Tag Archives: Buddhist debate

Rejoicing the 2018 Jang Gonchoe and Geshema Graduation

October and November was an extraordinary time. Over 600 nuns came together for the 24th annual Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate. At the conclusion of this month-long educational event, ten nuns more nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees. This blog post shares news and videos of these two special events.

The 2018 Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate

The annual, inter-nunnery debate called the Jang Gonchoe was held at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal from 3 October to 4 November 2018. More than 600 nuns from nine nunneries in India and Nepal attended this powerful educational opportunity.

Monastic debate is the traditional mode of study of the profound texts of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Through debate, the nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning. For many nuns, taking part in the Jang Gonchoe is an essential component of working towards higher academic degrees, such as the Geshema degree, which is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Here’s a video by Tizi Sonam showing the inter-nunnery debate.

Prior to 1995, there was no Jang Gonchoe for nuns, although Tibetan monks have held their Jang Gonchoe for centuries. The chance to have nuns from many nunneries gather and intensively debate with each other is a relatively new opportunity for ordained Buddhist women. The Tibetan Nuns Project has been fully supporting the Jang Gonchoe for nuns since 1997. Next year will be its 25th year.

In 2014, the Tibetan Nuns Project launched a Jang Gonchoe Endowment Fund so that this vital educational opportunity may continue for years to come. Unfortunately, we’re still a long way from reaching our goal for the fund. You can learn more here. 

The fact that so many nuns wanted to attend this year’s event is a testament to both its incredible value as a learning opportunity and the nuns’ growing confidence. In the early years of the Jang Gonchoe, it was difficult to find nuns to participate because they lacked confidence and felt uncomfortable to join in. Now the nuns are eager to take part. They know what an important chance it is for them to gain skills in debating and to help them with their studies.

In past years, the number of nuns who participated in the Jang Gonchoe was also limited by the ability of the host nunnery to accommodate and feed visiting nuns from other nunneries. However, Kopan Nunnery is a large nunnery and had the facilities and capacity to house many nuns, so many more nuns were able to attend this year. We are extremely grateful to our supporters, including the Pema Chödrön Foundation and the Rowell Fund for Tibet/ICT, whose generosity enabled so many nuns to take part by helping with their food and travel costs.

The 9 nunneries that took part this year were:

  1. Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, near Dharamsala, India (min. 35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  2. Geden Choeling Nunnery,Dharamsala, India (min. 35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  3. Jamyang Choeling Nunnery, Dharamsala, India (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  4. Thujee Choeling Nunnery, South India (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  5. Kopan Nunnery, host nunnery, Nepal
  6. Jangchup Choeling, Nepal (35 nuns and 2 teachers)
  7. Jangsemling Nunnery, Kinnaur, India (24 nuns and 1 teacher)
  8. Jampa Choeling Nunnery, Kinnaur, India (16 nuns and 1 teacher)
  9. Yangchen Choeling Nunnery, Spiti, India (14 nuns and 1 teacher)

The Geshema Exams and Graduation

From August 15-26 2018, 44 Tibetan Buddhist nuns sat various levels of their four-year Geshema exams. These rigorous written and oral (debate) exams were held at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Here are the results of the exams:
Fourth and final year exams: 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 did not pass will have the option to re-sit their exams next year if they wish.

At the conclusion of this year’s Jang Gonchoe, held at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal, the ten nuns who passed their fourth and final Geshema exams in August took part in a formal debate process called damcha.

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Nuns line up to debate with the Geshemas in the damcha. This joyous and inspiring event was held for two days on November 3rd and 4th and was the final formal step in the Geshema graduation process. Photo courtesy of Tizi Sonam

The 2018 Geshema Graduation Ceremony was held on November 5th at Kopan Nunnery with teachers and about 600 nuns from at least 9 nunneries in India and Nepal in attendance.

Here’s a video made by Tizi Sonam of the 2018 Geshema graduation ceremony at Kopan Nunnery. 

The graduation this year of ten more Geshemas brings the total number of nuns with this degree to 37, including the German-born nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who was the first-ever Geshema.

This 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 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 Impact of Your Support of the Nuns

The impact of your support goes far beyond providing funding to cover food and travel so the nuns could take their exams and attend the inter-nunnery debate. We are deeply grateful to all our donors for helping nuns receive the same opportunities for deep study and practice as monks have always had and for supporting these devoted women to become teachers and to contribute to their communities.

