The fourth Geshema examination began on Sunday at Gaden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, representing a new milestone in the longstanding aspiration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the Karmapa for female monastics in the Buddhist traditions of the Himalayas to have access to the same opportunities for formal Buddhist education as their male counterparts.
Geshe (feminine: Geshema) is a Tibetan Buddhist academic degree for monastics, equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. The qualification is emphasized primarily by the Gelugpa lineage, but is also awarded in the Sakyapa school. Taking four years in total to complete, the annual Geshema examination has been held only since 2013—until 2011, the Geshe title was awarded only to monks. Nuns who successfully pass the Geshema degree will be able to take on leadership roles in the monastic and lay communities that were previously reserved for males.
Forty-four nuns from five monastic communities in India and Nepal—the Dolma Ling, Gaden Choeling, Jamyang Choeling, Jangchup Choeling, and Kopan nunneries—are undergoing the examinations, which run from 1–12 May. The examinations include oral debates and written tests in the five major texts of Buddhist studies. Optional subjects include Tibetan language, Tibetan history, and modern science. Nuns who pass these optional subjects receive additional marks, which are added to their total score. Four Geshe Lharamapas from the Drepung Gomang, Drepung Loseling, Gaden Jangtse, and Sera Je monasteries will perform evaluations of the debates.
“The historic decision to award Geshema degrees to qualified nuns was reached in 2012 after a two-day meeting between high lamas, representative of nuns and members of the Tibetan Nun Project. Nuns who complete 17 years of studies with aggregate of 65 per cent can sit for the Geshema examination,” said Pema Chhinjor of the Central Tibetan Administration’s Department of Religion and Culture in a media briefing. (Central Tibetan Administration)
The exams are carried out under the supervision of the Board of Geshema Examination, which is comprised of representatives from the Department of Religion and Culture, non-profit organization the Tibetan Nuns Project, the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, and six nunneries in India and Nepal.
The title Geshe was first bestowed upon esteemed masters of the Kadampa tradition, such as Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1102–76). The degree is the highest form of training in the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The first female monastic to qualify for the Geshema title was German nun Kelsang Wangmo, who was ordained in India in the early 1990s.
Gaden Choeling, the largest and oldest Tibetan nunnery in India, was founded by nuns who fled from the Nechung Ri monastic community in Tibet, which was destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution. The nunnery is located a short walk from the main temple in McLeod Ganj, the official residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
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