2018 Geshema exam results: 10 new Geshemas

The 2018 Geshema exam results are in. All 10 nuns who took their fourth and final exams in August have passed.

This means that, in early November, after a formal debate process and graduation ceremony, there will be 10 more Tibetan Buddhist nuns who have achieved the Geshema degree (called the Geshe degree for monks), which is the highest degree in their tradition and is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism.

Geshema, Geshema exams, 2018 Geshema exam results, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

Nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute cluster around the nunnery noticeboard to read this year’s Geshema exam results. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

2018 Geshema Exam Results

The Geshema results were announced this week and are as follows:

  • Fourth and final year: all 10 nuns passed
  • Third year exams: all 8 nuns passed
  • Second year: 11 of 14 nuns passed
  • First year: 8 of 12 nuns passed

The nuns who didn’t pass can re-sit their exams next year if they wish.

The graduation in 2018 of 10 more Geshemas will bring the total number of nuns with this degree to 37, including the German-born nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who was the first-ever Geshema.

2018 is the third year in a row in which a group of nuns completed the challenging four-year exam process. In 2016, Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when 20 nuns received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special ceremony in South India. Last year, another 6 nuns graduated at a ceremony at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The Geshema graduates from 2016 and 2017 are currently enrolled in groundbreaking, two-year Buddhist tantric studies program that was started in November 2017 that is funded by generous donors to the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Geshema, Geshema exams, 2018 Geshema exam results, Dolma Ling Nunnery

Exciting news. Nuns and staff gather round the bulletin board at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute to read the 2018 Geshema exam results. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

About the Geshema Degree

The Geshema degree is comparable to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Geshes (monks who hold the degree) and Geshemas (nuns who hold the degree) are the most educated monastics, carrying much of the responsibility for preserving the Tibet’s precious religious wisdom and culture. The Geshema exam process is very rigorous and is the culmination of a 17-year course of study. Each year, for four years, the candidates must take both written and oral (debate) exams for an 11-day period.

Until recently, the degree was only open to men. The opening up of this opportunity for nuns would not have been possible without the support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan government in exile, and high lamas and teachers.

Once they obtain their Geshema degrees, besides being in possession of a treasure of knowledge, the nuns will be eligible to assume various leadership roles in the monastic and lay communities, bringing them one step closer to standing as equals.

Subjects for the 2018 Geshema Exams

From August 15 to 26, 2018, 44 nuns from four nunneries (Geden Choeling, Jangchup Choeling, Kachod Gyakhil Ling, and Dolma Ling) sat for the Geshema exams at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Initially the number was supposed to be 46, but two nuns, one in first year and one in second, were unable to attend their exams.

Geshema exams, Geshema exam results, 2018 Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist debate

Nuns debate as part of their Geshema exams. In 2018, the nuns were examined on debating by four Geshes, one each from Sera Jey, Sera Mey, Ganden Shartse, and Ganden Shangtse monasteries, all located in South India.

Each morning, nuns from two of the four levels completed written papers from 9 a.m. to noon, while nuns from the other two levels underwent debate exams. In the afternoons, from 2 to 6 p.m., the examinees gathered for their debate sessions in front of the examiners.

Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is one of the major subjects for the Geshema candidates, but they were examined on other subjects as well. In philosophy, nuns taking their first- and second-year exams were tested on Perfection of Wisdom (Pharchin) and Middle Way (Madhyamika), while third- and fourth-year examinees were tested on Monastic Discipline (Vinaya) and Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharma). All exams were followed by debate sessions.

In addition to their other exams, nuns in years 1-3, were tested on Tibetan grammar and science. Nuns taking their final year exams were tested on science and history. Each of the final-year candidates also had to write, in advance, a 50-page thesis and they were examined on their thesis papers during the Geshema exams.

Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan nuns, Buddhist nuns, Geshema degree 2018, Geshema exams 2018, Buddhist women, women in Buddhism

Nuns cluster around the notice board at Dolma Ling Nunnery to read the messages of good luck sent to the Geshema candidates. The good wishes were felt by all the nuns. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

 

 

How to use a Tibetan mala or Tibetan prayer beads

We are often asked how to use a Tibetan mala or Tibetan prayer beads. We hope this blog post will answer some common questions about Tibetan malas.

Through the Tibetan Nuns Project online store, we sell long malas and wrist malas made and blessed by Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery.

What are Buddhist prayer beads?

Malas or Tibetan Buddhsit prayer beads are similar to other prayer beads used in various world religions. Some people have called the mala a Buddhist rosary, but in Tibetan, a mala is called a threngwa (Tibetan  ཕྲེང་བ). Mala is a Sanskrit word meaning “garland”. Malas are used to keep track while one recites, chants, or mentally repeats a mantra or the name or names of a deity. Malas are used as a tool to keep count of mantra repetitions. Mantras are spiritual syllables or prayers and are usually repeated many times.

Mandala Mudra, mudra, Olivier Adam, Tibetan mudra, Tibetan Buddhist nun, mala

A Tibetan Buddhist nun performs the Mandala Mudra with her mala (Buddhist prayer beads). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

How are malas used?

Malas are used to help focus one’s awareness and concentration during spiritual practice. Long malas, as opposed to the shorter wrist malas, have 108 beads. The summit or head bead is called the guru bead or a sumeru. In Tibetan Buddhism, one mala constitutes 100 recitations of a mantra. There are 8 additional recitations done to ensure proper concentration.

What is the meaning of a guru bead?

In Tibetan Buddhism, people traditionally use malas with 108 counting beads and a special, three-holed, finishing bead called a “guru” bead or “Buddha” bead. Often the 108-bead malas have additional marker beads that may or may not be counted and that divide the mala into quadrants, constituting 108 counting beads all together.

guru bead, mala, Tibetan malas, malas, prayer beads, what are Tibetan prayer beads, how to use a mala

A long Tibetan mala from the Tibetan Nuns Project collection showing the guru bead. The guru bead has three stringing holes and here also has a smaller tower-shaped bead that holds the ends of the string.

