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Buddhadharma : Spring 2012
50 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2 0 1 2 the world,” he said. “She’s one of the best students we have ever produced. She really deserves this geshe degree.” Not long ago it had seemed unimaginable for a nun to attain the prestigious degree. Traditionally in Tibet, resources for religious study were focused on monks. Nuns were taken far less seriously and had few options for rigorous scholarship. “Just as in the West until the twentieth century, women did not attend college or become professors, so traditionally almost no women were educated in Tibet. Only monks and lamas were permitted to study,” explained the British-born Buddhist nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. In the 1980s, when the Dalai Lama spoke out in support of nuns becoming geshes, many in the Tibetan Buddhist commu- nity were shocked. “People never dreamed of nuns getting this degree. They thought women were not allowed,” says Rinchen Khando, director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, a nonprofit that provides education and aid to nuns. In recent years, the situation for nuns has slowly improved, and today there are far more resources for Tibetan nuns in exile. New nunneries with modern facilities such as Dolma Ling near Dharamsala, where the Tibetan Nuns Project is based, are home to hundreds of nuns. However, many obstacles for nuns still exist, and the num- bers reflect this bias. In India, where about 100,000 Tibetans live in exile, there were more than 27,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks in 2002 and just 1,600 nuns. In addition, according When her graduation finally came, she was nervous—but not about academics. She had to overcome her trepidation about shaking up the Tibetan status quo. to Tibet’s exile administration in Dharamsala, there were 223 monasteries in India in 2002, but only twenty-three nunneries. There were also technical hurdles for nuns to become geshes. To earn the geshe degree, monks must study the Vinaya text, which deals with monastic rules. However, nuns are not allowed to study the section of the Vinaya that relates to full ordination. In lieu of this, the Dalai Lama suggested nuns study a text by Indian Pandit Shantarakshita on different philosophical tenets. As the first woman to earn the geshe degree, Kelsang serves as a model for other nuns and trailblazing women in general. “Geshe Kelsang Wangmo has broken down the centuries-old barrier that denied women the right to be recognized for their scholarship,” said Tenzin Palmo. The accomplishment “is a breakthrough that hopefully will encourage the same treat- ment for the learned nuns from Tibet and the other Himalayan regions.” Kelsang herself has a down-to-earth view about earning the geshe degree. Her plans remain simple: stay in Dharamsala, teach the dharma to others, and continue her own studies. “My life didn’t really change,” she tells me. “But I hope it will open a door for others.” Still, there is a welcome feeling of affirmation. Kelsang opens her laptop and shows me photos of her graduation cere- mony last year. Her mother flew from Germany to attend. “She was very emotional and excited,” says Kelsang. In the photos Kelsang’s smiling auburn-haired mother stands proudly by her daughter’s side on a sunny spring day. In a separate audience that week, mother and daughter stand next to the Dalai Lama, who tightly grips their hands with palpable warmth. KELSANG WANGMO was born Kerstin Brummenbaum in Lohmar, a small town between Cologne and Bonn. Her fam- ily was Roman Catholic, and she recalls being fond of stories about saints when she was a child. She attended church during her childhood but grew uninterested in religion in her teens. That changed unexpectedly during a backpacking trip after high school that began in 1989. She traveled through Israel and stayed on a kibbutz, then went on to Turkey, Cyprus, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan before landing in India. She followed a typical backpacker route through Kolkata, Vara- nasi, Manali, and Dharamsala, where she had planned to stay for a couple of weeks before returning to Germany to start university, with thoughts of studying medicine. But two weeks ended and she wasn’t ready to leave. Kelsang Wangmo at her home in Dharamsala ANJALIKAURAMYYEE