About the Geshema Degree and the Geshema Exams
The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism.
The degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. The Geshema degree is the same as a Geshe degree but is called a Geshema degree because it is awarded to women.
44 nuns hold the Geshema degree as of the summer of 2022. The 2020 and 2021 Geshema exams had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 2022 Geshema exams were held at Geden Choeling Nunnery with dozens of nuns taking various levels of the four-year exams.
Now Tibetan Buddhist nuns are making history. Following further study and exams in Buddhist Tantric Studies, the Geshemas are becoming fully qualified as teachers. In 2019, two of the Geshemas who graduated in 2016 were hired as teachers at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.
The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree makes them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.
Some Facts About the Geshema Degree
- The Geshema degree is comparable to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
- It is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
- The Geshema degree is the same as the Geshe degree for monks. The ending “ma” marks it as referring to a woman.
- Until recently, this highest degree could only be earned by monks.
- In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first female to receive the Geshema title.
- The historic decision to confer the Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns was announced in 2012 by the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Administration, following a meeting of representatives from six major nunneries, Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and the Tibetan Nuns Project.
- Candidates for the Geshema degree are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts.
- To qualify to begin the Geshema process, nuns must score 75% or above in their studies to be eligible to sit for the Geshema exams.
- On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a special graduation ceremony held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.
The Geshema Exam Process
To be eligible to take their Geshema exams, the nuns must first complete at least 17 years of study.
The Geshema examination process is rigorous. It involves four years of written and debate exams as well as the completion and defense of a thesis.
Each year, the nuns preparing to sit various levels of the examinations gather together for one month of final exam preparations and then about 12 days of exams. In 2019, the exams were held at Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in South India. In 2020, the Geshema exams were cancelled because of the pandemic.
“The fact that growing numbers of women are achieving equality with men in the highest levels of Buddhist monasticism, by earning the equivalent of doctorate degrees, is joyous and of enormous importance to the world,” says Steve Wilhelm, a Tibetan Nuns Project board member. “This means that women monastics will be leading more monastic institutions, and will be teaching other women and men. Humanity needs this gender equity if we are to navigate perilous times ahead.”
The Geshema degree will make the nuns eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.
The 2019 Geshema Exams
In August 2019, 50 nuns took various levels of exams for their Geshema degree. All 50 nuns passed.
The nuns who took their exams in August came from four different nunneries: Dolma Ling, Geden Choeling, Jangchup Choeling, and Kopan Nunnery.
Here’s a video about the 2019 Geshema exams.
- 24 nuns took their first-year exams
- 8 nuns took their 2nd-year exams
- 11 nuns took their 3rd-year exams
- 7 Geshema candidates did their fourth and final year of exams.
The seven nuns who passed their fourth and final year of Geshema exams in August received their degrees at a ceremony at the end of the 2019 Jang Gonchoe Inter-nunnery debate in Bodh Gaya in November 2019. Prior to their graduation, the nuns took part in a formal damcha debate with the assembled nuns.
In 2020 and 2021, the Geshema exams were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Number of Geshema Graduates
The first Geshema degree was conferred in 2011 to a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo.
In 2012, a historic decision was made to allow Tibetan Buddhist nuns the opportunity to take examinations for the Geshe degree, known for women as the Geshema degree. 2019 marked the fourth year in a row that a group of nuns graduated with the degree.
In November 2019, another seven nuns graduated with their Geshema degree.
This brings the total number of Geshemas to 44.
Here’s a list of the Geshema graduations since the formal approval in 2012:
- 2016: 20 nuns became Geshemas
- 2017: 6 nuns graduated as Geshemas
- 2018: 10 nuns became Geshemas
- 2019: 7 nuns graduated at the end of November
- 2020: exams cancelled due to the pandemic
- 2021: exams cancelled due to the pandemic
“As a Tibetan Nuns Project Board member,” said Vicki Robinson, “I am so very proud of the achievements of the nuns who are working on the Geshema degree. It has been such a pleasure to watch these nuns assume leadership positions in the nunneries and to go where no women have gone before.”
Robin Groth, another board member wrote, “I am thrilled by this news! This is what the work of the Tibetan Nuns Project and its donors is about — giving opportunity where it has not been before and then see lives change, dreams fulfilled, and leaders emerge. What an honor to witness this evolution.”
What do Geshemas and Geshes Study
To graduate with a Geshema or Geshe degree, one studies the five essential Buddhist texts — all based on the teachings of the Buddha — over a period of about twenty years. The method of study involves logical analysis and debate, combined with regular sessions of prayer and recitation.
Because the Geshema/Geshea degree is granted usually on the basis of proficiency in dialectical ritualized debate, the Tibetan Nuns Project has always encouraged the practice and cultivation of debate: first, by initially setting up a system of literacy and education for the nuns, and later by sponsoring the month-long inter-nunnery debate competition — the Jang Gonchoe. According to TNP Co-Director Elizabeth Napper, “Debate is the way the nuns come to know what they study; it builds their confidence as well as their competency.”
Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is one of the major subjects for the Geshema candidates, but they are examined on other subjects as well. In philosophy, nuns taking their first- and second-year exams are tested on Perfection of Wisdom (Pharchin) and Middle Way (Madhyamika), while third- and fourth-year examinees are tested on Monastic Discipline (Vinaya) and Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharma). All exams are followed by debate sessions.
In addition to their other exams, nuns in years 1-3, are tested on Tibetan grammar and science. Nuns taking their final year exams are tested on science and history.
Each of the final-year candidates also has to write, in advance, a 50-page thesis. They are examined on their thesis papers during the Geshema exams and must give an oral defense to examiners.
Video Interview of Geshema Tenzin Kunsel
Geshema Tenzin Kunsel is one of the first group of Tibetan Buddhist nuns who received their Geshema degrees on December 22, 2016, from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Her long journey to becoming a Geshema was not an easy one.
In this video interview from 2017, Geshema Tenzin Kunsel’s extraordinary determination and dedication shine through.
With gentle humor, she tells her story of overcoming many obstacles on the path to becoming a senior nun and teacher. In 2019, she made history again, becoming one of the first Geshemas to be hired to teach nuns.
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.