The Education of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

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

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

Tibetan meditation, Tibetan Buddhist nun meditates

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

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

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

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

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

Tibetan Buddhist Nun calligraphy

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

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

Tibetan Buddhist nuns getting their Geshema degree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tibetan incense handmade by Buddhist nuns

Tibetan incense is an important part of Tibetan culture and is used as an offering and for purification, meditation, healing, and relaxation.

Tibetan incense being made by hand by nuns. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop

The nuns at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal make traditional, Tibetan-style stick incense. Income from the sales helps support the nunnery and, when purchased through the Tibetan Nuns Project, also helps support seven Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in India. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop.

The pleasing aroma of burning incense helps to calm one’s restless mind and helps meditators to focus on the breath.

Tibetan incense, inspiration incense

Our newest type of Tibetan incense available in the Tibetan Nuns Project online store. Inspiration incense is made by nuns at Kopan Nunnery and combines lemongrass, white sandalwood, and traditional Tibetan medicinal and aromatic ingredients.

Authentic Tibetan incense originates either from a traditional monastery or from a Tibetan medical institution. The formulations or recipes for incense may be many centuries old and follow a particular lineage which can be traced back to the originator.

The incense sold through the Tibetan Nuns Project online store is made in Nepal by the Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery. The nunnery, also known as Kopan Nunnery, is located in the Kathmandu Valley and is home to about 360 nuns.

The various types of incense sold by the Tibetan Nuns Project are of the highest quality, using only pure natural ingredients such as high-altitude plants and woods with proven healing properties.

Nuns at Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery in Nepal making incense. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop

Nuns at Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery in Nepal making Tibetan incense. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop.

Types of Tibetan Incense Sold in Support of Nuns

All Tibetan incense sold through the Tibetan Nuns Project online store is all-natural and handmade by Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Nepal. Your purchase help to support over 700 Tibetan Buddhist nuns at seven nunneries in India, as well as the nuns at Kopan Nunnery who make the incense.

nun making incense, Photo courtesy of DharmaShop

A Tibetan Buddhist nun at Kopan Nunnery extrudes incense into lengths or coils. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop.

Inspiration – Lemongrass and white sandalwood are combined with traditional Tibetan medicinal and aromatic ingredients including Dhupi, Kaulo, and Sil Timur. It comes in a sustainable lokta (daphne) paper box with a small terracotta incense burner and list of ingredients. The style of the incense burner may vary. Each box includes approximately 30 sticks of incense measuring about 5 inches long.

Rhododendron Forest – The ingredients for this very special incense come from trees and herbs in the high mountains of the Solu Khumbu area. The scent is uplifting and refreshing, like a breath of fresh air from the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas.

Tibetan Nuns Project Incense – Contains a very clean, slightly sweet sandalwood and jasmine, with a hint of nutmeg. A great choice if you are new to Tibetan incense. The scent is a mixture of high-altitude plants and woods with proven healing properties. It invokes the special powers of Medicine Buddha to bring healing of body and mind. (Temporarily out of stock due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

Lotus Blossom – The intensely fresh fragrance of this incense is freshly gathered juniper leaves and berries mixed with cedarwood and sandalwood. Its invigorating scent clears and uplifts the mind. (Temporarily out of stock due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

 Incense workshop at Kopan Nunnery. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop

The workroom at Kopan Nunnery where nuns make traditional Tibetan incense. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop.

Geshema Delek Wangmo Sworn in as Election Commissioner

Geshema Delek Wangmo, a teacher at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, has been appointed as an Election Commissioner for the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.

Geshema Delek Wangmo , Geshema

Geshema Delek Wangmo takes the oath of office at the swearing-in ceremony. Photo: Tenzin Phende/CTA

She and Mr Sonam Gyaltsen, former Tibetan Parliamentarian and the incumbent senior Professor of the College for Higher Tibetan Studies (Sarah), were unanimously elected as Additional Election Commissioners of the Chief Election Commission by the members of the Standing Committee of the 16th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. They were sworn in on August 3, 2020. The oath ceremony was attended by the top leadership of the exile Tibetan government. As commissioners, they will serve until the results of the final election are declared.

Geshema Delek Wangmo, Geshema

Mr Sonam Gyaltsen, former Tibetan Parliamentarian and Geshema Delek Wangmo, teacher of Dolma Ling Nunnery sworn in as new Additional Election Commissioners. Photo: Tenzin Phende/CTA

This is yet another historic accomplishment for Geshema Delek Wangmo and for Tibetan Buddhist nuns in general. Geshema Delek Wangmo graduated with her Geshema degree in 2017. She became one of the first Tibetan Buddhist nuns to pursue higher studies in Tantric Buddhism. Last year, she and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel made history when they were hired as teachers at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Earlier this spring, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, India, asked Geshema Delek Wangmo to give a teaching on keeping a peaceful mind during a crisis through the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Tibetan Nuns Project congratulates Geshema Delek Wangmo on her many accomplishments. She and the other Geshemas are opening up new opportunities for Tibetan Buddhist nuns as teachers, leaders, and role models.

