Breaking Through

After twenty-one years of intensive study, Kelsang Wangmo, a German-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, has become the first woman to receive the prestigious geshe degree. In this report from 2012, Amy Yee recounts her unlikely and courageous journey.

By Amy Yee

The courtyard thronged with the commotion of more than a hundred red-robed, foot-stamping, hand-clapping, logicshouting Tibetan Buddhist monks in Dharamsala on a brisk afternoon in March 1994. In the midst of this cacophonous debate in northern India was Kelsang Wangmo, a Germanborn Buddhist nun. She was twenty-three, it was her first debate—and she didn’t speak Tibetan. Had she felt nervous or overwhelmed? Not at all, she recalls, exclaiming, “I loved it!”

Last April, after twenty-one years of intensive study, Kelsang Wangmo became the first woman to earn a geshe degree, the monastic equivalent of a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist studies. It usually takes about eighteen years, with rigorous annual exams that gradually eliminate candidates until only a small group is left. It was a momentous journey for Kelsang, with no shortage of challenges along the way.

We are sitting in her room in a nunnery in Dharamsala, where she has lived and studied since 1990. The small space is comfortable and tidy. Two tall bookshelves are lined with heavy Tibetan books. On a counter within arm’s reach of the bed sits a one-burner hot plate, a Naglene bottle, and a bowl of apples. White lace curtains obscure the window’s sweeping vista of the Kangra Valley in the distance.

I sit on one of two twin beds that double as sofas, while Kelsang sits barefoot and cross-legged on the other, behind a desk. Her head is shaved to a brown stubble and her crimson nun’s robe leaves her slender arms bare. Behind silver glasses, her hazel eyes are kind and lively, her face youthful at thirty-nine. The street cat that lives in the nunnery is curled up beside her

Kelsang’s desk is topped with a neat stack of tomes filled with Tibetan script that, I’m told, bear titles such as “The Butter Lamp that Clarifies the Meaning of the Mother Sutras.” After years of study at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics, she is accustomed to delving into esoteric Buddhist texts. This morning, for instance, she’s reading the “Ornament for the Essence of the Explanation” and preparing for the afternoon class she teaches at the IBD, a short walk away.

I first met Kelsang in 2008 in Dharamsala. She was unassuming and friendly. I had no idea she was on track to become the first nun to earn the geshe degree until a few months later, when a nun from Ladakh mentioned it in passing. Kelsang had never brought it up.

I stumbled across others who confirmed her talents, like Alak Khenpo, a thoughtful thirty-four-year-old abbot and tulku who studied alongside Kelsang for fifteen years. She graduated third in their class at IBD, while he was second, he said matter-of-factly. Her Tibetan was “99 percent” fluent, he said, and her pronunciation was the best he’d heard among foreigners

Another was IBD assistant director Kelsang Damdul. When I told the avuncular geshe that I knew Kelsang Wangmo, he immediately lit up and praised her intelligence, discipline, and modesty. “The number of years she had to study and the determination she had to have—it’s inspiring for women all over 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 community 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 numbers 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 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 treatment 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 ceremony 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 family 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, Varanasi, 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.

In Manali, she had felt unhappy and lost. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. That’s a common sentiment for an eighteen-year-old, but something happened at her next stop. In Dharamsala she met some fellow backpackers and they stayed together in a cramped, rustic guesthouse in Bagsu Nag, a village north of the town’s Tibetan hub of McLeod Ganj

It was 1990 and the rows of guesthouses, cafes, and souvenir shops that today line the streets of McLeod Ganj did not exist. “There were no fancy, flashy hotels. It was one-tenth of what’s here now,” she said. Bagsu Nag, now a favorite spot for Israeli backpackers and Punjabi day-trippers, was “just a village with farmhouses.” The guesthouse where she stayed was so small that she slept on the floor. One morning, she opened her eyes and calmly watched bedbugs crawling up the wooden bedpost. Somehow a strong, peaceful feeling came over her. “I thought, ‘I’ve come home’,” she recalled. “There was something about the atmosphere here. I decided to stay longer.”

She did a one-month introduction to Buddhism course at Tushita Meditation Center, above McLeod Ganj, and also studied with an independent Indian teacher. She had plenty of questions about Buddhism and was often overwhelmed. She went on retreat but found she didn’t know enough about the dharma to meditate. At Tushita, she was introduced to a seminal text by the seventh century Indian scholar Dharmakīrti. It fascinated her and she longed to study more. In April 1991 she took her first vows and became a nun.

In those days, Tushita was isolated and the surrounding area heavily forested. For two years Kelsang lived in a hut near Tushita, with an outhouse in woods where leopards roamed at night. There was no running water so she carried water to her hut every day. Sometimes when she wanted to shower she walked to Tushita to use their facilities.

After two years, she moved back to McLeod Ganj, where she stayed in nunneries for about a year. At the time, accommodations for nuns were scarce. When she started taking classes at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, her teachers helped her find a room in a dormitory owned by the institute. The room was closer to Kelsang’s classes but the conditions were difficult. The toilet was shared by more than twenty people, mostly men, and there was a water shortage every few days. People stored water in plastic buckets for the days when the pipes ran dry.

