Category Archives: Geshema

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

Send good luck messages to nuns taking Geshema exams 2019

You can send good luck messages to the nuns taking Geshema exams in August 2019. To send a message of support to the Geshema candidates, post a comment below on this blog. We’ll compile all the messages and share them with the nuns before their exams.

The Geshema degree  (or Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism. Until recently, this degree was only open to men.

The rigorous examination process takes four years and are the culmination of a rigorous 17-year course of study.

good luck messages Geshema exams, Geshema, Tibetan Buddhism, Geshe, Tibetan Nuns Project, Geshema candidates, Buddhism, nuns, nunnery, Buddhist nuns, Buddhist women, Geshema exams, messages of support Geshema candidates

When you’re facing big challenges, it’s great to know that people are sending you support. Here’s a photo of nuns reading messages of good luck sent by other nuns prior to the 2016 Geshema exams. We’re collecting good luck messages for nuns taking their exams in August.

From August 1-12, 2019, 51 Tibetan Buddhist nuns will sit various levels of their Geshema exams. The nuns taking their exams this year come from four different nunneries: Dolma Ling, Geden Choeling, Jangchup Choeling, and Kopan Nunnery.

The examinees have already gathered at  Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in Mundgod for their special one-month pre-exam study time.

Here’s a little video about the 2018 Geshema exams. [Can’t see the video? Click here.]

In August 2019, there will be:

  • 24 nuns taking their first-year exams
  • 9 nuns doing their 2nd year
  • 11 nuns doing their 3rd year
  • 7 Geshema candidates doing their fourth and final year of exams (The initial number was 8, but one nun dropped out at the end of July.)

All being well, there will be 8 new Geshema graduates this fall. The graduation ceremony will be held at the end of the 2019 Jang Gonchoe Inter-nunnery debate in November.

Geshema, geshema exams, 2018 Geshema exams, Geshema candidates, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

A Tibetan Buddhist nun takes her Geshema exams in 2017. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

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. Recently, two Geshemas were hired as teachers at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

We are still seeking $1,276 to complete the funding for the 2019 Geshema exams.

Donations are needed to cover the costs of the nuns’ travel to and from the exams and for their food during the exams and for the one-month study session before the exams. You can learn more and donate here.

Geshema, geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Geshema candidates, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

Tibetan Buddhist nuns hand in their exam papers during the Geshema exams in 2017. 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.
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.

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.

Historic accomplishment as Geshemas hired to teach nuns

Two nuns with Geshema degrees have been hired to teach Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Tenzin Kunsel, Dolma Ling nunnery, nun from Tibet, Geshema, 2019 Message

You’re making dreams come true! Geshema Tenzin Kunsel always dreamed of getting an education and
becoming a teacher. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

This is an important milestone for the nuns. For the first time, Tibetan Buddhist nuns are being taught these topics by other nuns, rather than by monks.

Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks.

One of the goals of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to elevate the educational standards and the position of women. To this end, the project created a groundbreaking education system aimed at both preserving Tibetan culture and equipping and empowering the nuns to live and become leaders in the modern world.

The two Geshemas hired this spring as teachers are Geshema Tenzin Kunsel (right) and Geshema Delek Wangmo.

The Geshema degree, which is equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, is the culmination of at least 17 years of study.

The Geshema degree was only opened up to the nuns in 2012. Now there are 37 Geshemas and these dedicated women are a beacon of inspiration to all the other nuns.

The two Geshema teachers endured a lot to reach this historic status. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel had to leave school in Tibet at age 12. (She tells her story in a video interview.) Geshema Delek Wangmo (below) was illiterate when she arrived in India after escaping from Tibet.

Delek Wangmo, Geshema, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

Your support in action. Delek Wangmo could barely read when she escaped from Tibet. Now she holds the Geshema degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Like the other nuns from Tibet, they risked their lives to escape to India for the chance to freely practice their religion.

After graduating as Geshemas, both nuns completed further studies in Tantric Buddhism. This groundbreaking program launched in 2017 for the nuns has enabled the graduates to become fully qualified teachers of their complete tradition.

