Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Take First Round of Geshema Exams by Karen Nelson Villanueva

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,”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.

Categories: Activism, Buddhism, General, Women Religious

Tags: , , ,

9 replies

  1. Thanks for sharing this with us, Karen. The more women there are in teaching positions, the more likely it will be that they will add their voices to “women’s spirituality” within Buddhism.

    Will you also share with us some of the insights in your recent dissertation, Dr. Nelson Villanueva?


  2. This is wonderful. Do any of the nuns actually live in Tibet? Do they have to deal with the Chinese government’s work to suppress Tibetan customs? Good luck to you and all the nuns. Like the western standard-brand religions, Buddhism needs female teachers and women’s wisdom.


    • There are nuns who still live in Tibet, but I do not know how many or the names of their nunneries. The majority of the approximately 700 nuns supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project come from the countries of Tibet, Nepal, Ladakh and India, and many of them were escaping the oppressive conditions of the Chinese government before finding refuge. These nuns now live nunneries in India and Nepal.


  3. Thank you for writing such an insightful article and for being a true witness to women, education, and spirituality.


  4. Thank you, Everyone, for your warm responses to my post.

    I recently successfully defended my dissertation in Women’s Spirituality titled, “Invoking the Blessings of the Tibetan Buddhist Goddess Tara Through Chanting Her Mantra to Overcome Fear.”

    In Tibetan Buddhism, the Goddess Tara represents the feminine nature of the divine. She is a popular Tibetan deity who has been embraced by many western feminists because she is said to have rejected the belief extolling that one could not become enlightened in a female body. Vowing to always be reborn as a woman until she attained enlightenment as a Buddha, she is reputed to come swiftly and compassionately to our aid when called upon. She may be invoked through prayer, visualization, and mantra and there are several mantras, which are specifically ascribed to her many forms of manifestation.

    Fear can cause suffering that may be an obstacle to achieving higher realizations that lead to enlightenment. As a meditational deity, Tara is especially efficacious in saving us from our fears. My dissertation explores the experience of contemporary Western people who invoked the blessings of the Goddess Tara through chanting her mantra to overcome a stated fear. Using participatory research methodological approach, twelve co-participants met at an urban Buddhist center on six occasions in order to meditate and chant Tara’s mantra to overcome a stated fear. Over the three months of the study, the co-participants created small home altars, attempted to chant alone, and journaled about the overall chanting experience.

    An examination of their fears (e.g., fear of having children, fear of failure, fear of expressing the self, fear of ending a relationship, fear of sexuality, or of being open, and standing up to people, etc.) revealed that many co-participants exhibited a fear of love or connection to love.

    The exploration of their journal writings reveals that all of the co-participants experienced a lessening of fear. According to Buddhist beliefs, chanting Tara’s mantra supports the realization of love, like that first experienced with one’s mother, and this, in turn, may become compassion for all beings. This notion was supported by the experience of several co-participants who commented on how she was manifesting in their lives and who began to recognize her indwelling, her presence. Ultimately their experience was consistent with Buddhist beliefs in the efficacy of using mantra.


  5. In an email correspondence I received today from Dr. Elizabeth Napper, Co-Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, she informed me, “None of the nuns who took the examinations this year are as yet Geshemas. The examination process takes four years, so they still have three to go before those who pass all those exams will be Geshemas. This year 25 of the 27 nuns taking the exams passed successfully.”


  6. Outstanding article! I remember when you purchased your first copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Sounds like it has taken you on a remarkable journey…


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