Visit Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar Through Beautiful Photos

Dorjee Zong Nunnery

Dorjee Zong Nunnery is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist nunnery located in the remote area and high-altitude area of Zanskar in northern India, near Ladakh.

The nunnery is one of the oldest centers in pursuit of monastic education in Zanskar. Founded in the 14th century, it has a long tradition of meditating nuns, some of who are famed for having reached high levels of realization and attainment.

remote Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar by Olivier Adam low res

Currently, there are about 25 nuns at the nunnery. The eldest are in their 80s, while the youngest is about six. In the past, the nuns at Dorjee Zong did not have the opportunity to engage in rigorous philosophical studies, but their education program is improving. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

The nunnery was founded about 700 years ago by Master Sherab Zangpo, renowned as the Bodhisattva from the upper region of Tibet. He was one of the chief disciples of Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar by Olivier Adam

Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar by Olivier Adam

There have been a number of highly accomplished practitioners who devoted their entire life to dharma at this nunnery. Khandroma Yeshi Lhamo, popularly known as Jomo Shelama, was one of those highly realized practitioners from the nunnery.

Young nuns study at Dorjee Zong Nunnery Photo by Olivier Adam

Young nuns study at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. The girls and women from this area have traditionally been given far less education than boys and men. The nunnery gives them a chance for an education that they would not have otherwise. Though the young girls live and dress and nuns, they do not take vows until they are old enough to understand. Photo by Olivier Adam

At present, the nunnery is very small and basic and seeks to provide education and guide the nuns in community service. The nunnery was accepted into the Tibetan Nuns Project’s sponsorship program in 2009. Currently, about 19 of the nuns are sponsored thanks to Tibetan Nuns Project donors.

Nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery photo by Olivier Adam

Nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

School Bus Project

One of our urgent projects this summer is to purchase a school bus for Dorjee Zong Nunnery so that the young nuns can continue their education. Without it, nuns aged 13-15 will have to stop going to school. 

The nuns need the bus to make the 12-mile round-trip journey to the government school where they will study as day students. Currently, there are 9 teenage girls who have completed Grade 5 and who need the school bus so that they can continue their education. At the government school, they can study up to Grade 10. In the future, there will be more girls who will need the school bus which can seat 20 students.

Only $4,041 is needed to fully fund the school bus.

Our wish is to complete the funding before August 25th. The nunnery needs to buy the bus from Leh, Ladakh and get it to the nunnery before winter snows block the roads.

Young girls studying at Dorjee Zong Nunnery.

Young girls studying at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The girls began primary school at the nunnery. There they can study from Class 1 to Class 5, but the nunnery is unable to provide higher studies. Girls from the Himalayan regions of India traditionally have had little access to education. Nunneries like Dorjee Zong provide them with opportunity. More families are sending their girls to the nunnery to get an education.

young nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar

The young nuns at Dorjee Zong Nunnery need a school bus to make the 12-mile round trip journey to the local school to continue their education past Grade 5. When they joined Dorjee Zong at ages 6 or 7, the girls began primary school at the nunnery. There they can study from Class 1 to Class 5, but the nunnery is unable to provide higher studies. Photo of Dorjee Zong Nunnery courtesy of the Venerable Delek Yangdron

The school bus and the access to further education it will provide education are the keys to empowerment. The young girls dress as nuns but have not taken vows. Once they are old enough to decide for themselves, they can choose to take nuns vows and begin their monastic education.

To help purchase the school bus you can:

  1. Make a gift online at tnp.org
  2. Call our office in Seattle, US at 1-206-652-8901
  3. Mail a check to: The Tibetan Nuns Project (for school bus)
    815 Seattle Boulevard South #216, Seattle, WA 98134 USA
  4. Give a gift of securities
Tibetan Buddhist nun Zanskar Olivier Adam

An elderly Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar. Note the rugged terrain in the background. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Future Photos from Dorjee Zong Nunnery

This blog post features some of the many stunning photographs by our supporter, Olivier Adam.

We’re delighted to tell you that, thanks to the donors to our Media Equipment Project in 2018, the nuns at Dorjee Zong now have a camera and can document life and important milestones at the nunnery (like the school bus, we hope).

