Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

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Geshé Rabten: The Life of a Sera Monk
by José Ignacio Cabezón
January 30, 2006
Section 4 of 6

Training as an Elder Monk

Disciple: What did you study during the Mādhyamika classes?

Geshé: We investigated emptiness, as it is presented in the tenets of the Prāsaṇgikas. During the second turning of the Wheel of Dharma, method and wisdom were taught; and in these classes, we studied the wisdom teachings. The basic text we used was Candrakīrti’s Entering the Middle Way. Although there are many great texts by such pandits as Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva, this one is used and memorized because it gives such a fine, balanced discussion of the two realities. Each word has a commentary to it; so we were able to understand it thoroughly.

Disciple: Were there any changes in your daily pattern of study?

Geshé: During the two years spent in the Beginning Mādhyamika class, all our religious practices were the same as in earlier classes, except that all-night debate sessions were obligatory for those in my college. This was much more difficult than in the Beginning Treatises class, since the subject matter is longer and more difficult. At the same time, I was very happy because, as if looking down on a plain from a mountain peak, I could see how much deeper my understanding was than before. As we were dealing with emptiness, the very heart of the teachings, classes were held in a very special way. Next to the place where we held our night class was a small hut; in this was a stone; on it were thirteen naturally-formed Tibetan letters ‘A’. To make them plainly visible, they were painted over in gold. The hut was in fact built round them. It was in a nearby cave on the mountainside that Jé Tsongkhapa wrote his famous commentary to Nāgārjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom, in which he discusses many ways of understanding emptiness. While he was writing it, there were innumerable ‘A’s in the sky above him. The letters gradually sank down and embedded themselves in the stone. ‘A’ symbolizes emptiness, because it is a negating particle. Although it is used to negate many things, it primarily denies the inherent identity of persons and phenomena. Thus, it is a symbol of emptiness. At that time, there had been no monastery, only a cave where Jé Tsongkhapa was writing. When the letters descended, he prophesied that a monastery would be founded there in which emptiness would be very extensively investigated. The complete account of this was inscribed above the door on the hut.

Disciple: During this class, you studied more texts written by pandits other than Candrakīrti, didn’t you?

Geshé: Yes, we also studied the Six Works of Nāgārjuna, texts by Āryadeva, Buddhapālita, and also others written by pandits of the Svātantrika school. Although we primarily worked at the tenets of the Prāsaṇgikas, we also reviewed those of the Svātantrikas and other schools, so as to be able to compare them. Through our thorough study of the texts relating to śūnyatā in the collection of commentaries translated from the original Sanskrit, we were, by the time we graduated from the Beginning Mādhyamika class, very familiar with the subject of emptiness.

Disciple: When I listen to you speaking of these all-night debates, which went on almost without a break for weeks a t a time, I wonder how you could stand it physically.

Geshé: Staying up all night like that was possible chiefly due to the monks’ enthusiasm for Dharma, but also to the fact that we became accustomed to it. We were able to devote ourselves to developing our understanding; this was the one aim which dominated our thoughts. Students of higher classes would also come to answer in debate during these night sessions of the Beginning class. However, they only came if they were well-versed in the subject, for our class was quite learned and skilled in debate by then. When they came, it also helped our studies.

Disciple: If such a thorough study of the relevant texts was made during the Beginning Mādhyamika class, what was the purpose of the Advanced Mādhyamika class?

Geshé: Two more years were spent in the Advanced Mādhyamika class in order to examine more carefully the texts already studied. It is said in the monastery that the first two years are the time for comprehending emptiness by means of inference, and the second two years for gaining direct realization.

Disciple: How was this possible if most of the day and night was taken up in debating?

Geshé: During the sessions, there would be monks who would listen to those debating, and others who would sit under the trees and practise non-conceptual meditation. Some actually would gain direct insight, when their minds merged into emptiness like water into water.

Disciple: Who instructed you during these classes?