Until now, Tibetan nuns never had the opportunity to be educated at this high level.

We thank His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his support. We are also very grateful to our global family of supporters for helping to educate, feed, clothe, and house the nuns.

Here is a list of projects we’re working on now and that need funding.

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Educating Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Spring marks both a new academic year and intake time at the nunneries in India so it is a good time to share some stories and reflect on the education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

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. While in Tibet they had also been denied education in their religious heritage.

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

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,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor to the Tibetan Nuns Project.

The Tibetan Nuns Project also serves women 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 have traditionally been given far less education than men and boys. The nunneries give them a chance for education that they would not have otherwise.

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Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

Pema’s Story

Pema grew up in Tsum near the Nepal-Tibet border. “Being isolated from towns and cities, there isn’t any school in our village so we are very backward and most of the people are uneducated. They actually don’t realize the importance of getting a good education. I really wanted to go to school, but I didn’t have the opportunity because the school was extremely far away. I had to walk for a whole day and night to reach it and we didn’t have any relatives there or a place for me to stay. Those who had relatives there were able to stay and go to school and become educated. I don’t know about the quality of education that the school provided, but at least those students are getting to learn something.”

“The most courageous thing I think I have ever done was to run away from home to live my dream. I had put forward my desire and wish to become a nun, but my parents never supported my decision and objected strongly to my pleas. I could not find any way to convince them. I tried a lot but failed all the time, so the only option left for me was to run away from home. I brought tsampa (roasted barley flour) to eat so that I wouldn’t have an empty stomach and to stay healthy. I will never forget those days of struggle. I reached Kathmandu and stayed at my friend’s home for one night. She was very welcoming and bought me a ticket to go to Delhi.”

“My brother who is a monk contacted one of the elder nuns at Tilokpur Nunnery and this is how I came here. I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to study in such an institution where everything is taken care of by the institution. Especially, the education facilities are really impressive and very satisfactory. I am very grateful for those who helped me in living my dreams. Now that I am one such lucky nun to study at this prestigious institution, I am studying very hard. Currently, I am learning Tibetan, English, and debate.”

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Nuns debating at Tilokpur Nunnery. “Opening up education to the women, particularly in conjunction with training in debate, has been transformative for the nuns,” says Dr. Elizabeth Napper, Tibetan scholar, US Founder and Board Chair of the Tibetan Nuns Project. “Not only have they been given access to the full intellectual richness of their Buddhist tradition but also, through debate, they have been trained to actively engage with it in a way that gives them confidence in their knowledge.”

Rinzin’s Story

Rinzin grew up in a farming family in northern India caring for her family’s chickens and livestock and going to the nearby India school. Her life changed direction when she saw Tibetan Buddhist nuns. “During holidays, I would see nuns coming to their family homes. They look so happy. I would talk to them and they would tell me about their nunnery. I got so fascinated and wanted to become a nun. I had a sudden urge to become a nun.”

“I told my parents, but my mother told me to stay home and go to school. I urged my father to persuade my mother to let me be a nun. Finally, my mother agreed. They advised me to be a good nun.”

Rinzin first joined a Nyingma nunnery at Varanasi, where she studied for five years. “One day, a relative who was a Geshe [a monk with a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism; the female equivalent is a Geshema] came to visit at the nunnery and stayed there for a while. He noticed that there was no debate on Buddhist philosophy. He told us younger nuns who were from the same village that debate is important and that we should learn it. I, along with a few other nuns agreed, and he took us to Dharamsala, where he told us to choose between Geden Choeling Nunnery and Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.”

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute sitting exams

“I chose Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute because I have a relative who is a nun there. I heard from her that Dolma Ling is a good place to study, as it is quite strict and the education facilities are good. I thought it would be a good place to study, so I decided to go to Dolma Ling Nunnery.”

“In 2017, the nunnery was admitting new nuns so I went through an interview and written exam. I passed and I became a nun here. Dolma Ling Nunnery is a beautiful and quiet place. In February 2018, I got ordained along with my classmates in the presence of His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama. He advised us to study well and to abide by the oath.”

