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An Introduction to Sera’s Colleges
by José Ignacio Cabezón
August 19, 2008

Types of Colleges and Their Mission

The Deer and Wheel, the symbol of the Buddha’s teaching, found atop each of the assembly halls of the colleges of SeraSe ra.

A college (dratsanggrwa tshang) – literally, a “grouping of monks” – in GelukpaDge lugs pa parlance is a subunit of a large monastery. All of the large GelukpaDge lugs pa academies (densagdan sa) are subdivided into colleges. Every monk of a densagdan sa has an affiliation (khungkhungs) to a college, and this was an important part of his identity, defining him in unique ways – from the prayers he chanted, to the deity or deities he venerated, to the texts he studied. There existed a (usually) friendly rivalry between colleges within a given densagdan sa, and also across the densagdan sas. This was especially true of the philosophical colleges (see below). For example, the monks of the Jé (Dratsang Jégrwa tshang byes) and Mé (Dratsang Mégrwa tshang smad) Colleges of SeraSe ra were rivals, but so were the monks of Jé College and the monks of Loselling College (Dratsang Losellinggrwa tshang blo gsal gling) of Drepung’Bras spungs Monastery. So long as this rivalry was kept within limits, this was seen as useful, and senior teachers encouraged it, albeit mostly in subtle ways. Monks who studied would try to outdo each other (in memorization, debate, and learning) so as to bring honor to their college, and this competitive spirit was seen as a positive thing. The same type of rivalry, by the way, existed between the regional houses (khangtsenkhang tshan) within a given college.

Colleges in the densagdan sa were of two types:

  • philosophical college (tsennyi dratsangmtshan nyid grwa tshang)
  • ritual (kurimsku rim) colleges or tantric college (ngakpa dratsangsngags pa grwa tshang)

The philosophical colleges were originally created as professorial chairs – that is, as the seats of individual teachers, where they could instruct monks in one or more of the classical subjects that constituted the scholastic curriculum of studies.1 When, shortly after the founding of the densagdan sa, the monastic populations of these institutions began to grow, and it was no longer feasible for the throne-holder (tripakhri pa) of the monastery to serve as instructor for all of the monks, they2 created various subunits called “colleges,” placing their senior students as the preceptor (loppönslob dpon),3 that is, as the head teachers, of each of these colleges.4 This eased the burden on the throne-holder by shifting the instructional and spiritual responsibility for new students to his senior students. For new monks it probably provided a less impersonalized learning experience by giving them a more intimate connection to a teacher that had fewer responsibilities and fewer students, and who was therefore more accessible.

Young monks receiving instruction from one of the senior teachers of Tsangpa Regional House (Tsangpa Khangtsentsang pa khang tshan), SeraSe ra-India.

What had earlier transpired at the level of the monastery eventually occurred at the level of the college. The colleges themselves grew in size, and the position of “instructor” became more of an administrative position, eventually called abbot (khenpomkhan po). The colleges were formally subdivided into smaller units called regional house, and these now became the new seats for senior teachers. Thus, in time, teachers at the regional house level came to replace the college master or preceptor as the locus of instruction.

Before 1959, each of the colleges had its own separate administration: a council consisting of the abbot (the supreme authority who wielded a great deal of power), the disciplinarian, the chant master, several college-level administrators, and “regional house teachers.”5 The administrative headquarters of each college was located atop its respective assembly hall (je dukhangbyes ’du khang), where the abbot also dwelt.

The Philosophical Colleges

Young monks engage each other in an argument during an evening debate session at SeraSe ra-India.

The chief mission of the GelukDge lugs philosophical colleges was (and is) to train students in the philosophical classic (zhung chenmogzhung chen mo) of Indian Buddhism as these had been interpreted by TsongkhapaTsong kha pa, the founder of the GelukDge lugs school, and by his chief disciples. The GelukDge lugs school in particular puts tremendous emphasis on the study of the Indian texts. There are many reasons for this. Here we shall cite just two. TsongkhapaTsong kha pa believed that the great tradition of Indian scholastic Buddhism represented the apex of Buddhist learning. To the extent that Tibetan Buddhism had departed from that tradition (and TsongkhapaTsong kha pa believed it indeed had) it was seen as having degenerated. Therefore, TsongkhapaTsong kha pa and his followers saw one of their chief tasks to be that of bringing Tibetan Buddhism back to its Indian roots.

