Tibetan Buddhist nuns – The Buddha’s most resilient disciples
Buddhist convents also called Gompas have historically been well established in Tibet, certainly from the twelfth century and with traditions reaching back as far as the eighth century.
Traditional education in the nunneries included reading, writing, and lessons in ancient scriptures and prayers taught by the senior nuns or lamas from monasteries.
Traditional activities for the nuns included performance of rituals requested by the lay community and crafts such as embroidery and sewing.
Administrative and maintenance tasks were rotated so that all nuns gained experience in running the nunnery.
Table of Contents
- 1 - The ordination of Tibetan Buddhist nuns
- 2 - List of prominent Tibetan Buddhist nuns
- 2.1 - Thubten Chodron
- 2.2 - Tibetan Nuns Project
- 2.3 - Tsultrim Allione
- 2.4 - Pema Chödrön
- 2.5 - Freda Bedi
- 2.6 - Tenzin Palmo
- 2.7 - Chöje Lama Gelongma Palmo
- 2.8 - Robina Courtin
- 2.9 - Ani (nun)
- 2.10 - Zina Rachewski
- 2.11 - Carola Roloff
- 2.12 - Ani Pachen
- 2.13 - Phuntsog Nyidron
- 2.14 - Passang Lhamo
- 2.15 - Orgyan Chokyi
- 2.16 - Ngawang Sangdrol
- 2.17 - Davina Delor
- 2.18 - Urgyen Tsomo
The ordination of Tibetan Buddhist nuns
Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhist nuns were not “fully ordained” as bhikṣuṇīs (who take the full set of monastic vows in the Vinaya).
Despite an absence of ordination there, bhikṣuṇīs did travel to Tibet.
A notable example was the Sri Lankan nun Candramāla, whose work with Śrījñāna resulted in the tantric text Śrīcandramāla Tantrarāja.
There are accounts of fully ordained Tibetan women, such as the Samding Dorje Phagmo (1422-1455), who was once ranked the highest female master and tulku in Tibet, but very little is known about the exact circumstances of their ordination.
In the late 1980s and in the 1990s, due to the repressive conditions in Tibet, a large number of Tibetan Buddhist nuns escaped from Tibet and joined the refugee communities in India and Nepal.
In the modern era, Tibetan Buddhist nuns have taken full ordinations through East Asian Vinaya lineages.
It is the case of Pema Chödrön, well-known author and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada, who received full monastic ordination in 1981 in Hong Kong.
In this short video Pema Chödrön explains with humor how she became a Tibetan Buddhist nun.
In 2010 the first Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in America, Vajra Dakini Nunnery in Vermont, was officially consecrated.
It offers novice ordination and follows the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Buddhism.
The abbot of the Vajra Dakini nunnery is Khenmo Drolma, an American woman, who is the first bhikṣuṇī in the Drikung lineage of Buddhism, having been ordained in Taiwan in 2002.
In April 2011, the Institute for Buddhist Dialectical Studies (IBD) in Dharamsala, India, conferred the degree of geshe, a Tibetan Buddhist academic degree for monastics, on Kelsang Wangmo, a German nun, thus making her the world’s first female geshe.
In 2013 Tibetan women were able to take the geshe exams for the first time.
List of prominent Tibetan Buddhist nuns
This is the life and accomplishments of some of the most prominent Tibetan Buddhist nuns past and present.
Thubten Chodron, born Cheryl Greene, is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, author, teacher, and the founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western nuns and monks in the United States.
Chodron is a central figure in the reinstatement of the Bhikshuni ordination of women. She is a student of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, Lama Thubten Yeshe, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, and other Tibetan masters.
She has published many books on Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and is the only nun who has co-authored a book with the Dalai Lama—Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions.
Tibetan Nuns Project
The Tibetan Nuns Project is a non-profit organisation founded in 1987 dedicated to educating and supporting female Buddhist monastics in India from all Tibetan Buddhist lineages. It supports nuns interested in study and higher ordination. The mission of the Tibetan Nuns Project is to educate and empower nuns of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as teachers and leaders; and to establish, strengthen, and support educational institutions to preserve the Tibetan religion and culture. The organisation supports seven nunneries and over 700 nuns in India.
Lama Tsultrim Allione is an author and teacher who has studied in Tibetan Buddhism’s Karma Kagyu lineage.
She was born in 1947 in Maine under the name Joan Rousmanière Ewing. She first travelled to India and Nepal in 1967, returned in 1969 and January 1970 she became one of the first American women to be ordained as a Tibetan nun.