One of the nuns from Dorjee Zong traveled this summer to our headquarters in India at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute to get the camera and receive training, as well as for other nunnery business. She said she very happy to receive the camera because she would now be able to share with Tibetan Nuns Project supporters pictures and videos of the nuns.  She was never able to do so in the past.

young students at Dorjee Zong Nunnery by Olivier Adam

Some of the young girls studying at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

 

Over 50 Tibetan Buddhist nuns take their Geshema exams

From August 1-12, 2019, 51 Tibetan Buddhist nuns are taking various levels of the Geshema exams. The Geshema degree is the highest degree in their tradition and was only recently opened up to women. Known as the Geshe degree for monks, it is like a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism. This year, the exams are being held at Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in south India.

Geshema exams 2019 Jangchup Choeling Nunnery

The Geshema exams start at 8 a.m. each morning. Two groups of nuns take written exams from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., while the other two groups take debate exams. Photo courtesy of the Nuns Media Team

These rigorous exams take four years to complete, with one set held each year. The nuns are examined on their 17-year course of study.

Before the exams began, Geshe Jampa Kalden, who is the Geden Choeling Khenpo and the head of the Geshema examination committee, spoke to the nuns. He explained the examination rules and advised them to stay grounded when taking their exams, not to rush through their papers, and not to be in a hurry to submit their answer sheets just because another person has submitted her papers.

Advice to the nuns before the start of the 2019 Geshema examinations

Advice to the nuns before the start of the 2019 Geshema examinations

The nuns must take written and oral exams in the form of traditional Tibetan Buddhist debate. The debate takes place in front of the examiners and go on for four hours in the morning (8 a.m. to 12 p.m.) and four hours in the afternoon (2 p.m. to 6 p.m.)

As shown in the video below, examiners supervise the debate, make sure that what is said is relevant to the topic, and intervene as needed.

The nuns cannot choose their own debate topics. Instead, they must draw slips of paper on which three topics from one subject are written. Each nun can then choose one topic from the three options and debate on that. The nuns are given 15 minutes for each debate.

Geshema examination committee preparing paperwork for the 2019 Geshema exams

Geshema examination committee preparing paperwork for the 2019 Geshema exams. Photo courtesy of the Nuns Media Team

We would like to extend our deepest thanks to the Pema Chödrön Foundation and everyone who supported our 2019 Geshema Exam Fund to cover the travel costs and the food for the Geshema candidates. By supporting the education of the nuns, you are helping to pave the way for future generations of nuns to follow in the Geshemas’ footsteps. 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.

Geshema exams 2019 Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Geshema candidates take a break for a simple vegetarian meal. We are extremely grateful to everyone who donated to our 2019 Geshema Exams Fund which supports the Geshema candidates by covering their food and travel costs for the exam and for the one-month pre-exam study period. Photo courtesy of the Nuns Media Team.

Written examinations being held in the open debate courtyard, while debates are being held in the prayer hall.

Examination hall for the 2019 Geshema exams

Examination hall for the 2019 Geshema exams. Photo courtesy of the Nuns Media Team

Sadly, one nun who was planning on taking her fourth and final year of exams backed out due to stress. All being well, there will be 7 new Geshemas graduating this fall.

Over 100 supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project sent beautiful and heartfelt messages of good luck to the nuns taking their Geshema exams. Here is an example, written by Alan who sponsors two nuns: “Dear Geshema Candidates: You are not only contributing to the survival and expansion of Tibetan Buddhism, but you are all changing the world and making it a better place by means of your studies, self-transformation, compassion, and example. Thank you all and good luck. You are in our prayers. We look forward to the day when the two nuns who we sponsor take their Geshema exams. Blessings.”

Nuns preparing for the Geshema examinations 2019

Nuns preparing for the Geshema examinations 2019

Emergency at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute

On July 17th, we received an urgent email from our office in India about an emergency at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute.

The nuns are all safe. However, heavy monsoon rains have caused massive flooding around the nunnery and a gigantic tree at the temple entrance was uprooted and has crushed the newly painted metal roof.

Emergency at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute fallen tree

Two disasters at Shugsep. A huge tree has crushed part of the metal roofing and heavy monsoon rains have caused flooding. Without emergency drainage, the library and the ground floor will be seriously damaged.

YOU CAN HELP with the emergency here. We are extremely grateful to everyone who has donated so far to help the nuns with this unforeseen crisis.

