Category Archives: Geshema

At Long Last the 2022 Geshema Exams Begin

Many Tibetan Buddhist nuns have been studying for decades and waiting for this opportunity. The long wait is over and the 2022 Geshema exams started on August 7th at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.

Thank you to everyone who sent good luck messages to the nuns! We’ve compiled all your messages and posted them at Geden Choeling for the nuns to see.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Geshema exams

Two nuns studying in the final days before the Geshema exams start. David said in his good luck message: “I am very glad to see that the Geshema examinations will take place in 2022, and look forward to supporting the spread of female teachers in these especially treacherous times!”

The Geshema degree (known as the Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. Until recently, this degree was only open to men.

Geshema, Geshema exams 2022, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Photos by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns of the 2022 Geshema exams. To earn the Geshema degree, nuns must take both written and debate exams. The rigorous examination process involves two weeks of examinations each year for four years.

The rigorous exams take four years to complete, with one set held each year. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the Geshema exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021.

2022 geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A group of nuns study during the final month of exam preparations for the 2022 Geshema exams which began on August 7th. To earn the Geshema degree, nuns must successfully complete four years of written and debate exams as well as write and defend a thesis.

Candidates are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts. They must achieve a score at least 75 per cent during their studies to be eligible to sit for the Geshema exams.

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery 2022

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel is one of two Geshemas now teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a large non-sectarian nunnery that is home to about 250 nuns. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The Geshema degree was only formally opened to women in 2012 and nuns began taking Geshema exams in 2013. In 2016, 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when they became the first Tibetan women to earn Geshema degrees.

Geshema exams 2022

Behind the scenes at the 2022 Geshema exams captured by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns. The new Geshema Endowment at the Tibetan Nuns Project funds all costs associated with the exams including food, travel, exam materials, and graduation robes.

To date, 44 Tibetan Buddhist nuns have earned this degree. The world needs their wisdom and compassion.

Here’s a list of the Geshema graduations since the formal approval in 2012:

In his good luck, Robert said, “Dear Geshema candidates, I have thought of you many times since I became aware of your studies and intent to earn your Geshema degree. You have accomplished an extraordinary amount to have come this far. I wish you all peace of mind and good health as you take your exams. You are trailblazers already, and I would be incredibly honored to learn from you, whether or not you achieve the Geshema degree. That said, may you all find great success in achieving the degree so that more people may have the opportunity to learn from you. Congratulations on all your achievements so far in being ready to sit the exams — all of you inspire me so much and motivate me to practice harder. Thank you!”

Tibetan Buddhist Nuns studying for 2022 Geshema exams

The candidates assembled on July 6th for a month of final exam preparations. Photo courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

Some 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.
  • 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.
Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan nuns, geshema exams

Joy at the opportunity to take the Geshema exams. Thank you for your messages of good luck! Photos courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

 

Good Luck Messages for 2022 Geshema Exams

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.

Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns read good luck messages Geshema exams

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.

Great News About the Geshema Program

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.

Geshema Endowment Funded

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!

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.

What is the Geshema Degree?

Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. One of our goals is to elevate the educational standards and the position of women.

The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition, equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Geshema degree was only formally opened to women in 2012 and nuns began taking Geshema exams in 2013. In 2016, 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when they became the first Tibetan women to earn Geshema degrees.

There are now 44 Geshemas. The world needs their wisdom and compassion.

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dolma Ling

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.

Here is a snapshot of some of the special roles that Geshemas are taking on, particularly at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Geshemas teaching Tibetan children Feb 2022

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.

Teachers

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.

Geshema Delek Wangmo, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dolma Ling

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.

Role Models

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 , Geshema

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.”

Spiritual Advisors

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.

Geshema Delek Wangmo gave a video talk in Tibetan on “keeping a peaceful mind during a crisis through the practice of Tibetan Buddhism”. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel gave a video teaching on the Buddhist way to face the pandemic crisis.  Geshema, Geshema nuns, spiritual advice during pandemic

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.

Scholars

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.

Geshema receive Tantric studies certificates Feb 1 2019

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!

Tibetan Buddhist nun holding Geshema hat

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.

Goodbye Winter? Photos from Tibetan Buddhist Nunneries

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

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.

fetching water at Sherab Choeling Nunnery, winter photos Tibetan Buddhist nunneries

The nuns wash their dishes at an outside pump and fetch water for the nunnery.

