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Buddhadharma : Spring 2012
SPRING 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 49 T The courtyard thronged with the commotion of more than a hundred red-robed, foot-stamping, hand-clapping, logic- shouting Tibetan Buddhist monks in Dharamsala on a brisk afternoon in March 1994. In the midst of this cacophonous debate in northern India was Kelsang Wangmo, a German- born Buddhist nun. She was twenty-three, it was her first debate—and she didn’t speak Tibetan. Had she felt nervous or overwhelmed? Not at all, she recalls, exclaiming, “I loved it!” Last April, after twenty-one years of intensive study, Kel- sang Wangmo became the first woman to earn a geshe degree, the monastic equivalent of a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist stud- ies. It usually takes about eighteen years, with rigorous annual exams that gradually eliminate candidates until only a small group is left. It was a momentous journey for Kelsang, with no shortage of challenges along the way. We are sitting in her room in a nunnery in Dharamsala, where she has lived and studied since 1990. The small space is comfortable and tidy. Two tall bookshelves are lined with heavy Tibetan books. On a counter within arm’s reach of the bed sits a one-burner hot plate, a Naglene bottle, and a bowl of apples. White lace curtains obscure the window’s sweeping vista of the Kangra Valley in the distance. I sit on one of two twin beds that double as sofas, while Kelsang sits barefoot and cross-legged on the other, behind a desk. Her head is shaved to a brown stubble and her crim- son nun’s robe leaves her slender arms bare. Behind silver glasses, her hazel eyes are kind and lively, her face youthful at thirty-nine. The street cat that lives in the nunnery is curled up beside her. Kelsang’s desk is topped with a neat stack of tomes filled with Tibetan script that, I’m told, bear titles such as “The But- ter Lamp that Clarifies the Meaning of the Mother Sutras.” After years of study at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics, she is accustomed to delving into esoteric Buddhist texts. This morning, for instance, she’s reading the “Ornament for the Essence of the Explanation” and preparing for the afternoon class she teaches at the IBD, a short walk away. I first met Kelsang in 2008 in Dharamsala. She was unas- suming and friendly. I had no idea she was on track to become the first nun to earn the geshe degree until a few months later, when a nun from Ladakh mentioned it in passing. Kelsang had never brought it up. I stumbled across others who confirmed her talents, like Alak Khenpo, a thoughtful thirty-four-year-old abbot and tulku who studied alongside Kelsang for fifteen years. She graduated third in their class at IBD, while he was second, he said matter-of-factly. Her Tibetan was “99 percent” fluent, he said, and her pronunciation was the best he’d heard among foreigners. Another was IBD assistant director Kelsang Damdul. When I told the avuncular geshe that I knew Kelsang Wangmo, he immediately lit up and praised her intelligence, discipline, and modesty. “The number of years she had to study and the deter- mination she had to have—it’s inspiring for women all over Kelsang Wangmo and her mother meet the Dalai Lama during her graduation ceremony Kelsang Wangmo (left) with fellow nun in Dharmasala KELSANGWANGMOAMYYEE