Tag Archives: Tibetan Buddhism

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.

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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.
    • 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.

Tibetan Nuns Project Marks 35th Anniversary

To mark the 35th anniversary of the Tibetan Nuns Project in October 2022, we are re-publishing a 2001 interview with Rinchen Khando Choegyal, our Founding Director and Special Advisor. This interview was first published in our 2001 newsletter and shows how far the nuns have come thanks to your support.

Rinchen Khando Choegya is a former Minister of Education in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and founding President of the Tibetan Women’s Association. She is married to Ngari Rinpoche, youngest brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She resides in Dharamsala.

Rinchen Khando Choeygal Founding Director Tibetan Nuns Project

Rinchen Khando Choeygal, the Tibetan Nuns Project’s Founding Director and Special Advisor

What were your thoughts when you started the Tibetan Nuns Project?
When we started the Tibetan Nuns Project in 1987, I thought, “How best to look after the nuns?” Of course, the most important thing was to find them food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. It is, however, not enough to be fed and clothed. I knew nuns needed a better system of education, and that is what we have tried to focus on throughout the history of TNP.

Tibetan refugee nuns outside a tent classroom in India

An archival photo outside a tent classroom in India. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. TNP created a groundbreaking education system aimed at both preserving Tibetan culture and empowering the nuns to live and become leaders in the modern world.

Upon arriving in Dharamsala, 99% of the nuns could neither read nor write. They appeared to be strong young women, but in the classroom it was as if they were in kindergarten. Now there are nuns at both Dolma Ling and Shugsep who are beginning advanced studies. Eventually I hope that the Dolma Ling Institute for Higher Learning will be a place where both nuns and lay women can receive the finest advanced studies in all of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Why is it important for nuns to be well educated?
After His Holiness came to India, he put the education of children, not just boys, on top of his priority list. So, today in the Tibetan community the young men and women are equally educated. Traditionally in Tibet there has been a very profound system of monastic education which was, however, restricted to monks. Women who decided to become nuns focused mainly on learning prayers and how to read and write Tibetan. Now that education in the lay community has become equal between men and women, I personally feel that we must restructure the nuns’ education in order to stay true to His Holiness’ vision. It is important for this vision of equality to trickle down into all parts of society.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates Geshemas at historic Geshema graduation ceremony in 2016

Rinchen Khando Choegyal, director of Tibetan Nuns Project congratulating one of the Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates Geshemas at the historic graduation ceremony in 2016. The Geshema degree is the highest level of training in the Gelugpa tradition and is equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. This degree was only formally opened to women in 2012. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

So the key is to educate the nuns in a system through which they can study at as high a level as they need to. Luckily, we have full support for this vision from His Holiness and from the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs. Now the question is, what is the best way to implement this system for the nuns?

My main vision for the Tibetan Nuns Project is an education that will enable the nuns to think for themselves, to learn deeper values like: what is most meaningful at the end of your life? It will not be easy because they are not used to thinking for themselves or thinking highly of themselves.

Do the nuns receive the same education as monks?
In principle, the monks’ education is the same as the education we have implemented at our nunneries. The only difference (and this is changing at the monasteries now, too) is that a traditional monastic education teaches only Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan reading and writing. We also teach the nuns other subjects – English, history, math.

Again, we are trying to implement the vision of His Holiness, who has stressed the importance of learning these things.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates one of the 20 Geshemas in 2016, Olivier Adam

Rinchen Khando Choegyal congratulates one of the 20 Geshemas in 2016. Photo by Olivier Adam

What is the role of women’s education in current Tibetan society?
Education is very, very important for any community. Women are particularly important because through them the whole community can be educated (whether they are mothers and wives or nuns teaching in the community). Also, spiritual values are precious to everyone — mothers as well as nuns. There is a terrible lack of opportunity for lay women to engage in spiritual study right now. If a lay woman is able to study, she will be able to affect her whole family. Eventually, some percentage of admission to the Institute for Higher Learning will be reserved for lay women.

Why is the Institute for Higher Learning a non-sectarian institution?
The main reason is that I feel that all the different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism boil down to the same thing, the same message from the Buddha. We are so used to belonging to one tradition or another. This can cause division as religion often does. I have the deepest respect for all traditions. I want the nuns to learn all of the traditions in order for them to get a richer education. All of the different traditions really help you in different ways to reach a high level.

a collage of some of the many self-sufficiency projects at Dolma Ling Nunnery

A primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to help the nuns achieve more self-sufficiency through education, skill building, and income-generating projects. Here are some of the many self-sufficiency projects including tofu making, the annual calendar, prayer flags, and pujas.

Will the nuns develop “self-sufficiency”?

It is important for the Tibetan nation to be self-sufficient. The rest of the world has been very generous in supporting us in exile, but we need to try our best to attain self­-sufficiency. We can’t just sit back and relax and say, “How nice, we are being supported.” We have to look at these issues: who has which skills, and how can they best work together?