More fundamentally, perhaps, the GelukpaDge lugs pa emphasis on philosophical studies has to do with the perceived relationship of these studies to practice (and especially to the practice of tantra (gyürgyud)). GelukDge lug pa generally believe that to practice tantra the student must have evolved certain spiritual qualities or mental traits: (a) a level of renunciation (ngenjungnges ’byung), a disgust with the pleasures and concerns of the world, (b) a proper motivation, as epitomized by the thought of enlightenment (jangchupkyi sembyang chub kyi sems), the overwhelming wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of others, and (c) a correct understanding of reality, called right view (yangdakpé tawayang dag pa’i lta ba). Although there were systems for developing these traits independently of prolonged formal philosophical study – for example, through the study and practice of the so-called stages of the path (lamrimlam rim) tradition6 – it was generally maintained that the most effective and profound way of engendering these qualities was through the study of the Indian classics. Having a conceptual understanding of Buddhism was seen as a necessary preamble to successful practice. Since the great texts of Indian Buddhism were seen as providing the most detailed blueprint of the theory and practice of the path, it was the texts of the Indian tradition that came to be considered the norm. A curriculum of studies was instituted in the GelukDge lugs academies shortly after their founding. Its raison-d’etre was to provide monks with a structured environment in which to engage in the intensive study of the Indian doctrinal/philosophical tradition.7 A monk’s successful completion of the curriculum culminated in the prestigious degree of geshédge bshes, and only students in the philosophical colleges were candidates for the four ranks of geshédge bshes degree.8 (Click here to read more about the geshédge bshes degree.) To achieve the highest rank of geshédge bshes, a monk had to spend twenty or more years in a rigorous program of study and prayer. Monks would progress steadily through thirteen different classes that covered five major subjects:

  • Collected Topics (Düdrabsdus grwa)
  • Perfection of Wisdom (Parchinphar phyin)
  • The Theory of Emptiness, or Madhyamaka (Umadbu ma)
  • Monastic Discipline (Dülwa’dul ba)
  • Metaphysics/Cosmology (Dzömdzod)

Logic/epistemology (Tsematshad ma) was studied in a Special Winter Interterm (Jang Günchö’jang dgun chos) held at a separate monastery south of LhasaLha sa. Monks of all of the densagdan sas attended this interterm. (Click here to read more about the curriculum)

Monks who studied, called “textualists” (pechawadpe cha ba), spent many hours every day in study and prayer. Study consisted principally of memorization (löndzinblo ’dzin), (Click here to read more about memorization.) debate (tsöpartsod pa), (Click here to read more about debate.), and reading (pelok gyappadpe klog rgyab pa), although monks also received sporadic tuition or oral commentary on the texts (petridpe khrid) from their teachers. The curriculum, as we have mentioned, was based on the great texts of Indian scholastic Buddhism, and on their Indian and Tibetan (GelukpaDge lugs pa) commentaries. In actual practice, however, most monks spent the majority of their time studying, and debating from, the college textbooks (yikchayig cha).

Probably less than 25 percent of all monks in the philosophical colleges, however, were textualists. The remaining monks were mostly workers. Most monks, but especially textualists, spent a good part of their day in prayer assemblies, and prayer was seen as an essential part of the educational process. Prayer, or more generally the accumulation of merit, is believed to clear away obstacles to learning: physical obstacles (such as illness and financial hardships), as well as mental/psychological impediments (like the inability to memorize, to analyze arguments and to understand the meaning of texts). Thus, prayer and learning where believed to go hand in hand.

Monks of the Mé College (Dratsang Mégrwa tshang smad) debating, SeraSe ra-India.
The monks of the Jé College in a prayer assembly (tsoktshogs), SeraSe ra-India.

Tantric Colleges

Tantra (sometimes referred to as Vajrayāna [Dorjé Tekpardo rje theg pa]) is the esoteric, or secret, “vehicle” of Buddhism, an extraordinary form of Mahāyāna Buddhism that, because of its unique techniques (tapthabs), claims to speed up the process of enlightenment, making it accessible to adepts within a single lifetime. The practice of Tantra begins with empowerment or initiation (wangdbang) from a qualified master. In an empowerment the master will, through the process of visualization, lead the student into the palace (maṇḍala), of a specific deity. Inside the palace students are blessed by the deity/master in different ways that are said to “ripen” their minds. This ripening process is believed to be what gives students the permission to engage in tantric meditations on that specific deity.

