Category Archives: Education

Another great debate!

Thank you for making the annual inter-nunnery debate a big success.

The 25th annual inter-nunnery debate, called the Jang Gonchoe, took place from October 25-November 30th 2019.

At the month-long event, 422 nuns received intensive training in Tibetan Buddhist debate.

Jang Gonchoe Inter Nunnery debate 2019 in Bodh Gaya

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating in pairs at the Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate held at the Kagyu Monlam Pavilion in Bodh Gaya, India. Over 400 nuns took part in the 25th annual event.

The historic event was held at the huge Kagyu Monlam Pavilion in Bodh Gaya, India. The nuns also debated outdoors in front of the Mahabodhi Temple, the “Great Awakening Temple” marking the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

Tibetan Buddhist debate is a unique method of learning that, until very recently, was not open to women. This form of learning has helped to produce many renowned Tibetan scholars over the centuries. With the steady religious and cultural persecution inside Tibet, these important Tibetan Buddhist practices can only survive in exile.

Here’s a video about the 2019 Jang Gonchoe:

The nuns came from the following nine nunneries in India and Nepal:
1.     Geden Choeling Nunnery, Dharamsala: 60 nuns attended
2.     Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, Sidhpur: 70 nuns attended
3.     Jamyang Choeling Nunnery, Dharamsala: 48 nuns attended
4.     Jangchub Choeling Nunnery, Mundgod: 74 nuns attended
5.     Jangsemling Nunnery, Kinnaur: 23 nuns attended
6.     Jampa Choeling Nunnery, Kinnaur: 16 nuns attended
7.     Yangchen Choeling Nunnery, Spiti: 16 nuns attended
8.     Khachoe Gakhiling Nunnery, Kopan, Nepal: 60 nuns attended
9.     Thugke Choeling Nunnery, Nepal: 55 nuns attended

The vast Kagyu Monlam Pavilion provided an excellent space for the nuns to debate all under one roof. The Kagyu Monlam Committee kindly provided the complex free of cost for the nuns’ Jang Gonchoe, only requesting a small thank-you donation for water and electricity consumption. We are extremely grateful for their support.

At the conclusion of the event, the 7 nuns who passed their fourth and final year of Geshema exams in August took part in a formal damcha debate with the assembled nuns.

Following the damcha, there was a Geshema graduation ceremony to conclude the Jang Gonchoe. The graduation of 7 more Geshemas brings the total number of Geshemas to 44.

Geshemas debate at 2019 Jang Gochoe for Tibetan Buddhist nuns

The 7 nuns who earned their Geshema degree, the highest degree in their tradition, debate with other nuns in a formal session called a damcha at the conclusion of the 2019 Jang Gochoe. With their graduation in November, this brings the total number of women with this highest degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism, to 44.

We are extremely grateful to everyone who helped support this amazing educational opportunity by donating to our 2019 Jang Gonchoe fund and to the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund.

The practice of debate combines logical thinking with a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy and is an essential part of monastic education in the Tibetan tradition. To grasp the importance of Buddhist debate, one might compare it to the significance of essay writing in secondary and post-secondary education. Both methods of learning develop skills in critical thinking, demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the topic, involve structuring and organizing an argument, referencing texts, and gaining different points of view.

25th nuns Jang Gonchoe 2019 Bodh Gaya

During the 2019 Jang Gonchoe, the nuns also debated outdoors in front of the Mahabodhi Temple. The “Great Awakening Temple” marks the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

Until the 1990s, Tibetan Buddhist nuns were excluded from this form and level of education. The Tibetan Nuns Project has worked hard to open up this opportunity for the nuns and make debate a core part of their education.

Establishing a comparable debate session for nuns has been an integral part of the nuns reaching the level of excellence in their studies that they have.

It is only by attending the Jang Gonchoe and getting intensive debating practice that the nuns can advance their knowledge and gain the necessary confidence and experience to pursue higher degrees such as the Geshema degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism.

Let’s Make the Inter-Nunnery Debate Sustainable

The Jang Gonchoe for nuns was started in 1995. Since 1997, the Tibetan Nuns Project has been fully supporting it.

The obstacle to wider attendance at the Jang Gonchoe has always been funding. Sadly, more nuns wish to attend than there is funding available to support them.