The purpose of life — whether  as a lay person, monk  or nun — is to  develop  yourself  as an individual and to become a useful, productive member of human society — helpful and altruistic. We have started to develop an advanced educational system for the nuns, but not all will be scholars; some nuns will need training of other kinds. All of them have something to give. I want to set up a system where they can be trained as health workers, teachers, midwives, artists, people with skills to offer the community. The nuns could even keep cows. Self-sufficiency should be stressed within each part of society, as well as within the larger society.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns and dairy cows at Dolma Ling

The nuns at Dolma Ling have now been keeping dairy cows for over 20 years as part of the nunnery’s sustainability efforts. The small herd provides milk and butter for the 261 nuns who live and study there. The dairy herd also provides manure for the nunnery’s gardens.

The basic requirements for real altruism are care and compassion. But you also need to have some skill. Not everyone can be a teacher, but everyone can develop some skills so that they can serve the community. And by doing so, the nuns will be truly living compassion. Altruism starts at home, with the person next to you. Many people care deeply about the environment, or people far away, yet don’t pay much attention to the people close to them. Even nuns can’t pray for all sentient beings and do nothing themselves. Knowing how diligent they have been at their studies, I am certain that they will be equally diligent in serving their communities when they are finished.

What do you see as the future of the Tibetan Nuns Project?
We’ve come a long way in terms of infrastructure, health, and awareness. We started Dolma Ling and Shugsep nunneries, and we also help nuns at Geden Choeling, Tilokpur and other nunneries. Over the next five years, my focus will be on the quality of the nuns’ education and administration.I want to review each and every nun and see what each nun is capable of. I want the administration to become even more efficient. But primarily Iwant to focus on the quality of the nuns’ education and to help develop them individually.

We have a long way to go in terms of fundraising. It is crucial that we build an endow­ment so that Dolma Ling’s operating expenses can become self-sufficient. Of course, we also need to complete the planned infrastructure of Dolma Ling, as well as build the new Shugsep Nunnery. On top of all this, we need to figure out the best way to incorporate the number of nuns arriving fresh from Tibet each year into our system.

Through the Tibetan Nuns Project, I would like to see that I look after all of the nuns in the Tibetan commu­nity. This is probably impossible! The Tibetan Nuns Project is currently helping more than 600 nuns and, at least, I want to see that this job is done correctly in terms of education and social work.

Since 1987, I have worked very hard to improve the lives of nuns. Although I have not received any external reward, it has given me great internal joy. I think through this project I have gained more than anybody in the world.

Tibetan Buddhist Nuns holding thank you signs

Since this interview was published in 2001, we made great progress toward our vision to educate and empower nuns of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as teachers and leaders; and to establish, strengthen, and support educational institutions to sustain Tibetan religion and culture.

Thanks to your generosity we have:

Taking you inside the nuns’ classrooms

It’s back to school time! Today, we’re taking you inside classrooms to show how you’re helping provide groundbreaking learning opportunities for Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

Dolma Ling, Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhist nuns

Inside a classroom at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in May 2022. Traditionally, Buddhist nuns have not had the same access to education as monks. The Tibetan Nuns Project aims to elevate the educational standards and the position of women. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Educating the nuns is the core of our work. In the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of nuns escaped from Tibet. The overwhelming majority of the nuns were illiterate. Most of the them had had no education in their own language. While in Tibet they were also denied education in their religious heritage.

Photos taken by Olivier Adam in May 2022 at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. The top left photo shows Geshema Tenzin Kunsel teaching. The bottom left photo shows nuns leaving one of the Tibetan classes. The nunneries in India are helping to preserve Tibet’s religion, language, and culture.

The Tibetan Nuns Project created an education program for nuns from the ground up. “Today when I see those nuns who didn’t know how to read and write their own names now have Geshema degrees, it is amazing. In a way, 30 years is a long time, but when it’s creating history it is not very long,” said Rinchen Khando Choegyal, Founding Director and Special Advisor to the Tibetan Nuns Project.

The Tibetan Nuns Project also helps women and girls from the remote and impoverished border areas of India such as Ladakh, Zanskar, Spiti, Lahoul, and Arunachal Pradesh. The women and girls from these areas are usually given far less education than men and boys. The nunneries give them a chance for education that they would not have otherwise.

Tibetan Buddhist class, Dorjee Zong Nunnery Zanskar

Dorjee Zong Nunnery in located in the remote, high-altitude area of Zanskar in northern India. Girls and women in the Himalayan regions have traditionally been given far less education than men and boys. All photos courtesy of Olivier Adam.

What the Tibetan Nuns Study

A primary goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to assist nuns in reaching the same level of education as the monks. Each of the four traditional schools of Tibetan Buddhism has its own specific curriculum and degrees, but they also share a great deal. All are based on the teachings of the Buddha and the Indian commentaries that developed to explicate them.

Exactly which commentaries the nuns most rely on varies between traditions as do the number of years of study, but there is uniformity as to 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.
Sherab Choeling Nunnery Spiti Valley by Oliver Adam

Sherab Choeling Nunnery in India’s Spiti Valley is one of seven Tibetan Buddhist nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project. This year, nuns from this remote nunnery will take part in the inter-nunnery debate which brings together hundreds of nuns for one month of intensive training in monastic debate. All photos by Olivier Adam.

At most of the seven 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.

Tibetan nun education, Education Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan Buddhist nun

Tibetan Buddhist nuns taking part in a Tibetan calligraphy competition

In addition to providing basic educational requirements, the Tibetan Nuns Project seeks 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 challenging times, it is essential to combine traditional religious studies with aspects of modern education.

