Tag Archives: Buddhist nun education

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.

What do Tibetan Buddhist nuns study?

We are often asked what the Tibetan Buddhist nuns study.

In addition to providing basic educational requirements, the Tibetan Nuns Project seeks to elevate the educational standards and the position of women within the monastic community. To prepare the nuns for positions of leadership and moral authority in a culture that is going through a very challenging transition, it is essential to combine traditional religious studies with aspects of a modern education.

Tibetan Nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan education, Tibetan culture, what Tibetan Buddhist nuns learn

Nuns at Shugsep Nunnery learning geography. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

A primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to assist nuns in reaching the same level of education as the monks. Each of the four traditions schools of Tibetan Buddhism has its own specific curriculum and degrees attained, but much is shared. All are based on the teachings of the Buddha and the Indian commentaries that developed to explicate them.

Tibetan Nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan education, Tibetan culture, what Tibetan Buddhist nuns learn, Sherab Choeling, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley at an outdoor classroom. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Exactly which commentaries the nuns most closely rely on varies between traditions as do the number of years of study, but there is uniformity as to the basic topics. Thus, all the nuns study:

  • Logic and Epistemology, which provide the basic tools for advanced philosophical study;
  • Perfection of Wisdom for understanding of the Buddhist path;
  • Middle Way for understanding of Buddhist philosophy; and
  • Tantra for the final level of teachings.

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Witness history in the making: Geshema Graduation Ceremony

In one week’s time, twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns will receive their Geshema degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a special Geshema Graduation Ceremony in Mundgod, South India.

Geshema nuns

This historic event will be attended by hundreds of monks and nuns.

Here’s the formal schedule of events:

schedule for Geshema Graduation event

The event will be livestreamed from India and can be viewed on the home page of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Please note the time difference for your region. The event starts at 8 am on December 22 Indian time which is equivalent to 6:30 pm on December 21st Pacific Standard Time.

livestream of the Geshema Graduation Ceremony

Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, OHHDL

If you are unable to watch the livestream of the event, check back to the Tibetan Nuns Project homepage sometime from December 28th onwards and where we’ll have the video embedded.

Our visit to Dorjee Zong Nunnery by Rinchen Khando Choegyal

This is a special report from Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founder and Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project and Tsering Diki, Project Co-Ordinator. The beautiful photos are all by media nun, Delek Yangdron, who accompanied us on the trip.

Dorjee Zong Nunnery low resIn August 2015, we travelled for three days over rough, bumpy roads from Leh in Ladakh to Zanskar, a remote area in northern India. Located in this majestic, arid landscape is Dorjee Zong Nunnery, home to 19 nuns.

It was good to see the nuns and the nunnery once again. Since 2010 the Tibetan Nuns Project has been helping this small nunnery with sponsorship and a teacher’s salary, and it was wonderful to see the assistance we have been providing used to the fullest extent. The nuns are very happy to be receiving support and care from us and their sponsors.
Buddhist nuns, ladakh, Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Tibetan Nuns Project, nuns, sponsor a nun, Dorjee Zong, Buddhist nunnery

During our short visit, the Director gave a warm and personal talk to all of the nuns and we could see how inspired they were and how cared for they felt. This was encouraging and inspiring for those of us who are trying to work for them.nuns, Buddhist nuns, Dorje Zong Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project, sponsor a nun
There are 12 young nuns and 7 elder nuns. The younger nuns looked very bright and happy to be where they are, and we felt energized to help them even more. Our focus will be mainly on education, health care, and overall development, including setting up infrastructure for an education system and facilitating a good educational programme. Continue reading

Life at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti

In the remote Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, lies Sherab Choeling Nunnery, currently home to 42 Tibetan Buddhist nuns, many of whom are sponsored by Tibetan Nuns Project supporters.waterfall in Spiti Valley

group of nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in Spiti

Sherab Choeling nuns in 2006

The nunnery is very secluded and lies in the village of Morang (between Manali and Tabor) at 4,000 meters altitude. It was built in 1995 by 20 nuns and their teacher with the intent of addressing the problem of the inadequate education of women in the region. The nunnery was consecrated in 1995 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama who encouraged the nuns to study. There is a main building, a prayer hall, a classroom, an office, a kitchen and a storeroom. In 2006, Sherab Choeling Nunnery approached the Tibetan Nuns Project to help develop their institution and we accepted them into our sponsorship program.

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208 Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Gather For Debate

On October 4th, 208 Tibetan Buddhist nuns from 8 nunneries in India and Nepal gathered at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute near Dharamsala, India for the start of the month-long Jang Gonchoe debate session.

The nuns have just sent the following photographs showing the start of the event.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns arriving at debate session at Dolma Ling nunnery Oct 2013 Tibetan Nuns Project Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery debate 2013 Tibetan Nuns Project

The nuns have come from the following nunneries:

  • Khachoe Gakyi Ling Nunnery in Nepal
  • Thukje Choling Nunnery in Nepal
  • Nangchoe Teney Nunnery in Kinnaur, northern India
  • Dhongyue Gatseling in Tashi Jong, India
  • Jamyang Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India
  • Jangchub Choeling Nunnery in Mundgod, south India
  • Geden Choeling Nunnery in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India and
  • Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, near Dharamsala, which is the host nunnery for this year’s annual Jang Gonchoe debate session.

