On November 27th, seven Tibetan Buddhist nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees at a special convocation ceremony in the holy city of Bodh Gaya, India.
The seven Tibetan Buddhist nuns who earned their Geshema degrees in 2023 at the graduation ceremony in Bodh Gaya. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.
The degree is the female equivalent of the Geshe degree for monks and is the highest academic degree available in the Gelug tradition, roughly equivalent to a PhD.
This was the sixth cohort of Geshemas since the degree was opened to women in 2012. The first 20 nuns graduated in 2016.
At the ceremony, Nangsa Choedon, the director of the Tibetan Nuns Project in India, spoke about the work to ensure a strong future for Tibetan nuns.
Nanga Choedon of the Tibetan Nuns Project presents the Geshema graduates with robes and the yellow hats that signifies the holding of this highest degree. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.
Other special guests who attended the graduation included Kunga Gyaltsen, the additional secretary of Religion and Cultural Affairs for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) who offered congratulations to the new Geshemas on behalf of the CTA. He encouraged the nuns to educate their local communities on core Buddhist teachings and also urged them to encourage participation in projects aimed at bringing insights from modern science to monastics.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns line up to offer congratulations and ceremonial white katak scarves to the Geshema graduates. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.
The Geshema degree enables these dedicated women to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.
At the 2023 Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate event, there were five Geshemas from previous years who acted as teachers during the month of intensive training in monastic debate. Two were from Jangchup Choeling, one from Kopan Nunnery, one from Jangyang Choeling, and one from Dolma Ling.
In 2022, 94 nuns sat Geshema exams. This year, a record 132 nuns are taking various levels of the four-year exams. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.
Momentum is building and an increasing number of nuns wish to attain this highest academic standing. Many young and new nuns who join the nunneries we support in northern India are saying in their introductory interviews that they want to pursue the rigorous 17-year training that precedes the Geshema exam process.
They look to examples of Geshemas as teachers and leaders and they are inspired to follow in their footsteps. As of the end of 2023, there are 60 Geshemas in this tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
2023 Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate
The graduation was the culmination of the nuns’ annual inter-nunnery debate event called the Jang Gonchoe which took place from October 25th to November 28th.
In 2023, over 500 Tibetan Buddhist nuns from India and Nepal took part in the month-long inter-nunnery debate event called the jang Gonchoe.
This year around 520 nuns from 10 nunneries from India and Nepal gathered at the Kagyu Monlam in Bodh Gaya to take part in the month-long intensive training in monastic debate.
Nuns practicing debate daily at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Monastic debate is of critical importance in traditional Tibetan Buddhist learning. Through debate, nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.
Throughout the year nuns practice debate daily at their nunneries. But, the Jang Gonchoe debate event provides the training and practice that is essential for nuns who wish to pursue higher degrees.
Both the Geshema exams and the inter-nunnery debate are funded by endowments through the Tibetan Nuns Project and are self-sustaining. We are grateful to all those who supported these two funds.
Some of 510 nuns who took part in the 2023 inter-nunnery debate. Their food and travel costs were covered by the Debate Fund. Now we want to more more of our core programs on a sustainable footing with TNP’s Long-Term Stability Fund.
Thank you for making the annual inter-nunnery debate a big success.
The 25th annual inter-nunnery debate, called the Jang Gonchoe, took place from October 25-November 30th 2019.
At the month-long event, 422 nuns received intensive training in Tibetan Buddhist debate.
Tibetan Buddhist nuns debating in pairs at the Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate held at the Kagyu Monlam Pavilion in Bodh Gaya, India. Over 400 nuns took part in the 25th annual event.
The historic event was held at the huge Kagyu Monlam Pavilion in Bodh Gaya, India. The nuns also debated outdoors in front of the Mahabodhi Temple, the “Great Awakening Temple” marking the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
Tibetan Buddhist debate is a unique method of learning that, until very recently, was not open to women. This form of learning has helped to produce many renowned Tibetan scholars over the centuries. With the steady religious and cultural persecution inside Tibet, these important Tibetan Buddhist practices can only survive in exile.
