Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 15 Summer 2017
Geshe Lhadron (front row, second from left) with other new geshemas, senior Western nuns, and representatives of the Tibetan Nuns Project. All have worked for decades to support education for Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Photo courtesy of Chopa Lhadron.
Geshe Lhadron (third from left) in the Ceremonial Debate at Jangchub Choling Nunnery in Mundgod, India, December 2016. Photo courtesy of Chopa Lhadron.
Geshe Chopa Tenzin Lhadron teaches while visiting at Sravasti Abbey. Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey.
Last December, twenty nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition became the first Tibetan and Himalayan women in Tibetan history to earn the prestigious Geshe degree, comparable to a PhD in Buddhist Philosophy. Chopa Tenzin Lhadron is one of those nuns. She was born into a semi-nomad family in the Zanskar Valley of Ladakh, a culture that did not expect girls to learn to read. Through ardent determination, ripening karma, and strong support, however, Geshe Lhadron realized her educational dreams. This is her story in her own words.
I was born in the Zanskar Valley of Ladakh, a tiny area high in the Himalayas of Northern India. I have five sisters and two brothers, and I lived until the age of 13 with my family there.
From the age of six or seven, my sister and I would go to the mountain in the summer to look after the family’s animals—sheep, goats, cows, horses, donkeys, and dzomos (a yak-cattle hybrid). We would have a camp with the animals on the mountain in summer, then keep the animals at home in the long winter. Sometimes we'd work the fields.
Most of the Zanskari people are farmers and life for them is quite simple, but it's harsh too, especially in winter. The Zanskar Valley used to be snow-covered for more than half the year. Now it has changed. The snowfall is less and the glaciers are shrinking. We didn't have electricity when I was young, but made a fire with cow dung and stayed cozy inside. We had no media or newspapers. The people of Zanskar are quite happy and content with what they have. They are peaceful and devoted to the Dharma. Many Buddhist scholars and practitioners have come from there.
Although I spent my childhood in the Zanskar Valley region, I have spent most of my life since then in Dharamsala, India—since 1988.
It was not Zanskari custom to send children to school. Instead, learning was passed from generation to generation. If the father—or mother—knew how to read or write, they would teach the children in the wintertime. Throughout the long winter, we would make a fire, and at about 6:00 pm when it gets dark, the family would sit together in a circle and tell stories.
In our culture, we expect boys to read the Kangyur and Tengyur—the Tibetan collection of Buddha's sutras and the Indian commentaries about Buddha’s teachings. For women, reading isn't considered necessary. Although she couldn't read, my mom had memorized many prayers that had been orally transmitted to her by an uncle who studied in Tibet. She made us memorize these prayers too, which is how I first learned the "Praise to Manjushri" and other texts.
Setting the Future
When I was seven or eight, Lochen Rinpoche came to my village to give blessings and teachings. He is the reincarnation of the great Tibetan translator, Lochen Rinchen Zangpo, and he has a special relationship with the Himalayan people. It was summer, and all the villagers gathered to hear him. While he was there, two of the neighbor girls went to him for the hair cutting ceremony, a formal declaration of their intention to take nuns' vows someday. When my mom saw that, she asked my younger sister if she would like to become a nun. My sister said, "No," and ran away. And then mom asked me, “Would you like to become a nun?" Now, at the time, I had no idea what that really meant. Still, because I had no idea what I would do in the future otherwise, I said, "Yes!"
I remember that Rinpoche said the Tibetan word, drol-lag, and he said a prayer. I don't know what this prayer was exactly. He threw some grain, and I didn't know what that meant either. Then he said, "Repeat after me: drol-lags." The literal meaning is, "You would like to release or liberate." And I was supposed to say, "Yes." Now I didn't know who I was going to liberate or from what, but I said, "Yes," and from that moment on, I was pledged to become a nun.
That winter, my grandfather began to teach me to read. We have the tradition in the Himalayan region, especially Ladakh, that when children learn to read, they start with the Diamond Cutter Sutra, (rDorje gchod pa) so that's where I began, which was followed by another Prajnaparamita Sutra. I also memorized some prayers, but we didn't have many nunneries in Zanskar and there was no comprehensive study program for me to begin my training.