Geshé: A master named Geshé Thutob. He lived in the same upstairs room as my former teachers; I made guru devotions to him when I visited him, often staying until eleven o’clock at night. Since the place to urinate was far away, he kept a pot in his room. Every morning I went up and insisted on taking out this pot to empty it. While doing so, I would place it on my head and offer a prayer. Then I would pour a little in my hand, drink it, and throw the rest away. This is not a Tibetan or a monkish custom. I was moved to do so by my deep faith in my guru, although there is not necessarily any relationship between drinking urine and receiving his blessing. There is one only if one has heartfelt faith in the guru.

Disciple: Such a practice would probably sound very strange to most Westerners.

Geshé: Yes, but this is of no great importance. Some will understand the reason behind it, and to others it will remain a mystery. Religious faith is known throughout the world; it simply has different ways of manifesting itself. Out of pure devotion, some disciples nurse their lama when he is sick, and by doing so gain great insights. There are a few instances of disciples washing their gurus when they were too ill to leave their bed to defecate; as they carried out the excrement, they experienced great clairvoyance, gaining awareness of the consciousnesses of other beings including even tiny insects. Such immediate, rather than gradual, insights are due to the disciple’s great faith in his guru combined with the guru’s blessing. To understand the profundity of this devotion, you need long experience in the Buddhadharma and a deep understanding of the stages of the path to enlightenment, as well as tantra. If you look to the past, you will find many instances of great sages and realized meditators attaining insights through the practice of guru devotion. For example, Nāropā stayed with his guru, Tilopā, for twelve years before the latter ever spoke to him. Sometimes he would do such things as to make a mudball out of dirt and urine and throw it in Nāropā’s face. Then Nāropā would tell of the insight he had gained from it. This does not mean that I had any special insights from drinking urine; but it does help to explain why I did it.

Disciple: Did you discontinue such practices as prostrations as you became more advanced?

Geshé: No, I never stopped doing my preliminary practices, neither prostrations nor mandala offerings. As I had no metal base, I went to a river-bed east of SeraṢera, found a flat stone and offered the mandala on that. After I had used it for many years, I was given a silver base by one of my disciples; I gave my old one to another disciple, Geshé Phemba. Although I gained no great spiritual insights during this time, I did meditate whenever possible. There are people who think that no meditation is done while one is training to become a Geshé; but that is incorrect. From the time I began the studies on the perfections, I would meditate whenever there was opportunity to. And I was not the only one; there were many other monks who did the same. I concentrated on all the subjects involved on the stages of the path, after previously gaining a thorough understanding of the texts dealing with them. Even when I occasionally became very sick, when disciples came for teaching, I would sit up and teach them as usual and then return to bed. Even while I was staying in the other house, whenever there was a debate I would return to my own house and attend it. Sometimes these sessions would last until dawn; but if not, I could immediately return to the other house after I had had my turn at debate. Since the elder monks had their turns first, they did not have to stay up all night as did the younger ones. During some of the interims, especially the longer ones, I went off to some caves behind the monastery to memorize texts and contemplate the teachings I had received. I remember sitting among the boulders on a mountainside and reading aloud a text written by Kyabjé Phabhong Khapa, the guru of both the tutors of the present Dalai Lama, called A Distant Call to the Guru. In it are found many heartfelt prayers to one’s guru; I read this when I especially missed my own gurus who had returned to our homeland.

Disciple: Did you still have examinations in these higher classes?

Geshé: We elder monks were examined once a year; we had to recite all the texts we had memorized in the presence of the abbot. I was never marked higher than fourth.

Disciple: How were you trained in the Discipline classes?