Brief Bio of Geshema Delek Wangmo

Geshema Delek Wangmo was born on 6 July 1961 in Lithang, Kham, Tibet. She became a nun at a very young age and received her monastic vows from Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. In 1988, Geshema Delek Wangmo along with some 100 Tibetan people set off on a pilgrimage to Lhasa from Lithang doing prostrations. On reaching Lhasa, the pilgrims were forbidden by the Chinese government to visit monasteries and their sacred destination – the Jokhang Temple containing the famous Jhoho statue of the Buddha. So the large group set off to the holy mountain of Mount Kailash. From there, in 1990 they escaped over the Himalayas to Nepal and then to India.

As per the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and under the care of Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, Geshema Delek Wangmo managed in a room rented from a local Indian until the construction of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute was sufficiently far along for the refugee nuns to move in. She completed studies in five major Buddhist texts from Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.  In 2017, she received her Geshema Degree which is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist studies.

Geshema Delek Wangmo has always excelled in her studies. While doing her education, she has taken a leadership role at the nunnery holding various responsibilities and participating in numerous scholarly debates. In 2018, she was one of the first group of Tibetan Buddhist nuns who, having attained the Geshema degree, did a year of higher studies in Tantric Buddhism at Gyutoe Monastery. Geshema Delek Wangmo is currently working as a teacher in Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Geshema Delek Wangmo,

Heads of the three pillars of the Tibetan democratic system, Kalons and CTA functionaries at the swearing-in ceremony. Photo: Tenzin Phende/CTA

10 Inspirational Quotes by the Dalai Lama to Lift Your Mood

Here are 10 inspirational quotes from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to lift your mood.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the patron of the Tibetan Nuns Project. The Tibetan spiritual leader’s 85th birthday, on July 6, 2020, is being celebrated worldwide with a Year of Gratitude, a series of virtual celebrations and events from July 1st through June 30th, 2021.

The Dalai Lamas are believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are realized beings, inspired by the wish to attain complete enlightenment, who have vowed to be reborn in the world to help all living beings.

May these inspirational quotes from His Holiness the Dalai Lama give you hope, courage, and happiness.

  1. “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

be kind whenever possible, Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama quote, inspirational quote
2.  “Change starts with us as individuals. If one individual becomes more compassionate it will influence others and so we will change the world.”

inspirational quote from the Dalai Lama

3.  “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.”

compassion is the radicalism of our time Dalai Lama photo by Robin Groth

4.  “It’s so important to cultivate an attitude that allows us to maintain hope.”

It’s so important to cultivate an attitude that allows us to maintain hope. Dalai Lama inspirational quote

5. “Compassion enhances our self-confidence because a calm mind allows our marvellous human intelligence to bloom.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama on compassion inspirational quote

6. “Try to remain truthful. The power of truth never declines. Force and violence may be effective in the short term, but in the long run it’s truth that prevails.”

Dalai Lama inspirational quote on truth copy

7.  “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama compassion inspirational quote blog

8.  “The practice of patience guards us against losing our presence of mind. It enables us to remain undisturbed, even when the situation is really difficult.”

inspirational quote, Dalai Lama, patience, The practice of patience guards us against losing our presence of mind. It enables us to remain undisturbed, even when the situation is really difficult

9.  “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”

Dalai Lama inspirational quote if a problem is fixable copy

10. “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

Dalai Lama inspirational quote Every day think as you wake up

New Research Program for Geshemas

Five Geshemas have received scholarships to participate in a Tibetan Buddhist philosophy research program that is the first of its kind.

The historic research project is organized by the Geluk International Foundation which recently announced seats for 30 Geshes and 5 Geshemas to do three-year research projects on five topics of Buddhist philosophy.

The Geshema degree for nuns (called the Geshe degree for monks) is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. The degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. To date, 44 nuns have earned this degree.

Tibetan Buddhist geshema

A Tibetan Buddhist nun holds the yellow hat that is worn by Geshemas or Geshes. Photo by Oliver Adam.

This research program grew out of the Conference of Religious Heads held in 2012. At that conference, His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked the research program to focus on various fields. Now, the Geluk International Foundation, chaired by Gaden Tripa, has made His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s vision a reality by starting the research program with formal rules and regulations.

