Category Archives: History

Tibetan Nuns Project Marks 35th Anniversary

To mark the 35th anniversary of the Tibetan Nuns Project in October 2022, we are re-publishing a 2001 interview with Rinchen Khando Choegyal, our Founding Director and Special Advisor. This interview was first published in our 2001 newsletter and shows how far the nuns have come thanks to your support.

Rinchen Khando Choegya is a former Minister of Education in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and founding President of the Tibetan Women’s Association. She is married to Ngari Rinpoche, youngest brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She resides in Dharamsala.

Rinchen Khando Choeygal Founding Director Tibetan Nuns Project

Rinchen Khando Choeygal, the Tibetan Nuns Project’s Founding Director and Special Advisor

What were your thoughts when you started the Tibetan Nuns Project?
When we started the Tibetan Nuns Project in 1987, I thought, “How best to look after the nuns?” Of course, the most important thing was to find them food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. It is, however, not enough to be fed and clothed. I knew nuns needed a better system of education, and that is what we have tried to focus on throughout the history of TNP.

Tibetan refugee nuns outside a tent classroom in India

An archival photo outside a tent classroom in India. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. TNP created a groundbreaking education system aimed at both preserving Tibetan culture and empowering the nuns to live and become leaders in the modern world.

Upon arriving in Dharamsala, 99% of the nuns could neither read nor write. They appeared to be strong young women, but in the classroom it was as if they were in kindergarten. Now there are nuns at both Dolma Ling and Shugsep who are beginning advanced studies. Eventually I hope that the Dolma Ling Institute for Higher Learning will be a place where both nuns and lay women can receive the finest advanced studies in all of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Why is it important for nuns to be well educated?
After His Holiness came to India, he put the education of children, not just boys, on top of his priority list. So, today in the Tibetan community the young men and women are equally educated. Traditionally in Tibet there has been a very profound system of monastic education which was, however, restricted to monks. Women who decided to become nuns focused mainly on learning prayers and how to read and write Tibetan. Now that education in the lay community has become equal between men and women, I personally feel that we must restructure the nuns’ education in order to stay true to His Holiness’ vision. It is important for this vision of equality to trickle down into all parts of society.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates Geshemas at historic Geshema graduation ceremony in 2016

Rinchen Khando Choegyal, director of Tibetan Nuns Project congratulating one of the Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates Geshemas at the historic graduation ceremony in 2016. The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. This degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

So the key is to educate the nuns in a system through which they can study at as high a level as they need to. Luckily, we have full support for this vision from His Holiness and from the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs. Now the question is, what is the best way to implement this system for the nuns?

My main vision for the Tibetan Nuns Project is an education that will enable the nuns to think for themselves, to learn deeper values like: what is most meaningful at the end of your life? It will not be easy because they are not used to thinking for themselves or thinking highly of themselves.

Do the nuns receive the same education as monks?
In principle, the monks’ education is the same as the education we have implemented at our nunneries. The only difference (and this is changing at the monasteries now, too) is that a traditional monastic education teaches only Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan reading and writing. We also teach the nuns other subjects – English, history, math.

Again, we are trying to implement the vision of His Holiness, who has stressed the importance of learning these things.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates one of the 20 Geshemas in 2016, Olivier Adam

Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates one of the 20 Geshemas in 2016. Photo by Olivier Adam

What is the role of women’s education in current Tibetan society?
Education is very, very important for any community. Women are particularly important because through them the whole community can be educated (whether they are mothers and wives or nuns teaching in the community). Also, spiritual values are precious to everyone — mothers as well as nuns. There is a terrible lack of opportunity for lay women to engage in spiritual study right now. If a lay woman is able to study, she will be able to affect her whole family. Eventually, some percentage of admission to the Institute for Higher Learning will be reserved for lay women.