The guru bead represents the relationship between the student and the guru or spiritual teacher. To use the mala, you start counting from the bead next to the guru bead. When you reach the guru bead again, it signifies the end of one round in the cycle of mantras.

Once you have completed a full circuit of the mala and reached the guru bead again, you reverse direction by flipping your mala. Then you continue again in reverse order. Most people believe that you do not cross over the guru bead as a sign of respect towards one’s spiritual teachers.

How do you hold and use a mala or prayer beads?

The mala is held with gentleness and respect, generally in the left hand. To use your mala, hold it with your left hand and begin to recite from the guru bead, clockwise around the mala, using your thumb to move the beads. Count one bead for each recitation of the mantra. The first bead is held between the index finger and thumb, and with each recitation of the mantra move your thumb to pull another bead in place over the index finger.

Why is the number 108 sacred?

The number 108 is sacred in many Eastern religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In Tibetan Buddhism malas or rosaries are usually 108 beads plus the guru bead, reflecting the words of the Buddha called in Tibetan the Kangyur in 108 volumes.

How to care for your mala

Malas are sacred objects believed to be charged with the energy of the deity. They should be treated with great reverence.

mala, Tibetan mala, prayer beads, Tibetan prayer beads, how to use a mala, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist malas

An elderly nun at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India gently holds her Tibetan mala. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

As with all sacred objects, such as books and other spiritual instruments, one should keep malas off the ground. If your mala accidentally lands on the ground, you should touch it to the crown of your head and recite the sacred syllables Om Ah Hum, three times.

The mala should not be worn while bathing, or allowed to get wet, as this may weaken the cord on which the mala beads are strung. It is best to remove your mala before going to sleep so that you do not accidentally stress the cord and break it.

The nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute also make and sell mala bags so that malas can be carefully protected.

mala bag, Tibetan Buddhist mala bag, Tibetan mala, prayer beads, Tibetan prayer beads, how to use a mala, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist malas

A selection of mala bags made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Our online store has a wide range of bags made from different fabrics and in different colors.

Choosing a Mala

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to wear a mala. The Tibetan Nuns Project has different kinds of long malas, each hand strung, knotted, and blessed by nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute near Dharamsala in India. They are made from materials such as semiprecious stones, sandalwood, and bone and they range in price from $15 to $45.

mala, Tibetan mala, prayer beads, Tibetan prayer beads, how to use a mala, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist malas, guru bead

Assorted Tibetan Buddhist bone malas from the Tibetan Nuns Project

Long malas can be worn as a necklace or wrapped around your wrist. By purchasing these malas, you help provide the nuns with food, shelter, education, and health care – something you can feel great about every time you use your mala.

Our online store also has many types of wrist malas too, ranging in price from $11 to $22, and also made and blessed by the nuns at Dolma Ling. The wrist malas are approximately 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter and strung on elastic to fit most wrists.

Types of Malas

mala, Tibetan mala, prayer beads, Tibetan prayer beads, how to use a mala, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist malas, guru bead

Our online store sells dozens of types of wrist and long malas, made of wood, bone, and semi-precious stones like amethyst, garnet, jade, and lapis.

Here’s a list of some types of malas and their special properties:

Amethyst is the stone of spirituality and contentment. It balances the energy of one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical bodies.

Garnet enhances internal fire and brings about creative power. It is helpful during feelings of abandonment and brings freshness to one’s life.

Granite helps with balance in relationships, fosters cooperative efforts and facilitates diplomacy. It helps increase wealth while allowing the recipient to remain modest.

Jade assists in dream analysis and grants the user a long and fruitful life. It helps with the transition from this body to the spiritual world.

Lapis provides objectivity, clarity, and mental endurance during times of realizing emotions. It also helps with creativity, organization, and with easing depression.

Malachite creates an unobstructed path leading to a desired goal and helps the user accept responsibility for actions and circumstances.

Moonstone fosters balance, introspection, and reflection. It helps deal with emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual changes, and helps in recognizing “ups and downs”.

Pearl signifies faith, charity, and innocence. It enhances personal integrity, provides focus, and is used to increase fertility and ease childbirth.

Quartz amplifies body and thought energy. It also brings the energy of the stars to the body.

Rose quartz creates harmony and self-love during chaotic situations. It is the stone of gentle love and brings peace to relationships.

Sandstone builds and strengthens relationships and/or groups. It provides insight into deceit and encourages truth.

Tiger eye brings about clarity when dealing with scattered intellectual fragments. This stone is practical and grounding.

Turquoise heals the spirit with soothing energy and provides peace-of-mind. It holds both spiritual and protective properties, and balances the male and female aspects of one’s character.

Visit our online store.

Buying Mala Beads

The nuns buy from local Indian or Tibetan vendors for their beads. The beads are then hand strung and knotted into mala form. Once complete, the malas are then blessed by the nuns. We try to keep our prices reasonable so that our prayer beads can be accessed by everyone.

Life during the monsoon

In India, the monsoon starts in late June and lasts until September. While the torrential rains are vital for agriculture and bring relief from scorching summer heat, the monsoon can also be deadly, causing floods and landslides. Less disastrously, the monsoon brings daily obstacles to everyone. Here’s how the nuns cope with the challenges of life during the monsoon.

At times this summer, the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, was the rainiest place in India. In August, it was headline news when monsoon rains broke a 60-year record and 292.4 mm of rain (over 11.5 inches) fell in 24 hours in Dharamsala, home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and location of Geden Choeling Nunnery. The nearby Tibetan Buddhist nunneries of Dolma Ling, Shugsep, and Tilokpur have also been hit by close-to-record rainfalls this summer.

The Challenges of Life During the Monsoon

Here’s a video taken in July 2018 by the Nuns’ Media Team showing the rains at Dolma Ling Nunnery. The deep drainage ditches that weave around and through the nunnery complex to prevent flooding were almost overflowing.

Tibetan Nuns Project, Buddhist nunneries, Tibetan nunneries, Tibetan nuns, Buddhism in India,

Five of the seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project are located in parts of northern India that receive some of the heaviest rains in the country. Only Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti and Dorjee Zong in Zanskar are spared the monsoon deluges, but they face other problems such as water shortages.

