Tag Archives: Geshema degree

A Geshema’s Journey: The Remarkable Story of Delek Wangmo

Geshema Delek Wangmo’s journey to become a Geshema, a teacher, and a role model has been long and arduous. Her remarkable life story exemplifies resilience, determination, and a deep commitment to spiritual growth, inspiring others on their paths to enlightenment.

Here is her story.

Portrait of Geshema Delek Wangmo taken at Dolma Ling Nunnery in 2022 by Olivier Adam

Portrait of Geshema Delek Wangmo now a senior nun and teacher at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo by Olivier Adam, 2022. She did not go to school in Tibet but spent her time tending the family’s sheep, yaks, goats, and horses.

Delek Wangmo was born in 1970 into a semi-nomadic family in Detsa in Lithang province in Eastern Tibet. “My family includes my parents, one elder sister, and three younger sisters,” she said. “One of my sisters is a nun staying with me at Dolma Ling. I became a nun at the age of 15 when I received my nun’s vows from Lama Tenzin Delek of Detsa Monastery. Since our village didn’t have any schools and education opportunities I did not go to school and spent my time in Tibet tending our animals.”

A 950-Mile Pilgrimage With Prostrations

In 1989, Geshe Delek Wangmo embarked on a challenging spiritual journey with her Lama and other nuns. They made their way from Lithang to Lhasa by prostrating themselves, covering about 950 miles on a mountain road. This journey took one and a half years, reflecting her unwavering determination and dedication to her spiritual life.

Lithang nun pilgrims after escaping to India

Lithang nun pilgrims after escaping to India in 1990. Delek Wangmo was illiterate until she was 19. “I started my education on the pilgrimage. Along the way our Lama gave us teachings and I learned the Tibetan alphabet for the first time.”

“The pilgrimage was hard, as we had to cover the distance from Lithang to Lhasa by prostrations. We would do prostrations in the rain and our clothes got wet and dirty and we could not wash them out every day.”

“In spite of the hardship, I learned much from my time on the pilgrimage. I started my education on the pilgrimage. Along the way our Lama gave us teachings and I learned the Tibetan alphabet.”

“It was difficult because we had to study at night and often did not have enough light to study by. But once I learned the alphabet, the rest of my studying got much easier for me. I started memorizing prayers once I had learned to read.”

Portrait-of-Geshema-Delek-Wangmo-by-Olivier-Adam.

Geshema Delek Wangmo teaching at Dolma Ling in 2022. She said, “Looking back to where I started and what I have achieved now is something very special in my life. I feel satisfied and relieved now. When I fled Tibet I never expected such things in life or that I would have these kinds of opportunities in such a good place.” Photo by Olivier Adam

The pilgrimage did not turn out as planned when authorities refused the nuns permission to visit the holy city of Lhasa. “When we got near Lhasa our Rinpoche tried very hard to get passes for all of us to go into the city of Lhasa but in vain. We were told that we could not go into the city because of some big meeting there. I was very upset and angry because of all the effort our Lama had made and now it did not matter. Then we left for Shigatse, another holy city in the south, to visit Tashi Lunpo Monastery.”

Geshema Delek Wangmo teaching at Dolma Ling 2019

Delek Wangmo earned her Geshema degree in 2017 and was hired as a teacher at Dolma Ling in 2019. She says, “I would like to thank the many people who have supported me in completing my education.”

“Very soon after that the Rinpoche said that we would be going to India and that it would probably be possible to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama. That made me happy again and excited. My spirits lifted and I was ready to do whatever was necessary. The journey to Nepal and eventually to India took us about a month.”

Escape to India

In the end, in 1990 she and a large group of other nuns escaped from Tibet via Nepal. In Varanasi, she saw His Holiness the Dalai Lama and realized a dream by receiving teachings and an audience.

At the time there was a large number of nuns coming from Tibet and the few existing Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in exile were overcrowded and unable to accept many new nuns. The Tibetan Nuns Project, under the direction of Rinchen Khandro Choegyal, rented houses for the nuns to stay in and began the long process of building two new nunneries, Dolma Ling and Shugsep.

For about three years, Geshe Delek Wangmo and other nuns lived in a rental house, studying in the early morning and late evening while actively participating in the construction of their new nunnery, Dolma Ling.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns studying outdoors no classrooms

This photo from our archives shows the early days before the nuns had classrooms. They studied in the open air or tents and helped with the construction of Dolma Ling Nunnery.

“The living conditions were not so good in the beginning. We lived in overcrowded rooms and the study program wasn’t so well organized because, during that time, the number of new nuns coming from Tibet increased every month. Slowly things improved. The construction of the present Dolma Ling Nunnery began in 1993 and we moved into our new housing block in October 1994.”

Life and Accomplishments at Dolma Ling

At last, thanks to the generosity of Tibetan Nuns Project donors and the hard work of the nuns themselves, the nuns had proper housing, a kitchen, and a prayer hall. With the establishment of the new facility, they could follow a structured education curriculum, leading to higher degrees.

In 2012, the Geshema degree was only formally opened to women. Comparable to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, it is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Geshema degree is the same as the Geshe degree for monks. The ending “ma” marks it as referring to a woman. Delek Wangmo earned her Geshema degree in 2017.

Geshema Delek Wangmo teaching TCV students about monastic debate Sept 2023

Geshema Delek Wangmo teaching Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) students about monastic debate in September 2023. She is a role model for other nuns and the Tibetan community.

