Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
by José Ignacio Cabezón
March 1, 2004
Section 4 of 9

Hierarchy, Status, and the Makeup of the Sera Monastic Community

There are many ways of conceptualizing the makeup of the population of Tibetan monasteries. What follows is a presentation of some of the indigenous categories and distinctions operative at SeraSe ra, both before and after 1959. You will notice that many, though not all, of these distinctions are hierarchical: that is, they construct differences in such a way that one type will be considered higher than another. A hierarchical view of the world – of people, but also of things – has been an important part of Buddhism from its origin. While the Buddha challenged many of the hierarchicies of his day (caste, for example), this often did not translate into significant differences at the institutional level (the vast majority of early monks appear to have come from the two highest castes). At the same time, it was the Buddha himself who appears to have put into place a fairly strict hierarchy that governed the relationship between the different kinds of clergy, and between the clergy and the laity. In Buddhist terms this hierarchy is constructed as an etiquette: who should show respect to whom, who should bow down to whom. All non-monastics were supposed to bow down to monks and nuns. Even kings (the highest of men) were supposed to bow down to novice nuns (the lowest of ordained women). Within the clergy, nuns of all ranks (including fully ordained nuns) were supposed to bow down to monks of any rank (including novices). Within the order of monks and nuns, respectively, novices had to bow down to their fully ordained peers, and within a single level of ordination, those who were ordained later were supposed to prostrate to those who had been ordained before them. This, in any case, was the theory. In actual Buddhist societies, the etiquette that was practiced was often different. In Tibet, for example, there were some (albeit not that many) saintly laywomen who were sometimes revered and prostrated to even by monks. And very senior, fully ordained monk-scholars often prostrated to very young lamabla mas – recognized incarnates or trülkusprul skus – even while the latter were still novices. But even if the pattern was different, with many customs that went counter to the rules of the Vinaya, Tibet was nonetheless an extremely hierarchical society with its own set of rules. This is in part the result of the fact that Tibetan Buddhism is a form of scholasticism: a worldview that revels in creating divisions, distinctions, and in organizing them in clear – and yes, hierarchical – schemes: “Everything in its place!”20

A novice shows his respect for his teacher, a fully-ordained monk. Mural on the wall of the portico in one of the regional houses of SeraSe ra-Tibet.

Contemporary European/American views of the world (at least at this point in our history) consider hierarchies problematic, even distasteful. They are seemingly what keep women in a marginalized place, and what allow the rich and powerful to oppress the poor and powerless. There is obviously some truth to this, even if it might be wondered whether hierarchies are not really the symptom rather than the root cause of oppression. At the same time, even Americans (for whom egalitarianism and anti-hierarchicalism are close to dogmas) would concede that certain forms of social structuring and privilege are desirable: students’ respect for teachers, and children’s respect for parents, for example. But my goal here is not to argue for the virtues of hierarchies. It is only to point out that we have our own, and that while Tibet was socially stratified in ways that led to the oppression of many types of people, it was also possible in Tibetan culture to resist – and at times even to overcome – the limitations imposed on one by, e.g., ethnicity, and socio-economic class. This was especially true in the religious sphere. For example, becoming the head of the GelukpaDge lugs pa school – becoming the Ganden Tripadga’ ldan khri pa, or “holder of the throne of Ganden” – was mostly determined by one’s abilities as a scholar, and not by one’s class or spiritual status (e.g., as a recognized incarnation). Through their hard work and erudition, many ordinary monks of humble origins from many different parts of Tibet, and even from Mongolia, ascended to the throne of GandenDga’ ldan, to the point where it gave rise to a saying: “The throne of Ganden has no owner” (dga’ ldan gyi khri la bdag po med). This is not to say that the GelukDge lugs system as a whole was egalitarian, as will become evident. It is to say that it was, at least in part, meritocratic.

An elder monk seeks the blessing of a young lamabla ma, seated on a high throne, during the young boy’s official installation in his college. SeraSe ra-India, early 1980s.

