Category Archives: Nuns education

Science Fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

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

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

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in Dolma Ling science fair

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in Dolma Ling science fair

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

Tibetan Buddhist nun explains science fair poster

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

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

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

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute science fair 2019

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

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

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in science fair

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

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

Tibetan Buddhist nuns science fair at Dolma Ling 2019

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

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

Nuns presenting science posters at Dolma Ling science fair

Nuns presenting science posters at Dolma Ling science fair

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

solar system projects at Tibetan Buddhist nuns science fair

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

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

Water filtration project at Dolma Ling Science Fair

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

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

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

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

Human digestive system display by nuns

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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.

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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.

About Tibetan butter sculptures

The highly revered artistic tradition of making Tibetan butter sculptures has been practiced for over 400 years by monks in the monasteries in Tibet. The art of making Tibetan butter sculptures is now being preserved by monks and nuns living in India as refugees.

Tibetan nuns making butter sculptures for Losar

Tibetan nuns decorate a traditional offering box for Tibetan New Year or Losar with colorful butter sculptures. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Tibetan butter sculptures can be huge and impressive or tiny and intricate. They are used as sacred offerings or as part of elaborate rituals and celebrations, particularly during Losar, Tibetan New Year.

flower Tibetan butter sculpture

A nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India makes an elaborate colored flower out of butter. Photo by Nuns’ Media Team

It is the practice in Buddhism to offer flowers as a tribute to Buddha statues on altars. However, in winter when no fresh flowers can be found, flowers sculpted from butter are made as an offering. Other popular designs for Tibetan butter sculptures include the eight Auspicious Symbols in Tibetan Buddhism, the four harmonious friends – elephant, monkey, rabbit, and bird – and the sun and the moon.

Tibetan butter sculptures on Losar altar

Elaborate and colorful butter sculptures of flowers and Buddhist sacred symbols decorate an offering table for Losar or Tibetan New Year. These sculptures were made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India. In the lower left, you can see a sheep or ram made of butter. Photo by Nuns’ Media Team

Butter has always been highly valued in Tibetan culture. Its availability and its malleable quality in the cold climate of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas made it an ideal material for sculpting. Inside Tibet, the sacred Tibetan butter sculptures would be made from the butter of dri which are female yaks.

an elaborate Tibetan butter sculpture

A Tibetan Buddhist nun creates an elaborate Tibetan butter sculpture of a ram for Tibetan New Year. She is learning the ancient art of making Tibetan butter sculptures at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Preserving the art of Tibetan butter sculptures

Making butter sculptures requires painstaking skill, learned from an excellent teacher and through years of practice. Like the famous Tibetan sand mandalas, butter sculptures are a unique Tibetan sacred art that has been handed down for centuries from teacher to student.

The increasing shortage of well-trained and skilled butter sculptors in Tibet means that it is crucial that in India the nuns learn this religious art as part of their course of studies in order to keep it from dying out.

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make Tibetan butter sculptures

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make butter sculpture. Photos by the Nuns’ Media Team

At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India, nuns have been learning how to make butter sculptures from their teacher Gen. Karma-la. He carefully takes them through all the steps and the significance of each butter sculpture technique. He says the nuns make excellent students, with their keen sense of color and design, their nimble fingers, and their endless patience.

Tibetan butter sculptures, making butter sculptures,

Mounds of colored butter ready for the nuns at Dolma Ling to make Tibetan butter sculptures for Losar, Tibetan New Year. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Butter Sculpture Workshop at Dolma Ling

Creating butter sculptures in the hot climate of India is, as you can imagine, problematic. Several years ago, generous donors funded our project to create a special butter sculpture workshop at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a non-sectarian nunnery that is home to about 250 nuns.

Tibetan butter sculptures made by the nuns at Dolma Ling for Losar, Tibetan New Year.

Tibetan butter sculptures made by the nuns at Dolma Ling for Losar, Tibetan New Year. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Prior to that time, the nuns at Dolma Ling had been using a makeshift space at the nunnery that got very hot. They were only able to make sculptures during the very coldest months. Now a suitable space has been designated in the nunnery. The.room is cooler and has access to cold water in which to lay the butter and cool the nuns’ fingers.

materials for Tibetan butter sculptures

Rounds of butter, dyes, and other tools for making butter sculpture are laid out in preparation for making butter sculptures for Tibetan New Year at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

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.

