Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Debate Under the Bodhi Tree at the 26th Annual Jang Gonchoe

Dominique Butet and Olivier Adam report on the 26th Annual Tibetan Nuns’ Winter Debate (Jang Gonchoe) in Bodhgaya, which gathered 500 Tibetan Buddhist nuns to practice philosophical debate. Text by Dominique Butet. Photos by Olivier Adam.

Dominique Butet
24 January 2023
Nuns representing their nunnery ask questions to the defenders, who are seated under the Bodhi tree at the 26th Annual Jang Gonchoe.

A dense heat welcomed us as soon as we exited the plane in Bodhgaya, accompanied by an invasive luminosity radiating from the surrounding rice fields. An electric, whirring tuk-tuk brought us directly to the hall of the Kagyu Monlam, where the 26th non-sectarian nuns’ annual Winter Debate, known as the Jang Gonchoe in Tibetan, was held from October 16 to November 17, 2022. The event gathered around 500 Himalayan nuns from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, coming from ten different nunneries in both India and Nepal.

“Debating in this special place is very meaningful, because there is a direct connection to Lord Buddha.” —Thupten Drolkar

“Jang Gonchoe” literally means “winter debate sessions in Jangphu monastery.” The event originated in Tibet in the Lhasa area and was traditionally held only for male monastics. During the Great Prayer Festival (Monlam Chenmo) that was traditionally held in Lhasa between the 11th and 12th month of the Tibetan calendar, monks of the three major monasteries — Sera, Ganden, and Drepung — would join for several days of celebration and geshe examinations. None of them would miss the amazing opportunity to practice philosophical debate. For that purpose, they learned the texts of Valid Cognition (tsema namdrel in Tibetan, or pramana in Sanskrit), a branch of knowledge which deals with elaborated logic and epistemology.

Nuns participate in a morning prayer before the debate session.

After the Tibetan uprising in March of 1959, thousands of people fled Tibet, following His Holiness the Dalai Lama, arrived in Northern India across the Himalayas. Among those who arrived were many monks and nuns. At that time, there were only two nunneries around Dharamsala with very basic infrastructures. The Tibetan Nuns Project, founded in 1987, set out to provide exiled women not only a home but also a quality education. With the help of other associations, communities of nuns were gradually established in all Himalayan regions of India and Nepal.

Thanks to the unfailing support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist nuns were encouraged to study and gradually reached excellence in Buddhist philosophy, enabling them to participate in the debate competitions. The first female Jang Gonchoe was held in 1995 in Dolma Ling (Dharamsala), gathering 150 nuns from four nunneries.

Nuns during their morning self-study.

In 2012, the Dalai Lama invited the nuns to debate in front of an audience of monks, attesting to the degree of excellence in their level of studies. This invitation finally opened the door for women to the Geshema degree. In December 2016, the degree was awarded to 20 nuns in South India after 17 years of study of the Five Great Canonical Texts and additional four years of examination. More than 50 nuns have since graduated, representing a historic step in Tibetan Buddhism, as previously only monks could claim the title of Geshe. Access to education gradually gives the nuns greater self-confidence and enables them to develop all the necessary skills and qualities to teach, but also to lead the community and to be empowered within Himalayan society.

The organization of a philosophical debate competition in the holy city of Bodhgaya takes on a very special color and meaning not only it is close to the famous University of Nalanda, a cradle of Buddhist philosophy, but the words of the Buddha who attained enlightenment some 2,500 years ago in this very place still resound here.

A morning debate session in Kagyu Monlam Hall.

At this year’s debate, the noise that arose from the hall throughout the four weeks of intensive debate training clearly reflected the nuns’ joyful motivation to debate, despite the intensive schedule. In the rules of debate, the right hand represents compassion while the left one represents wisdom. No sooner is a question asked than it is punctuated by a clap of the challengers’ hands in the left palm. The clapping of the hands signifies the union of wisdom and compassion and the stomping of the left foot at the same time symbolizes the closing of the door to rebirth in the lower realms.

The debates include a morning philosophy class, the knowledge of which is then practiced in the afternoon debates to help understand the profound meaning of the Buddhist texts.

Geshema Namdol Phuntsok, from Kopan nunnery in Nepal. She graduated at the top of the class in the first Geshema promotion in 2016.

“Debate is about giving questions and answers,” said Namdol Phuntsok, who became a Geshema in 2016 and attended the competition as a teacher of Philosophy. “In a very Tibetan style, that means that some are standing and asking questions in a position that gives them more energy, more ‘strongness,’” she explained. The other participants – one or two nuns called defenders — sit and give answers and defend a thesis.

This year, five Geshemas were among the twenty professors present in Bodhgaya. Another one, Delek Dolma, successfully ran the Organizing Committee while an extra Geshema performed the functions of dicipline master. The presence of the nuns among the teachers was very significant in regard to women’s empowerment. “Here, all the teachers – whether male or female — are given the same rooms and are sitting on the same stage,” said Namdol Phuntsok.

Geshema Delek Angmo was one of the first competitors in 1995. At the time, she felt shy to compete, but doesn’t any longer. “I feel very happy because the nuns have good competences about logic. Their knowledge has increased a lot and they are more self-confident,” she said. “We are meeting nuns from different nunneries so the nuns can share their knowledge and nourish each other.”

