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The Education of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

The following Q&A about the education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns is a special interview with Elizabeth Napper, PhD. Dr. Napper is the US Founder and Board Chair of the Tibetan Nuns Project and is a scholar of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. She is the author of Dependent-Arising and Emptiness, translator and editor of Mind in Tibetan Buddhism, and co-editor of Kindness, Clarity and Insight by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Q: What was education like in Tibet before 1959?
A: Traditionally, Tibet pre-1959 was a pre-industrial age feudal society for the most part. There was no general education and, in pre-1959 Tibet, that was true of the lay people as well. Education was a specialized skill for people who needed it. The children of traders would get an education because they were carrying out a business and the people who were going to be government functionaries, who worked in the government, were well educated. But ordinary people were not literate. So that was the starting point.

Tibetan meditation, Tibetan Buddhist nun meditates

An elderly Tibetan Buddhist nun meditating in Zanskar, northern India. Historically, nuns had little access to education but spent their time in prayer and meditation. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Q: In Tibet, how did the lives of monks and nuns differ?
A: In Tibet, a large part of the population, both men and women, chose the monastic lifestyle, but that meant very different things. In some ways, the majority of monasteries and nunneries were not all that different. The bulk of them were relatively small institutions in villages and local communities, and the major function of monks and nuns was to do prayers on behalf of the lay people. Lay people made offerings to monks and nuns who then performed prayers on their behalf. That was the back and forth between these two groups of people.

However, the monasteries had a very rich and active intellectual tradition going back to the 11th century when Buddhism was revived in Tibet. Monks had the opportunity go to larger institutions and engage in the study of the philosophical tradition of Buddhism. By contrast, nuns who were motivated to do more would go into retreat and spend long periods of time in solitary meditation, often showing profound results of that meditation and revered for their internalized level of realization.

However, neither of monks nor nuns were literate much beyond the ability to read and recite the prayers.

After 1959, when many Tibetans fled Tibet, the large monastic institutions were re-established in exile. Far fewer nuns came out. Slowly institutions were established for the nuns, but just as the nuns in Tibet didn’t have education, neither did the new nunneries in India. That was the situation when the Tibetan Nuns Project started out.

Tibetan Buddhist Nun calligraphy

A Tibetan Buddhist nun in exile practices calligraphy. Educating the nuns is the core of our work. In the 1980s and 1990s, when hundreds of nuns were escaping from Tibet, the overwhelming majority of the nuns were totally illiterate. Most of the newly arrived nuns had had no education in their own language. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo

Q: Why is it important that nuns have equal access to education and the same opportunities as monks?
A: The goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project has always been to give the nuns access to education. It is a given, that in a modern world, you need education and a basic understanding to function well in modern society. In addition, it is limiting to push nuns towards the meditative retreat side of things. It is important to give nuns the same access that monks have to the philosophical, the conceptual understanding of their tradition. This means not just studying abstract philosophy; it is understanding the nature of reality so that you can apply that in your meditation to attain levels of realization. Our primary motivation was to open up to the nuns those levels for spiritual progress. But, additionally, they needed education simply to be able to manage their monastic institutions themselves, rather than relying always on male direction.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns getting their Geshema degree

In 2016, twenty nuns made history when they were awarded the Geshema degree. This degree is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and was only formally opened up to women in 2012. Detail of photo by Olivier Adam.

Q: What were some of the obstacles to setting up an education program for the nuns?
A: It was tricky because it wasn’t easy to find teachers. Also, the nunneries were dependent upon the financial support they got from the lay community coming for prayers, and those prayers took up the better part of the nuns’ days. They were concerned that if they set up a study program and nuns weren’t doing prayers all day, the nunneries wouldn’t get in enough funding to support them. So that was a big part of the sponsorship program that we started – to provide alternative support so that everyone wouldn’t have to spend all day doing prayers on behalf of the lay community – not that they weren’t willing to do those prayers, but we needed to find a way to make it not be the only thing for them to do. That was the starting point.