“Currently, I am studying in Duta Class. We learn basic Tibetan and debate. I am having a bit of difficulty with debate because it is a new subject for me. I think I will be okay because I have my classmates and teachers who will guide me. I wish to do my best and get the Geshema degree.”

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Nun holding her Geshema certificate. Photo 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 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 as to the basic topics. Thus, 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.

Tibetan nun education, Education Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan Buddhist nun

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 a very challenging transition, 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 both Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan nuns.

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 has said, “The Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is something precious which we can be proud of and should strive to preserve.”

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 their male monastic counterparts, Tibetan 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.

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Senior nuns studying at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Learn about our Current Projects here and how you can sponsor a nun here.

First Geshemas complete Buddhist Tantric studies program

On February 1 2019, a special ceremony was held in Dharamsala, India to celebrate the completion of the new course in Buddhist Tantric studies by nuns who have previously earned their Geshema degrees.

Kalon Venerable Karma Gelek Yuthok of the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration attended the event which was held at Gyuto Tantric Monastery.

At the ceremony, the first 23 of the 36 Geshemas received certificates for completing the groundbreaking course in Tantric studies.

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Following a special ceremony, the first Geshemas with their certificates in Tantric studies. They received their certificates from Kalon Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok of the Department of Religion and Culture. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Phende/CTA

Other honored guests at the ceremony included Khenpo Thupten Tenzin; Senior Abbot Tsering Topgyal of Gyutoe Monastery; Gaden Choeling Khenpo; Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor for the Tibetan Nuns Project; and Nangsa Choedon, the Director of Tibetan Nuns Project in India.

The program in Tantric Buddhism for nuns who had attained their Geshema degrees was started in 2017. This groundbreaking new program 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.

Kalon Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok congratulated the Geshemas on achieving such a milestone and applauded the hard work of the various institutions behind this success. He thanked all the previous kalons (ministers) and staff who worked to make this historic achievement possible.

Geshema, Tantric studies, Kalon Ven Karma Gelek Yuthok conferring certificate to a Geshema Tenzin Phende CTA

Kalon Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok of the Department of Religion and Culture confers a certificate to one of the Geshemas who completed the program in Tantric studies. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Phende/CTA

Kalon Ven. Karma Gelek Yuthok stressed the need to combine traditional and modern education to acquire in-depth knowledge.

“The number of monks and nuns in exile is decreasing. Even those in Tibet are being topped by the Chinese Government. So we must look into the necessity as per requirement to further develop our infrastructure. It is in the best interest to have better quality than to have quantity. So we must start improving the qualities of those existing to enhance further,” he said.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal reflected on more than 30 years of efforts of the Tibetan Nuns Project. She urged the Geshemas to serve the community, saying, “It is the highest level of women’s empowerment entrusted on Tibetan women.”

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Rinchen Khando Choegyal, the Tibetan Nuns Project’s Founding Director and Special Advisor, embraces one of the Geshemas who completed her Tantric studies. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

Khenpo Thupten Tenzin said, ”The conferment of Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns was a longstanding aspiration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and reflects a historic milestone. Now you have obtained both Sutras and Tantric teaching.” He also spoke about the need to preserve Tibet’s rich culture and traditions.

Gadhen Choeling Khenpo and head of Board of Geshema Degree Examination gave a vote of thanks.

The Geshemas who completed their Tantric studies received a special audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on 31 January 2019.

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On 28 January 2019, the Geshemas took both written and debate (oral) exams. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

The historic decision to confer the Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns was announced in 2012 by the Department of Religion and Culture following a meeting of representatives from six major nunneries, the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and the Tibetan Nuns Project.

The Geshema degree for nuns or Geshe degree for monks is comparable to a doctorate in philosophy. The degree is conferred after at least 21 years of rigorous study of the five main Buddhist texts and a four-year exam process involving both written and oral (debate) exams and a thesis.

This post uses some photos, quotations, and other information from Tenzin Phende’s news story “Chorig Kalon attends completion of one year Tantric course for Geshemas” published on February 1 2019 by the Central Tibetan Administration.