Geshema Delek Wangmo’s educational journey in India has spanned 23 years including 18 years of dedicated study and four years of rigorous examinations to attain the prestigious Geshema degree and an additional one-year Tantric studies program at Gyuto Tantric University.

Geshema Delek Wangmo and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel teaching Gurukul program June 2023

In June 2023, Geshema Delek Wangmo and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel spoke to Indian students during the 27th annual Gurukul program which seeks to revive the centuries-old relationship of exchange of ideas between Indians and Tibetans.

Since 2019, Geshe Delek Wangmo has been sharing her profound wisdom and teachings at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Her life story exemplifies resilience, determination, and a deep commitment to spiritual growth, inspiring others on their paths to enlightenment.

Geshema Delek Wangmo sworn in as election commissioner copy

Geshema Delek Wangmo made history in 2020 when she was appointed as an election commissioner by the members of the Standing Committee of the 16th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile to ensure free and fair elections. Photo by Tenzin Phende/CTA

Reflections on the Geshema Path

The main reason Geshe Delek Wangmo escaped from Tibet was the inability to receive a proper spiritual education. Her commitment has never wavered. Having the opportunity to receive an education and become a Geshema is a dream come true for her and her sister nuns.

“Getting this degree after years of intense study of philosophical texts has given the nuns new energy to study even harder, as well as encouraged us to uphold the academic values His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes. It is the path that will lead us to work independently and become recognized as philosophy teachers within as well as outside the community.”

Geshema Delek Wangmo teaching May 2023

Geshema Delek Wangmo teaching on the Four Noble Truths in May 2023.

“When I told my parents that I completed the study they were very happy and cried. They wanted me to come to meet them,” she said. “I applied for a visa but I didn’t get one. I wish to go back to Tibet and meet my parents before they pass away.”

Geshema Delek Wangmo’s list of accomplishments keeps growing. During COVID, she gave online teachings in Tibetan on keeping a peaceful mind as part of a series of talks organized by the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration.

On behalf of all the nuns, thank you for educating and empowering these brave and dedicated women like Geshema Delek Wangmo.

As one of the first Buddhist women wrote over 2,000 years ago:
A real hero
walks the Path
to its end.
Then shows others the way.

Geshemas Visioning Their Future

TNP Holds Geshemas Strategic Visioning Workshop

From April 8-12, 2024, the Tibetan Nuns Project organized a Geshemas Strategic Visioning Workshop at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in Dharamsala in conjunction with the Women’s Empowerment Desk of the Central Tibetan Administration.

The workshop was held with eight Geshemas from Dolma Ling and four Tibetan Buddhist nuns who are currently studying for their Geshema exams. The workshop aims to empower Geshemas in shaping the future of their role within Tibetan Buddhism.

collage Geshema Visioning Workshop

The 5-day workshop aimed to explore the future vision of the Geshemas (holders of the highest academic degree in Tibetan Buddhism) and support their participation in the larger social realm. The goal is to empower the Geshema to contribute back to the community through various leadership roles.

The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. The Geshema degree is the same as a Geshe degree but is called a Geshema degree because it is awarded to women.

The degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. Sixty nuns currently hold the Geshema degree and many nuns will take various levels of the four-year Geshema exams this summer. The degree makes them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

Geshema Visioning Workshop Dolma Ling Timeline

As part of the workshop, the nuns used a big graphic illustration of Dolma Ling’s timeline called HERstory (rather than history) to help set the stage for the subsequent days. Hearing about their journeys from Tibet to the present was fascinating and awe-inspiring for everyone.

As part of the workshop, the nuns shared their stories. Several nuns started learning the Tibetan alphabet in their 20s and many only after they came to Dolma Ling. Many nuns had no schooling in Tibet or they were sent to Chinese schools with no opportunity to learn Tibetan. Here are some photos from the first days of the workshop.

The Workshop Organizers

The five-day workshop was conducted and facilitated at Dolma Ling by TNP board member, Dechen Tsering, with the help of TNP board members Tseten Phanucharas and Robin Groth.

Tibetan Geshemas take part in visioning workshop 2024

The Geshema degree stands as the pinnacle of educational attainment within the Gelugpa tradition. The workshop was aimed at enhancing leadership skills and awareness among Geshemas, empowering them to navigate life more effectively and cultivate their leadership qualities.

We are very grateful to our partner co-facilitators from CTA’s Women’s Empowerment Desk who helped prepare the workshop charts and banners and did the Tibetan-language translations. The team from the Women Empowerment Desk included Tsering Kyi (Lead Facilitator), Tenzin Tseten (co-facilitator), and Tenzin Dolkar (Tibetan language translator). They also offered a workshop on Gender and Leadership on April 10th.

Geshema Strategic Visioning Workshop April 2024

Geshemas at Dolma Ling offer prayers as part of the visioning workshop. The Geshema degree (called a Geshe degree for monks) was only formally opened to women in 2012. As of November 2023, 60 nuns hold this highest degree roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is also very grateful to our thought partners, Beckie Masaki and Nancy Wan from Bay Area’s Gathering Strength Coalition for working with Dechen Tsering in co-conceptualizing the workshop agenda and creating the HERstory timeline chart used to illustrate major milestones – past and future – by the workshop participants.