Why Educating Tibetan Nuns Is So Important

It is a historic time for Tibetan Buddhist nuns and Tibetan Buddhism.

Inside Tibet, nuns and monks are under constant surveillance and are unable to freely practice their religion. There’s a very great risk that the priceless wisdom and teachings of Tibetan Buddhism may be lost.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, patron of the Tibetan Nuns Project, has said, “The Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is something precious which we can be proud of and should strive to preserve.”

Shugsep Nunnery letter on classroom wall

An essay in the English classroom at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute. The original Shugsep Nunnery in Tibet was completely destroyed and then partially rebuilt by the nuns themselves. However, the nuns faced frequent harassment by Chinese authorities and many escaped into exile in India. Shugsep was re-established in exile by the Tibetan Nuns Project.

It is also a time of opportunity for Buddhist women. Never before have Tibetan nuns been able to receive the same education and the chance to study and sit for the same degrees as monks.

For the first time in the history of Tibet, nuns can take the Geshema degree, roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism.

Our focus with the Tibetan Nuns Project has been on helping the nuns to gain the top degrees within their Tibetan Buddhist traditions, so that they could reach the same level of academic proficiency in those traditions as the monks. Our further hope is that they will go on to teach other nuns so that teachers do not always have to be monks.

Geshema Delek Wangmo, teaching, Dolma Ling Nunnery

Geshema Delek Wangmo teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. She and Geshema Tenzin Kunsel made history when they were hired in 2019 to teach the nuns there. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Your support has helped bring about these major educational accomplishments:

Do you want to do more to help the nuns? Learn about our Current Projects here and how you can sponsor a nun. More sponsors are always needed.

The Meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains the meaning of Om mani padme hum. 

om mani padme hum, mantra, Tibetan mantra, meaning of om mani padme hum

The mantra Om mani padme hum. The six syllables are Om ཨོཾ mani མ་ཎི padme པ་དྨེ hum ཧཱུྃ.

A Talk On Om Mani Padme Hum By H.H. the Dalai Lama

It is very good to recite the mantra Om mani padme hum, but while you are doing it, you should be thinking on its meaning, for the meaning of the six syllables is great and vast.

Om

The first, Om is composed of three letters. A, U, and M. These symbolize the practitioner’s impure body, speech, and mind; they also symbolize the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.

Can impure body, speech, and mind be transformed into pure body, speech, and mind, or are they entirely separate?

All Buddhas are cases of beings who were like ourselves and then in dependence on the path became enlightened; Buddhism does not assert that there is anyone who from the beginning is free from faults and possesses all good qualities. The development of pure body, speech, and mind comes from gradually leaving the impure states and their being transformed into the pure.

How is this done?

The path is indicated by the next four syllables.

Mani

Mani, meaning jewel, symbolizes the factors of method—the altruistic intention to become enlightened, compassion, and love.

Just as a jewel is capable of removing poverty, so the altruistic mind of enlightenment is capable of removing the poverty, or difficulties, of cyclic existence and of solitary peace.

Similarly, just as a jewel fulfills the wishes of sentient beings, so the altruistic intention to become enlightened fulfills the wishes of sentient beings.

mani stones, om mani padme hum, the meaning of om mani padme hum

Mani stones outside the Tsuglagkhang Complex, near the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, India. Photo by Liz Highleyman, Creative Commons, https://bit.ly/3fuozRB

Padme

The two syllables, padme, meaning lotus, symbolize wisdom. Just as a lotus grows forth from mud but is not sullied by the faults of mud, so wisdom is capable of putting you in a situation of non-contradiction whereas there would be contradiction if you did not have wisdom.

There is wisdom realizing impermanence, wisdom realizing that persons are empty of being self-sufficient or substantially existent, wisdom that realizes the emptiness of duality—that is to say, of difference of entity between subject and object—and wisdom that realizes the emptiness of inherent existence.

Though there are many different types of wisdom, the main of all these is the wisdom realizing emptiness.

Hum

Purity must be achieved by an indivisible unity of method and wisdom, symbolized by the final syllable hum, which indicates indivisibility. According to the sutra system, this indivisibility of method and wisdom refers to wisdom affected by method and method affected by wisdom.

In the mantra, or tantric, vehicle, it refers to one consciousness in which there is the full form of both wisdom and method as one undifferentiable entity.

In terms of the seed syllables of the five Conqueror Buddhas, hum is the seed syllable of Akshobhya—the immovable, the unfluctuating, that which cannot be disturbed by anything.

The six syllables: Om Mani Padme Hum

Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.

It is said that you should not seek for Buddhahood outside of yourself; the substances for the achievement of Buddhahood are within.

As Maitreya says in his Sublime Continuum of the Great Vehicle (Uttaratantra), all beings naturally have the Buddha nature in their own continuum. We have within us the seed of purity, the essence of a One Gone Thus (Tathagatagarbha), that is to be transformed and fully developed into Buddhahood.

First published in Kindness, Clarity, and Insight by The Fourteenth Dalai Lama His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, co-edited by Elizabeth Napper. Snow Lion Publications, 1984. Reprinted here by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com

Video on the meaning of Om Mani Padme Hum

Here’s a video from 2013 of His Holiness the Dalai Lama answering a question about the meaning of the mantra Om mani padme hum.