Q: What are some of the major accomplishments in education for the nuns so far?
A: The result of educating nuns is that we now have nuns who have been trained up to the point of the highest degree of their tradition, the Geshe degree (Geshema degree for the nuns).
Some of the major educational accomplishments are:

  • The creation of groundbreaking education program for nuns
  • Providing debate training for nuns for the first time in the history of Tibet
  • Supporting the annual Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate event, which provides one month of intensive training in debate
  • Enabling nuns to take the Geshema exams and pursue other higher degrees
  • Creating a Tantric Studies program for Geshemas to empower them to become teachers and leaders
educate women and girls collage Tibetan Nuns Project

A collage of photos of education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Bottom left photo courtesy of Olivier Adam; other photos courtesy of Brian Harris.

Q: Why is training in debate so important?
A: The system of education teaches rational, logical thought. The nuns (and monks) use a formalized style of debate in which you set out a premise and debate it. In Tibetan Buddhist debate, you have to prove two things about what you’re saying: (1) that whatever it is you’re trying to prove is true, that your reasoning is correct and (2) that the reason applies to what you’re trying to prove.

This is the opposite to advertising. For example, the advertising of beauty products says, “If you use this product, your life will be good.” This is false pervasion. Also, it can say things that are just not true. Conversely, debate teaches you to avoid that kind of illogical thinking.

Q: What can the world learn from the way the nuns debate?
A: Illogical thinking is what a lot of political discourse that we are hearing is based on. Things that are absolutely not true are being said. In addition, things are being said that may be true but don’t at all imply what is being drawn out of them. That is the real world that we live in.

The ability to see clearly and logically is the training that the nuns are doing. This helps them to not just accept things that aren’t true being presented as if they were. You can see through falsities and also see false pervasions such as “If you use this product, if you believe in this person, your life will be good.” That it is not necessarily going to happen. That is the real-world application. We gain by having a population who are educated in that way and have a clear understanding of what they are doing in the world.

It is also very important to the Buddhist philosophical tradition, which is not based on faith alone, but is based on developing a penetrating understanding of the nature of reality. This is the final purpose of the studies they have undertaken, and the years of study and debate are directed towards that.

Along the way, of course, this is a religious tradition, and in the Tibetan tradition, there is a great emphasis of developing universal love and compassion, of wishing the best for each and every living being. All those things are important components of the education that the nuns are receiving.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns practice debate at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns practice debate at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. Tibetan Buddhist debate teaches many skills including critical thinking, logic, attentional focus, memory, and confidence in one’s reasoning skills. Until the 1990s, Tibetan nuns were not taught how to debate.

Q: How has educating the nuns created leaders, teachers, and role models?
A: We put in place these programs to open those kinds of studies up for nuns. Now, 30 years later, those groups of nuns have been able to pass through this entire course of study that have been followed by the monks for centuries. The nuns are starting to go out and take on roles of leadership in the community – they are teaching in the nunneries, some of them are teaching in the Tibetan schools, and one nun has been added to the election commission of the exile government based in Dharmsala. This is the impact, not just of their philosophical knowledge, but of their training and clear thought motivated by a compassionate wish to help.

Q: Do you see growing confidence in the nuns?
A: The nuns have growing confidence to take on leadership roles. Before, when the nuns didn’t know anything, when they hadn’t studied and they could barely read or write, they had no confidence. There was no way they could serve in these roles or as role models in their community. That has now changed. People see these nuns who are able to debate as well as the monks, who can hold their own in those kinds of contests, who exude this body language of confidence, who are also prepared to take on leadership roles. This has broadened the base out of potential leaders in the community from only one gender to both genders.

Rejuvenating Shugsep Nunnery and Institute

Looking after a nunnery is a big job.

Like a university campus, Shugsep Nunnery and Institute has dormitories, classrooms, a library, dining halls, a kitchen, offices, meeting rooms, gardens, a temple, and more.

There are also systems that support daily life there such as power, water, sewage treatment, and so on. The heavy monsoon rains and the harsh environment of northern India are hard on the nunnery complex.