You Need a Good Roof

To cope with the monsoon, you need a good, solid, and well-maintained roof. In the early days of the Tibetan Nuns Project, before new nunneries were built, the nuns who had escaped from Tibet had to camp by the side of the road. The nuns were eventually moved into tents and a series of houses rented by the Tibetan Nuns Project, but the roofs couldn’t always cope with the monsoon rains. Dr. Elizabeth Napper recalls the house used by the Shugsep nuns: “Every available space was filled by a bed; even under the stairs there were beds. The structure was poorly built and rain would run down the walls during the monsoon. It was damp and moldy in there. It was awful.”

Now, thank goodness, all the nuns we support have more solid roofs over their heads. Their dormitories, classrooms, dining halls, kitchens, and libraries can remain dry. However, to remain strong these roofs must be maintained.

In September, we are launching a big project to repair and paint all the metal roofs at Shugsep Nunnery. We need help from our global family of supporters to make this happen. Learn more about the Shugsep Roof Project here. The roof is already rusting in places and, unless the painting is done this fall, the roof will fail.

Wear Plastic Shoes

Puddle jumping is a daily activity during the summer monsoon. There’s no point wearing leather shoes, which will only be destroyed by the damp. To keep one’s feet healthy and as dry as possible, plastic shoes and sandals are essential footwear for the nuns.

shoes outside of classroom, life during the monsoon, Tibetan nuns footwear, plastic sandals, how to cope with the monsoon, life during the monsoon

Nuns shoes outside of a classroom at Dolma Ling Nunnery on a nice day in May. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

The Art of Drying Clothing

One of the biggest challenges of life during the monsoon is laundering and drying clothes. This is true for everyone in India, but the situation for Tibetan Buddhist nuns (and monks) can be even trickier. Nuns and monks are traditionally allowed only two sets of robes so washing and, above all, drying robes during the monsoon is hard. The nuns seize opportunities when the sun is out to hang their robes and other clothing on fences etc. and, during showers, under overhanging balconies. The humidity is so relentless that things just don’t dry.

life during the monsoon, nuns clothing, coping with the monsoon, life during the monsoon

Nuns’ clothing drying on the nunnery rooftop. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The Challenge of Staying Healthy

Frequent rains make people more vulnerable to illness, especially through exposure to dirty water and the increase in waterborne diseases. During the monsoon, a number of illnesses increase. We are so grateful to the donors who helped with the urgent septic system repairs at both Dolma Ling and Shugsep. The repairs were completed in June before the onset of the monsoon, so this made both nunneries much safer for the nuns. Even so, the nuns must very careful about washing their vegetables during monsoon season to avoid contamination.

Secondly, getting partially wet or totally soaked from the rain water destabilizes your body temperature and makes you vulnerable to sickness. Fungal infections caused by wearing damp clothes and shoes are also a risk.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, nunnery life, life during the monsoon

Nuns washing vegetables. The monsoon rains bring an increase in water-borne illnesses. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

Making Friends with Animals and Insects

Just like humans, animals want to get in out of the rain. The nuns sometimes find that they have visitors to their nunneries, such as snakes, spiders, centipedes, and scorpions. Also, all that standing water becomes a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, which are vectors for many diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Dengue fever is communicated through mosquito bites and the most common symptoms are sudden onset of fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, and skin rashes. Some patients also develop symptoms which include vomiting, diarrhoea and loss of appetite.

Previously malaria and dengue have not been a problem for the nuns, but the risk may increase as the climate warms up and the storms become more intense. On August 31 2018, the Hindustan Times reported that so far during this rainy season there have been over 1,500 cases of dengue in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the location of five of the seven nunneries we support.

Drainage Ditches Are Essential

Without drainage ditches to channel the water away, the nunneries would be flooded. The nuns work hard year-round to keep these all-important drainage ditches clean and working. One of the projects we’re working on this fall is to improve the drainage in and around the 8 retreat huts at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Some of the Geshema nuns are staying in the retreat huts while taking their two-year course in Buddhist tantric studies. We need to add gutters and drainpipes to the hut roofs huts so that the rainwater does not damage the walls and we need to add drainage ditches all around to prevent flooding. You can learn more about the project here. 

Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, coping with the monsoon

The nuns of Dolma Ling Nunnery clean the nunnery paths and drainage ditches daily. Photo courtesy of Dustin Kujawski

Sharing your good luck messages for the Geshema candidates

Last month we reached out to our global family of supporters to let you know about nuns working hard to become Geshemas. So many of you wrote to share beautiful good luck messages for the Geshema candidates.

We compiled all your good luck messages and they were posted on the noticeboard at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Our wonderful Nuns’ Media Team documented the nuns reading the messages and also the start of the 2018 Geshema exams.

We’d like to share some of the photos and some of your good wishes here, taking you on an armchair trip to the heart of Dolma Ling Nunnery.

good luck messages for the Geshema candidates, good luck messages, Geshema, Geshema degree, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, Geshema exams

Nuns gather at the Dolma Ling Nunnery bulletin board to read the many messages of good luck sent to the Geshema candidates. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

In August 2018, 44 Tibetan Buddhist nuns are sitting various levels of the rigorous four-year Geshema exams. (Earlier we reported that there were 46 nuns, but one of the nuns taking first-year exams had to postpone and return home to care for her ailing mother, and one of the second-year nuns also had to miss exams this year) The written and oral (debate) exams run from August 15-26, 2018.

