Standing as Equals

A conversation with Rinchen Khando Choegyal, founder of the Tibetan Nuns Project

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In the sitting room at Kashmir Cottage, situated between the main town of Dharamsala and the area that is the seat of the exiled Tibetan government in India, I shared a pot of ginger tea with Rinchen Khando Choegyal, founder and director of the Tibetan Nuns Project and wife of the younger brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I enjoyed the resonant cadence of her voice as she described the history of the project and the work of women, lay and monastic, in keeping alive the teachings of the Buddha and the richness of Tibetan culture amid the hardships of exile.

Rinchen Khando was born in eastern Tibet; her parents, from a farming and business background, were, as she put it, “well-to-do, but very devout and simple people.” At the end of 1958, her family came to India for a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya and Varanasi. The plan was to leave the young Rinchen in India to attend a boarding school run by Catholic nuns. But before her parents returned home, the Chinese invaded Tibet. Since then, her family has lived in India. “Because we were already in India in 1959,” said Rinchen Khando, “we were saved.” They’d left behind almost everything they had.

In 1987, together with other activist women in the exile community, Rinchen Khando established the Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP). The project is committed to education, empowerment and improved status for ordained Tibetan women. It now supports over 700 Tibetan nuns living in North India.

According to Elizabeth Napper, Tibetan scholar and codirector of the TNP since 1991, “Opening up education to the women, particularly in conjunction with training in debate, has been transformative for the nuns. Not only have they been given access to the full intellectual richness of their Buddhist tradition but also, through debate, they have been trained to actively engage with it in a way that gives them confidence in their knowledge. Their body language changes from the traditional meekness of nuns to that of women who occupy space with confidence in their right to do so.”

Barbara Gates


Commitment to education is crucial to the preservation of Tibetan culture. Could you talk about that, both in your own life and in that of the exile community? After 1959, my family and the other Tibetans who were in India could not go back to Tibet. In the early 1960s, the Tibetan government in exile, formerly known as the Central Tibetan Administration, started schools for the children. But when my sisters and I were young, these schools were not yet there. My family had to pay for the schools that we went to.

My mother sold the jewelry she brought with her on pilgrimage to pay for our education. She barely knew how to read, but she deeply knew the value of education. I remember her saying, “We’ll sell the jewelry and give the children education. That’s something which nobody can take away.”

It is because of the schools started by His Holiness that Tibetans in exile are Tibetans today. The Central Tibetan Administration has come a long way in terms of educating the young since those early days. They have now 76 schools and over 25,000 students, and a university for Tibetan students in India is in the process of becoming fully functional. The schools have given the Tibetans in exile their language, a sense of belonging, and a sense of identity.

This commitment to preserve Tibetan identity and culture has clearly fueled your own lifework. Yes. Like many others, I have been dedicated to my community, but first, I will tell you, woman to woman, because I had chosen to get married and have children and I felt it was my responsibility, I took care of my own family. Until my children were 9 and 10, I was totally at home for 24 hours. Also, at that time we lived with my late mother-in-law, His Holiness’s mother, and I felt that this was my time to look after her. When my mother-in-law passed away and my children grew up, I thought, “Okay, now I need to do something for the community.” While I had my secret eye around, women began to meet to reestablish the Tibetan Women’s Association.

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