The Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP), a US-registered charity based in Seattle and in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh, India, has announced that geshema examinations for 2023 began in Dharamsala, northern India, on 21 July, with a record 132 Tibetan Buddhist nuns from seven educational institutes in India and Nepal taking part.
“This year, a record number of Tibetan Buddhist nuns are taking the rigorous written and oral examinations—38 more nuns than last year’s record 94,” the TNP said in an announcement shared with BDG.
The geshema degree is the highest academic degree in Gelugpa tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism 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, and resumed in 2022.**
“The geshema degree enables Tibetan Buddhist nuns to become teachers, leaders, and role models,” the TNP noted. “It makes these dedicated women 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 and ethical 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 exams began on Chokhor Düchen—one of the holiest days in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar, celebrating the first teaching by Shakyamuni Buddha more than 2,500 years ago at Sarnath. The Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths shortly after attaining enlightenment in Bodh Gaya is known as the “turning of the Wheel of Dharma.”
“The exams are being hosted this year by the Jamyang Choling Institute in Dharamsala,” said the TNP. “The costs are covered by the Tibetan Nuns Project’s Geshema Endowment Fund. Twenty-one dedicated volunteer nuns are helping with food, shelter, and other tasks relating to holding the exams.”
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 132 Buddhist nuns undertaking this year’s examinations are from five institutes in India and two in Nepal.
From India: Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala; Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, near Dharamsala; Jangchub Choeling Nunnery in Mundgod, Karnataka; Jangsemling Nunnery, in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh; and Jamyang Choling Institute in Dharamsala.
From Nepal: Kopan Nunnery or Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery, near Kathmandu; and Keydong Thukche Choeling, in Kathmandu.
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.
* 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.
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