For hundreds of years, higher education in Buddhist philosophy has been taught and received mostly by men. There have been a few female teachers, great meditators, such as Shugseb Jetsun, and incarnations of the Buddhas, such as Yeshe Tsogyal. No doubt there have been many great female meditators, who have quietly received the teachings, attained realization, perhaps instructed a few disciples, and then passed away. I should point out that the teachings on meditation, which bring us to enlightenment, have been available to women since the advent of Buddhism in Tibet. However, systematic training in Buddhist philosophy, has mainly been the domain of monks.
Only in the last twenty years or so, have there been shedra programs instituted for nuns. Shedra allows students to gain a correct understanding of the great texts of Buddhism authored by the Buddha and their commentatries by Indian and Tibetan masters. It is not necessary to study in shedra in order to meditate correctly. Merely by relying on the instuctions of one’s guru, it is possible to attain enlightenment. However, studying the great texts before engaging in long term mediation is much like studying a map before embarking on a journey.
The meditator who has not studied extensively may have a perfect realization, but he or she may be unable to communicate it as well as a mediator who has studied.
In 1992, Penor Rinpoche opened a nunnery and later instituted a shedra program for nuns. In 2004, four nuns complete their ninth and final year of shedra and thus became ani lopons. The following year seven more nuns graduated, so now we have quite a few female teachers at our nunnery.
These ani lopons have been teachings both in the nuns’ shedra (college) and in the lobtra (primary school). Previously, all the shedra courses were taught by monk lopons and khenpos from Namdroling, and the lobtra classes were mostly taught by senior students from the nuns’ shedra.
I’ve received about half my courses in the past two years from these ani lopons. In their ability to explain the Dharma texts, I don’t think they are any different than male teachers. Of course most teachers improve as they gain more experience, so there is definitely a difference between old and newer teachers. I’ve found that many new teachers have a difficult time assessing whether their students have correctly understood the teachings. Experienced teachers can pinpoint their students’ level and teach accordingly.
A difference I have seen between the ani lopons and monk lopons is something which has to do with their students. To start with, nuns are extremely shy, especially in the presence of monk teachers. Some monks find ways to lighten the mood and these nuns slowly come out of their shells. Others fail to do this, and find that no one will ask or answer questions in class. When ani lopons are teaching, there is less shyness on the part of students. The students will more readily ask questions and participate in class discussion. Since question and answer sessions are crucial to gaining a correct understanding of the Dharma, this is a great advantage of having female teachers.
Another advantage is that young nuns may now have role models of their own gender. In a way, the lama or guru is the main role model, we hope to attain his or her level of realization and become a great being. However, you won’t find any nuns at our nunnery who say, “In this life, I’m planning to become a spiritual master who can guide others.” It would be an extremely arrogant thing to say. So now that we have ani lopons, who are qualified to teach, and hold greater responsibility among nuns, what better role models for young nuns?