Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Geshé Rabten: The Life of a Sera Monk
by José Ignacio Cabezón
January 30, 2006
Section 2 of 6

Initial Training in Sera

Disciple: Were you able to begin formal studies and to fully enter the monastic discipline as soon as you were admitted into the monastery?

Geshé: I was allowed to attend lectures by my guru; but I had to memorize some important scriptures before being allowed to take part in the debating sessions. I got up at four o’clock every morning, went out to the stone courtyard in front of the main assembly hall, took off my shoes, cap and upper cloak, and made many full prostrations until sunrise. To get rid of my delusions, my teacher instructed me to recite a short Sutra of confession, the Vajrasattva purificatory mantra, and the prayers of taking refuge, all while making prostrations. He told me it was necessary to eliminate obstacles for one’s spiritual studies and for the practice to be fruitful. I was persistent in doing these preliminary practices, even during the winter. In the biting cold on winter mornings, the skin on my hands and feet would split and bleed. But despite the physical hardship, I was not discouraged. In fact, I felt happy when I reflected that this was a means for purifying mental obscurations and the imprints of former harmful actions. I was not the only one carrying out such practices – the whole courtyard was filled with other monks doing the same thing, and this was very inspiring. Then at sunrise a conch shell would be blown, and all the monks would assemble in the main hall for the morning prayers and tea. Afterwards, all the new monks, including myself, returned to our quarters and swept and cleaned the halls, while the older monks were debating. We did not do this simply because we were forced to. Rather, we reflected that such work aids one’s Dharma practice in this life, and yields good results in future lives as well. After this we memorized the scriptures required for entering our college. There were three colleges in SeraṢera - Sera Jhé, Sera Mé and Sera Ngagpa. Mine was Sera Jhé; in it alone there were over six thousand monks at that time. At the beginning, since I had never done such studies before, memorization came very slowly and reciting texts in the presence of my teacher was difficult. I was making all these efforts so that I would be allowed to begin studying the great treatises. Thus, I felt no hardship.

Just before noon, I attended an assembly in the hall of our college; then we took tea and barley meal. Afterwards I would return to my room to study. Whenever my teacher had some spare time, he would give me very basic teachings on philosophical analysis. In the evening, around six o’clock, all the monks would return from debating; those from my house would immediately hold a special gathering for prayers, which I attended. When this was over, all monks were required to go to their respective teachers for lessons on philosophical analysis. There was one old monk who was the disciplinarian for our house; he would then come around to all the cells to see that no one was sitting inside loafing. Every night I would have my lessons, along with other new monks. As the light was very dim, the teacher could not read; so he had to teach by heart, and the disciples had to try to remember all that he said. Geshé Jhampa Khedub had a very special way of teaching. For about three days he would instruct us in logic; then he would leave this for a day, and relate some accounts from the Jātaka scriptures describing previous lives of Lord Buddha. Or he might tell us the life stories of sages and realized meditators who had gained great spiritual attainments. It was so peaceful, so beneficial, to be in his presence that I never became bored or tired. The times with him were always too short. The class regularly lasted two hours; then all the other students returned to their rooms, but I would normally stay with him until about eleven o’clock. I would insist on making his bed, then take my leave, shutting the door quietly behind me. On my way back to my room, I was allowed to wear my shoes if there were monks sitting in the halls reciting scriptures; and if I was not tired, I would join them. But if they were practising meditation, I had to remove my shoes and walk very softly, in order not to disturb them.

Disciple: Were you ordained as soon as you entered the monastery?

Geshé: No, I waited a couple of months, thinking to follow whatever advice my teacher gave me. Then he told me it would be good for me to receive the novice vows from Phurchog Jhampa Rinpoché, who was recognized in Tibet as an emanation of Maitreya Buddha.

Disciple: What is involved in becoming a novice?

Geshé: Three transformations are needed. The first is to change one’s attitude. By the force of renunciation, one must change and elevate it from that of a householder to that of one who is earnestly concerned with the Dharma. The second is to alter one’s external appearance by donning monk’s robes and having one’s head formally shaved. And the third change is to take a religious name. In addition one must receive the novice ordination from a guru. I was given the name Jhampa Sherab, whereas previously I had been called Tadin Rabten. But now most people still use my former name. This is the procedure of becoming a novice; but more important is the actual keeping of the thirty-six primary commitments, and about two hundred and forty other ones.

Disciple: After you had entered SeraṢera, how long was it before you were allowed to begin debating?

