections. This was a historic accomplishment for Geshema Delek Wangmo and Tibetan Buddhist nuns in general. Geshema Delek Wangmo graduated with her Geshema degree in 2017 and was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist nuns to pursue higher studies in Tantric Buddhism.
Geshema Delek Wangmo takes the oath of office at the swearing-in ceremony as a election commissioner for the parliamentary elections. Photo: Tenzin Phende/CTA
“Educating women is powerful,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor to the Tibetan Nuns Project. “It’s not just about books. It is also about helping nuns acquire the skills they need to run their own institutions and create models for future success and expansion. It’s about enabling the nuns to be teachers in their own right and to take on leadership roles at a critical time in our nation’s history.”
During the pandemic, Geshemas were asked to provide spiritual advice to Tibetans. In 2020, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration arranged video teachings by Tibetan Buddhist scholars to help Tibetans cope.
A screenshot from the Central Tibetan Administration website showing videos by Geshema Delek Wangmo and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel who were asked to give spiritual advice to Tibetans during the pandemic.
In 2020, five Geshemas received scholarships to participate in a new Tibetan Buddhist philosophy research program organized by the Geluk International Foundation. Thirty Geshes and 5 Geshemas are working on three-year research projects on the five primary topics of Buddhist philosophy studied to earn the Geshe degree.
Geshemas holding their certificates in Buddhist Tantric Studies, February 2019. This groundbreaking program began in 2017 and 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.
A Remarkable Achievement
The success of the Geshema program is a testament to the dedication of the nuns. Most of the nuns who arrived as refugees from Tibet in the late 1980s and early 1990s had no education in Tibetan, nor had they been allowed education in their religious heritage. Many were illiterate on arrival and could not even write their names.
“Humanity needs this gender equity if we are to navigate perilous times ahead,” says Steve Wilhelm, a Tibetan Nuns Project board member. “The fact that growing numbers of women are achieving equality with men in the highest levels of Buddhist monasticism, by earning the equivalent of doctorate degrees, is joyous and of enormous importance to the world.”
Thank you for supporting the nuns!
Photo of a Geshema holding the yellow hat that signifies her degree. Detail of photo by Olivier Adam.
P.S. If you don’t mind sharing, post a comment below and tell us why you care about the Geshema degree program. We’d love to share your stories to inspire others to support the nuns.
To support Tibetan Buddhist nuns, here are our major projects for 2022. Please help us make them a reality.
Urgent Water Project
An urgent water project is needed for the nuns and teachers at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Right now, they don’t have enough water and what little they have is often polluted.
The cost to the nuns is $29,680 and includes the catchment, storage, chlorination, and piping of the water for 400 residents of Dolma Ling. The new water system will serve the entire campus, including the nuns’ housing blocks, the teachers’ housing, the medical clinic, and the guesthouse.
Nuns cleaning the water reservoir at Dolma Ling. Please help the nuns have a safe, reliable supply of water!
The new water system will be half funded by the local government and will also benefit 800 residents of the village below the nunnery.
The nuns had been asking for a reliable, safe supply of water for years. The current situation is very difficult to manage and it also strains the relationship of the nunnery with the local people.
The 62 nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery need a vehicle to transport people and supplies. The vehicle will also transport nuns for medical care.
The nuns at Sherab Choeling, a remote nunnery high in the Himalayas, need a vehicle. Photo by Olivier Adam.
Their existing vehicle is very old and it is hard to get parts for repairs. Sherab Choeling is a remote nunnery in the Spiti Valley, high in the Indian Himalayas. The area’s roads are infamous for their landslides, rocks, and bad conditions.
The total cost of the 10-seat, multi-purpose vehicle is $29,500. This includes taxes, registration, insurance, and warranty for repairs.
Every day the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute practice monastic debate. The nuns have asked for help to expand the covered area of the debate courtyard.
Until recently, Tibetan nuns did not have the opportunity to learn and practice Tibetan Buddhist debate. Now they have opportunity, but lack the protected space.
The debate courtyard lacks enough covered and protected space to accommodate all the nuns. To practice debate, pairs of nuns must spread out. Due to a lack of space, many of the nuns must practice on the lawn under the hot sun and open to the elements.
Monsoon clouds loom over the debate courtyard at Dolma Ling. The nuns need your help to increase the protected covered space. Photo courtesy of Mati Bernabei.
Summers are becoming hotter and the monsoon rains stronger. When it rains, the nuns must move to the main hall and the corridors for their daily debate sessions, but these areas are very crowded and restricted.
Monastic debate helps nuns improve their logical thinking and expand their understanding of the texts. Improving the debate facilities at Dolma Ling is also important for the annual month-long debate training session when nuns from multiple nunneries come together to compete in debate.
The nuns at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute need a 10-seat vehicle for all their tasks transporting nuns and supplies. The vehicle will also be used to take nuns for medical care.
The current vehicle at Shugsep Nunnery is old and falling apart. The model was discontinued five years ago so parts are hard to find and expensive.
