The sharp increase in opportunities in female monastics to earn higher Buddhist degrees after the Cultural Revolution reveals the reframing of Tibetan modernity through Buddhist morals: Larung Gar, Kala Rongo, Yarchen Gar, and Jangchub Choeling monasteries provide female monastics with the means to obtain Khenmo degrees, signaling a shift in Tibetan Buddhists.
Elena Salzmann | April 29, 2022
Part 1: Introduction
Religious Gaps Left in the Wake of the Cultural Revolution, a Change in Gender Dynamics
Just like any other government, filled with both bureaucracy and internal arguments of progress, the Tibetan Ganden Podrang government came to a fork in the road under the tenuous circumstances of a divergence of politics. When Tibetan aristocrat Lungshar returned from his travels in the United Kingdom, bringing radical ideas of the separation of religion and state as well as solidifying a Tibetan state military in order to “catch up” with the rest of the world, conservative Tibetans pushed back. This early twentieth century discourse on “modernity” lingers particularly when Tibetan society, in many aspects, had to be physically rebuilt. The mass destruction of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and religious paraphernalia during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) necessitated or demanded the incredible feat of rebuilding and healing Tibetan Buddhist physical and spiritual society in the 1980s and 1990s and the possibility for progressive change, even if it meant being at odds with more conservative sectors of Tibetan secular society. The sharp increase in opportunities in female monastics to earn higher Buddhist degrees after the Cultural Revolution reveals the reframing of Tibetan modernity through Buddhist morals: Larung Gar, Kala Rongo, Yarchen Gar, and Jangchub Choeling monasteries provide female monastics with the means to obtain Khenmo degrees, signaling a shift in Tibetan Buddhists. A survey of female monastic opportunities cannot be written without mentioning that any instinct to read the rise of female monastics within a Western neoliberal feminism framework is largely inaccurate; this phenomenon comes from Tibetan women on a journey to improving the lives of secular and religious Tibetan women through gender equality in Buddhist institutional tools of spiritual liberation, and Western notions of feminism are largely foreign to the institutions and nuns involved. 
Since China pushed Tibet’s frontiers in the late Qing with the invasion of Zhou Erfang, in the late nineteenth century, the Tibetan central government has been constantly negotiating its relationship with a “modernizing” world. Historically, Tibet has been largely divided by region, while the most prominent ruling body, a national assembly led by the Dalai Lama, heavily incorporated religious and secular bodies. The Fifth Dalai Lama’s legacy lived on in the Ganden Podrang government, which lasted until the Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled in 1959. Until that point nearly a decade after the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1950-1951, the Dalai Lama sat as a figurehead of both the political and religious sects of Central Tibetan society. The geographical nature of the Tibetan plateau lends to the political and social governing bodies that differ from the central government’s in both Amdo and Kham regions, which stretch into the provinces otherwise known as the present-day Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan.
Although the Central Tibetan Ganden Phodrang government was largely intertwined with the Yellow Hat sect of the Geluk school, with many strong connections to the Nyingma school, especially under the influence of the Fifth and Thirteenth Dalai Lamas, the secular section of the assembly held conflicting opinions of modernization after a series of foreign attacks in Tibetan areas, particularly of those that had reached Lhasa such as Zhou Erfangs. Although there were some more Tibetan aristocrats that held similar desires to see Tibet modernize, Tsipon Lungshar spearheaded the controversial questioning of the authority of religion in the Ganden Phodrang. Upon traveling to the United Kingdom, Lungshar was inspired to solve some of Tibet’s national security issues through reinventing the ruling government body, essentially splitting religion and state. The consequences for this could potentially weaken the political power of religious institutions involved in the Central Tibetan government. He was inspired by Western European notions of democracy in addition to the development of a national military in the absence of a state-controlled defense system. Lungshar also noted that the integration of religion and state could also slow down Tibet’s ability to politically “catch up” with the rest of the world in the twentieth century. Conservative politicians consequently pushed back on Lungshar’s proposals of modernity, thus pointing us towards a continuous debate of Tibetan modernity and tradition through both religious and secular means throughout the twentieth century.
