Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama speaks during a public discourse. (B MATHUR/REUTERS )
Buddhist women are celebrating a landmark victory: For the first time in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, 27 nuns have gathered in North India at Jamyang Choling Nunnery near Dharamsala and have begun their exams for the Tibetan equivalent of a Ph.D., the so-called Geshe-title. To understand the impact and range of this decision, take a moment to imagine what it would be like if until now only men had been allowed to pass their doctorate exams. As many American students are preparing for their final exams and graduation celebration during these weeks, picture what this would look like if girls were excluded. This was the situation for women in the Himalayas—and it is about to change!
So, why is this such a big deal and why did it take so long? After all, in the Western world the first professor degree was awarded to a woman at a European university almost 300 years ago, in 1732. (Scientist Laura Bassi taught physics at the University of Bologna.) And more than 2,500 years ago the Buddha himself allowed women into his order and ordained his own foster mother, Mahaprajapati. She and 500 like-minded women had to shave their heads and walk 350 miles barefoot to show their unwavering determination, before Buddha Shakyamuni finally granted their request—a revolutionary decision in India at the time. The Buddha’s order was the first in Asia along with the Jains to formally allow women in its ranks.
Yet it may come as a surprise to many that despite its progressive image in the West, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition does not know full ordination for women, and thus women cannot study the entire curriculum. For complex historical and patriarchal reasons, the ordination lineage did not migrate when Buddhism spread from India to Tibet, thus outclassing the Tibetan Buddhist nuns as inferior. Tibetan Buddhist nuns have to travel to countries where the Chinese ordination lineage is alive to receive full ordination in a Buddhist lineage that they are not entirely familiar with. “Most Tibetan nuns don’t have the means to travel to Hong Kong or Korea,” says Jetsun Tenzin Palmo, the most senior Western born Tibetan Buddhist nun alive today, in the new book Dakini Power, “and even if they did, they want to be ordained in their own tradition, by their own lamas, in their own robes.” A side-effect of this issue is that the nuns don’t have equal access to the full curriculum — only fully ordained monastics can study ethics in their entirety.
The spiritual leader of the Tibetans, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has long been an advocate for the empowerment of women and recently reaffirmed enthusiastically that his successor could be a woman. He also insisted that there should be a doctorate degree for Tibetan Buddhist nuns. “I`m a feminist”, he said at the Vancouver Peace Summit, “Isn`t that what you call someone who fights for women`s rights?” In April 2011, he advised the renowned Institute for Buddhist Dialectical Studies (IBD) in Dharamsala, India, to confer the degree of “Geshe” to Venerable Kelsang Wangmo, a German nun (formerly Kerstin Brunnenbaum). This was a historic milestone: Traditionally, Geshe degrees are conferred on monks after 12 or more years of rigorous study in Buddhist philosophy. For the first time in history, a nun received this degree, and even more surprising, a Western woman. In spring 2012, the Department of Religion and Culture of the Central Tibetan Administration convened a special meeting of abbots and scholars who decided unanimously that more nuns be allowed to be acknowledged for their academic achievements—a promise that is now becoming reality. The 27 nuns who are currently taking the exams will finally be rewarded for mastering more than 20 years of studying advanced Buddhist philosophy and they will be the first generation of female professors in the Tibetan tradition.
The Dalai Lama has also publicly supported full ordination for nuns and equal access to education. “I think it’s very important for women to try to appropriate all their rights. Among the Tibetan refugee community in India, I have for many years been advocating for the female side, the nuns’ side,” the Dalai Lama said.
The Dalai Lama stresses that he cannot simply dictate change—the whole community of senior Tibetan masters needs to agree to change the traditional rules. Therefore a full-fledged discussion is in place about the position of Tibetan Buddhist nuns. To this day the female nuns have to observe 98 more precepts than the monks, including the rules that they have to obey the monks, can’t give them advice, and even the most senior nun still has to take a lower seat than the greenest rookie monk. Tenzin Palmo seriously doubts that these extra precepts were really taught by the Buddha and has researched reasons to believe that they were added by later patriarchs to reflect the dominant views about females at that time. Tenzin Palmo was born as Diane Perry in London and shares her own insight into the hardships of following the Buddhist path as a Western woman. What started out as the most revolutionary welcome to women at the Buddha’s time, has turned into a misogynistic adventure. “It’s just time they get their act together!” Tenzin Palmo said pointedly when I visited her in the Himalayas, “and give the nuns their full ordination!”
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an international reporter, lecturer, and consultant. She is the author of “Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Changing the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West,” which was published by Snow Lion/Shambhala this April.