Tag Archives: Dolma Ling Nunnery

Life at Tibetan Buddhist Nunneries During COVID-19 Pandemic

Here’s our monthly update on life at some Tibetan Buddhist nunneries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tibetan Nuns Project supports seven nunneries in northern India.

This month, India reported a surge in COVID-19 cases even as the nationwide lockdown eased. India now has the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world. Hospitals are swamped in the worst-hit cities of Mumbai, New Delhi, and Chennai. Experts predict that the infection rate in India will continue to rise through July. On June 19, a new lockdown will go into effect for the 15 million people in Chennai.

This is worrying news for the tens of thousands of Tibetans refugees who live in India. The Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala has issued special guidelines for nunneries and monasteries.

The nuns are doing their best to adhere to physical distancing, the use of face masks in public spaces, hand and respiratory hygiene, and environmental sanitation.

Health checks for Tibetan Buddhist nuns during coronavirus pandemic

Tibetan Buddhist nuns get their temperatures checked during health checks at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Geshema Exams Postponed

Each year, the nuns sitting various levels of the four-year Geshema examinations gather together for one month of final exam preparations and then for about 12 days of exams.

The Geshema exams, normally held each August, are being tentatively postponed to October 1. This year’s venue for the Geshema exams will be Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.

Nuns often travel long distances to take the exams, such as from Nepal and South India. With the number of COVID-19 cases in India rising and with stricter travel rules from Nepal, the committee decided to postpone the exams to lessen the risk of infection. Last year, all 50 nuns took who took Geshema exams passed.

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

The nunnery is closed until the end of June. The nuns are still not getting together in groups so there are no classes, pujas etc. In lieu of face-to-face classes, some philosophy teachers are recording their lessons using an mp3 player and sharing the files with their students.

Each year, during the holy month of Saga Dawa, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute read the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon or Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha.

Saga Dawa Tibetan Buddhist nuns reading Kangyur 2020

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling maintain physical distance while reading the Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha. Photos courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

After finishing the reading the Kangyur texts, the nuns had a two-day break with free time to themselves.

COVID-life Dolma Ling, Two Tibetan Buddhist nuns wearing masks

COVID life at Dolma Ling. Thank you for helping to support the nuns during this difficult period.

Shugsep Nunnery and Institute

The nuns at Shugsep have been organizing a few classes each day and have now decided to follow their normal schedule. They are once again performing pujas or prayers, so if you have a puja request you can make it here.

The Shugsep Khenpo and the senior nuns who were in Bylakupee, South India, have returned safely to the nunnery and are currently in two weeks of quarantine.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery

According to the latest news, all the nuns at Sherab Choeling nunnery are safe and well. To mark Saga Dawa, the nuns read special puja texts including:

– Yum Puthi Chunyi (a full reading of all the 12 volumes of the Perfection of Wisdom in the Kangyur, the 108-volume set of the words of the Buddha)
– Dolma (the Tara puja)
Dukkar Tsezung for all sentient beings (This a long-life ritual focused on Sitapatrā, Goddess with the White Umbrella, who appears from the Buddha’s uṣṇīṣa.)
– Reading pages from each Kangyur book (Called shal chad, this is the “opening and partial reading of the entire canon. To read it all would take too long so each volume is opened and a bit of it read.)

Sherab Choeling Nunnery, Saga Dawa

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery marked the holy month of Saga Dawa with prayers, the lighting of butter lamps, fasting, and vows.

During the holy month of Saga Dawa, the nuns also received puja requests from villagers for their late family members and for their own well being. The nuns also offered Menla, the Medicine Buddha ritual as requested by many people. Most of the nuns fasted during the entire month, taking no meals after lunch. On the 15th of the holy month, they took Thekchen Sojung, the eight Mahāyāna vows.