Geshé: About two months. During that time, as I said, I memorized the scriptures and prayers that were needed to pass the oral entrance examination. Then, together with many other monks, I was examined before the abbot and the disciplinarian. With many of the others, I was successful and was allowed to enter the central debating courtyard.

Disciple: After passing this examination, do all the monks follow the same course of study?

Geshé: Yes, all who study in SeraṢera work up to the degree of ‘Geshé’; and to attain this, one has to pass through at least fourteen, and sometimes fifteen, classes. Listed in order, these are:

  1. Beginning Collected-Topics
  2. Intermediate Collected-Topics
  3. Advanced Collected-Topics
  4. Beginning Treatises
  5. Advanced Treatises
  6. Beginning Separate-Topics
  7. Advanced Separate-Topics
  8. Perfections
  9. Beginning Mādhyamika
  10. Advanced Mādhyamika
  11. Beginning Discipline
  12. Advanced Discipline
  13. Phenomenology (Abhidharma)
  14. Karam. A detailed review of discipline and phenomenology
  15. Lharam. A final review of the Five Treatises. Only two from each college can graduate from this class each year.

There is no way of skipping any of these classes. This is a well-developed system, beginning with basic logic and working up to the great scriptures of India, including both the Sutras and commentaries. Just as the alphabet and grammar are studied in primary school, to enable one to understand higher topics later, so logic is studied to train the mind in subtle reasoning, thus enabling one later to appreciate the great scriptures.After developing his intelligence and discriminatory powers in this way, a monk is able to apply as many as twenty or thirty logical approaches to each major point of teaching. Like monkeys that can swing freely through the trees in a dense forest, our minds must be very supple easily to comprehend the depth of the concepts presented in the scriptures. If our minds are rigid like the antlers of a deer, which are cumbersome when sitting or standing, we will never be able to reach this depth.

Disciple: What was the first subject you studied?

Geshé: We were first taught the easiest subject - the relationships between the four primary and eight secondary colours. They were explained carefully; and we learned how to apply simple logical reasoning to them. Debate sessions were held during the day. At noon all the monks would return to their rooms to eat. While the others were eating, I would go to my teacher and tell him what I had learned and what problems I had encountered in debate. Then he would give me private instruction and sometimes food as well. While the subject of colours and their relationships is very simple, it is the manner of phrasing the question in debate that trains the mind. This becomes very interesting and challenging. Once we had mastered it, our intelligence developed somewhat; and we were then taught about the five aggregates of a person, the six senses (including the mind) and their objects, and the eighteen kinds of phenomena: which are the six senses, the six objects and six consciousnesses. Then we really expanded our faculties to explore detailed classifications of all impermanent and permanent phenomena. We studied the two realities according to the Vaibhāṣika and Sautrantika philosophical schools, and the three types of objects of knowledge. These consist of the objects cognized by bare perception, those perceived by inference (e.g. emptiness, impermanence and the fact of rebirth), and extremely concealed objects, some of which can be cognized by scriptural inference, while others are known solely by a buddha’s mind. We dealt with cause and effect and contributing circumstances, the six divisions of causes, and the four types of effects. We made an extensive study of the two types of relationships and the four types of mutual exclusivity. We further studied the classifications of positive and negative entities. The former are those that are cognized by means of negation. An example of this is space, which is defined as ‘the absence of obstructing contact’. A positive entity is simply a phenomenon that is not understood through negation. We investigated the two types of negative entities: complex and simple, the former having four types. This is a very important subject. After this, we studied the different kinds of consequential reasonings. These are a dialectical means for dispelling mistaken views. In debate they are used to reveal contradictions in the successive assertions of a person holding incorrect views. Then he is led again, by means of consequential reasoning, to a correct understanding of the subject. There are also eight and sixteen ways of pervasion, in relation to consequential reasoning, and these too are studied. During the Collected-Topics classes, we covered a vast number of other subjects. Among these was the study of subject and object, of which there are many types. After sharpening one’s intelligence during the Collected-Topics classes, one studies the nature of the mind, which is of great importance. As there are many categories of mind, so too are there many types of perception. The mind is divided into the two categories of consciousness and mental factors, the latter having fifty-one divisions. These fifty-one are yet further classified. We studied all these divisions carefully. There are also different types of consciousness, such as mental, sensory, conceptual and non-conceptual perception. Mind is further categorized into ideal and non-ideal cognition. In the former category are the two sub-divisions of bare perception and inference, both of these having four divisions. There are also five types of non-ideal cognitions.After proficiently studying the mind, one explores a number of subtle concealed-entities, by training oneself in the three types of reasoning. Each of these also has many divisions, all of which we covered. By this training, one is able easily to understand very difficult topics in the great scriptures and treatises. In order to recognize a correct reason, one must study its three aspects. While studying the types of mind, one examines both the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna discussions of this subject. Although this training is primarily given on the basis of the Sautrantika system, all the philosophical schools up to and including the Svātantrika are also discussed. All these subjects are examined by analysing their defining characteristics. I would get depressed sometimes, feeling I did not know and was not learning anything. When this happened, my teacher, again acting with great wisdom, would teach me some very difficult concepts, then make me debate with older monks who were studying higher subjects but who were not so learned. My depression would vanish when I asked them questions they could not answer.

