Geshema Kelsang Wangmo
Geshema Kelsang Wangmo is a German-born Buddhist nun, scholar, and teacher. She is the first woman to be awarded a Geshe title, considered equivalent to a Ph.D. in Buddhist philosophy.
She was raised in a Roman Catholic family in Lohmar, a small town between Cologne and Bonn in Germany. During her childhood, she attended church but grew uninterested in religion in her teens. After completing high school in 1989, she went on a backpacking trip. Travelling through Israel (where she stayed on a kibbutz), Turkey, Cyprus, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan, she reached India. After visiting Kolkata, Varanasi, and Manali, she landed in Dharamshala. She had planned to stay for a couple of weeks before returning to start university, studying medicine. But eventually, she stayed on.
She joined an introduction to Buddhism course at Tushita Meditation Centre, at Dharamkot above McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh. She went on to study Buddhism seriously. She took ordination as a nun in April 1991. She later enrolled in the traditional geshe curriculum (a 16-year course) at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics (IBD) in Dharamshala. In April 2011, the IBD conferred the degree of Geshe, a Tibetan Buddhist academic degree for monastics, on her, thus making her the world’s first female Geshe.
The degree is entitled Rime Geshe [i.e., Non-Sectarian Geshe] because the curriculum includes study with Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu masters of their respective presentations of philosophy. In addition to the normal Geshe curriculum study of the Five Great Canonical Texts, Geshe Wangmo and her classmates studied tantra for two years at IBD. Those who receive the Rime Geshe have completed exhaustive annual examinations comparable to those now administered at the three great Geluk monastic universities in south India, and submitted Tibetan dissertations.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama authorized the IBD to award Rime Geshe degrees in 2009.
The first ceremony to confer the degree took place 27 April 2011 at The College for Higher Tibetan Studies (a newer branch college of IBD with a large campus located in Sarah village, Dharamsala township, Kangra Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India). Ven. Kelsang Wangmo and her classmates who completed the requirements for the degree in 2010, were the first to receive this Geshe degree.
Since 2004, Geshema Kelsang Wangmo has been teaching Buddhist philosophy classes in English in Dharamsala, following the curriculum of the IBD.
Watch the Yogini Project interview with Geshema Kelsang Wangmo in two parts:
Ani Choying Drolma
Ani Choying: The Dreamer
“Ani Choying Drolma was barely 13 when I first knew her. Irrepressibly bright-eyed and intelligent, she spent as much time as she could working on her English with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s foreign disciples–the “Injis”–at Nagi Gonpa. We called her “ani chewing gum” affectionately. How did this bright and lively young nun who loved to sing and dance become such a force for good in the world, spreading blessings and joy with her voice and her songs, all the while working tirelessly for the education not only of the nuns at her own Arya Tara School, but also for other poor children?
As Ani herself will tell you again and again it is all due to the great power and blessing of our tsawe’i lama, our root guru, the late master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. I met Rinpoche when I was 28 and he absolutely changed my life; Ani met him when she was 10, and he completely shaped hers. Rinpoche inspired his students to be the best people they could, and to do all in their power to work for the
benefit of others. He did this by accepting us completely, thereby enabling us to accept ourselves, to find our strengths and use them.
My first connection with the Nun’s Welfare Foundation and the Arya Tara School came when both were mere dreams of Ani’s. I say “mere” with some hesitation because Ani’s dreams and goals appear to have a life of their own–but only because of the energy and faith she brings to all of her work. She called me one evening and asked whether she could come over right away because she needed to
write a proposal. It had to be delivered that same night to an American consular officer who was going to present it to someone the next day. Even now it doesn’t sound possible, but somehow we did it. Ani described to me her dream and I managed to convert it into a plausible project proposal in a couple of hours: her ideas, back then my words.
Did I think this dream of hers would get anywhere?
Frankly, I didn’t, but I loved Ani Choying and had watched her grow up into a remarkable young woman, and so it never even occurred to me to say no. As it turns out that proposal didn’t make much of an impression, or at least not a big enough one, on whoever it was written for, but as we can now see it was simply the beginning of something much larger than I had ever thought possible. Visiting the school last week for the first time in a couple of years, I was astonished. Not simply at the size and beauty of the buildings, but because of the details: the 50+ nuns of all ages and sizes in their school uniforms of nun’s robes and knitted caps, the clean and orderly classrooms, the well-equipped computer lab and, as a final delightful surprise, the thanka painting school. Ani tells me she is still dreaming–of ani thanka painters, ani khenpos and anis who return to their home villages to educate the people there, teaching them about hygiene and good health and telling them to send their girls to school.