A Range of Workshop Activities

Over the five days, the participants took part in many group and individual activities including written vision statements about where they saw themselves in five years in 2029. Many of the nuns pictured themselves returning to their hometowns in Tibet or Spiti as principals of new schools they would start. Two nuns envisioned themselves as bilingual online Buddhist teachers. Four of the nuns already speak quite good English and want to improve so they can teach. One nun envisioned herself as director of TNP-paid staff at Dolma Ling. One nun saw herself in solitary retreat for five years to prepare for the next life.

Geshema Visioning Workshop 2024

Throughout the five days, attendees engaged in discussions on a range of topics, including effective communication, problem-solving, active listening, gender and leadership, leadership qualities and styles, team-building exercises, and visualization exercises.

Dechen Tsering wrote, “The Geshemas (and four future Geshemas) who took part were extremely enthusiastic, energetic, engaged, and participated fully throughout the five days! Together, we shared, we learned, we meditated, we played, and we laughed all week. We had fun!”

Rinchen Khando Choegyal speaks at Geshema workshop

Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor for the Tibetan Nuns Project gave an inspirational talk. She emphasised the evolution and significance of the Geshema degree, highlighting how the Geshema’s contributions to the Tibetan community and Buddhist philosophy play a pivotal role in shaping history.

Board member, Robin Groth, created this slideshow of the workshop.

Making Headlines

The workshop made the news. On April 10th, a media team from VOA Tibetan came to Dolma Ling and did a 20-minute feature video story and interview in Tibetan with lead organizer, Dechen Tsering. Within two days the story had been viewed by over 2,600 people.

On April 13th, the Voice of Tibet did this interview and feature story entitled “Conversation on building a strategic vision and challenges for Geshemas.” The video is in Tibetan and shows many of the activities in the workshop. Can’t see the video? Click here.

Helping Geshemas on the Path

Please help build 16 rooms at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute for nuns who hold their Geshema degree so that they can get the education they need to become fully qualified teachers of their tradition.

The Geshema degree (called a Geshe degree for men) is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. The degree was only formally opened to women in 2012.

Geshema, Geshema degree, Geshema Endowment Fund

A Geshema holds the yellow hat that signifies her degree. Detail of photo by Olivier Adam.

Housing for Geshemas

There is a housing shortage for Geshemas who want to do Tantric studies. To solve this problem, we would like to construct 16 rooms plus bathrooms, kitchen and dining facilities, and a study hall. These 16 rooms and facilities will be on the third floor of the Yangchen Lophel Center at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Geshemas from nunneries all over India and Nepal will be able to stay here so that they can take the final year of advanced education at the nearby Gyuto Tantric University.

Geshemas studying Tantric Buddhism

Part of the first group of 23 Geshema nuns who had the opportunity to do Buddhist Tantric Studies. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

The 16 rooms can either be single-bed study rooms or, as the groups of Geshema graduates become larger, accommodate two nuns per room. Now that this degree is open to women, more nuns from India and Nepal are studying to be Geshemas. It is difficult to predict how many graduates there will be each year, so the facility must be as flexible as possible. We also hope that the Geshema Organizing Committee’s office can be moved into this facility to free up the room they are now using in Dolma Ling Nunnery.

To help the Geshemas on their path you can:

  1. Make a gift online
  2. Call our office in Seattle, U.S. at 1-206-652-8901
  3. Mail a check to The Tibetan Nuns Project, 815 Seattle Boulevard South #418, Seattle, WA 98134 U.S. (note that it is for Housing for Geshemas)
  4. Donate securities

Background

December 22, 2016, marked an important day in the history of Tibet as 20 nuns became the first Tibetan women to receive their Geshema degrees, equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Geshema, Geshema nuns, Tibetan nuns, His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Tibetan Buddhist nuns make history. Collage of photos from the Geshema graduation event on December 22, 2016. Photos courtesy of Olivier Adam and OHHDL.

The Geshema degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. Now Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree makes them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

Geshema, online Buddhist teaching, Geshema Delek Wangmo

Geshema Delek Wangmo has completed her Tantric Studies and now teaches at Dolma Ling Nunnery. In May 2023, she and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel gave an online Buddhist teaching and taught other Geshemas how to do this.

Their success fulfils a longstanding wish of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and marks a new chapter in the development of education for ordained Buddhist women and is a major accomplishment for Tibetan women. It is also a milestone for the Tibetan Nuns Project, which was founded in 1987 to provide education and humanitarian aid to Tibetan Buddhist nuns living in India.

Tantric Studies

After monks attain their Geshe degree (the male equivalent of the Geshema degree) they must study the Tantric treatises to become fully qualified masters capable of teaching their complete tradition. The monks normally join one of the two main Tantric Colleges to do this.

The Tibetan Nuns Project set up a Tantric Studies program out of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute for all the recent Geshema grads from India and Nepal. In 2018, 23 of the 26 nuns in the first two groups of Geshema graduates started Tantric studies. The nuns attended classes at nearby Gyuto Tantric University to receive the necessary empowerments and transmissions from the senior monks. The Tantric Studies Program generally takes around 12 months to complete.

The Need for Housing for Geshemas

After monks attain their Geshe degree (the male equivalent of the Geshema degree) they must study the Tantric treatises to become fully qualified masters capable of teaching their complete tradition. To do this, the monks normally join one of the two main Tantric Colleges.

The Tibetan Nuns Project has set up a Tantric Studies program out of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute for all the recent Geshema grads from India and Nepal. In 2018, 23 of the 26 nuns in the first two groups of Geshema graduates started Tantric studies. The nuns attended classes at nearby Gyuto Tantric University to receive the necessary empowerments and transmissions from the senior monks. The Tantric Studies Program generally takes around 12 months to complete.