March 10th 2019: 60th anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day

On March 10th, we wanted to give you a reminder of what has happened in Tibet over the past 60 years. These days, we don’t get much news out of Tibet, but from accounts that we are hearing, the political and religious repression continues.

On March 10th, Tibetan Uprising Day, we pay tribute to the brave women and men who sacrificed their lives calling for basic human rights and freedom in Tibet.

Tibetan Uprising Day: March 10, 1959

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising on March 10th and the Tibetan Women’s Uprising on March 12th. Six decades ago, thousands of Tibetans gathered in Lhasa to surround the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama because they feared that he would be abducted or killed by Chinese forces. The vast crowds of Tibetans were protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the suffering they had endured since the invasion of their country in 1949.

Tibetan Women’s Uprising: March 12, 1959

Tibetan Women's Uprising, March 12 1959, protest in Tibet, Tibetan women protest

This photograph by the Associated Press is one of the only images from March 1959 showing thousands of Tibetan women surrounding the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the main residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to protest against Chinese rule and repression in Tibet.

We also commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan Women’s Uprising, remembering the brave Tibetan women who gathered in their thousands on March 12th, 1959 to demand Tibetan independence.

Tibetan women continue to be a steadfast presence in leading the non-violent and peaceful resistance to the repression in Tibet. Tibetan nuns have played a very prominent role in calling for basic human rights and religious freedom in Tibet. Consequently, they have suffered greatly, such as the famous “singing nuns” of Drapchi Prison. Nuns have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. They have been expelled from their nunneries and their nunneries have been destroyed. You can read some of their stories here.

Dalai Lama’s Escape into Exile

Fearing for the lives of his people, on March 17, 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, left the Potala Palace and slipped through the crowds disguised as a soldier, setting off on a long, perilous journey into exile in India. He traveled at night and crossed the Himalayas on foot with a small group of soldiers and cabinet members. Unaware of His Holiness’s escape, the Tibetans refused to disburse the area around his home. In response, China’s People’s Liberation Army launched a brutal attack on innocent civilians, immediately killing about 2,000 Tibetans. It is estimated that 87,000 Tibetans were killed, arrested, or deported to labor camps following the uprising.

Dalai Lama escaping Tibet, March 1959,

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, age 23, escaped from Tibet in 1959. India offered him asylum and a home in Dharamsala, where he was permitted to set up a government-in-exile.

“After the flight of the Dalai Lama, Mao crushed Tibet with a vengeance,” said an article “Genocide in Tibet” in The Washington Post. “Institutions of government and education were systematically destroyed; the Buddhist religion was labeled a ‘disease to be eradicated’; nearly 1.2 million out of about 6 million died through armed conflict and famine; large numbers of Tibetan children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to Chinese orphanages for ‘reeducation.’ Research suggests that close to 1 million Tibetans tried to escape to India, Nepal, Bhutan or other regions of their country, but given the vast distances, lack of food in mountainous terrain and military invasion, most either surrendered to the Chinese or died in flight. In the end, only 110,000 Tibetans survived the journey over the Himalayas to join the Dalai Lama in India.”

Cultural Revolution inTibet, monastic university, Ganden Monastery, one of the three great monastic universities in Tibet, before and after the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Ganden Monastery, one of the great monastic universities in Tibet, was destroyed by the People’s Liberation Army during the 1959 Tibetan uprising and reduced to rubble during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Over 6,000 monasteries and nunneries have been destroyed since the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Exile

Under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan refugees were able to establish settlements all over India on unused land provided by the Indian government. Tibetans were able to set up a Central Tibetan Administration and Tibetan schools in a systematic attempt to restore their cultural institutions. The main monasteries of Tibet were rebuilt in India. While traditionally there had been little education of girls in Tibet, His Holiness said that the new school system should educate boys and girls equally.

Tibetan nuns in exile, Tibetan Buddhist nuns escape,

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many nuns escaped to India. The Tibetan Women’s Association organized emergency aid for the nuns. Tibetan exiles donated clothing and essentials such as cooking pots to help the newly arrived nuns who were camping by the side of the road. Photo: Tibetan Nuns Project Archive.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, following a loosening of restrictions in Tibet and a wave of pro-independence protests, there was a new influx of Tibetans escaping Tibet, including many nuns. The nuns had walked over the Himalayas and were ill and exhausted. Many had been imprisoned and tortured. While one or two nunneries had been established in exile, they were poor, overcrowded, and struggling. The existing nunneries did not have the capacity to take in the many newly arrived nuns.

The Tibetan Nuns Project was formed under the auspices of the Tibetan Women’s Association and the Department of Religion and Culture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide long-term care for the nuns. The Project secured housing, medical care, and most importantly, education for these refugee nuns.

Tibetan Buddhist nuns help build Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute

Tibetan Buddhist nuns help build Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo: Tibetan Nuns Project Archives.

Over time, the Tibetan Nuns Project built two large nunnery complexes, Dolma Ling and Shugsep. Dedicated to educating nuns in India from all Tibetan Buddhist lineages, the Tibetan Nuns Project had to start an education system from scratch.

Most of the nuns who escaped from Tibet and arrived in India were illiterate and couldn’t even write their own names. Now, over 800 nuns at seven nunneries in India, have the opportunity to study in educational programs focused on the full course of philosophical studies leading to the highest degrees of their traditions.