She was given her vows by the Karmapa, from the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, who gave her the name Karma Tsultrim Chodron. Allione gave back her monastic vows four years later and married.
She has given birth to four children, one of whom died from sudden infant death syndrome.
Tsultrim Allione continued her studies and Buddhist practice, which led to the 1984 publication of her book Women of Wisdom, a collection of the namtar of six Tibetan Buddhist yogini such as Machig Labdrön, Ayu Khandro Dorje Paldron (1839–1953), Nangsa Obum, Jomo Menmo (1248–1283), Machig Ongjo and Drenchen Rema.
This is the work she’s most well known for and it has since been translated from English into several foreign languages and expanded in a revised 2nd edition.
In 1993, with her husband, David Petit, Tsultrim Allione founded Tara Mandala, a retreat center in southern Colorado, in the United States.
As well as offering retreats at Tara Mandala, Allione regularly teaches in the United States and in Europe.
Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist.
She is an ordained nun, acharya and disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Pema currently teaches in the United States and Canada and plans for an increased amount of time in solitary retreat under the guidance of Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.
Pema is interested in helping establish the monastic tradition in the West, as well in continuing her work with Buddhists of all traditions, sharing ideas and teachings.
She has written several books: “The Wisdom of No Escape”, “Start Where You Are”, “When Things Fall Apart”, “The Places that Scare You”, “No Time to Lose” and “Practicing Peace in Times of War”, and most recently, “Smile at Fear”.
Freda Bedi was a British woman who was the first Western woman to take ordination in Tibetan Buddhism, which occurred in 1972. She was born in Derby, England.
In 1959, when the Dalai Lama arrived in India after an arduous trek across the Himalayas followed by thousands of his Tibetan devotees, she was asked by India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to help them and spent time improving facilities for refugees at camps in Assam and West Bengal.
She became an observant Tibetan Buddhist and she followed the guidance of the 16th Karmapa of the Kagyu School.
She worked, with the support of the Dalai Lama, to establish the Young Lamas Home School.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is a bhikṣuṇī in the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
She is an author, teacher and founder of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, India.
She is best known for being one of the very few Western yoginis trained in the East, having spent twelve years living in a remote cave in the Himalayas, three of those years in strict meditation retreat.
On 16 February 2008, Tenzin Palmo received the title of Jetsunma (reverend lady) in recognition of her spiritual achievements as a nun and her efforts in promoting the status of female practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism by the head of the Drukpa Lineage, the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa,.
Chöje Lama Gelongma Palmo, ; * 1970 Sabine Januschke in Vienna is one of the very few female Lamas of Buddhism and the first ever non Asian, female Chöje Lama.
Lama Palmo is well known for explaining the dharma in an accessible and contemporary way.
Besides her spiritual and social responsibilities, she is actively involved in many fields and is known for possessing a wide range of practical and intellectual skills, as well as being deeply sincere in her compassionate Buddhist activities.
She has for instance established an animal sanctuary, and is very accomplished at both Western and Tibetan Buddhist arts.
Chöje Lama Palmo was sent to Austria by her lineage and its Supreme Head H. H. The Chamgon Kenting Tai Situpa in 2004 to teach the dharma.
She established Palpung Europe with its institutes in Purkersdorf near Vienna and Langschlag in the Waldviertel, The European Seat of the Chamgon Kenting Tai Situpa and the Palpung lineage with its seat in exile in Northern India.
She is Palpung Europe’s Head Lama.
Robina Courtin is a Buddhist nun in the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa tradition and lineage of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
In 1978 Courtin ordained at Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala.
She was Editorial Director of Wisdom Publications until 1987 and Editor of Mandala until 2000.
In 1996 she founded the Liberation Prison Project, which she ran until 2009.
She left Mandala to teach and to develop Liberation Prison Project.
Ani is a prefix added to the name of a nun in Tibetan Buddhism. Thus, for example, the full title of a nun whose name is Pema becomes Ani Pema
Zina Rachevsky, also Zenaïde Rachewski or Zina Rachewsky was a Russian-born French-American socialite, film actress, and Gelug Tibetan Buddhist nun.
Her Buddhist name is Thubten Changchub Palmo.
Carola Roloff is a German Buddhist nun. Her monastic name is Bhiksuni Jampa Tsedroen.
An active teacher, translator, author, and speaker, she is instrumental in campaigning for equal rights for Buddhist nuns.
Ordaining female nuns, or bhiksunis, in the Tibetan tradition has been met with resistance from many Tibetan monks.
Roloff is determined to change this reluctance to allow women into the tradition.