The Current Problem

Since 2018, the Geshemas have been housed and fed at Dolma Ling, traveling daily by jeep to Gyuto Tantric University for their studies. These arrangements are currently funded by the Tibetan Nuns Project under the Geshema Endowment Fund.

Tantric studies, Tibetan nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Dolma Ling

For the first time in the history of Tibet, Buddhist nuns have the opportunity to formally study Tantric Buddhism and become teachers. But they need your help to provide accommodation and food. Photo courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

Although there are many advantages for the Geshemas with this arrangement, it is placing a big strain on Dolma Ling to accommodate them. It also restricts the number of new nuns who can be admitted to Dolma Ling. Space must be available for young nuns to join Dolma Ling to give the nunnery fresh input each year.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal with Geshemas at Dolma Ling 2017

More Nuns Earn Highest Degree

2023 Geshema Graduation and Annual Debate Event

On November 27th, seven Tibetan Buddhist nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees at a special convocation ceremony in the holy city of Bodh Gaya, India.

Geshema graduation 2023, Geshema

The seven Tibetan Buddhist nuns who earned their Geshema degrees in 2023 at the graduation ceremony in Bodh Gaya. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

The degree is the female equivalent of the Geshe degree for monks and is the highest academic degree available in the Gelug tradition, roughly equivalent to a PhD.

This was the sixth cohort of Geshemas since the degree was opened to women in 2012. The first 20 nuns graduated in 2016.

At the ceremony, Nangsa Choedon, the director of the Tibetan Nuns Project in India, spoke about the work to ensure a strong future for Tibetan nuns.

Geshema graduation 2023, Nangsa Choedon

Nanga Choedon of the Tibetan Nuns Project presents the Geshema graduates with robes and the yellow hats that signifies the holding of this highest degree. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

Other special guests who attended the graduation included Kunga Gyaltsen, the additional secretary of Religion and Cultural Affairs for the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) who offered congratulations to the new Geshemas on behalf of the CTA. He encouraged the nuns to educate their local communities on core Buddhist teachings and also urged them to encourage participation in projects aimed at bringing insights from modern science to monastics.

2023 Geshema graduation

Tibetan Buddhist nuns line up to offer congratulations and ceremonial white katak scarves to the Geshema graduates. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

The Geshema degree enables these dedicated women to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

Geshemas, 2023 inter-nunnery debate

At the 2023 Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate event, there were five Geshemas from previous years who acted as teachers during the month of intensive training in monastic debate. Two were from Jangchup Choeling, one from Kopan Nunnery, one from Jangyang Choeling, and one from Dolma Ling.

The Geshema exams took place in the summer and a record 132 nuns took various levels of the four-year exams. This is 38 more than the 94 nuns who took exams in 2022. Here’s a video  made by the nuns about the 2023 exams.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Geshema exams in 2023

In 2022, 94 nuns sat Geshema exams. This year, a record 132 nuns are taking various levels of the four-year exams. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

Momentum is building and an increasing number of nuns wish to attain this highest academic standing. Many young and new nuns who join the nunneries we support in northern India are saying in their introductory interviews that they want to pursue the rigorous 17-year training that precedes the Geshema exam process.

They look to examples of Geshemas as teachers and leaders and they are inspired to follow in their footsteps. As of the end of 2023, there are 60 Geshemas in this tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

2023 Jang Gonchoe Inter-Nunnery Debate

The graduation was the culmination of the nuns’ annual inter-nunnery debate event called the Jang Gonchoe which took place from October 25th to November 28th.

inter-nunnery debate,2023 Jang Gonchoe

In 2023, over 500 Tibetan Buddhist nuns from India and Nepal took part in the month-long inter-nunnery debate event called the jang Gonchoe.

This year around 520 nuns from 10 nunneries from India and Nepal gathered at the Kagyu Monlam in Bodh Gaya to take part in the month-long intensive training in monastic debate.

Nuns practicing debate daily at Dolma Ling Nunnery.

Nuns practicing debate daily at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Monastic debate is of critical importance in traditional Tibetan Buddhist learning. Through debate, nuns test and consolidate their classroom learning. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Throughout the year nuns practice debate daily at their nunneries. But, the Jang Gonchoe debate event provides the training and practice that is essential for nuns who wish to pursue higher degrees.

Long-Term Stability

Both the Geshema exams and the inter-nunnery debate are funded by endowments through the Tibetan Nuns Project and are self-sustaining. We are grateful to all those who supported these two funds.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Some of 510 nuns who took part in the 2023 inter-nunnery debate. Their food and travel costs were covered by the Debate Fund. Now we want to more more of our core programs on a sustainable footing with TNP’s Long-Term Stability Fund.

Now our wish is to put more of the Tibetan Nuns Project’s core programs on a sustainable footing. To that end, we launched the Long-Term Stability Fund. You can learn more about this vision and donate here

2023 Geshema Exams

The 2023 Geshema examinations began in Dharamsala, India on July 21st with 132 Tibetan Buddhist nuns from seven different educational institutes in India and Nepal taking part.

This year a record number of Tibetan Buddhist nuns are taking the rigorous written and oral examinations – 38 more nuns than last year’s record 94.

The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. It is the same as the Geshe degree for monks but the ending “ma” marks it as referring to a woman.