Shugsep Nunnery, nunnery life

Handwritten essay by a Tibetan Buddhist nun at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute about her second home. Photo by Dustin Kujawski

We’re happy to report that, thanks to generous donors, two major projects at the nunnery were just completed: the replacement of the temple floor and the repair and painting of the metal roof.

Here’s a thank you video about the temple floor with “before” and “after” photos.

Here’s a list of projects that we’re working on funding. Some are urgent because of the imminent arrival of the monsoon.

  1. Painting of the nuns’ dormitories
  2. Solar panel roof repair
  3. Water tank repair
  4. Mold removal and prevention
  5. Security system for the nunnery and grounds to avoid break-ins

The total cost for all of these projects is $21,650.

To help rejuvenate Shugsep, you can donate here.

Shugsep is an ancient Nyingma nunnery that traces its rituals and practice to some of the most illustrious female practitioners in Tibetan history. It is one of two nunneries built and fully supported by Tibetan Nuns Project donors.

The 85 nuns who live and study at Shugsep work hard to keep their nunnery strong and healthy, but, unfortunately, there are many jobs that are beyond their ability. They need outside help. Thank you!

Sharing your good luck messages for the Geshema candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 12 nuns taking their first round of examinations
  • 14 nuns doing their second-year exams
  • 8 nuns doing their third-year exams and
  • 10 nuns doing their fourth and final year.
Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

A smiling Tibetan Buddhist nun enters her Geshema exams equipped with ruler and pens. The written and oral exams last two weeks and are based on 17 years of study. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

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

good luck messages for the Geshema candidates, good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

Here are some of the messages:

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

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

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

good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

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

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

good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

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

good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

good luck messages for the Geshema candidates, good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

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

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

nun debating, Tibetan Buddhist debate, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

New Endowment Created for Nuns’ Debates

“Last year the Jang Gonchoe was an excellent one. We debated till midnight each day. We were overjoyed to share our ideas and thoughts. There were about 400 nuns and all were full with enthusiasm and eager to debate with one another.”
Tenzin Nyidon, Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

For centuries, Tibetan monks have held an annual month-long debating session called Jang Gonchoe. The event was so named for Jang, the region in Tibet west of Lhasa where the month long inter-monastery debate originated, and Gonchoe, which is Tibetan for winter debate.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating 2013

The nuns of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute practicing debate in 2013 prior to the completion of the new debate courtyard. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

The practice of debate takes many years to fully master, and it is critical to fostering the nuns’ ability to assume roles as full qualified teachers of their tradition. In 2015, it will be 20 years since the nuns started taking part in the Jang Gonchoe and building their own strong tradition of debate. Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, the Tibetan Nuns Project has so far been able to support the Jang Gonchoe for 17 years through major gifts and $100 scholarships to the nuns.

It is our wish to create an endowment for the Jang Gonchoe so it may continue for years to come. The amount needed for full endowment at current exchange and interest rates in India is $300,000. Continue reading

Interview with a Tibetan Buddhist Nun

Venerable Tenzin P. studied at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute from 1990 to 2009 and then trained to become a teacher of Buddhist philosophy. In 2009 she began teaching at the Central School for Tibetans in a Tibetan settlement called Hunsur. She is now fully self-supporting from her teacher’s salary. Venerable Tenzin P. is one of 29 nuns who sat Geshema exams in May 2014.

detailed photo of Tibetan writing in A Tibetan nun's notebook at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

A Tibetan nun’s notebook at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

Here’s an interview conducted in the spring of 2014:

I came from Tibet in 1990 and got this rare opportunity to study in Dolma Ling Nunnery. In 2009, the Department of Education [of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, India] had facilitated a competition for the Religious Teacher’s post from which I was selected. I had to leave the nunnery for three-months training to become a qualified religious teacher at a school. After completing my training successfully, I was sent to Hunsur Tibetan Settlement as a religious teacher where I have been working for over five years. Since last year, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has gifted the nuns with the opportunity to acquire Geshema degree. Because of this I got really inspired and applied for this examination. This is the second year of my Geshema examination.

sashes around waist of Tibetan Buddhist nun

Sashes around the waist of a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

Q: How has being at the nunnery made a difference in your life?