It is a huge job to cut and remove the fallen tree and to rebuild the roof support structure and the metal roof.

During the monsoon, a huge tree beside the temple came down crashing down, seriously damaging the roof. The temple itself is not damaged, but the junction roof and its steel support structure are destroyed and need to be replaced.

To prevent catastrophic flooding of the library and the ground floor hall, the nuns have been rapidly trying to dig extra drainage ditches. There is more water than ever flowing through the nunnery complex and the monsoon rains will continue until September.

Here’s a video showing the monsoon rains and flooding at the nunnery. Can’t see the video? Click here.

The nuns are working hard to help with the crisis. Luckily, no one was injured by the falling tree. The nunnery has had to hire local workers to use a chainsaw to cut up the tree and to assist with the building of more drainage ditches.

Nuns working during emergency at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute

The nuns are working hard to help dig emergency drainage ditches to prevent flooding of the library and ground floor and to also remove the fallen tree off the roof.

To help you can:

  1. Make a gift online at tnp.org
  2. Call our office in Seattle, US at 1-206-652-8901
  3. Mail a check to The Tibetan Nuns Project
    815 Seattle Boulevard South #216, Seattle, WA 98134 USA
  4. Give a gift of securities

Send good luck messages to nuns taking Geshema exams 2019

You can send good luck messages to the nuns taking Geshema exams in August 2019. To send a message of support to the Geshema candidates, post a comment below on this blog. We’ll compile all the messages and share them with the nuns before their exams.

The Geshema degree  (or Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism. Until recently, this degree was only open to men.

The rigorous examination process takes four years and are the culmination of a rigorous 17-year course of study.

good luck messages Geshema exams, Geshema, Tibetan Buddhism, Geshe, Tibetan Nuns Project, Geshema candidates, Buddhism, nuns, nunnery, Buddhist nuns, Buddhist women, Geshema exams, messages of support Geshema candidates

When you’re facing big challenges, it’s great to know that people are sending you support. Here’s a photo of nuns reading messages of good luck sent by other nuns prior to the 2016 Geshema exams. We’re collecting good luck messages for nuns taking their exams in August.

From August 1-12, 2019, 51 Tibetan Buddhist nuns will sit various levels of their Geshema exams. The nuns taking their exams this year come from four different nunneries: Dolma Ling, Geden Choeling, Jangchup Choeling, and Kopan Nunnery.

The examinees have already gathered at  Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in Mundgod for their special one-month pre-exam study time.

Here’s a little video about the 2018 Geshema exams. [Can’t see the video? Click here.]

In August 2019, there will be:

  • 24 nuns taking their first-year exams
  • 9 nuns doing their 2nd year
  • 11 nuns doing their 3rd year
  • 7 Geshema candidates doing their fourth and final year of exams (The initial number was 8, but one nun dropped out at the end of July.)

All being well, there will be 8 new Geshema graduates this fall. The graduation ceremony will be held at the end of the 2019 Jang Gonchoe Inter-nunnery debate in November.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun takes her Geshema exams in 2017. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Geshes and Geshemas are the most educated monastics, carrying much of the responsibility for preserving the Tibetan religion and culture.

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. Recently, two Geshemas were hired as teachers at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

We are still seeking $1,276 to complete the funding for the 2019 Geshema exams.

Donations are needed to cover the costs of the nuns’ travel to and from the exams and for their food during the exams and for the one-month study session before the exams. You can learn more and donate here.

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns hand in their exam papers during the Geshema exams in 2017. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Some Short Facts About the Geshema Degree

  • The Geshema Degree is roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. For males, it is called the Geshe degree.
  • It is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • 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.
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.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns read good luck messages Geshema exams

Nuns cluster around the bulletin board at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute to read good luck messages sent from around the world to nuns taking their exams in 2018. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Daily Life at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti Valley India

In the remote Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, lies Sherab Choeling Nunnery, currently home to about 65 Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Many of the nuns are sponsored by Tibetan Nuns Project donors.

Tibetan Buddhist nun studying

Many young girls seek admission to Sherab Choeling, but due to lack of facilities and sponsors, it is not possible for all to gain entrance. The Tibetan Nuns Project helps by raising awareness, finding sponsors for the nuns, and helping them to fundraise for the further development of the institute.

We just received lots of photos showing daily life at Sherab Choeling Nunnery that we wanted to share with the sponsors of the nuns and with Tibetan Nuns Project donors worldwide.

Nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

The nuns after their annual result ceremony. Many of the nuns are holding sweaters, vests, and hats knitted and donated by Wool-Aid.

The nunnery was founded in 1995 with the goal to educate Himalayan Buddhist nuns who would otherwise have no opportunity to receive any formal schooling or spiritual education. It is a non-sectarian nunnery that recognizes the beauty and value in all Buddhist traditions.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti Himachal Pradesh

The nunnery is very secluded and lies in the village of Morang (between Manali and Tabor) at 4,000 meters altitude. The nuns have difficult living conditions. They often face long harsh winters and heavy snowfalls.

The nunnery was built in 1995 by 20 nuns and their teacher and was consecrated that year by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. There is the main building, a prayer hall, a classroom, an office, a kitchen, and a storeroom.

nuns studying at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

Traditionally women and girls in this region have suffered from many social and educational disadvantages. Many have been deprived of any kind of education. Sherab Choeling Nunnery was the first religious educational project for Spiti women, providing women and girls with the opportunity to overcome these obstacles.

Typically, women who live in remote areas like Spiti and who are interested in studying or practicing their religion have very few options. The Tibetan Nuns Project was approached by the nunnery in 2006 to help them develop their institution and the nunnery was accepted into our sponsorship program.

The nuns at Sherab Choeling follow a 17-year study program. The curriculum is designed to educate the nuns in Buddhist philosophy, meditation, Tibetan language, and literature, in addition to basic education in English, Hindi, and math. The broad education is intended to provide the nuns with the necessary skills to educate future generations of nuns and the communities from which they come.

Nuns at Sherab Choeling practice Tibetan debate

The nuns practice Tibetan Buddhist debate. Training in Tibetan Buddhist debate is an essential part of monastic education in the Tibetan tradition. Until recently, Tibetan nuns did not have the opportunity to fully study and practice Tibetan Buddhist debate, a process that joins logical thinking with a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

Although the area of Lahaul-Spiti is part of India, ethnically, the people are descended from Tibetans and the majority are devout Buddhists. They have preserved an ancient Tibetan culture, speaking an old dialect of the Tibetan language, as written in Tibetan scriptures.

firewood for winter at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

During the coldest months, the nuns hold their classes, prayers, and meetings in the kitchen because it is warmer and helps to save wood.

The nuns have difficult living conditions. They often face long harsh winters and heavy snowfalls. During winter the region is cut off from neighboring villages so the nuns must stock up their daily supplies well before the onset of cold weather.

Winter at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

The frozen reservoir. Washing clothes and dishes in freezing-cold water is a challenge.

greenhouse and supplies at Sherab Choeling Nunnery 2019

With the help of volunteers, the nuns have been able to set up three greenhouses where they mostly grow spinach. Before winter, the nuns must stock up rations of food and fuel.

Summer is the most important and busy season at the nunnery. The nuns must work hard in the fields and store firewood for the winter in addition to concentrating on their studies.

taking care of the cows at Sherab Choeling Nunnery

The nuns are very positive about their future and someday want to be able to serve as teachers back in their villages.

sponsor a Tibetan Buddhist nun

A Tibetan Buddhist nun at Sherab Choeling Nunnery holding gifts from her sponsor. We’d like to thank all our sponsors of nuns at Sherab Choeling for their support. We are always looking for more sponsors for nuns at the seven nunneries we support in northern India.

We’d like to thank all our sponsors of nuns at Sherab Choeling for their support. We still need more sponsors. To sponsor a nun please visit https://tnp.org/youcanhelp/sponsor/

Here is an audio recording of the nuns reciting the Lama Chopa or Guru Puja recorded in 2015 by the French photographer, Olivier Adam.

 

Historic accomplishment as Geshemas hired to teach nuns

Two nuns with Geshema degrees have been hired to teach Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Tenzin Kunsel, Dolma Ling nunnery, nun from Tibet, Geshema, 2019 Message

You’re making dreams come true! Geshema Tenzin Kunsel always dreamed of getting an education and
becoming a teacher. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

This is an important milestone for the nuns. For the first time, Tibetan Buddhist nuns are being taught these topics by other nuns, rather than by monks.

Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks.