The accomplishments are many, but there is still much more to do to empower and educate the nuns and to preserve the rich wisdom tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Over the last decade, the number of Tibetans escaping from Tibet has plummeted. The plunging number of refugees from Tibet is attributed to tighter surveillance, stricter border controls along mountain passes by the Chinese, and closer ties between Beijing and Nepal, whose relations have become friendlier in recent years.

The oppression inside Tibet during the past 60 years has come in waves. While things are now quieter in Tibet, Human Rights Watch has reported that the apparently benign terms used by Chinese authorities such as “stability maintenance” mask repression there and are, in fact, used to ensure total compliance and surveillance by officials of ordinary Tibetan people.

Repression of Human Rights and Religion in Tibet

Tibetan culture and identity is inextricably linked to Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist principles and practice are deep in the Tibetan psyche and part of daily life for most Tibetans. The vast majority of Tibetans are devoted to the His Holiness the Dalai Lama and they long for his return to Tibet. Monks and nuns play a key role in their communities, providing guidance and education.

The greatest casualties of the Chinese occupation of Tibet have been Tibet’s religion and culture. One can’t begin to describe here the countless ways in which the Chinese authorities have waged war on Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture. The destruction of over 6,000 monasteries, nunneries, and sacred places before and during the Cultural Revolution was only the start. All aspects of religious practice are closely monitored and controlled. There is a massive army and police presence in Tibet. Nuns and monks are particularly targeted by security restrictions.

Simply possessing an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama can result in sanctions, arrest, and even torture. Now in a bizarre move, monasteries and nunneries in Tibet are being forced to display portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong on their altars or face punishment.

To decrease the influence of monastics and to prevent a new generation of Tibetans from mastering their language and connecting to their traditional culture, the Chinese Communist Party recently banned Tibetan monasteries from offering Tibetan language classes.

For decades, nuns and monks have been forced to endure “patriotic education” sessions to try to break their beliefs and their allegiance to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The boy who was chosen as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been missing for over 23 years. November 1995, the Chinese government selected a different boy.

March 10th, Tibetan Uprising Day, Tibetan demonstrations, protests by Tibetan Buddhist nuns

Draped in the Tibetan flags, Tibetan Buddhist nuns in India take part in peaceful demonstrations to mark the anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day, March 10th. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

Now China is maneuvering to control the selection process of the next Dalai Lama. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken forcefully against this. He said, “The person who reincarnates has sole legitimate authority over where and how he or she takes rebirth and how that reincarnation is to be recognized.”

“It is particularly inappropriate for Chinese communists, who explicitly reject even the idea of past and future lives, let alone the concept of reincarnate Tulkus, to meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas,” said His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On March 10, 2019, we won’t know what is happening inside Tibet. In February China closed Tibet to foreigners, journalists, and diplomats and Tibet is to remain closed until April 1st to prevent the world from bearing witness.

Preserve Tibet’s precious wisdom and culture

“We, here in exile, cannot materially help our people in Tibet, who are confronted with the destruction of all that they love and cherish. We can only pray with all the strength of our hearts that their nightmare of agony and terror will disappear in the not too distant future.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote these words in 1962 on the third anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising Day.

He went on to say, “There must be an end to the policy of force and intimidation which it [China] is pursuing in Tibet and that the only solution to the Tibetan problem is a peaceful settlement consistent with the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Tibetan people.”

Tibet’s unique religion and culture are global treasures that must not be lost. This wisdom tradition has so much to offer the world now and in the future.

Exile is the only chance for Tibetan Buddhist nuns to get an education.

Tibetan calligraphy, Tibetan language

A Tibetan Buddhist nun practices Tibetan calligraphy at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India. The Tibetan nuns in exile are helping to hold on to Tibet’s precious religion and culture. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team

By helping the nuns and nunneries, you are helping to preserve Tibetan Buddhism and are providing the opportunity for these brave, dedicated women to be educated and become teachers and role models. Without the generosity and compassion of Tibetan Nuns Project supporters, over 700 nuns would not have the necessities of life such as education, shelter, food, clothing, and health care. Most of the nuns in India are from Tibet and cannot return to their homeland. They are forced to live as stateless refugees. Other nuns are from remote and impoverished Himalayan regions of India where there is little or no education available to girls and women.

The world needs Tibetan Buddhist nuns now and the wisdom, courage, compassion, and dedication that they embody and bring to humanity. Nuns are holders of a vision we must protect.

With prayers for the well-being and happiness of all sentient beings.

Tibetan Buddhist Holidays 2019

This is an illustrated list of some of the major Tibetan Buddhist holidays in 2019, as well as some other important dates in the Tibetan calendar.

Tibetan Buddhist holidays, Tibetan Nuns Project calendar, 2019 calendar

Front and back of the 2019 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar available through our online store.

Each year, the Tibetan Nuns Project publishes a calendar with the Tibetan Buddhist holidays and other important ritual dates, plus the phases of the moon, inspirational quotes, and major US and Canadian holidays. This beautiful 2019 calendar is available from our online store. Know that, by buying this calendar, you are helping to provide education, food, shelter, and health care for over 700 Tibetan Buddhist nuns living in northern India.