We would like to make the nuns’ Jang Gonchoe sustainable. To that end, we have created a Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund so that revenue from the endowment can cover the annual costs.

Our goal is to have $600,000 in the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund.

A generous donor has offered to match every gift to the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund up to a total of $30,000 so you can double the power of your gift here.

The individual costs for each nun are very low. For instance, the food allowance for each nun is 100 rupees a day, equivalent to US$1.46. However, with hundreds of nuns attending for one month, these small costs add up. It now costs about $30,000 a year to fund the event each year.

Geshema graduates 2019

Congratulations to the 7 new Geshema graduates. At the end of the Jang Gonchoe, they took part in a formal debate and graduation ceremony. The graduation of 7 more Geshemas brings the total number of Geshemas to 44.

By donating to the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund, you would be opening up a centuries-old tradition to the nuns and enabling and empowering them to become great teachers in their own right. The benefit of this is inestimable and will be an enduring legacy for generations to come.

By helping nuns attend the annual Jang Gonchoe, you will also be helping to preserve the Tibetan religion, culture, and language — all of which are under severe threat inside Tibet.

This is a unique opportunity to build capacity and equality for the nuns, to foster the dharma for future generations, and to ensure that this unique tradition continues and grows. Donations to the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund can be made here. Thank you for helping the nuns!

Science Fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

In November 2019, a group of nuns held a science fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The nuns chose topics such as the water cycle, environmental issues, the solar system, and the human digestive system. Since clean drinking water is an important issue, some nuns conducted simple experiments of home-made water filters.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in Dolma Ling science fair

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in Dolma Ling science fair

The science fair was held in the main courtyard of the nunnery and was organized with the help of the nuns’ English teacher, Mr. Tenzin Norgay.

Tibetan Buddhist nun explains science fair poster

A Tibetan Buddhist nun explains her science fair poster on the human digestive system to her sister nuns. The science fair also gave the nuns a chance to practice their English and public speaking skills and helped them build confidence.

“It was an extremely beautiful and thoughtful exhibition,” said Tsering Diki, manager of the Tibetan Nuns Project office which is based at the nunnery.

The posters and displays were written in English and the event was an excellent example of inter-disciplinary learning because the nuns used their English skills to express scientific ideas.

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute science fair 2019

The science fair was held in the main courtyard of the nunnery and was organized with the help of the nuns’ English teacher, Mr. Tenzin Norgay.

The nuns’ science fair was held by the Lorig class, which is a junior class at the nunnery. Many of the senior nuns were in Bodh Gaya for the month-long inter-nunnery debate, called the Jang Gonchoe.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in science fair

Tibetan Buddhist nuns in the courtyard at Dolma Ling review the science posters and displays.

The science fair offered the nuns many learning opportunities and integrated many subjects into one project, such as English reading and writing, critical thinking, problem-solving, graphic arts, and public speaking.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns science fair at Dolma Ling 2019

The science fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute helped the nuns learn both science and English, as well as research and presentation skills.

It was a fun chance for the nuns to gain confidence in speaking. It makes science relevant by allowing students to conduct research and experiments based on their own interests.

Nuns presenting science posters at Dolma Ling science fair

Nuns presenting science posters at Dolma Ling science fair

As the photos show, the nuns created scientific posters, models, and dioramas to convey their various topics. The bright, engaging posters also show the creative use of recycled materials.

solar system projects at Tibetan Buddhist nuns science fair

For the science fair, the nuns chose topics of interest to them such as the solar system, the human digestive system, the water cycle, and environmental issues such as clean water.

The nuns presented their posters and displays to the group. Tsering said, “Visually seeing things when being explained makes a bigger impact on our memory as well.”

Water filtration project at Dolma Ling Science Fair

Clean drinking water is an important issue for health. As part of the science fair, nuns conducted simple experiments of home-made water filters.

Every year since 2014, nuns from Dolma Ling take part in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a four-week program held at Drepung Loseling Monastery in South India. During the event, Tibetan nuns and monks are taught the philosophy of science, physics, neuroscience, and biology. The course is presented by faculty members from Emory and other distinguished universities with assistance from the Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars.

Students attend classes for six hours a day and are tested on the last day of each course. Classes consist of lectures, discussions, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments. In 2018, eight nuns from Dolma Ling attended.