Geshema, nun Tibetan Buddhism, 2023 Geshema exams

A nun taking her Geshema exams in 2023. TNP’s Founding Director and Special Advisor Rinchen Khando Choegyal has said, “Educating women is powerful… 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.” Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

Until recently, this degree was only open to men; it was only formally opened to women in 2012.

The Geshema degree enables Tibetan Buddhist nuns to become teachers, leaders, and role models. It makes these dedicated women eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

The exams take four years to complete, with one set held each year over two weeks. Candidates are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts. They must achieve a score of at least 75 per cent during their studies to be eligible to sit the exams.

Here’s a video by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns of this year’s exams. Can’t see the video? Click here.

The exams began on Chokhor Düchen, one of the holiest days in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar which celebrates the first teaching by Shakyamuni Buddha. On this auspicious day, over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths in Sarnath shortly after attaining enlightenment in Bodhgaya. This event is known as the “turning of the wheel of dharma”.

The exams are being hosted this year by Jamyang Choling Institute in Dharamsala. The costs are covered by the Tibetan Nuns Project’s Geshema Endowment Fund. Twenty-one dedicated volunteer nuns are helping with food, shelter, and other tasks relating to holding the exams.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Geshema exams in 2023

In 2022, 94 nuns sat Geshema exams. This year, a record 132 nuns are taking various levels of the four-year exams. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

The candidates in 2023 come from these 7 Tibetan Buddhist nuns’ educational institutes:

1. Geden Choeling Nunnery (Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India)
2. Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute (near Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India)
3. Jangchub Choeling Nunnery (Mundgod, Karnataka, India)
4. Kopan Nunnery or Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery (Nepal)
5. Keydong Thukche Choeling (Kathmandu, Nepal)
6. Jangsemling Nunnery (Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, India)
7. Jamyang Choling Institute (Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India)

Here is a second video made by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

The main organizers are the Board of Geshema Degree Examination Committee which is made up of three dedicated executive officers and two helpers. The Geshema exams are under the auspices of the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration and the Tibetan Nuns Project in Dharamsala.

monastic debate, 2023 Geshema exams, Geshema degree, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Nuns debating as part of their Geshema exams. Four senior Geshe Lharampa from the great Tibetan Buddhist learning centers in South India are the examiners for the nuns’ oral debate examinations. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

The Geshema exams are rigorous and take four years to complete, with one set of exams each year. Here is the breakdown of this year’s 132 examination participants:
1st-year exams: 51
2nd year: 55
3rd year: 17
4th and final year: 9

Geshema exams, Geshema degree, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan nuns

At the start of 2023, 53 women now hold this highest degree. This year, 9 nuns are taking their final year of exams and, if successful, will graduate in November. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

The Number of Geshema Graduates

In 2022, ten nuns graduated with their Geshema degrees bringing the total number of Geshemas in the world to 53.

Geshema graduation ceremony

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

Here’s a list of the Geshema graduations so far since the formal approval in 2012:

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. We are also very grateful to all those who sponsor nuns and help them on their path. More sponsors are always needed. You can learn more about sponsoring a nun here.

Educating and Empowering Tibetan Buddhist Nuns

Education is the Key

The Tibetan Nuns Project believes that education is the key to empowerment. We seek to give Tibetan Buddhist nuns the resources to carve out independent, creative identities for themselves. In this blog post, we’ll explain what and how the nuns study and give an outline of their degrees and curriculum.

Through all its work, the Tibetan Nuns Project is strengthening Tibet’s unique religion and culture — both under great threat due to the occupation of Tibet — by educating and empowering women. These dedicated women were previously denied equal access to education and the opportunity in Tibet to freely and safely practice their faith. The nuns are an integral part of the spiritual roots of the society and are teachers and leaders of the future.

Starting from Scratch

When the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded in 1987 in response to many nuns escaping from Tibet to India, most of the newly arrived nuns had no education in their language. Many were illiterate and were unable even to write their names. While in Tibet they had also been denied education in their religious heritage.

outside classroom, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, educating Tibetan Buddhist nuns

An outside classroom in the early days of the Tibetan Nuns Project. TNP had to create an education program for the nuns from the ground up.

The Tibetan Nuns Project has created a groundbreaking education system aimed at both preserving Tibetan culture and equipping and empowering these women to live and become leaders in the modern world.

The Tibetan Nuns Project aims:
– To combine traditional religious studies with the best of a modern education
– To preserve Tibet’s rich culture and religion through giving ordained Buddhist women educational opportunities
– 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
– To support a number of nuns who opt to live in meditative retreat rather than in a nunnery.

The Tibetan Nuns Project also serves women from the remote and impoverished border areas of India such as Ladakh, Zanskar, Spiti, and Arunachal Pradesh. The women and girls from these areas have traditionally been given far less education than the men and boys and were often removed from school as early as Grade 4 if they were sent to school at all. Our programs give them a chance for education that they would not have otherwise.

educating girls, educating women, empowering women and girls, Zanskar, Spiti

Photos by Olivier Adam showing girls receiving education at nunneries supported by TNP in the remote Spiti Valley (top) and Zanskar (bottom). Girls and women in these regions lack equal access to education.