Last week, an avalanche blocked one of the main roads into Spiti, the Manali-Leh highway, stranding vehicles while another avalanche blocked a major road through the Spiti Valley. Winter may not be over yet.

Tibetan nuns shovelling snow, Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Spiti, winter at Tibetan Buddhist nunneries

The nuns gather in the sunshine to shovel snow and sweep the steps of the nunnery.

Here’s a video of winter at Sherab Choeling with clips made by the nuns. Can’t see the video? Click here.

Life in Winter at Dolma Ling

The wonderful Media Nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute have documented daily life at the nunnery in January and February.

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.

Here’s a slideshow. Can’t see it? Click here.

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Geshemas Teach Children on Their Winter Break

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.

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Geshema Endowment Fund Launched

The Tibetan Nuns Project has created a Geshema Endowment Fund to help ensure the long-term sustainability of the Geshema program.

The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is comparable to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. This degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. To date, 44 nuns hold the Geshema degree.

Geshema Endowment Fund, Geshema Exams

Given the spike in coronavirus cases in India and Nepal, the Geshema Committee has decided to postpone this year’s exams from August 1st to October 1st. Photo of the 2019 Geshema exams courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

This degree enables Tibetan Buddhist nuns to become teachers, leaders, and role models. It makes these dedicated women eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

At the conclusion of their 17-year course of study, the nuns must successfully complete a 4-year series of examinations in order to attain the Geshema degree. The examinations, held each year in late summer, take place over a one-month period.

The Geshema Endowment Fund will help cover the costs involved in training and qualifying more Geshemas. This includes the costs of travel, food, and accommodation for the Geshema candidates to attend the exams. The fund will also cover the cost of administration and materials for the exams, including hosting meetings, couriering exam materials, and providing each new Geshema with a set of nuns’ robes and yellow hat that signifies the holding of the degree.

Our fundraising goal this year is $100,000, but we hope to raise $200,000 for the final fund.

Please help enable more Tibetan Buddhist nuns to become Geshemas!

  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 the Geshema Endowment Fund)
    815 Seattle Boulevard South #216, Seattle, WA 98134 USA
  4. Give a gift of securities
  5. Leave a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project
Geshema, Geshema degree, Geshema Endowment Fund

A Geshema holds the yellow hat that signifies her degree. Detail of photo by Olivier Adam.

Help Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Continue to Progress

With the goal in mind of educating and empowering nuns to become teachers and leaders, the Tibetan Nuns Project has fundraised for a number of years to endow the inter-nunnery debate session called the Jang Gonchoe. This annual event now brings together 400 to 600 nuns from 6 to 9 nunneries in India and Nepal for one month of intensive training in philosophical debate. The nuns debate key concepts from the philosophical texts they study as they progress towards the Geshema degree, the highest degree of their Tibetan Buddhist tradition. We have now been able to fully fund the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund, thereby ensuring that the annual inter-nunnery debate can continue for many years.

As the next step in helping the nuns reach the level of education they need to stand as equals with monks, we have created the Geshema Endowment Fund to ensure the future of the Geshema program.

Geshema degree, Geshema graduation,

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. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

“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.”

“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.”

Tibetan Buddhist nuns are making history and you can help them on this path. Following further study and exams in Buddhist Tantric Studies, the Geshemas are becoming fully qualified as teachers. In 2019, two of the Geshemas who graduated in 2016 were hired as teachers at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The Geshemas are also beginning to take on leadership roles in their communities once held only by men. In 2020, a Geshema made history when she was appointed to be an election commissioner for the Tibetan government-in-exile elections.

Thank you for supporting the Geshema Endowment Fund and enabling more nuns to attain this high level of education.

Some Facts About the Geshema Degree

  • The Geshema degree is comparable to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
  • It is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • The Geshema degree is the same as the Geshe degree for monks. The ending “ma” marks it as referring to a woman.
  • 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.

The Education of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

The following Q&A about the education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns is a special interview with Elizabeth Napper, PhD. Dr. Napper is the US Founder and Board Chair of the Tibetan Nuns Project and is a scholar of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. She is the author of Dependent-Arising and Emptiness, translator and editor of Mind in Tibetan Buddhism, and co-editor of Kindness, Clarity and Insight by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Q: What was education like in Tibet before 1959?
A: Traditionally, Tibet pre-1959 was a pre-industrial age feudal society for the most part. There was no general education and, in pre-1959 Tibet, that was true of the lay people as well. Education was a specialized skill for people who needed it. The children of traders would get an education because they were carrying out a business and the people who were going to be government functionaries, who worked in the government, were well educated. But ordinary people were not literate. So that was the starting point.

