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Geshema Examinations for Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Begin in Dharamsala

Two nuns study in the final days before the start of the geshema exams. Image courtesy of the Tibetan Nuns Project

The Tibetan Nuns Project, a US-registered charity based in Seattle and in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh, India, has announced the start of the 2022 geshema examinations, which began earlier this month in Dharamsala, northern India.

The geshema degree is the highest academic degree in Gelugpa tradition and was only recently made available to Buddhist nuns.* Like the geshe degree for male monastics, it is roughly equivalent to a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist studies. The rigorous exams take four years to complete, with one set held each year. To date, 44 Tibetan Buddhist nuns earned this degree. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the geshema exams were cancelled in 2020 and 2021.

“Many Tibetan Buddhist nuns have been studying for decades and waiting for this opportunity,” The Tibetan Nuns Project said in an announcement shared with BDG. “The long wait is over and the 2022 Geshema exams started on 7 August at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala.”

The geshema candidates assembled on 6 July for a month of final preparations. Photo courtesy of the Dolma Ling Media Nuns and the Tibetan Nuns Project

Geden Choeling, located in McLeod Ganj, is the oldest Buddhist nunnery in Dharamsala. Since 1975, the center has offered a safe haven to a steady stream of refugee Tibetan nuns There are currently 175 nuns in residence, including a number of elderly nuns who are cared for by their younger colleagues. The nunnery was founded by a group of nuns who fled the destruction of Nechung Ri Nunnery in Tibet. In collaboration with nuns from elsewhere in Tibet, they established Geden Choeling, which means “home of the virtuous ones who devote their lives to the Buddhadharma.” (Tibetan Nuns Project)

Geshema candidates are examined on the entirety of their 17-year course of study of the five major canonical texts covering the Abhidharma (higher knowledge), Prajnaparamita (the perfection of wisdom), Madhyamaka (Middle Way), Pramana (logic), and the Vinaya (moral conduct). During the course of their studies, the candidates must achieve a score at least 75 per cent to be considered eligible to sit for the geshema examinations.

The nuns are required to take written tests and oral examinations in the form of traditional Tibetan Buddhist debate. The debates last four hours in the morning (8am–12pm) and four hours in the afternoon (2pm–6pm). The nuns draw slips of paper that lists three topics from a particular subject. Each nun must choose one of the three options and debate on that. The nuns are given 15 minutes for each debate.

Geshema Tenzin Kunsel is one of two geshemas teaching at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, a large non-sectarian nunnery that is home to about 250 nuns. Photo by Olivier Adam. Image courtesy of the Tibetan Nuns Project

The first geshema degree was awarded in 2011 to a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, who spent 21 years in India training and studying toward the degree.

Heartfelt messages of support for the nuns have poured in from supporters of the Tibetan Nuns Project, including one from “Robert,” who shared: 

Dear Geshema candidates, I have thought of you many times since I became aware of your studies and intent to earn your Geshema degree. You have accomplished an extraordinary amount to have come this far. I wish you all peace of mind and good health as you take your exams. You are trailblazers already, and I would be incredibly honored to learn from you, whether or not you achieve the Geshema degree. That said, may you all find great success in achieving the degree so that more people may have the opportunity to learn from you. Congratulations on all your achievements so far in being ready to sit the exams — all of you inspire me so much and motivate me to practice harder. Thank you!

(Tibetan Nuns Project)

The Tibetan Nuns Project provides education and humanitarian aid to refugee nuns from Tibet and Himalayan regions of India. Established under the auspices of the Tibetan Women’s Association and the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration, it supports hundreds of nuns from all Tibetan Buddhist lineages living in nunneries and elsewhere in India. Many of the nuns are refugees from Tibet, but the organization also reaches out to the Himalayan border areas of India where women and girls have had little access to education and religious training.

Nuns study during the final month of preparations for the 2022 geshema examinations.Image courtesy of the Tibetan Nuns Project

For information on how to support the Tibetan Nuns Project, click here

* The Central Tibetan Administration reached this unanimous and historic decision on 19 May 2012 after a two-day meeting in Dharamsala attended by high lamas, representatives of nuns from six nunneries, and members of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

See more

Tibetan Nuns Project
Geden Choeling (Tibetan Nuns Project)

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