Category Archives: News and Updates

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 700 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.

Rejoicing the 2018 Jang Gonchoe and Geshema Graduation

October and November was an extraordinary time. Over 600 nuns came together for the 24th annual Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate. At the conclusion of this month-long educational event, ten nuns more nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees. This blog post shares news and videos of these two special events.

The 2018 Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate

The annual, inter-nunnery debate called the Jang Gonchoe was held at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal from 3 October to 4 November 2018. More than 600 nuns from nine nunneries in India and Nepal attended this powerful educational opportunity.

Monastic debate is the traditional mode of study of the profound texts of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Through debate, the nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning. For many nuns, taking part in the Jang Gonchoe is an essential component of working towards higher academic degrees, such as the Geshema degree, which is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Here’s a video by Tizi Sonam showing the inter-nunnery debate.

Prior to 1995, there was no Jang Gonchoe for nuns, although Tibetan monks have held their Jang Gonchoe for centuries. The chance to have nuns from many nunneries gather and intensively debate with each other is a relatively new opportunity for ordained Buddhist women. The Tibetan Nuns Project has been fully supporting the Jang Gonchoe for nuns since 1997. Next year will be its 25th year.

In 2014, the Tibetan Nuns Project launched a Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund so that this vital educational opportunity may continue for years to come. Unfortunately, we’re still a long way from reaching our goal for the fund. You can learn more here. 

The fact that so many nuns wanted to attend this year’s event is a testament to both its incredible value as a learning opportunity and the nuns’ growing confidence. In the early years of the Jang Gonchoe, it was difficult to find nuns to participate because they lacked confidence and felt uncomfortable to join in. Now the nuns are eager to take part. They know what an important chance it is for them to gain skills in debating and to help them with their studies.

In past years, the number of nuns who participated in the Jang Gonchoe was also limited by the ability of the host nunnery to accommodate and feed visiting nuns from other nunneries. However, Kopan Nunnery is a large nunnery and had the facilities and capacity to house many nuns, so many more nuns were able to attend this year. We are extremely grateful to our supporters, including the Pema Chödrön Foundation and the Rowell Fund for Tibet/ICT, whose generosity enabled so many nuns to take part by helping with their food and travel costs.

The 9 nunneries that took part this year were:

  1. Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, near Dharamsala, India (min. 35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  2. Geden Choeling Nunnery,Dharamsala, India (min. 35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  3. Jamyang Choeling Nunnery, Dharamsala, India (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  4. Thujee Choeling Nunnery, South India (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  5. Kopan Nunnery, host nunnery, Nepal
  6. Jangchup Choeling, Nepal (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  7. Jangsemling Nunnery, Kinnaur, India (24 nuns and 1 teacher)
  8. Jampa Choeling Nunnery, Kinnaur, India (16 nuns and 1 teacher)
  9. Yangchen Choeling Nunnery, Spiti, India (14 nuns and 1 teacher)

The Geshema Exams and Graduation

From August 15-26 2018, 44 Tibetan Buddhist nuns sat various levels of their four-year Geshema exams. These rigorous written and oral (debate) exams were held at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Here are the results of the exams:
Fourth and final year exams: All 10 nuns passed
Third year exams: All 8 nuns passed
Second year: 11 of 14 nuns passed
First year: 8 of 12 nuns passed
The nuns who did not pass will have the option to re-sit their exams next year if they wish.

At the conclusion of this year’s Jang Gonchoe, held at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal, the ten nuns who passed their fourth and final Geshema exams in August took part in a formal debate process called damcha.

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Nuns line up to debate with the Geshemas in the damcha. This joyous and inspiring event was held for two days on November 3rd and 4th and was the final formal step in the Geshema graduation process. Photo courtesy of Tizi Sonam

The 2018 Geshema Graduation Ceremony was held on November 5th at Kopan Nunnery with teachers and about 600 nuns from at least 9 nunneries in India and Nepal in attendance.