  • 12 nuns taking their first round of examinations
  • 14 nuns doing their second-year exams
  • 8 nuns doing their third-year exams and
  • 10 nuns doing their fourth and final year.
Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

A smiling Tibetan Buddhist nun enters her Geshema exams equipped with ruler and pens. The written and oral exams last two weeks and are based on 17 years of study. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Geshema degree (or Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. This highest degree was, until recently, only open to men. Now Tibetan Buddhist nuns are making history. In the last two years, 26 Tibetan Buddhist nuns have earned this degree.

good luck messages for the Geshema candidates, good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

Supporters from around the world sent heartfelt messages of good luck to the nuns taking this year’s Geshema exams. The messages were posted on the bulletin board at Dolma Ling Nunnery for all the nuns to see. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Here are some of the messages:

“Congratulations to all the Geshema candidates at all levels for achieving so much knowledge, previously not made available to the women. May it all be reflected in your exam results, and may you carry on to be blessings to every being you encounter, in whatever role and relationship.” Poke

“Your dedication to your studies and to your Tibetan culture is simply awesome. Thank you for your contributions to your branch of Buddhism and to our world. All best wishes for your soon forthcoming exams. I will be holding you in my prayers.” Carolyn

“Blessings to all the nuns! Homage to your vows, compassion and desire to be of benefit to all of us stuck in ignorance. May the Bodhisattvas guide and assist you in your studies and exams.” Stephen

good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

Introductory remarks and good wishes before the 46 nuns start taking their two weeks of Geshema exams. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

In the spring of 2018, we launched a special fund for the 2018 Geshema Exams. We are extremely grateful to all the donors who made gifts to this fund which is being used to cover the costs of travel for the nuns to and from their exams and for the food during their month-long stay at Dolma Ling.

We’d like to say a special thank you to Vita Wells who made a major gift to this fund in memory of her late partner, Michelle Bertho. We would also like to send a special thank you to Dechen Tsering for launching a birthday campaign for this fund and to her many friends and family who made gifts in her honor.

good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

Each year, the two weeks of Geshema exams involve both written exams and oral (debate) exams. Nuns must complete 4 years of exams to earn their Geshema degree, equivalent to the Geshe degree for monks. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

We are still seeking $2,035 to complete the funding for the 2018 Geshema exams. You can learn more and donate here.

good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

All prepared and entering the exam hall. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Here’s a few more good luck messages for the Geshema candidates:

“Hello to you from Canada! I wish all of you taking exams the very best of luck, but even more, the heartfelt wish for you to shine. It is very important for you, and for people around the world, that you are able to preserve and protect the precious teachings you have studied. May you all excel, and blessings radiate for all. Much metta to you.” Michelle

“To All the Geshema Candidates, You are an inspiration. Beings have already benefited from your study.and dedication. Thank you for your efforts. You help insure the survival of the Dharma. May you all successfully complete your exams. May the benefits of your accomplishments be universal.” Carole

“Sending best wishes to you all from the UK. You are an inspiration to all women who seek a better future, and  the Buddha”s teaching is safe in your hands.” Julia

“As a PhD in science and a long-time supporter of TNP, I am delighted by the news and admire the perseverance of the nuns. May Buddhism long live!” Nathan

good luck messages for the Geshema candidates, good luck messages to nuns, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

Nuns cluster around the noticeboard at Dolma Ling Nunnery to read the good luck messages for the Geshema candidates. The good wishes were felt by all the nuns. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree will make them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

The 26 Geshemas who graduated in 2016 and 2017 are now taking part in a groundbreaking new Buddhist tantric studies program. This two-year program at Dolma Ling Nunnery started in November 2017 and is funded by generous supporters through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

nun debating, Tibetan Buddhist debate, Geshema, Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

A nun debates as part of her Geshema exams. Providing opportunities for the nuns to debate has been a critical part of their education to reach this highest degree. The next major event for the nuns is the annual inter-nunnery debate, called the Jang Gonchoe, which will take place this year at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal.

The story of a Tibetan Buddhist nun

This is the story of a Tibetan Buddhist nun living in exile in India. In August 2018 she is taking her final set of examinations for the Geshema degree. This highest degree, equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism, was until very recently only open to men. To protect this nun’s privacy and the safety of her family still in Tibet, we have not used her name or the some of the details of her home.

I was born in 1968 in a village in eastern Tibet situated on the hillside of a thickly wooded valley. Above our village was our pastureland and further north there are rocky mountains. There were about 25 semi-nomadic families living in our village when I lived there.

tibetan prayer flags, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan nun's story, Tibet, Tibetan, prayer flags, snow mountains

Traditional Tibetan prayer flags flutter in front of snow mountains.

Our winters are very cold, like all the other places in Tibet, but the summer temperatures are quite high. Crops like corn, peas, and wheat grow very well there. Our herd consisted of only yaks and dris (female yaks). We didn’t live on the mountains permanently like the nomads.

During the summer months, we stayed in small yak hair tents called masong pitched on the higher grasslands and, in the winter, we returned to the farm. All the village animals were tended by one designated person during the winter when there wasn’t much work to do. In summer, during the calving season, all the animal owners returned to the mountains and pitched their tents, where they remained for the entire summer.

My parents and three of my brothers still live at our home in Tibet. I am the only daughter. My youngest brother is a monk studying in a monastery in South India. I never went to school in Tibet. I spent my time at home tending the animals. There was work in the village, but I always chose to be up on the mountains with the animals.

Nuns bag, nuns robe, Tibetan Nuns Project, Olivier Adam, Tibetan Buddhist nun

Nun’s bag and robe. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

At age 18, I became a nun. In 1989, I joined a group of pilgrims from Lithang who were doing a prostration pilgrimage from Lithang to Lhasa to see the holy temple called the Jokhang.

[Note: A prostration pilgrimage is a form a Tibetan Buddhist worship in which the person stretches out full length on the ground, marks the spot where her or his fingertips reach, and stands and steps forward to that spot, then prostrates again. Through prostrations, Tibetan Buddhists seek to purify the body, speech, and mind, freeing oneself from delusions, negativity, and any bad karma. It is a form of spiritual devotion and mental training that, like other forms of Buddhist practice, was banned by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. The large group of over 150 Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks who undertook this pilgrimage from Lithang to Lhasa performed prostrations for the entire distance – about 1,200-miles. Here’s a short video showing a Tibetan Buddhist nun and a lay person prostrating in Lhasa.]

