Stories by Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

In this blog post, we want to share some special stories written and illustrated by Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

In the past, Tibetan Buddhist nuns have had few opportunities for education. Most of the nuns who escaped on foot over the Himalayas from Tibet were illiterate on their arrival in India. Until recently, women were not allowed to study for higher degrees such as the Geshema degree, roughly equivalent to a PhD.

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute science fair 2019

Tenzin Norgyal, the English teacher organized a nuns’ science fair fin 2019. Now he has created a special book project for his students.

Much progress has been made and the Tibetan Nuns Project is deeply grateful to all our supporters.

Four Illustrated Stories by the Nuns

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute is dedicated to higher Buddhist education for Tibetan Buddhist nuns from all traditions.

Recently the English teacher at Dolma Ling, Mr. Tenzin Norgyal, assigned a special book project for his class. He understands the importance of creativity and inter-disciplinary learning.

Here are some of the sweet stories written and illustrated by the nuns.

Click here to view.

This first story teaches the importance of being happy with what you have.

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In “My Chapter” Kalsang tells the moving story of her escape from Tibet and joining Dolma Ling Nunnery.

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This third story talks about combining wisdom and effort in our brief lives.

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Finally, the story of Yak Gapa illustrates the need to help each other.

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The Tibetan Nuns Project believes that education is the key to empowerment. We work to give nuns the resources to carve out independent, creative identities for themselves.

Tibet’s unique religion and culture are under great threat. The nuns from Tibet who were once denied equal access to education and the opportunity to practice their religion freely are the teachers and leaders of the future.

Thank you for helping the nuns on their path!

Important Tibetan Buddhist Holidays in 2023

Here is a list of important Tibetan Buddhist holidays in 2023 plus other major dates in the Tibetan calendar.

Tibetan Nuns Project 2023 Calendar front and back, 2023 calendar

The Tibetan Nuns Project 2023 calendar is available through our online store at tnp.org and has the Tibetan lunar calendar, ritual dates, inspirational quotes, phases of the moon and major US and Canadian holidays. Cost is $12 plus shipping and all proceeds help the nuns.

Each year, the Tibetan Nuns Project publishes a calendar with beautiful images by the nuns. Sales help provide education, food, shelter, and health care for over 800 Tibetan Buddhist nuns living in northern India.

February 21, 2023: Losar, Tibetan New Year

Tibetan butter sculptures for Losar

The nuns at Dolma Ling make elaborate and colorful butter sculptures of flowers and Buddhist sacred symbols to decorate an offering table for Losar or Tibetan New Year. Photos by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

Losar or Tibetan New Year is a very special time of year. This year Losar is on February 21, 2023. According to the Tibetan calendar it is the start of year of the Water Hare 2150. In the traditional Tibetan calendar each year has an animal, an element, and a number. The year of the Water Hare ends on February 9, 2024 and the year of the Wood Dragon begins the following day on February 10, 2024.

Tibetan Buddhist nun, prayer flags, hanging prayer flags

Tibetans hang new prayer flags and burn incense at Tibetan New Year. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The animals in the Tibetan calendar are similar to those in the Chinese zodiac and are in following order: Mouse, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Bird, Dog, and Boar. The five elements are in this order: Wood, Fire, Earth, Iron, and Water.

Losar-related rituals fall into two distinct parts. First, the nuns like all Tibetans say goodbye to the old year and let go of all its negative or bad aspects. Part of this involves cleaning your home or room from top to bottom.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns making khapse for Tibetan New Year or Losar

Each year the nuns make lots of khapse biscuits in various shapes and sizes for Losar. These deep-fried Tibetan cookies are a staple of Tibetan New Year’s celebrations everywhere. Photos by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

After that, Tibetans welcome the “Losar” or “new year” with prayers and by inviting all good, auspicious things into their homes and lives. They prepare special food such as the fried biscuits called khapse and a noodle soup called guthuk. Here is a recipe for vegetarian guthuk. Tibetans hang new prayer flags and also burn incense and fragrant juniper bows to welcome the new year.

March 10 and March 12: Tibetan Uprising Day

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Nuns, monks, and lay people hold Tibetan flags and banners as they take part in a demonstration in Dharamsala, India to mark March 10th, Tibetan Uprising Day. Photo courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

While not a Tibetan Buddhist holiday, March 10th is a very important date in the Tibetan calendar. This year marks the 64th anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising. Around the world, Tibetans and their supporters remember and pay tribute to all those who have sacrificed their lives for Tibet’s struggle. An estimated one million Tibetans have perished and 98% of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed under the Chinese occupation.

In 1950, Chinese Communist forces invaded Tibet. On March 10, 1959, Tibetans attempted to take back their country with an uprising in Lhasa. The protests were crushed with brutal force.

March 12th, 2023 marks the 64th anniversary of the Tibetan Women’s Uprising. Following the National Uprising Day on March 10th, thousands of Tibetan women gathered in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa to demonstrate for Tibetan independence.

Read this blog post to learn more about these important dates and why Tibetans are in exile.

June 4, 2023: Saga Dawa Düchen

The most important month in the Tibetan calendar is Saga Dawa, the 4th lunar month which runs this year from May 20 to June 18th 2023. The 15th day of the 4th lunar month, the full moon day, is called Saga Dawa Düchen. Düchen means “great occasion” and this day is the holiest day of the year for Tibetan Buddhists. In 2023, Saga Dawa Düchen is on June 4th.