Earlier Updates on Life at Tibetan Nunneries During the Pandemic

Since March, we’ve been providing regular updates on life at some Tibetan nunneries in India during the coronavirus pandemic. Each update has photos and news from some or all of the seven nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. Here’s a list of earlier updates:

April Update: Tibetan Buddhist Nunneries During COVID-19

On Tuesday, India extended the COVID-19 lockdown for 19 days to May 3rd. Here’s an update on the situation at some of the Tibetan Buddhist nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project.

So far we’ve received updates from 4 of the 7 nunneries we support. Earlier this month we reported on Dolma Ling and Shugsep nunneries. We’ll continue to update this blog post as new information arrives.

Tibetan Buddhist nunnery under coronavirus lockdown, COVID-19

Nuns wear face masks at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. On Tuesday, the Indian Prime Minister extended the initial 21-day COVID-19 lockdown for 19 days to May 4. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Sakya College for Nuns

The nuns wanted to send this special message to donors and sponsors. Venerable Dechen Wangmo wrote, “I hope all our kind sponsors are well and keeping themselves safe. We pray for all in the world and our dear sponsors and supporters. Our deep prayers to all!”

The nuns began taking precautionary measures well before coronavirus cases were found in India. From January onwards, the nuns cancelled outings from the nunneries. Nuns left only to consult physicians or for urgent personal reasons. Otherwise, a select group of nuns is assigned to purchase essentials such as vegetables, cooking gas cylinders, other rations and gas for the generators.

The nuns who do these tasks are very cautious when they go out. They wear face masks and use sanitizer. When they return to the nunnery, instead of going to their rooms, they go straight to the washroom to change their clothes and soak their clothing in detergent mixed with Dettol.

The nuns have been refraining from getting together in large numbers. They have cancelled assembly, pujas, debating practice, and all classes except for philosophy.

The Sakya nuns manage their philosophy class in a special way. Each day, one student from each class is allowed to go to class and record everything said by the teacher. This recording is then shared with the other nuns who listen to it in their rooms.

Tibetan Buddhist nun at Sakya College for Nuns 2017 low res

The nuns are studying are on their own in their rooms. Each day they get a recording of the philosophy class. Photo of a Sakya nun studying in her room from 2017.

The nuns are being given hot black tea, honey-ginger-lemon tea, and warm water to keep themselves well hydrated.

Sherab Choeling Nunnery

Sherab Choeling is a remote nunnery in the Spiti Valley, an arid mountain valley located high in the Himalaya mountains in the north-eastern part of Himachal Pradesh. All 62 nuns are doing fine as of April 13th.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns from Sherab Choeling Nunnery

Of the 62 Sherab Choeling nuns, around 18 nuns remained at the nunnery in Spiti, while 44 nuns travelled to Hamirpur in mid-February so that they could continue their philosophy classes. The 18 nuns are the young ones getting primary education plus some senior nuns.

As we reported in the 2019 Newsletter, the nuns are grateful for their two philosophy teachers. One has been teaching them for 14 years, enduring the extreme weather of the Spiti Valley far from his monastery in south India.

This year the teachers were told to return to their monasteries unless they had a permit to stay. The head nun asked the government office in Kinnaur for permits, but no permits are being issued now because of the coronavirus scare.

She discussed the situation with the committee and the philosophy teachers and decided they would move to Hamirpur so that the nuns could continue with classes. In mid-February, 44 nuns and their 2 philosophy teachers moved to Hamirpur, about three hours drive from Dharamsala. They are staying in a three-story Spiti Hostel building. The nuns were able to continue their classes through March 2nd, but since then they have been cancelled to comply with health regulations.

COVID-19 lockdown, Spiti

In mid-February, 44 nuns and their 2 philosophy teachers moved to the Spiti Hostel in Hamirpur so that they could continue their philosophy classes. Unfortunately, from March 2nd, due to the coronavirus lockdown and health precautions, the nuns can no longer assemble in groups.

Other than the problems with permits and classes, staying outside Spiti has not been difficult. The nuns were able to stock up on rations before the lockdown. They are also able to get vegetables whenever they need. Back at Sherab Choeling, around 18 nuns remain, some senior nuns and the young nuns receiving primary education.

