When I signed up to support a nun through the Tibetan Nun’s Project, I was pleased to be paired with someone who reminded me of me. Phunsok Dolma is a woman in her 50’s, trying to better her life and educate herself without a spouse. My first letter from her contained a photograph of a tanned woman appearing strong, hearty, and accustomed to agricultural work. I responded with my photo to establish sisterhood and solidarity. Through her determination, Phunsok chose to live in a monastic community and practice her faith.
With my meager income as a doctoral student, I chose to assist another human being to repay the kindness of the Dharma in my life. In terms of Western culture, I am struggling, but this struggle is minor compared to the lives of many nuns. My annual budget for a Venti cup of coffee at Starbuck’s equals the basic survival for a nun for over two years. One hundred percent of my sponsorship money of $30 per month provides a nun with food, clothing, medical care, and educational opportunities. I am fortunate to have food, housing, and the ability to pursue the study of my heart’s desire. In other words, I am in a position to help someone else.
All efforts make a difference. By supporting a nun through the Tibetan Nun’s Project, I can repay the kindness of what I have received from many Dharma teachers; I can help support my sisters as they struggle to thrive in another part of the world. Recently, I learned with pride that 27 of the nuns sponsored by the Tibetan Nun’s Project sat for the Geshe examination to become teachers of the Dharma to the world. This act affirms my conviction to support these women as I struggle to support myself.
After witnessing the skill of the nuns in traditional debate, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, abolished the need to be a fully ordained monk before becoming a Geshe. This opened the field for nuns to become a Geshema, which is the equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist Philosophy. The first nun to be ordained as a Geshe, Venerable Kelsang Wangmo, was ordained in 2011 and was recently followed by these 27 new ones. This is a significant achievement for any nun, but perhaps more surprising because Venerable Wangmo is a Western woman of German decent and now teaches at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectical Studies in Dharamsala, India.
The Geshe examination consists of mastery in the five treatises that include Abidharma (higher knowledge), Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom), Madyamaka (Middle Way), Pramana (logic), and Vinaya (monastic vows), and approximately 16-17 years of study. The nuns’ determination to pursue this rigorous course of study demonstrates their desire to become Dharma teachers, spiritual directors of Dharma centers, and heads of nunneries and abbeys.
The nuns who sat for the exam were predominantly from the countries of the Himalayan region, such as Nepal, Ladakh, India, and Tibet. Before entering the nunnery, many of the women were illiterate and impoverished. While at the nunnery, they received an education that typically includes the subjects of Tibetan, English, math, philosophy, meditation, debate, rituals, chanting, and art, and emphasizes economic self-sufficiency. These women were so hungry for the opportunities offered through monastic life that many of the nunneries are over-crowded and hard-pressed to keep up with the expansion.
Many of my Buddhist teachers are women because teaching at the introductory level does not require the higher level degree. Also, many female lamas and yoginis, who teach by virtue of their birth or years of retreat, come to the many Dharma centers in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the course of my studies, I have come to appreciate that wisdom comes from many sources. By limiting the teachings of the Dharma to male teachers, the fullness of being beyond a single gender is silenced.
With this introduction of female Geshes, I anticipate that there will be more women taking advantage of the educational opportunity and advance the socioeconomic status of all Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Some of these women may go on to become great Geshes who share their wisdom with the world. Others may choose to leave monastic life, marry, and raise a family. Either way, by supporting a nun, I participate in her freedom to choose her own path as I have had the chance to choose mine.
To learn more about the Tibetan Nun’s Project and sponsor a nun, check out: www.tnp.org.
Karen Nelson Villanueva has recently successfully defended her doctoral dissertation, “Invoking the Blessings of the Tibetan Buddhist Goddess Tara Through Chanting Her Mantra to Overcome Fear,” at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She leads Tara Pujas, meditation, and teaches introductory-level Buddhism at the Tse Chen Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies in San Francisco, California.