Here’s a video made by Tizi Sonam of the 2018 Geshema graduation ceremony at Kopan Nunnery. 

The graduation this year of ten more Geshemas brings the total number of nuns with this degree to 37, including the German-born nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who was the first-ever Geshema.

This is the third year in a row in which a group of nuns completed the challenging four-year exam process. In 2016, Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when 20 nuns received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony in South India. Last year, another 6 nuns graduated at a ceremony at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree will make them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

The Impact of Your Support of the Nuns

The impact of your support goes far beyond providing funding to cover food and travel so the nuns could take their exams and attend the inter-nunnery debate. We are deeply grateful to all our donors for helping nuns receive the same opportunities for deep study and practice as monks have always had and for supporting these devoted women to become teachers and to contribute to their communities.

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Ten new Geshemas surrounded by Tibetan Buddhist nuns on the steps of Kopan Nunnery in Nepal, following the Geshema graduation ceremony on November 5 2018. Photo courtesy of Tizi Sonam

By furthering the education of hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, you are also helping to foster the dharma for future generations and to preserve Tibet’s rich religion and culture at a time when it is seriously under threat.

By helping to further educational opportunities like the inter-nunnery debate, you are encouraging more intense study and practice, increasing the nuns’ knowledge and confidence, and empowering these dedicated women to become great teachers in their own right. Thank you!

Thank you to Venerable Lobsang Dechen

Venerable Lobsang Dechen, Co-Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, is retiring after working on behalf of Tibetan Buddhist nuns for almost three decades.

A nun from the age of 13, Venerable Lobsang Dechen studied at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) in Dharamsala until Class 10, before completing her schooling at the Central School for Tibetans in Mussoorie.

Venerable Lobsang Dechen

Archival photo of Venerable Lobsang Dechen working at the Tibetan Nuns Project office in India.

She then attended St. Bede’s College, a women’s college in Shimla, and received her B.A. Degree followed by a B.Ed. Degree from Pubjab University in Chandigarh. With her teaching credentials, she returned to Lower TCV where she taught English and geography from 1984 to 1991.

In 1992, she left her teaching career to join the Tibetan Nuns Project to advance its efforts to make educational opportunities available for nuns throughout the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Since then, she has helped to establish a system in which nuns could be nurtured into educated, confident young women.

Venerable Lobsang Dechen, Betsy Napper, Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Tibetan Nuns Project

Venerable Lobsang Dechen (left), with Rinchen Khando Choegyal and Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Napper. This photo of the three directors of the Tibetan Nuns Project was taken in October 2017 at the celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Because Venerable Lobsang Dechen is a nun, her work towards the betterment of nuns has been very encouraging for the nuns. We will always be very grateful for her hard work, patience, dedication, and teamwork.

Venerable Lobsang Dechen, Geshemas, Geshema, Geshema Namdol Phuntsok,

Venerable Lobsang Dechen, Co-Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, speaking to the Geshemas at the Geshema graduation ceremony at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, Karnataka, India on December 22, 2016. The nun she is speaking to is Geshema Namdol Phuntsok from Kopan Nunnery, who attained the highest marks in the Geshema examinations. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

She has personally seen the nuns grow mentally and emotionally into stronger women, and move beyond the unthinkable situations they had faced in Tibet. After years of effort, it is wonderful thathe has seen the nuns graduate with the Geshema Degree (Geshe for monks), a great milestone in the history of Tibet.

Though we would have liked her to continue working with the Tibetan Nuns Project, we wish her all the best in life.

Venerable Lobsang Dechen

Collage of archival photos of Venerable Lobsang Dechen working to help the nuns.

Brian Harris: Story behind iconic Laughing Nuns photo

My name is Brian Harris. My wife Paula and I have left legacy gifts in our wills for the Tibetan Nuns Project as a way of continuing our support of the essential role that Tibetan nuns play in the ongoing transmission of the Buddha’s teaching.