The new research wing is headed by Shartse Khensur Ven. Jangchup Choeden who is the director. The committee members include other eminent Geshe Lharamphas from major monasteries.

The individual participants will work on their subjects and will submit quarterly reports under the guidance of their advisors. At the end of three years, each will submit a final thesis.

The Tibetan Nuns Project formally announced the program and contacted the five nunneries that regularly participate in the annual Jang Gonchoe month-long debate session and have Geshema graduates – Dolma Ling, Geden Choeling, Jamyang Choeling (all three in the Dharmasala area), Jangchup Choeling in South India, and Kopan in Nepal. The selection of research topics by the Geshemas was done on a first-come-first-serve basis.

In order to qualify for the program, the Geshemas had to have obtained 60% in their final Geshema exams, as well as to meet other criteria and supply formal documents. The Tibetan Nuns Project helped to coordinate the application process by the Geshemas.

Geshema Tenzin Palmo

Geshema Tenzin Palmo of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute is one of the 5 Geshemas who, along with 30 Geshes, have been chosen to undertake three-year research projects in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Here are the five Geshemas who received scholarships and their chosen research subjects:

  1. Geshema Namdol Phuntsok (a.k.a. Passang Lama), Kopan Nunnery. Subject: Dulwa / Vinaya
  2. Geshema Tenzin Tseyang (a.k.a. Tashi Lhamo), Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Subject: Pharchin / Prajna Paramita
  3. Geshema Tenzin Palmo, Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Subject: Ngonpa Zoe/ Abhidharma
  4. Geshema Tenzin Dolkar, Jangchup Choeling Nunnery. Subject: Uma / Madhyamika
  5. Geshema Phuntsok Dolkar, Jangchup Choeling Nunnery. Subject: Tse-ma / Pramana

The research program was initially planned to start on April 1, 2020, but due to the strict lockdown all over India and Nepal, the Geluk International Foundation altered the start of the three-year project to June 1st, 2020.

The scholarship funding has been arranged by Geluk International Foundation under the sponsorship of a trust/foundation based in New York and The Dalai Lama Trust.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is very happy that these five Geshemas have this valuable opportunity to increase their learning and skills and to fulfil the wishes of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. May all concerned sponsors and supporters of the Geshemas be proud and happy for their valuable contributions in helping the Geshemas!

Life at Tibetan Buddhist Nunneries During COVID-19 Pandemic

Here’s our monthly update on life at some Tibetan Buddhist nunneries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tibetan Nuns Project supports seven nunneries in northern India.

This month, India reported a surge in COVID-19 cases even as the nationwide lockdown eased. India now has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world. Hospitals are swamped in the worst-hit cities of Mumbai, New Delhi, and Chennai. Experts predict that the infection rate in India will continue to rise through July. On June 19, a new lockdown will go into effect for the 15 million people in Chennai.

This is worrying news for the tens of thousands of Tibetans refugees who live in India. The Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala has issued special guidelines for nunneries and monasteries.

The nuns are doing their best to adhere to physical distancing, the use of face masks in public spaces, hand and respiratory hygiene, and environmental sanitation.

Health checks for Tibetan Buddhist nuns during coronavirus pandemic

Tibetan Buddhist nuns get their temperatures checked during health checks at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Geshema Exams Postponed

Each year, the nuns sitting various levels of the four-year Geshema examinations gather together for one month of final exam preparations and then for about 12 days of exams.

The Geshema exams, normally held each August, are being tentatively postponed to October 1. This year’s venue for the Geshema exams will be Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.

Nuns often travel long distances to take the exams, such as from Nepal and South India. With the number of COVID-19 cases in India rising and with stricter travel rules from Nepal, the committee decided to postpone the exams to lessen the risk of infection. Last year, all 50 nuns took who took Geshema exams passed.

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

The nunnery is closed until the end of June. The nuns are still not getting together in groups so there are no classes, pujas etc. In lieu of face-to-face classes, some philosophy teachers are recording their lessons using an mp3 player and sharing the files with their students.

Each year, during the holy month of Saga Dawa, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute read the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon or Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha.

Saga Dawa Tibetan Buddhist nuns reading Kangyur 2020

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling maintain physical distance while reading the Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha. Photos courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

After finishing the reading the Kangyur texts, the nuns had a two-day break with free time to themselves.

COVID-life Dolma Ling, Two Tibetan Buddhist nuns wearing masks

COVID life at Dolma Ling. Thank you for helping to support the nuns during this difficult period.