Hierarchies in GelukDge lugs monasticism presume the notion of status (gosago sa) – spiritual, scholarly, administrative as well as socio-economic. Understanding status is extremely important to understanding monastic life in Tibet’s great monasteries. Status determined the privileges one enjoyed: the amount of money one received when monetary donations (gyé’gyed) were made to the assembly, where one sat in assemblies, the types of vestments one was allowed to wear, and for lamabla mas it determined the height of the throne one sat on.

We have already encountered some of factors that distinguished monks one from another: for example, the level of ordination they possessed, when they were ordained, and so forth. These distinctions are found in the Indian Buddhist Vinaya itself. In this section we will focus on the various ways in which monks were distinguished one from another in a Tibetan, GelukpaDge lugs pa context (i.e., at SeraSe ra). One such distinction – a monk’s organizational affiliation (kungkhungs) [the distinction between monks based on what college, regional house and household (shakshag) they belonged to] has been treated in another part of the Sera Project website, and so it will not be mentioned here in any detail. To read that discussion, click here

The former holder of the throne of GandenDga’ ldan, Trizur Lhündrup TsöndrüKhri zur lhun grub brtson ’grus, early twentieth century. He belonged to the Tsangpa Regional House (Tsangpa KhangtsenGtsang pa khang tshan) of the Jé College (Dratsang JéGrwa tshang byes) of SeraSe ra.

Before 1959 monks at SeraSe ra could be distinguished from several different vantage points. From the viewpoint of origin there were:

  • monks who entered SeraSe ra directly, i.e., as their first monastery (mostly local monks)
  • “continuing monks” (dragyüngrwa rgyun), who had their home monastery (shigöngzhi dgon) in an outlying area, and who came to SeraSe ra for the purpose of continuing their studies.

The vast majority of SeraSe ra monks came from areas far removed from LhasaLha sa. Usually they first entered a local monastery close to their home, where they memorized the necessary liturgical texts, and where they often began rudimentary philosophical studies. At a certain point, usually in their teens or early twenties, they traveled to the SeraSe ra, ostensibly to pursue more intensive studies. "Continuing monks” from the same region of Tibet would often find themselves in the same “regional house” (khangtsenkhang tshan). There were, however, a not insubstantial number of monks who entered SeraSe ra directly. These were mostly local boys, from LhasaLha sa, Penpo’Phan po, and from the various villages close to the capital. Occasionally, a boy from a far-distant region might enter the monastery directly if he had a relative (an uncle, say) or a close family acquaintance already in the monastery, someone who would accept him as his student.

Textualists and Workers

From the viewpoint of what we might call vocation, there were two types of monks at SeraSe ra:

Textualist monks debate in the debate courtyard of the Jé College, SeraSe ra-Tibet.
  • monks who engaged in studies, called “textualists” (pechewadpe cha ba), and
  • those who engaged in the day-to-day work of the monastery, or more simply “workers.”21

By some estimates, less than 25 percent of all the monks living at SeraSe ra were textualists. Textualists generally had a higher status than worker monks, both in the monastery and in the society at large. They were perceived as engaging in the type of work for which a monk’s life was intended: study and prayer. This does not mean that they were pampered or uncritically revered. If a textualist got out of line – for example, if he took advantage of workers or became too full of himself – even an uneducated worker monk would be quick to put him in his place.22 Textualists tended to be poorer than worker monks because they spent their free time memorizing and studying, and were thus unable to engage in business or other forms of work to augment their income. Within the category of textualist, monks were further distinguished according to the level they had reached in the curriculum. Monks in the more advanced classes had greater privileges than those in the lower classes, and monks who had completed their studies and who had been awarded the geshédge bshes degree occupied one of the highest positions in the monastery, second only to lamabla mas. There were also different ranks of geshésdge bshes – depending upon whether the degree had been granted internally by the college (rikramrigs ram), by the monastery’s two philosophical colleges jointly (lingsepgling gseb), or whether it had been granted by the Tibetan government in public examinations (tsokramtshogs ram and lharamlha ram).23 Of the monks who completed the geshédge bshes degree many would return to their home monastery to teach. Some would enter retreat. If they had been awarded the higher geshédge bshes degree, they could enter one of the two Tantric Colleges (usually for a two-year period, at the end of which they could either return to SeraSe ra, go into retreat, or else return to their home monastery). Some geshésdge bshes would simply remain at SeraSe ra and teach after getting their degree.

