What do Tibetan Buddhist nuns study?

We are often asked what the Tibetan Buddhist nuns study.

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 a very challenging transition, it is essential to combine traditional religious studies with aspects of a modern education.

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Nuns at Shugsep Nunnery learning geography. 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. 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.

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Nuns at Sherab Choeling Nunnery in the remote Spiti Valley at an outdoor classroom. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

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

Who Teaches the Nuns

The long-term goal of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to establish and support educational curricula and opportunities for Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Because historically nuns have not had access to formal education, very few nuns are qualified to teach. One of our ongoing tasks, therefore, is the recruitment of qualified teachers for the various nunneries that we support.

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A Tibetan monk teaches in a classroom at Shugsep Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

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. The nuns also learn ritual arts such as butter sculpture and the creation of sand mandalas from monk instructors.

English is taught in the nunneries by lay women and men educated in the Indian university system. For Tibetan language, we employ mostly young men and women who have come from Tibet in recent years. Recent refugees often have stronger Tibetan-language skills than their Indian-raised counterparts, and 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.

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Young nuns learning Tibetan at Tilokpur Nunnery from a lay teacher. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Each year, the Tibetan Nuns Project seeks to fund the salaries of 10 to 15 teachers at different nunneries in India. 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. We are very grateful to all those people who support our Teacher Salary Fund.

The Geshema Degree Process

The Geshema degree (equivalent to a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and the “Geshe” degree) is a 17-year course of study based on “Five Great Texts” from the Indian Buddhist commentarial tradition. Up to four years are spent in introductory topics:

1. Collected Topics: Dudra

The Collected Topics is the beginning level of the study of debate and dialectics. It introduces students to logic and the art of reasoning and lays out the basic topics and vocabulary of Buddhist philosophy.

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Senior nuns studying at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

2. Awareness and Knowledge: Lorik

Awareness and knowledge is the study of consciousness, or mind. Through the study of awareness and knowledge, one comes to know what the different types of mind are, and moreover, which sort of mind is helpful to develop and which should be abandoned.

3. Signs and Reasoning: Tarik

The study of signs and reasoning is a prerequisite to the higher study of logic and epistemology. It covers topics such as establishing the validity of an argument and the fundamental and logical principals that govern the nature of proofs. The curriculum of Tarik was essentially designed as an introduction to logical terminology and the complex concepts associated with this terminology.

These studies introduce students to the study of logic and reasoning. This study is then focused on Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarttika and developed and carried out over the following years alongside the other great texts being studied.

Following this, seven years are spent in the study of Parchin, (Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom). This topic takes its name from the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, but the “Great Text” that is the basis of study is Maitreya’s Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayalamkara) which is considered to elucidate the teachings on the path to enlightenment that are the hidden teachings of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras (whose explicit teachings are those of emptiness.) Persons who are intent on enlightenment for the sake of all living beings make it reality by practicing the six perfections of giving, ethical discipline, patience, enthusiastic effort, concentration, and wisdom. To practice this they should study it.

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Shugsep Nunnery learning Tibetan geography. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

Following this, the next three years of study are of Uma (Madhyamika, or Middle Way). The “great book” that is the basis for this study is Chandrakirti’s Entry to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara).

Then, either two or three years are spent studying Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharmakosha). The final two or three years of study are of the monastic rules, or Vinaya, based Gunaprabha’s Aphorisms on Discipline (vinayasutra). Vinaya is the study of the monastic discipline that regulates the daily life of monks and nuns.

While the nuns are studying Perfection of Wisdom and Madhyamaka, they also continue their study of epistemology and logic based on Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarrtika, and hence they need to attend the annual Jang Gonchoe, a one-month inter-nunnery debate session held in different nunneries every year from October 3rd to November 2nd. During that time nuns from different nunneries come together and mainly debate on logic. This one-month debate session has played great role in sharpening the nuns’ minds as they share their knowledge and debating skills among themselves. There are hundreds of nuns debating together with help of their teachers.

The examinations for the Geshema degree test are taken over a four-year period.

  • In the first year, the nuns study Parchin, Uma and Tsema along with supplementary subjects Tibetan Grammar, History (My Land and My People by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Chapters 1- 6) and Introduction to Science.
  • In the second year, the nuns study Parchin, Uma and Tsema along with supplementary subjects Tibetan Grammar, History (My Land and My People by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Chapters 7-13) and Introduction to Science.
  • In the third year, the nuns study Tsema, Dulwa and Dzö along with supplementary subjects Religious History of Nyingma, Kagyu, and Bön Traditions and Introduction to Science.
  • In the fourth year, the nuns study Tsema, Dulwa and Dzö along with supplementary subjects Religious History of Sakya and Geluk Traditions and Introduction to Science.

The Geshema exams are taken in both written and oral form.

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Young nuns studying at Tilokpur Nunnery. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris.

The Ultimate Goal is to Empower the Nuns

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. The Tibetan Nuns Project believes that education is the key to empowerment. We seek to give nuns the resources to carve out independent, creative identities for themselves.

More and more nuns are assuming leadership roles in their community, such as teachers in Tibetan schools, instructors for other nuns, as health care providers and in other roles serving the Tibetan exile community.

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