Shugsep Nunnery and Institute

The nuns at Shugsep have been organizing a few classes each day and have now decided to follow their normal schedule. They are once again performing pujas or prayers, so if you have a puja request you can make it here.

The Shugsep Khenpo and the senior nuns who were in Bylakupee, South India, have returned safely to the nunnery and are currently in two weeks of quarantine.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery

According to the latest news, all the nuns at Sherab Choeling nunnery are safe and well. To mark Saga Dawa, the nuns read special puja texts including:

– Yum Puthi Chunyi (a full reading of all the 12 volumes of the Perfection of Wisdom in the Kangyur, the 108-volume set of the words of the Buddha)
– Dolma (the Tara puja)
Dukkar Tsezung for all sentient beings (This a long-life ritual focused on Sitapatrā, Goddess with the White Umbrella, who appears from the Buddha’s uṣṇīṣa.)
– Reading pages from each Kangyur book (Called shal chad, this is the “opening and partial reading of the entire canon. To read it all would take too long so each volume is opened and a bit of it read.)

Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Saga Dawa

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery marked the holy month of Saga Dawa with prayers, the lighting of butter lamps, fasting, and vows.

During the holy month of Saga Dawa, the nuns also received puja requests from villagers for their late family members and for their own well being. The nuns also offered Menla, the Medicine Buddha ritual as requested by many people. Most of the nuns fasted during the entire month, taking no meals after lunch. On the 15th of the holy month, they took Thekchen Sojung, the eight Mahāyāna vows.

Earlier Updates on Life at Tibetan Nunneries During the Pandemic

Since March, we’ve been providing regular updates on life at some Tibetan nunneries in India during the coronavirus pandemic. Each update has photos and news from some or all of the seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. Here’s a list of earlier updates:

The Four Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

We are sometimes asked, “What are the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and which nuns do you support?”

The four schools of Tibetan Buddhism are Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug or Gelugpa.

  • Nyingma (founded in 8th century)
  • Kagyu (founded in the early 11th century)
  • Sakya (founded in 1073)
  • Gelug (founded in 1409)

The Tibetan Nuns Project supports nuns from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. See more details below.

four schools of Tibetan Buddhism photo by Brian Harris

Photo of Tibetan Buddhist nuns courtesy of Brian Harris

The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism

The Nyingma or “ancient” tradition is the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Often referred to as “the ancient translation school”, it was founded in the eighth century following the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit to Tibetan.

Around 760, the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen invited two Buddhist masters from the Indian subcontinent, Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita, to the “Land of Snows” to bring Buddhism to the Tibetan people. Thus began a massive translation project of all Buddhist texts into the newly created Tibetan language.

The legendary Vajrayana master Padmasambhava, who Tibetans call Guru Rinpoche, is considered the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. He supervised the translation of the tantras (the esoteric teachings of the Buddha) while Shantarakshita, abbot of the great Buddhist Nalanda University, supervised the translation of the sutras (oral teachings of the Buddha).

Tibetan block printed prayers by Olivier Adam

Tibetan block-printed prayers. Photo by Olivier Adam.

Together they founded the first monastery in Tibet, Samye, which became the main center for Buddhist teaching in Tibet for around three centuries.

The Nyingma tradition classifies the Buddhist teachings into nine yanas or vehicles. The first three vehicles are common to all schools of Buddhism, the next three are common to all schools of Tantric Buddhism, and the last three are exclusive to the Nyingma tradition. The highest is known as Dzogchen or the Great Perfection.

Unlike the other schools, the Nyingma traditionally had no centralized authority or a single head of the lineage. However, since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Nyingma school has had representatives.

Here is a list of the 8 representatives of the Nyingma school since this practice began in the 1960s:

  1. Dudjom Rinpoche (c. 1904–1987), served from the 1960s until his death.
  2. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (c. 1910–1991), served from 1987 until his death.
  3. Penor (Pema Norbu) Rinpoche (1932–2009) served from 1991 until retirement in 2003.
  4. Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche (c. 1930–2008), served from 2003 until his death.
  5. Trulshik Rinpoche (1923–2011), selected after Chatral Rinpoche declined the position.
  6. Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche (1926-2015), appointed head in 2012 and passed away in Bodhgaya in 2015
  7. Kathok Getse Rinpoche (1954-2018), passed away ten months after being named to a three-year term as the supreme head of the Nyingma school.
  8. Dzogchen Rinpoche Jigme Losel Wangpo was selected in January 2019 as the eighth head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism by the heads of the principal monasteries of the Nyingma tradition.

The Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism

The Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism gets its name from the Tibetan བཀའ་བརྒྱུད། meaning “oral lineage” or “whispered transmission”. While it traces its origin back to Buddha Shakyamuni, the most important source for the specific practices of the Kagyu order is the great Indian yogi Tilopa (988-1069).

The practices were passed orally from teacher to disciple through a series of great masters. The transmission lineage of the “Five Founding Masters” of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism is as follows:

  1. Tilopa (988-1069), the Indian yogi who experienced the original transmission of the Mahamudra
  2. Naropa (1016–1100), the Indian scholar-yogi who perfected the methods of accelerated enlightenment described in his Six Yogas of Naropa
  3. Marpa (1012–1097), the first Tibetan in the lineage, known as the great translator for his work translating the Vajrayana and Mahamudra texts into Old Tibetan
  4. Milarepa (1052–1135), the poet and greatest yogi of Tibet who overcame Marpa’s reluctance to teach and attained enlightenment in a single lifetime
  5. Gampopa (1079–1153), Milarepa’s most important student, who integrated Atisha’s Kadam teachings and Tilopa’s Mahamudra teaching to establish the Kagyu lineage.
Complete Kangyur words of the Buddha read at Saga Dawa

The Kangyur, the words of the Buddha. Photo by the Dolma Ling Nuns’ Media Team

The Kagyu lineage practices have a special focus on the tantric teachings of the Vajrayana and Mahamudra teachings. Some of the most distinguished works of the Kagyu Tibetan masters are the works of Marpa, the Vajra Songs of Milarepa, the Collected Works of Gampopa, of the Karmapas, of Drikhung Kyöppa Jigten Sumgön, and of Drukpa Kunkhyen Pema Karpo.

In the Kagyu school, there are a large number of independent sub-schools and lineages.

The Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism

The Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism dates to the 11th century. The name comes from the Tibetan ས་སྐྱ་ meaning “pale earth” describing the grey landscape near Shigatse, Tibet where the Sakya Monastery – the first monastery of this tradition and the seat of the Sakya School – was built in 1073.

The Sakya tradition developed during the second period of translation of Buddhist scripture from Sanskrit into Tibetan and was founded by Drogmi, a famous scholar and translator who had studied who studied under Naropa and other great Indian masters.

The heart of the Sakya lineage teaching and practice is Lamdre, The Path and Its Fruit, a comprehensive and structured meditation path in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism.

The head of Sakya School is the “Sakya Trizin” (“the holder of the Sakya throne”), who is always drawn from the male line of the Khön family. It was previously a lifetime position that rotated between the two branches of that lineage, the Phuntsok Potrang and the Dolma Potrang. The previous head of the Sakya School, His Holiness Ngawang Kunga Thekchen Palbar Samphel Ganggi Gyalpo, was born in 1945 in Tsedong, Tibet and served as Sakya Trizin from 1958 to 2017. It has now become a three-year position that rotates between the next generation of trained male offspring of those two families.

The Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism

The Gelug or Gelugpa (དགེ་ལུགས་པ་) school is the newest and largest school of Tibetan Buddhism. Its story begins with Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), one of the period’s foremost authorities of Tibetan Buddhism who studied under Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma masters.

Tsongkhapa, the most renowned teacher of his time, founded Ganden Monastery in 1409 and, though he emphasized a strong monastic sangha, he did not announce a new monastic order. Following his death, his followers established the Gelug (“the virtuous tradition”) school. The Gelug school was also called “New Kadam” for its revival of the Kadam school founded by Atisha.

The Throne-Holder of Ganden (Ganden Tripa) is the official head of the Gelug school, a position that rotates between the heads of the two Gelug tantric colleges. Its most influential figure is the Dalai Lama, who is a monk of the Gelug tradition, but as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet for over fifty years has always represented all Tibetans.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Olivier Adam

Portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Olivier Adam

The Dalai Lamas are considered manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who have chosen to be continuously reborn to end the suffering of sentient beings.

The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th reincarnation. He was born in 1935, two years after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama encourages non-sectarianism.

The central teachings of the Gelug School are the lamrim (stages of the path to enlightenment) teachings of Tsongkhapa, based on the teachings of the 11th-century Indian master Atisha.

Nunneries Supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project

The Tibetan Nuns Project began in 1987 in the Dharamsala area, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a large number of Tibetan refugees.

We initially reached out to assist the nearby nunneries, Geden Choeling and Tilokpur. In response to a large influx of refugee nuns escaping from Tibet, the Tibetan Nuns Project built two new nunneries, Dolma Ling and Shugsep.