Ani no longer needs my help with her words; her eloquence and natural intelligence never cease to amaze me. Many years ago, we attended some talks on women’s empowerment at the regional UNICEF office. There were lots of words she didn’t understand, which she wrote down and asked me about later, but she grasped the concepts intuitively, and grasped as well how to give such talks herself. Not long after that she was invited to a conference at Harvard University, and at that time, it was my husband who helped with her presentation. He made her write it herself, ignoring all protestations that she couldn’t, and then helped get the final product ready.
The remarkable thing about Ani Choying is that she is still learning, still striving to do better, to be more, to expand the range of her work and her experience. Now that the Arya Tara School has been built, complete with fields for growing organic vegetables, she is working on building a kidney hospital, and has dreams for a retreat center. And we know about Ani’s dreams: she won’t stop until they all come true.”
~ By Judith Amtzis
Freda Bedi (Sister Palmo)
Freda with young tulkus (Akong Rinpoche to right) at the Young Lamas Home she founded in Dalhousie, India (circa early 1960s)
“As my experience with the Tibetan Buddhist world grew, I heard something about Freda that surprised me. Among the Tibetans it was whispered that Freda was regarded as an emanation of Tara, the female Buddha of Compassion in Action. Tara, (beloved of all Tibetans, religious or not) was hailed as the Divine Mother, to whom they all prayed when in need. It was Tara, rather than the historical male Shakyamuni Buddha, whom they called upon whenever they were in danger, sad, frightened, or sick, because they knew Tara did not merely sit and listen compassionately to their please; she got up and DID something. This ability to act and act quickly was regarded as a quintessential female quality.
Over the years I had seen plenty of paintings and staues of Tara. She certainly looked nothing like a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Englishwoman. Usually she was painted green (although sometimes white and other colors), with a round moon-shaped face, a benign expression, and one leg stretched out ready to spring into action. … Why and how had she earned this accolad? Freda, apparently, had appeared in the darkest time of Tibet’s history, when the Dalai Lama and thousands of his fellow countrymen, women, and children had fled over the Himalayas in a terrifying trek to freedom. They had poured into exile, sick and traumatized by the persecution and torture they had experienced and by there dangerous escape. Freda had been there to comfort them, bathe their wounds, soothe their fears, and help put them back on their feet.”
~ Vicki MacKenzie, from the introduction to The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi
“Freda is an inspirational woman, a role model for women everywhere. We need real-life examples of powerful women, especially nuns. Freda’s life was enourmous. She was pioneer in so many fields.”
~ Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
“What she had to say had a lucidity and simplicity about it. I can’t accept any teachings if there is a false note – if it is not coming from a person’s wholeness and integrity, if what they are saying merely comes from what has been heard or read. With Freda I was able to drink it in. It was coming from beyond.
I don’t know how realized she was. I didn’t go into those areas. She told me something about her mystical experience in Burma. She said she came out onto the street and saw everything in the world lit up as though from within. She did not go into a featureless expanse – but the ordinary world was transformed for her.
She also taught me from her actions. I never heard her say a mean thing to anyone. She was ‘always’ thinking of others, writing to people ‘all’ the time [quoted words italicized in book for emphasis], trying to get others what they needed. And it was done with such affection. She constantly had a folder in her lap, and whenever she had a minute, she’d write a note to someone.
Mummy [as Freda Bedi was affectionately known to all] was wonderful for me to a very high degree. First of all, she was important because she was a woman. I am grateful to someone who understood the teachings and practice, and that it was a woman in a tradition that is quite male dominated. This was not by choice – it was sheer good luck. i was not consciously being a feminist, but I knew and I trusted her. She had a love of the Dharma and used it in a bold, brave way. When I first approached her for teachings, she replied, ‘Yes of course, my dear. I will be delighted. That is just the thing.’ I sensed she had just been waiting for me to ask.”
~ Joanna Macy, renowned writer, Engaged Buddhist and environmentalist, on her experiences with Freda in India in the early ‘60s
On Freda’s recognized reincarnation, Jamyang Drolma…
Freda Bedi & Jetsunma Jamyang Drolma
On The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi…
The Yogini In Books
Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Patricia Zenn already had a religion when she grew up in Malibu: surfing. But as she was constantly teased by her classmates about her family name (“Are you Buddhist or what?”), curiosity led her to borrow a book about Buddhism when she was only 11 years old. To her surprise, she instantly realized “this was it!”