Gender occupies a major intersection between the Tibetan conversations of modernity, tradition, religious, and secular. This discourse holds its weight in the Tibetan acceptance or embracing of religious opinions within Tibetan culture. The Tibetan-led move towards raising the status of Tibetan Buddhist female monastics is crucial within the conversation of internal reforms and agency of change, rather than accepting external ideas of “modernity” and “progress”. The years following the Cultural Revolution expose the space that allowed for Tibetan visionaries within a Tibetan framework of gender status. The institutions that spearheaded the influx of Khenmo degrees, an achievement comparable to the Geshe degree or Western doctorate of theology, have contributed to the discourse and development of modernity. Although this paper will focus on the development of degree programs for female monastics, there are monasteries that are run by women that do not accumulate to a degree, but nonetheless offer another angle in the discourse regarding the rise of female monastics in the latter half of the twentieth century.
China’s economic policies of the 1980s-2000s implicate monastic degrees in the grander scope of monastic patronage in order to survive in a liberalized market economy. The Open Up and Reform era and the Open Up the West campaign have drastically influenced migrant patterns and private business models, resulting in the emergence of the Chinese middle class, commodification of Tibetan culture, and contemporary issues of financial patronage. The economic lens is important to consider when evaluating equality between female and male monastics in terms of patronage: those with higher degrees and qualifications may be able to attract more patrons and thus, earn more money in the form of patronage from both Tibetan and Chinese patrons of Tibetan Buddhism. With a liberalized economy, there is an overall heightened economic pressure to attract patrons in order to survive within a competitive economic landscape. The connotation for gender equality in a theological sense, as measured by benchmarks such as degrees, can be beneficial to the material success of the religious professional and the institution they have received credentials from. Discourse on religious gender equality is one that both questions the status quo of Tibetan secular practices while also signifying the continued debate of modernity versus tradition that is present within the Buddhist institution and within Tibetan society, indicating the change that has taken place since the first mentioning of the status of women in Buddhist texts between the Buddha and Ananda.
In a sense, Tibetan Buddhist gendered change in the 1980s and 1990s reflect the result of an evolving Tibetan world in which gendered issues not only meant social issues, but also economic ones. The male founders of the programs that raise the status of female monastics often came with the intention of raising the ideological and administrative statuses of women in monasteries. The intentions generally came from a top-down approach in which holy religious figures such as Karmapas, incarnations, or deities sent powerful lamas messages of tapping into the source of female monastics within dreams, such as the cases of Kala Rongo and Larung Gar monasteries’ founders. Founders such as that of Larung Gar monastery’s Khenmo degree program could not explicitly express their unfiltered aspirations of gender equality, lest they would negatively impact Phuntsok who then would not gain enough support and patronage from Tibetans. This presents another intersection of conflict between the secular and religious front of society on the matter of change. Phuntsok’s privacy of beliefs on gender equality can be interpreted into the reliance that monasteries have on secular populations, indicating a level of approval needed for the accumulation of monetary funds. In a new competitive economic environment, the issue of funding and Buddhist patronage is crucial for the survival and creation of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the years following the Cultural Revolution. Without the support from Tibetans, these monasteries would have trouble rebuilding or expanding resources to accommodate female monastic programs such as retreat and Khenmo degrees. Monastics, regardless of gender, need to hold a group of patrons in order to financially support themselves and the monastery. Programs that raise the status of female monastics allow for such attraction of patrons, and thus, more money. These degree developments come in contrast to the previous religious status of women in which they were celebrated for their roles as Tantric practitioners, dakinis, and lineage holders, yet excluded from the degrees that allowed them more social and financial mobility and religious merit.
In secular Tibetan society, women’s social mobility is limited in the framework of gender roles and sexism. Many female Tibetan authors offer this perspective in their writings and when voicing their opinions outside of the literary sphere. Female Tibetan poets and authors such as Pema Tso (Chime), Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, and Tsendrokyid amongst others touch on these topics both in and outside of their works. In conversation with Pema Tso and Tsendrokyid, they both mentioned the lack of mobility in social status and labor for present-day Tibetan women. They offered their perspectives on the nonexistence of breaking outside of traditional gender roles. Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s narrative piece with autobiographical elements confirms this as she traveled through Tibet in the 1990s as the descendent of an aristocratic family; she notes her unique position from an aristocratic family in the ways other Tibetans view her. Dhompa’s status raises her above women to the point, where she refers to feeling like neither man nor woman. She illustrates this feeling through her contrasting narratives of observations of hard-working Tibetan women, herself, and the ways she interacts with Tibetan people.