Since the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded in 1987, many nuns have been educated and have assumed leadership roles in their community, such as teachers in Tibetan schools, instructors for other nuns, health care providers and other roles serving the Tibetan-exile community. Thanks in part to consistent effort from the Tibetan Nuns Project, for the first time in Tibetan history, nuns are now receiving educational opportunities previously available only to monks.

educating and empowering women, educating women, Geshema teaching, Geshemas, Dolma Ling

In May 2023, Geshema Delek Wangmo (shown) and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel gave online teaching via Facebook Live with help from two Dolma Ling media nuns. Geshemas from other nunneries also attended to learn how to deliver such basic philosophical knowledge to the lay community. Photo courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

Another goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to empower nuns to teach Buddhist philosophy in nunneries and schools. To do this, the nuns must achieve equal academic standing with the monks, proving their qualifications by earning the highest degrees. For monks, depending on their tradition, these degrees are called the Geshe or Khenpo degrees; for nuns, the equivalents are the Geshema or Khenmo degrees.

Geshemas teaching Tibetan children, compassion in action, Tibetan education, Dolma Ling

Wisdom and compassion. The Geshemas at Dolma Ling teach Tibetan refugee children during the children’s school holidays. Photos by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

The Curriculum

The education program varies by nunnery but the nuns have been introduced to a systematic form of education in their respective nunneries. Though their core subject is Buddhist philosophy they have also been equally educated in Tibetan and English languages since the very beginning. The nuns have built up a strong foundation in Tibetan language over the years.

The curriculum at the nunneries is divided into two parts: (1) secular subjects such as the Tibetan language, Tibetan history, English, social sciences, mathematics, and science and (2) monastic education. The nuns have quizzes and exams and are now able to proceed through a degree-granting program. If the nuns are very young as may be the case in the very remote nunneries, they do not receive teaching in philosophy, but rather a basic education in subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Once that is established a more robust curriculum is used.

education and empowering Tibetan Buddhist nuns, educating women, classroom Dolma Ling Nunnery

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel teaching Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Photo by Olivier Adam

Most courses take place in classrooms, much as in a school, except for the practice of monastic debate, which takes place in the open air.  As part of their monastic education the nuns are also instructed in the performance of ritual music, the creation of butter sculptures, and other Tibetan Buddhist ritual arts.

The curriculum of the nunneries varies depending on which of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism the nunnery follows:
– Nyingma (founded in the 8th century)
– Kagyu (founded in the early 11th century)
– Sakya (founded in 1073)
– Gelug (founded in 1409)
The Tibetan Nuns Project supports nuns from all four traditions.

Tibetan debate, monastic debate, Dolma Ling Nunnery

Tibetan Buddhist nuns practice monastic debate each day at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Through debate, nuns and monks test and consolidate their classroom learning and gain a thorough understanding of the Buddhist teachings. Photo by Olivier Adam.

The Gelukpa monastic curriculum in Dolma Ling for example is as follows:
Preliminary studies: 4 years
Perfection of Wisdom: 7 years
Middle Path: 3 years
Phenomenology or “meta-doctrine”: 3 years
Monastic discipline: 1 year

After about ten years, the nuns receive a first diploma called Parchin which is equivalent to a BA and allows the students who so desire to continue to higher studies. The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. The degree was only formally opened to women in 2012 thanks to the work of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

Khenmo enthronement, Sakya College for Nuns, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Buddhist women teachers

In 2022, Tibetan Buddhist nuns made history as the first group of Khenmos were enthroned at Sakya College for Nuns. The Khenmo degree for nuns, like the Khenpo degree for males, is roughly equivalent to a PhD. In the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya traditions, the title is awarded usually after 13 years of intensive post-secondary study. The comparable title in the Gelug and Bon lineages is Geshe or, for nuns, Geshema.

In the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya traditions, the Khenmo degree for nuns, like the Khenpo degree for males, is roughly equivalent to a PhD. This title is awarded usually after 13 years of intensive post-secondary study. A nun who holds the title Khenmo is recognized as a female Buddhist teacher/scholar who can give official and high-level teachings to nuns.

Reacing the highest degrees in the monastic curriculum takes between 20 and 25 years. Our goal is to support nuns’ education and to enable them to progress to higher degrees such as the Geshema and Khenmo degrees if they so wish.

Thank you for supporting the Tibetan Nuns Project and educating and empowering Tibetan Buddhist nuns!

Geshemas Have Audience With His Holiness the Dalai Lama

On May 17, 2023 Geshemas had a special audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The Geshemas from Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, Geden Choeling Nunnery, and Jangchub Choeling Nunnery met His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his residence in Dharamsala.

Here is the video courtesy of Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Can’t see the video? Click here.

His Holiness spoke in Tibetan. Here’s a translation from courtesy of Dechen Tsering, a Tibetan Nuns Project board member.

“Now you all must keep studying the Buddhist script well. In order to achieve Gelongma (female Gelong) one must usually have the linage of Gelongma. Nevertheless, Buddha has granted access to his teachings to all – it is not limited to just male monks – so take the opportunity to study the scriptures well and achieve Geshema. Study the scriptures hard and benefit the world [with your knowledge and insight]. There are many people in parts of the world who previously had no idea of Buddhism who are now showing a lot of interest in the Buddha’s teachings. Therefore, by becoming Geshemas, it would be most beneficial if you now become teachers. So, do your best! Stay with peace of mind.”

“Remember that we Tibetans originally descend from the linage of the Avalokiteshvara so visualize that on the top of your head sits the Avalokiteshvara and move through the world to be kind-hearted and think only of benefiting others – never hurting others. If you do that then the blessings of Avalokiteshvara will follow you for lifetime after lifetime. I’m like the messenger of Avalokiteshvara. So, we from the people of the land of snow mountains (Tibet) are dedicated followers of Avalokiteshvara and have a special relationship with Avalokiteshvara. So, develop the Buddha’s compassion heart and do your best to benefit others and make some contribution for the benefit of others. These days there are many people showing interest in Buddhism – so if you do your best to help them. It will be very beneficial. So do your best!”