Currently, the Tibetan Nuns Project supports these 7 nunneries in northern India:

  1. Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, non-sectarian,
  2. Shugsep Nunnery and Institute, Nyingma
  3. Geden Choeling Nunnery, Gelugpa
  4. Tilokpur Nunnery, Kagyu
  5. Sherab Choeling Nunnery, non-sectarian
  6. Sakya College for Nuns, Sakya
  7. Dorjee Zong Nunnery, Gelugpa

Map of Tibetan Buddhist Nunneries supported by Tibetan Nuns Project

 

Thinking of You!!

Nangsa Chodron Tibetan Nuns Project

Nangsa Chodron, Director, Tibetan Nuns Project, Dharamsala, India

Dear Sponsors and Friends of the Tibetan Nuns Project,

Greetings from Dharamsala.

We hope that you and your entire family members have stayed safe and well during this deadly pandemic COVID-19.

We all know the dreadful outbreak of coronavirus infection did not spare anyone, threatening the lives of all races, religion, color, age, status etc. across nations. Hundreds have lost their loved ones to the virus, and many are still fighting it in hospitals, in quarantine and isolation in their homes.

India is a developing country with the second-highest population out of the 7 billion total world population. As such, it is unimaginable and too scary to think about its effect on the Indian population and also, in this era of globalization and technology, on other countries as well, if the spread of COVID-19 could not be stopped in India!

However, as the virus started infecting India, the Government of India took timely and strong safety measures and declared complete a lockdown from March 25. This great action not only saved the lives of its own people but largely controlled spreading infection to other countries as well, something that all governments and people appreciated.

health check, coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, Tibetan Buddhist nun

Health check at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

In this critical global situation, with everything closed down to save lives through control and social distancing, a large section of the Indian population suffered heavily, especially daily wage earners. But the government and society have come together to extend their support to them as much as possible and continue to do so.

We feel lucky and blessed to inform all our sponsors and long-time friends that the nuns did not face such acute problems, mainly due to your kind support through our sponsorship programs and projects mainly coordinated by the TNP USA office and in Europe. All our nuns stay and practice in various nunneries in India and have been doing well despite the anguish and fear of the pandemic. Although under the currently enforced guidelines they do not have their normal routine, they are maintaining themselves with their day-to-day self-studies, caring for their physical and mental health, and performing spiritual practices individually.

Through this most unfortunate feeling of sadness, fear, and insecurity globally we feel fortunate and inspired by your unconditional love, care, and support for the nuns for all these years. At the same time, we are also very concerned about your health and well-being during this time of crisis.

As our spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama always believes in the concept of global responsibility and oneness of humanity at large, we see practically how COVID-19 affected and disturbed our lives, but has also taught us a lesson on interdependence. Your kind support and friendship have affirmed the principles of kindness, love, and compassion His Holiness the Dalai Lama has always emphasized in his selfless life!

Therefore, the undersigned on behalf of all the nuns and staff of TNP-Dharamsala, here would like to send our love and regards and genuinely thank you all for your much-needed support for our cause.

We send you all our good wishes for your safe and sound health at this critical juncture.

Yours sincerely,

Nangsa Chodon
Director
Tibetan Nuns Project

About Nangsa Chodon

Nangsa Chodon was born in Tibet and grew up in the exile community in India. She received a B.A. from Punjab University and then served the exile Tibetan community for 40 years in a variety of positions, initially in the Tibetan Settlements in Himachal Pradesh, and then from 1972 in the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharmsala. Working mainly in the Department of Education, she also served as Secretary of the Public Service Commission, and for three years was the Representative of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Office of Tibet, in South Africa. Her final position was as Secretary of the Department of Education, from which she retired in 2017. The Tibetan Nuns Project was very fortunate to have her join us as Director in late 2018 upon the retirement of our Founding Director and now Special Advisor, Rinchen Khando Choegyal.

 

The Meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains the meaning of Om mani padme hum. 

om mani padme hum, mantra, Tibetan mantra, meaning of om mani padme hum

The mantra Om mani padme hum. The six syllables are Om ཨོཾ mani མ་ཎི padme པ་དྨེ hum ཧཱུྃ.

A Talk On Om Mani Padme Hum By H.H. the Dalai Lama

It is very good to recite the mantra Om mani padme hum, but while you are doing it, you should be thinking on its meaning, for the meaning of the six syllables is great and vast.

Om

The first, Om is composed of three letters. A, U, and M. These symbolize the practitioner’s impure body, speech, and mind; they also symbolize the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.

Can impure body, speech, and mind be transformed into pure body, speech, and mind, or are they entirely separate?

All Buddhas are cases of beings who were like ourselves and then in dependence on the path became enlightened; Buddhism does not assert that there is anyone who from the beginning is free from faults and possesses all good qualities. The development of pure body, speech, and mind comes from gradually leaving the impure states and their being transformed into the pure.