The rise of status and opportunities for female monastics in the years rebuilding and healing the Tibetan Buddhist material world bring the conversation of modernity in secular and religious context to a head. Twentieth century Tibetan discourse on modernity can be understood through the tensions placed on the desire to adhere to or refrain from religion as a powerful pillar of Tibetan politics and society. When evaluating the present-day opinions of top monastics such as His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and the Seventeenth Karmapa, both of whom have not only publicly voiced their views on gender equality, but have also taken action in fueling the movement of religious mobility and gender equality in the Gelupka and Kagyu schools such as the open championing of Geshema degrees. The next section will survey the monasteries contributing to the discourse of gendered change in the intersections of modernity and religion.
Part 2: Institutions and Programs Reshaping the Tibetan Buddhist Conversation on Gender
2.1 Larung Gar
As one of the largest monasteries in ethnographic Tibet, Larung Gar monastery became one of the first to offer the Khenmo degree in 1985, five years after the monastery opened up in 1980, although nuns began studying at the monastery in 1983. Founded by Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok in Eastern Tibet, Larung Gar attracted monastics from all over the People’s Republic of China, both male and female, Chinese and Tibetan. For the Tibetan Buddhist institution, holding a high degree such as the Geshe or Khenpo degrees, provides a stamp of approval, signaling the authority to take on patrons and to teach more novice monastics. The first cohort of Khenmos received their degrees in 1997 and became the most senior nuns in Larung Gar, teaching subjects including culture, Tibetan medicine, Vinaya, Epistemology, Abhidharma, Madhyamika, and Prajnaparamita. These subjects reflect the more recent curricula, since the Khenmo program has issued academic refinement every year since its inception.
During Phuntsok’s development of the Khenmo degree, as previously stated, he had not advertised his beliefs on gender equality in fear of criticisms from patrons, despite his high status as a keeper of Tibetan culture during the “dark age” of the Cultural Revolution. Phuntsok’s vision for Larung Gar was based on advanced monasticism, as evidenced by its competitive application process of strict adherence to vows. At Larung Gar, female monastics were given the opportunity to take the same number of vows as men, yet still within the framework of Tibetan gender equality, which is concerned not with “feminism”, but with access to the same tools that allow for spiritual liberation.
2.2 Kala Rongo Monastery
Kala Rongo monastery became one of the first monasteries to grant nuns access to completing a full retreat of three years, which was previously only accessible to male monastics when taking full vows to become a monk. Established in 1990 by Lama Norlha Rinpoche, Kala Rongo was entirely built by the Buddhist nuns that then studied there. Bari Pearlman’s documentary Daughters of Wisdom set the stage for the ways in which Lama Norlha Rinpoche paved the foundation for the administrative rise of female monastics to eventually run Kala Rongo themselves by the early 2000s. Kala Rongo is another exceptional example of one of the first religious sites where female monastics could reach similar milestones to male monastics, even if higher degrees have not yet reached Kala Rongo’s curricula. Since its opening, the monastery has opened a Shredra college, where monastics can learn topics such as business and mathematics, which supports the vision of a women-run monastery. 
2.3 Yarchen Gar Monastery
The Post-Cultural Revolution not only changed the social landscape of monastic education, but also the physical landscape. Even after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 in the year of Mao’s death and the rebuilding that had taken place soon after, the residence card Hukou system still requires permits for specific residencies. Founded in 1985 by Lama Achuk Rinpoche, Yarchen Gar is home to a majority-female monastic population. Cho explains the obstacles associated with moving to Lhasa, once the home of Tibetan Buddhist practice which now resides further from Tibet’s capital. Many nuns go to Yarchen Gar to study and to run away from economic exploitation and sexism throughout the People’s Republic of China, building their own huts and meditation spaces at the monastery; ultimately, Yarchen Gar serves as place where women have dominated the monastic scene, as a way to navigate the intersections of discrimination on both gendered and ethnic basis.