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

Like other nunneries, Dolma Ling took many precautions for the COVID-19 early on. As we reported earlier, since the first week of February, the nunnery has been closed to visitors. Before the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, Dolma Ling and Shugsep nunneries bought a month’s worth of rations.

fields and Dhauladhar range above Dolma Ling Nunnery

Wheatfields and the Dhauladhar range above Dolma Ling Nunnery. As air pollution levels in India have dropped during the COVID-19 lockdown, many people are seeing these mountains for the first time in 30 years. The name Dhauladhar means “the white range”.

Since the India lockdown began on March 2nd, entry to the nunnery is even stricter. Under the lockdown, the use of vehicles has stopped. However,  both Dolma Ling and Shugsep received special government permits allowing the nuns to use the truck to get supplies. Once the nuns return with rations such as vegetables and cooking fuel, people and goods are disinfected as much as possible before they enter the nunnery grounds.

Tibetan Buddhist nun coronavirus lockdown update, COVID-19 lockdown

The nuns are doing their best to practice social distancing. Nuns continue to study on their own in their rooms or at safe distances outdoors. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

At Dolma Ling, classes, pujas, and other group activities are cancelled to lessen the risk of infection. The nuns study on their own and do chores such as cleaning, laundry, caring for the cows, and making tofu.

social distancing coronavirus Tibetan Buddhist nun

A Tibetan Buddhist nun sits alone on the verandah to eat. The nuns no longer gather in the dining hall but bring their dishes to the courtyard to collect food and then sit apart to eat it. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns do laundry

Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling do laundry in the spring that flows in channels through the top of the nunnery grounds. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Sponsors Needed

Sadly, some sponsors of nuns have had to stop their sponsorships because of the economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This means that quite a few nuns need sponsors.

It costs just $1 a day to sponsor a nun and help provide the basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, and education. If you can sponsor a nun, please click here.

Sponsor a Tibetan Buddhist nun in Inda

Keeping the nunneries strong and healthy

It takes a lot of work to maintain the nunneries that we support.  In 2019, a long list of maintenance and repair projects were completed at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

On behalf of the over 240 nuns at Dolma Ling, thank you to everyone who gives to the Maintenance Fund.

carpentry work to maintain Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, Dolma Ling maintenance projects

Suresh, the longtime carpenter at Dolma Ling, hard at work fixing damaged windows.

On seeing the list of completed projects, one supporter wrote:

“From a homeowner’s perspective, for the small cost, so much was accomplished. The volume of the work impresses me and for such a small annual investment. It is work focused on sustainability, environmental effects and impact, and living harmoniously with the Earth. Yay!”

We hope this report conveys the enormous impact of your gifts to keep Dolma Ling a strong and healthy place for the nuns to live and study.

Here’s a list of 36 Dolma Ling maintenance projects that were completed in 2019 thanks to your generosity.

Carpentry Work

Suresh, the longtime carpenter at Dolma Ling, completed the following projects in 2019:

  1. Fixed leaks in the slate roof before the monsoon rains began.
  2. Repaired various damaged windows.
  3. Put up protective splash covers on the outside doors of His Holiness’ suite on the top floor of the temple building.
  4. Made 6 bulletin boards for the housing blocks so that the nuns do not have to tape notices on the walls, spoiling the paintwork.
  5. Cleaned the café gutters and checked the café roof.
before and after leak repair