Almost 30 years ago, in 1989, I travelled to India to take photographs and gather sound recordings for a special exhibition called India: Eye to Eye. My journey took me to Dharamsala, the heart of the Tibetan exile community and home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

It was on this trip that I encountered the Tibetan Nuns Project. The Tibetan Nuns Project would become one of the charitable organizations that I chose to help with my photographic projects.

Brian Harris, Tibetan Nuns Project, laughing nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dharamsala, Tibetan Buddhism, nunnery, Buddhist nunnery, legacy gift to Tibetan Nuns ProjectLaughing Nuns: The Story Behind the Photograph

It was lunchtime at Geden Choeling Nunnery when two nuns stepped out of the main entrance to the shrine hall. As soon as I spotted the lead nun holding a gong in one hand and a mallet in the other, I realized this might be a good photo opportunity. I pointed my camera and took one photo.

This was before digital cameras were common, so it was almost six months later when I was back in Vancouver and I finally developed the rolls of film from that trip. When I saw the photograph for the first time, I was stunned by its beauty and power. It wasn’t the photo I imagined I had taken. I had thought I’d taken an image of a nun banging on a gong. Instead, it was a marvelous display of two nuns in full-bodied, infectious, joyful laughter. Little did I know that it would become an iconic image – one that so many people have come to identify with the Tibetan people’s indomitable spirit and light-hearted, warm character.

Brian Harris, Tibet, nun receiving blessed water, Giving and Receiving

Over many years, my association with the Tibetan Nuns Project has been a two-way relationship resulting in friendships and a deep satisfaction in knowing that my photographic gifts and project funds have been useful and kindly received.

The reciprocal relationship of receiving while giving that I experience with the Tibetan Nuns Project is, I think, beautifully portrayed in this image I took on my first trip to Tibet in 1987.

The photo above is of a nun humbly receiving blessed water offered by a Ganden Monastery monk. The blessed water is being given from a simple teapot rather than the traditional , more ornate vessel, because many of the valuable ritual implements were plundered during the violent occupation of Tibet several decades before. [Tibet has been under Chinese occupation since the 1950s. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, “More than 97 percent of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed and the number of monks and nuns living in the monasteries was reduced by 93 percent,” according to the 10th Panchen Lama’s famous petition submitted to the Chinese government on the conditions inside Tibet.]

An element in this photograph that I have always liked, but particularly appreciate more recently, is the fact that the face of the monk is in soft-focused shadow. In the Theravada tradition, there was and is a custom of a monk holding up an elaborately embroidered ritual fan in front of his face while teaching the Dharma. This symbolizes the impersonal nature of the teaching, thus reminding both listener and speaker that it’s the Dharma that is the primary teacher or wisdom source, not the individual giving the teaching or recitation.

In closing, I’d like to suggest that you join me in leaving a lasting legacy to help the nuns, by including a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project and share your intention by emailing info@tnp.org or calling 1-206-652-8901.

If you include a gift in your will to the Tibetan Nuns Project before the end of March 2019, I will send you signed prints of both photos as a special thank you. Just contact the Tibetan Nuns Project office by emailing  info@tnp.org or calling 1-206-652-8901.

May all beings be happy and free of distress!

Brian Harris

2018 Geshema exam results: 10 new Geshemas

The 2018 Geshema exam results are in. All 10 nuns who took their fourth and final exams in August have passed.

This means that, in early November, after a formal debate process and graduation ceremony, there will be 10 more Tibetan Buddhist nuns who have achieved the Geshema degree (called the Geshe degree for monks), which is the highest degree in their tradition and is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism.

Geshema, Geshema exams, 2018 Geshema exam results, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

Nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute cluster around the nunnery noticeboard to read this year’s Geshema exam results. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

2018 Geshema Exam Results

The Geshema results were announced this week and are as follows:

  • Fourth and final year: all 10 nuns passed
  • Third year exams: all 8 nuns passed
  • Second year: 11 of 14 nuns passed
  • First year: 8 of 12 nuns passed

The nuns who didn’t pass can re-sit their exams next year if they wish.