Why is the Institute for Higher Learning a non-sectarian institution?
The main reason is that I feel that all the different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism boil down to the same thing, the same message from the Buddha. We are so used to belonging to one tradition or another. This can cause division as religion often does. I have the deepest respect for all traditions. I want the nuns to learn all of the traditions in order for them to get a richer education. All of the different traditions really help you in different ways to reach a high level.

a collage of some of the many self-sufficiency projects at Dolma Ling Nunnery

A primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to help the nuns achieve more self-sufficiency through education, skill building, and income-generating projects. Here are some of the many self-sufficiency projects including tofu making, the annual calendar, prayer flags, and pujas.

Will the nuns develop “self-sufficiency”?

It is important for the Tibetan nation to be self-sufficient. The rest of the world has been very generous in supporting us in exile, but we need to try our best to attain self­-sufficiency. We can’t just sit back and relax and say, “How nice, we are being supported.” We have to look at these issues: who has which skills, and how can they best work together?

The purpose of life — whether  as a lay person, monk  or nun — is to  develop  yourself  as an individual and to become a useful, productive member of human society — helpful and altruistic. We have started to develop an advanced educational system for the nuns, but not all will be scholars; some nuns will need training of other kinds. All of them have something to give. I want to set up a system where they can be trained as health workers, teachers, midwives, artists, people with skills to offer the community. The nuns could even keep cows. Self-sufficiency should be stressed within each part of society, as well as within the larger society.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns and dairy cows at Dolma Ling

The nuns at Dolma Ling have now been keeping dairy cows for over 20 years as part of the nunnery’s sustainability efforts. The small herd provides milk and butter for the 261 nuns who live and study there. The dairy herd also provides manure for the nunnery’s gardens.

The basic requirements for real altruism are care and compassion. But you also need to have some skill. Not everyone can be a teacher, but everyone can develop some skills so that they can serve the community. And by doing so, the nuns will be truly living compassion. Altruism starts at home, with the person next to you. Many people care deeply about the environment, or people far away, yet don’t pay much attention to the people close to them. Even nuns can’t pray for all sentient beings and do nothing themselves. Knowing how diligent they have been at their studies, I am certain that they will be equally diligent in serving their communities when they are finished.

What do you see as the future of the Tibetan Nuns Project?
We’ve come a long way in terms of infrastructure, health, and awareness. We started Dolma Ling and Shugsep nunneries, and we also help nuns at Geden Choeling, Tilokpur and other nunneries. Over the next five years, my focus will be on the quality of the nuns’ education and administration.I want to review each and every nun and see what each nun is capable of. I want the administration to become even more efficient. But primarily Iwant to focus on the quality of the nuns’ education and to help develop them individually.

We have a long way to go in terms of fundraising. It is crucial that we build an endow­ment so that Dolma Ling’s operating expenses can become self-sufficient. Of course, we also need to complete the planned infrastructure of Dolma Ling, as well as build the new Shugsep Nunnery. On top of all this, we need to figure out the best way to incorporate the number of nuns arriving fresh from Tibet each year into our system.

Through the Tibetan Nuns Project, I would like to see that I look after all of the nuns in the Tibetan commu­nity. This is probably impossible! The Tibetan Nuns Project is currently helping more than 600 nuns and, at least, I want to see that this job is done correctly in terms of education and social work.

Since 1987, I have worked very hard to improve the lives of nuns. Although I have not received any external reward, it has given me great internal joy. I think through this project I have gained more than anybody in the world.

Tibetan Buddhist Nuns holding thank you signs

Since this interview was published in 2001, we made great progress toward our vision to educate and empower nuns of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as teachers and leaders; and to establish, strengthen, and support educational institutions to sustain Tibetan religion and culture.

Thanks to your generosity we have:

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.

Why are Tibetans in exile?

On today’s anniversary of the Tibetan Women’s Uprising, we remember the thousands of brave Tibetan women who gathered on March 12th, 1959 to demand Tibetan independence. It’s also a suitable time to explain why there are Tibetans in exile.

