Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
An Introduction to Sera’s Colleges
by José Ignacio Cabezón
January 30, 2006
Section 1 of 4

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.

[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