Also attending the event were Nangsa Chodon, Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project in India and Tsering Diki, Assistant Director.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is deeply grateful to our supporters for helping to educate and empower nuns of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as teachers and leaders.

About the Geshema Degree

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

The degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. The Geshema degree is the same as a Geshe degree but is called a Geshema degree because it is awarded to women.

Fifty-three nuns hold the Geshema degree as of November 2022. The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree makes them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

Geshema, geshema graduates

The 10 Geshema graduates from 2022. As of the start of 2023, there are 53 nuns who hold the Geshema degree.

Some Facts About the Geshema Degree

  1. The Geshema degree is comparable to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
    It is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
  2. The Geshema degree is the same as the Geshe degree for monks. The ending “ma” marks it as referring to a woman.
  3. Until recently, this highest degree could only be earned by monks.
  4. The historic decision to confer the Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns was announced in 2012 by the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Administration, following a meeting of representatives from six major nunneries, Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and the Tibetan Nuns Project.
  5. Candidates for the Geshema degree are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts.
  6. To qualify to begin the Geshema process, nuns must score 75% or above in their studies to be eligible to sit for the Geshema exams.
  7. On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a special graduation ceremony held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.
  8. In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first woman to receive the Geshe degree. This was before the Geshema degree process was approved in 2012.

Congratulations to 10 New Geshemas!

Geshema Graduation 2022

Ten Tibetan Buddhist nuns formally received their Geshema degrees at a special ceremony in the holy city of Bodh Gaya on November 18, 2022. Now the world has a total of 53 Geshemas!

Geshema graduation 2022

10 Tibetan Buddhist nuns receiving their Geshema degrees at the Geshema graduation 2022 in Bodh Gaya. Photo courtesy of DRC.

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

The ceremony was attended by:

  • 41st Sakya Trizin Kyabgon Gongma Trichen Rinpoche as the event’s chief guest
  • Secretary Chime Tseyang from the Department of Religion and Culture
  • The Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, Nangsa Chodon
  • The president of Geshema Examination Committee
  • Tutors and participants of the Winter Session of Discussion on Pramana.

Of the ten recipients of this year’s Geshema’s Degree, four nuns are from Jangchub Choeling Nunnery, four are from Kopan Monastery, and two are from Geden Choeling Nunnery.

Geshema Graduation 2022 Secretary Chime Tseyang giving presents to Gesgemas

Secretary Chime Tseyang from the Department of Religion and Culture giving presents to the Geshemas. She thanked the lamas who for helping to fulfill His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s vision of empowering Tibetan Buddhist nuns through educating Buddhist scriptures traditionally studied by monks only. She also encouraged the Geshemas to serve all sentient beings. Photo from DRC.

About the Geshema Degree and the Geshema Exams

The Geshema degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. It is the same as a Geshe degree but is called a Geshema degree because it is awarded to women.

Tibetan Buddhist nun holding Geshema hat

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

The Geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps. This degree makes them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

Olivier Adam, Geshema nuns, Geshema graduation, tantric studies for women, nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project

Joy among the 20 Geshema nuns who received their degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the historic Geshema graduation ceremony in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The 2022 Geshema exams were held at Geden Choeling Nunnery with 94 nuns taking various levels of the four-year exams as follows:

  • 1st year: 59 nuns took exams, 56 passed
  • 2nd year: 14 nuns took exams, 14 passed
  • 3rd year: 10 nuns took exams, 7 passed
  • 4th year: 11 nuns took exams, 10 passed

Thank you to everyone who sent good luck messages to the nuns!

Facts About the Geshema Degree

    • The Geshema degree is comparable to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
    • It is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
    • The Geshema degree is the same as the Geshe degree for monks. The ending “ma” marks it as referring to a woman.
    • Until recently, this highest degree could only be earned by monks.
    • The historic decision to confer the Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns was announced in 2012 by the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Administration, following a meeting of representatives from six major nunneries, Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, and the Tibetan Nuns Project.
    • Candidates for the Geshema degree are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts.
    • To qualify to begin the Geshema process, nuns must score 75% or above in their studies to be eligible to sit for the Geshema exams.
    • On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a special graduation ceremony held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.
    • In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first woman to receive the Geshe degree. This was before the Geshema degree process was approved in 2012.
Photo of 10 new Geshemas 2022, Geshema graduation 2022

The 10 Geshemas who graduated on November 18th took part in a formal debate (damja) with hundreds of other nuns on November 16 and 17. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

The Geshema Exam Process

To be eligible to take their Geshema exams, the nuns must first complete at least 17 years of study.

The Geshema examination process is rigorous. It involves four years of written and debate exams as well as the completion and defense of a thesis.

Each year, the nuns preparing to sit various levels of the examinations gather together for one month of final exam preparations and then about 12 days of exams. In 2022, the exams were held at Geden Choeling Nunnery. The 2020 and 2021 Geshema exams were cancelled because of the pandemic.

Geshema, Geshema exams 2022, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Collage of nuns taking written and oral (debate) exams as part of the 2022 Geshema exams. Photos by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns.

“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,” says Steve Wilhelm, a Tibetan Nuns Project board member. “This means that women monastics will be leading more monastic institutions, and will be teaching other women and men. Humanity needs this gender equity if we are to navigate perilous times ahead.”