This brings the number of nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery to over 450 for this very special month-long event.

opening of Jang Gonchoe debate session

start of Tibetan Buddhist debate session Oct 2013 Tibetan Nuns Project

The chief guest for the Jang Gonchoe is Mr. Pema Chonjor, Kalon (Minister) of the Department of Religion for the Tibetan Government.

Monastic debate is of critical importance in traditional Tibetan Buddhist learning. Through debate, the nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning with the motivation of ending suffering for all sentient beings.

The Jang Gonchoe debate session provides a tremendous opportunity for the nuns to practice this ancient form of learning and for many, it an essential component of working towards their Geshema degree, equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns in debate courtyard with new roof

As you can see from the photos, the debate courtyard at Dolma Ling nunnery is a wonderful space where the nuns can debate year-round, regardless of the weather and the season. The photos clearly show the new metal roof that will protect the nuns from the hot Indian sun, the torrential monsoon rains and the other extreme weather in the region.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is extremely grateful to all our supporters who have helped make this event possible through the funding of scholarships to enable nuns to attend, the funding of the creation of the debate courtyard space and also the funders for the debate courtyard roof.

The former soft-cover roof for the courtyard was destroyed in extreme weather. In order to have a new roof in place in time for the start of this event, the Tibetan Nuns Project took out a loan and rushed to create a permanent metal roof for the courtyard.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling working to build the new roof for the debate courtyard. Tibetan Nuns Project

As with all the construction projects at Dolma Ling Nunnery, such as the retreat huts and the roof of the debate courtyard, the nuns themselves work tirelessly. This is one of many photos showing the nuns working to get the new permanent roof ready for the start of the Jang Gonchoe debate session on October 4th.

We are still seeking support for both scholarships and the roof fund.

Click Here to Donate Now!

To donate you can:

  • Click here to donate online now
  • Call our office in Seattle at (206) 652-8901 10 am to 4 pm, PST weekdays
  • Mail a check to 815 Seattle Boulevard South #216, Seattle, WA 98134
 USA
A Tibetan Buddhist nun helps build roof for debate courtyard at Dolma Ling Nunnery  Tibetan Nuns Project

A Tibetan Buddhist nun helps build roof for debate courtyard at Dolma Ling Nunnery. To complete the project in time for the annual debate event, the Tibetan Nuns Project had to take a loan. We are seeking donations to help with our roof fund.

Background:
The Tibetan Nuns Project was established over 2 decades ago to support a tremendous influx of nuns escaping from Tibet in search of religious and educational freedom. Ranging in age from early teens to mid-80s, they come from all parts of Tibet and from many different backgrounds. Many nuns suffered severely from their long, arduous and often dangerous escape to India. In most cases, the nuns have arrived without money or possessions to a community already struggling to support itself. These women wish nothing more than to live, study, practice, and teach in accordance with their spiritual beliefs.

nuns working on metal roof debate courtyard Tibetan Nuns Project

The debating courtyard needs a roof

One of the final construction projects at Dolma Ling Nunnery located near Dharamsala, India is the creation of a permanent roof for the debate courtyard.

Please help us complete the roof of the debating courtyard at Dolma Ling Nunnery

Please help us complete the roof of the debating courtyard at Dolma Ling Nunnery

Monastic debate is of critical importance in traditional Tibetan Buddhist learning. Through debate, the nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning with the motivation of ending suffering for all sentient beings.

Each year in October, the Tibetan Nuns Project supports a special debating event, called the Jang Gonchoe at which hundreds of nuns from nunneries throughout India and Nepal come together to practice this ancient form of learning. For many, this is an essential component of working towards the Geshema degree, equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism.

To support this core learning activity, we need to build a large covered space where large numbers of nuns can congregate to debate.

The former soft-cover roof for the courtyard was destroyed in extreme weather and we are now seeking funds to create a permanent metal roof for the courtyard so that hundreds of nuns can debate, regardless of the weather and the season. The roof will protect the nuns from the hot Indian sun, the torrential monsoon rains and the other extreme weather in the region.

Click Here to Donate Now!

The building process for the roof is already underway thanks to the generosity of our supporters. The concrete columns and supporting pillars are complete. The Tibetan Nuns Project has taken a loan and is rushing the project ahead in order to have the roof in place in time for the Jang Gonchoe debating session which starts on October 4, 2013.

The total cost of the project is US $65,000.

Please help us finish the roof by contributing to our roof fund.

To donate you can:

  • click here to donate online now
  • call our office in Seattle at (206) 652-8901 any time from 10 am to 4 pm, PST weekdays
  • mail a check to 815 Seattle Boulevard South #216, Seattle, WA 98134
 USA

Tibetan Buddhist nuns debatingBackground:
The Tibetan Nuns Project was established over 2 decades ago to support a tremendous influx of nuns escaping from Tibet in search of religious and educational freedom. Ranging in age from early teens to mid-80s, they come from all parts of Tibet and from many different backgrounds. Many nuns suffered severely from their long, arduous and often dangerous escape to India. In most cases, the nuns have arrived without money or possessions to a community already struggling to support itself. These women wish nothing more than to live, study, practice, and teach in accordance with their spiritual beliefs.