During 1949 and 1950 Tibet, an independent nation the size of Western Europe was invaded by China. Since then, the Tibetan people have become marginalized in their own country, Tibetan culture has been severely restricted, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have died as a result of the occupation, through torture, execution, suicides, and starvation.

From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, many Tibetans fled their homeland. Hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist nuns were part of this exodus. Most escaped on foot over the Himalayas and made their way to Dharamsala, India, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Tibet is ranked as the second least free country in the world, behind only Syria and worse than even North Korea.

Why are Tibetans in exile infographic

Torture and Imprisonment

For decades, nuns and monks have been at the forefront of calling for freedom in Tibet.

A wave of demonstrations against Chinese rule in 1987 was begun by monks and nuns. The protests were brutally put down but continued over the next few years.

Many nuns were imprisoned and tortured for taking part in demonstrations calling for basic human rights. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the was a new flood of Tibetans escaping Tibet and seeking refuge in India, including many nuns. By around 2000, demonstrators were arrested almost immediately and Tibetans were given long prison terms so getting out to tell their stories did not happen like before.

Tibetan demonstrations 1987

In 1987, monks and nuns played a dominant role in demonstrations for freedom in Tibet. The crackdown by the Chinese was brutal and a new flood of Tibetans escaped Tibet seeking refuge in India, including many nuns. Photo by John Ackerly

One Nun’s Story

In 1989, I took part in a protest march against the Chinese occupation of my motherland. I was caught and they took us straight to Gutsa Prison. They tied my hands at the back of my neck with a chain. While in this position they kicked, boxed, and slapped me constantly. I stayed in isolation for 18 days and was constantly interrogated and beaten. I stayed in Gutsa Prison for two and a half years.

After my release, I went to my village and then stayed secretly at my nunnery in spite of the ban on the re-admission of ex-prisoners… I decided to leave for India… We walked for about 18 days to Kathmandu. It was a very hard journey.

When I reached India I was able to enter Dolma Ling Nunnery along with three other nuns who came with me.

Escape into Exile

The Tibetan Nuns Project was formed in 1987 and almost immediately had to respond to a large influx of nuns escaping from Tibet and arriving in India.

Tibetans in exile Buddhist nuns in India

Tibetan refugee nuns in India in their classroom tent. When large numbers of nuns began arriving in India in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the existing nunneries were already overcrowded. The Tibetan Nuns Project was formed under the auspices of this association and the Department of Religion and Culture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide long-term care for the nuns.

The nuns arrived ill and exhausted. Most refugee nuns escaping to northern India had no education in their own language, nor were they given education in their religious heritage while in Tibet. Many nuns were illiterate on arrival and could not even write their names.

In addition to the trauma of their escape, many nuns were in poor health and had faced arrest, imprisonment, and torture in Tibet at the hands of the Chinese authorities in Tibet for their peaceful demands for basic human rights. When released from prison, the nuns were forbidden from rejoining their nunneries in Tibet.

The Decline in Tibetans Escaping

“Fleeing Tibet has always been perilous due to the harsh weather, the patrolling soldiers and the cost of people smugglers, but Tibetans have seen it as worth the risk in order to preserve their nation and to gain some form of relative freedom,” wrote the Byline Times.

These days it is extremely dangerous for Tibetans to escape from Tibet and the number of Tibetans arriving in exile has dropped from thousands per year before 2008 to just 18 in 2019.

Tibetan nun killed escaping Tibet

In 2006, mountaineers filmed Chinese border guards shooting Tibetan refugees and killing a Tibetan nun in her 20s, shown here surrounded by three soldiers. The group of 43 Tibetans, mainly women and children, were trying to cross a mountain pass into Nepal. The shocking footage made global headlines.