Young monks learn to chant at the Lower Tantric College. Hunsur, India; early 1980s.

These meditations are usually enacted ritually. “Ritual” in this context refers to the chanted visualization practices wherein the words of the ritual – sung to special melodies, and accompanied by a variety of musical instruments, hand gestures, and so forth – are meant to elicit images within the mind in a scripted series of generated images that are meant to create for the meditator an enlightened or pure world to replace the world of ordinary appearances in which human beings normally live. In a typical tantric ritual, meditators visualize themselves as having the enlightened body, speech and mind of the deity that is the focus of their practice. Tantric rites can be performed for the attainment of both mundane goals (wealth, long-life, the destruction of interferences), and supramundane goals (enlightenment for the benefit of others). But it is the latter of these – the transformation, or transmutation, of the body, speech and mind into those of an enlightened being – that is considered the chief reason for engaging in the practice of Tantra.

The tantric colleges of the GelukDge lugs tradition were ritual colleges, with “ritual” being understood in the way that it has just been explained. Occasional teachings might be given about the theory or practice of Tantra, but the chief mission of the tantric colleges was to preserve TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s tantric tradition through the enactment of ritual: that is, through the memorization and practice of ritual texts.

[1] Today each of the colleges teach the entire exoteric scholastic curriculum, but there is some evidence that in the early days colleges were somewhat specialized. Hence, Desi Sanggyé Gyatso states that at Drepung’Bras spungs, “GomangSgo mang, LosellingBlo gsal gling, TösamlingThos bsam gling, a.k.a. GyelwaRgyal ba, and ShakkorShag skor were the colleges that were principally responsible for Madhyamaka and Prajñāpāramitā; Monastic Discipline (Dülwa’dul ba pa), i.e., Vinaya College was principally responsible for [the Buddha’s] first series of teachings, the dharma-wheel of the four [noble] truths; DeyangBde yangs was responsible for the Pramāṇa [tradition] of the Lord of Reasoning, Dharmakīrti; and NgakpaSngags pa (i.e., the Tantric College) [was responsible for] the profound vehicle of the Tantra, focusing on [the deities] Guhyasamāja and Yamāntaka” (Sde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho, Dga’ ldan chos ’byung bai dūrya ser po [Mtsho sngon: Zhin hwa dpe tshong khang, 1991], 105).
[2] In the case of Drepung’Bras spungs, it was the founder of the monastery, the first throne-holder, Jamyang Chöjé’Jam dbyangs chos rje (1379-1449), who created the colleges. In the case of SeraSe ra, the historical sources are inconsistent. Some say that it was SeraSe ra’s founder, Jamchen ChöjéByams chen chos rje (1354-1435), himself, who founded the colleges; others claim that it was the third throne-holder, Gungru Gyeltsen ZangpoGung ru rgyal mtshan bzang po (1383-1450), who was responsible for instituting colleges. In the case of GandenDga’ ldan, while there appears to have been a quasi-college structure early on, it was the third holder of the GandenDga’ ldan throne, Khedrup Gelek PelzangMkhas grub dge legs dpal bzang (1385-1438), who was responsible for converting these into philosophical colleges.
[3] The words instructor (chenyenpa’chad nyan pa), or master (lamabla ma), are also used to designate this office in the early period.
[4] At SeraSe ra there were initially four colleges, as we shall see; at GandenDga’ ldan there were two; and at Drepung’Bras spungs, seven.
[5] This was a formal position, the administrative head of the regional house. The tantric college (at least at SeraSe ra) had no regional houses, however.
[6] See, for example, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment by Tsong-kha-pa (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2001-2004), 3 vols., trans. The Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee, ed. Joshua W. C. Cutler and Guy Newland. And for a review: http://www.buddhistethics.org/8/cozor011.html.
[7] Of course, the GelukpaDge lugs pa were not the first to evolve scholastic academies. In fact, many early GelukpaDge lugs pa were trained in the academies of the SakyaSa skya school, the most famous of which was Sangpu NeutokGsang phu sne’u thog. SangpuGsang phu, in turn, was modeled on Indian Buddhist academies like Nālanda and Vikramaśīla.
[8] The granting of the title of geshédge bshes was a later development in the GelukDge lugs academies, although titles like this predate the founding of the GelukDge lugs school.
An Introduction to Sera's Colleges, by José Ignacio Cabezón