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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.”

Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Geshemas,

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.

The story of a Tibetan Buddhist nun

This is the story of a Tibetan Buddhist nun living in exile in India. In August 2018 she is taking her final set of examinations for the Geshema degree. This highest degree, equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism, was until very recently only open to men. To protect this nun’s privacy and the safety of her family still in Tibet, we have not used her name or the some of the details of her home.

I was born in 1968 in a village in eastern Tibet situated on the hillside of a thickly wooded valley. Above our village was our pastureland and further north there are rocky mountains. There were about 25 semi-nomadic families living in our village when I lived there.

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Traditional Tibetan prayer flags flutter in front of snow mountains.

Our winters are very cold, like all the other places in Tibet, but the summer temperatures are quite high. Crops like corn, peas, and wheat grow very well there. Our herd consisted of only yaks and dris (female yaks). We didn’t live on the mountains permanently like the nomads.

During the summer months, we stayed in small yak hair tents called masong pitched on the higher grasslands and, in the winter, we returned to the farm. All the village animals were tended by one designated person during the winter when there wasn’t much work to do. In summer, during the calving season, all the animal owners returned to the mountains and pitched their tents, where they remained for the entire summer.

My parents and three of my brothers still live at our home in Tibet. I am the only daughter. My youngest brother is a monk studying in a monastery in South India. I never went to school in Tibet. I spent my time at home tending the animals. There was work in the village, but I always chose to be up on the mountains with the animals.

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Nun’s bag and robe. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

At age 18, I became a nun. In 1989, I joined a group of pilgrims from Lithang who were doing a prostration pilgrimage from Lithang to Lhasa to see the holy temple called the Jokhang.

[Note: A prostration pilgrimage is a form a Tibetan Buddhist worship in which the person stretches out full length on the ground, marks the spot where her or his fingertips reach, and stands and steps forward to that spot, then prostrates again. Through prostrations, Tibetan Buddhists seek to purify the body, speech, and mind, freeing oneself from delusions, negativity, and any bad karma. It is a form of spiritual devotion and mental training that, like other forms of Buddhist practice, was banned by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. The large group of over 150 Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks who undertook this pilgrimage from Lithang to Lhasa performed prostrations for the entire distance – about 1,200-miles. Here’s a short video showing a Tibetan Buddhist nun and a lay person prostrating in Lhasa.]

Lithang is about two days by car from my home. I was with the group from the very beginning of the pilgrimage. We gathered at Lithang and then prostrated eastward to Menyak to see the famous Pai-lhakhang, the temple dedicated to Palden Lhamo, the guardian deity of Tibet.

We returned to Lithang after six months and then made our journey towards Lhasa. The pilgrimage took us almost two years to complete. On the way, I learned to read and write Tibetan. We prostrated during the day and in the evenings we studied by the light of oil lamps and candles. It was a hard pilgrimage. We couldn’t do the whole distance from Lithang to Lhasa by prostrations because the group became too large after a time and it was impossible for such a large group to keep moving. So we would stop at a few places for months, do a number of prostrations, and then move again until we reached Lhasa.

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This nun was one of this large group of pilgrims from Lithang who did prostrations for over two years. When they escaped from Tibet and arrived in India, there was no space at existing nunneries to accommodate them. The Tibetan Nuns Project cared for them and other nuns and eventually built two new nunneries, Dolma Ling and Shugsep.

At Lhasa, we could not enter the holy city because there was trouble in the Tibetan capital at the time and the Chinese were fearful of the attention such a large group might attract. We were instead diverted to southern Tibet to another holy city, Shigatse. From Shigatse, we went on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. At Kailash, Yonton Phuntsok Rinpoche [a lama from Kham and the leader of the pilgrimage] decided to leave for India, and I, along with many other monks and nuns, followed him into exile. He made all the arrangements for our escape and we didn’t have to do much.  We came to Dharamsala via Nepal and have remained in Dharamsala ever since.