The nuns currently use a 13-year-old Chevrolet Tavera that is falling apart. The model was discontinued in 2017 and there are growing problems with repairs and maintenance. The nuns have done their best to keep their old vehicle running, but parts are very hard to find and extremely expensive.
The total cost of the new multi-purpose vehicle is $29,500. This includes taxes, registration, insurance, and warranty for repairs.
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.
Losar or Tibetan New Year is a joyful holiday celebrated by Tibetans and people in the Himalayan region with festivities traditionally lasting for several days.
Here are photos and slideshows from two Tibetan Buddhist nunneries showing how the nuns prepare for and celebrate Losar.
This year, Losar began on March 3rd, 2022. According to the Tibetan lunar calendar, it is the start of year of the Water Tiger, 2149.
Nuns at Dolma Ling hold a chemar box for Tibetan New Year. This ornately carved box contains roasted barley and tsampa (roasted barley flour). It is decorated with butter sculptures made by the nuns. The chemar is an auspicious offering to make at the Losar shrine to bring prosperity in the new year.
Goodbye to All Negativities of the Old Year
Losar-related rituals fall into two distinct parts. First, 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 from top to bottom. After that, the “new year” Losar (ལོ་གསར་) is welcomed with prayers and by inviting all good, auspicious things into our homes and our lives.
Before Losar, there are many preparations at the nunneries, including making khapse, the deep-fried biscuits that are a staple of Tibetan New Year’s celebrations everywhere. The dough is usually made with flour, eggs, butter, and sugar and is then rolled out and twisted into a variety shapes and sizes. Some are served to guests and some decorate the Losar altar.
Here’s a slideshow of the nuns at Geden Choeling Nunnery preparing for Losar and making khapse. Geden Choeling is the oldest nunnery in Dharamsala, India and is home to about 175 nuns.
Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute is the largest of the seven nunneries we support in India. Home to about 250 nuns, the nunnery is a busy place at Losar. The nuns at Dolma Ling make butter sculptures to help decorate the Losar altar. They also roll, shape, and fry thousands of khapse biscuits.
Here’s a slideshow showing Losar at Dolma Ling. Can’t see it? Click here.
We are grateful to the Media Nuns at Dolma Ling for the photos.
No closet is complete without a Tibetan Nuns Project hoodie!
Made of a comfortable 50/50 cotton and polyester blend, our hoodies are pre-shrunk and soft. They have our logo and “Tibetan Nuns Project” on the front and the TNP logo printed large on the back. Our logo has a deep meaning. It expresses the harmony of wisdom and compassion, the feminine and the masculine.
Tibetan Nuns Project hoodies come in three colors, two styles, and a range of sizes from small to XXL. By purchasing a hoodie from our online store, you are helping to educate and empower Tibetan Buddhist nuns.
The hoodies come in two styles and three colors, with sizes small through XXL. Our pullover hoodies are available in two colors: forest green or maroon. The zip-up hoodies are available in three colors: forest green, maroon, or black.
Visit our online store to see more images of the Tibetan Nuns Project hoodies. They cost $30 to $35 depending on the size. Your purchase helps educate and empower Tibetan Buddhist nuns at seven nunneries in northern India.
About the Tibetan Nuns Project Logo
The Tibetan Nuns Project logo is made up of the syllables E (pronounced “ay” as in “day”) and VAM, written in an ancient Sanskrit script and surrounded by a circle of 21 syllables TAM.
E and VAM are seed syllables that symbolize the paired essentials needed for enlightenment— wisdom and method, emptiness and compassion, the feminine and the masculine.
Although this essential pairing is expressed in many forms throughout the tradition, E and VAM have a particularly strong and explicit link to the feminine and masculine.
We chose these Sanskrit syllables for the logo because we are working with women to strengthen the feminine, but in a context in which the development, balance, and harmony of both the feminine and the masculine are essential. Wisdom and compassion are the two wings of the bird flying to enlightenment. Without both wisdom and compassion, fully developed and perfectly balanced, enlightenment is not possible.
The seed syllables E and VAM are surrounded by a circle of 21 TAM, the seed syllable of Tara. Tara is the feminine embodiment of compassion, and the number 21 is significant because the twenty-one forms of Tara are one of her most popular manifestions. The nuns have a particular affinity for Tara. They are often asked by the Tibetan community to perform Tara rituals on their behalf.
Losar or Tibetan New Year is a very special time of year. In 2022, Tibetan New Year or Losar falls on March 3rd. According to the Tibetan lunar calendar it is the start of year of the Water Tiger, 2149.
Each year the Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling make butter sculptures for Losar.
In the traditional Tibetan calendar, each year is associated with an animal, an element, and a number. The year of the Water Tiger ends on February 20, 2023 and the year of the Water Hare, 2150, begins the following day.
Tibetan New Year Activities
Losar-related rituals fall into two distinct parts. First, 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 from top to bottom. After that, the “new year” Losar (ལོ་གསར་) is welcomed with prayers and by inviting all good, auspicious things into our homes and our lives.
Here is a snapshot of Losar activities at a large Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in India, Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. The video was made several years ago, prior to the pandemic. All the photos were taken by the nuns themselves. If you can’t see the video, click here.
On the 29th day of the outgoing year, called nyi-shu-gu in Tibetan, Tibetans do something like a big spring clean. By cleaning, Tibetans purify their homes and bodies of obstacles, negativity, sickness, and anything unclean.
In the days leading up to Losar, cleaning is an important part of New Year’s preparations. The nuns clean their room as well as the nunnery complex. Photo from our archives by the Nuns’ Media Team.
On the night of the 29th, Tibetans eat a special kind of noodle soup called guthuk. This dish, eaten once a year two days before Losar, is part of a ritual to dispel any misfortunes of the past year and to clear the way for a peaceful and auspicious new year. If you want to make it at home, here’s a vegetarian recipe for guthuk.
Guthuk is a special noodle soup eaten once a year on the 29th day of the last month of the Tibetan calendar. For a recipe for guthuk and other Tibetan food, visit YoWangdu.com. Photo courtesy of YoWangdu.
Guthuk has at least nine ingredients and contains large dough balls, one for each person eating the soup. Hidden inside each dough ball is an object (or its symbol) such as chilies, salt, wool, rice, and coal. These objects are supposed to represent the nature of the person who receives that particular dough ball. For instance, if one gets a lump of rock salt in a dough ball (or a piece of paper with the Tibetan word for salt on it) this implies that one is a lazy person. If a person finds chilies in their dough, it means they are talkative.
Also on the 29th day, special tormas (ritual figures of flour and butter) are made. After supper, the tormas and the guthuk offered by the nuns are taken outside and and away from the nunnery. The nuns say “dhong sho ma” to mean “Go away. Leave the house” to get rid of all bad omens.
Other Losar preparations include making special Tibetan New Year foods such as momos and khapse, Tibetan cookies or biscuits. The khapse are made a few days before Losar and are distributed among the nuns and staff.
A Tibetan nun fries khapse at Dolma Ling. Khapse are deep fried biscuits that are a staple of Tibetan New Year’s celebrations. The most common shape is the small twisted rectangular pieces which are served to guests. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.
The next day is called Namkhang which is the day when houses are decorated. Special ritual offerings are also prepared for the day and these are said in the prayer hall.
A chemar box for Tibetan New Year made by the nuns. This ornately carved box contains roasted barley and tsampa (roasted barley flour). It is decorated with butter sculptures made by the nuns. The chemar is an auspicious offering to make at the Losar shrine to bring prosperity in the new year.
Also, as part of the Losar or Tibetan New Year preparations, the nuns make butter sculptures to help decorate the Losar altar.
Elaborate and colorful butter sculptures of flowers and Buddhist sacred symbols decorate the offering table for Losar or Tibetan New Year. These sculptures were made by the nuns at Dolma Ling.
On the day of Losar itself, Tibetans get up early in the morning and wish each other “Tashi Delek” or Happy New Year and then go to the prayer hall for prayers. Part of the prayer ceremony includes tsok, the offering of blessed food including khapse biscuits and fruit.
Here’s an audio recording of the nuns’ Losar prayers courtesy of Olivier Adam.
At the end of the puja or prayer ceremony, all the nuns line up to pay hommage at the throne of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to the nunnery’s leaders. They offer white kataks, ceremonial Tibetan prayers scarves.
Young nuns hold large deep-fried Losar pastries called bhungue amcho or khugo. This particular type of khapse are known as Donkey Ears because of their shape and size. These large, elongated, hollow tubes of crispy pastry are stacked up on the Losar altar and are given as food offerings. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
Visiting others is a special part of Losar. Normally, people visit each to wish each other a happy new year and to drink cups of traditional Tibetan salty butter tea. However, due to the pandemic, all Tibetans living in India have been advised to take special care this year and moderate their Losar activities to keep people safe from COVID.
Two nuns carry a chemar bo, an open, decorated box with one half filled with chemar, made of roasted barley flour or tsampa and the other half filled with roasted barley. People are invited to take a pinch of the chemar and then offer a blessing with three waves of the hand in the air, then taking a nibble. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
Hanging Prayer Flags at Losar
It is customary to hang new sets of prayer flags at Losar. Old prayer flags from the previous year are taken down and burned with bunches of fragrant pine and juniper. New prayer flags are hung. If you need new prayer flags you can order them from the Tibetan Nuns Project online store. The prayer flags are made and blessed by the nuns at Dolma Ling.
At Losar, old prayer flags are removed and burned and new ones are hung at the nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
On the third day of Tibetan New Year, a special incense burning offering called sang-sol is held. Prior to the pandemic, many nuns would travel to visit their family members at Losar, while some nuns would remain at the nunnery and take part in this special event.
The nuns gather in a line or circle and each nun takes some tsampa (roasted barley flour) in her right hand as an offering. The nuns raise their arms simultaneously twice and then, on the third time, they throw the tsampa high into the air shouting “Losar Tashi Delek”.