Tibetan meditation, Tibetan Buddhist nun meditates

An elderly Tibetan Buddhist nun meditating in Zanskar, northern India. Historically, nuns had little access to education but spent their time in prayer and meditation. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Q: In Tibet, how did the lives of monks and nuns differ?
A: In Tibet, a large part of the population, both men and women, chose the monastic lifestyle, but that meant very different things. In some ways, the majority of monasteries and nunneries were not all that different. The bulk of them were relatively small institutions in villages and local communities, and the major function of monks and nuns was to do prayers on behalf of the lay people. Lay people made offerings to monks and nuns who then performed prayers on their behalf. That was the back and forth between these two groups of people.

However, the monasteries had a very rich and active intellectual tradition going back to the 11th century when Buddhism was revived in Tibet. Monks had the opportunity go to larger institutions and engage in the study of the philosophical tradition of Buddhism. By contrast, nuns who were motivated to do more would go into retreat and spend long periods of time in solitary meditation, often showing profound results of that meditation and revered for their internalized level of realization.

However, neither of monks nor nuns were literate much beyond the ability to read and recite the prayers.

After 1959, when many Tibetans fled Tibet, the large monastic institutions were re-established in exile. Far fewer nuns came out. Slowly institutions were established for the nuns, but just as the nuns in Tibet didn’t have education, neither did the new nunneries in India. That was the situation when the Tibetan Nuns Project started out.

Tibetan Buddhist Nun calligraphy

A Tibetan Buddhist nun in exile practices calligraphy. Educating the nuns is the core of our work. In the 1980s and 1990s, when hundreds of nuns were escaping from Tibet, the overwhelming majority of the nuns were totally illiterate. Most of the newly arrived nuns had had no education in their own language. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo

Q: Why is it important that nuns have equal access to education and the same opportunities as monks?
A: The goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project has always been to give the nuns access to education. It is a given, that in a modern world, you need education and a basic understanding to function well in modern society. In addition, it is limiting to push nuns towards the meditative retreat side of things. It is important to give nuns the same access that monks have to the philosophical, the conceptual understanding of their tradition. This means not just studying abstract philosophy; it is understanding the nature of reality so that you can apply that in your meditation to attain levels of realization. Our primary motivation was to open up to the nuns those levels for spiritual progress. But, additionally, they needed education simply to be able to manage their monastic institutions themselves, rather than relying always on male direction.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns getting their Geshema degree

In 2016, twenty nuns made history when they were awarded the Geshema degree. This degree is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and was only formally opened up to women in 2012. Detail of photo by Olivier Adam.

Q: What were some of the obstacles to setting up an education program for the nuns?
A: It was tricky because it wasn’t easy to find teachers. Also, the nunneries were dependent upon the financial support they got from the lay community coming for prayers, and those prayers took up the better part of the nuns’ days. They were concerned that if they set up a study program and nuns weren’t doing prayers all day, the nunneries wouldn’t get in enough funding to support them. So that was a big part of the sponsorship program that we started – to provide alternative support so that everyone wouldn’t have to spend all day doing prayers on behalf of the lay community – not that they weren’t willing to do those prayers, but we needed to find a way to make it not be the only thing for them to do. That was the starting point.

Q: What are some of the major accomplishments in education for the nuns so far?
A: The result of educating nuns is that we now have nuns who have been trained up to the point of the highest degree of their tradition, the Geshe degree (Geshema degree for the nuns).
Some of the major educational accomplishments are:

  • The creation of groundbreaking education program for nuns
  • Providing debate training for nuns for the first time in the history of Tibet
  • Supporting the annual Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate event, which provides one month of intensive training in debate
  • Enabling nuns to take the Geshema exams and pursue other higher degrees
  • Creating a Tantric Studies program for Geshemas to empower them to become teachers and leaders
educate women and girls collage Tibetan Nuns Project

A collage of photos of education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Bottom left photo courtesy of Olivier Adam; other photos courtesy of Brian Harris.