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Ten new Geshemas surrounded by Tibetan Buddhist nuns on the steps of Kopan Nunnery in Nepal, following the Geshema graduation ceremony on November 5 2018. Photo courtesy of Tizi Sonam

By furthering the education of hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist nuns, you are also helping to foster the dharma for future generations and to preserve Tibet’s rich religion and culture at a time when it is seriously under threat.

By helping to further educational opportunities like the inter-nunnery debate, you are encouraging more intense study and practice, increasing the nuns’ knowledge and confidence, and empowering these dedicated women to become great teachers in their own right. Thank you!

The 2015 Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate in Dharamsala

The 2015 Great Winter Debate Event, also known as the Jang Gonchoe, took place at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India and started on October 3rd. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this special annual event.

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Nuns gather for a formal debate presentation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on October 31. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, OHHDL

This year 359 nuns from 7 nunneries in India and Nepal took part in the month-long debates, with the event fully funded by the Tibetan Nuns Project. The $100 scholarships given by Tibetan Nuns Project donors cover costs such as transportation, food and accommodation. Continue reading

Nuns at annual Jang Gonchoe debate session give presentation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama

On October 31 nuns from seven nunneries who were taking part in the annual inter-nunnery debate, the Jang Gonchoe, gathered at the main temple in Dharamsala and gave a special debate presentation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.Tibetan Nuns, Buddhist nuns, debate, Buddhist Tibet, Dalai Lama, Dharamsala, Tibetan Nuns Project

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the nuns’ Jang Gonchoe debate session. Prior to 1995 the Jang Gonchoe was open only to monks, but now Tibetan Buddhist nuns are building their own strong tradition of debate.

According to a report on the event on the Dalai Lama’s website, His Holiness addressed the nuns and congratulated them twice, noting that there are nuns who have almost completed their study of Buddhist philosophy and who will take their final exams to qualify as Geshemas next year. The Geshema degree is the equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist studies.

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His Holiness the Dalai Lama addressing nuns gathered for the annual debate session. Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL

His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke at some length about the importance of reason and understanding in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He told the nuns, “This is the 21st century and we need to understand the Buddha’s teachings in the light of reason. When we teach, we need to do so on the basis of reason. I’ve met followers of the Pali tradition, monks from Thailand who are scrupulous in their observance of Vinaya [the monastic rules for monks and nuns]. I asked them whether they explain the Four Noble Truths according to reason or citing scriptural authority. They answered that they rely on the authority of scripture.” Continue reading

His Holiness the Dalai Lama Addresses Nuns After the Great Winter Debate Session

Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, India  3 November 2013
Report from the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

This morning His Holiness the Dalai Lama met briefly with nuns from eight nunneries who for the last month have been taking part in the Jang Gonchoe, the Great Winter Debate, held this year at Dolma Ling Nunnery. He began:

“You’ve all been engaged in debate based on Dharmakirti’s ‘Commentary on Epistemology’ (Pramanavarttika), What did you learn from each other?”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama addresses the nuns after debate session Nov 3 2013

His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaking encouragingly to nuns from several nunneries who had taken part in the just concluded annual winter debate session during their meeting at the Main Tibetan Temple in Dharamsala, India on November 3, 2013. (Photo by Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL)

He said that there are reports that at one time in Tibet there was a tradition of nuns studying the classic Buddhist texts, which eventually lapsed. This has changed. He cited nuns from Kopan in Nepal last year defying the Tibetan joke about nuns being proud of having memorized the Samantabhadra prayer when they memorized not only Chandrakirti’s ‘Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s) Treatise on the Middle Way’ (Madhyamakavatara) and Maitreya’s ‘Ornament for Clear Realization’ (Abhisamayalankara), but also Haribadra’s commentary ‘Clear Meaning’ (Sputartha), which His Holiness admitted was even more than he had done.

As to how a revival of nuns studying the classic texts has come about, His Holiness referred to the description of Tibet as a Central Land. This does not have any bearing on its geographical location, but on the existence of a complete Sangha, the fourfold Buddhist community, monks, nuns and male and female laypeople holding vows.