Even at such a young age, I was naturally curious, "What am I going to do in the future?" I was a little bit stubborn and complained to my parents, "I'm supposed to become a nun, but where am I going to do that? I need to study. I want to go to school."
There was a big crisis going on in me. I had seen some nuns who stayed at home and were used as servants in a way. First, they served their parents, and when the parents died, they served their brothers and their nephews, generation after generation. I had seen old nuns walking with a stick who cooked and cleaned and looked after their nieces’ and nephews' children. I said to myself, "That's not a very good life. I'm not going to do that." So I kept after my parents, "Can you send me to school somewhere?" But my parents needed us to stay home and help with the animals. In addition, educational standards were not very good at that time. Government-sponsored schools opened for the first time in the area in the late seventies and early eighties, and they taught all subjects in Urdu, which is functionally a foreign language to us from Ladakh.
In 1984 or 85, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Zanskar for the first time and gave teachings on the "Foundation of All Good Qualities" (ཡོན་ཏན་གཞི་འགྱུར་མ།) and an Avalokiteshvara initiation (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་ཀྱི་བཀའ་དབང་།). His Holiness asked the Indian government to establish a branch school of the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies for the Zanskari children at the Dalai Lama Temple, which we called "Duzin Podang at Pipiting." The subjects taught at the school included Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language, Sanskrit, Hindi, English and math. When that school opened, I knew I wanted to go there, but initially, no one could take me there.
Then one day in the springtime, I walked by myself to the school to see if I could get admission. Probably I was eight or nine. My mom's cousin was the children's cook. I found her and asked, “To whom should I ask to see if I can get admission to this school?" It turned out I had to ask the President of the Zanskar Buddhist Association and he wasn't there, so I was stuck. I couldn't get into the school at that time.
In 1988, His Holiness visited Zanskar again to give the Kalachakra initiation and teachings. On the last day of the teaching, one of the senior nuns from Dharamsala came to our house. She saw me with my shaved hair and looking kind of like a boy and she asked my parents, "What's she going to do?" They told her, "She's supposed to become a nun."
The senior nun said, "Yesterday in the teachings, His Holiness said that if someone wants to become a nun, she can come to Dharamsala or South India and study. If you are willing to send her with me, I can take her to Dharamsala."
My mom asked, "Would you like to go?"
I said, "Oh yes!" This all happened in just one day. My parents and the nun had their discussion at lunchtime, and by evening, we were packed and headed to the bus with some tsampa (roasted barley flour) and dried cheese. That was it. So that's how I came to Dharamsala.
Becoming a Nun
The senior nun had been at Gaden Choeling, the only nunnery in Dharamsala at that time, but had left to do her practice in the mountains. She took me to Gaden Choeling to ask if I could join, but they didn't have space.
Then we heard that an American nun, Karma Lekshe Tsomo was going to create a nunnery, so we inquired about admission there. Ven. Lekshe also co-founded Sakyadhita International. She accepted my request. There were already two nuns from the Kinnaur region, and I became the third to join the new Jamyang Choeling. I ordained shortly after arriving there during the annual great prayer festival and His Holiness's spring teachings.
Jamyang Choeling was started in a rented house. Some people jokingly called it the Cow Shed. It was an old mud house, quite small, but very cozy. It leaked, and there were mice and mongoose running everywhere, but maybe Buddha blessed it, because it was all right for us. In the beginning, Ven. Lekshe lived in a small room and there was a larger room that we used as a classroom, prayer hall, debate yard --whatever we needed. Later we had access to more rooms and nearby houses, so eventually we were 16 nuns. Ven. Lekshe was able to get donations from her friends, and she provided us with lunch and breakfast, but we didn't have dinner for some years.
Ven. Lekshe found a Tibetan man to teach Tibetan language. Then she went to the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics (IBD), and to Namgyal Monastery and asked, "Will you please teach the nuns philosophy?" Our teachers happily agreed, and that’s how our education program began.
We nuns stayed together, went to class at IBD and Namgyal, and then returned to have our food and gather in the small prayer hall. We did prayers and meditation together morning and evening, which became a good custom. Ven. Lekshe did a great job for us, teaching us through her example. She taught us to live like nuns.