Saga Dawa, Saga Dawa Duchen, Tibetan Buddhist nuns reading the words of the Buddha for Saga Dawa

Every year, during the month of Saga Dawa, over a period of several days, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery read the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon or Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

Saga Dawa Düchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana of Buddha Shakyamuni. In other Buddhist traditions, this occasion is known as Vesak or is sometimes called Buddha Day.

Saga Dawa is known as the month of merits. Tibetans believe that during this month the merits of your actions are multiplied. Tibetan Buddhists make extra effort to practice more generosity, virtue, and compassion to accumulate greater merit. On the 15th day of the month or Saga Dawa Düchen the merits of your actions are hugely increased.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns reading the kangyur for Saga Dawa

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling read the Kangyur, the spoken words of the Buddha, during the holy month of Saga Dawa in 2021. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

Every year, during the month of Saga Dawa, over a period of several days, the nuns at various nunneries read the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon or Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha.

July 3, 2023: Universal Prayer Day

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, burning juniper

As on other auspicious occasions, such as Tibetan New Year and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday, nuns burn fragrant juniper boughs. Photo by the Dolma Ling Nuns’ Media Team

Universal Prayer Day or Dzam Ling Chi Sang falls on the 15th day of the 5th month of the Tibetan Lunar calendar, so in June or July. It is a time for spiritual cleansing. Tibetans hang prayer flags and burn juniper twigs.

July 6: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Birthday

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Around the world, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6th is celebrated with happiness and prayers for his good health and long life. This year, His Holiness the Dalai Lama turns 88. The nuns will pray and make special offerings of tsok, khataks (prayer scarves), and sangsol (incense offering) to His Holiness. It’s a day of celebration with special food, such as Tibetan momos, the steamed savory dumplings that are much loved by Tibetans around the world and that are often made on Tibetan Buddhist holidays. Here is a recipe for vegetarian momos so you can celebrate at home.

July 21, 2023: Buddha’s First Teaching

Called Chokhor Düchen, this important day falls on the fourth day of the sixth lunar month. This day is the third “great occasion” (düchen) in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. It celebrates the first teaching by the historical Buddha, named Siddhartha at birth and commonly known as Shakyamuni Buddha.

On this day, over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha gave the teaching of the Four Noble Truths in Sarnath, shortly after attaining enlightenment in Bodhgaya. This event is known as the “turning of the wheel of dharma”. In Theravada traditions, this event is remembered on Dhamma Day also known as Asalha Puja and is generally marked on the full moon of the eighth lunar month. To celebrate Chokhor Düchen, Tibetan Buddhists make pilgrimages to holy places, offer incense, and hang prayer flags.​​

November 4, 2023: Buddha’s Descent from Heaven

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhist holidays, praying, Olivier Adam, Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhist nuns praying. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Another “great occasion” or düchen in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar is Lhabab Düchen. This date commemorates the Buddha’s descent from the heavenly realm following his visit there to teach his deceased mother. Lhabab Düchen occurs on the 22nd day of the ninth lunar month, according to the Tibetan calendar.

On this day, the karmic effects of our actions are multiplied millions of times. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, people engage in virtuous activities and pray to gain merit and to mark this special occasion.

February 10, 2024: Losar (Tibetan New Year)

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Butter sculptures and offerings made by the Tibetan nuns for Losar, Tibetan New Year.

Losar in 2024 falls on February 10th and is the start of the Year of the Wood Dragon, 2151 according to the Tibetan calendar.

Keep Track With the Tibetan Nuns Project Calendar

You can order our 2023 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar. It’s a great way to keep track of the Tibetan Buddhist holidays and all the special events throughout the year. The calendar has the dates of the Tibetan lunar calendar, Tibetan holidays, and special ritual days for Tibetan Buddhist practices. It costs $12 plus shipping and your purchase helps support over 800 Tibetan Buddhist nuns and seven nunneries in India.

Photos and update from Geden Choeling Nunnery 2022

Life at Geden Choeling Nunnery

Geden Choeling is the oldest nunnery in the Dharamsala area and is located in McLeod Ganj, Upper Dharamsala. The nunnery absorbed a steady stream of refugee nuns since 1975 and now 175 nuns live and study there. The name means which means “home of the virtuous ones who devote their lives to the Buddha Dharma.”

Geden Choeling Nunnery Dharamsala, Olivier Adam

Geden Choeling is built on a steep hillside in the Tibetan refugee settlement of McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. It is a 10-minute walk from the main temple and the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Photo from May 2022 by Olivier Adam.

The nuns’ daily routine consists of classes, debate sessions and religious activities.

At the end of March 2022, the nuns started a major building project to construct a debate hall and nuns’ hostel. The goal is to complete this work by the end of March 2025. The aim is to provide better educational facilities and improved accommodation for the nuns.

Geden Choeling Nunnery, McLeod Ganj, Tibetan refugees

Nuns lining up for a simple vegetarian meal at Geden Choeling Nunnery. The Tibetan Nuns Project helps with sponsorship of nuns at Geden Choeling and has also helped the nunnery to set up a study curriculum and continues to support their educational efforts. Photo by Olivier Adam 2022.

During the holy month of Saga Dawa which ran from May 31st to June 29th 2022, the nuns recited special prayers for the well-being of all sentient beings and for lasting peace in the world. During this holy month, the nuns also recited the over 300 volumes of the Kangyur and Tengyur texts and chanted prayers and did prostrations in front of the Lord Buddha statue.