Thank you to everyone who has supported our Teachers’ Salaries fund!

Human digestive system display by nuns

This display of the human digestive system shows the creative use of recycled materials.

Visit Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar Through Beautiful Photos

Dorjee Zong Nunnery

Dorjee Zong Nunnery is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist nunnery located in the remote area and high-altitude area of Zanskar in northern India, near Ladakh.

The nunnery is one of the oldest centers in pursuit of monastic education in Zanskar. Founded in 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.

remote Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar by Olivier Adam low res

Currently, there are about 25 nuns at the nunnery. The eldest are in their 80s, while the youngest is about six. In the past, the nuns at Dorjee Zong did not have the opportunity to engage in rigorous philosophical studies, but their education program is improving. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

The nunnery was founded about 700 years ago by Master Sherab Zangpo, renowned as the Bodhisattva from the upper region of Tibet. He was one of the chief disciples of Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar by Olivier Adam

Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar by Olivier Adam

There have been a number of highly accomplished practitioners who devoted their entire life to dharma at this nunnery. Khandroma Yeshi Lhamo, popularly known as Jomo Shelama, was one of those highly realized practitioners from the nunnery.

Young nuns study at Dorjee Zong Nunnery Photo by Olivier Adam

Young nuns study at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. The girls and women from this area have traditionally been given far less education than boys and men. The nunnery gives them a chance for an education that they would not have otherwise. Though the young girls live and dress and nuns, they do not take vows until they are old enough to understand. Photo by Olivier Adam

At present, the nunnery is very small and basic and seeks to provide education and guide the nuns in community service. The nunnery was accepted into the Tibetan Nuns Project’s sponsorship program in 2009. Currently, about 19 of the nuns are sponsored thanks to Tibetan Nuns Project donors.

Nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery photo by Olivier Adam

Nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

School Bus Project

One of our urgent projects this summer is to purchase a school bus for Dorjee Zong Nunnery so that the young nuns can continue their education. Without it, nuns aged 13-15 will have to stop going to school. 

The nuns need the bus to make the 12-mile round-trip journey to the government school where they will study as day students. Currently, there are 9 teenage girls who have completed Grade 5 and who need the school bus so that they can continue their education. At the government school, they can study up to Grade 10. In the future, there will be more girls who will need the school bus which can seat 20 students.

Only $4,041 is needed to fully fund the school bus.

Our wish is to complete the funding before August 25th. The nunnery needs to buy the bus from Leh, Ladakh and get it to the nunnery before winter snows block the roads.

Young girls studying at Dorjee Zong Nunnery.

Young girls studying at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The girls began primary school at the nunnery. There they can study from Class 1 to Class 5, but the nunnery is unable to provide higher studies. Girls from the Himalayan regions of India traditionally have had little access to education. Nunneries like Dorjee Zong provide them with opportunity. More families are sending their girls to the nunnery to get an education.

young nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar

The young nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery need a school bus to make the 12-mile round trip journey to the local school to continue their education past Grade 5. When they joined Dorjee Zong at ages 6 or 7, the girls began primary school at the nunnery. There they can study from Class 1 to Class 5, but the nunnery is unable to provide higher studies. Photo of Dorjee Zong Nunnery courtesy of the Venerable Delek Yangdron

The school bus and the access to further education it will provide education are the keys to empowerment. The young girls dress as nuns but have not taken vows. Once they are old enough to decide for themselves, they can choose to take nuns vows and begin their monastic education.

To help purchase the school bus you can:

  1. Make a gift online at tnp.org
  2. Call our office in Seattle, US at 1-206-652-8901
  3. Mail a check to: The Tibetan Nuns Project (for school bus)
    815 Seattle Boulevard South #216, Seattle, WA 98134 USA
  4. Give a gift of securities
Tibetan Buddhist nun Zanskar Olivier Adam

An elderly Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar. Note the rugged terrain in the background. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Future Photos from Dorjee Zong Nunnery

This blog post features some of the many stunning photographs by our supporter, Olivier Adam.

We’re delighted to tell you that, thanks to the donors to our Media Equipment Project in 2018, the nuns at Dorjee Zong now have a camera and can document life and important milestones at the nunnery (like the school bus, we hope).