 [A note about the escape from Tibet: Like most Tibetans, this group escaped on foot over the Himalayas to Nepal. It took the group 27 or 28 days to make this harrowing journey into exile. The group was ill equipped and was forced to hide during the day and walk at night in order to avoid detection. Once in Nepal, they went to the Tibetan Reception Center at Kathmandu for medical care and to register as refugees. Now the border is heavily patrolled and freedom of movement inside Tibet is severely restricted, so it is virtually impossible for Tibetans to escape.]

The Tibetan Nuns Project took care of us from the very beginning. I saw Dolma Ling Nunnery come alive from barren land into becoming this popular center of learning where people flock to get a place. All the nuns who were with me on the pilgrimage are also at Dolma Ling. The study course here is for 19 years and I have now completed all 19 years of Buddhist philosophical studies.

Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist nun

Four nuns and a small tent on the empty plot of land where Dolma Ling Nunnery was built. The nunnery is now home to about 250 nuns.

At Dolma Ling we have a computer room. Nuns who received training from overseas volunteers with support from the Tibetan Nuns Project then taught us and there are many nuns who are interested in learning. I have learned basic computer skills for many years now and I feel so proud.

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Computer training for Tibetan nuns by volunteer, Harald Weichhart, 2009.

I feel so privileged to be a part of this institute, and I am thankful to everyone who made this possible for us. I am happy here, and Dolma Ling will be my home for many years to come.
                       

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.

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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.

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

What do Tibetan Buddhist nuns study?

We are often asked what the Tibetan Buddhist nuns study.

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 a modern education.

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Nuns at Shugsep Nunnery learning geography. 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. 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.

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Nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley at an outdoor classroom. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

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.

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Tibetan Cultural Geography

Since its inception in 1987, The Tibetan Nuns Project has set out to assist nuns from all parts of Tibet and from all the different Tibetan Buddhist lineages without preference or distinction.

While our initial concept was to help refugees from Tibet access their educational tradition, over the years we have received increasing numbers of requests for religious education from nuns from the Himalayan regions on the border between Tibet and India: Ladakh, Zanskar, Spiti, Lahoul, and Kinnaur.

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Photo from the remote Spiti Valley in northern India courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Historically, geographically, and economically these northern mountainous regions of India were linked so tightly to Tibet, one might argue as to which country they belonged. Tibet was a vibrant spiritual and cultural hub for China to the east, Mongolia to the north, and India to the south.

Monks would follow the trade routes into Tibet to join monasteries and study with great masters, bringing back inspiration and news from Tibet to the remote mountain valley communities.

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Nuns practice Tibetan Buddhist debate at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Indian Himalayas. The nunnery is one of seven nunneries in northern India supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

In 1959 the Chinese seized control of Tibet, severing the age-old connection between the Indian and Tibetan Himalayan regions. Cross-border interchange ceased and, just as Tibetans lost their monasteries and Buddhist culture was assailed, so also the Indian border areas lost their access to higher studies and connection with their Buddhist neighbor.

Where conditions for monks and monasteries are depressed, then those for nuns and nunneries are worse. Young women from the border region who are interested in religion, and who, through the spirit of the 21st century, are motivated to study and reach out at this time when the Tibetans in exile in India are establishing a firm base of monastic education, turn their feet in this direction and seek admission in the established Tibetan nunneries in the communities in exile.

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Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the Spiti Valley, northern India. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

According to the nuns who come to the Tibetan Nuns Project from these regions, there are few and poor nunneries for them to join and even fewer opportunities for them to study. A nun from Zanskar explains how it is nearly impossible to be a nun in that region because nuns have to struggle so hard for mere survival. Usually they remain in their family homes and receive no education.

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Young nuns studying at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti, northern India. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

This is why so many are prepared to take up the great challenge of learning Tibetan in order to join the nunneries in India and study Buddhist philosophy. They will in time become the first women teachers to return to these remote regions to introduce Buddhist learning for women.

During his teachings in Bodhgaya in January 2017, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “We also have here many people from the Himalayan region and there are many monks and nuns from their communities in our monasteries and nunneries. They have made up the numbers since the flow of monks and nuns out of Tibet has declined, something we can be mutually grateful for.”