Q: Why is training in debate so important?
A: The system of education teaches rational, logical thought. The nuns (and monks) use a formalized style of debate in which you set out a premise and debate it. In Tibetan Buddhist debate, you have to prove two things about what you’re saying: (1) that whatever it is you’re trying to prove is true, that your reasoning is correct and (2) that the reason applies to what you’re trying to prove.

This is the opposite to advertising. For example, the advertising of beauty products says, “If you use this product, your life will be good.” This is false pervasion. Also, it can say things that are just not true. Conversely, debate teaches you to avoid that kind of illogical thinking.

Q: What can the world learn from the way the nuns debate?
A: Illogical thinking is what a lot of political discourse that we are hearing is based on. Things that are absolutely not true are being said. In addition, things are being said that may be true but don’t at all imply what is being drawn out of them. That is the real world that we live in.

The ability to see clearly and logically is the training that the nuns are doing. This helps them to not just accept things that aren’t true being presented as if they were. You can see through falsities and also see false pervasions such as “If you use this product, if you believe in this person, your life will be good.” That it is not necessarily going to happen. That is the real-world application. We gain by having a population who are educated in that way and have a clear understanding of what they are doing in the world.

It is also very important to the Buddhist philosophical tradition, which is not based on faith alone, but is based on developing a penetrating understanding of the nature of reality. This is the final purpose of the studies they have undertaken, and the years of study and debate are directed towards that.

Along the way, of course, this is a religious tradition, and in the Tibetan tradition, there is a great emphasis of developing universal love and compassion, of wishing the best for each and every living being. All those things are important components of the education that the nuns are receiving.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns practice debate at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns practice debate at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. Tibetan Buddhist debate teaches many skills including critical thinking, logic, attentional focus, memory, and confidence in one’s reasoning skills. Until the 1990s, Tibetan nuns were not taught how to debate.

Q: How has educating the nuns created leaders, teachers, and role models?
A: We put in place these programs to open those kinds of studies up for nuns. Now, 30 years later, those groups of nuns have been able to pass through this entire course of study that have been followed by the monks for centuries. The nuns are starting to go out and take on roles of leadership in the community – they are teaching in the nunneries, some of them are teaching in the Tibetan schools, and one nun has been added to the election commission of the exile government based in Dharmsala. This is the impact, not just of their philosophical knowledge, but of their training and clear thought motivated by a compassionate wish to help.

Q: Do you see growing confidence in the nuns?
A: The nuns have growing confidence to take on leadership roles. Before, when the nuns didn’t know anything, when they hadn’t studied and they could barely read or write, they had no confidence. There was no way they could serve in these roles or as role models in their community. That has now changed. People see these nuns who are able to debate as well as the monks, who can hold their own in those kinds of contests, who exude this body language of confidence, who are also prepared to take on leadership roles. This has broadened the base out of potential leaders in the community from only one gender to both genders.

Geshema Delek Wangmo Sworn in as Election Commissioner

Geshema Delek Wangmo, a teacher at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, has been appointed as an Election Commissioner for the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.

Geshema Delek Wangmo , Geshema

Geshema Delek Wangmo takes the oath of office at the swearing-in ceremony. Photo: Tenzin Phende/CTA

She and Mr Sonam Gyaltsen, former Tibetan Parliamentarian and the incumbent senior Professor of the College for Higher Tibetan Studies (Sarah), were unanimously elected as Additional Election Commissioners of the Chief Election Commission by the members of the Standing Committee of the 16th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. They were sworn in on August 3, 2020. The oath ceremony was attended by the top leadership of the exile Tibetan government. As commissioners, they will serve until the results of the final election are declared.

Geshema Delek Wangmo, Geshema

Mr Sonam Gyaltsen, former Tibetan Parliamentarian and Geshema Delek Wangmo, teacher of Dolma Ling Nunnery sworn in as new Additional Election Commissioners. Photo: Tenzin Phende/CTA

This is yet another historic accomplishment for Geshema Delek Wangmo and for Tibetan Buddhist nuns in general. Geshema Delek Wangmo graduated with her Geshema degree in 2017. She became one of the first Tibetan Buddhist nuns to pursue higher studies in Tantric Buddhism. Last year, she and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel made history when they were hired as teachers at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Earlier this spring, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, India, asked Geshema Delek Wangmo to give a teaching on keeping a peaceful mind during a crisis through the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Tibetan Nuns Project congratulates Geshema Delek Wangmo on her many accomplishments. She and the other Geshemas are opening up new opportunities for Tibetan Buddhist nuns as teachers, leaders, and role models.

