The Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP), a US-registered charity based in Seattle and in Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh, India, recently shared that 10 Tibetan Buddhist nuns were awarded geshema degrees at a special conferment ceremony held in Bodh Gaya
“Of the 10 recipients of this year’s geshema degrees, four nuns are from Jangchub Choeling Nunnery, four are from Kopan Monastery, and two are from Geden Choeling Nunnery,” the TNP stated in an announcement shared with BDG.
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, 54 Buddhist nuns have earned this degree. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, geshema examinations were cancelled in 2020 and 2021.
The conferment ceremony, held in Bodh Gaya on 18 November, was attended by, among other dignitaries: His Holiness the 41st Sakya Trizin Kyabgon Gongma Trichen Rinpoche, who was the chief guest for the occasion; Chime Tseyang, secretary of the Department of Religion and Culture for the Central Tibetan Administration; and Tibetan Nuns Project director Nangsa Chodon.
“The geshemas are paving the way for other nuns to follow in their footsteps,” the TNP observed. “This degree makes them eligible to assume various leadership roles in their monastic and lay communities reserved for degree holders and hence previously not open to women.”
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.
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.
The 2022 geshema exams were held at Geden Choeling Nunnery from August,** with a total of 94 nuns participating in various levels of the four-year examination process:
First year: 59 nuns took exams, 56 passed
Second year: 14 nuns took exams, 14 passed
Third year: 10 nuns took exams, 7 passed
Fourth year: 11 nuns took exams, 10 passed
“The fact that growing numbers of women are achieving equality with men in the highest levels of Buddhist monasticism, by earning the equivalent of doctorate degrees, is joyous and of enormous importance to the world,” said TNP board member Steve Wilhelm. “This means that women monastics will be leading more monastic institutions, and will be teaching other women and men. Humanity needs this gender equity if we are to navigate perilous times ahead.”
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, the TNP supports hundreds of nuns from all Tibetan Buddhist lineages and seven nunneries. 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 little access to education and religious training.
For information on ways to support the work of 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.
** Geshema Examinations for Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Begin in Dharamsala (BDG)
Tibetan Nuns Project
Geshema Endowment Fund (Tibetan Nuns Project)
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