Tag Archives: Geshema Tenzin Kunsel

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.

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week

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

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

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

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

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

A primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to assist nuns in reaching the same level of education as the monks.

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

Who Teaches the Nuns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supporting the Nuns’ Teachers

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

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

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

What Do the Nuns Study

Each of the four traditions schools of Tibetan Buddhism has its own specific curriculum and degrees attained, but much is shared. All are based on the teachings of the Buddha and the Indian commentaries that developed to explicate them.

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

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

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

teacher appreciation, Shugsep Nunnery, education of Tibetan Buddhist nuns

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

The Power of Educating the Nuns

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

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

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

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

Tibetan, Tibetan language, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist nuns

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

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