As well as campaigning for a change of opinion, she is instrumental in helping to determine how females can best be accommodated, both in the tradition itself and in sanghas (mutually supportive communities).
Fortunately for Roloff, this imposing challenge has been supported by the 14th Dalai Lama.
As well as lecturing and writing on the subject, Roloff conducts research with other monks and nuns to help strengthen their position.
The Vinaya scriptures, for example, show that the Buddha accepted the role of women as nuns in search of enlightenment, and Roloff therefore often quotes this text.
Ani Pachen was a Tibetan freedom fighter and activist.
After her release from prison in January 1981, Pachen went on a pilgrimage.
She visited the monasteries of Sera, Drepung, and Ganden, which had all been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, during her imprisonment.
Over the course of the next year, she visited monasteries in Lhokha, Shedra, Drolma Lhakhang, Dhalakhampo, and stayed for eight months in the Samye monastery.
There, she learned the Buddhist practice Chud len, or Essence Extraction, and the Chöd practice, before deciding to return to Lhasa to continue support for the cause of Tibetan independence.
She advertised and participated in three notable demonstrations before fleeing to India; the September 27 and October 1 demonstrations of 1987 and the March 5 demonstration of 1988.
In 1989, she discovered that she was to be arrested again and made plans to escape to Nepal over Mount Kailash.
After 25 days, she was airlifted to Dharamshala. Her dream to meet the Dalai Lama came true when she was granted a personal audience soon after her arrival.
She settled in the Gaden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India.
Phuntsog Nyidron is a Tibetan Buddhist nun and a former high-profile prisoner in Tibet.
In 1989, she and eight other nuns traveled from her hometown to the provincial capital of Lhasa when it was convulsed by Tibetan independence protests and riots, and handed out leaflets and shouted anti-Chinese slogans.
She was tried and imprisoned for the charge of counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement and imprisoned at the Drapchi Prison that same year.
One of the better-known Tibetan prisoners outside Tibet, she was the subject of a release campaign by several United States Congress parliamentarians and governmental groups.
Because of their efforts, and Chinese wishes to improve Sino-American relations, her sentence was reduced and commuted in 2004.
She lives in Switzerland since 2006.
Passang Lhamo is a Tibetan nun, activist, and singer.
Lhamo, a Tibetan Buddhist, was ordained as a nun at age 14.
According to the Tibet government in exile, on 25 May 1994, Lhamo, along with four other nuns, went to Lhasa to shout slogans and to protest over the PRC rule.
They were imprisoned by the police and placed in the notorious Drapchi Prison in November 1994 along with 13 other nuns to serve a five-year sentence, charged with endangering state security.
Lhamo was eventually set free on 24 May 1999, after five full years in Drapchi.
She briefly returned to Penpo, but fled in exile to Dharamsala in India where she now serves as a nun at the Ganden Choeling Nunnery, near the monastery and residence of the Dalai Lama.
Since, she has done much towards the cause of Tibetan independence, including numerous performances singing at various traditional festivals in the United States and Canada.
The Life of Orgyan Chokyi is the namtar of Orgyan Chokyi, a Tibetan Buddhist nun who lived in Dolpo, a region in northwestern Nepal, from 1675 until 1729.
It is the oldest of only three extant pre-modern autobiographies by a Tibetan woman.
Ngawang Sangdrol is a former political prisoner, imprisoned at the age of 13 by the Government of the People’s Republic of China, for peacefully demonstrating against the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1992.
She was at first held for eight months without trial, before being sentenced to a three-year prison term.
Her sentence was extended repeatedly for continued protest in prison, which included recording a tape of freedom songs with 13 other nuns from Drapchi Prison that was smuggled out of Tibet.
Davina Delor is a French dancer, choreographer, writer, and famous for her popular TV show Gym Tonic who adopted monkhood as a Buddhist nun in 2004 after meeting the Dalai Lama.
After ordination, she changed her name to Gelek Drolkar.
She converted her country home at Haims into a Buddhist monastery, and along with three other nuns, teaches Buddhism to students and lay persons.
She has published a number of books on yoga and Buddhism, one of which is titled Le bonheur selon Bouddha which explains the precepts of Buddhism.
Urgyen Tsomo (1897–1961) was a prominent Tibetan Buddhist female master who was known as the Great Dakini of Tsurphu.
She was the consort of the Khakyab Dorje, 15th Karmapa Lama.
She was considered by other masters to be the reincarnation (emanation) of Yeshe Tsogyal, the wife of Padmasambhava of the 8th century, who spread Buddhism in Tibet.