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THL Title Text
Tibetan Monastic Education
by Georges Dreyfus
January 1, 2001
Section 4 of 7

The Schedule of Debating Institutions

The importance of debate in the GelukDge lugs tradition should by now be quite clear. Our investigation is far from complete, however, for we have yet to examine its practical modalities—the schedule that structures such a practice and the ways it was organized. In discussing the schedule of the three GelukDge lugs seats [GandenDga’ ldan, SeraSe ra and Drepung’Bras spungs, JIC], we need to recognize the differences between premodern Tibet and exile. The fundamental distinction drawn in Tibet between debate sessions (chötokchos thog) and debate breaks (chötsamchos mtshams) is less marked in exile. In Tibet, there were eight debate sessions in the year, which alternated with eight breaks.56 During the sessions, students debated; during the breaks, they memorized and studied commentaries with their teachers. Five sessions would last one month, and three a fortnight, while seven of the eight breaks lasted from five to fifteen days; the great debate break during summer retreat lasted a month and a half. The rest of the time was apportioned to a variety of celebrations, such as the New Year and the Great Prayer festival. Each of the debate sessions had prescribed topics that students had to cover.57

An exact pre-1959 schedule is hard to reconstruct, for few Tibetan monks then had watches. Hence, accounts tend to be vague. Moreover, the precise times of activities may have also been influenced by various circumstances (the season, festivities, etc.). Nevertheless, Geshé Rabten offers the following schedule for debate sessions in the Byes monastery of SeraSe ra:58

5:30-7:00 General assembly
7:00-10:00 Morning debate
10:00-11:00 Monastery assembly
11:00-13:00 Noon debate
13:00-13:30 Lunch
14:00-16:00 Afternoon debate
16:00-17:00 Evening assembly
17:00-19:00 Evening prayer and short debate
19:00-20:00 Teaching
20:30-21:30 Night debate
22:00-23:00 Recitation

Though the schedule in other monasteries was probably slightly different, its rhythm was similar, as debate alternated with ritual. Monks would start the day with the morning prayer in the great assembly hall (tsokchentshogs chen) of the monastic seat (here SeraSe ra), where they would pray and receive tea (hence the name of this prayer, mangjadmangs ja: i.e., “common tea”). Rich sponsors might provide food and money. After that, they alternated debates and more prayer sessions. At noon, they would go to the assembly hall of the monastery (here Byes). There they were given tea—and perhaps food and money, if the donor was generous. If there was a sponsor, an assembly would be held in the evening. Otherwise, monks had to provide for their own evening tea and food (if they ate).59 After the evening assembly, the evening prayer took place. This ritual usually lasted at least two hours, as long as or even longer than the evening debates. The night then went on with debate, classes, and recitations.60

[56] Lozang GyatsoBlo bzang rgya mtsho gives the following yearly schedule (in Tibetan dates) for LosellingBlo gsal gling (Gyatso, Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama, trans. and ed. G. Sparham [Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1998], 84):
1.1-1.4 New Year
1.5-1.25 Great Prayer
1.26-1.30 Break
2.1-2.15 Debate
2.16-2.20 Break
2.21-2.30 Small Prayer (TsokchöTshogs chos)
3.1-3.30 Break and Great Spring Debate Session (Chichö ChenmoDpyid chos chen mo)
4.1-4.10 Break
4.11-4.30 Debate
5.1-5.15 Break
5.16-6.15 Great Summer Debate Session (Yarchö ChenmoDbyar chos chen mo)
6.16-8.1 Summer Retreat
8.2-9.1 Fall Debate Session (TönchöSton chos)
9.2-9.15 Break
9.16-9.30 Debate
10.1-10.15 Break
10.16-10.30 Debate
11.1-11.15 Break
11.16-12.15 Winter Debate at Jang (Jang Dünchö’Jang gdun chos)
12.22-12.30 Maitreya Prayer (JamchöByams mchod)

This is only, however, the skeleton in which many other events were integrated. For example, the Great Summer Debate Session at Sera JéSe ra byes would last from 5.16 to 6.15. During this time, many events took place:

5.16-17 Formal debates during the period of wood begging (shinglongshing slong; i.e., the period during which monks would have been allowed to leave the monastery to beg for wood and other necessities)
5.20-21 Examination for geshédge bsheslingségling bsre
5.22-23 Examination for geshédge bshesrikramrigs rams
5.24 Recitation of the Constitution (Tsoktam Chenmotshogs gtam chen mo)
5.25 Reading of the Canon in the morning
5.30 Special Ritual Day
6.2-3 Ceremonial Recitation
6.15 Special Ritual Day
6.16 End of the Summer Session and Beginning of Break

As one can see, monks kept quite busy! See Byang chub lam rim chen mo dang ’brel ba’i ser byes mkhas

[57] For example, Welmang Könchok GyeltsenDbal mang dkon mchog rgyal mtshan explains the schedule of his monastery, Amchok Ganden Chönkhor LingA mchog dga’ ldan chos ’khor gling, in Dga’ ldan chos ’khor gling gi mtshan nyid grwa tshad (tshang?) thos bsam gling gi rtsod pa byed tshul legs par bshad pa, in Collected Works (Delhi: Gyaltan Gelek Namgyal, 1974), 7: 586: “At first, one studies the Prajñā pāramitā literature in this way: During the winter session of the first year one achieves the Homage [of the Ornament] and begins [the chapter on] the Charioteers. During the first spring session one finishes [the chapter on] the Charioteers. During the second spring session one finishes [the presentation of] of the inferior and middling persons.”
thog mar phar phyin la slob gnyer byed tshul ni lo dang po’i dgun chos la mchod brjod rdzogs nas shing rta’i srol byed tshugs dpyid chos dang po la shing rta’i srol byed rdzogs dpyid chos gnyis pa la skyes bu chung ’bring rdzogs
[58] Rabten, The Life and Teaching, 50.
[59] Buddhist monks are not supposed to eat in the evening, but most Tibetan monks ignore this rule.
[60] Rgan Blo bzang rgya mtsho suggests this schedule for LosellingBlo gsal gling (Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama, 70-72):
6:00-8:00 General Assembly
8:00-8:45 Morning monastery assembly
9:00-11:00 Regional house assembly where at least tea would be provided
11:00-13:00 Pause for study in one’s room or with teacher
13:00-16:00 Afternoon debate
16:00-17:00 Evening assembly
17:00-18:00 Break for study in one’s room or with teacher
18:00-20:00 Evening prayer
20:00-23:00 Night debate or recitation for younger monks not yet allowed to debate
Tibetan Monastic Education, by Georges Dreyfus