A: Before coming into exile, I was nun just in a namesake. Back in Tibet, we do not have an opportunity to study and go into the depth of Buddhist studies like we do at the nunneries in India. So I escaped from Tibet with the hope that I would get a much better and proper education from all aspects. After reaching India, I was admitted to Dolma Ling Nunnery to study here. Whatever I am today is all because of the opportunity I got here at the nunnery and the support extended by the sponsors.

If you really commit to do something, no one can stop you from achieving your goal. And there is nothing you cant do if you have the will power.

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: They are extremely generous and amazing. I would like to give the example of my own sponsor, Lynda K_____ [surname removed for privacy reasons] from the USA. She sponsored me from the time I escaped to India in 1990 until I left Dolma Ling Nunnery in 2009. I was extremely surprised as well as blessed when she asked me whether I needed her support even after getting a dignified job. She has never seen me, never heard my voice, never seen me growing up, but still she helped me for almost half a decade I should say. I am sure that the case is the same for all sponsors who have helped nuns at the nunneries.

Sometimes I feel sad thinking that I can’t even talk with her sweetly and thank her personally for whatever she has done for me in the past years. I always wished to meet her at least once. If I ever happen to meet her, I will really be fortunate and will welcome her my like my own mother.

Last but not least, I would like to sincerely thank all our sponsors for their continuous and generous support.

Tibetan Buddhist texts at Dolma Ling Nunnery.

Tibetan Buddhist texts at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Q: What do you think is special about this moment in history of Tibetan nuns of your nunnery and why?

A: In the past, we have always thought that pursuing the Geshema qualification is nearly impossible and is not our cup of tea. After sitting and passing the first year of the Geshema exams, I strongly felt that it is our mentality that makes everything seem difficult. If you have the willpower, commitment and dedication, nothing is impossible. We nuns can also make our nunnery feel proud.

Q: How would you like to use the education that you are receiving at the nunnery?

A: With the grace and blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, along with Ama Rinchen Khando Choegyal, I have such an incomparable opportunity to study and sit for the second year of the Geshema exams. His Holiness used to bless us with his words about getting enlightened and social service. I feel that doing social service is something I can do wholeheartedly for sure. It has been five years since I started working as a religious teacher and I never faced any problems while teaching my students.

Recently on January 10th, 2014, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited our school and our students debated in front of him and appreciated what I taught them. His precious words have inspired and motivated me to continue to serve our community in a much better way.

Q: What is one thing you’d like Tibetan Nuns Project supporters to know about your life at the nunnery?

A: I really want the supporters to know that their generous support has and will never be in vain. When I first came to India and got admitted to the nunnery, I was not well versed like I am now. The level of education has become much higher, for which I feel is a huge success in my life.

Q: What has been the happiest day of your life?

A: I do not have a specific happiest day as such, but the day when I get to do everything according my plan, that day turns out to be meaningful and happy day for me.

Q: What are the benefits you get from education and being in the nunnery?

A: I have learned everything from the nunnery and it has given me a new life with a bright future. I learned how to communicate differently with various people in a much better way. I never had to face or struggle for basic needs like common people do. With the help of sponsors, our basic needs are fulfilled without any difficulty.

Q: What are the difficulties you face during your course of study?

A: [Laughs] Yes! We have many different subjects and so many things to learn. That is why we lack time to cover all the educational materials.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns sit Geshema exams

It’s exam time again and we’re excited to share our latest news and photos with you.

For one month, from April 15th to May 15th, 29 nuns from different nunneries will make history as they prepare for and sit their exams for their Geshema degree – the equivalent of a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy.

Geshema exams May 2014

A nun doing her oral examination as part of the 2 weeks of Geshema exams in May 2014

This year 23 nuns will be sitting Part 2 of the exam while 6 nuns are taking Part 1. The first 2 weeks were an intensive study period, and the actual examinations began on May 1st.

The Geshema exams, which are a 4-year process are the culmination of a rigorous 17-year course of study and are a landmark achievement for Tibetan women.