Temple Geden Choeling Nunnery

Geden Choeling is home to about 175 nuns. We are grateful to all those who sponsor nuns there. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Also during Saga Dawa, the nuns observed four pairs or eight days of Nyung Ne fasting during which they did not have any food or water.

Two nuns, Venerbale Passang Dolma and Venerable Tenzin Desel attended a special event organized by the Department of Religion and Culture held at Namdroling Monastery from June 16-19th. The speakers of the discourse consisted of 13 monks and 4 nuns representing each school and sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

On July 6, 2022, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s 87th birthday, the nuns offered long-life prayers and recited sacred texts.

A collage of photos by Olivier Adam showing life at Geden Choeling Nunnery.

A collage of photos by Olivier Adam showing life at Geden Choeling Nunnery.

The nuns half-year exams took place from July 16-30 and all of them showed great enthusiasm to take part. The nuns have improved greatly in both their written and debate exams.

Geshema Exams 2022 and Training in Monastic Debate

This year the Geshema exams were held at Geden Choeling. Candidates for the exams arrived at the nunnery on July 6th to start the one-month final study period before the two weeks of formal exams started on August 7.

Geshema exams at Geden Choeling Nunnery 2022

Nuns lines up for food during the Geshema exams held at Geden Choeling Nunnery in the summer of 2022. 94 nuns from 6 nunneries, including 18 nuns from Geden Choeling itself, took various levels of the exams this year. Photo courtesy of Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

Ninety-four nuns from six different nunneries in India and Nepal took the exams including 18 nuns from Geden Choeling itself. Three Geden Choeling nuns took their 4th and final set of exams. Two of those nuns graduated with their Geshema degree at a special ceremony in Bodh Gaya on November 18, 2022.

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10 Tibetan Buddhist nuns receiving their Geshema degrees at the Geshema graduation 2022 in Bodh Gaya

At the closing ceremony for the Geshema exams, Kasur Rinchen Khando Choegyal, the Founding Director and Special Advisor for the Tibetan Nuns Project, attended as the event’s chief guest.

On August 10, 2022, the entire nunnery compound and surrounding area were cleaned and the stairs scrubbed with bleaching powder to prevent accidents because in the monsoon season it becomes very slippery.

From the start of September, the nuns began preparing for the annual Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate to be held at Bodh Gaya from October 16 to November 17.

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Nuns at Geden Choeling spread out to practice monastic debate in May 2022. Training in debate is essential for attaining higher degrees. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Finally, four nuns attended the Tibet Science Initiative program conducted by the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives from September 15 to October 7th.

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Four nuns from Geden Choeling took part in the 7th Modern Science Education Workshop organized by the Department of Religion and Culture from October 24 to November 5, 2022 at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Photo LTWA

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Thank you for your support! Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Update from Tilokpur Nunnery 2022

Tilokpur Nunnery

Tilokpur Nunnery, also called Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling, is the oldest Kagyu nunnery outside of Tibet. It provides housing and education to about 90 nuns and overlooks a small town in the lush foothills of the Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh in northern India.

Tilokpur nuns praying opposite Tilopa's cave, Tilopa, Tilokpur

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

The nunnery is about 40 kilometers from Dharamsala, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and seat of the Central Tibetan Administration. The nunnery is near the cave of the great Indian yogi Tilopa.

Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling, Tilokpur Nunnery, Freda Bedi

In 1962, the first nunnery in exile was established at Gita Cottage, Dalhousie by Freda Bedi. This nunnery was named Karma Drubgyu Thargay Ling and in 1968, was relocated to Tilokpur in Kangra, near Dharamsala.

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

Education at Tilokpur Nunnery

The nunnery’s education system follows the ancient Indian education of the Kagyu lineage. Before nine years of the study curriculum, nuns must complete three years of preparatory classes. To get high-school-level education, the nuns must follow two years of Purva Madhayama and two years of Utter Madhayama. For the equivalent of a bachelor degree, they need to have three years the Shastri. And for the rough equivalent of a masters degree, they need to study two years of Acharya.

During these years, the nuns need to study the five major Buddhist subjects: Abidharma, Vinya, Pramana, Pratimokhsha, and Mashayamika. They must also study the three Tantric subjects based on commentaries by Kagyu masters. Finally, after completing all courses, the nuns will receive the Karabjam degree, considered the highest degree in Kagyu sect.

Tibetan class at Tilokpur Nunnery Photo by Brian Harris

Tibetan class at Tilokpur Nunnery. Photo by Brian Harris

The nuns’ academic year starts in April and ends at the end of December. Except for Sundays and special occasions, they have daily classes from 8 am to 4 pm.

This year, the nunnery introduced a new project called the “ongoing quiz” held at the end of each month. A group of three to five nuns is assigned a research project on a philosophy topic. They research their topic for a few weeks and then create a PowerPoint presentation which they give to all nuns in the institute. By doing so, the nuns gain confidence and a deeper understanding of different philosophical topics. They also gain many other skills such as self-learning, teamwork, and teaching and presentation skills.

Also, all the Tilokpur nuns and teachers had the opportunity in 2022 to have an extensive series of teachings on different subjects from His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje.

Here is a sweet video made several years ago about the nuns at Tilokpur. Can’t see the video? Click here.

Congratulations to 10 New Geshemas!

Geshema Graduation 2022

Ten Tibetan Buddhist nuns formally received their Geshema degrees at a special ceremony in the holy city of Bodh Gaya on November 18, 2022. Now the world has a total of 53 Geshemas!