February 5 2019: Losar (Tibetan New Year)

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute celebrate Losar. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is a very special time of year. This year, February 5th is the first day of the Earth Pig Year of 2146 according to the Tibetan calendar. Losar-related rituals fall into two distinct parts. First, the nuns, like all Tibetans, say goodbye to the old year and let go of all its negative or bad aspects. Part of this involves cleaning one’s home or room from top to bottom. After that, the Losar or “new year” is welcomed with prayers and by inviting all good, auspicious things into our homes and our lives. Special food is prepared such as such as khapse and a  noodle soup called guthuk. See this recipe for vegetarian guthuk.

March 10 and March 12: Tibetan Uprising Day

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Nuns, monks, and lay people hold Tibetan flags and banners as they take part in a demonstration in Dharamsala, India to mark March 10th, Tibetan Uprising Day. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

While not a Tibetan Buddhist holiday, March 10th is a very important date in the Tibetan calendar. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising. Around the world, Tibetans and their supporters remember and pay tribute to all those who have sacrificed their lives for Tibet’s struggle. An estimated one million Tibetans have perished and 98% of monasteries and nunneries were destroyed under the Chinese occupation.

March 12th 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the Tibetan Women’s Uprising. Sixty years ago, following the National Uprising Day on March 10th, thousands of Tibetan women gathered  in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa to demonstrate for Tibetan independence.

June 17 2019: Saga Dawa Düchen

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Every year, during the month of Saga Dawa, over a period of several days, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery read the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon or Kangyur, the 108 volumes of the spoken words of the Buddha. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

The most important month in the Tibetan lunar calendar is Saga Dawa, the 4th month which runs from June 4th to July 2nd 2019. The 15th day of this lunar month, the full moon day, is called Saga Dawa Düchen. Düchen means “great occasion” and this day is the single most holy day of the year for Tibetan Buddhists. In 2019, Saga Dawa Düchen falls on June 17th. Saga Dawa Düchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana of Buddha Shakyamuni. In other Buddhist traditions this occasion is known as Vesak or is sometimes called Buddha Day.

Saga Dawa is known as the month of merits. Tibetan Buddhists make extra efforts to practice more generosity, virtue, and compassion in order to accumulate greater merit. Tibetans believe that during this month, the merits of one’s actions are multiplied. On the 15th day of the month the merits of one’s actions are hugely increased.

July 6: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Birthday

His Holiness the Dalai LamaAround the world, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6th will be celebrated with happiness and prayers for his good health and long life. This year His Holiness the Dalai Lama turns 84. The nuns will pray and make special offerings of tsok, khataks (prayer scarves), and sangsol (incense offering) to His Holiness. It’s a day of celebration with special food, such as Tibetan momos, the steamed savory dumplings that are much loved by Tibetans around the world and that are often made on Tibetan Buddhist holidays.

July 16: Universal Prayer Day

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns hang new prayer flags on Universal Prayer Day. Photo courtesy of Nuns Media Team.

Universal Prayer Day or Dzam Ling Chi Sang falls on the 15th day of the 5th month of the Tibetan Lunar calendar, so in June or July. It is a time for spiritual cleansing. Tibetans hang prayer flags and burn juniper twigs.

August 4 2019: Buddha’s First Teaching

Called Chokhor Düchen, this important day falls on the fourth day of the sixth lunar month. This day is the third “great occasion” (düchen) in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. It celebrates the first teaching by the historical Buddha, named Siddhartha at birth and commonly known as Shakyamuni Buddha. On this day, over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha gave the teaching of the Four Noble Truths in Sarnath, shortly after attaining enlightenment in Bodhgaya. This event is known as the “turning of the wheel of dharma”. In Theravada traditions, this event is remembered on Dhamma Day, also known as Asalha Puja, and is generally marked on the full moon of the eighth lunar month. To celebrate Chokhor Düchen, Tibetan Buddhists make pilgrimages to holy places, offer incense, and hang prayer flags.​​

November 19 2019: Buddha’s Descent from Heaven

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns praying. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Another “great occasion” or düchen in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar is Lhabab Düchen. This date commemorates the Buddha’s descent from the heavenly realm following his visit there to teach his deceased mother. Lhabab Düchen occurs on the 22nd day of the ninth lunar month, according to Tibetan calendar. On this day, the karmic effects of our actions are multiplied millions of times. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, people engage in virtuous activities and prayer to gain merit and to mark this special occasion.

February 24 2020: Losar (Tibetan New Year)

butter sculptures, Losar, Tibetan Buddhist holidays, Tibetan New Year, offerings, Tibetan Nuns Project

Butter sculptures and offering made by the Tibetan nuns for Losar, Tibetan New Year.

Losar in 2020 falls on February 24th, 2020 and is the Year of the Iron Mouse 2147 in the Tibetan calendar.

Tibetan Buddhist Holidays in 2019 and the Tibetan Nuns Project Calendar

It is still possible to order copies of our 2019 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar. It’s a great way to keep track of the Tibetan Buddhist holidays and all the special events throughout the year.

 

Mudras: Meaning of Sacred Hand Gestures

Mudras are sacred hand gestures or positions that used to evoke a state of mind. The Sanskrit word “mudra” means “seal”, “mark”, or “gesture”. In Tibetan the word is ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ or “chakgya”. Each of these sacred hand gestures has a specific meaning. Many of them symbolize major moments or events in the Buddha’s life.