Referring to the as yet unresolved question of instituting the bhikshuni ordination in the Tibetan tradition, His Holiness said:

“Some people have complained about this, because a conclusion has not yet been reached. But this is not something that can be decided by me alone. The Buddha laid down rules and procedures that a single monk cannot decide to change. It requires a consensus within the monastic community. We have held meetings and discussions amongst ourselves and with other communities such as the excellent upholders of the Vinaya (monastic discipline) in the Pali tradition.

“In Tibet we follow the Mulasarvastivadin tradition of Vinaya established by Shantarakshita, a tradition that comes down from Rahula, the Buddha’s own son. This is the tradition we have carefully preserved that differs only superficially from the Theravada Vinaya observed in the Pali Tradition. When Atisha came to Tibet, out of respect for the already established Mulasarvastivadin tradition, he said there was no point in his trying to propagate the Lokattaravada tradition that he followed himself.”

His Holiness stressed that observing vinaya purely is of fundamental importance. The Mulasarvastivadin texts suggest that senior bhikshunis need to preside over a bhikshuni ordination and suggest that it is not proper for bhikshus alone to preside over such a ceremony. Therefore, if bhikshus alone were to conduct such a ceremony it is not clear that it would be flawless. This is the impasse which is yet to be answered. His Holiness mentioned a Chinese vinaya master, who is no longer alive, who advised that while doubts exist, efforts should be made to resolve them. What still needs to be decided is whether a bhikshuni ordination ceremony can be conducted according to the Mulasarvastivadin rite with or without the presence of senior bhikshunis.

“Some people have criticized me, calling me a ‘male chauvinist’, because I am not exercising my alleged authority. But I cannot decide this on my own. However, what I can do is to encourage nuns to study the classic texts. Biologically there is no difference between the brains of men and women and the Buddha clearly gave equal rights to men and women. In tantra women are accorded special respect. And yet when it comes to vinaya we have to follow tradition.”

His Holiness reiterated that nuns have an equal right to study, which is why almost 40 years ago he encouraged nuns to embark on the study of philosophy. They began at Geden Choeling and this has since become the norm in other nunneries.

“I have witnessed nuns debating,” he said, “and they do very well. We have finally decided on holding Geshema exams for nuns, which is a proper conclusion of their years of study. When we first discussed a Geshema degree, some scholars expressed surprise, but we persisted. This is about education and the gaining of knowledge.

“In the past, masters like Gyen Pema Gyaltsen studied for 30 or 40 years before taking their Geshe exams. These days it generally takes about 20 years. I made a request that nuns be able to study the philosophical texts, you have done it and I’d like to thank you.”

He clarified that the Buddha’s teaching comprises realization as well as knowledge, so it is important to follow a course of practice as well as a course of study. This is how the Dharma is preserved. Study is necessary to achieve understanding and practice is necessary to achieve realization. Practice can only take place on the basis of understanding. His Holiness talked about people he has met who said they were Buddhists, who said that to be a Buddhist you have to take refuge in the Buddha, but who could not say what the Buddha is.

He said that many of us aspire to become a Buddha, but if we do not understand the path, we cannot reach the goal. We may have Buddha nature, but we need to understand emptiness to realize it. We may be full of negative emotions to start with, but we can free ourselves of them. Where there is knowledge there is no place for blind faith. We cannot practise the Dharma on the basis of faith alone. We need not only knowledge, but understanding too.

“We study the Three Collections of Scripture to learn about the three trainings in ethics, concentration and wisdom. Once we have studied we need to gain experience through practice. It’s not enough to say I’ve read or I’ve heard that it’s good if you practise the Three Trainings. You need to be able to teach on the basis of your own experience. Because of our emphasis on study, people can get carried away by debate without giving much thought to practice. This is why I have requested the monasteries to establish places where monks can go into retreat. If we study the Perfection of Wisdom texts we’ll find in them exhortations to engage in practice.

“The Dharma is at a critical juncture. You might think that it would be good to spend the rest of your life as a hermit, but we also need qualified people to teach others. Once you complete your studies we need some of you nuns to teach. Until now you have relied on monks to teach you, but in future it will be very important that there are also nuns to teach nuns. More than that, we also need nuns to teach in our secular schools. In the past, because they had not studied themselves, parents were unable to teach their children the Dharma. Therefore, I request you, after your studies consider going into retreat, and after that resolve to teach others. That’s all – thank you.”

His Holiness posed for photographs with groups of nuns and with all of them together before returning to his residence.