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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 54 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.

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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.
    • In 2011, a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years training in India, became the first female to receive the Geshema title.
    • 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.
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 54.

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.

Another Historic Achievement: Geshemas to Receive Higher Education in Tantric Studies

For the first time in the history of Tibet, nuns will be given the opportunity to receive higher education in tantric studies. Although there have been accomplished female practitioners in Tibet’s history, women have never before been given an opportunity to formally study tantric Buddhism.

Geshema, Geshema nuns, Tantric Buddhism, Tibetan Nuns Project

18 of the 20 Tibetan Buddhist nuns who received their Geshema degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in December 2016. The Geshema graduates now have the opportunity to study tantric Buddhism.

Traditionally, monks who have attained their Geshe degree, equivalent to a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism, must also study tantric treatises in order to become fully qualified masters capable of teaching their complete tradition. Monks have always been able to receive these teachings at one of the great tantric colleges.

After the first-ever Tibetan Geshemas graduated in December 2016, a committee of representatives from six nunneries approached His Holiness the Dalai Lama for advice on starting a tantric studies program for the nuns. He kindly gave detailed instructions about the curriculum and the treatises to be used. He recommended that the Geshema nuns study as a group at Dolma Ling Nunnery, one of the nunneries founded and supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, since it has a quiet and peaceful atmosphere, conducive to intense study.

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 in December 2016 at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The committee then asked the Tibetan Nuns Project to provide funding for this groundbreaking program. On August 30th, the program was fully funded.

The two-year program starts in the first week of October. Two teachers are being hired and the Geshema nuns will receive training in tantric theory, rituals, and mind-training techniques used by those engaged in advanced meditation.

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.

Sharing your words with the Geshema nuns

Last spring, we asked our global community of supporters if they would like to share messages of congratulations to the 20 nuns who were receiving their Geshema degree on December 22, 2016.

The Geshema degree, known as Geshe when awarded to male monks, is conferred after at least 17 years of rigorous study of the five main Buddhist texts, combined with a regular session of prayers and recitations.

Lisa Farmer, Tibetan Nuns Project, Geshema nuns, congratulations messages

Lisa Farmer, Executive Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, showing the messages of congratulations to the Geshema nuns. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

We included brightly colored cards with our spring 2016 letter and many of our donors mailed back lovely messages for the nuns. You can see and read some of the messages in our earlier blog post.

Today’s blog post is a special one to report back to everyone who sent a message to the nuns.

On December 23, 2016 in Mundgod, South India, the Executive Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, Lisa Farmer, sat down with the nuns after a special luncheon and read the congratulations messages to them.

“The nuns were really moved,” said Farmer. “They were amazed that people from all over the world had been following their progress and had taken the time and trouble to send warm words of congratulations and best wishes for their futures.”

Geshema nuns, Buddhist nuns, Tibetan nuns. Tibetan Nuns Project

Lisa Farmer reading congratulations messages sent from Tibetan Nuns Project supporters around the world to the nuns who graduated with their Geshema degree. Photo courtesy of Delek Yangdon.

messages to Geshema nuns

The conferment of the Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns was a longstanding wish of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and reflects a historic milestone, as the degree was only awarded in the past to monks.

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

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

At the graduation ceremony on December 22nd, 2016, the Tibetan political leader, Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay, welcomed the conferment of the Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns as a step towards gender equality in education. “I heartily congratulate the twenty nuns who are receiving the Geshema degree. This is a result of your hard work and dedication,” he said.

He also expressed his gratitude to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for envisioning this step. “His Holiness the Dalai Lama is instrumental in making possible the historic conferment of the Geshema degree to Tibetan Buddhist nuns. We owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Rinchen Khandro Choegyal, Geshema, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan nuns, Tibetan Nuns Project

Rinchen Khando Choegyal, the founder and director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, congratulates the Geshema nuns at a special luncheon in their honor on December 23 2016 in Mundgod. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

 

Witness history in the making: Geshema Graduation Ceremony

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

Geshema nuns

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

Here’s the formal schedule of events:

schedule for Geshema Graduation event

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

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

livestream of the Geshema Graduation Ceremony

Photo courtesy of Tenzin Choejor, OHHDL

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