Brief Bio of Geshema Delek Wangmo

Geshema Delek Wangmo was born on 6 July 1961 in Lithang, Kham, Tibet. She became a nun at a very young age and received her monastic vows from Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. In 1988, Geshema Delek Wangmo along with some 100 Tibetan people set off on a pilgrimage to Lhasa from Lithang doing prostrations. On reaching Lhasa, the pilgrims were forbidden by the Chinese government to visit monasteries and their sacred destination – the Jokhang Temple containing the famous Jhoho statue of the Buddha. So the large group set off to the holy mountain of Mount Kailash. From there, in 1990 they escaped over the Himalayas to Nepal and then to India.

As per the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and under the care of Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, Geshema Delek Wangmo managed in a room rented from a local Indian until the construction of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute was sufficiently far along for the refugee nuns to move in. She completed studies in five major Buddhist texts from Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.  In 2017, she received her Geshema Degree which is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist studies.

Geshema Delek Wangmo has always excelled in her studies. While doing her education, she has taken a leadership role at the nunnery holding various responsibilities and participating in numerous scholarly debates. In 2018, she was one of the first group of Tibetan Buddhist nuns who, having attained the Geshema degree, did a year of higher studies in Tantric Buddhism at Gyutoe Monastery. Geshema Delek Wangmo is currently working as a teacher in Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Geshema Delek Wangmo,

Heads of the three pillars of the Tibetan democratic system, Kalons and CTA functionaries at the swearing-in ceremony. Photo: Tenzin Phende/CTA

New Research Program for Geshemas

Five Geshemas have received scholarships to participate in a Tibetan Buddhist philosophy research program that is the first of its kind.

The historic research project is organized by the Geluk International Foundation which recently announced seats for 30 Geshes and 5 Geshemas to do three-year research projects on five topics of Buddhist philosophy.

The Geshema degree for nuns (called the Geshe degree for monks) is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. The degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. To date, 44 nuns have earned this degree.

Tibetan Buddhist geshema

A Tibetan Buddhist nun holds the yellow hat that is worn by Geshemas or Geshes. Photo by Oliver Adam.

This research program grew out of the Conference of Religious Heads held in 2012. At that conference, His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked the research program to focus on various fields. Now, the Geluk International Foundation, chaired by Gaden Tripa, has made His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s vision a reality by starting the research program with formal rules and regulations.

The new research wing is headed by Shartse Khensur Ven. Jangchup Choeden who is the director. The committee members include other eminent Geshe Lharamphas from major monasteries.

The individual participants will work on their subjects and will submit quarterly reports under the guidance of their advisors. At the end of three years, each will submit a final thesis.

The Tibetan Nuns Project formally announced the program and contacted the five nunneries that regularly participate in the annual Jang Gonchoe month-long debate session and have Geshema graduates – Dolma Ling, Geden Choeling, Jamyang Choeling (all three in the Dharmasala area), Jangchup Choeling in South India, and Kopan in Nepal. The selection of research topics by the Geshemas was done on a first-come-first-serve basis.

In order to qualify for the program, the Geshemas had to have obtained 60% in their final Geshema exams, as well as to meet other criteria and supply formal documents. The Tibetan Nuns Project helped to coordinate the application process by the Geshemas.

Geshema Tenzin Palmo

Geshema Tenzin Palmo of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute is one of the 5 Geshemas who, along with 30 Geshes, have been chosen to undertake three-year research projects in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Here are the five Geshemas who received scholarships and their chosen research subjects:

  1. Geshema Namdol Phuntsok (a.k.a. Passang Lama), Kopan Nunnery. Subject: Dulwa / Vinaya
  2. Geshema Tenzin Tseyang (a.k.a. Tashi Lhamo), Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Subject: Pharchin / Prajna Paramita
  3. Geshema Tenzin Palmo, Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Subject: Ngonpa Zoe/ Abhidharma
  4. Geshema Tenzin Dolkar, Jangchup Choeling Nunnery. Subject: Uma / Madhyamika
  5. Geshema Phuntsok Dolkar, Jangchup Choeling Nunnery. Subject: Tse-ma / Pramana

The research program was initially planned to start on April 1, 2020, but due to the strict lockdown all over India and Nepal, the Geluk International Foundation altered the start of the three-year project to June 1st, 2020.