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In this beautiful photo by Olivier Adam, an elderly nun in Zanskar shows a novice nun how to make the Mandala Offering Mudra.

8 Mudras and their Meaning

Sacred hand gestures or mudras are often depicted in Buddhist art. In this blog we’d like to share descriptions and images of some common mudras. The list here is not exhaustive.

The Earth Witness Mudra

When Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was meditating under the Bodhi tree, he was assailed by the demon Mara, who tried to disturb his mind. Mara represents the passions that trap and delude us. Siddhartha refused to be tempted from the path to enlightenment and he called on the earth to witness his worthiness to become enlightened, saying, “The earth shall be my witness, I will not let myself be seduced.” In the Earth Witness Mudra, (also known as the Bhumisparsa Mudra or Gesture of Witness), the historical Buddha is seated in the meditation posture and touches the earth with the fingertips of his right hand, palm facing inwards. The left hand is placed in the lap with the palm facing upwards.

earth witness mudra, Buddha, thangka,

In this detail from a thangka print, the historical Buddha is depicted seated in meditation and calling the earth as his witness.

The Mudra of Meditation

The Mudra of Meditation (dhyana) is made by placing both hands on the lap, right hand on the left, with the palms facing upwards, the tips of the thumbs touching, and the fingers fully stretched. This mudra helps to calm the mind for meditation and is used for deep contemplation and reflection. The mudra of meditation is a characteristic gesture of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Mudra of Meditation, sacred hand gestures, mudras, Buddha sculpture

This ancient stone sculpture shows the Buddha with his hands in the Mudra of Meditation

The Namaskara or Anjali Mudra

This mudra, while not found in representations of the Buddha or other deities, is commonly used by nuns, monks, and lay people to symbolize devotion, prayer, and admiration. Called the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra, it is used as a common form of greeting in most Asian countries. Anjali is a Sanskrit word which means “salutation” or “to offer” and Namaskar is Hindi for “good day”. To make this mudra, you bring your palms together in front of your heart space, fingers pointing upwards, and thumbs close to the chest, to symbolize honor, respect, and devotion.

Dalai Lama, Olivier Adam, gesture of greeting, mudra, mudras

His Holiness the Dalai Lama holds his hands together in greeting and in offering respect to others. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Mudra of Holding the Jewel or Manidhara Mudra

The Mudra of Holding the Jewel looks very similar to the Namaskara Mudra or the Anjali Mudra shown above. Also called the Manidhara Mudra, it is made by holding one’s hands together in front but with the palms and fingers slightly arched, holding the precious, wish-fulfilling jewel. This jewel or gem is also depicted in Tibetan prayer flags, carried upon the back of the Lung Ta  or wind horse. This sacred hand gesture of holding the jewel is a mudra of Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. The Tibetan word for Avalokiteshvara is Chenrezig (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་). The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Chenrezig,

Tibetan Buddhist nun, mudras, sacred hand gesture, Zanskar, Tibetan Nuns Project

An elderly nun in Zanskar places her palms together in devotion, holding the wish-fulfilling jewel, a mudra associated with Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

The Mandala Offering Mudra

The Mandala Offering Mudra is a complex and sacred hand gesture that acts as a symbolic offering of the entire universe for the benefit of all sentient beings. Performing the Mandala Offering Mudra helps to reduce one’s attachment and to purify the clinging mind. Although this mudra is usually made together with prayers and Buddhist chants, non-Buddhists can also perform it to receive its spiritual benefits.

Mandala Mudra, mudra, Olivier Adam, Tibetan mudra, Tibetan Buddhist nun, mala

A Tibetan Buddhist nun performs the Mandala Mudra with her mala (Buddhist prayer beads). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

To make this complex mudra, sit in meditation pose with your back straight. Calm your breathing and visualize offering the mandala – the universe – to the Buddha, bodhisattvas, and all holy beings, giving with great joy and with purity of heart. Place your hands palms up and intertwine your fingers. With the tips of your thumbs, press down on the tips of the opposite little finger. Then, with the bent tips of your index fingers, press down on the tip of the opposite middle finger. Finally, take your ring fingers, unclasp them, and put them back to back, pressing the backs together and with both fingers going straight up through the center. Together the ring fingers symbolize Mt. Meru, the sacred mountain, and the four continents described in Buddhist cosmology.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun in Zanskar performs the mandala offering mudra. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Vitarka Mudra or Teaching Mudra

The Vitarka Mudra (the Mudra of Teaching or Discussion) is a common mudra representing the discussion and transmission of Buddhist teachings. It is formed by joining the tips of the thumb and index finger together to form a circle, keeping the other three fingers pointing straight up. The circle formed by the joined fingers symbolizes perfection with no beginning or end.

This mudra is usually made with one hand, most often the right one, with the hand held upward close to the chest and the palm facing outward. However, the mudra may also be made with both hands held in front of the chest, with each index finger and thumb joined in a circle. When two hands are used, the left palm faces inward and the right palm is turned outward. The Teaching Mudra represents the Buddha’s first teaching after becoming enlightened. It also symbolizes the “Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma” or Dharmachakra. There are a great number of variations of this mudra in Mahayana Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is the mystic gesture of Taras and bodhisattvas.