One of the goals of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to elevate the educational standards and the position of women. To this end, the project created a groundbreaking education system aimed at both preserving Tibetan culture and equipping and empowering the nuns to live and become leaders in the modern world.

The two Geshemas hired this spring as teachers are Geshema Tenzin Kunsel (right) and Geshema Delek Wangmo.

The Geshema degree, which is equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, is the culmination of at least 17 years of study.

The Geshema degree was only opened up to the nuns in 2012. Now there are 37 Geshemas and these dedicated women are a beacon of inspiration to all the other nuns.

The two Geshema teachers endured a lot to reach this historic status. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel had to leave school in Tibet at age 12. (She tells her story in a video interview.) Geshema Delek Wangmo (below) was illiterate when she arrived in India after escaping from Tibet.

Delek Wangmo, Geshema, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

Your support in action. Delek Wangmo could barely read when she escaped from Tibet. Now she holds the Geshema degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Like the other nuns from Tibet, they risked their lives to escape to India for the chance to freely practice their religion.

After graduating as Geshemas, both nuns completed further studies in Tantric Buddhism. This groundbreaking program launched in 2017 for the nuns has enabled the graduates to become fully qualified teachers of their complete tradition.

Until now, Tibetan nuns never had the opportunity to be educated at this high level.

We thank His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his support. We are also very grateful to our global family of supporters for helping to educate, feed, clothe, and house the nuns.

Here is a list of projects we’re working on now and that need funding.

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!

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week

The first full week of May is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, so we’re taking this opportunity to celebrate the teachers at Tibetan Buddhist nunneries. Springtime is also the start of a new academic year at the nunneries in India so it’s a fitting time to honor the teachers who educate the nuns.

“Educating women is powerful,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor for the Tibetan Nuns Project.

“It’s not just about books. It is also about helping nuns acquire the skills they need to run their own institutions and create models for future success and expansion. It’s about enabling the nuns to be teachers in their own right and to take on leadership roles at a critical time in our nation’s history.”

teacher appreciation, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project, education of women, Tibetan nuns

A monk teaches Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. As more nuns take the highest degrees in their traditions, such as the Geshema degree, they will be qualified to teach. 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.

Because historically nuns have not had access to formal education, very few nuns are qualified to teach. The good news is that the situation is now changing. More nuns are receiving the highest degrees in their traditions.

Who Teaches the Nuns

One of our ongoing tasks is the recruitment of qualified teachers for the various nunneries that we support.

The teachers we employ in the seven nunneries we support are both monastic and lay. Monks (often Geshes and Khenpos) from the large monasteries and training institutes of the various Buddhist traditions teach Buddhist philosophy and debate.

March 2019 marked a big milestone. Two nuns with Geshema degrees were hired to teach Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. For the first time, nuns are being taught these topics by other nuns, rather than by monks. This achievement would not have been possible without the global family of supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

teacher appreciation, Delek Wangmo, Geshema, Tibetan Nuns Project, educating women

Photo of Delek Wangmo and other senior nuns in 2013 by Brian Harris. When she escaped from Tibet she could barely read. Now she is one of two Geshemas hired in March 2019 to teach at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

English is taught in the nunneries by lay women and men educated in the Indian university system. For the Tibetan language, we employ mostly young women and men who have come from Tibet in recent years. Recent refugees often have stronger Tibetan-language skills than their Indian-raised counterparts. Once they have completed a teacher-training course at nearby Sarah Institute, a branch of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, we and many other institutions in the exile community hire them to teach Tibetan language, literature, and grammar.

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Teaching a Tibetan class at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Supporting the Nuns’ Teachers

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.

In addition to funding the salaries for teachers at the seven nunneries directly supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, each year we fund the salaries at a number of small nunneries in remote regions.

The annual cost of one teacher’s salary ranges from $1,500 to $5,000, 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. We are very grateful to all those people who support our Teachers’ Salaries Fund.

What Do the Nuns Study

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.

Exactly which commentaries the nuns most closely rely on varies between traditions as do the number of years of study, but there is uniformity of the basic topics. 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.

At most nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, courses are also offered in Tibetan language, English, and computer skills, as well as in ritual arts such as sand mandalas and butter sculpture. The smaller nunneries in more remote areas are at earlier stages in the educational process.

teacher appreciation, Shugsep Nunnery, education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A lay teacher at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute teaches geography to the nuns. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

The Power of Educating the Nuns

Before the Chinese takeover of Tibet, there were at least 818 nunneries and nearly 28,000 nuns living in Tibet.