Geshema graduation 2022

10 Tibetan Buddhist nuns receiving their Geshema degrees at the Geshema graduation 2022 in Bodh Gaya. Photo courtesy of DRC.

The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism.

The ceremony was attended by:

  • 41st Sakya Trizin Kyabgon Gongma Trichen Rinpoche as the event’s chief guest
  • Secretary Chime Tseyang from the Department of Religion and Culture
  • The Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, Nangsa Chodon
  • The president of Geshema Examination Committee
  • Tutors and participants of the Winter Session of Discussion on Pramana.

Of the ten recipients of this year’s Geshema’s Degree, four nuns are from Jangchub Choeling Nunnery, four are from Kopan Monastery, and two are from Geden Choeling Nunnery.

Geshema Graduation 2022 Secretary Chime Tseyang giving presents to Gesgemas

Secretary Chime Tseyang from the Department of Religion and Culture giving presents to the Geshemas. She thanked the lamas who for helping to fulfill His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s vision of empowering Tibetan Buddhist nuns through educating Buddhist scriptures traditionally studied by monks only. She also encouraged the Geshemas to serve all sentient beings. Photo from DRC.

About the Geshema Degree and the Geshema Exams

The Geshema degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. It is the same as a Geshe degree but is called a Geshema degree because it is awarded to women.

Tibetan Buddhist nun holding Geshema hat

Photo of a Geshema holding the yellow hat that signifies her degree. Detail of photo by Olivier Adam.

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.

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

Joy among the 20 Geshema nuns who received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the historic Geshema graduation ceremony in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The 2022 Geshema exams were held at Geden Choeling Nunnery with 94 nuns taking various levels of the four-year exams as follows:

  • 1st year: 59 nuns took exams, 56 passed
  • 2nd year: 14 nuns took exams, 14 passed
  • 3rd year: 10 nuns took exams, 7 passed
  • 4th year: 11 nuns took exams, 10 passed

Thank you to everyone who sent good luck messages to the nuns!

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.
    • 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.
    • In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first woman to receive the Geshe degree. This was before the Geshema degree process was approved in 2012.
Photo of 10 new Geshemas 2022, Geshema graduation 2022

The 10 Geshemas who graduated on November 18th took part in a formal debate (damja) with hundreds of other nuns on November 16 and 17. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

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 2022, the exams were held at Geden Choeling Nunnery. The 2020 and 2021 Geshema exams were cancelled because of the pandemic.

Geshema, Geshema exams 2022, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Collage of nuns taking written and oral (debate) exams as part of the 2022 Geshema exams. Photos by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

“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 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 Geshema examinations.

Geshema graduation ceremony

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the 20 Geshema graduates at the degree ceremony in Mundgod, December 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of OHHDL.

In November 2022, another ten nuns graduated with their Geshema degree. This brings the total number of Geshemas to 53. (In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first woman to receive the Geshe degree. This was before the Geshema degree process was approved in 2012 so she is not counted here in the total.)

Here’s a list of the Geshema graduations since the formal approval in 2012:

Geshema Endowment

We are extremely grateful to the 159 donors to the Geshema Endowment, including the Pema Chodron Foundation, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Frederick Family Foundation, and the Donaldson Charitable Trust. We are also very grateful to all those who sponsor nuns and help them on their path.

The Geshema Endowment, launched by the Tibetan Nuns Project in 2021, ensures the long-term sustainability of the Geshema program. It cover the costs involved in training and qualifying more Geshemas including the costs of travel, food, and accommodation for the Geshema candidates to attend the exams. The fund also covers the cost of administration and materials for the exams and provides each new Geshema with a set of nuns’ robes and yellow hat that signifies the holding of the degree.

“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.”

Geshemas in formal debate preceeding Geshema graduation 2022

The 10 Geshemas took part in two days of formal debate their convocation. Hundreds of nuns were in Bodh Gaya for the Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate.

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 over about 20 years. The method of study involves logical analysis and debate, combined with regular sessions of prayer and recitation.

Each of the final-year candidates has to write, in advance, a 50-page thesis. Examiners test the candidates on their thesis papers during the exams and the nuns must give an oral defence.  Learn more about what Geshemas study here.

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 Meaning of Gestures in Tibetan Buddhist Debate

Watching nuns or monks practice debate is fascinating because of their lively hand and body motions, but many observers wonder about the meaning of the gestures in Tibetan Buddhist debate.

monastic debate, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan debate, debate gestures

A group of nuns act as Challengers and pose questions to seated nuns during daily debate practice at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Debate in Tibetan Buddhism serves many purposes including clearing up doubts, developing critical thinking skills, deepening one’s understanding of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and increasing wisdom and compassion. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Monastic debate is noisy. When you see Tibetan debating for the first time, the debaters’ stances, gestures, and sounds may seem confrontational. Yet everyone practices debate with an attitude of respect and a shared desire to deeply understand the Buddhist teachings.

Each hand and body motion is rooted in wisdom and compassion, which must be united to attain enlightenment.

The Meaning of Gestures in Tibetan Buddhist Debate

Daily practice in monastic debate is of critical importance in traditional Tibetan Buddhist learning. Through debate, nuns and monks test and consolidate their classroom learning and gain a thorough understanding of the Buddhist teachings.

In daily debate practice, the Challenger chooses the topic from the Buddhist philosophical texts studied earlier that day. The Challenger stands and asks questions to the Defender who is seated and who must answer. Sometimes monastics debate in groups. There is strength is numbers and the weak learn from the strong.