The scholarship funding has been arranged by Geluk International Foundation under the sponsorship of a trust/foundation based in New York and The Dalai Lama Trust.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is very happy that these five Geshemas have this valuable opportunity to increase their learning and skills and to fulfil the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. May all concerned sponsors and supporters of the Geshemas be proud and happy for their valuable contributions in helping the Geshemas!

All the nuns passed their Geshema exams!

2019 Geshema Exam Results

We’re delighted to tell you that the results for the 2019 Geshema exams are in. All 50 Tibetan Buddhist nuns who took their Geshema exams in August have passed. We congratulate them on their success and dedication.

The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism. The degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. The Geshema degree is the same as a Geshe degree but is called a Geshema degree because it is awarded to women.

Tibetan Buddhist nun holding Geshema hat

Photo of a Geshema holding the yellow hat that signifies her degree. Detail of photo by Olivier Adam.

The 2019 Geshema results are as follows:
Fourth and final year exams: all 7 nuns passed
Third-year exams: all 11 nuns passed
Second-year: all 10 nuns passed
First-year: all 22 nuns passed

The seven nuns who passed their final year of exams will take part in a week-long formal debate session in front of hundreds of nuns at the Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate session. The graduation ceremony will be held in Bodh Gaya, at the conclusion of the Jang Gonchoe.

About the Geshema Degree

The first Geshema degree was conferred in 2011 to a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo.

In 2012, a historic decision was made to allow Tibetan Buddhist nuns the opportunity to take examinations for the Geshe degree, known for women as the Geshema degree. This year marks the fourth year in a row that a group of nuns will graduate with the degree.

Here’s a list of the graduations since the formal approval in 2012:

2016: 20 nuns became Geshemas
2017: 6 nuns graduated as Geshemas
2018: 10 nuns became Geshemas
2019: 7 nuns will graduate at the end of November

This brings the total number of Geshemas to 44 as of the end of 2019. This year, two of the Geshemas who graduated in 2016 were hired as teachers at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

“As a Tibetan Nuns Project Board member,” said Vicki Robinson, “I am so very proud of the achievements of the nuns who are working on the Geshema degree. 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.”

10 Geshema graduates in 2018 in front of Kopan Nunnery, Nepal

The 10 Geshema graduates in 2018 in front of Kopan Nunnery, Nepal. Photo from Kopan Nunnery Facebook page.

The Geshema Exam Process

To be eligible to take their Geshema exams, the nuns must first complete at least 17 years of study. The Geshema examination process is extremely rigorous and takes four years to complete, involving both written and debate exams and also the completion and defense of a thesis.

Each year, the nuns preparing to sit various levels of the examinations gather together for one month of final exam preparations and then for about 12 days of exams. In 2019, the exams were held at Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in South India.

Geshema exams 2019 Jangchup Choeling Nunnery

“The remarkable achievements of these excellent women are an inspiration to all,” said one supporter in her message of good luck to the nuns. Photo of the 50 nuns taking their Geshema exams in 2019 courtesy of the Nuns Media Team.

“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,” says Steve Wilhelm, a Tibetan Nuns Project board member. “This means that women monastics will be leading more monastic institutions, and will be teaching other women and men. Humanity needs this gender equity if we are to navigate perilous times ahead.”

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.

Here’s a video about the 2019 Geshema exams. (If you can’t see the video, click here.)

Once again, we would like to thank the Pema Chödrön Foundation and everyone who supported our 2019 Geshema Exam Fund for covering the food and travel costs for the Geshema candidates.

Over 100 people from around the world sent the nuns messages of good luck before the exams started. John wrote, “Sending my best wishes to all the nuns for their testing period. I know it’s been a long journey and I am really happy for them to finally complete this process. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the final results and ready to celebrate, kicking up my heels and hooting and hollering for a good while.”

“As a USA Tibetan Nuns Project Board member, I am honored and privileged to be part of this organization. The Tibetan Nuns Project puts emphasis on the importance of education and practice as both elements enrich the entire community. Congratulations to all the Geshemas, as you have reached one of the highest levels of education. Thank you so much for your diligence and commitment to your communities.” Liza Goldblatt, Tibetan Nuns Project board member.

Robin Groth, another board member wrote, “I am thrilled by this news! This is what the work of the Tibetan Nuns Project and its donors is about — giving opportunity where it has not been before and then see lives change, dreams fulfilled, and leaders emerge. What an honor to witness this evolution.”

May this good news bring you joy! Thank you for your support!

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