20 Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Become Geshemas — An Update by Karen Nelson Villanueva


KarenIn the winter of 2013, I went on pilgrimage to Kathmandu, Nepal. While there, I visited the Khachoe Ghakyil Ling (Pure Land of Bliss) Tibetan Buddhist nunnery, the largest in Nepal with about 400 nuns. It’s affiliated with the nearby Kopan monastery where I stayed in the retreat housing. The nuns gave a group of us a tour of the gompa  (meditation room), classrooms, workshops, and kitchen. The studies at the nunnery include math, science, and English, Nepali, and Tibetan languages, as well as meditation, debate, ritual arts, and chanting, the same education that the monks receive at the monastery. When not engaged in prayer and education, the nuns produce herbal incense renowned for its healing properties, which clear and uplift the mind. Not surprisingly for their ambitious program, a nun’s average day is 14 hours long.

Young Nuns - KopanSince I am averse to crowds and rebellious by nature, I ducked out of much of the sight-seeing and instead spent my time engaging with the novitiates, the young nuns who were milling about before dinner because they had completed their classes, daytime prayers, and other duties. We asked each other questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” Then I was treated to “Watch me do this!” and “Can you do this?” because the language of children is universal. Yet, what was special about these girls was that they were being given food, shelter, and an education — opportunities that many their ages, especially girls, would never know.

As I did my research for this post, I discovered that most of the girls at the nunnery had been either orphaned or had left their families and had crossed the treacherous border established by the Chinese between the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Nepal. For Tibetan children, an education means going to a nunnery for girls and a monastery for boys–a privilege usually granted to boys if the family could afford it at all. These girls, mostly from rural areas, sought an education because the only other opportunities available to them are working in the fields or as servants.

Approximately 50% of the nuns at Khachoe Ghakyil Ling are orphaned, and around 25% come from impoverished and single parent homes. Currently, the youngest nun is 7 years old. Additionally, in Tibetan culture, girls are not easily given up by their families because they are viewed as valuable workers and contributors to the family’s well being. These were the girls that I saw wearing nun’s robes. Every nun at Khachoe Ghakyil Ling receives a full scholarship for her studies.

Nepali Girl 2I met two other neighborhood girls who were dressed in street clothing. Like in Tibet, girls in Nepal are viewed as a valuable source of labor to their families and are often married by the age of puberty. According to a 2015 UNESCO report, female illiteracy is an appalling 55.5% in Nepal. In addition, the Nepali population primarily identifies as Hindu (81.34%) with the second largest religion being Buddhism (9.04%), so few Nepali girls are drawn to or even allowed to consider the opportunities presented by Tibetan Buddhist monastic life and study.Nepali Girl 1

While Khachoe Ghakyil Ling receives its primary support from the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, an organization devoted to preserving and spreading Mahayana Buddhism worldwide, several nuns in other nunneries are supported through the Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP), an organization founded in 1987 to produce safe places for nuns to live and practice, and to give them secular and religious training and education. The TNP supports nuns no younger than 14 years old because it was determined to be disruptive to have children and adults in the same classroom. However, the individual nunneries have the option of accepting children as young as they please and the basic education that they provide them varies. After approximately ten years of study, the students have the equivalent of a high school degree and may then choose to go forward with their monastic education or enter other institutions. These were advantages previously available primarily to male monastics. With the help of co-sponsors like me, the TNP helps about 700 nuns at nunneries in India and Nepal.

As a follow-up to my previous post of August 2013, I can now report that 20 nuns have successfully passed all of their examinations and studies to become Geshemas. In the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, a Geshe is the highest level of educational achievement and is equated with a doctorate of Buddhist philosophy. This honor is the culmination of 17 years of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts, and 4 years of written examinations and oral debates over a 12-day cycle. These women are on the average 40 years old or older, and none of them started as child nuns. Most of them arrived at the nunneries illiterate from Tibet, so their accomplishment is even more amazing. Their graduation will be conducted by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, an advocate of nuns’ education, and will take place at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, South India to coincide with the monastery’s 600th anniversary.