before and after leak repair Dolma Ling 2019

Roofing, Repair, and Maintenance Work

  1. Extensive repairs were made to the multiple bathroom blocks at Dolma Ling, including to the floors, pipes, and to the windows and doors which were damaged by water. The toilet and bathroom areas were, in some cases, 20 years old because the nunnery was built in stages. Many of the water pipes were corroded and needed replacing. Urgent action was needed to prevent further degeneration of the building structure.
  2. Filled holes and gaps in the stone and slate paving throughout the nunnery complex.
  3. Cemented the area in front of the septic tank to help with drainage.
  4. Repaired the slate flooring in the nuns’ bathhouse and the stairs of the teachers’ housing block.
  5. Cleared and filled holes in gardens and courtyards and improved drainage.
  6. To prevent dampness in the nunnery guesthouse and to facilitate drainage, workers dug a two-foot ventilation gap between the back wall of the building and the land behind it. This was money well spent as the condition of the ground floor of the building is very much improved. The building is to be painted this winter.
  7. Created steps and filled in the guesthouse garden.
  8. Built a clothes-washing area for the nuns by installing half-round concrete pipes into the water channel. This was carried out efficiently and with the least disruption to the nuns’ washing area.
  9. A tree was removed which was dripping water onto the windowsill of a nun’s room making it constantly damp inside.
  10. Painted the doors of the tofu-making building.
  11. Replaced the valves in the pump house.
  12. Tested the water from the bore well and the water filtration system. The water was found to be clear of coliforms and heavy metals but has a large amount of iron and some turbidity which will need to be filtered out.
  13. Built an overhead water tank stand. This is part of a larger project to pipe water from the bore well in the front garden to an overhead tank from which it will be filtered and fed to the kitchen, dining hall, and to the shed where there is a water boiler which the nuns use to fill their thermos flasks for their rooms.
  14. Started work on the repair and cleaning of the solar panels. The nuns need to remove all deposits that have collected inside the solar collectors, replace leaky valves, and check and clean all the panels and piping regularly to keep the system running. The bulk of the work has been done on all three solar units but has revealed some problems that will need to be fixed in 2020.
  15. Painted large sections of the nunnery including three of the six housing wings, the dining hall, and the courtyard external faces of the corridors, dining building, and the temple.
  16. Hung curtains in the prayer hall. There have been recent cases of thefts in temples because thieves get tempted by seeing images and ritual items through the clear windows of the hall.
painting the Tibetan nunnery

Regular re-painting of the Nunnery buildings is essential. Since the construction of the first wings at Dolma Ling, over 20 years ago, we have made efforts to re-paint the buildings in rotation every three years. However, the last time the first three nunnery wings were painted was in 2015 so a good deal of repair work was also overdue, especially in the bathrooms.

Blacksmith Work

  1. Three ventilating skylights were added to the bathhouse to prevent the build-up of humidity within the building. These have been very simply made and installed and are very effective.
  2. The blacksmith who put the guttering on the retreat huts also installed guttering and downpipes to stop water damage down the sides of the building.
  3. Put up fencing and a gate on the ground floor of the senior teachers’ house to prevent staff children from falling.
  4. At the nuns’ request, four small gates were added to the entrances of the staff and teachers’ residences and an office, to prevent stray dogs from taking refuge inside the buildings.

bathroom repairs Dolma Ling maintenance 2019

Protecting the Retreat Huts from Monsoon Rains

The eight retreat huts built and inaugurated in 2014 are now occupied by nuns in retreat and by the newly qualified Geshemas.

During the summer of 2017, the nuns noticed that water was flooding through the land during heavy monsoon downpours and causing problems inside the huts and to the access paths, as well as water logging parts of the gardens.

drainage work for retreat huts at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute 2019

The eight retreat huts, completed several years ago thanks to generous donors, are occupied by nuns in retreat and by the newly qualified Geshemas. Drainage work was needed to prevent flooding during the monsoon.

The following work to fix the retreat huts was done between June and October 2019:

  1. Drains were dug and lined to ensure that water flows efficiently into the main drain behind the huts.
  2. The guttering was installed on all 8 huts so that the water from the roofs does not splash back against the walls.
  3. Each hut has two downpipes on opposite corners of the building, which takes water efficiently into the drain.
  4. The drainage system has been made to accommodate the water from the downpipes.

We are confident that these arrangements will be effective in channeling the monsoon rainwater away from the buildings. This will reduce dampness and make the retreat huts more comfortable and healthier for the occupants.

work to prevent dampness in Dolma Ling guesthouse copy

The nunnery guesthouse is an income-generating project for the nunnery where visitors can come and stay. To prevent dampness in the guesthouse and to facilitate drainage, workers dug a two-foot ventilation gap between the back wall of the building and the land behind it. This was money well spent as the condition of the ground floor of the building is very much improved. The building will be painted this winter and will have a new lease on life.