The graduation in 2018 of 10 more Geshemas will bring the total number of nuns with this degree to 37, including the German-born nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who was the first-ever Geshema.

2018 is the third year in a row in which a group of nuns completed the challenging four-year exam process. In 2016, Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when 20 nuns received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony in South India. Last year, another 6 nuns graduated at a ceremony at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The Geshema graduates from 2016 and 2017 are currently enrolled in groundbreaking, two-year Buddhist tantric studies program that was started in November 2017 that is funded by generous donors to the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Geshema, Geshema exams, 2018 Geshema exam results, Dolma Ling Nunnery

Exciting news. Nuns and staff gather round the bulletin board at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute to read the 2018 Geshema exam results. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

About the Geshema Degree

The Geshema degree is comparable to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Geshes (monks who hold the degree) and Geshemas (nuns who hold the degree) are the most educated monastics, carrying much of the responsibility for preserving the Tibet’s precious religious wisdom and culture. The Geshema exam process is very rigorous and is the culmination of a 17-year course of study. Each year, for four years, the candidates must take both written and oral (debate) exams for an 11-day period.

Until recently, the degree was only open to men. The opening up of this opportunity for nuns would not have been possible without the support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan government in exile, and high lamas and teachers.

Once they obtain their Geshema degrees, besides being in possession of a treasure of knowledge, the nuns will be eligible to assume various leadership roles in the monastic and lay communities, bringing them one step closer to standing as equals.

Subjects for the 2018 Geshema Exams

From August 15 to 26, 2018, 44 nuns from four nunneries (Geden Choeling, Jangchup Choeling, Kachod Gyakhil Ling, and Dolma Ling) sat for the Geshema exams at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Initially the number was supposed to be 46, but two nuns, one in first year and one in second, were unable to attend their exams.

Geshema exams, Geshema exam results, 2018 Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist debate

Nuns debate as part of their Geshema exams. In 2018, the nuns were examined on debating by four Geshes, one each from Sera Jey, Sera Mey, Ganden Shartse, and Ganden Shangtse monasteries, all located in South India.

Each morning, nuns from two of the four levels completed written papers from 9 a.m. to noon, while nuns from the other two levels underwent debate exams. In the afternoons, from 2 to 6 p.m., the examinees gathered for their debate sessions in front of the examiners.

Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is one of the major subjects for the Geshema candidates, but they were examined on other subjects as well. In philosophy, nuns taking their first- and second-year exams were tested on Perfection of Wisdom (Pharchin) and Middle Way (Madhyamika), while third- and fourth-year examinees were tested on Monastic Discipline (Vinaya) and Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharma). All exams were followed by debate sessions.

In addition to their other exams, nuns in years 1-3, were tested on Tibetan grammar and science. Nuns taking their final year exams were tested on science and history. Each of the final-year candidates also had to write, in advance, a 50-page thesis and they were examined on their thesis papers during the Geshema exams.

Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan nuns, Buddhist nuns, Geshema degree 2018, Geshema exams 2018, Buddhist women, women in Buddhism

Nuns cluster around the notice board at Dolma Ling Nunnery to read the messages of good luck sent to the Geshema candidates. The good wishes were felt by all the nuns. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

 

 

Sharing your good luck messages for the Geshema candidates

Last month we reached out to our global family of supporters to let you know about nuns working hard to become Geshemas. So many of you wrote to share beautiful good luck messages for the Geshema candidates.

We compiled all your good luck messages and they were posted on the noticeboard at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Our wonderful Nuns’ Media Team documented the nuns reading the messages and also the start of the 2018 Geshema exams.

We’d like to share some of the photos and some of your good wishes here, taking you on an armchair trip to the heart of Dolma Ling Nunnery.

good luck messages for the Geshema candidates, good luck messages, Geshema, Geshema degree, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, Geshema exams

Nuns gather at the Dolma Ling Nunnery bulletin board to read the many messages of good luck sent to the Geshema candidates. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

In August 2018, 44 Tibetan Buddhist nuns are sitting various levels of the rigorous four-year Geshema exams. (Earlier we reported that there were 46 nuns, but one of the nuns taking first-year exams had to postpone and return home to care for her ailing mother, and one of the second-year nuns also had to miss exams this year) The written and oral (debate) exams run from August 15-26, 2018.

