Category Archives: Nuns education

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.

Continue reading

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.”

Video Interview of a Geshema Nun: Determination and Dedication on the Path

A year ago, on December 22 2016, twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when they graduated with their Geshema degrees.

Today we’d like to share a video interview of one of those Geshemas – Tenzin Kunsel. As you will hear from her story, her long journey to becoming a Geshema was not an easy one. Her extraordinary determination and dedication shines through. With gentle humor she tells her story of overcoming many obstacles on the path to becoming a senior nun and teacher.

Watch the video. Continue reading

A Guided Tour of Shugsep Nunnery

We want to take you on a guided tour of Shugsep Nunnery. It is one of the two Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in India built and fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Shugsep Nunnery is home to about 85 Tibetan Buddhist nuns.  The nunnery was re-established  in exile in India and was officially inaugurated in December 2010.

Here’s a special video we created in October 2017, with thanks to volunteer film-makers Evan Kezsbom, Jalene Szuba, and Dustin Kujawski.

A Nyingma nunnery, Shugsep traces its rituals and practice to some of the most illustrious female practitioners in Tibetan history. In the previous century, Shugsep Nunnery was home to one of the most famous teachers of her time, Shugsep Jetsunma.

The original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was completely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and the nuns were forced to leave. Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was partially rebuilt in the 1980s by the nuns themselves, but the nuns faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities.

The majority of the nuns studying in Shugsep Nunnery near Dharamsala in India come from the original Shugsep in Tibet. Here, in exile, the nuns have a safe, peaceful place to study. They have the opportunity to be educated and to participate in a nine-year academic program of Buddhist philosophy, debate, Tibetan language, and English.

letter from Shgusep nun, Shugsep Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

This English essay by a nun at Shugsep describes her joy and love for her nunnery, her “second home”, and her gratitude for the donors and sponsors who support the nunnery. Photo courtesy of Dustin Kujawski.

Tibetan Buddhist debate and the 2017 Jang Gonchoe

The annual inter-nunnery debate, called the Jang Gonchoe, was held at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute from October 3 to November 2, 2017.

The nuns debated every day from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and again in the evening from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight. A total of 376 nuns from 8 nunneries in India and Nepal took part this year.

Here’s a 3-minute video of the 2017 Jang Gonchoe:

The participating nuns were from:

  1. Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, the host nunnery (207 nuns took part)
  2. Geden Choling (27)
  3. Jamyang Choeling (27)
  4. Thukjee Choling, Nepal (27)
  5. Kopan Nunnery (Khachoe Gakyil Ling), Nepal (27)
  6. Jangchub Choling, Mundgod (27)
  7. Jangsem Ling, Kinnaur (19) New participant nunnery this year.
  8. Jampa Choling, Kinnaur (13) New participant nunnery this year.
  9. Nuns’ Committee members (2)

Here’s a gallery of images taken by the Nuns Media Team at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Continue reading

Another Historic Achievement: Geshemas to Receive Higher Education in Tantric Studies

For the first time in the history of Tibet, nuns will be given the opportunity to receive higher education in tantric studies. Although there have been accomplished female practitioners in Tibet’s history, women have never before been given an opportunity to formally study tantric Buddhism.

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18 of the 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns who received their Geshema degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in December 2016. The Geshema graduates now have the opportunity to study tantric Buddhism.

Traditionally, monks who have attained their Geshe degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism, must also study tantric treatises in order to become fully qualified masters capable of teaching their complete tradition. Monks have always been able to receive these teachings at one of the great tantric colleges.

After the first-ever Tibetan Geshemas graduated in December 2016, a committee of representatives from six nunneries approached His Holiness the Dalai Lama for advice on starting a tantric studies program for the nuns. He kindly gave detailed instructions about the curriculum and the treatises to be used. He recommended that the Geshema nuns study as a group at Dolma Ling Nunnery, one of the nunneries founded and supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, since it has a quiet and peaceful atmosphere, conducive to intense study.

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Joy among the 20 Geshema nuns who received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in December 2016 at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The committee then asked the Tibetan Nuns Project to provide funding for this groundbreaking program. On August 30th, the program was fully funded.

The two-year program starts in the first week of October. Two teachers are being hired and the Geshema nuns will receive training in tantric theory, rituals, and mind-training techniques used by those engaged in advanced meditation.

Tibetan photographer with a compassionate eye: Delek Yangdron

Venerable Delek Yangdron is one of the most senior nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India. She arrived in India the winter of 1990 as part of the first group to join the newly founded nunnery. Almost illiterate on arrival, she began her education in Buddhist studies and is now the leader of the nuns’ Media Team and is a skilled photographer and videographer.

Her determination and story of academic and professional success are inspiring.

Delek Yangdron Tibetan Buddhist nun

Venerable Delek Yangdron’s path to academic and professional success has been long and difficult. She now heads the Media Team of nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India.

Delek Yangdron was born in Lithang in the eastern Tibetan province of Kham, surrounded by open grasslands and snow-capped mountains. Born into a nomad family, she helped care for the family’s animals, moving the livestock in search of better pastures. Sadly, her father passed away when she was just seven and her mother died in 2000. During her time at home in Tibet, Delek Yangdron never had the opportunity to go to school or to study.

In the late 1980s, a lama from Kham, Yonten Phuntsok Rinpoche, decided to organize a special pilgrimage from Parlhakang in Kham all the way to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Delek Yangdron joined the group of over 150 pilgrims. Continue reading

Witness history in the making: Geshema Graduation Ceremony

In one week’s time, twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns will receive their Geshema degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special Geshema Graduation Ceremony in Mundgod, South India.

Geshema nuns

This historic event will be attended by hundreds of monks and nuns.

Here’s the formal schedule of events:

schedule for Geshema Graduation event

The event will be livestreamed from India and can be viewed on the home page of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Please note the time difference for your region. The event starts at 8 am on December 22 Indian time which is equivalent to 6:30 pm on December 21st Pacific Standard Time.

livestream of the Geshema Graduation Ceremony

Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, OHHDL

If you are unable to watch the livestream of the event, check back to the Tibetan Nuns Project homepage sometime from December 28th onwards and where we’ll have the video embedded.