Masonry Work

A mason named Bablu and his assistants were hired to carry out the general repair work required including:

  1. Filled holes in the paving.
  2. Re-set the levels on the septic tank in front of the café to enable water to drain better.
  3. Repaired the slate flooring on the teachers’ house stairs and in the bathhouse.
  4. Built a low stone wall in the garden between the office and the teachers’ house to improve the possibility of creating a nice garden for the rose trees which are planted in that area.
  5. Created a drain at the bottom of the kitchen stairs to help remove excess water that collects there.
  6. Tiled the torma room floor. The nuns decided to make new surfaces on which they make tormas out of black granite and also requested that the floor be tiled so that it could be kept as clean as possible, befitting the room in which these special ritual offering cakes are made.
  7. Tiled the wall in the dining room behind the serving table. The wall was badly marked and is much easier to keep clean now that it is tiled.

Work to be Done in 2020

Dolma Ling is a bit like a university campus, with many buildings, housing blocks, and systems. In the harsh climate and heavy monsoons of northern India, there is always work to be done to keep the nunnery complex strong, safe, and healthy.

For this reason, the Tibetan Nuns Project fundraises each year for the Maintenance Fund.

Here are just a few of the projects to be done in 2020:

  1. Fix the café roof with bituminized surfacing.
  2. Stop the dripping from the overhead pipes in the debate courtyard.
  3. Paint the guesthouse, the clinic, and the lower teachers’ house, all of which are urgently in need of doing as they have not been painted since 2015.

Science Fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

In November 2019, a group of nuns held a science fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The nuns chose topics such as the water cycle, environmental issues, the solar system, and the human digestive system. Since clean drinking water is an important issue, some nuns conducted simple experiments of home-made water filters.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in Dolma Ling science fair

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in Dolma Ling science fair

The science fair was held in the main courtyard of the nunnery and was organized with the help of the nuns’ English teacher, Mr. Tenzin Norgay.

Tibetan Buddhist nun explains science fair poster

A Tibetan Buddhist nun explains her science fair poster on the human digestive system to her sister nuns. The science fair also gave the nuns a chance to practice their English and public speaking skills and helped them build confidence.

“It was an extremely beautiful and thoughtful exhibition,” said Tsering Diki, manager of the Tibetan Nuns Project office which is based at the nunnery.

The posters and displays were written in English and the event was an excellent example of inter-disciplinary learning because the nuns used their English skills to express scientific ideas.

Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute science fair 2019

The science fair was held in the main courtyard of the nunnery and was organized with the help of the nuns’ English teacher, Mr. Tenzin Norgay.

The nuns’ science fair was held by the Lorig class, which is a junior class at the nunnery. Many of the senior nuns were in Bodh Gaya for the month-long inter-nunnery debate, called the Jang Gonchoe.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns take part in science fair

Tibetan Buddhist nuns in the courtyard at Dolma Ling review the science posters and displays.

The science fair offered the nuns many learning opportunities and integrated many subjects into one project, such as English reading and writing, critical thinking, problem-solving, graphic arts, and public speaking.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns science fair at Dolma Ling 2019

The science fair at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute helped the nuns learn both science and English, as well as research and presentation skills.

It was a fun chance for the nuns to gain confidence in speaking. It makes science relevant by allowing students to conduct research and experiments based on their own interests.

Nuns presenting science posters at Dolma Ling science fair

Nuns presenting science posters at Dolma Ling science fair

As the photos show, the nuns created scientific posters, models, and dioramas to convey their various topics. The bright, engaging posters also show the creative use of recycled materials.

solar system projects at Tibetan Buddhist nuns science fair

For the science fair, the nuns chose topics of interest to them such as the solar system, the human digestive system, the water cycle, and environmental issues such as clean water.

The nuns presented their posters and displays to the group. Tsering said, “Visually seeing things when being explained makes a bigger impact on our memory as well.”

Water filtration project at Dolma Ling Science Fair

Clean drinking water is an important issue for health. As part of the science fair, nuns conducted simple experiments of home-made water filters.

Every year since 2014, nuns from Dolma Ling take part in the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a four-week program held at Drepung Loseling Monastery in South India. During the event, Tibetan nuns and monks are taught the philosophy of science, physics, neuroscience, and biology. The course is presented by faculty members from Emory and other distinguished universities with assistance from the Tenzin Gyatso Science Scholars.

Students attend classes for six hours a day and are tested on the last day of each course. Classes consist of lectures, discussions, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments. In 2018, eight nuns from Dolma Ling attended.

Thank you to everyone who has supported our Teachers’ Salaries fund!

Human digestive system display by nuns

This display of the human digestive system shows the creative use of recycled materials.

Historic accomplishment as Geshemas hired to teach nuns

Two nuns with Geshema degrees have been hired to teach Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Tenzin Kunsel, Dolma Ling nunnery, nun from Tibet, Geshema, 2019 Message

You’re making dreams come true! Geshema Tenzin Kunsel always dreamed of getting an education and
becoming a teacher. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

This is an important milestone for the nuns. For the first time, Tibetan Buddhist nuns are being taught these topics by other nuns, rather than by monks.

Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks.

One of the goals of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to elevate the educational standards and the position of women. To this end, the project created a groundbreaking education system aimed at both preserving Tibetan culture and equipping and empowering the nuns to live and become leaders in the modern world.

The two Geshemas hired this spring as teachers are Geshema Tenzin Kunsel (right) and Geshema Delek Wangmo.

The Geshema degree, which is equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, is the culmination of at least 17 years of study.

The Geshema degree was only opened up to the nuns in 2012. Now there are 37 Geshemas and these dedicated women are a beacon of inspiration to all the other nuns.

The two Geshema teachers endured a lot to reach this historic status. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel had to leave school in Tibet at age 12. (She tells her story in a video interview.) Geshema Delek Wangmo (below) was illiterate when she arrived in India after escaping from Tibet.

Delek Wangmo, Geshema, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project

Your support in action. Delek Wangmo could barely read when she escaped from Tibet. Now she holds the Geshema degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Like the other nuns from Tibet, they risked their lives to escape to India for the chance to freely practice their religion.

After graduating as Geshemas, both nuns completed further studies in Tantric Buddhism. This groundbreaking program launched in 2017 for the nuns has enabled the graduates to become fully qualified teachers of their complete tradition.

Until now, Tibetan nuns never had the opportunity to be educated at this high level.

We thank His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his support. We are also very grateful to our global family of supporters for helping to educate, feed, clothe, and house the nuns.

Here is a list of projects we’re working on now and that need funding.

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week

The first full week of May is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, so we’re taking this opportunity to celebrate the teachers at Tibetan Buddhist nunneries. Springtime is also the start of a new academic year at the nunneries in India so it’s a fitting time to honor the teachers who educate the nuns.

“Educating women is powerful,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor for the Tibetan Nuns Project.

“It’s not just about books. It is also about helping nuns acquire the skills they need to run their own institutions and create models for future success and expansion. It’s about enabling the nuns to be teachers in their own right and to take on leadership roles at a critical time in our nation’s history.”

teacher appreciation, Dolma Ling Nunnery, Tibetan Nuns Project, education of women, Tibetan nuns

A monk teaches Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. As more nuns take the highest degrees in their traditions, such as the Geshema degree, they will be qualified to teach. 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.

Because historically nuns have not had access to formal education, very few nuns are qualified to teach. The good news is that the situation is now changing. More nuns are receiving the highest degrees in their traditions.

Who Teaches the Nuns

One of our ongoing tasks is the recruitment of qualified teachers for the various nunneries that we support.

The teachers we employ in the seven nunneries we support are both monastic and lay. Monks (often Geshes and Khenpos) from the large monasteries and training institutes of the various Buddhist traditions teach Buddhist philosophy and debate.

March 2019 marked a big milestone. Two nuns with Geshema degrees were hired to teach Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. For the first time, nuns are being taught these topics by other nuns, rather than by monks. This achievement would not have been possible without the global family of supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

teacher appreciation, Delek Wangmo, Geshema, Tibetan Nuns Project, educating women

Photo of Delek Wangmo and other senior nuns in 2013 by Brian Harris. When she escaped from Tibet she could barely read. Now she is one of two Geshemas hired in March 2019 to teach at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

English is taught in the nunneries by lay women and men educated in the Indian university system. For the Tibetan language, we employ mostly young women and men who have come from Tibet in recent years. Recent refugees often have stronger Tibetan-language skills than their Indian-raised counterparts. Once they have completed a teacher-training course at nearby Sarah Institute, a branch of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, we and many other institutions in the exile community hire them to teach Tibetan language, literature, and grammar.

teacher appreciation, Geden Choeling Nunnery, education of women, Tibetan nuns

Teaching a Tibetan class at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Supporting the Nuns’ Teachers

The ultimate goal is to empower the nuns to become teachers and leaders in their own right and to help preserve Tibet’s unique culture and religion.

In addition to funding the salaries for teachers at the seven nunneries directly supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, each year we fund the salaries at a number of small nunneries in remote regions.

The annual cost of one teacher’s salary ranges from $1,500 to $5,000, depending on the location of the nunnery and the skills of the teacher, so the total annual budget for this program is approximately $40,000. We are very grateful to all those people who support our Teachers’ Salaries Fund.

What Do the Nuns Study

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.

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

At most nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, courses are also offered in Tibetan language, English, and computer skills, as well as in ritual arts such as sand mandalas and butter sculpture. The smaller nunneries in more remote areas are at earlier stages in the educational process.

teacher appreciation, Shugsep Nunnery, education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A lay teacher at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute teaches geography to the nuns. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

The Power of Educating the Nuns

Before the Chinese takeover of Tibet, there were at least 818 nunneries and nearly 28,000 nuns living in Tibet.

In an attempt to eliminate Buddhism in Tibet, more than 6,000 nunneries and monasteries were destroyed between 1959 and 1980. Monks and nuns in great numbers were imprisoned, tortured, and forced to give up the ordained way of life. Teaching, study, and prayer were strictly prohibited, and religious texts and objects were demolished.

Before the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded in 1987, there wasn’t much education for Tibetan nuns, either in exile or inside Tibet. “Even when Tibet was free, nuns didn’t have much of an education,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal. “Of course, we had wonderful nunneries in Tibet, beautiful ones where the nuns were supported by their family members and treated very well, but mostly what the nuns did was spend their time in praying and meditating.”

“I must say that some nuns were very highly realized meditators, but in the sense of education that you and I know of today, they had none,” she said. “Which is why we are so happy that we have been able to make it possible in exile.”

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun reads and writes in Tibetan. Most nuns arriving in India had been denied basic educational opportunities in Tibet, including education in their own Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhist religious heritage. The majority of nuns arrived in India illiterate and unable to write their own names. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

“The protection of Tibetan language and its culture is not only about Tibetans in Tibet,” says Karma Tenzin, a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. “A proper access to the rich and profound Buddhist philosophy and epistemology is possible only through Tibetan language.”

About Tibetan butter sculptures

The highly revered artistic tradition of making Tibetan butter sculptures has been practiced for over 400 years by monks in the monasteries in Tibet. The art of making Tibetan butter sculptures is now being preserved by monks and nuns living in India as refugees.

Tibetan nuns making butter sculptures for Losar

Tibetan nuns decorate a traditional offering box for Tibetan New Year or Losar with colorful butter sculptures. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Tibetan butter sculptures can be huge and impressive or tiny and intricate. They are used as sacred offerings or as part of elaborate rituals and celebrations, particularly during Losar, Tibetan New Year.

flower Tibetan butter sculpture

A nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India makes an elaborate colored flower out of butter. Photo by Nuns’ Media Team

It is the practice in Buddhism to offer flowers as a tribute to Buddha statues on altars. However, in winter when no fresh flowers can be found, flowers sculpted from butter are made as an offering. Other popular designs for Tibetan butter sculptures include the eight Auspicious Symbols in Tibetan Buddhism, the four harmonious friends – elephant, monkey, rabbit, and bird – and the sun and the moon.

Tibetan butter sculptures on Losar altar

Elaborate and colorful butter sculptures of flowers and Buddhist sacred symbols decorate an offering table for Losar or Tibetan New Year. These sculptures were made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in northern India. In the lower left, you can see a sheep or ram made of butter. Photo by Nuns’ Media Team

Butter has always been highly valued in Tibetan culture. Its availability and its malleable quality in the cold climate of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas made it an ideal material for sculpting. Inside Tibet, the sacred Tibetan butter sculptures would be made from the butter of dri which are female yaks.

an elaborate Tibetan butter sculpture

A Tibetan Buddhist nun creates an elaborate Tibetan butter sculpture of a ram for Tibetan New Year. She is learning the ancient art of making Tibetan butter sculptures at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Preserving the art of Tibetan butter sculptures

Making butter sculptures requires painstaking skill, learned from an excellent teacher and through years of practice. Like the famous Tibetan sand mandalas, butter sculptures are a unique Tibetan sacred art that has been handed down for centuries from teacher to student.

The increasing shortage of well-trained and skilled butter sculptors in Tibet means that it is crucial that in India the nuns learn this religious art as part of their course of studies in order to keep it from dying out.

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make Tibetan butter sculptures

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make butter sculpture. Photos by the Nuns’ Media Team

At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India, nuns have been learning how to make butter sculptures from their teacher Gen. Karma-la. He carefully takes them through all the steps and the significance of each butter sculpture technique. He says the nuns make excellent students, with their keen sense of color and design, their nimble fingers, and their endless patience.

Tibetan butter sculptures, making butter sculptures,

Mounds of colored butter ready for the nuns at Dolma Ling to make Tibetan butter sculptures for Losar, Tibetan New Year. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Butter Sculpture Workshop at Dolma Ling

Creating butter sculptures in the hot climate of India is, as you can imagine, problematic. Several years ago, generous donors funded our project to create a special butter sculpture workshop at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a non-sectarian nunnery that is home to about 250 nuns.

Tibetan butter sculptures made by the nuns at Dolma Ling for Losar, Tibetan New Year.

Tibetan butter sculptures made by the nuns at Dolma Ling for Losar, Tibetan New Year. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

Prior to that time, the nuns at Dolma Ling had been using a makeshift space at the nunnery that got very hot. They were only able to make sculptures during the very coldest months. Now a suitable space has been designated in the nunnery. The.room is cooler and has access to cold water in which to lay the butter and cool the nuns’ fingers.

materials for Tibetan butter sculptures

Rounds of butter, dyes, and other tools for making butter sculpture are laid out in preparation for making butter sculptures for Tibetan New Year at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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.

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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.
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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.

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

We need your help

We have a kind of stinky problem. It’s also an urgent one.

The septic systems are failing at two Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in India, Shugsep  Nunnery and Dolma Ling Nunnery. This poses a health risk to the nuns and their neighbors. The nuns need your help before the situation gets even worse.

The repairs to both septic systems must be made before the arrival of monsoon rains at the end of June.

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Properly functioning septic systems are vital for the health and well-being of the nunneries and their neighbors.

Unfortunately, both nunneries are entirely dependent on their septic systems to treat both sewage and greywater. There are no main sewer lines or sewage treatment systems nearby that they can tap into.

We need $6,500 to repair the septic system at Shugsep Nunnery and $6,200 to repair the septic system at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Can you help?

Donate here.

This is not just a smelly problem for the nuns and the surrounding community. Without urgent repairs, there is the very real danger of outbreaks of disease such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis. Learn about all our Current Needs here.