One of the nuns from Dorjee Zong traveled this summer to our headquarters in India at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute to get the camera and receive training, as well as for other nunnery business. She said she very happy to receive the camera because she would now be able to share with Tibetan Nuns Project supporters pictures and videos of the nuns.  She was never able to do so in the past.

young students at Dorjee Zong Nunnery by Olivier Adam

Some of the young girls studying at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

 

50 Tibetan Buddhist nuns take their Geshema exams

Starting on August 1, 2019, 50 Tibetan Buddhist nuns began almost two weeks of Geshema exams. The Geshema degree is the highest degree in their tradition and was only recently opened up to women. Known as the Geshe degree for monks, it is like a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism. This year, the exams were held at Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in South India.

Geshema exams 2019 Jangchup Choeling Nunnery

The Geshema exams start at 8 a.m. each morning. Two groups of nuns take written exams from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., while the other two groups take debate exams. Photo courtesy of the Nuns Media Team

These rigorous exams take four years to complete, with one set held each year. The nuns are examined on their 17-year course of study.

Here’s a video about the 2019 Geshema exams.

Before the exams began, Geshe Jampa Kalden, who is the Geden Choeling Khenpo and the head of the Geshema examination committee, spoke to the nuns. He explained the examination rules and advised the nuns to stay grounded when taking their exams, not to rush through their papers, and not to be in a hurry to submit their answer sheets just because another person has submitted her papers.

Advice to the nuns before the start of the 2019 Geshema examinations

Advice to the nuns before the start of the 2019 Geshema examinations

The nuns must take written and oral exams in the form of traditional Tibetan Buddhist debate. The debate takes place in front of the examiners and lasts for four hours in the morning (8 a.m. to 12 p.m.) and four hours in the afternoon (2 p.m. to 6 p.m.)

As shown in the video below, examiners supervise the debate, making sure that what is said is relevant to the topic, and they intervene as needed.

The nuns cannot choose their own debate topics. Instead, they must draw slips of paper on which three topics from one subject are written. Each nun can then choose one topic from the three options and debate on that. The nuns are given 15 minutes for each debate.

Geshema examination committee preparing paperwork for the 2019 Geshema exams

Geshema examination committee preparing paperwork for the 2019 Geshema exams. Photo courtesy of the Nuns Media Team

We would like to extend our deepest thanks to the Pema Chödrön Foundation and everyone who supported our 2019 Geshema Exam Fund to cover the travel costs and the food for the Geshema candidates. By supporting the education of the nuns, you are helping to pave the way for future generations of nuns to follow in the Geshemas’ footsteps. The Geshema degree will make the nuns eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

Geshema exams 2019 Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Geshema candidates take a break for a simple vegetarian meal. We are extremely grateful to everyone who donated to our 2019 Geshema Exams Fund which supports the Geshema candidates by covering their food and travel costs for the exam and for the one-month pre-exam study period. Photo courtesy of the Nuns Media Team.

Written examinations were held in the open debate courtyard, while debates were held in the prayer hall.

Examination hall for the 2019 Geshema exams

Examination hall for the 2019 Geshema exams. Photo courtesy of the Nuns Media Team

Initially, we reported that 51 nuns were taking their exams in August 2019, but sadly, one nun who was planning on taking her fourth and final year of exams backed out due to stress. This year 22 nuns sat their first round of exams, 10 nuns took their second year, 11 nuns sat third-year exams, and 7 nuns took their fourth and final set of exams. All being well, there will be 7 new Geshemas graduating this fall.

Over 100 supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project sent beautiful and heartfelt messages of good luck to the nuns taking their Geshema exams. Here is an example, written by Alan who sponsors two nuns: “Dear Geshema Candidates: You are not only contributing to the survival and expansion of Tibetan Buddhism, but you are all changing the world and making it a better place by means of your studies, self-transformation, compassion, and example. Thank you all and good luck. You are in our prayers. We look forward to the day when the two nuns who we sponsor take their Geshema exams. Blessings.”

Nuns preparing for the Geshema examinations 2019

Nuns preparing for the Geshema examinations 2019

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week

The first full week of May is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, so we’re taking this opportunity to celebrate the teachers at Tibetan Buddhist nunneries. Springtime is also the start of a new academic year at the nunneries in India so it’s a fitting time to honor the teachers who educate the nuns.