In an attempt to eliminate Buddhism in Tibet, more than 6,000 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 Tibetan Nuns Project was founded in 1987, there wasn’t much education for Tibetan nuns, either in exile or inside Tibet. “Even when Tibet was free, nuns didn’t have much of an education,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal. “Of course, we had wonderful nunneries in Tibet, beautiful ones where the nuns were supported by their family members and treated very well, but mostly what the nuns did was spend their time in praying and meditating.”

“I must say that some nuns were very highly realized meditators, but in the sense of education that you and I know of today, they had none,” she said. “Which is why we are so happy that we have been able to make it possible in exile.”

Tibetan, Tibetan language, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A Tibetan Buddhist nun reads and writes in Tibetan. Most nuns arriving in India had 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. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

“The protection of Tibetan language and its culture is not only about Tibetans in Tibet,” says Karma Tenzin, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. “A proper access to the rich and profound Buddhist philosophy and epistemology is possible only through Tibetan language.”

Eternal Knot Symbol

The eternal knot is one of the eight auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism.

The eternal knot, sometimes called the “endless knot” or “the glorious knot” is called དཔལ་བེའུ། or palbeu in Tibetan. In Sanskrit, it is called shrivasta.

Tibetan eternal knot

Tibetan Eternal Knot

Because the knot has no beginning and no end, the eternal knot symbolizes the endless wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.

The eternal knot symbol has many other meanings.

It may symbolize the interconnectedness of wisdom and compassion; the eternal continuum of mind; samsara, the Buddhist concept of the endless cycle of suffering or birth, death, and rebirth; the union of wisdom and method; and the interdependence and interconnectedness of everything in the universe.

The remaining seven auspicious symbols in Buddhism are a white parasol, two golden fishes, a wish-fulfilling treasure vase, a lotus flower, a conch shell, a victorious banner, and a golden wheel.

In Buddhism, the eight auspicious symbols represent the offerings made to the Shakyamuni Buddha when he attained enlightenment.

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This lovely B&W portrait of a Tibetan refugee nun was taken in the 1990s by Susan Lirakis. Behind the nuns is part of a large eternal knot.

The eternal knot and the other symbols of good fortune are used in many ways, such as on khatas or kataks (ceremonial scarves), for door hangings, in greeting cards, in Tibetan handicrafts such as Tibetan carpets or seat mats, on prayer flags, as jewelry, and in art and printed books. Visit our online store to see many products that feature the Tibetan eternal knot design and which are sold to support the nunneries.

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A selection of Tibetan handicrafts with the eternal knot symbol made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and available through our online store.

The endless knot is often used as a design on Tibetan buildings and tents.

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Eternal knots as balcony designs at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. Photo courtesy of Hillary Levin

Educating Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Spring marks both a new academic year and intake time at the nunneries in India so it is a good time to share some stories and reflect on the education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

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. While in Tibet they had also been denied education in their religious heritage.

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

The Tibetan Nuns Project created an education program for nuns from the ground up. “Today when I see those nuns who didn’t know how to read and write their own names now have Geshema degrees, it is amazing. In a way, 30 years is a long time, but when it’s creating history it is not very long,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor to the Tibetan Nuns Project.

The Tibetan Nuns Project also serves women from the remote and impoverished border areas of India such as Ladakh, Zanskar, Spiti, Lahoul, and Arunachal Pradesh. The women and girls from these areas have traditionally been given far less education than men and boys. The nunneries give them a chance for education that they would not have otherwise.

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Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

Pema’s Story

Pema grew up in Tsum near the Nepal-Tibet border. “Being isolated from towns and cities, there isn’t any school in our village so we are very backward and most of the people are uneducated. They actually don’t realize the importance of getting a good education. I really wanted to go to school, but I didn’t have the opportunity because the school was extremely far away. I had to walk for a whole day and night to reach it and we didn’t have any relatives there or a place for me to stay. Those who had relatives there were able to stay and go to school and become educated. I don’t know about the quality of education that the school provided, but at least those students are getting to learn something.”

