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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.