How is this done?

The path is indicated by the next four syllables.

Mani

Mani, meaning jewel, symbolizes the factors of method—the altruistic intention to become enlightened, compassion, and love.

Just as a jewel is capable of removing poverty, so the altruistic mind of enlightenment is capable of removing the poverty, or difficulties, of cyclic existence and of solitary peace.

Similarly, just as a jewel fulfills the wishes of sentient beings, so the altruistic intention to become enlightened fulfills the wishes of sentient beings.

mani stones, om mani padme hum, the meaning of om mani padme hum

Mani stones outside the Tsuglagkhang Complex, near the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, India. Photo by Liz Highleyman, Creative Commons, https://bit.ly/3fuozRB

Padme

The two syllables, padme, meaning lotus, symbolize wisdom. Just as a lotus grows forth from mud but is not sullied by the faults of mud, so wisdom is capable of putting you in a situation of non-contradiction whereas there would be contradiction if you did not have wisdom.

There is wisdom realizing impermanence, wisdom realizing that persons are empty of being self-sufficient or substantially existent, wisdom that realizes the emptiness of duality—that is to say, of difference of entity between subject and object—and wisdom that realizes the emptiness of inherent existence.

Though there are many different types of wisdom, the main of all these is the wisdom realizing emptiness.

Hum

Purity must be achieved by an indivisible unity of method and wisdom, symbolized by the final syllable hum, which indicates indivisibility. According to the sutra system, this indivisibility of method and wisdom refers to wisdom affected by method and method affected by wisdom.

In the mantra, or tantric, vehicle, it refers to one consciousness in which there is the full form of both wisdom and method as one undifferentiable entity.

In terms of the seed syllables of the five Conqueror Buddhas, hum is the seed syllable of Akshobhya—the immovable, the unfluctuating, that which cannot be disturbed by anything.

The six syllables: Om Mani Padme Hum

Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.

It is said that you should not seek for Buddhahood outside of yourself; the substances for the achievement of Buddhahood are within.

As Maitreya says in his Sublime Continuum of the Great Vehicle (Uttaratantra), all beings naturally have the Buddha nature in their own continuum. We have within us the seed of purity, the essence of a One Gone Thus (Tathagatagarbha), that is to be transformed and fully developed into Buddhahood.

First published in Kindness, Clarity, and Insight by The Fourteenth Dalai Lama His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, co-edited by Elizabeth Napper. Snow Lion Publications, 1984. Reprinted here by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com

Video on the meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum

Here’s a video from 2013 of His Holiness the Dalai Lama answering a question about the meaning of the mantra Om mani padme hum.

Latest News on Coronavirus Lockdown and Tibetan Nunneries

Here is the latest news on the coronavirus lockdown at the Tibetan nunneries and how the nuns in India are coping.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns distribute food during coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus lockdown, Dolma Ling nuns, food relief

Compassion in action. Tibetan Buddhist nuns from Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute share their rations with 100 of the poorest village families near the nunnery. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

New Statement from His Holiness the Dalai Lama on May 3rd

On Sunday, His Holiness the Dalai Lama issued a new statement calling on people to come together and give a “coordinated, global response” to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said we must focus on what unites us as members of one human family and reach out to each other with compassion.

His Holiness said, “Our human capacity to reason and to see things realistically gives us the ability to transform hardship into opportunity. This crisis and its consequences serve as a warning that only by coming together in a coordinated, global response, will we meet the unprecedented magnitude of the challenges we face. I pray we all heed ‘The Call to Unite’.”

Tibetan Administration Extends Coronavirus Lockdown

On May 1st, the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala called for an additional 30 days of lockdown for nunneries, monasteries, Tibetan settlements, old age homes, and schools.

The Indian lockdown was set to expire on May 3rd and on Friday it was extended for another two weeks to May 18th. However, the Central Tibetan Administration has called for a full 80 days of lockdown for Tibetan communities scheduled to end on June 5th, coinciding with the full moon day of Saga Dawa.

Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay said the curve in India is rising daily and that the risk of transmission will be greater than ever, given India’s densely packed population. He advised Tibetans in settlements to avoid coronavirus hotspots and not to come to Dharamshala, for the safety of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration. He praised the relief efforts of various monastic institutions and others and asked those distributing food to the poor to maintain social distancing.

