The issue of women’s empowerment in Tibetan Buddhism, especially for nuns, has been tenaciously resisted and debated about for almost 50 years.
The full ordination of the first Western nun, Freda Bedi, by Venerable Minh Chi and Venerable Sek Sai Chung in Hong Kong in 1972, revived the debate after 500 years of silence. The tradition of bhikshunis is believed to have never been introduced into Tibet in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya tradition, and an ordination of bhikshunis by Tibetan monks alone—not a dual ordination—in the 15th century stirred up controversy. Full ordination for nuns survived in only one of the Buddhist Vinaya traditions, that of the Dharmaguptakas in the Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese lineages.
It was not only Western nuns such as Freda Bedi and Tenzin Palmo (ordained in Hong Kong in 1973) who ordained. In 1971, Voramai Kabilsingh, a Thai woman and Theravada Buddhist, ordained in Taiwan. She was the first woman in modern history to take full ordination, and became stigmatized as the “Mahayana nun.”
Once again, the question of full ordination seems to play a large role in the progress of female empowerment in Tibetan Buddhism.
The nuns’ level of education progressed over the years, and in the early 1990s they began the practice of formal debate—a philosophical tradition previously available only to monks. In 2012, the Dalai Lama made the historic decision to allow geshema exams for nuns. The geshema degree is equivalent to a PhD in Buddhist philosophy and is conferred after 17 years of study.
Since 2012, when the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile, gave the green light for the nuns to sit the exam, 37 nuns from 10 nunneries in India and Nepal have earned the degree; the first 20 degrees were conferred in 2016.
With the geshema, women have proven themselves perfectly capable of reaching the highest ranks of a formidably rigorous education.
It is important to note that never in the history of Tibet have women had such educational opportunities. Even when Tibet was free, the nuns spent most of their time praying or meditating, rather than studying for advanced degrees.