As the Challenger asks the question, she or he claps loudly to punctuate the end of the question.

In the gestures of debate, the right hand represents compassion or method. The left hand represents wisdom. The loud clap signifies the joining of wisdom and compassion.

Tibetan Buddhist nun, monastic debate, Tibetan debate gestures

A Tibetan Buddhist nun practicing debate dramatically claps her hands together after asking her question. The loud clap signifies the coming together of compassion (right hand) and wisdom (left hand). Photo by Olivier Adam taken at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India.

When the Challenger claps her hands together, she simultaneously stomps her left foot. This symbolizes the slamming of the door to rebirth in the lower realms.

After the clap and stomp, the Challenger holds out her left arm which represents wisdom. Through this motion, she represents keeping the door to all rebirth shut.

Tibetan debate. monastic debate, meaning of Tibetan debate gestures

Stomping one’s foot in Tibetan monastic debate symbolizes slamming of the door to rebirth in the lower realms. Photo by Olivier Adam of a nun practicing daily debate at Geden Choeling Nunnery.

Then she uses her right arm to lift up her mala (Tibetan prayer beads) around her left arm. This gesture represents the compassionate lifting up of all suffering beings from the cycle of rebirth.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “The root of suffering is the unruly mind, so the practice of Dharma is to transform the mind.” The practice of debate helps develop critical thinking skills, deepens one’s understanding of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and increases wisdom and compassion.

If the Defender’s answer is satisfactory, the Challenger moves on to the next question. If not, the Challenger will make a gesture like an alligator closing its jaws, loudly smacking her hands together as she seeks an in-depth explanation from the Defender.

Tibetan debate, monastic debate, gestures in Tibetan Buddhist debate

A nun uses her right arm to lift up her mala or Tibetan prayer beads around her left arm. This gesture represents the compassionate lifting up of all suffering beings from the cycle of rebirth. Photo by Olivier Adam.

The Importance of Tibetan Buddhist Debate

The following video is a great primer on debate by Tibetan Buddhist nuns. It is part of a longer video made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India. It answers many questions about monastic debate and shows and describes the gestures.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

“The logic and epistemology that prevailed in ancient India have lapsed in modern times, but we Tibetans kept them alive in our monasteries,” said His Holiness the Dalai Lama at an important debate event in India. “Our studies are rigorous. We memorize texts word by word, study commentaries to them and engage in debate during which we refute others’ positions, assert our own and rebut criticism.”

Debate pushes everyone to study and to try to understand the meaning of the texts.

Training Nuns in Debate

Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. This is true also for training in monastic debate. The Tibetan Nuns Project’s mission is to educate and empower nuns of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as teachers and leaders, and to establish, strengthen, and support educational institutions to sustain Tibetan religion and culture.

Now nuns are able to get training and daily practice in monastic debate. In addition to their regular daily debate practice at their own nunneries, each year hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist nuns from nunneries in India and Nepal gather for a special, month-long inter-nunnery debate called the Jang Gonchoe.

Here is a video of the 2019 Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate. Can’t see it? Click here.

Before 1995, there was no Jang Gonchoe for nuns and this learning opportunity was only open to monks. The Tibetan Nuns Project, with the wonderful support of our patron, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, played a critical role in opening up this learning opportunity to women. Establishing a comparable debate session for nuns has been an integral part of the nuns reaching their current level of excellence in their studies.

The inter-nunnery debate helps bring the nuns closer to equality with the monks in terms of learning opportunities and advancement along the spiritual path. For many, the Jang Gonchoe is an essential component of working towards higher academic degrees, such as the Geshema degree, equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “Nowadays, the Nalanda tradition of approaching the Buddha’s teachings with logic and reason is only found amongst Tibetans. It’s something precious we can be proud of and should strive to preserve.”

Tibetan Nuns Project Marks 35th Anniversary

To mark the 35th anniversary of the Tibetan Nuns Project in October 2022, we are re-publishing a 2001 interview with Rinchen Khando Choegyal, our Founding Director and Special Advisor. This interview was first published in our 2001 newsletter and shows how far the nuns have come thanks to your support.

Rinchen Khando Choegya is a former Minister of Education in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and founding President of the Tibetan Women’s Association. She is married to Ngari Rinpoche, youngest brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She resides in Dharamsala.

Rinchen Khando Choeygal Founding Director Tibetan Nuns Project

Rinchen Khando Choeygal, the Tibetan Nuns Project’s Founding Director and Special Advisor

What were your thoughts when you started the Tibetan Nuns Project?
When we started the Tibetan Nuns Project in 1987, I thought, “How best to look after the nuns?” Of course, the most important thing was to find them food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. It is, however, not enough to be fed and clothed. I knew nuns needed a better system of education, and that is what we have tried to focus on throughout the history of TNP.

Tibetan refugee nuns outside a tent classroom in India

An archival photo outside a tent classroom in India. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. TNP created a groundbreaking education system aimed at both preserving Tibetan culture and empowering the nuns to live and become leaders in the modern world.