Geshé: During the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma, Buddha taught theory and practice, and discipline is the latter. We studied this for four years, using Gunaprabhā’s Compendium of Discipline as the basic text, because of its special interpretation. In addition, we studied the thirteen volumes of discipline in the collected discourses of Lord Buddha, as well as many Indian and Tibetan commentaries. I did not memorize the entire basic text; but I did learn all the main points. I also memorized commentaries on it, one of which was written by the original Sherpa Rinpoché (the present one being the fourth incarnation). The basic study of discipline deals with the vows of individual liberation, but more generally with the law of cause and effect. As this is very profound, it needs much study. Discipline is a complete and very detailed instruction on how to avoid all unwholesome actions, such as while sitting, eating and moving, and explains how to transform these into wholesome actions. For example, in order to prevent harm coming to insects when monks took water, Buddha taught that they should strain it through a fine cloth, then check to see that there are no insects there before drinking it. Buddha laid down many other precepts dedicated mainly to prevent harm from coming to any living creature. During these four years, we studied too many things to be mentioned here. By the way, you remember that my classmates had nicknamed me ‘Milarepa’? Well, it was during the latter part of my Discipline studies that I was chosen to be both the tutor of Gonsar Rinpoché, who was then five years old, and a religious assistant to a highly respected lama who was an incarnation of the Indian pandit Āryadeva. As I was fed very well by both of them, I soon found myself renamed ‘Fat Rabten’. After completing the study of discipline, we began phenomenology. This is the theoretical part of the teachings given during the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. I studied it for two years during the Phenomenology class; but both discipline and phenomenology are studied again later on. The daily schedule for elder monks is just as tight as for young ones - it does not get more relaxed as one advances. In this class, the order of our studies went like this. First we learned of the realms in the cycle of existence through which sentient beings wander. Next we covered the different kinds of sentient beings and the cause of their wandering, which is tainted actions and their cause, mental distortions. Then we studied the path which is the opponent of tainted actions and mental distortions, and what type of being is needed to follow it. Finally, we studied the results of following this path - liberation, buddhahood and the qualities of a buddha’s body, speech and mind. These studies are mostly of Hīnayāna teachings, and we used as our basic text Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Phenomenology. I memorized this, and studied all the commentaries on it as well. Then during the next class, Karam, we made a detailed review of discipline and phenomenology. I find it very strange that both Westerners and Theravadins think that Tibetans are solely Mahayanists, when, in fact, we make extensive studies of all the eighty-four thousand collections of teachings of Lord Buddha, as recorded in both the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna Sutras. For at least six or seven years we studied discipline and phenomenology, which are both included in the Hīnayāna canon. Furthermore, we did not merely examine them intellectually; we practised their teachings as well. For example, when Theravadins teach about the close application of mindfulness (satipaṭhana), they speak primarily of paying close attention to all one’s actions such as sitting, eating, walking and so forth. But this is covered in the smallest discussion of this subject in the Sutras. In Tibet three volumes on it are studied, which delve into all its deep aspects and implications.

Disciple: Have you discussed all the subjects that are studied in the process of becoming a Geshé?

Geshé: All except one - the study of ideal perception (pramāṇa) which, from the point of view of epistemology and logic, deals with the entire doctrine, and specifically with the teachings of the final turning of the Wheel of Dharma. The text emphasized is dharmakīrti’s A Complete Commentary on Ideal Perception. In it he gives many types of logical reasoning concerning what is to be done or avoided on the basis of the four realities of realized beings; there is also a very extensive discussion of what is and is not a conclusive reason. Because this treatise shows so many superb lines of reasoning Dharmakīrti is known as ‘The King of Logic’. Partly as a joke and partly to indicate his surety of understanding, he writes at one point:

Just as all the water of rivers and streams comes from the ocean, so must all logical reasonings in the world of human beings come from myself; and just as all the water of rivers and streams must return to the ocean, so will all reasonings return to me.