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This sculpture shows the mudra of teaching or the Vitarka Mudra, with the tips of the thumb and index finger joined to form a circle.

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In this detail from a thangka print, White Tara is holding an utpala flower in her raised left hand. The tips of her thumb and fourth or ring finger are touching. This is a gesture of good fortune and shows that, by relying upon her, one may accomplish complete purity of mind and body.

Generosity Mudra or Varada Mudra

The Varada Mudra is the gesture of generosity, charity, and compassion. It is commonly found in representations of the Green and White Tara. This sacred hand gesture represents the granting of blessings, wishes, or even pardon. It also symbolizes the “gift of truth” – the precious gift of the dharma or Buddhist teachings. In the Varada Mudra, the palm faces out and hangs down, usually touching the right leg. This mudra is often used in conjunction with another mudra. The five fingers represent the five perfections: generosity, morality, patience, diligence, and meditation.

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Detail of a thangka print depicting White Tara and showing the outward facing palm and downward hand of the Varada Mudra or Mudra of Generosity.

Mudra of Fearlessness or Abhaya Mudra

Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness. The Mudra of Fearlessness or the Abhaya Mudra symbolizes the dispelling of fear. It can look to Westerners like the common hand gesture for “stop”. The mudra is made by raising the right hand to shoulder height, with the arm bent and the palm facing outward. This mudra is more commonly depicted in standing images.

This very ancient hand gesture is also a sign of peace and friendship. Placing one’s hand up and open in this way indicates that one is free of weapons and comes in peace. In Buddhism, the mudra shows the fearlessness and therefore the spiritual power of the Buddha or bodhisattva who makes it.

It is said that the historical Buddha made this sacred hand gesture immediately after gaining enlightenment. At a later time, the Buddha was about to be attacked by a mad elephant. The poor animal had been fed alcohol and tortured by one who hoped to use the elephant as a weapon against the Buddha. The elephant, enraged and in pain, charged at the Buddha and his followers. While others ran away, the Buddha stood calmly, raising his hand in the gesture of fearlessness. He felt great love and compassion for the stricken elephant. In response, the elephant stopped in its charge, became calm, and then approached the Buddha and bowed its head.

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A giant Buddha statue in Hong Kong shows the seated Buddha with the mudra of fearlessness or the Abhaya Mudra

A note about the images of mudras: The thangka prints shown in this blog post were donated to the Tibetan Nuns Project by a generous donor. A range of thangka prints are available through our online store, with all proceeds from sales going to help the nuns. We are very grateful to Olivier Adam for sharing his beautiful photos. Many of his photos are available as cards through our online store. Prints of Olivier Adam’s photographs are available through his Etsy shop, Daughters of Buddha.

The Tibetan Buddhist holy month of Saga Dawa

Saga Dawa is a very important month in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. This year, Saga Dawa, the fourth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar, started on May 7th and runs until June 5th 2016.

The 15th day of the lunar month, the full moon day, is called Saga Dawa Düchen. Düchen means “great occasion” and this day is the single most holy day of the year for Buddhists. This year Saga Dawa Düchen falls on May 21 2016. In other Buddhist traditions it is known as Vesak or is sometimes as Buddha Day. Saga Dawa Düchen commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death (parinirvana) of Buddha Shakyamuni.

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A young Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery reads scriptures to mark Saga Dawa. Photo courtesy of Tenzin Sangmo.

Since 1999, the United Nations has marked this sacred Buddhist day each year with a special message from the UN Secretary General. The UN Vesak page states, “Vesak, the Day of the Full Moon in the month of May, is the most sacred day to millions of Buddhists around the world. It was on the Day of Vesak two and a half millennia ago, in the year 623 B.C., that the Buddha was born. It was also on the Day of Vesak that the Buddha attained enlightenment, and it was on the Day of Vesak that the Buddha in his eightieth year passed away.”

This year’s message from the UN Secretary General highlights the primary role that women can play in promoting peace, justice, and human rights. Continue reading

Tibetan malas made and blessed by Buddhist nuns

Some of our most popular items in the Tibetan Nuns Project online store are our malas or Buddhist prayer beads. The Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute near Dharamsala, India make our long malas and bless both the long and wrist malas.

hanging Tibetan malas or prayer beads

A selection of the Tibetan malas made and blessed by Buddhist nuns and available through our online store.

Mala is a Sanskrit word meaning “garland”; in Tibetan, a mala is called threngwa. Malas are used to keep track while one recites, chants, or mentally repeats a mantra or the name or names of a deity. Malas are similar to other forms of prayer beads used in various world religions and they are sometimes called the Buddhist rosary. They are employed to focus one’s awareness and concentration during spiritual practice.

Mantras are spiritual syllables or prayers and are usually repeated many times. In Tibetan Buddhism, one mala constitutes 100 recitations of a mantra. There are 8 additional recitations done to ensure proper concentration. One holds the mala with the left hand and begins to recite from the guru bead, clockwise around the mala.

In Tibetan Buddhism, people traditionally use malas with 108 counting beads and a formal, special, three-holed, finishing bead called a “guru” bead or “Buddha” bead. Often the 108-bead malas have additional marker beads that may or may not be counted and that divide the mala into quadrants, constituting a sum of 108 counting beads. Continue reading