While the repression today is not as heavy-handed as periods in the past, Tibetans enjoy no more freedom than they did 30 years ago. Inside Tibet, the Chinese authorities continue to impose severe constraints on the religious practice of Tibetan Buddhists. Surveillance is pervasive in nunneries and monasteries. Nuns and monks are subjected to routine re-education campaigns.

This month, Human Rights Watch reported that China’s education policy in the Tibet Autonomous Region is significantly reducing the access of Tibetans to education in their mother tongue.

Tibet Today: An Orwellian Nightmare

“Tibetans are living in an Orwellian nightmare where they are constantly surveilled, imprisoned for exercising their human rights, discriminated against in the job market and legal system and forced to watch the Chinese Government wage war against their very culture and way of life,” said Bhuchung Tsering of the International Campaign for Tibet.

“Under Chinese rule, Tibetans cannot freely practise their religion, speak their language, or express their cultural identity in any meaningful way. Many Tibetans realize they have a better chance of maintaining their unique identity in exile, so they choose to flee.”

Tibetan Buddhist nuns arrested by Chinese

From a video showing Tibetan nuns evicted from Larung Gar in Tibet being “re-educated.” Wearing military fatigues, the nuns are being forced to sing a Chinese Communist Party song, “Chinese and Tibetans, children of one mother”. The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy has reported that the Tibetan nuns held in China’s re-education camps have been gang-raped and sexually abused.

John Jones from the UK-group Free Tibet said China wants the border closed to avoid scrutiny.

Jones said, “The decline in numbers is certainly, in part, due to the increased security on the border with India. The numbers started to noticeably decrease after 2008 but really dropped after 2012 when authorities began to confiscate passports of Tibetans living in border areas and also imposed restrictions on travel to Lhasa. In addition, there has been increased surveillance and controls on the borders where the mountain passes are.

“Beijing has a strong interest in preventing Tibetans from escaping because they can provide first-hand information of the human rights abuses that they routinely are subjected to. They can also explode Beijing’s claims that Tibetans are happy, prosperous, and keen to be governed by China.

“Since 2008, China has significantly stepped up security across Tibet to ensure that there is no repeat of the mass, country-wide demonstrations there, which received global media attention. The heavy-handed response to the protests, involving live gunfire, beatings and mass arrests, was met by international criticism that was embarrassing for Beijing.”

March 10th 2019: 60th anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day

On March 10th, we wanted to give you a reminder of what has happened in Tibet over the past 60 years. These days, we don’t get much news out of Tibet, but from accounts that we are hearing, the political and religious repression continues.

On March 10th, Tibetan Uprising Day, we pay tribute to the brave women and men who sacrificed their lives calling for basic human rights and freedom in Tibet.

Tibetan Uprising Day: March 10, 1959

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising on March 10th and the Tibetan Women’s Uprising on March 12th. Six decades ago, thousands of Tibetans gathered in Lhasa to surround the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama because they feared that he would be abducted or killed by Chinese forces. The vast crowds of Tibetans were protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the suffering they had endured since the invasion of their country in 1949.

Tibetan Women’s Uprising: March 12, 1959

Tibetan Women's Uprising, March 12 1959, protest in Tibet, Tibetan women protest

This photograph by the Associated Press is one of the only images from March 1959 showing thousands of Tibetan women surrounding the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the main residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to protest against Chinese rule and repression in Tibet.

We also commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan Women’s Uprising, remembering the brave Tibetan women who gathered in their thousands on March 12th, 1959 to demand Tibetan independence.

Tibetan women continue to be a steadfast presence in leading the non-violent and peaceful resistance to the repression in Tibet. Tibetan nuns have played a very prominent role in calling for basic human rights and religious freedom in Tibet. Consequently, they have suffered greatly, such as the famous “singing nuns” of Drapchi Prison. Nuns have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. They have been expelled from their nunneries and their nunneries have been destroyed. You can read some of their stories here.