Morning philosophy class with Geshema Delek Angmo before the evening debate session.

Eighteen-year-old Tenzin Norzin from Spiti valley said she felt “very excited by Jang Gonchoe.” Her ambition? “Becoming a Geshema, even if it is very hard to memorize all the texts.”

Others seemed less confident. “We are so lucky to be here,” said nineteen-year-old Choying, but she questions her future following her studies.

“Regarding my future, it is not so clear,” she said. “We are learning so many things now, but after I would like to benefit others. How — by becoming Geshema? I’m not sure, because Buddhist philosophy is so hard, and it becomes harder and harder with the years. It requires a very high level of mental activity. Will we be capable of fulfilling this Geshema way?”

Lhamo Tsering, a thirty-year-old nun from Nepal was more optimistic, even though she still needs 10 more years to finish her Geshema degree. “If I become a Geshema, I would like to teach either to nuns or to poor people. Even if it is very hard to memorize, I feel so happy when I am debating,” she said.

Tenzin Chimey, now 40, has been a nun since she was 12. She arrived from Tibet to India (Dharamsala) in 2010. “It is a unique opportunity to study profound texts that bring deep meaning to Buddhist psychology,” she said of her studies.

Tenzin Norzin (center) with two other nuns from Yangchen Choeling, a remote nunnery in Sipiti, India.

“We can’t miss such good karma, even if it is difficult, because very few people among Himalayan society have this opportunity. My aim is not only to get a degree, but to learn how to be at peace and how to achieve a meaningful life,” said Chimey.

“For that, we must break misconceptions in our mind — that’s why we study Buddhist Philosophy. Our aim is to help others in the future. After getting the Geshema degree, I will do a retreat first because I must internalize the teaching before being able to teach others,” she said.

Lobsang Chodron during afternoon self-study session.

Lobsang Chodron, 43, came from Brazil to Geden Choeling (Dharamsala) seven years ago, and later became a nun. “What will I do with a Geshema degree? Probably nothing,” she said laughing.

“The gift of the title is to study as long as you can. Whatever we study, we do analytical meditation, so we get more clarity. The goal of all these years of study is to become a more reliable source to help others, to reduce the gap between what we think and how we act.”

Thupten Drolkar, 40, from Ladakh will start the four years of Geshema examination next year. “Without knowledge we are ignorant, so we cannot help neither the others nor ourselves,” she said. Drolkar is already teaching in Dolma Ling, but in a fit of humility she confessed: “I should learn more to be able to take my responsibility as a teacher.” That morning, around fifteen nuns, mostly beginners, were listening to her teachings.

“I am amazed to see how curious my students are. We can really empower women through knowledge,” she said.

Thupten Drolkar (left).

The experiences of these nuns shows that the study of Buddhist philosophy is one way to access transformation and a part of profound spiritual practice. The debate session held on Saturday, October 29 at Mahabodhi Temple in the specific place where Buddha was enlightened was an example of how enlightenment can blow out ignorance. From 3 p.m. to 8.30 p.m., these motivated female practitioners took turns debating under the banyan tree, in a very deep respect for their interlocutors, as Geshe Lobsang Tarchin writes: “The purpose for debate is not to defeat and embarrass a mistaken opponent, thereby gaining some victory for oneself; rather, the purpose is to help the opponent overcome his wrong view.”

“Before debating we were so worried,” Tenzin Norzin said, “But when we start debating, our stress went away, and our debating went well.”

Lobsang Chodron also shared her feelings: “At Mahabodhi, I feel so inspired and blessed to debate these texts coming from Nalanda scholars.”

Thupten Drolkar added that “debating in this special place is very meaningful, because there is a direct connection to Lord Buddha.”

“Through debate we can accumulate a lot of merits, because we are doing what Buddha specifically taught us: we sharpen our mind to be free from ignorance so we will be able to act better in our daily life,” she said.

Spiritual ambition goes together with the valorization of the feminine activity in Tibetan Buddhism. At the end of the 26th Jang Gonchoe, 10 new Tibetan Buddhist nuns received their Geshema degrees during a special ceremony chaired by the 41st Sakya Trizin Rinpoche, bringing the number of Geshemas to 54. The secretary from the Department of Religion and Culture, Chime Tseyang, as well as many guests were also in attendance. They will surely be a source of inspiration for all nuns as they are called to play a major role in their monastic and lay communities.

Even in this winter season, caterpillars littered the ground in the early morning at Bodhgaya. By sunset, magnificent butterflies with large wings in shades of midnight blue, purple, yellow, and orange flew around the debate hall, carrying everywhere the joyful news of these newly empowered women.

Dominique Butet

Dominique Butet

Dominique Butet is a teacher and a journalist. After meeting Olivier Adam in 2010, she joined his project to document the daily lives of Buddhist nuns across the Himalayas. Dominique contributes to various media outlets and in 2016 co-wrote a book on meditation for children, The Magic of Meditation. She also contributes to Petit Bambou (Mindfulness App) creating programs for children and editing a book for teachers.