Over four years ago in May 2012, His Holiness the Dalai Lama along with the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Government in Exile; several high lamas; the director of TNP, Kasur Rinchen Khadro; and representative nuns from the various nunneries met to discuss the possibility of instating the Geshema degree. The resistance of some of them may have been due to a variety of reasons such as maintaining tradition, fearing to hasten the historical Buddha’s alleged prediction that the admission of women to monastic life would accelerate the end of Buddhism by 500 years, or the belief that by encouraging young women to pursue monastic life there would be less women to keep the Tibetan race from dying and birthing sons. However, the 29 nuns who initially pursued Geshe status prevailed and 20 of them succeeded, with 44 more nuns from 5 nunneries now at various levels of the examinations. Other schools of Tibetan Buddhism such as the Nyingma and Sakya are currently working on developing study programs for nuns equivalent to monks, and the Kagyu hope to arrive at this point soon.

The Geshemas, will go on to be teachers, leaders, and builders of their own institutions, just as their male counterparts. But most importantly, they will help to shape the lives of the young nuns, novitiates, like the ones I met at Khachoe Ghakyil Ling nunnery, and will show them that the doors to education are open and available to them. A few of these girls may go on to become Geshemas and many will not, but that’s okay because it’s their choice — something that they didn’t have before but do now.

Karen Nelson Villanueva, Ph.D. is faculty at the Institute for Contemporary Buddhist Ministry (ICBM) with over thirteen years of experience facilitating meditation. She is a certified teacher in Cultivating Emotional Balance (CEB), a college lecturer in the Social Sciences and Humanities, and a hospital chaplain with a focus on assisting the dying.

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Categories: Activism, Buddhism, Feminism and Religion

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12 replies

  1. An important step for women in Tibetan Buddhism. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Good for the Tibetan nuns! Compare the olden days, when the nuns were like servants to the monks, just as Christian nuns have been considered inferior to priests. Think of the play (and movie) Doubt, in which the nuns eat gristly meat for supper and drink water, whereas the priests eat prime rib and drink wine. His Holiness and the others have figured out what women can succeed as well as men. But do these lessons apply also in Tibet itself?

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  3. Thanks for this very interesting post, Karen. It brought to mind a much revered female bodhisattva in Tibetan Buddhism, that is, Tara, Goddess of Compassion, and who vowed always to remain in female form (though in fact she could have changed her gender anytime she liked). Here is an excerpt from a magnificent chant in her honor, and which also honors the female body. This is only half of the chant, so I’ve linked my name above to the entire text and which includes a beautiful artwork of Tara (semi-nude), created by the modern female artist, Mayumi Oda, a highly-respected and truly fascinating, Japanese painter —

    I bow to the Body of Tara who saves from the eight fears.
    I bow to the Body of Tara of infinite fame.
    I bow to the Body of Tara, the world’s benefactor.
    I bow to the Body of Tara, sure curer of sorrow.

    I bow to the Body of Tara of a thousand hands and eyes.
    I bow to the Body of Tara infinite as space.
    I bow to the Body of Tara adorned with the Marks and the Signs.
    I bow to the Body of Tara whose limbs are like the moon.
    I bow to the Body of Tara who is as bright as the sun.
    I bow to the Body of Tara unchanging in the three times…

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  4. Thanks, Karen, for alerting us to the changes in Tibetan (and Nepali?) Buddhism concerning women. Women’s education will certainly help them to achieve parity in their society.

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    • Thank you for your reply, Nancy. It will be wonderful for these women to teach and set an example for other women. May they and all women achieve parity!

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  5. Love this comment, thanks Karen, and absolutely priceless:

    “We asked each other questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” Then I was treated to “Watch me do this!” and “Can you do this?” because the language of children is universal.

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  6. Watch the Geshe-ma Degree conferred live from India on Wednesday, December 21 at 6:30PM (PST): https://tnp.org

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