Category Archives: Nuns education

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.

Spiti Valley, Olivier Adam, Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Olivier Adam, Tibetan Buddhist debate, nunnery, Indian Himalayas, Tibetan Cultural Geography

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.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Olivier Adam, Tibetan Buddhist debate, nunnery, Indian Himalayas, Tibetan Cultural Geography

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.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Olivier Adam, Tibetan Buddhist debate, nunnery, Indian Himalayas, Tibetan Cultural Geography

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.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Olivier Adam, Tibetan Buddhist debate, nunnery, Indian Himalayas, Tibetan Cultural Geography

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

Here is a video interview of a Geshema – Tenzin Kunsel.

On December 22, 2016, twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when they graduated with their Geshema degrees. They received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

As you will hear from her story, her long journey to becoming a Geshema was not an easy one.

With gentle humor, she tells her story of overcoming many obstacles on the path to becoming a senior nun and teacher. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel’s extraordinary determination and dedication shine through.

The video was made in October 2017 at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Our thanks to Tibetan Nuns Project Co-Director, Venerable Lobsang Dechen, for providing the English translation and to volunteer film-makers Evan Kezsbom, Jalene Szuba, and Dustin Kujawski.

The Geshema degree is equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy and is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. It could previously only be earned by monks and is called the Geshe degree.

This historic milestone for the 20 nuns was the culmination of decades of study and dedication. In addition to the 17-years of study required, there is a rigorous four-year examination process.

Now Geshema Tenzin Kunsel and the 25 other recent Geshemas who graduated in 2016 and 2017 are starting a brand-new and historic two-year course in Buddhist 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.

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.

Geshema, Tenzin Kunsel,

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.

Geshema, Geshema nuns, Tantric Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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.

Olivier Adam, Geshema nuns, Geshema graduation, tantric studies for women, nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project

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.

Interview with a Geshema nun: Tenzin Kunsel

The following is an interview from May 2014 with Venerable Tenzin Kunsel who, at the time, had just completed her second round of examinations for the Geshema Degree, a degree equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism. Since this interview was made, Venerable Tenzin Kunsel has successfully completed all four rounds of her examinations. In July 2016 it was announced that she and 19 other nuns will formally receive their Geshema degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony at Drepung Monastery in South India on December 22nd 2016. Venerable Tenzin Kunsel is one of the first Geshemas (female Geshes) in the history of Tibet.

portrait of Tibetan Buddhist nun Tenzin Kunsel

Venerable Tenzin Kunsel who will become one of the first Geshemas in the history of Tibet

Background

I was born to a simple family near Lhasa and I came to exile in 1991. When I was in Tibet, we were not given a Buddhist education; instead we had to do prayers for the people who made offerings at the nunnery. It was really disappointing as well as sad that we were not given the education we needed. I strongly felt that the best way to become educated in Buddhist studies was to come to India. Along with 75 other newly arrived nuns, I came to Dolma Ling Nunnery. Today I am here for the 2nd round of the historic Geshema examinations.

Q: How has being at the nunnery made a difference in your life?
A: When I first reached Dolma Ling Nunnery, its facilities weren’t as good as now. But I never lost hope. Many times, my family pressured me to go to school rather than the nunnery. But I never wanted to go to school because I thought I would not get a proper Buddhist education.

After being admitted to the nunnery, I started my studies from the basic education. It gave me special comfort and peace of mind, making me strongly feel that I had not made the wrong decision to join the nunnery in India.

Q: If you could speak directly to the sponsor who is helping you get education, food and health care at the nunnery, what would you say to that person?
A: I always feel grateful and fortunate to have sponsors who are truly kind. We are from totally different worlds with no blood relation, yet they still extend financial as well as moral support. It is partly because of the sponsor that I am one of those lucky nuns able to grab the rare opportunity to obtain the Geshema qualification.

I also feel that the sponsors are much more generous than my own parents. Parents are bound with the universal responsibility for looking after their own child, but our sponsors are never bound with the responsibility to look after me and take care of me like their own child. I always pray for their happiness and success in their lives. Continue reading

Tilokpur Nunnery and the Great Yogi Tilopa

Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling is situated at Tilokpur in Himachal Pradesh, northern India. Their lineage comes from the great Indian Yogi Tilopa (988-1069 CE) and was passed on to Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and to His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa.

The nunnery is built near the cave of Tilopa, who meditated there for 12 years and attained enlightenment. The cave is located above a river and is a place of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists.

Tibetan nuns puja opposite cave of Tilopa

The nuns perform a puja on the riverbank opposite the cave of Tilopa.

Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling is the oldest Kagyu nunnery outside of Tibet. It provides housing and education to over 110 nuns and overlooks a small town in the lush foothills of the Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh in northern India. The nunnery is about 40 kilometers from Dharamsala and is near the highway from Mandi to Pathankot.

young Tibetan Buddhist nun performs a puja at Tilokpur

A young Tibetan Buddhist nun takes part in a puja at the nunnery. The nuns have been practicing new pujas as well as the damaru (drum) and bells as they work to improve their ritual skills such as chanting and the use of different musical instruments.