  • 12 nuns taking their first round of examinations
  • 14 nuns doing their second-year exams
  • 8 nuns doing their third-year exams and
  • 10 nuns doing their fourth and final year.
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.

The Geshema degree (or Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. This highest degree was, until recently, only open to men. Now Tibetan Buddhist nuns are making history. In the last two years, 26 Tibetan Buddhist nuns have earned this degree.

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Supporters from around the world sent heartfelt messages of good luck to the nuns taking this year’s Geshema exams. The messages were posted on the bulletin board at Dolma Ling Nunnery for all the nuns to see. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Here are some of the messages:

“Congratulations to all the Geshema candidates at all levels for achieving so much knowledge, previously not made available to the women. May it all be reflected in your exam results, and may you carry on to be blessings to every being you encounter, in whatever role and relationship.” Poke

“Your dedication to your studies and to your Tibetan culture is simply awesome. Thank you for your contributions to your branch of Buddhism and to our world. All best wishes for your soon forthcoming exams. I will be holding you in my prayers.” Carolyn

“Blessings to all the nuns! Homage to your vows, compassion and desire to be of benefit to all of us stuck in ignorance. May the Bodhisattvas guide and assist you in your studies and exams.” Stephen

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Introductory remarks and good wishes before the 46 nuns start taking their two weeks of Geshema exams. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

In the spring of 2018, we launched a special fund for the 2018 Geshema Exams. We are extremely grateful to all the donors who made gifts to this fund which is being used to cover the costs of travel for the nuns to and from their exams and for the food during their month-long stay at Dolma Ling.

We’d like to say a special thank you to Vita Wells who made a major gift to this fund in memory of her late partner, Michelle Bertho. We would also like to send a special thank you to Dechen Tsering for launching a birthday campaign for this fund and to her many friends and family who made gifts in her honor.

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Each year, the two weeks of Geshema exams involve both written exams and oral (debate) exams. Nuns must complete 4 years of exams to earn their Geshema degree, equivalent to the Geshe degree for monks. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

We are still seeking $2,035 to complete the funding for the 2018 Geshema exams. You can learn more and donate here.

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All prepared and entering the exam hall. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Here’s a few more good luck messages for the Geshema candidates:

“Hello to you from Canada! I wish all of you taking exams the very best of luck, but even more, the heartfelt wish for you to shine. It is very important for you, and for people around the world, that you are able to preserve and protect the precious teachings you have studied. May you all excel, and blessings radiate for all. Much metta to you.” Michelle

“To All the Geshema Candidates, You are an inspiration. Beings have already benefited from your study.and dedication. Thank you for your efforts. You help insure the survival of the Dharma. May you all successfully complete your exams. May the benefits of your accomplishments be universal.” Carole

“Sending best wishes to you all from the UK. You are an inspiration to all women who seek a better future, and  the Buddha”s teaching is safe in your hands.” Julia

“As a PhD in science and a long-time supporter of TNP, I am delighted by the news and admire the perseverance of the nuns. May Buddhism long live!” Nathan

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Nuns cluster around the noticeboard at Dolma Ling Nunnery to read the good luck messages for the Geshema candidates. The good wishes were felt by all the nuns. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree will make them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

The 26 Geshemas who graduated in 2016 and 2017 are now taking part in a groundbreaking new Buddhist tantric studies program. This two-year program at Dolma Ling Nunnery started in November 2017 and is funded by generous supporters through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

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A nun debates as part of her Geshema exams. Providing opportunities for the nuns to debate has been a critical part of their education to reach this highest degree. The next major event for the nuns is the annual inter-nunnery debate, called the Jang Gonchoe, which will take place this year at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal.