Dalai Lama’s Escape into Exile

Fearing for the lives of his people, on March 17, 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, left the Potala Palace and slipped through the crowds disguised as a soldier, setting off on a long, perilous journey into exile in India. He traveled at night and crossed the Himalayas on foot with a small group of soldiers and cabinet members. Unaware of His Holiness’s escape, the Tibetans refused to disburse the area around his home. In response, China’s People’s Liberation Army launched a brutal attack on innocent civilians, immediately killing about 2,000 Tibetans. It is estimated that 87,000 Tibetans were killed, arrested, or deported to labor camps following the uprising.

Dalai Lama escaping Tibet, March 1959,

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, age 23, escaped from Tibet in 1959. India offered him asylum and a home in Dharamsala, where he was permitted to set up a government-in-exile.

“After the flight of the Dalai Lama, Mao crushed Tibet with a vengeance,” said an article “Genocide in Tibet” in The Washington Post. “Institutions of government and education were systematically destroyed; the Buddhist religion was labeled a ‘disease to be eradicated’; nearly 1.2 million out of about 6 million died through armed conflict and famine; large numbers of Tibetan children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to Chinese orphanages for ‘reeducation.’ Research suggests that close to 1 million Tibetans tried to escape to India, Nepal, Bhutan or other regions of their country, but given the vast distances, lack of food in mountainous terrain and military invasion, most either surrendered to the Chinese or died in flight. In the end, only 110,000 Tibetans survived the journey over the Himalayas to join the Dalai Lama in India.”

Cultural Revolution inTibet, monastic university, Ganden Monastery, one of the three great monastic universities in Tibet, before and after the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Ganden Monastery, one of the great monastic universities in Tibet, was destroyed by the People’s Liberation Army during the 1959 Tibetan uprising and reduced to rubble during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Over 6,000 monasteries and nunneries have been destroyed since the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Exile

Under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan refugees were able to establish settlements all over India on unused land provided by the Indian government. Tibetans were able to set up a Central Tibetan Administration and Tibetan schools in a systematic attempt to restore their cultural institutions. The main monasteries of Tibet were rebuilt in India. While traditionally there had been little education of girls in Tibet, His Holiness said that the new school system should educate boys and girls equally.

Tibetan nuns in exile, Tibetan Buddhist nuns escape,

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many nuns escaped to India. The Tibetan Women’s Association organized emergency aid for the nuns. Tibetan exiles donated clothing and essentials such as cooking pots to help the newly arrived nuns who were camping by the side of the road. Photo: Tibetan Nuns Project Archive.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, following a loosening of restrictions in Tibet and a wave of pro-independence protests, there was a new influx of Tibetans escaping Tibet, including many nuns. The nuns had walked over the Himalayas and were ill and exhausted. Many had been imprisoned and tortured. While one or two nunneries had been established in exile, they were poor, overcrowded, and struggling. The existing nunneries did not have the capacity to take in the many newly arrived nuns.

The Tibetan Nuns Project was formed under the auspices of the Tibetan Women’s Association and the Department of Religion and Culture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide long-term care for the nuns. The Project secured housing, medical care, and most importantly, education for these refugee nuns.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns help build Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

Tibetan Buddhist nuns help build Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo: Tibetan Nuns Project Archives.

Over time, the Tibetan Nuns Project built two large nunnery complexes, Dolma Ling and Shugsep. Dedicated to educating nuns in India from all Tibetan Buddhist lineages, the Tibetan Nuns Project had to start an education system from scratch.

Most of the nuns who escaped from Tibet and arrived in India were illiterate and couldn’t even write their own names. Now, over 800 nuns at seven nunneries in India, have the opportunity to study in educational programs focused on the full course of philosophical studies leading to the highest degrees of their traditions.

The accomplishments are many, but there is still much more to do to empower and educate the nuns and to preserve the rich wisdom tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Over the last decade, the number of Tibetans escaping from Tibet has plummeted. The plunging number of refugees from Tibet is attributed to tighter surveillance, stricter border controls along mountain passes by the Chinese, and closer ties between Beijing and Nepal, whose relations have become friendlier in recent years.