There are two branches of Tilokpur Nunnery. The older compound, called Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling, is now home to about 20 senior nuns who engage in intensive meditation practices and perform daily prayers. It is also home to 11 of the nunnery’s youngest nuns who are being given a basic education in Tibetan, English, and math. The newer branch of the nunnery, called Drubten Pemo Gaype Gatsal, is located down the hill and accommodates nuns engaged in intensive studies. There the nuns have classes in Tibetan, English, Buddhist philosophy, debate, and computing.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating outside the nunnery

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating outside the nunnery

The nuns at Tilokpur range in age from 9 to 88 and many are from very poor families. Most are Tibetan, but there are also nuns from the Indian Himalayan regions of Kinnaur, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, and from the Mustang region of Nepal.

Tilokpur Nunnery was founded in the early 1960s by Mrs. Freda Bedi to assist nuns arriving in India after escaping from the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Freda Bedi (1911–1977) was a British nun ordained by the Karmapa. As Sister Palmo she became famous as the first Western woman to take ordination in Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan nuns debate at Tilokpur

The nuns debate at the nunnery. Debate is a vital part of Tibetan monastic education. For the last two years, the nuns have participated in the Kagyu nuns’ debate session held every winter.

Establishing the nunnery was fraught with difficulties. According to a biography of Sister Palmo, Lady of Realisation, the nuns and Sister Palmo lived in grass huts as the nunnery was being built. The huts were accidentally destroyed by fire and, though Sister Palmo survived, she lost many precious Tibetan Buddhist texts that she was translating into English.

Sister Palmo wrote: “Our gonpa… the nunnery… building is something of an odyssey. We are clearing bricks and mud from the floor of the ruined fort on the top of the hill. Seems like a mountain. Tibetan and India labour with the nuns of all sizes, including me, carrying stones for an hour a day. Our little nuns carry pebbles.”

Tibetan Buddhist nun and her teacher

A nun studies with her teacher. The new academic year started in March and subjects include Buddhist philosophy, Tibetan, English, and math.

Tilokpur remains a relatively small nunnery and, in the past, the nuns there had been hampered in their abilities to develop and sustain themselves by the general lack of education.

The Tibetan Nuns Project began supporting the nunnery in 1992 and has helped Tilokpur Nunnery start regular classes in Tibetan, Buddhist philosophy, and English. The Tibetan Nuns Project has also helped the Tilokpur nuns purchase new books, including Buddhist philosophy and math textbooks.

The nunnery office is now also better equipped technically with a new computer, fax, and printer and two nuns have completed a month-long computer-training course. The nuns have also formed a management committee that is administering the internal activities of the nunnery. About 100 nuns at Tilokpur are  sponsored through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Buddhist nuns worship near cave of Tilopa

The nuns worship by the river near the cave of Tilopa.

Tilopa gave his most famous student Naropa a teaching called the “Six Words of Advice”, the text of which survives only in its Tibetan translation. This profound teaching has been translated into English in both a short and longer form and goes as follows:

Don’t recall – Let go of what has passed
Don’t imagine – Let go of what may come
Don’t think – Let go of what is happening now
Don’t examine – Don’t try to figure anything out
Don’t control – Don’t try to make anything happen
Rest – Relax, right now, and rest

Tibetan Butter Sculpture

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

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

Tibetan butter sculpture

A nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India makes an elaborate colored flower out of butter.

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.

butter sculptures, Tibetan New Year, Losar, chemar bo

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 in northern India. In the lower left, you can see a sheep or ram made of butter.

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.

Tibetan butter sculpture sheep or ram

A Tibetan Buddhist nun creates a sheep out of butter as she learns the ancient art of making 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 is handed down 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 butter sculpture

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make butter sculpture

At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India, nuns have been learning how to make butter sculptures from their excellent 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.

The Need for a Butter Sculpture Workshop

Creating butter sculptures in the hot climate of India is, as you can imagine, problematic. The workshop room must be cool and have access to cold water in which to lay the butter and cool the nuns’ fingers.

Until now, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery have been using a makeshift space at the nunnery that gets very hot. They are only able to make sculptures during the very coldest months. Now a suitable space has been located in the nunnery that, with renovations, will be ideal.

materials for Tibetan butter sculpture

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.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is raising funds to help create a butter sculpture workshop at Dolma Ling Nunnery. The total cost of the project is US $2,500, but at the time of posting this blog $500 dollars had been raised, so only $2,000 is needed to fully fund the workshop.

To support the creation of the butter sculpture workshop you can:

  1. Make a gift online at https://tnp.org/butter-sculpture-workshop/
  2. Call our office at 1-206-652-8901
  3. Mail a check to:
    The Tibetan Nuns Project
    815 Seattle Boulevard South #216
    Seattle, WA 98134 USA

Thank you for your help in preserving this ancient art that, with the occupation of Tibet, is so under threat.