The main topics he deals with are:

  1. The manner in which sentient being wander in the round of existence.
  2. The cause of this wandering.
  3. The manner of attaining liberation from the round of existence.
  4. The path to this liberation.
  5. The manner of attaining buddhahood.
  6. The path to buddhahood.
  7. Logical proofs of former and future rebirths.
  8. Logical proofs of the beginninglessness of the round of existence.
  9. A presentation of the three types of objects of knowledge.
  10. A presentation of the mind with emphasis on bare perception and inference.
  11. The methods of serving the needs of all creatures.
  12. Lines of reasoning used to dispel the incorrect views of others.
  13. Logical proofs of the identitylessness of persons and phenomena according to the Cittamātra school.

In short, this treatise presents the means for fulfilling the needs of oneself and others. Other treatises cover these points too; but this text is distinctive in that it employs eight lines of reasoning to prove that buddha is complete in all positive qualities and is, thus, the ultimate refuge. It shows that buddha did not always have these supreme qualities, but attained them by gradually following the path to enlightenment. It also describes how we may do the same by devoting ourselves to the same path. I memorized the entire first two chapters, and all the main points in its last two, and studied the commentaries on it.

Disciple: Did you study this after completing the Karam class?

Geshé: The main place for studying ideal perception was not at SeraṢera, but at another large monastery which is a little over a day’s walk to the west of SeraṢera. All the monks from Ganden, Depung and SeraṢera, the three largest monasteries in Central Tibet, and others from a large number of monasteries south of Lhasa, would gather there to study this subject. We studied and debated on it during November and December each year. We also prepared for this event for one-and-a-half months beforehand, receiving instruction on ideal perception and memorizing important texts on it. For example, if one is to participate in an athletic competition, it is first necessary to train and exercise the body. Likewise, we used the month and a half immediately before these periods of intensive debate to train our minds in this subject.Mañjuśrī once prophesied to Dignāga that this site would one day become a great place for the study of logic. Nowadays in Tibetan religious paintings Dignāga is depicted with his vision of Mañjuśrī above him, relating to the occasion when the prophesy was made. After writing on the stone wall of the cave where he was meditating the invocation of his famous text on logic A Compendium on Ideal Perception, Dignāga went to beg his daily alms. While he was away, a non-Buddhist came and erased what had been written. Upon returning and finding his work undone, he wrote the lines again. The same thing happened the next day. This time Dignāga wrote on the wall ‘Whoever has done this, either come out into the open and debate with me or leave my work alone!’When he returned from begging the next day, the man was waiting; the two of them debated, until eventually Dignāga defeated him. Then the non-Buddhist, who had supernormal powers, blew fire from his mouth and burned Dignāga’s robes. Dignāga felt compassion for him and reflected ‘I am writing for the benefit of all creatures, but this man is jealous of me. If many others feel the same, this will bring them harm. Perhaps it would be better if I did not write it.’ So he took a slate, and threw it up into the air - deciding that if it fell to earth, he would not write the text. But the slate did not fall. Looking up, he then saw Mañjuśrī in the sky above him holding the slate. Mañjuśrī said ‘Do not stop composing this treatise. If you write it, in the Land of Snow to the north it will become like the eyes of a great many beings who will study the scriptures.’ Mañjuśrī then threw the slate down; it landed on a mountainside facing the present site of the monastery where we debated. From morning until sunset, all the monks would debate on ideal perception. Then in the evening, there was a special session during which two very learned monks would respond in debate, while all the rest sat quietly on the ground and listened. These two would sit on a throne about six feet off the ground, so that all could hear their replies. As soon as they mounted it, they would offer prayers, facing towards the mountain where the slate had landed. It was said that any virtuous prayers made at that time would be fulfilled. Then one highly advanced monk after another would come up to debate with them. This would go on for about three hours; then all present would begin debating among themselves. During these winter sessions, we studied not only Buddhist tenets, but also the ancient Indian philosophies, such as those of the Sāṃkhyas, Jainas, Vedāntins, Vaiśeṣikas, Cārvākas, Brāhmaṇas, Vaiṣṇavas, Mīmāmsakas and Śaivas.

