Education of Himalayan Buddhist Nuns Revived in Nalanda Tradition

The Buddhist Channel, July 16, 2023

Delhi, India - The International Buddhist Confederation's Global Buddhist Summit in April 2023 witnessed an inspiring speech by prominent Buddhist teacher Ven. Bhikshuni Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. The founder of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, who is a renowned advocate for women's empowerment and spiritual education,  emphasized the revival of education for Himalayan Buddhist nuns in the esteemed Nalanda tradition.

The speech shed light on the historical significance of female monastics and the growing movement to provide comprehensive education to nuns. Referencing the rich heritage of Nalanda University, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo revealed that during the 8th and 9th centuries, there was a specific sector within Nalanda University dedicated to educating nuns. Prominent scholars such as Dharmacandra and Bhikshuni Suvarnadharmani, known for their scholastic accomplishments and deep understanding of Buddhist texts, are believed to have studied and taught at the prestigious institution.

However, over time, the education of Himalayan Buddhist nuns was greatly limited, with women receiving only basic instruction in religious texts and practices. The prevailing androcentric emphasis throughout the Buddhist world stifled the female voice and denied women the opportunity to shape the philosophy and practice of the Dharma.

Despite these challenges, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo highlighted the progress made in recent years. In the 1960s, as Tibetans sought refuge in India and Nepal, girls began receiving education alongside boys, with many proceeding to attend universities.

Western women, highly educated in the West, also flocked to places like the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, to study the Dharma, challenging the notion that women were incapable of engaging in philosophical studies and debates.

Several initiatives have emerged to support the education of Buddhist nuns. Apart from Jamyang Choeling nunnery established by Bhikshuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo, which also provide comprehensive education in philosophy following the Nalanda system, the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women has also played a significant role in empowering nuns globally.

In 1987, the Tibetan Nuns Project was founded, offering long courses in philosophy for nuns under the guidance of eminent Geshes and monk professors. The establishment of inter-nunnery debate sessions and the recent conferral of the Geshema degree by His Holiness the Dalai Lama further demonstrate the increasing recognition of nuns' scholastic achievements.

The education of Himalayan Buddhist nuns not only enhances their spiritual practice but also equips them with confidence and critical thinking skills applicable to various aspects of life. The revival of philosophical studies empowers women, preserves traditional Buddhist teachings, and strengthens the transmission of knowledge within the region.

A memorable line from Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo's speech mentioned the following, "The study of philosophy allows these nuns to deepen their understanding of the teachings of the Buddha, and to apply these teachings to their daily lives and meditation practice in a more meaningful way. Women are empowered through knowledge."

The integration of feminine insight and intuitive approaches, alongside traditional rational and logical aspects of Dharma philosophy, holds the potential for further exploration and blending of ancient and modern understandings.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo called for the recognition of the achievements of Himalayan nuns and urged the bodhisattva monastic lamas to grant them full bhikshuni ordination. By embracing the contributions and rights of women within the sangha, the vision of the Four-Fold sangha, as envisioned by the Lord Buddha, can be realized.

The resurgent interest in the education of Himalayan Buddhist nuns signifies a positive change within the Buddhist community. With increasing access to comprehensive education, these nuns will continue to uphold pure ethics and become respected scholars and teachers.

Their empowerment will not only benefit the individual nuns but also contribute to the preservation and transmission of the Nalanda Buddhist traditions in the Himalayan region.
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