Geshes, and soon also Geshemas, are the most educated monastics, carrying much of the responsibility for preserving and maintaining the Tibetan religion and culture. This will enable the nuns to take up leadership roles as educators for future generations of Buddhist practitioners.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns taking Geshema exams

The nuns who are taking their Geshema exams this May

Some of the nuns sitting the doctoral exams could not even write their own names when they escaped from Tibet. Your kindness and generosity have made possible their immense leap in capacity.

This would not have been possible without the support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan government in exile, high lamas and teachers, and the compassion and generosity of Tibetan Nuns Project donors like you.

Nuns reading messages of support to the Geshema candidates

Nuns reading messages sent from their sister nuns giving best wishes to the Geshema candidates

Today we received photos of the noticeboard at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute where the nuns had been sharing messages of support and good wishes. In addition, the nuns have received about 100 heartfelt messages of support and good luck from around the world via the Tibetan Nuns Project Facebook page.

noticeboard at Dolma Ling with messages of support for Geshema candidates

We hope you will rejoice with us this historic milestone.

The role of teachers in empowering Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns from all traditions is a core component of the work of the Tibetan Nuns Project. One way this is done is through the funding of teachers’ salaries.

Each year, the Tibetan Nuns Project seeks to fund the salaries of 10 to 15 teachers at different nunneries in India and Nepal. The annual cost of one teacher’s salary ranges from $1500 to $5000, depending on the location of the nunnery and the skills of the teacher, so the total annual budget for this program is approximately $40,000.

Monk teaching Tibetan Buddhist nuns by Brian Harris The ultimate goal is to empower the nuns to become teachers and leaders in their own right and to help preserve Tibet’s unique culture and religion. The Tibetan Nuns Project believes that education is the key to empowerment, and we seek to give nuns the resources to carve out independent, creative identities for themselves.

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.

Tibetan Buddhist nun studying in classroom Tibetan Nuns Project

In the spring of 2014, the Tibetan Nuns Project launched a fund teachers’ salaries for the nuns. You cansupport this and empower the nuns:

  • By making a multi-year pledge to support one or more teacher or by giving a one-time gift to fund part or all of a teacher’s salary for a year
  • By making an online donation at or mailing a check to the Tibetan Nuns Project, 815 Seattle Boulevard South #216, Seattle, WA 98134 USA
  • By calling our office in Seattle at 1-206-652-8901 to talk about your wish to help


After their takeover of Tibet in 1959, the People’s Republic of China attempted to destroy traditional Tibetan culture, particularly its unique religious heritage and rich tradition of spiritual practice and scholarship. In an attempt to eliminate Buddhism in Tibet, more than 6000 nunneries and monasteries were destroyed between 1959 and 1980. Monks and nuns in great numbers were imprisoned, tortured, and forced to give up the ordained way of life. Teaching, study, and prayer were strictly prohibited, and religious texts and objects were demolished.

Before the Chinese takeover in 1959, there were at least 818 nunneries and nearly 28,000 nuns living in Tibet. Traditional education in the nunneries included reading, writing, and lessons in ancient scriptures and prayers taught by the senior nuns or lamas from monasteries.

Most nuns newly arrived in India have been denied basic educational opportunities in Tibet, including education in their own Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhist religious heritage. The majority of nuns arrived in India illiterate and unable to write their own names.


Tibetan Buddhist nun trained as teacherSince the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded in 1987 and basic education programs for nuns initiated, education for nuns is now well underway and nuns have begun to assume leadership roles in their community, such as teachers in Tibetan schools, instructors for other nuns, as health care providers and in other roles serving the Tibetan exile community.

Thanks in part to consistent effort from the Tibetan Nuns Project, for the first time in Tibetan history, nuns are now receiving educational opportunities previously available only to monks.

At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, for example, nuns can pursue the 17-year program of philosophical studies required for a Geshema degree, like a PhD in Buddhist philosophy. Courses are also offered in Tibetan language, English, mathematics, and computer skills, as well as in ritual arts such as sand mandalas and butter sculpture. Many smaller nunneries in more remote areas are at much earlier stages in the educational process, and we are providing them with their first full-time teacher.