Upon arriving in Dharamsala, 99% of the nuns could neither read nor write. They appeared to be strong young women, but in the classroom it was as if they were in kindergarten. Now there are nuns at both Dolma Ling and Shugsep who are beginning advanced studies. Eventually I hope that the Dolma Ling Institute for Higher Learning will be a place where both nuns and lay women can receive the finest advanced studies in all of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Why is it important for nuns to be well educated?
After His Holiness came to India, he put the education of children, not just boys, on top of his priority list. So, today in the Tibetan community the young men and women are equally educated. Traditionally in Tibet there has been a very profound system of monastic education which was, however, restricted to monks. Women who decided to become nuns focused mainly on learning prayers and how to read and write Tibetan. Now that education in the lay community has become equal between men and women, I personally feel that we must restructure the nuns’ education in order to stay true to His Holiness’ vision. It is important for this vision of equality to trickle down into all parts of society.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates Geshemas at historic Geshema graduation ceremony in 2016

Rinchen Khando Choegyal, director of Tibetan Nuns Project congratulating one of the Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates Geshemas at the historic graduation ceremony in 2016. The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. This degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

So the key is to educate the nuns in a system through which they can study at as high a level as they need to. Luckily, we have full support for this vision from His Holiness and from the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs. Now the question is, what is the best way to implement this system for the nuns?

My main vision for the Tibetan Nuns Project is an education that will enable the nuns to think for themselves, to learn deeper values like: what is most meaningful at the end of your life? It will not be easy because they are not used to thinking for themselves or thinking highly of themselves.

Do the nuns receive the same education as monks?
In principle, the monks’ education is the same as the education we have implemented at our nunneries. The only difference (and this is changing at the monasteries now, too) is that a traditional monastic education teaches only Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan reading and writing. We also teach the nuns other subjects – English, history, math.

Again, we are trying to implement the vision of His Holiness, who has stressed the importance of learning these things.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates one of the 20 Geshemas in 2016, Olivier Adam

Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates one of the 20 Geshemas in 2016. Photo by Olivier Adam

What is the role of women’s education in current Tibetan society?
Education is very, very important for any community. Women are particularly important because through them the whole community can be educated (whether they are mothers and wives or nuns teaching in the community). Also, spiritual values are precious to everyone — mothers as well as nuns. There is a terrible lack of opportunity for lay women to engage in spiritual study right now. If a lay woman is able to study, she will be able to affect her whole family. Eventually, some percentage of admission to the Institute for Higher Learning will be reserved for lay women.

Why is the Institute for Higher Learning a non-sectarian institution?
The main reason is that I feel that all the different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism boil down to the same thing, the same message from the Buddha. We are so used to belonging to one tradition or another. This can cause division as religion often does. I have the deepest respect for all traditions. I want the nuns to learn all of the traditions in order for them to get a richer education. All of the different traditions really help you in different ways to reach a high level.

a collage of some of the many self-sufficiency projects at Dolma Ling Nunnery

A primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to help the nuns achieve more self-sufficiency through education, skill building, and income-generating projects. Here are some of the many self-sufficiency projects including tofu making, the annual calendar, prayer flags, and pujas.

Will the nuns develop “self-sufficiency”?

It is important for the Tibetan nation to be self-sufficient. The rest of the world has been very generous in supporting us in exile, but we need to try our best to attain self­-sufficiency. We can’t just sit back and relax and say, “How nice, we are being supported.” We have to look at these issues: who has which skills, and how can they best work together?

The purpose of life — whether  as a lay person, monk  or nun — is to  develop  yourself  as an individual and to become a useful, productive member of human society — helpful and altruistic. We have started to develop an advanced educational system for the nuns, but not all will be scholars; some nuns will need training of other kinds. All of them have something to give. I want to set up a system where they can be trained as health workers, teachers, midwives, artists, people with skills to offer the community. The nuns could even keep cows. Self-sufficiency should be stressed within each part of society, as well as within the larger society.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns and dairy cows at Dolma Ling

The nuns at Dolma Ling have now been keeping dairy cows for over 20 years as part of the nunnery’s sustainability efforts. The small herd provides milk and butter for the 261 nuns who live and study there. The dairy herd also provides manure for the nunnery’s gardens.

The basic requirements for real altruism are care and compassion. But you also need to have some skill. Not everyone can be a teacher, but everyone can develop some skills so that they can serve the community. And by doing so, the nuns will be truly living compassion. Altruism starts at home, with the person next to you. Many people care deeply about the environment, or people far away, yet don’t pay much attention to the people close to them. Even nuns can’t pray for all sentient beings and do nothing themselves. Knowing how diligent they have been at their studies, I am certain that they will be equally diligent in serving their communities when they are finished.

What do you see as the future of the Tibetan Nuns Project?
We’ve come a long way in terms of infrastructure, health, and awareness. We started Dolma Ling and Shugsep nunneries, and we also help nuns at Geden Choeling, Tilokpur and other nunneries. Over the next five years, my focus will be on the quality of the nuns’ education and administration.I want to review each and every nun and see what each nun is capable of. I want the administration to become even more efficient. But primarily Iwant to focus on the quality of the nuns’ education and to help develop them individually.

We have a long way to go in terms of fundraising. It is crucial that we build an endow­ment so that Dolma Ling’s operating expenses can become self-sufficient. Of course, we also need to complete the planned infrastructure of Dolma Ling, as well as build the new Shugsep Nunnery. On top of all this, we need to figure out the best way to incorporate the number of nuns arriving fresh from Tibet each year into our system.

Through the Tibetan Nuns Project, I would like to see that I look after all of the nuns in the Tibetan commu­nity. This is probably impossible! The Tibetan Nuns Project is currently helping more than 600 nuns and, at least, I want to see that this job is done correctly in terms of education and social work.

Since 1987, I have worked very hard to improve the lives of nuns. Although I have not received any external reward, it has given me great internal joy. I think through this project I have gained more than anybody in the world.