Here’s a video about the 2019 Jang Gonchoe:
The nuns came from the following nine nunneries in India and Nepal:
1. Geden Choeling Nunnery, Dharamsala: 60 nuns attended
2. Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, Sidhpur: 70 nuns attended
3. Jamyang Choeling Nunnery, Dharamsala: 48 nuns attended
4. Jangchub Choeling Nunnery, Mundgod: 74 nuns attended
5. Jangsemling Nunnery, Kinnaur: 23 nuns attended
6. Jampa Choeling Nunnery, Kinnaur: 16 nuns attended
7. Yangchen Choeling Nunnery, Spiti: 16 nuns attended
8. Khachoe Gakhiling Nunnery, Kopan, Nepal: 60 nuns attended
9. Thugke Choeling Nunnery, Nepal: 55 nuns attended
The vast Kagyu Monlam Pavilion provided an excellent space for the nuns to debate all under one roof. The Kagyu Monlam Committee kindly provided the complex free of cost for the nuns’ Jang Gonchoe, only requesting a small thank-you donation for water and electricity consumption. We are extremely grateful for their support.
At the conclusion of the event, the 7 nuns who passed their fourth and final year of Geshema exams in August took part in a formal damcha debate with the assembled nuns.
Following the damcha, there was a Geshema graduation ceremony to conclude the Jang Gonchoe. The graduation of 7 more Geshemas brings the total number of Geshemas to 44.
The 7 nuns who earned their Geshema degree, the highest degree in their tradition, debate with other nuns in a formal session called a damcha at the conclusion of the 2019 Jang Gochoe. With their graduation in November, this brings the total number of women with this highest degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism, to 44.
The practice of debate combines logical thinking with a deeper understanding of Buddhist philosophy and is an essential part of monastic education in the Tibetan tradition. To grasp the importance of Buddhist debate, one might compare it to the significance of essay writing in secondary and post-secondary education. Both methods of learning develop skills in critical thinking, demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the topic, involve structuring and organizing an argument, referencing texts, and gaining different points of view.
During the 2019 Jang Gonchoe, the nuns also debated outdoors in front of the Mahabodhi Temple. The “Great Awakening Temple” marks the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
Until the 1990s, Tibetan Buddhist nuns were excluded from this form and level of education. The Tibetan Nuns Project has worked hard to open up this opportunity for the nuns and make debate a core part of their education.
Establishing a comparable debate session for nuns has been an integral part of the nuns reaching the level of excellence in their studies that they have.
It is only by attending the Jang Gonchoe and getting intensive debating practice that the nuns can advance their knowledge and gain the necessary confidence and experience to pursue higher degrees such as the Geshema degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism.
Let’s Make the Inter-Nunnery Debate Sustainable
The Jang Gonchoe for nuns was started in 1995. Since 1997, the Tibetan Nuns Project has been fully supporting it.
The obstacle to wider attendance at the Jang Gonchoe has always been funding. Sadly, more nuns wish to attend than there is funding available to support them.
We would like to make the nuns’ Jang Gonchoe sustainable. To that end, we have created a Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund so that revenue from the endowment can cover the annual costs.
Our goal is to have $600,000 in the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund.
A generous donor has offered to match every gift to the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund up to a total of $30,000 so you can double the power of your gift here.
The individual costs for each nun are very low. For instance, the food allowance for each nun is 100 rupees a day, equivalent to US$1.46. However, with hundreds of nuns attending for one month, these small costs add up. It now costs about $30,000 a year to fund the event each year.
Congratulations to the 7 new Geshema graduates. At the end of the Jang Gonchoe, they took part in a formal debate and graduation ceremony. The graduation of 7 more Geshemas brings the total number of Geshemas to 44.
By donating to the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund, you would be opening up a centuries-old tradition to the nuns and enabling and empowering them to become great teachers in their own right. The benefit of this is inestimable and will be an enduring legacy for generations to come.
By helping nuns attend the annual Jang Gonchoe, you will also be helping to preserve the Tibetan religion, culture, and language — all of which are under severe threat inside Tibet.
This is a unique opportunity to build capacity and equality for the nuns, to foster the dharma for future generations, and to ensure that this unique tradition continues and grows. Donations to the Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund can be made here. Thank you for helping the nuns!