Starting on August 1, 2019, 50 Tibetan Buddhist nuns began almost two weeks of Geshema exams. The Geshema degree is the highest degree in their tradition and was only recently opened up to women. Known as the Geshe degree for monks, it is like a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism. This year, the exams were held at Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in South India.
These rigorous exams take four years to complete, with one set held each year. The nuns are examined on their 17-year course of study.
Here’s a video about the 2019 Geshema exams.
Before the exams began, Geshe Jampa Kalden, who is the Geden Choeling Khenpo and the head of the Geshema examination committee, spoke to the nuns. He explained the examination rules and advised the nuns to stay grounded when taking their exams, not to rush through their papers, and not to be in a hurry to submit their answer sheets just because another person has submitted her papers.
The nuns must take written and oral exams in the form of traditional Tibetan Buddhist debate. The debate takes place in front of the examiners and lasts for four hours in the morning (8 a.m. to 12 p.m.) and four hours in the afternoon (2 p.m. to 6 p.m.)
As shown in the video below, examiners supervise the debate, making sure that what is said is relevant to the topic, and they intervene as needed.
The nuns cannot choose their own debate topics. Instead, they must draw slips of paper on which three topics from one subject are written. Each nun can then choose one topic from the three options and debate on that. The nuns are given 15 minutes for each debate.
We would like to extend our deepest thanks to the Pema Chödrön Foundation and everyone who supported our 2019 Geshema Exam Fund to cover the travel costs and the food for the Geshema candidates. By supporting the education of the nuns, you are helping to pave the way for future generations of nuns to follow in the Geshemas’ footsteps. The Geshema degree will make the nuns eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.
Written examinations were held in the open debate courtyard, while debates were held in the prayer hall.
Initially, we reported that 51 nuns were taking their exams in August 2019, but sadly, one nun who was planning on taking her fourth and final year of exams backed out due to stress. This year 22 nuns sat their first round of exams, 10 nuns took their second year, 11 nuns sat third-year exams, and 7 nuns took their fourth and final set of exams. All being well, there will be 7 new Geshemas graduating this fall.
Over 100 supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project sent beautiful and heartfelt messages of good luck to the nuns taking their Geshema exams. Here is an example, written by Alan who sponsors two nuns: “Dear Geshema Candidates: You are not only contributing to the survival and expansion of Tibetan Buddhism, but you are all changing the world and making it a better place by means of your studies, self-transformation, compassion, and example. Thank you all and good luck. You are in our prayers. We look forward to the day when the two nuns who we sponsor take their Geshema exams. Blessings.”