Disciple: Would you describe how a debate is held?

Geshé: Perhaps the most obvious characteristic is the hand gestures. At the opening of a debate, you first say ‘dhīḥ’, the seed syllable of Mañjuśrī, as you clap your right hand on the left. Then you draw the right hand back, and at the same time put the left hand forward. This motion of the left hand symbolizes closing the doors of the three lower states of rebirth; drawing back the right hand symbolizes one’s wish to bring all sentient beings to liberation. But to fulfil this wish is not easy. You must have great knowledge and wisdom; and for this you recite ‘dhīḥ’, asking Mañjuśrī to pour down a torrent of wisdom upon you. In ordinary conversation, the only words that really affect others are those that are either very pleasing or bad to hear. In the same way, the seed syllable ‘dhīḥ’ has a very special effect upon Mañjuśrī; such that he, out of his great compassion, blesses us with wisdom and understanding. Debating involves two people. The answerer sits while the questioner stands, as if the latter had doubts and was respectfully approaching the other for answers.

Disciple: How did these Collected-Topics studies affect your level of intelligence?

Geshé: By the end of these classes, I felt that my power of reasoning had developed, though not completely. In my college there were seventeen or eighteen monastic residences, and mine was called Tehor House. In it alone there were 115 monks who started in the same year as I. There were roughly ten to fifteen teachers to instruct these students; I was honoured by being elected their leader. A class leader had many responsibilities, such as opening debate sessions in the morning and evening, deciding how long they would last and making sure that everyone attended. On the night that I was first to assume these responsibilities, I was sitting with my guru in his room. Around nine o’clock as I rose to go down to start the debating session, I suddenly fainted and fell to the floor. When I regained consciousness, my teacher sent someone to replace me that evening. Then he taught me ‘The Hundred Deities of Tuṣita’, a prayer to Jé Tsongkhapa, along with his mantra. He advised me to recite the latter 100,000 times as an antidote for my malady. Whenever this disorder manifested itself, it rose from the lower part of my body; and if it reached my heart, I would faint. But when I felt it rising, I would start reciting this mantra; after I had done so about twenty-five times, the symptoms would disappear. Eventually this took only eight repetitions. I recited it 100,000 times; then my teacher told me to do so again, after which this ailment never returned. Thus, I have seen from my own experience how powerful this practice can be if one has faith. Sometimes the Tsishar Geshé, the chief monk of our house, would come and recite a text that we were studying. Whenever this happened, I had to repeat what I had memorized in his presence without making any mistakes. Another of my responsibilities as leader was to invite learned monks of higher classes to debate with us, in order to sharpen our intelligence. I had to answer all their questions first, and I was also the main one to ask them questions. I further had to send monks from my class to debate with other classes.

Disciple: How long did it take you to complete all the Collected-Topics classes?

Geshé: Altogether two years, but it takes most monks in other monastic houses three years. Before being allowed to graduate, I had to pass an oral examination in front of all the monks in our house, a total of more than five hundred. As class leader, I had the special task of standing before them all and slowly and melodiously reciting the biography of Sakar Tulku, who was the chief monk of our house. This took more than an hour. Then I had to debate in front of all of them. This can be really nerve-wracking. It is not like examinations in other institutions, which you can do alone with plenty of time to think. In a debate answers must be given as soon as the question has been put. You stand before all those monks, some of them very learned; and all their attention is upon you. When we were in the last stage of the third of the Collected-Topics classes, our class debated for two weeks with the next higher class in our house. On alternate days, one of our better students was chosen by the Tsishar Geshé to answer questions in debate with monks of the higher class. Then on the other days, one of the latter would answer questions that we asked. This was very difficult, for they were much more learned than we.

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Geshe Rabten: The Life of a Sera Monk, by José Ignacio Cabezón

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Initial Training in Sera
  3. Monastic Life and Education
  4. Training as an Elder Monk
  5. Glossary
  6. Notes
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