Lithang is about two days by car from my home. I was with the group from the very beginning of the pilgrimage. We gathered at Lithang and then prostrated eastward to Menyak to see the famous Pai-lhakhang, the temple dedicated to Palden Lhamo, the guardian deity of Tibet.

We returned to Lithang after six months and then made our journey towards Lhasa. The pilgrimage took us almost two years to complete. On the way, I learned to read and write Tibetan. We prostrated during the day and in the evenings we studied by the light of oil lamps and candles. It was a hard pilgrimage. We couldn’t do the whole distance from Lithang to Lhasa by prostrations because the group became too large after a time and it was impossible for such a large group to keep moving. So we would stop at a few places for months, do a number of prostrations, and then move again until we reached Lhasa.

pilgrims from Lithang, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan refugees, escape from Tibet, Tibetans, nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project

This nun was one of this large group of pilgrims from Lithang who did prostrations for over two years. When they escaped from Tibet and arrived in India, there was no space at existing nunneries to accommodate them. The Tibetan Nuns Project cared for them and other nuns and eventually built two new nunneries, Dolma Ling and Shugsep.

At Lhasa, we could not enter the holy city because there was trouble in the Tibetan capital at the time and the Chinese were fearful of the attention such a large group might attract. We were instead diverted to southern Tibet to another holy city, Shigatse. From Shigatse, we went on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. At Kailash, Yonton Phuntsok Rinpoche [a lama from Kham and the leader of the pilgrimage] decided to leave for India, and I, along with many other monks and nuns, followed him into exile. He made all the arrangements for our escape and we didn’t have to do much.  We came to Dharamsala via Nepal and have remained in Dharamsala ever since.

 [A note about the escape from Tibet: Like most Tibetans, this group escaped on foot over the Himalayas to Nepal. It took the group 27 or 28 days to make this harrowing journey into exile. The group was ill equipped and was forced to hide during the day and walk at night in order to avoid detection. Once in Nepal, they went to the Tibetan Reception Center at Kathmandu for medical care and to register as refugees. Now the border is heavily patrolled and freedom of movement inside Tibet is severely restricted, so it is virtually impossible for Tibetans to escape.]

The Tibetan Nuns Project took care of us from the very beginning. I saw Dolma Ling Nunnery come alive from barren land into becoming this popular center of learning where people flock to get a place. All the nuns who were with me on the pilgrimage are also at Dolma Ling. The study course here is for 19 years and I have now completed all 19 years of Buddhist philosophical studies.

Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist nun

Four nuns and a small tent on the empty plot of land where Dolma Ling Nunnery was built. The nunnery is now home to about 250 nuns.

At Dolma Ling we have a computer room. Nuns who received training from overseas volunteers with support from the Tibetan Nuns Project then taught us and there are many nuns who are interested in learning. I have learned basic computer skills for many years now and I feel so proud.

computer training for Tibetan nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Tibetan nuns, Harald Weichhhart, Tibetan Nuns Project, media nuns

Computer training for Tibetan nuns by volunteer, Harald Weichhart, 2009.

I feel so privileged to be a part of this institute, and I am thankful to everyone who made this possible for us. I am happy here, and Dolma Ling will be my home for many years to come.
                       

Send messages of support to Geshema candidates

When you’re facing big challenges, it feels great to know that people are wishing you good luck. You can send a message of support to the Geshema candidates by writing a comment on this blog.

From August 15-26 2018, 45 Tibetan Buddhist nuns will sit various levels of their Geshema exams. To attain the Geshema degree, the nuns must take four years of exams. (Earlier we reported that there were 46 nuns, but one of the nuns taking first-year exams had to postpone and return home to care for her ailing mother.) The Geshema exams take place over 4 years and are the culmination of a rigorous 17-year course of study.

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

Nuns reading messages of good luck and support from other nuns prior to the 2016 Geshema candidates. We’re collecting messages from support from you and will send them to the nuns taking their exams in August 2018.

The Geshema degree (or Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. Until recently, this degree was only open to men. In the last two years, 26 Tibetan Buddhist nuns have made history and earned this degree. Geshes and Geshemas are the most educated monastics, carrying much of the responsibility for preserving the Tibetan religion and culture.

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

The nuns taking their exams this year gathered at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute on July 15th to make their final preparations and studies.

In August 2018 there will be:

  • 12 nuns taking their first-year exams
  • 15 nuns doing their 2nd year
  • 8 nuns doing their 3rd year
  • 10 Geshema candidates doing their fourth and final year of exams. All being well, there will be 10 new Geshema graduates this fall.
Geshema, geshema exams, 2018 Geshema exams, Geshema candidates, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree will make them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a special graduation ceremony at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.

We are seeking donations to help to cover the costs of travel for the Geshema candidates to and from Dolma Ling Nunnery and for their food during their 6-week study and exam period. You can donate here.

In November 2017, another 6 nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees. They received their degrees in a special ceremony on November 5th. The six new Geshemas had the opportunity to join the Geshemas who received their degrees in December 2016 in a groundbreaking new Buddhist tantric studies program. This two-year program at Dolma Ling Nunnery started in November 2017 and is funded by generous supporters through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Geshema, geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Geshema candidates, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

Behind the Camera: Showcasing Nuns’ Media Team Photos

The Nuns’ Media Team at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute near Dharamsala in northern India is a special group of women. They tell stories through photos and stories matter.

Traditionally Tibetan Buddhist nuns have been a quiet and faint presence in the world. They have had little or no opportunity to tell their own stories or document their own lives. Now the nuns, through the Nuns’ Media Team, are increasingly able to share their own news and images.

In this blog, we’d like to showcase some of the photographs taken by the Nuns’ Media Team and tell you about an exciting new project to provide cameras to all 7 nunneries that we support.

Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhism, nuns, Nuns' Media Team, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetans

The Nuns’ Media Team is able to capture intimate portraits like this one of two nuns reading Tibetan.

The nuns who form the Nuns’ Media Team initially received training from overseas volunteers. As they are empowered and gain in skills, they are also less reliant on non-Tibetan photographers.

Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhism, nuns, Nuns' Media Team, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetans, tug of war

The Nuns’ Media Team captured this candid shot of a tug of war during celebrations of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday. It was a rare opportunity for the nuns to take a break from their studies and nunnery chores.

Now they are now passing on their knowledge to other nuns. Venerable Delek Yangdron, the supervisor of the Nuns’ Media Team, has trained several nuns in still and video photography, in interview techniques, and in cutting and editing footage to make videos. The nuns have already produced a series of videos on life at Dolma Ling, the Tibetan Nuns Project, and Shugsep Nunnery.

Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhism, nuns, Nuns' Media Team, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetans

This atmospheric shot of nuns lighting butter lamps at Dolma Ling Nunnery was taken by the Nuns’ Media Team. Over time they have developed their skills in taking photographs in low-light conditions.

While we at the Tibetan Nuns Project are extremely grateful to the many photographers who have shared their images with us, we know that these volunteers can only visit the nunneries for short periods, and that they can never truly have the access and understanding that Tibetan Buddhist nuns themselves can have to nunnery life.

Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhism, nuns, Nuns' Media Team, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetans

These smiling faces of nuns wearing knitted items donated by Wool-Aid were captured by the Nuns’ Media Team. The nuns are able to capture relaxed portraits like these.

One professional photographer said this about empowering diverse communities with cameras: “Indeed, the beauty behind documentary photography doesn’t reside in the taking of the images, but in the access and the depth with which you can document a phenomenon or a subject.”

Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhism, nuns, Nuns' Media Team, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetans

The Nuns’ Media Team is in a unique position to document life at the nunnery. Here the nuns of Dolma Ling undertake the big task of cleaning the pond reservoir.

Currently the nuns write, edit, and publish their own annual magazine in Tibetan and also supply photographs for the annual Tibetan Nuns Project calendar that is an income earner for all of the nunneries. These are both achievements to be proud of given than so many nuns were illiterate on arrival in India.

Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhism, nuns, Nuns' Media Team, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetans, prayer hall, Tibetan prayers, Dolma Ling Nunnery

Tibetan nuns are able to capture with respect scenes like this in the prayer hall at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

One of our board members, Robin Groth, has generously offered to match gifts up to a total of $1,000 towards the Media Equipment Project to provide all 7 nunneries with a camera.

Robin Groth says, “I spent my career as a broadcast journalist and documentary producer, telling stories of people’s lives, and witnessing historical events. Now I can help the nuns give voice to their own stories of survival, hope, educational equality, and empowerment. What a joy to be part of a project enabling the nuns to record, preserve, and share their culture and accomplishments with the world.”

Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhism, nuns, Nuns' Media Team, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetans, prayer hall, Tibetan prayers, Dolma Ling Nunnery

Sometimes members of the Nuns’ Media Team are able to travel to other nunneries and capture images there, like of these nuns debating at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. We hope we can provide each nunnery with a camera.

Look for photos from the nuns on our new Tibetan Nuns Project Instagram account.

Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhism, nuns, Nuns' Media Team, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetans, prayer hall, Tibetan prayers, Dolma Ling Nunnery

Poster showing the Nuns’ Media Team based at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

The 2018 Geshema Exams

It’s exam time! This summer, 46 Tibetan Buddhist nuns will sit the 2018 Geshema exams. These rigorous written and oral exams take four years to complete.

Geshema, geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

Nuns sitting their Geshema exams in 2017. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team

For the 2018 Geshema exams there will be:

  • 13 nuns taking their first round of examinations
  • 15 nuns doing their second-year exams
  • 8 nuns doing their third-year exams and
  • 10 nuns doing their fourth and final year.

All being well, there will be 10 new Geshema graduates this fall.

The 2018 Geshema exams will be held at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute from August 15-26. All the nuns taking exams will gather at Dolma Ling on July 15, a month in advance, as they need to study together and make their final exam preparations.

We are seeking donations to help to cover the costs of travel for the Geshema candidates to and from Dolma Ling Nunnery and for their food during their 6-week study and exam period. You can donate here.

The Geshema degree (or Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. This highest degree was, until recently, only open to men. Now Tibetan Buddhist nuns are making history. In the last two years, 26 Tibetan Buddhist nuns have earned this degree.

Geshema, geshema exams, 2018 Geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree will make them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a special graduation ceremony at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.

In November 2017, another 6 nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees. They  received their degrees in a special ceremony on November 5th. The six new Geshemas had the opportunity to join the Geshemas who received their degrees in December 2016 in a groundbreaking new Buddhist tantric studies program. This two-year program at Dolma Ling Nunnery started in November 2017 and is funded by generous supporters through the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Geshema, geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

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

Tibetan calligraphy and the Tibetan language

Tibet has its own language, including a unique alphabet and various written forms. Tibetan calligraphy is beautiful and there are numerous Tibetan writing styles. This blog post showcases some of them.

Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan writing, calligraphy, Tibetan language, Tibetan culture, Tibetan calligraphy competition,Tibetan Nuns Project

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India take part in the annual Tibetan calligraphy competition. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Tibetan alphabet has 30 characters or letters and four vowels.  Like English, it is written from left to right in horizontal lines. The origins of Tibetan as a written language date back to the 7th century AD and the reign of King Songtsen Gampo. One of the king’s ministers, Thonmi Sambhota, is credited with creating the Tibetan alphabet. He and other scholars were sent by the king to India to study the art of writing with the aim of making the Buddhist teachings available to Tibetans.

Buddhism plays a central role in Tibetan culture. This is true for Tibetan writing as well. Many examples of Tibetan calligraphy come from religious texts. Most Tibetan scribes or experts in Tibetan calligraphy come from monastic backgrounds.

Here is a video of Tibetan Buddhist nuns practicing Tibetan calligraphy. Can’t see the video? Click here.

Traditionally, Tibetan nuns did not have access to the same level of education as monks. Now Tibetan nuns, such as those studying at the nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, have the opportunity to learn their own written language and various forms of Tibetan calligraphy. This is groundbreaking because many of the nuns who escaped from Tibet and arrived in exile in India were completely illiterate on their arrival. Most of them couldn’t even write their names.

Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan writing, calligraphy, Tibetan language, Tibetan culture, Tibetan Nuns Project

Tibetan Buddhist nuns writing on a chalkboard. The form of Tibetan script they are using is called Tsukring. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Tibetan Calligraphy

Tibetan writing may be broadly divided into two types, “headed” called Uchen and “headless” called Umeh. These two forms of Tibetan script correspond roughly to printed and cursive writing.

Uchen (U-chen)

The most common script for Tibetan writing and the one used in printed books because of its clarity is called Uchen (དབུ་ཅན།). Uchen means “with head” and this form of Tibetan writing is basically printing.

The Uchen form of Tibetan writing has heavy horizontal lines (heads) and tapering vertical lines. For Tibetan students of all ages this is the the most basic form of both handwriting and calligraphy. Students, including the Tibetan Buddhist nuns, must master this form of writing before moving on to other styles.

Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan writing, calligraphy, Tibetan language, Tibetan culture, Tibetan Nuns Project

A Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute writes a calligraphy exam. She is using Uchen (དབུ་ཅན།), the headed writing which is the same style of Tibetan script used in printed books for its clarity. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Unlike English, there is not a distinction in the Tibetan alphabet between capital letters and lowercase letters. There is only the one letter form in the printed form Uchen which is more like block printing. In fact, the Uchen form of Tibetan writing is used for wood block prints and on Tibetan prayer flags.

Umeh (Umê)

Another form of Tibetan writing is called Umeh (དབུ་མེད།) or “headless” form and this encompasses a range of different styles. Umeh is essentially cursive writing in various forms that may be used for inscriptions, formal letters, and correspondence. It looks quite different to Uchen because of the lack of the horizontal lines (heads) on top of the letters.

Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan writing, calligraphy, Tibetan language, Tibetan culture, Tibetan Nuns Project

Nuns are taught and examined on Tibetan language and Tibetan calligraphy. In this exam paper, a Tibetan Buddhist nun demonstrates her skill and knowledge of Drutsa, a form of “headless” cursive writing that is used for formal purposes. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan writing, Tibetan alphabet, Tibetan language, Tibetan culture, uchen,

Here are the words “Free Tibet” written in 4 styles of Tibetan calligraphy. The top is in Uchen, the printed form, followed by Tsukring, Paytsik, and Drutsa. At the bottom is the artist’s signature in Chuyig style. Photo and calligraphy by Tashi Mannox, Wikicommons.

There are many forms of Umeh writing, including:

  • Drutsa འབྲུ་ཚ། An artistic form of Tibetan calligraphy that is used for official documents and titles. With its long, tapered descending lines, Drutsa is both formal and more “flamboyant” that some other scripts.
  • Chuyig འཁྱུག་ཡིག། (also spelled Kyug’yig or Gyuk yig) means “fast letters” or “flowing script”. This form of cursive writing is used in day-to-day life for things such as informal handwritten notes and personal letters.
Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan writing, calligraphy, Tibetan language, Tibetan culture, Tibetan Nuns Project, Shugsep Nunnery, drutsa script

This example of Tibetan calligraphy was pinned to a classroom bulletin board at Shugsep Nunnery. It was written by a nun in the Drutsa style of Tibetan writing. It says, “Even if one is not highly learned, if your handwriting is elegant like the shape of a fish, others will think you are highly learned, and therefore it is easy to write what you think and feel!”

Mudras: Meaning of Sacred Hand Gestures

Mudras are sacred hand gestures or positions that used to evoke a state of mind. The Sanskrit word “mudra” means “seal”, “mark”, or “gesture”. In Tibetan the word is ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ or “chakgya”. Each of these sacred hand gestures has a specific meaning. Many of them symbolize major moments or events in the Buddha’s life.

mudras, sacred hand gestures, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

In this beautiful photo by Olivier Adam, an elderly nun in Zanskar shows a novice nun how to make the Mandala Offering Mudra.

8 Mudras and their Meaning

Sacred hand gestures or mudras are often depicted in Buddhist art. In this blog we’d like to share descriptions and images of some common mudras. The list here is not exhaustive.

The Earth Witness Mudra

When Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was meditating under the Bodhi tree, he was assailed by the demon Mara, who tried to disturb his mind. Mara represents the passions that trap and delude us. Siddhartha refused to be tempted from the path to enlightenment and he called on the earth to witness his worthiness to become enlightened, saying, “The earth shall be my witness, I will not let myself be seduced.” In the Earth Witness Mudra, (also known as the Bhumisparsa Mudra or Gesture of Witness), the historical Buddha is seated in the meditation posture and touches the earth with the fingertips of his right hand, palm facing inwards. The left hand is placed in the lap with the palm facing upwards.

earth witness mudra, Buddha, thangka,

In this detail from a thangka print, the historical Buddha is depicted seated in meditation and calling the earth as his witness.

The Mudra of Meditation

The Mudra of Meditation (dhyana) is made by placing both hands on the lap, right hand on the left, with the palms facing upwards, the tips of the thumbs touching, and the fingers fully stretched. This mudra helps to calm the mind for meditation and is used for deep contemplation and reflection. The mudra of meditation is a characteristic gesture of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Mudra of Meditation, sacred hand gestures, mudras, Buddha sculpture

This ancient stone sculpture shows the Buddha with his hands in the Mudra of Meditation

The Namaskara or Anjali Mudra

This mudra, while not found in representations of the Buddha or other deities, is commonly used by nuns, monks, and lay people to symbolize devotion, prayer, and admiration. Called the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra, it is used as a common form of greeting in most Asian countries. Anjali is a Sanskrit word which means “salutation” or “to offer” and Namaskar is Hindi for “good day”. To make this mudra, you bring your palms together in front of your heart space, fingers pointing upwards, and thumbs close to the chest, to symbolize honor, respect, and devotion.