Fast forward to 1977, when she was in her early 30s, the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa ordained her in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and gave her the Tibetan name Karma Lekshe Tsomo. Very fittingly, “Lekshe” means “eloquent.” Venerable Lekshe quickly realized that conditions for Buddhist nuns were dire. She single-handedly started a movement to give Himalayan nuns access to education. At the time, more than 30 years ago, this idea was, at best, treated as a waste of time, or even discouraged by the established monasteries.
“They’re telling the nuns, ‘Oh, you’re so humble, you’re not interested in gaining prestige and power like these Westerners,'” Lekshe says with a calm voice but a quizzical look. “Well, I just wonder why they are not telling the monks that. If women are perpetually disadvantaged, this is what you end up with. Surveys show that the nuns’ health is by far the worst of any group. Their educational standards are by far the worst too. There is a lot of work to be done, and awareness raising, especially among women.”
Karma Lekshe Tsomo set out to develop a network of supporters, even at the risk of her own life and cost to her health. Along with her late teacher Freda Bedi and her friend Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, she is among the earliest and fiercest advocates for the education of Tibetan nuns. Karma Lekshe Tsomo is the president of Sakyadhita (“Daughters of the Buddha”), the most important international association of Buddhist women, and of Jamyang Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the education of Himalayan women.
I am often surprised how few Buddhist women know about Sakyadhita, and this is why I write about it here. This week several thousand Buddhist women (and a few men) gather for the Sakyadhita conference in Vaishali, an ancient city in North India that the Buddha visited on many occasions. Every time Sakyadhita chooses a different country, but at every conference they discuss meaningful ways in which Buddhist women can advance their access to education and full ordination (which is not available to women in several Buddhist traditions despite the Buddha’s initiative to ordain women). The Sakyadhita conferences have generated a worldwide Buddhist women’s movement. “Cultivating confidence,” “Buddhism at the Grassroots,” “Women Changing Buddhism” and “Women’s Stories” from India and all over the world are part of the topics presented at this year’s conference. Noted speakers this year include Venerable Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, whose life story has been told in Vicki Mackenzie’s bestselling “Cave in the Snow,” and Rita M. Gross, the author of “Buddhism After Patriarchy.”
What is the main obstacle? “Sexism,” Lekshe candidly sums it up. She is not afraid to use the F-word. “Feminism,” she says, delivering the punch line with a coy smile, “has been called the radical theory that women are completely human.” The gender imbalance affects Buddhist women worldwide. “We are talking about more than 300 million women dedicated to peace, honesty, loving-kindness and compassion. Certainly we would want to optimize the talents and potential of these wonderful women.” In the West, more and more teachers recognize this potential, but “women have almost no voice in Asian Buddhist institutions. For women to move into positions of leadership, they need to be fully educated and trained.”
Lekshe, a professor in Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, is confident that things will change: “Why shouldn’t women have the same opportunities? More and more, I see it as a human rights issue.”
Feature by Michaela Haas: www.dakinipower.com/karmalekshetsomo/
Image: Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo by Gayle M. Landes.
Khandro Thrinlay Chodron
Khandro Thrinlay Chodon has, all her life, quietly and diligently practiced the Buddhist teachings in her precious family lineage. Her great grandfather was the great Drukpa yogi, Drubwang Shakya Shri. Her father was Kyabje Apho Rinpoche and her mother, Sangyum Urgyen Chodon, was also an accomplished yogini, who first sowed the seed for her daughter’s enduring passion for the spiritual teaching and practice in daily life.
She was trained as a child with the late Yogi Gegen Khyentse, a master of the Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra, from whom she received all the empowerments and transmissions of the Drukpa lineage. She also studied with the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and has practiced in solitary retreat under the guidance of the late Kyabje Sengdrak Rinpoche.
In her early adult life, Khandro-la’s spiritual master, Gegen Khyentse, recognized Khandro-la’s capacity to manifest dharma activities and gave the name Khachodling to her vision. Khandro Thrinlay Chodon married His Holiness the Ninth Shabdrung Ngawang Jigme Rinpoche. ‘Khandro’ is a title received through marriage to Shabdrung Rinpoche and means ‘Dakini’ in Sanskrit. This title refers to the wisdom quality within the feminine essence. Shabdrung Rinpoche passed away in 2003, and since that time, Khandro Thrinlay Chodon has been devoting herself to her vision of establishing Khachodling. This has become her life’s work of spiritual training and activity. It has manifested in a series of projects that are united by a strong spiritual purpose.
