History & Background
In 1998, in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche, spiritual teacher and body incarnation of Buddhist saint Pema Lingpa, began talking about giving girls and women the opportunity to receive the traditional Buddhist education that had only been the exclusive privilege of the male population. Even in 1998, this was a bold vision in the Himalayas.
Word quickly spread though the kingdom and by 1999, 45 young girls and woman, aged 7 – 40, found their way to Gangtey in the Black Mountain range of Central Bhutan. The opportunity filled them with hope, joy and enthusiasm. Some overcame great family and social obstacles in order to reach Gangtey.
For the next two years, they lived in two small old village houses – one of them in ruin. This is where they began their basic education taught by senior lamas (male monks) overseen by Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche.
They slept, packed in rows, directly on the floor of two tiny rooms with no beds nor even pallets. There was no source of heat.
As the number of students increased, temporary basic buildings were erected in the Tang Valley of Bumthang on land loaned by local villagers. The permanent Institute site in that same region, was chosen for its sacred link with Pema Lingpa, as well as for its warmer climate and inspiring beauty.
In 2002, the first 11 young women graduated from basic studies and entered Pema Choling Shedra (College-University) to begin the nine year traditional curriculum in higher Buddhist studies. Since there were no women qualified to teach, education was overseen by male Khenpos (equivilent of a University graduate).
Construction of the permanent structures have been ongoing since 2005, the women themselves making bricks and assisting wherever possible with construction, in between their studies.
There are 130 girls and women living and studying at the Pema Choling Institute. In 2011, the first eight women in the history of Bhutan graduated from Pema Choling Shedra. Most of them have stayed on at Pema Choling to teach Buddhist studies, since, for the first time, they are qualified to do so. Others have begun to teach at a “satellite” facility in Mongar, East Bhutan.
Construction is ongoing and the logistics of building in such a remote area are extremely difficult. What we consider basic infrastructure (running water and electricity) are very challenging to establish and maintain.
Regardless of the challenges, the women and girls at Pema Choling Institute are dedicated and determined. They will become leaders in their communities, helping and empowering other women to reach their full potential.