Tibetan nuns, Dolma Ling, coronavirus lockdown, food distribution

Sharing is caring. The nuns at Dolma Ling gather rice, flour, sugar, cooking oil, and tea from their rations to share with their poorest neighbours. These Indian families are day laborers unable to work and afford food during the coronavirus lockdown. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

Update on Dorjee Zong Nunnery in Zanskar

At Dorjee Zong Nunnery, a 700-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in Zanskar, the younger nuns from nearby villages have temporarily left the nunnery to stay with their families. These young nuns cannot stay at Dorjee Zong during the lockdown because there is not enough space to house them in separate quarters or to follow safe social distancing measures. Their elder siblings who have returned home are helping the younger children with their studies.

Seven elder nuns remain at the nunnery and spend most of their time reciting mantras and following their daily rituals. Two senior nuns are taking care of the nunnery complex and the two cows. Since they have the time, they are growing barley and vegetables.

To cope with the severe winters at this remote, high-altitude nunnery, each September the nuns stock up on rations, vegetables, and other essentials, storing enough to get them through May of each year. Soon the roads will open and in June the nuns will once again have access to fresh supplies.

Last year, Dorjee Zong Nunnery began an exciting expansion project. The plan is to build new housing blocks, a prayer hall, kitchen, dining hall, and storeroom. Good progress was made in 2019 during the short construction season.

Dorjee Zong Nunnery, Zanskar, Tibetan Buddhist nunnery

Down the hill from ancient Dorjee Zong Nunnery, a number of new buildings are being constructed. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown mean that further construction will likely be delayed.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be a problem with construction this year. Since most of the labor force comes from Nepal, they may not be able to work due to the strict guidelines imposed by every Indian state. We will continue to report back as we get fresh news.

Life in the Nunneries Under Lockdown

All the nuns and staff are fine, at the time of writing this post.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling social distance and pray, coronavirus lockdown

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery practice social distancing while praying. The nunnery is home to about 240 nuns. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

The nuns are reciting prayers and mantras in their rooms and when they go for kora, circumambulating the nunnery complex. The nuns are spending a lot of time studying on their own.

At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, the nuns shared their food rations with 100 poor village families. The local village administration asked the nunnery for help because many people cannot work and are suffering. This is a very stressful time for people who depend on work to eat, so the nuns were happy to share their food with them.

coronavirus lockdown, life under lockdown, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Dolma Ling

Outside the gates of Dolma Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist nun sanitizes vegetables during the coronavirus lockdown. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

The nuns have also made sure that the two single women employed by Dolma Ling are still being paid even though they are unable to work since the lockdown. These women were also given extra food rations.

The nunneries remain shut. The nuns are being vigilant and guard the gates, making sure no one comes in without good reason and taking sanitization precautions. Shopping for essentials is proceeding smoothly for all the nunneries.

coronavirus lockdown, Dolma Ling, Tibetan Buddhist nuns chores

Even under lockdown, chores continue. The nuns at Dolma Ling work together to clean the large drinking water reservoir. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

In Himachal Pradesh, home to five of the nunneries, the curfew situation has eased slightly.  People are allowed out for morning walks from 5:30 am to 7 am. From 8 am to 12 pm, people may go out to buy essentials and motor vehicles can travel without government passes. The government has allowed many shops to stay open during these hours.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns wearing masks, doing chores at Dolma Ling

Life under lockdown at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute include chores, prayers, and studying on one’s own. Photos courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is very grateful to Charles-Antoine Janssen for his generous gift of over 3,500 masks for the nuns at various nunneries.

donated face masks, Charles-Antoine Janssen

In April, Mr. Charles-Antoine Janssen, Founder and Managing Partner at Kois Invest in Mumbai, donated more than 3,500 masks to the Tibetan Nuns Project for the nuns at various nunneries.

The Tibetan Nuns Project office gave 500 masks to the Nuns’ Committee at Dolma Ling for distribution to nuns and staff and has contacted the other nunneries so that the masks can be quickly collected. The Dolma Ling nuns offered a puja gift for Charles-Antoine Janssen, his wife, and two sons.

Update on the Sherab Choeling Nuns

As we reported in April, in mid-February 44 of the nuns from Sherab Choeling travelled to the town of Hamirpur so that they could continue their philosophy classes.

Then the coronavirus lockdown happened and all classes were suspended. After lots of hard work, the nuns were able to arrange for two buses to take them and their two teachers back to Sherab Choeling. To maintain social distancing, the nuns had to sit apart, requiring more bus space that would be needed under normal circumstances.

Sherab Choeling Nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, social distancing

Sherab Choeling nuns stand apart in circles at a checkpoint en route back to the nunnery. To get back home to Sherab Choeling Nunnery during the coronavirus lockdown, the nuns had to rent two big buses and sit apart from each other.