Tibetan Buddhist Nuns holding thank you signs

Since this interview was published in 2001, we made great progress toward our vision to educate and empower nuns of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as teachers and leaders; and to establish, strengthen, and support educational institutions to sustain Tibetan religion and culture.

Thanks to your generosity we have:

Visit to an ancient Himalayan nunnery

In the remote Indian Himalayas lies a 700-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nunnery called Dorjee Zong. The nunnery has a long tradition of meditating nuns, some of who are famed for having reached high levels of realization.

Dorjee Zong is one of seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. During the pandemic, this remote nunnery was even more cut off than usual.

In August 2022, a team from the Tibetan Nuns Project office near Dharamsala travelled for several days over hazardous roads from Leh to Zanskar. The team wanted to check on the nuns’ welfare and the progress of various projects at the nunnery including the major construction project started in 2019.

group photo showing the team from the Tibetan Nuns Project with the two oldest nuns at Dorjee Zong

Nangsa Choedon, Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project in India (middle), Tsering Diki, Assistant Director (left), and Delek Yangchen, one of the Dolma Ling media nuns (right) with the two eldest nuns at Dorjee Zong. These two nuns are both 90 years old.

For over 12 years the Tibetan Nuns Project has been helping this small nunnery with sponsorship of the nuns, teacher salaries, and a big construction project to improve all facilities at the nunnery.

Here’s a video of their visit. Can’t see video? Click here.

 

Old and new Dorjee Zong buildings
The old part of Dorjee Zong is on the hilltop on the left and the new school and other parts of the nunnery are lower down. The pandemic and the short building season at this high altitude have posed challenges.

Dorjee Zong is home to 20 nuns – 13 young nuns and 7 elder nuns. The oldest two are both 90-years-old. The seven elder nuns live at the ancient nunnery on the hill top. They spend most of their time reciting mantras and circumambulating the sacred site. They also take care of their field and greenhouse to stock up supplies for the harsh winters. The younger nuns live and study in the lower and newer part of the nunnery.

traditional kitchen at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in the Himalayas

The old traditional kitchen at Dorjee Zong Nunnery. The nunnery is one of the oldest centers in pursuit of monastic education in Zanskar.

Girls in the Himalayas are generally given far less education than boys. Girls are often removed from school as early as grade 4, if they are sent at all. The nunnery educates both lay girls and nuns. It gives them a chance for education that they would not otherwise have.

two young nuns at math class at Dorjee Zong Nunnery Zanskar

Math class. Lay girls and young nuns study at the nunnery up to Grade 5 after which they take the TNP-funded school bus 6 miles to continue their education.

Girls study up to Grade 5 at the nunnery, after which they travel by school bus for further schooling. The school bus was funded in 2019 by Tibetan Nuns Project donors and is also helping children from the local village attend school.

Construction Project Update

With the support of generous Tibetan Nuns Project donors, the nunnery embarked on an ambitious project to improve all the facilities for the nuns — an important and exciting transition for this ancient nunnery.

Construction started in 2019, but the work has been hampered by the pandemic. Also, the long severe winters and remote location reduce the construction window to around five months.

Nuns quarters at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar Tibetan Nuns Project

Nuns’ quarters in the new housing block at Dorjee Zong. Before 2019, the buildings at this 700-year-old nunnery were very basic. There was just one classroom and one main building that was used for everything.

The two-story hostel is finished! The ground floor is now being used as students’ quarters, sufficient for the current number of students. The top floor is being used as the school office, dining hall, staff quarters, and meeting room. Once other facilities are complete, the entire building will be used to accommodate future students.

new dining hall at Dorjee Zong nunnery

The new dining hall. In 2019, thanks to generous donors, the nunnery began a major construction project to improve all the facilities for the nuns.

The three-story kitchen and prayer hall building is coming along very well. The ground floor has a big dining hall which will, in future, be used by students, staff, and teachers. The dining hall is designed in local style with mats and low tables. However, they also plan to set up some tables and chairs for visitors.

life at Dorjee Zong nunnery in Zanskar prayers before breakfast

Prayers before breakfast. The nunnery has two cooks who prepare meals for all residents at the school. The food is healthy and vegetarian.

The first floor has a hall to be used for prayers, workshops, meetings, and teachings. This hall will also be decorated in the local style. Opposite there will be a library and computer room for the students. Six computer desks have already been made and will accommodate two per table. The library’s wooden book shelves will also serve as a room divider.

one of the new classrooms at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar

One of the bright new classrooms being built. In the past, the nuns at Dorjee Zong did not have the opportunity to engage in rigorous studies, but their education program is improving.

According to the original plans, the nunnery was to have separate school blocks, staff blocks, and office blocks. Now, instead of building separate blocks, the construction committee decided to add a second floor onto the existing building. It is more cost effective and will also be warmer; there were not any other sunny building locations.

new building at Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar

The side of a new building at Dorjee Zong showing the traditional carpentry work for the windows and doors.

The nuns have been able to get a water connection with the help of the local government. This is very beneficial for the elder nuns as well as for the school. A water storage tank is being set up at the nunnery and the nuns’ committee will see what else needs to be done.

remote-Dorjee-Zong-Nunnery-in-Zanskar-by-Olivier-Adam

This photo of Dorjee Zong Nunnery was taken prior to the expansion project started in 2019. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Thank you so much for your support of the nuns!