Send messages of support to Geshema candidates

When you’re facing big challenges, it feels great to know that people are wishing you good luck. You can send a message of support to the Geshema candidates by writing a comment on this blog.

From August 15-26 2018, 45 Tibetan Buddhist nuns will sit various levels of their Geshema exams. To attain the Geshema degree, the nuns must take four years of exams. (Earlier we reported that there were 46 nuns, but one of the nuns taking first-year exams had to postpone and return home to care for her ailing mother.) The Geshema exams take place over 4 years and are the culmination of a rigorous 17-year course of study.

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Nuns reading messages of good luck and support from other nuns prior to the 2016 Geshema candidates. We’re collecting messages from support from you and will send them to the nuns taking their exams in August 2018.

The Geshema degree (or Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. Until recently, this degree was only open to men. In the last two years, 26 Tibetan Buddhist nuns have made history and earned this degree. Geshes and Geshemas are the most educated monastics, carrying much of the responsibility for preserving the Tibetan religion and culture.

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

The nuns taking their exams this year gathered at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute on July 15th to make their final preparations and studies.

In August 2018 there will be:

  • 12 nuns taking their first-year exams
  • 15 nuns doing their 2nd year
  • 8 nuns doing their 3rd year
  • 10 Geshema candidates doing their fourth and final year of exams. All being well, there will be 10 new Geshema graduates this fall.
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A Tibetan Buddhist nun takes her Geshema exams in 2017. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree will make them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a special graduation ceremony at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.

We are seeking donations to help to cover the costs of travel for the Geshema candidates to and from Dolma Ling Nunnery and for their food during their 6-week study and exam period. You can donate here.

In November 2017, another 6 nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees. They received their degrees in a special ceremony on November 5th. The six new Geshemas had the opportunity to join the Geshemas who received their degrees in December 2016 in a groundbreaking new Buddhist tantric studies program. This two-year program at Dolma Ling Nunnery started in November 2017 and is funded by generous supporters through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns had in their exam papers during the Geshema exams in 2017. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Behind the Camera: Showcasing Nuns’ Media Team Photos

The Nuns’ Media Team at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute near Dharamsala in northern India is a special group of women. They tell stories through photos and stories matter.

Traditionally Tibetan Buddhist nuns have been a quiet and faint presence in the world. They have had little or no opportunity to tell their own stories or document their own lives. Now the nuns, through the Nuns’ Media Team, are increasingly able to share their own news and images.

In this blog, we’d like to showcase some of the photographs taken by the Nuns’ Media Team and tell you about an exciting new project to provide cameras to all 7 nunneries that we support.

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The Nuns’ Media Team is able to capture intimate portraits like this one of two nuns reading Tibetan.

The nuns who form the Nuns’ Media Team initially received training from overseas volunteers. As they are empowered and gain in skills, they are also less reliant on non-Tibetan photographers.

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The Nuns’ Media Team captured this candid shot of a tug of war during celebrations of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday. It was a rare opportunity for the nuns to take a break from their studies and nunnery chores.

Now they are now passing on their knowledge to other nuns. Venerable Delek Yangdron, the supervisor of the Nuns’ Media Team, has trained several nuns in still and video photography, in interview techniques, and in cutting and editing footage to make videos. The nuns have already produced a series of videos on life at Dolma Ling, the Tibetan Nuns Project, and Shugsep Nunnery.

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This atmospheric shot of nuns lighting butter lamps at Dolma Ling Nunnery was taken by the Nuns’ Media Team. Over time they have developed their skills in taking photographs in low-light conditions.

While we at the Tibetan Nuns Project are extremely grateful to the many photographers who have shared their images with us, we know that these volunteers can only visit the nunneries for short periods, and that they can never truly have the access and understanding that Tibetan Buddhist nuns themselves can have to nunnery life.

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These smiling faces of nuns wearing knitted items donated by Wool-Aid were captured by the Nuns’ Media Team. The nuns are able to capture relaxed portraits like these.