Disciple: Were you able to attend these sessions even when you were just beginning your studies?

Geshé: No, the first time I did so was when I was in the Advanced Treatises class. After that, I took part in them every winter for eight years. When I first took part, I was still poor. My skirt-like lower robe was so tattered and torn that my thighs showed; so to cover myself I always wore a special cloak which my teacher had lent me, but which most monks wear only at monastic assemblies. During these winter sessions, I became so involved in the subject of debate that I did not notice that other monks took breaks, throughout the day, to go to the assembly hall for prayers and tea. So I ended up spending the whole day on the debating ground. I tried very hard not to make even the slightest error in debate; there were many learned monks there, and they would laugh at any mistakes. There were also contests with monasteries other than our own. On these occasions, I often volunteered to be the answerer, for this helped my understanding a great deal. Sometimes, when the monks who questioned me were very learned and skilled, I would make a number of gross errors. While I sat answering questions, other monks from my own monastery would come to see how I was doing. When I made many mistakes, I would be very embarrassed; but on other occasions, I was able to answer so well that no one could find fault with my assertions.

Disciple: Aside from these contests between the monasteries, did you ever answer in debate before all the monks during the evening session?

Geshé: Yes. I did so after attending these winter debates for eight years; then, I answered in the great session in which the monks of all the great monasteries take part. I remember how frightened I was as I stood at the base of the throne waiting for them all to assemble. Then I mounted the throne and offered a short prayer written by the Indian bodhisattva Śāntideva in his text Venturing into the Bodhisattva Way of Life:

To fulfil the needs of all beings That reach unto the ends of space, May all my deeds resemble Those of Mañjuśrī.

During that debate, I did not make many errors, but neither did I gain much advantage over my opponent. It is not compulsory to answer in one of these evening sessions; but one may do so if one is highly advanced in learning. Otherwise one would never volunteer.

Disciple: You made only a brief mention of the Karam class. Wasn’t there some kind of an examination at the end of this?

Geshé: Yes. All the monks in this class must visit all the lower classes in pairs to be tested. After all those in my class had taken their turn at this, the abbot and disciplinarian graded us. I was graded as the top student, and was given the honour of being allowed to take the ceremonial examination. My subject for this was ideal perception. In preparation I visited all the classes from the first to the fourteenth, one each day, and answered in debate on this subject. Then I visited all the houses to answer on A Complete Commentary on Ideal Perception.This examination always takes place in the main assembly hall of Sera Monastery, and it was there that I debated with the top scholar of the year from Sera Mé College. This made for a very exciting debate, because the two colleges use different commentaries, and have slightly different views. Further, all the monks of Sera attend. The two top scholars alternate, each year, as to who asks the questions and who answers. That year I, as the Sera Jhé scholar, debated as the questioner. My examination went well; following it, I was allowed to enter the final class, ḷharam.

Disciple: What about the other Karam scholars? Did they also graduate into the ḷharam class?

Geshé: No, most of them are given the title of Karampa Geshé when they graduate from the Karam class, whereas only a select few are allowed into the ḷharam class. The discipline in this class is extremely strict. For example, if one is just five minutes late for a session, one must debate for an extra turn. This class was always in session. We never had any interims. We spent our time reviewing all the Five Treatises, with special emphasis on the discipline and phenomenology. We would not go to the assemblies when tea was served; for time was spent only in debate, study and meditation. We gradually memorized a great commentary on discipline, of about six hundred and forty pages, and another on phenomenology with four hundred and thirty pages. These we recited from memory during debate, as we discussed their meaning. Students from the lower classes were able to visit all the others up to Karam; but they were not allowed to enter the ḷharam debating ground. I spent almost two years in this class. More time should be spent there, if possible; but at the end of this period, I had to escape because of the Tibetan uprising in 1959. Had there been no invasion, I would have remained in this class for nine years before receiving the title of ḷharampa Geshé. Only two scholars from each college are awarded this title each year.

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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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