“The word ‘Khachodling’ holds a deep spiritual meaning for me. Simply stated it is the place where the heart essence of wisdom, known as the feminine principle in Buddhism, is nourished and respected. Compassionate Action flows unceasingly from this source. Literally translated from the Tibetan, this is a ‘land of the blissful dakinis’.
Khachodling, this vision – my life’s work, is an offering to the wisdom of my great masters. It is a goal-less journey.
I am not quite sure from where it came and where it is leading. But I do know that, myself and Khachodling have always been blessed by my precious masters, and these blessings will always continue.”
“So much of my inspiration and joy comes from bearing witness to the unfolding of the dharma in myself and others. My teaching is most engaging when I’m involved in an on-going relationship with students and having the opportunity, and honor, to see what’s happening in their lives. We may begin our practice on our cushions; and yet, as we learn to bring practice to all corners of our lives, we get a glimmer of the true possibility of liberation.”
~ Myoshin Kelley
Myoshin Kelley is one of the directors of Mingyur Rinpoche’s Tergar International and facilitates Joy of Living meditation courses and teacher trainings around the world. All that encounter Myoshin in her teachings, work, and dharma community come to know the warmth, simplicity and candor of her compassionate, mindful presence.
“Myoshin Kelley attended her first meditation retreat in 1975 at the age of 20. Through the ensuing years she has received dharma instructions from several renowned Buddhist meditation masters in the Theravada, Zen and Vajrayana traditions. She has practiced extensively with the Burmese meditation masters Chanmyay Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Pandita, and Sayadaw U Tejaniya. In the early 1990s Myoshin received meditation instruction from the Soto Zen master Hogen Yamahata. Her desire for long-term meditation practice has taken her to Burma on several occasions.
In 1994 she accompanied her husband, Edwin, to the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, MA, where she was trained as a meditation instructor by Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg. Since then she has been teaching meditation in a number of places throughout North America. In 2003 she was appointed the teacher in residence at the Forest Refuge, the long-term practice center at IMS.
Myoshin was introduced to Vajrayana teachings in 1993 and met Mingyur Rinpoche in 1998 when he first visited the US with his brother Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Since then she has practiced with Mingyur Rinpoche in North America and Asia benefiting from his skillful, lucid instructions on the profound teachings of Mahamudra.
Lama Dechen Yeshe Wangmo
Born in Montreal, Canada, her Buddhist path began with meeting the 16th Karmapa in 1977 and soon completing a three-year retreat in New York State under the direction of Kalu Rinpoche. In 1992, she was enthrones as a lama in the Dudjom Nyingma lineage by Repkong Tsedrup Tharchin Rinpoche.
She was an original member of Kalu Rinpoche’s International Translation Group formed in 1986. More recently, togther with colleagues, she led the translation of the 550 pages of Dudjom Rinpoche’s volume 16, his mind treasure, Dakini Heart Essence.
In 2002, she founded Jnanasukha to bring awareness to the feminine principle of sacred openness—the source of everything which is praised as the wisdom of the female buddhas. In 2010, she established The Tsogyal Latso Fund and The Pearl Mala global community to care for Tsogyal Latso, the birthplace of Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal in central Tibet and the nuns living there. When circumstances allow, she leads pilgrimages to the historical sites of Yeshe Tsogyal and the Nyingma lineage in Tibet.
A twenty-eight year resident of Hawaii, Lama divides her time between online activities, on-site programs, translation, research, fundraising for Tsogyal Latso in Tibet, and personal retreat.
Lama Lena (Yeshe Kaytup)
Beginning in 1972, Lama Lena spent three years studying with Lama Thubten Yeshe at his monastery in Nepal and seven years in retreat and practice in a small cave above TsoPema under the tutelage of her root teacher, Ven.Wangdor Rinpoche.
For the past 25 years she has traveled extensive with Wangdor Rinpoche as his translator and assistant. Lama Lena has also studied Chinese medicine and had a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2005 she returned to Tso Pema to assist Wangdor Rinpoche.
She currently lives on the mountain above Lotus Lake with her two khandros. When she is not traveling, teaching or translating, she works providing medical assistance to the Tibetan refugee community as well as the local Indian villagers and mountain tribespeople.
At the request of H.E. Zigar Choktrul Rinpoche and Ven.Wangdor Rinpoche – as well as many Western and Tibetan dharma students – she has been traveling and teaching from the lineages she holds.