Taking you inside the nuns’ classrooms

It’s back to school time! Today, we’re taking you inside classrooms to show how you’re helping provide groundbreaking learning opportunities for Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

Dolma Ling, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhist nuns

Inside a classroom at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in May 2022. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. The Tibetan Nuns Project aims to elevate the educational standards and the position of women. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Educating the nuns is the core of our work. In the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of nuns escaped from Tibet. The overwhelming majority of the nuns were illiterate. Most of the them had had no education in their own language. While in Tibet they were also denied education in their religious heritage.

Photos taken by Olivier Adam in May 2022 at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. The top left photo shows Geshema Tenzin Kunsel teaching. The bottom left photo shows nuns leaving one of the Tibetan classes. The nunneries in India are helping to preserve Tibet’s religion, language, and culture.

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,” said Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor to the Tibetan Nuns Project.

The Tibetan Nuns Project also helps women and girls 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 are usually given far less education than men and boys. The nunneries give them a chance for education that they would not have otherwise.

Tibetan Buddhist class, Dorjee Zong Nunnery Zanskar

Dorjee Zong Nunnery in located in the remote, high-altitude area of Zanskar in northern India. Girls and women in the Himalayan regions have traditionally been given far less education than men and boys. All photos 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, but they also share a great deal. All are based on the teachings of the Buddha and the Indian commentaries that developed to explicate them.

Exactly which commentaries the nuns most rely on varies between traditions as do the number of years of study, but there is uniformity as to 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.
Sherab Choeling Nunnery Spiti Valley by Oliver Adam

Sherab Choeling Nunnery in India’s Spiti Valley is one of seven Tibetan Buddhist nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. This year, nuns from this remote nunnery will take part in the inter-nunnery debate which brings together hundreds of nuns for one month of intensive training in monastic debate. All photos by Olivier Adam.

At most of the seven 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.

Tibetan nun education, Education Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan Buddhist nun

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 challenging times, 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 Tibetan Buddhist nuns and Tibetan Buddhism.

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, patron of the Tibetan Nuns Project, has said, “The Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is something precious which we can be proud of and should strive to preserve.”

Shugsep Nunnery letter on classroom wall

An essay in the English classroom at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute. The original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was completely destroyed and then partially rebuilt by the nuns themselves. However, the nuns faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities and many escaped into exile in India. Shugsep was re-established in exile by the Tibetan Nuns Project.

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 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.

Geshema Delek Wangmo, teaching, Dolma Ling Nunnery

Geshema Delek Wangmo teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. She and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel made history when they were hired in 2019 to teach the nuns there. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Your support has helped bring about these major educational accomplishments:

Do you want to do more to help the nuns? Learn about our Current Projects here and how you can sponsor a nun. More sponsors are always needed.

At Long Last the 2022 Geshema Exams Begin

Many Tibetan Buddhist nuns have been studying for decades and waiting for this opportunity. The long wait is over and the 2022 Geshema exams started on August 7th at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.

Thank you to everyone who sent good luck messages to the nuns! We’ve compiled all your messages and posted them at Geden Choeling for the nuns to see.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Geshema exams

Two nuns studying in the final days before the Geshema exams start. David said in his good luck message: “I am very glad to see that the Geshema examinations will take place in 2022, and look forward to supporting the spread of female teachers in these especially treacherous times!”

The Geshema degree (known as the Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. Until recently, this degree was only open to men.

Geshema, Geshema exams 2022, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Photos by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns of the 2022 Geshema exams. To earn the Geshema degree, nuns must take both written and debate exams. The rigorous examination process involves two weeks of examinations each year for four years.

The rigorous exams take four years to complete, with one set held each year. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the Geshema exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021.

2022 geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A group of nuns study during the final month of exam preparations for the 2022 Geshema exams which began on August 7th. To earn the Geshema degree, nuns must successfully complete four years of written and debate exams as well as write and defend a thesis.

Candidates are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts. They must achieve a score at least 75 per cent during their studies to be eligible to sit for the Geshema exams.

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery 2022

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel is one of two Geshemas now teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a large non-sectarian nunnery that is home to about 250 nuns. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The Geshema degree was only formally opened to women in 2012 and nuns began taking Geshema exams in 2013. In 2016, 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when they became the first Tibetan women to earn Geshema degrees.

Geshema exams 2022

Behind the scenes at the 2022 Geshema exams captured by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns. The new Geshema Endowment at the Tibetan Nuns Project funds all costs associated with the exams including food, travel, exam materials, and graduation robes.

Here’s a list of the Geshema graduations since the formal approval in 2012:

In his good luck, Robert said, “Dear Geshema candidates, I have thought of you many times since I became aware of your studies and intent to earn your Geshema degree. You have accomplished an extraordinary amount to have come this far. I wish you all peace of mind and good health as you take your exams. You are trailblazers already, and I would be incredibly honored to learn from you, whether or not you achieve the Geshema degree. That said, may you all find great success in achieving the degree so that more people may have the opportunity to learn from you. Congratulations on all your achievements so far in being ready to sit the exams — all of you inspire me so much and motivate me to practice harder. Thank you!”

Tibetan Buddhist Nuns studying for 2022 Geshema exams

The candidates assembled on July 6th for a month of final exam preparations. Photo courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

Some 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.
  • 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.
  • In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first woman to receive the Geshe degree. This was before the Geshema degree process was approved in 2012.
Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan nuns, geshema exams

Joy at the opportunity to take the Geshema exams. Thank you for your messages of good luck! Photos courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns