Tag Archives: Geshe

Great News About the Geshema Program

We have joyful news! Thanks to wonderful supporters like you, the Geshema Endowment is funded. It is the next step in helping nuns reach the level of education they need to stand as equals with monks.

We are extremely grateful to the 159 donors to the Geshema Endowment, including the Pema Chodron Foundation, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Frederick Family Foundation, and the Donaldson Charitable Trust.

The Endowment will cover the costs involved in training and qualifying more Geshemas. This includes travel, food, and accommodation for the candidates to attend the exams. It will also cover the cost of administration and materials for the exams. Each new Geshema is also given a set of robes and the yellow hat signifying the holding of the degree.

Geshema Endowment Funded

Joy after the first Geshema graduation ceremony in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Geshema Exams Starting August 7th

In 2020 and 2021, the pandemic forced the cancellation of the Geshema exams. We’re happy to tell you that the exams are scheduled to take place this summer at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.

In April, the Geshema Exam Committee sent a letter to all the relevant Tibetan Buddhist nunneries. Nuns must submit their completed forms by May 10th for consideration in this round of exams. Before the exams, the nuns will meet for one month for additional studying. They are to report to Geden Choeling by July 6, 2022, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday.

We don’t know yet how many nuns will take the exams on August 7th. Eleven nuns passed their 3rd set of exams in 2019 and became eligible to take their final round of exams. Unfortunately, they’ve had to wait two years to take their final set. All being well, this fall the world may have 55 Geshemas!

Geshemas

Last winter, Geshemas at Dolma Ling taught children Tibetan reading and writing during the children’s break. It’s one of the many ways the Geshemas are serving the community.

What is the Geshema Degree?

Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. One of our goals is to elevate the educational standards and the position of women.

The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition, equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Geshema degree was only formally opened to women in 2012 and nuns began taking Geshema exams in 2013. In 2016, 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history when they became the first Tibetan women to earn Geshema degrees.

There are now 44 Geshemas. The world needs their wisdom and compassion.

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dolma Ling

For the first time in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, nuns are assuming various teaching and leadership roles previously not open to women. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel is one of two Geshemas hired in 2019 to teach at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

The Geshema degree is the same as a Geshe degree; the “ma” indicates that it is awarded to women. To be eligible to take their Geshema exams, nuns must first complete at least 17 years of study.

The rigorous examination process takes four years to complete. Each year, over two weeks, candidates must complete written and debate exams and, in their fourth year, write and defend a thesis.

The Geshemas as Role Models, Leaders, and Teachers

For the first time in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, nuns can assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence not previously open to women.

Here is a snapshot of some of the special roles that Geshemas are taking on, particularly at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

Geshemas teaching Tibetan children Feb 2022

Every winter the local children near Dolma Ling Nunnery have a long holiday. This year the Geshemas wanted to help them improve their Tibetan reading and writing.

Teachers

Until recently, there were no nuns fully qualified to teach Buddhist philosophy. Following further study and exams in Buddhist Tantric Studies, the Geshemas are becoming fully qualified as teachers. In March 2019, two Geshemas made history when they 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 supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Geshema Delek Wangmo, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Dolma Ling

In 2019, two Geshemas made history when they were hired to teach Buddhist philosophy to nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo of GesheDelek Wangmo teaching taken by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

“It has been such a pleasure to watch these nuns assume leadership positions in the nunneries and to go where no women have gone before,” said Vicki Robinson, a Tibetan Nuns Project Board member.

Role Models

The Geshemas are also beginning to take on other leadership roles once reserved for men. In 2020, Geshema Delek Wangmo was appointed as an election commissioner for the Tibetan government-in-exile during new parliamentary elections. This was a historic accomplishment for Geshema Delek Wangmo and Tibetan Buddhist nuns in general. Geshema Delek Wangmo graduated with her Geshema degree in 2017 and was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist nuns to pursue higher studies in Tantric Buddhism.

Geshema Delek Wangmo , Geshema

Geshema Delek Wangmo takes the oath of office at the swearing-in ceremony as a election commissioner for the parliamentary elections. Photo: Tenzin Phende/CTA

“Educating women is powerful,” says Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor to 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.”

Spiritual Advisors

During the pandemic, Geshemas were asked to provide spiritual advice to Tibetans. In 2020,  the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration arranged video teachings by Tibetan Buddhist scholars to help Tibetans cope.

Geshema Delek Wangmo gave a video talk in Tibetan on “keeping a peaceful mind during a crisis through the practice of Tibetan Buddhism”. Geshema Tenzin Kunsel gave a video teaching on the Buddhist way to face the pandemic crisis.  Geshema, Geshema nuns, spiritual advice during pandemic

A screenshot from the Central Tibetan Administration website showing videos by Geshema Delek Wangmo and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel who were asked to give spiritual advice to Tibetans during the pandemic.

Scholars

In 2020, five Geshemas received scholarships to participate in a new Tibetan Buddhist philosophy research program organized by the Geluk International Foundation. Thirty Geshes and 5 Geshemas are working on three-year research projects on the five primary topics of Buddhist philosophy studied to earn the Geshe degree.

Geshema receive Tantric studies certificates Feb 1 2019

Geshemas holding their certificates in Buddhist Tantric Studies, February 2019. This groundbreaking program began in 2017 and provides these dedicated senior nuns training in tantric theory, rituals, and mind-training techniques used by those engaged in advanced meditation. This level of training is an essential part of studies for Geshes and is a required step enabling them to be fully qualified for advanced leadership roles, such as being an abbot of a monastery.

A Remarkable Achievement

The success of the Geshema program is a testament to the dedication of the nuns. Most of the nuns who arrived as refugees from Tibet in the late 1980s and early 1990s had no education in Tibetan, nor had they been allowed education in their religious heritage. Many were illiterate on arrival and could not even write their names.

“Humanity needs this gender equity if we are to navigate perilous times ahead,” says Steve Wilhelm, a Tibetan Nuns Project board member. “The fact that growing numbers of women are achieving equality with men in the highest levels of Buddhist monasticism, by earning the equivalent of doctorate degrees, is joyous and of enormous importance to the world.”

Thank you for supporting the nuns!

Tibetan Buddhist nun holding Geshema hat

Photo of a Geshema holding the yellow hat that signifies her degree. Detail of photo by Olivier Adam.

P.S. If you don’t mind sharing, post a comment below and tell us why you care about the Geshema degree program. We’d love to share your stories to inspire others to support the nuns.

Tibetan nuns Geshema Graduation Ceremony December 2016

This blog post is our special record of the historic milestone, the Geshema graduation ceremony, and is a permanent placeholder for the video of the event.

On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a ceremony at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.

Geshema graduation ceremony

His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the 20 Geshema graduates at the degree ceremony in Mundgod, December 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of OHHDL.

The Geshema degree is equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy and is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. It could previously only be earned by monks and is called the Geshe degree.

This historic milestone for the 20 nuns was the culmination of decades of study and dedication. The rigorous exam process for the Geshema degree takes a total of four years to complete. Each May  the nuns  took 12 days of exams to test their knowledge gained in a 17-year course of study.

nuns watching Geshema graduation ceremony

Nuns attending the first Geshema convocation at Drepung Lachi in Mundgod, Karnataka, India on December 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

At the graduation ceremony, His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke about the important of education for women and girls. “Through the power of education, women have been able to rise up to prominent roles including leadership in various societies. Education has played a big role in the advancement of gender equality and material development,” His Holiness said.

Tibetan political leader Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay was also in attendance, offering congratulations for the nuns’ hard work and dedication.

As doctors of philosophy, the nuns will now be expected to teach, a role reserved only for men until this point.

Video of the Geshema Graduation Ceremony

The full graduation ceremony can be seen here:

Watch the Tibetan language version of the ceremony.

On the day following the ceremony, the Tibetan Nuns Project shared many messages of congratulation that came from around the world for the nuns.

Geshema nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A joyous occasion. Some of the 20 nuns react to a comment by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The ceremony took place in the courtyard of Drepung Lachi Monastery in Mundgod, Karnataka, India on December 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

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.