“Educating women is powerful,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor for 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.”

teacher appreciation, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project, education of women, Tibetan nuns

A monk teaches Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. As more nuns take the highest degrees in their traditions, such as the Geshema degree, they will be qualified to teach. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

A primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to assist nuns in reaching the same level of education as the monks.

Because historically nuns have not had access to formal education, very few nuns are qualified to teach. The good news is that the situation is now changing. More nuns are receiving the highest degrees in their traditions.

Who Teaches the Nuns

One of our ongoing tasks is the recruitment of qualified teachers for the various nunneries that we support.

The teachers we employ in the seven nunneries we support are both monastic and lay. Monks (often Geshes and Khenpos) from the large monasteries and training institutes of the various Buddhist traditions teach Buddhist philosophy and debate.

March 2019 marked a big milestone. Two nuns with Geshema degrees 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 global family of supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

teacher appreciation, Delek Wangmo, Geshema, Tibetan Nuns Project, educating women

Photo of Delek Wangmo and other senior nuns in 2013 by Brian Harris. When she escaped from Tibet she could barely read. Now she is one of two Geshemas hired in March 2019 to teach at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

English is taught in the nunneries by lay women and men educated in the Indian university system. For the Tibetan language, we employ mostly young women and men who have come from Tibet in recent years. Recent refugees often have stronger Tibetan-language skills than their Indian-raised counterparts. Once they have completed a teacher-training course at nearby Sarah Institute, a branch of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, we and many other institutions in the exile community hire them to teach Tibetan language, literature, and grammar.

teacher appreciation, Geden Choeling Nunnery, education of women, Tibetan nuns

Teaching a Tibetan class at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Supporting the Nuns’ Teachers

The ultimate goal is to empower the nuns to become teachers and leaders in their own right and to help preserve Tibet’s unique culture and religion.

In addition to funding the salaries for teachers at the seven nunneries directly supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, each year we fund the salaries at a number of small nunneries in remote regions.

The annual cost of one teacher’s salary ranges from $1,500 to $5,000, depending on the location of the nunnery and the skills of the teacher, so the total annual budget for this program is approximately $40,000. We are very grateful to all those people who support our Teachers’ Salaries Fund.

What Do the Nuns Study

Each of the four traditions schools of Tibetan Buddhism has its own specific curriculum and degrees attained, but much is shared. All are based on the teachings of the Buddha and the Indian commentaries that developed to explicate them.

Exactly which commentaries the nuns most closely rely on varies between traditions as do the number of years of study, but there is uniformity of 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
  • Tantra for the final level of teachings.

At most 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.

teacher appreciation, Shugsep Nunnery, education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A lay teacher at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute teaches geography to the nuns. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

The Power of Educating the Nuns

Before the Chinese takeover of Tibet, there were at least 818 nunneries and nearly 28,000 nuns living in Tibet.

In an attempt to eliminate Buddhism in Tibet, more than 6,000 nunneries and monasteries were destroyed between 1959 and 1980. Monks and nuns in great numbers were imprisoned, tortured, and forced to give up the ordained way of life. Teaching, study, and prayer were strictly prohibited, and religious texts and objects were demolished.

Before the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded in 1987, there wasn’t much education for Tibetan nuns, either in exile or inside Tibet. “Even when Tibet was free, nuns didn’t have much of an education,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal. “Of course, we had wonderful nunneries in Tibet, beautiful ones where the nuns were supported by their family members and treated very well, but mostly what the nuns did was spend their time in praying and meditating.”

“I must say that some nuns were very highly realized meditators, but in the sense of education that you and I know of today, they had none,” she said. “Which is why we are so happy that we have been able to make it possible in exile.”

Tibetan, Tibetan language, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A Tibetan Buddhist nun reads and writes in Tibetan. Most nuns arriving in India had been denied basic educational opportunities in Tibet, including education in their own Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhist religious heritage. The majority of nuns arrived in India illiterate and unable to write their own names. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

“The protection of Tibetan language and its culture is not only about Tibetans in Tibet,” says Karma Tenzin, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. “A proper access to the rich and profound Buddhist philosophy and epistemology is possible only through Tibetan language.”