“The most courageous thing I think I have ever done was to run away from home to live my dream. I had put forward my desire and wish to become a nun, but my parents never supported my decision and objected strongly to my pleas. I could not find any way to convince them. I tried a lot but failed all the time, so the only option left for me was to run away from home. I brought tsampa (roasted barley flour) to eat so that I wouldn’t have an empty stomach and to stay healthy. I will never forget those days of struggle. I reached Kathmandu and stayed at my friend’s home for one night. She was very welcoming and bought me a ticket to go to Delhi.”

“My brother who is a monk contacted one of the elder nuns at Tilokpur Nunnery and this is how I came here. I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to study in such an institution where everything is taken care of by the institution. Especially, the education facilities are really impressive and very satisfactory. I am very grateful for those who helped me in living my dreams. Now that I am one such lucky nun to study at this prestigious institution, I am studying very hard. Currently, I am learning Tibetan, English, and debate.”

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Nuns debating at Tilokpur Nunnery. “Opening up education to the women, particularly in conjunction with training in debate, has been transformative for the nuns,” says Dr. Elizabeth Napper, Tibetan scholar, US Founder and Board Chair of the Tibetan Nuns Project. “Not only have they been given access to the full intellectual richness of their Buddhist tradition but also, through debate, they have been trained to actively engage with it in a way that gives them confidence in their knowledge.”

Rinzin’s Story

Rinzin grew up in a farming family in northern India caring for her family’s chickens and livestock and going to the nearby India school. Her life changed direction when she saw Tibetan Buddhist nuns. “During holidays, I would see nuns coming to their family homes. They look so happy. I would talk to them and they would tell me about their nunnery. I got so fascinated and wanted to become a nun. I had a sudden urge to become a nun.”

“I told my parents, but my mother told me to stay home and go to school. I urged my father to persuade my mother to let me be a nun. Finally, my mother agreed. They advised me to be a good nun.”

Rinzin first joined a Nyingma nunnery at Varanasi, where she studied for five years. “One day, a relative who was a Geshe [a monk with a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism; the female equivalent is a Geshema] came to visit at the nunnery and stayed there for a while. He noticed that there was no debate on Buddhist philosophy. He told us younger nuns who were from the same village that debate is important and that we should learn it. I, along with a few other nuns agreed, and he took us to Dharamsala, where he told us to choose between Geden Choeling Nunnery and Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.”

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute sitting exams

“I chose Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute because I have a relative who is a nun there. I heard from her that Dolma Ling is a good place to study, as it is quite strict and the education facilities are good. I thought it would be a good place to study, so I decided to go to Dolma Ling Nunnery.”

“In 2017, the nunnery was admitting new nuns so I went through an interview and written exam. I passed and I became a nun here. Dolma Ling Nunnery is a beautiful and quiet place. In February 2018, I got ordained along with my classmates in the presence of His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama. He advised us to study well and to abide by the oath.”

“Currently, I am studying in Duta Class. We learn basic Tibetan and debate. I am having a bit of difficulty with debate because it is a new subject for me. I think I will be okay because I have my classmates and teachers who will guide me. I wish to do my best and get the Geshema degree.”

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Nun holding her Geshema certificate. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

What the Tibetan Nuns Study

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 traditional 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.

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.

At most nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, courses are also offered in Tibetan language, English, and computer skills, as well as in ritual arts such as sand mandalas and butter sculpture. The smaller nunneries in more remote areas are at earlier stages in the educational process.

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns taking part in a Tibetan calligraphy competition

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 modern education.

Why Educating Tibetan Nuns Is So Important

It is a historic time for both Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan nuns.

Inside Tibet, nuns and monks are under constant surveillance and are unable to freely practice their religion. There’s a very great risk that the priceless wisdom and teachings of Tibetan Buddhism may be lost. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “The Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is something precious which we can be proud of and should strive to preserve.”

It is also a time of opportunity for Buddhist women. Never before have Tibetan nuns been able to receive the same education and the chance to study and sit for the same degrees as their male monastic counterparts, Tibetan monks.

For the first time in the history of Tibet, nuns can take the Geshema degree, roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism. Our focus with the Tibetan Nuns Project has been on helping the nuns to gain the top degrees within their Tibetan Buddhist traditions, so that they could reach the same level of academic proficiency in those traditions as the monks. Our further hope is that they will go on to teach other nuns so that teachers do not always have to be monks.

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Senior nuns studying at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Learn about our Current Projects here and how you can sponsor a nun here.