The oppression inside Tibet during the past 60 years has come in waves. While things are now quieter in Tibet, Human Rights Watch has reported that the apparently benign terms used by Chinese authorities such as “stability maintenance” mask repression there and are, in fact, used to ensure total compliance and surveillance by officials of ordinary Tibetan people.

Repression of Human Rights and Religion in Tibet

Tibetan culture and identity is inextricably linked to Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist principles and practice are deep in the Tibetan psyche and part of daily life for most Tibetans. The vast majority of Tibetans are devoted to the His Holiness the Dalai Lama and they long for his return to Tibet. Monks and nuns play a key role in their communities, providing guidance and education.

The greatest casualties of the Chinese occupation of Tibet have been Tibet’s religion and culture. One can’t begin to describe here the countless ways in which the Chinese authorities have waged war on Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture. The destruction of over 6,000 monasteries, nunneries, and sacred places before and during the Cultural Revolution was only the start. All aspects of religious practice are closely monitored and controlled. There is a massive army and police presence in Tibet. Nuns and monks are particularly targeted by security restrictions.

Simply possessing an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama can result in sanctions, arrest, and even torture. Now in a bizarre move, monasteries and nunneries in Tibet are being forced to display portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong on their altars or face punishment.

To decrease the influence of monastics and to prevent a new generation of Tibetans from mastering their language and connecting to their traditional culture, the Chinese Communist Party recently banned Tibetan monasteries from offering Tibetan language classes.

For decades, nuns and monks have been forced to endure “patriotic education” sessions to try to break their beliefs and their allegiance to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The boy who was chosen as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been missing for over 23 years. November 1995, the Chinese government selected a different boy.

March 10th, Tibetan Uprising Day, Tibetan demonstrations, protests by Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Draped in the Tibetan flags, Tibetan Buddhist nuns in India take part in peaceful demonstrations to mark the anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day, March 10th. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Now China is maneuvering to control the selection process of the next Dalai Lama. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken forcefully against this. He said, “The person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized.”

“It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas,” said His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On March 10, 2019, we won’t know what is happening inside Tibet. In February China closed Tibet to foreigners, journalists, and diplomats and Tibet is to remain closed until April 1st to prevent the world from bearing witness.

Preserve Tibet’s precious wisdom and culture

“We, here in exile, cannot materially help our people in Tibet, who are confronted with the destruction of all that they love and cherish. We can only pray with all the strength of our hearts that their nightmare of agony and terror will disappear in the not too distant future.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote these words in 1962 on the third anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising Day.

He went on to say, “There must be an end to the policy of force and intimidation which it [China] is pursuing in Tibet and that the only solution to the Tibetan problem is a peaceful settlement consistent with the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Tibetan people.”

Tibet’s unique religion and culture are global treasures that must not be lost. This wisdom tradition has so much to offer the world now and in the future.

Exile is the only chance for Tibetan Buddhist nuns to get an education.

Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan language

A Tibetan Buddhist nun practices Tibetan calligraphy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India. The Tibetan nuns in exile are helping to hold on to Tibet’s precious religion and culture. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

By helping the nuns and nunneries, you are helping to preserve Tibetan Buddhism and are providing the opportunity for these brave, dedicated women to be educated and become teachers and role models. Without the generosity and compassion of Tibetan Nuns Project supporters, over 700 nuns would not have the necessities of life such as education, shelter, food, clothing, and health care. Most of the nuns in India are from Tibet and cannot return to their homeland. They are forced to live as stateless refugees. Other nuns are from remote and impoverished Himalayan regions of India where there is little or no education available to girls and women.

The world needs Tibetan Buddhist nuns now and the wisdom, courage, compassion, and dedication that they embody and bring to humanity. Nuns are holders of a vision we must protect.

With prayers for the well-being and happiness of all sentient beings.