For 16 years, Jamyang Choling was in that makeshift cowshed or mud house—1989 to 2005. We lived and did most of our study there, and did our debate outside under the trees in the morning and evening. When it rained, we squeezed into the small prayer hall for debate. But it was difficult. When it rained in the summer, the room smelled bad. Sometimes the roof would fall in or the wall would collapse. Still, somehow, we were happy.
I studied more than 20 years—16 years at the makeshift building and later, in 2005, we were able to buy a new house (initially called Tara Guest House) with a grant from a few close friends and some other funding agencies. We, the senior nuns, moved into this new building in 2005. We set up a proper office in this new house, and since then, we have functioned as the head office in McLeod Ganj, taking on overall administration responsibilities and planning for the future of Jamyang Choeling Institute. Our teachers were not only teaching philosophy and languages; they were very supportive to us in every field. They helped us set up the curriculum, organized annual examinations, and guided us in the right direction. Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo took care of our education wholeheartedly for many years. Today, Jamyang Choling has nice buildings and about 140 nuns, but sometimes I miss our cozy times in the Cow Shed.
In 1995, the first nuns' debate was organized in Dharamsala, and I attended. It was the first time in Tibetan Buddhist history! I think this debate was brought about by a few of the senior Western nuns—like Ven. Jampa Tsedroen and Ven. Lekshe Tsomo and a German sponsor named Gabriela—who sent letters to the Tibetan Department of Religion and Culture saying, "You regularly organize debates for monks. Why are you not organizing them for nuns?"
So in 1995, the religious office gathered the nuns at Gaden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala for a month-long study. At the conclusion, the Religious Office arranged for us to do a group debate in front of His Holiness. There was a great gathering of many people at the Main Temple, and three or four nuns from each nunnery participated in the debate, with His Holiness observing.
The next day His Holiness called us to come to the palace for a special audience. For more than 40 minutes, he gave us advice. He told us, "Understanding the Buddha's teachings is very important." He gave detailed instruction about what to study, and he said, "Those who want to graduate as a geshe, after 15 or 20 years' time, you will be ready. So we have to look ahead and prepare from now onward." Then he appointed our teachers and the Religious Office to take the responsibility for making that happen.
That audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his instruction stuck in my mind, and I thought, "I'm going to do that. I don’t know how I will use the degree, but I'm going to finish it." So that's what motivated me to do it and this past year, I finished. And not only me. Twenty nuns graduated in December last year. We are the first batch out of the five or six nunneries participating in the geshe program.
I am really happy that we have fulfilled that goal—to finish with a geshe degree. His Holiness patiently waited for us to complete this. And every time we have a public teaching, he always mentions the nuns: "You should have the same opportunity, the same degree. Whatever facilities the monks have, the nuns should have too." He has been the main driving force spiritually, along with the financial support of many friends, teachers, and supporters. It has been a collective effort.
The nuns' situation is quite changed now. We have bigger responsibilities and a lot of opportunity as well. Whether we will be able to use that opportunity correctly or not is up to us individually.
Thanks to everyone who has given support for so many years. If we didn't have participation from the outside, I don't think it would have happened. Even though His Holiness pushed, sometimes the mindset of our culture is difficult to change.
The empowerment of women is very important, and by "empowerment" I mean empowering with skills and education. You don't empower by simply giving food and clothes. Those are useful things, of course, but mainly we have to educate girls and women and make them skillful and well prepared to contribute meaningfully to Tibetan Buddhism. Many people are involved in doing just that with this new educational program, and so the future is really bright, I think.
And the future is bright for all of us—not only the Tibetan or Himalayan nuns, but on the international level, for the Korean, Mongolian, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and so on. More and more people are taking interest in learning Buddhist philosophy in the ancient Indian Nalanda Tradition. It's a strong philosophical tradition, and even for Europeans and Americans—whoever has interest—there's an open door of opportunity for all of us.
I have a personal interest in participating in the dialogue begun by His Holiness about science and spirituality. I would also like to explore teaching secular ethics, promoting human values like compassion, loving kindness, and patience to be practiced within human families around the world. These are important steps to generate world peace and happiness. And yes, the world can be chaotic, but there is also hope. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "Never give up." So that's what I'm interested in doing, and we will see where the opportunities lead.