The Geshema degree will make the nuns eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.

The Number of Geshema Graduates

The first Geshema degree was conferred in 2011 to a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo.

In 2012, a historic decision was made to allow Tibetan Buddhist nuns the opportunity to take Geshema examinations.

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.

In November 2022, another ten nuns graduated with their Geshema degree. This brings the total number of Geshemas to 53. (In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first woman to receive the Geshe degree. This was before the Geshema degree process was approved in 2012 so she is not counted here in the total.)

Here’s a list of the Geshema graduations since the formal approval in 2012:

Geshema Endowment

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. We are also very grateful to all those who sponsor nuns and help them on their path.

The Geshema Endowment, launched by the Tibetan Nuns Project in 2021, ensures the long-term sustainability of the Geshema program. It cover the costs involved in training and qualifying more Geshemas including the costs of travel, food, and accommodation for the Geshema candidates to attend the exams. The fund also covers the cost of administration and materials for the exams and provides each new Geshema with a set of nuns’ robes and yellow hat that signifies the holding of the degree.

“As a Tibetan Nuns Project board member,” said Vicki Robinson, “I am so very proud of the achievements of the nuns who are working on the Geshema degree. 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.”

Geshemas in formal debate preceeding Geshema graduation 2022

The 10 Geshemas took part in two days of formal debate their convocation. Hundreds of nuns were in Bodh Gaya for the Jang Gonchoe inter-nunnery debate.

Robin Groth, another board member, wrote, “I am thrilled by this news! This is what the work of the Tibetan Nuns Project and its donors is about — giving opportunity where it has not been before and then see lives change, dreams fulfilled, and leaders emerge. What an honor to witness this evolution.”

What do Geshemas and Geshes Study

To graduate with a Geshema or Geshe degree, one studies the five essential Buddhist texts over about 20 years. The method of study involves logical analysis and debate, combined with regular sessions of prayer and recitation.

Each of the final-year candidates has to write, in advance, a 50-page thesis. Examiners test the candidates on their thesis papers during the exams and the nuns must give an oral defence.  Learn more about what Geshemas study here.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns are making history. Following further study and exams in Buddhist Tantric Studies, the Geshemas are becoming fully qualified as teachers. In 2019, two of the Geshemas who graduated in 2016 were hired as teachers at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute.

At Long Last the 2022 Geshema Exams Begin

Many Tibetan Buddhist nuns have been studying for decades and waiting for this opportunity. The long wait is over and the 2022 Geshema exams started on August 7th at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.

Thank you to everyone who sent good luck messages to the nuns! We’ve compiled all your messages and posted them at Geden Choeling for the nuns to see.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Geshema exams

Two nuns studying in the final days before the Geshema exams start. David said in his good luck message: “I am very glad to see that the Geshema examinations will take place in 2022, and look forward to supporting the spread of female teachers in these especially treacherous times!”

The Geshema degree (known as the Geshe degree for monks) is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. Until recently, this degree was only open to men.

Geshema, Geshema exams 2022, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Photos by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns of the 2022 Geshema exams. To earn the Geshema degree, nuns must take both written and debate exams. The rigorous examination process involves two weeks of examinations each year for four years.

The rigorous exams take four years to complete, with one set held each year. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the Geshema exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021.

2022 geshema exams, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

A group of nuns study during the final month of exam preparations for the 2022 Geshema exams which began on August 7th. To earn the Geshema degree, nuns must successfully complete four years of written and debate exams as well as write and defend a thesis.

Candidates are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts. They must achieve a score at least 75 per cent during their studies to be eligible to sit for the Geshema exams.

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery 2022

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel is one of two Geshemas now teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a large non-sectarian nunnery that is home to about 250 nuns. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

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.

Geshema exams 2022

Behind the scenes at the 2022 Geshema exams captured by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns. The new Geshema Endowment at the Tibetan Nuns Project funds all costs associated with the exams including food, travel, exam materials, and graduation robes.

Here’s a list of the Geshema graduations since the formal approval in 2012:

In his good luck, Robert said, “Dear Geshema candidates, I have thought of you many times since I became aware of your studies and intent to earn your Geshema degree. You have accomplished an extraordinary amount to have come this far. I wish you all peace of mind and good health as you take your exams. You are trailblazers already, and I would be incredibly honored to learn from you, whether or not you achieve the Geshema degree. That said, may you all find great success in achieving the degree so that more people may have the opportunity to learn from you. Congratulations on all your achievements so far in being ready to sit the exams — all of you inspire me so much and motivate me to practice harder. Thank you!”

Tibetan Buddhist Nuns studying for 2022 Geshema exams

The candidates assembled on July 6th for a month of final exam preparations. Photo courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

Some Facts About the Geshema Degree

  • The Geshema Degree is roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. For males, it is called the Geshe degree.
  • It is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Until recently, this highest degree could only be earned by monks.
  • To qualify to begin the Geshema process, nuns must score 75% or above in their studies to be eligible to sit for the Geshema exams.
  • On December 22, 2016, His Holiness the Dalai Lama awarded 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns with Geshema degrees at a special graduation ceremony held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India.
  • In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first woman to receive the Geshe degree. This was before the Geshema degree process was approved in 2012.
Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan nuns, geshema exams

Joy at the opportunity to take the Geshema exams. Thank you for your messages of good luck! Photos courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

 

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.

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.