2.4 Jangchub Choeling Nunnery
Utopia vision for gender equality and mobilizing ideology adopted by Dalai Lama
Founded by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama with the help of Lama Dupsing Rinpoche in 1987, Jangchub Choeling Nunnery became an exceptional educational institution for female monastics in exile as an extension of the Kopan monastic system. Along with other powerful Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama held a utopian vision of utilizing female monastics in order to execute the full potential of the dharma, effectively leveling the status of men and women within the Tibetan Buddhist institution. 
Beginning with young nuns who immigrated from Tibet, Geshe degree holders began teaching the young nuns both secular and religious curricula in 1989. Without a strong female head of school, Jangchub Choeling faces obstacles when handing off administrative power to the nuns, but the nunnery has grown tremendously in size, popularity, and academic achievements. From 5:30am to 11:30pm nuns engage in daily secular and religious curriculum in addition to individual and group debates, as is customary of the Gelupka tradition. Every year they are ranked, and the top students are recommended to apply for the Geshema degree, a new degree that is the female equivalent of the Geshe degree, the highest degree a Tibetan lama can achieve (equivalent to a Th.D.). This degree was first awarded in 2016 to twenty nuns who had studied for their twelve-day exams for over seventeen years to master Tibetan Buddhist canonical texts and philosophy. Without the support of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and his sourcing for financial support in the West in the 1980s and 1990s, the possibility of reaching such a high achievement may not have been possible for female monastics.
Part 3: Conclusion
The fact of the matter is, there is not enough scholarship on Tibetan Buddhist nunneries or female monasteries, reverberating with Yasmin Cho’s points about the field of Tibetan and religious studies. The phenomenon of the rise in female monastics comes during a period of Tibetan Buddhist rebirth in which not only the Tibetan Buddhist institution, but also Tibetan identity was healing after the violence committed by both Chinese and Tibetans during the Cultural Revolution. This era of destruction left gaps in Tibetan society that allowed for visions of female monastic high degrees to become a reality, woven into the overall rebuilding of Tibetan Buddhist material society.
With this rebirth, there has not been much backlash towards the rise in female monastics. Despite the fact that Tibetan religious society is still largely dominated by patriarchal authority, Tibetan women are now granted the same levels of spiritual authority and resources at a few exceptional monasteries that offer nuns the ability to take full vows, retreat, and reach achievements such as the Khenmo and Geshema degrees. The top-down support of powerful Buddhist leaders and their visions to tap into the spiritual potential of female monastics has set the trend for gendered change in the context of religious institutions, not within the embracement of femininity, but to practice Buddhism without gender.
Clare Harris, “Chapter 5: The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics, and the Representation of Tibet,” in The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics, and the Representation of Tibet (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), pp. 181-204.
Yasmin Cho, “Politics of Tranquility: Religious Mobilities and Material Engagements of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Post-Mao China ”(dissertation, 2015).
 Melvyn C. Goldstein and Gelek Rinpoche, “Introduction,” in A History of Modern Tibet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
 Notes on gender terms: This paper will deliberately avoid terms like “feminism” because of the connotations that this term holds in the framework of Western neoliberal feminism. Most of the Tibetan monastics who have contributed to scholarship on the rise of female monastics have had little to no exposure to Western feminism. They do not consider themselves “feminists”, but had developed their own ideas of gender equality independent of foreign feminist works for the bettering of quality of life for both religious and secular Tibetan women. Perhaps this paper may be neoliberal with its focusing on degrees as a pillar of gender equality in the monastic system.
Zhang, Yinong. “Between Nation and Religion: The Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Network in Post-Reform China .” Chinese Sociological Review 45, no. 1 (2013): 44–69. Shanghai University
“Gender and Sexuality”
 Caple, Jane. “Faith, Generosity, Knowledge and the Buddhist Gift: Moral Discourses on Chinese Patronage of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries.” Religion Compass 9, no. 11 (2015): 462–82. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec3.12181.
 Jue Liang, “Tilling the Fields of Merit”
Lauran Hartley, “Poets and Poetics ,” Poets and Poetics (April 14, 2022).
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, “A Home in Tibet,” in A Home in Tibet (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2013).
About Lion’s Roar StaffLion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly and Lion’s Roar Staff, “Karmapa Announces Plans to Empower Female Buddhist Practitioners,” Lion’s Roar, June 27, 2019, https://www.lionsroar.com/karmapa-announces-plans-to-empower-female-buddhist-practitioners/.