Dalai Lama, Olivier Adam, gesture of greeting, mudra, mudras

His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds his hands together in greeting and in offering respect to others. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Mudra of Holding the Jewel or Manidhara Mudra

The Mudra of Holding the Jewel looks very similar to the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra shown above. Also called the Manidhara Mudra, it is made by holding one’s hands together in front but with the palms and fingers slightly arched, holding the precious, wish-fulfilling jewel. This jewel or gem is also depicted in Tibetan prayer flags, carried upon the back of the Lung Ta  or wind horse. This sacred hand gesture of holding the jewel is a mudra of Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. The Tibetan word for Avalokiteshvara is Chenrezig (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་). The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Chenrezig,

Tibetan Buddhist nun, mudras, sacred hand gesture, Zanskar, Tibetan Nuns Project

An elderly nun in Zanskar places her palms together in devotion, holding the wish-fulfilling jewel, a mudra associated with Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

The Mandala Offering Mudra

The Mandala Offering Mudra is a complex and sacred hand gesture that acts as a symbolic offering of the entire universe for the benefit of all sentient beings. Performing the Mandala Offering Mudra helps to reduce one’s attachment and to purify the clinging mind. Although this mudra is usually made together with prayers and Buddhist chants, non-Buddhists can also perform it to receive its spiritual benefits.

Mandala Mudra, mudra, Olivier Adam, Tibetan mudra, Tibetan Buddhist nun, mala

A Tibetan Buddhist nun performs the Mandala Mudra with her mala (Buddhist prayer beads). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

To make this complex mudra, sit in meditation pose with your back straight. Calm your breathing and visualize offering the mandala – the universe – to the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and all holy beings, giving with great joy and with purity of heart. Place your hands palms up and intertwine your fingers. With the tips of your thumbs, press down on the tips of the opposite little finger. Then, with the bent tips of your index fingers, press down on the tip of the opposite middle finger. Finally, take your ring fingers, unclasp them, and put them back to back, pressing the backs together and with both fingers going straight up through the center. Together the ring fingers symbolize Mt. Meru, the sacred mountain, and the four continents described in Buddhist cosmology.

mandala offering, mudras, Tibetan Buddhist nun, Zanskar nunnery, Olivier Adam, Tibetan Nuns Project, sacred hand genstures, mudra

A Tibetan Buddhist nun in Zanskar performs the mandala offering mudra. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Vitarka Mudra or Teaching Mudra

The Vitarka Mudra (the Mudra of Teaching or Discussion) is a common mudra representing the discussion and transmission of Buddhist teachings. It is formed by joining the tips of the thumb and index finger together to form a circle, keeping the other three fingers pointing straight up. The circle formed by the joined fingers symbolizes perfection with no beginning or end.

This mudra is usually made with one hand, most often the right one, with the hand held upward close to the chest and the palm facing outward. However, the mudra may also be made with both hands held in front of the chest, with each index finger and thumb joined in a circle. When two hands are used, the left palm faces inward and the right palm is turned outward. The Teaching Mudra represents the Buddha’s first teaching after becoming enlightened. It also symbolizes the “Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma” or Dharmachakra. There are a great number of variations of this mudra in Mahayana Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the mystic gesture of Taras and bodhisattvas.

mudra of teaching, vitarka mudra, mudras, sacred hand gestures, Buddhist mudras, sculpture

This sculpture shows the mudra of teaching or the Vitarka Mudra, with the tips of the thumb and index finger joined to form a circle.

mudras, meaning of mudras, teaching mudra, White Tara, sacred hand gestures, Buddhist mudras

In this detail from a thangka print, White Tara is holding an utpala flower in her raised left hand. The tips of her thumb and fourth or ring finger are touching. This is a gesture of good fortune and shows that, by relying upon her, one may accomplish complete purity of mind and body.

Generosity Mudra or Varada Mudra

The Varada Mudra is the gesture of generosity, charity, and compassion. It is commonly found in representations of the Green and White Tara. This sacred hand gesture represents the granting of blessings, wishes, or even pardon. It also symbolizes the “gift of truth” – the precious gift of the dharma or Buddhist teachings. In the Varada Mudra, the palm faces out and hangs down, usually touching the right leg. This mudra is often used in conjunction with another mudra. The five fingers represent the five perfections: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, and meditation.

mudras, Varada Mudra, Generosity Mudra, WhiteTara

Detail of a thangka print depicting White Tara and showing the outward facing palm and downward hand of the Varada Mudra or Mudra of Generosity.

Mudra of Fearlessness or Abhaya Mudra

Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness. The Mudra of Fearlessness or the Abhaya Mudra symbolizes the dispelling of fear. It can look to Westerners like the common hand gesture for “stop”. The mudra is made by raising the right hand to shoulder height, with the arm bent and the palm facing outward. This mudra is more commonly depicted in standing images.

This very ancient hand gesture is also a sign of peace and friendship. Placing one’s hand up and open in this way indicates that one is free of weapons and comes in peace. In Buddhism, the mudra shows the fearlessness and therefore the spiritual power of the Buddha or bodhisattva who makes it.

It is said that the historical Buddha made this sacred hand gesture immediately after gaining enlightenment. At a later time, the Buddha was about to be attacked by a mad elephant. The poor animal had been fed alcohol and tortured by one who hoped to use the elephant as a weapon against the Buddha. The elephant, enraged and in pain, charged at the Buddha and his followers. While others ran away, the Buddha stood calmly, raising his hand in the gesture of fearlessness. He felt great love and compassion for the stricken elephant. In response, the elephant stopped in its charge, became calm, and then approached the Buddha and bowed its head.

mudra of fearlessness, giant Buddha, mudras, sacred hand gestures

A giant Buddha statue in Hong Kong shows the seated Buddha with the mudra of fearlessness or the Abhaya Mudra

A note about the images of mudras: The thangka prints shown in this blog post were donated to the Tibetan Nuns Project by a generous donor. A range of thangka prints are available through our online store, with all proceeds from sales going to help the nuns. We are very grateful to Olivier Adam for sharing his beautiful photos. Many of his photos are available as cards through our online store. Prints of Olivier Adam’s photographs are available through his Etsy shop, Daughters of Buddha.