One professional photographer said this about empowering diverse communities with cameras: “Indeed, the beauty behind documentary photography doesn’t reside in the taking of the images, but in the access and the depth with which you can document a phenomenon or a subject.”

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The Nuns’ Media Team is in a unique position to document life at the nunnery. Here the nuns of Dolma Ling undertake the big task of cleaning the pond reservoir.

Currently the nuns write, edit, and publish their own annual magazine in Tibetan and also supply photographs for the annual Tibetan Nuns Project calendar that is an income earner for all of the nunneries. These are both achievements to be proud of given than so many nuns were illiterate on arrival in India.

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Tibetan nuns are able to capture with respect scenes like this in the prayer hall at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

One of our board members, Robin Groth, has generously offered to match gifts up to a total of $1,000 towards the Media Equipment Project to provide all 7 nunneries with a camera.

Robin Groth says, “I spent my career as a broadcast journalist and documentary producer, telling stories of people’s lives, and witnessing historical events. Now I can help the nuns give voice to their own stories of survival, hope, educational equality, and empowerment. What a joy to be part of a project enabling the nuns to record, preserve, and share their culture and accomplishments with the world.”

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Sometimes members of the Nuns’ Media Team are able to travel to other nunneries and capture images there, like of these nuns debating at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. We hope we can provide each nunnery with a camera.

Look for photos from the nuns on our new Tibetan Nuns Project Instagram account.

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Poster showing the Nuns’ Media Team based at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

The 2018 Geshema Exams

It’s exam time! This summer, 46 Tibetan Buddhist nuns will sit the 2018 Geshema exams. These rigorous written and oral exams take four years to complete.

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Nuns sitting their Geshema exams in 2017. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

For the 2018 Geshema exams there will be:

  • 13 nuns taking their first round of examinations
  • 15 nuns doing their second-year exams
  • 8 nuns doing their third-year exams and
  • 10 nuns doing their fourth and final year.

All being well, there will be 10 new Geshema graduates this fall.

The 2018 Geshema exams will be held at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute from August 15-26. All the nuns taking exams will gather at Dolma Ling on July 15, a month in advance, as they need to study together and make their final exam preparations.

We are seeking donations to help to cover the costs of travel for the Geshema candidates to and from Dolma Ling Nunnery and for their food during their 6-week study and exam period. You can donate here.

The Geshema degree (or Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. This highest degree was, until recently, only open to men. Now Tibetan Buddhist nuns are making history. In the last two years, 26 Tibetan Buddhist nuns have earned this degree.

Geshema, geshema exams, 2018 Geshema exams, 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

The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree will make them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a special graduation ceremony at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.

In November 2017, another 6 nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees. They  received their degrees in a special ceremony on November 5th. The six new Geshemas had the opportunity to join the Geshemas who received their degrees in December 2016 in a groundbreaking new Buddhist tantric studies program. This two-year program at Dolma Ling Nunnery started in November 2017 and is funded by generous supporters through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns had in their exam papers during the Geshema exams in 2017. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

We need your help

We have a kind of stinky problem. It’s also an urgent one.

The septic systems are failing at two Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in India, Shugsep  Nunnery and Dolma Ling Nunnery. This poses a health risk to the nuns and their neighbors. The nuns need your help before the situation gets even worse.

The repairs to both septic systems must be made before the arrival of monsoon rains at the end of June.

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Properly functioning septic systems are vital for the health and well-being of the nunneries and their neighbors.

Unfortunately, both nunneries are entirely dependent on their septic systems to treat both sewage and greywater. There are no main sewer lines or sewage treatment systems nearby that they can tap into.

We need $6,500 to repair the septic system at Shugsep Nunnery and $6,200 to repair the septic system at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Can you help?

Donate here.

This is not just a smelly problem for the nuns and the surrounding community. Without urgent repairs, there is the very real danger of outbreaks of disease such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis. Learn about all our Current Needs here.