Padma’tsho (Baimacuo), “How Tibetan Nuns Become Khenmos: The History and Evolution of the KHENMO Degree for Tibetan Nuns,” Religions 12, no. 12 (2021): p. 1051, https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12121051.
 Jue Liang 241
Padma’tsho (Baimacuo) and Sarah Jacoby, “Gender Equality in and on Tibetan Buddhist Nuns’ Terms,” Religions 11, no. 10 (2020): p. 543, https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11100543.
Daughters of Wisdom, BTG Productions , n.d., 2007.
“Kala Rongo Monastery and Retreat Center,” NYEMA Projects, Inc. | Kala Rongo Monastery and Retreat Center, accessed May 11, 2022, http://www.nyema.org/monastic/kala.htm.
Yasmin Cho, “Politics of Tranquility: Religious Mobilities and Material Engagements of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Post-Mao China ”(dissertation, 2015). 23.
 Ibid. Ch2.
Daan Oostveen, “Rhizomatic Religion and Material Destruction in Kham Tibet: The Case of Yachen Gar,” Religions 11, no. 10 (2020): p. 533, https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11100533.
Raissa Gruamans , “Stories, Symbols, and Selves: Female Conversion Experiences in Contemporary Tibetan Buddhism Monasticism” (dissertation, 2016).
About Lion’s Roar StaffLion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, and Lion’s Roar Staff. “Karmapa Announces Plans to Empower Female Buddhist Practitioners.” Lion’s Roar, June 27, 2019. https://www.lionsroar.com/karmapa-announces-plans-to-empower-female-buddhist-practitioners/.
Caple , Jane. “Faith, Generosity, Knowledge and the Buddhist Gift: Moral Discourses on Chinese Patronage of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries.” Religion Compass , 2015. pgs. 462-82
Cho, Yasmin. “Politics of Tranquility: Religious Mobilities and Material Engagements of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Post-Mao China ,” 2015.
Daughters of Wisdom. BTG Productions , n.d. 2007.
Dhompa, Tsering Wangmo. “A Woman’s World .” In A Home in Tibet. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2013.
“Gender and Sexuality.” Gender and Sexuality. Patheos Explore the world’s faith through different perspectives on religion and spirituality! Patheos has the views of the prevalent religions and spiritualities of the world. Accessed May 11, 2022. https://www.patheos.com/library/buddhism/ethics-morality-community/gender-and-sexuality.
Goldstein, Melvyn C., and Gelek Rinpoche. “Introduction.” Essay. In A History of Modern Tibet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Gruamans , Raissa. “Stories, Symbols, and Selves: Female Conversion Experiences in Contemporary Tibetan Buddhism Monasticism,” 2016.
Harris, Clare. “Chapter 5: The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics, and the Representation of Tibet.” Essay. In The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics, and the Representation of Tibet, 181–204. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Hartley, Lauran. “Tibet in the World: Cultural Production and Social Change .” Poets and Poetics . Reading presented at the Poets and Poetics , April 14, 2022.
“Kala Rongo Monastery and Retreat Center.” NYEMA Projects, Inc. | Kala Rongo Monastery and Retreat Center. Accessed May 11, 2022. http://www.nyema.org/monastic/kala.htm.
Liang , Jue, and Andrew S. Taylor . “Tilling the Fields of Merit: The Institutionalization of Feminine Enlightenment in Tibet’s First Khenmo Program.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics , 2020.
Oostveen, Daan. “Rhizomatic Religion and Material Destruction in Kham Tibet: The Case of Yachen Gar.” Religions 11, no. 10 (2020): 533. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11100533.
Padma’tsho (Baimacuo), and Sarah Jacoby. “Gender Equality in and on Tibetan Buddhist Nuns’ Terms.” Religions 11, no. 10 (2020): 543. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11100543.
Padma’tsho (Baimacuo). “How Tibetan Nuns Become Khenmos: The History and Evolution of the KHENMO Degree for Tibetan Nuns.” Religions 12, no. 12 (2021): 1051. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12121051.
Zhang, Yinong. “Between Nation and Religion: The Sino-Tibetan Buddhist Network in Post-Reform China .” Chinese Sociological Review 45, no. 1 (2013): 44–69. Shanghai University