Poor accommodations weren’t the only challenge. Her classes at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics were in Tibetan— especially daunting since she didn’t speak the language yet. “I didn’t understand much in class,” Kelsang said. Still, she was thrown into intense debating sessions with monks early on. Few Tibetan nuns debated because they did not have ready access to debate teachers. To her surprise, she grew to enjoy the noisy sessions. “I loved the logic,” she said. “It was so helpful and a better tool to understand the scriptures.”

Debating also helped her learn Tibetan. There were no language textbooks available in Dharamsala then, so she did language exchanges with Tibetans who in turn practiced English with her. Kelsang recorded these lessons and listened to them over and over again. Tibetan spelling is difficult, she noted, but after many years of self-study, she was able to speak, read, and write Tibetan.

Kelsang’s objective was to study the dharma, not explicitly to earn the geshe degree. At first she didn’t want to take the annual exams, but her teachers at IBD had her do the same work as the monks in her class, including the three-hour written exams and the debates, which are analogous to an oral exam.

When her graduation finally came, she was nervous—but not about academics. She had to overcome her trepidation about shaking the Tibetan status quo. “I didn’t want to be the only one,” she said. “I wanted other nuns to do it. I didn’t want to stick out in this way.”

In public, Tibetan nuns, monks, and teachers say they are happy that a woman, who happens to be a foreigner, finally earned the geshe degree. The institute—especially Kelsang Damdul—was undeniably steadfast in its support of her over the years. Exile administration officials seemed pleased about her accomplishment as well.

But, she said, there were rumbles of opposition, even from nuns and other women. Male-dominated Tibetan Buddhism is entrenched in tradition and is not easily open to change. “Not everyone was happy with it,” she said. “There are definitely Tibetans who feel it’s too early.”

Kelsang Damdul agreed that although some monks might have reservations about a nun earning the degree, “anyone who wants to preserve Tibetan Buddhism should be happy,” and suggested that naysayers would be assuaged when they saw her teach.

It’s a muggy May afternoon, the preface to Dharamsala’s torrential monsoon season. A gray sky dribbles rain outside the group of white buildings that house the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics near the town’s main Buddhist temple and the Dalai Lama’s residence.

In a large shrine room that doubles as a classroom, Kelsang sits cross-legged on a cushion behind a low table that holds her notes for the day’s lecture on “The Two Truths According to the Four Tenets.” Brightly colored thangkas hang from the walls. Behind her, golden statues of the Buddha and a framed photo of the Dalai Lama sit on an altar illuminated by electric candles. I sit in the back of the room on a thin cotton mattress on the hardwood floor, accompanied by a stray dog that has wandered in.

About seventy-five students from Europe, North America, Asia, India, and elsewhere are seated behind puja tables for this introduction to Buddhism class. Even without the amplification of the microphone in front of her, Kelsang’s voice has an authoritative, bright timbre that is bolder than her easygoing tone in normal conversation. “I don’t like the word ignorance,” she declares. “It implies that we’re stupid. We’re not stupid.” She prefers the word misperception. “That is the cause for all our troubles.” She goes on to explain conventional truth (the way phenomena appear) and ultimate truth (the way phenomena actually exist).

“An elephant on a table does not exist—especially on such a tiny table like this,” she says waving at her puja table and eliciting chuckles from the class. “The problem is, we misperceive how the ‘I’ exists. From the Buddhist perspective, every problem comes back to that: misperceiving reality. Because of this misperception, there is anger and attachment. Buddha says we can get rid of all these problems if we get rid of misperception.” The students listen attentively, and after class several gather around her to ask questions.

It’s clear that she enjoys her role as a teacher. “I feel a responsibility to make the dharma available to Westerners,” she affirms.

Back in her room, she is animated as she explains that the dharma has made her much happier. “It helps me deal with things in a more skillful way. Anger, delusion, attachment—there are antidotes to them.” She explains that in difficult situations, she thinks about impermanence, how things aren’t the way they appear. When something is painful, there must be a cause, she says. “Things are changeable. Why am I so concerned about it? Does it really exist as independent badness?”

She notes the Dalai Lama has pointed out that we learn and grow when times are the most challenging and difficult. The harder a task is, the more fruitful the results, Kelsang says. “That’s a Buddhist kind of idea. Obstacles can be good. We should embrace them and not try to avoid them.”

These days at nunneries like Dolma Ling, hundreds of Tibetan nuns gather to debate. Two years ago I watched 150 of them debating in Dolma Ling’s stone courtyard, creating a joyous ruckus that continued even when cold rain began drizzling from the winter sky. In 2009, there were about forty nuns in the Tibetan Nuns Project on the geshe track.

Kelsang’s advice to others who want to follow the path she cleared? Don’t give up. “If someone has strong determination, one can do anything they set out to do. Obstacles come and they don’t last.” Obstacles are impermanent too.

Amy Yee

Amy Yee is an American journalist and writer based in New Delhi. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, among other publications, and is a former correspondent for the Financial Times. She has written extensively about Tibetan issues since 2008.