Geshe Sopa (Geshé ZöpaDge bshes bzod pa), a geshé lharampadge bshes lha ram pa, and one of the most senior geshésdge bshes of SeraSe ra. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin.

Click one one of the following links to:

Workers were of various types. Some worker monks spent their time in various ventures that supplied them with money for living expenses: for themselves and for the members of their household (shaktsenshag tshan). Others worked for wealthier monks – for example, in lamabla mas’ households (labrangbla brang) – where they were provided for. Some monks worked for the various administrative units of the monastery: for regional houses (khangtsenkhang tshan), colleges (dratsanggrwa tshang) or for the SeraSe ra Lama Society (lachibla spyi). Some worked outside the monastery. Monks engaged in a variety of work:

  • Kitchen work:
    • cooking
    • purchasing supplies
    • overseeing monk-cooks or hired kitchen staff
    • serving tea and food in assemblies
  • Serving as caretakers of temples or chapels:
    • making offerings on the altars
    • cleaning
    • receiving the offerings made by pilgrims and worshippers
    • serving as guards to ensure that nothing was stolen from altars
    • accounting for the goods and money received
    • selling religious goods (protection amulets, blessed pills, etc.)
A worker monk in the Tantric College kitchen pours tea into pitchers that will be used to serve the monks in the assembly.
  • Serving as part of the ritual staff in specific chapels:
    • meeting with prospective patrons who wanted to commission rituals, and providing them with a financial accounting after the fact
    • preparing for the ritual (buying the necessary offerings, making ritual cakes, etc.)
    • enacting the ritual
  • Working as servants or hired-help:
    • within the monastery (to lamabla mas, senior teachers, wealthy monks, and administrators)
    • outside the monastery (in restaurants, on farms, and in other businesses)
  • As artisans, craftsmen, musicians or skilled laborers:
    • painting (tangkathang ka, statues, wall murals, etc.) (lhadripalha bris pa)
    • building statues (lhazopalha bzo ba)
    • serving as musicians (rölyangparol dbyangs pa)
    • printing texts
    • supervising construction projects
  • Engaging in business:
    • trading (both locally and in outlying districts)
    • banking (lending money for interest)
    • safeguarding the jewelry or other precious objects that were left as collateral by those who borrowed money
    • debt/loan collection
    • accounting
    • tending the estates (of wealthy lamabla mas, and of the various administrative subunits of the monastery), either as workers or as overseers.
A young monk works with a woodblock from which he will print a text.

Many of these forms of work were looked down upon. They were seen as inappropriate for monks, and even before 1959 there were attempts to reform the monasteries, encouraging monks to give up things like money-lending.24 For the most part, however, these attempts at reform were not heeded. You can learn more about each of these forms of work under Activities.

Many workers were dopdopldob dlobs. These were worker monks who organized themselves into fraternities. These fraternal units – or “parks” (lingkagling ka), as they were called – inducted members, did morning group physical workouts, met together for food and ritual, and sporadically convened inter-fraternity athletic competitions. They wore their clothes in a special fashion, donned side-locks, walked with a swagger, and wore special keys on their belts that they used as weapons in fights. They also were known to have a fondness for boys. Sometimes they kept younger monks from within the monastery as their lovers. Occasionally they obtained boys (sometimes by force!) from the local LhasaLha sa community for periods of time.25 The last abbot of the Jé College of SeraSe ra before 1959, Geshé Lhündrup TapkhéDge bshes lhun grub thabs mkhas, abolished the institution of the dopdopldob ldob. To read an excerpt from the memoirs of a former SeraSe ra dopdopldob ldob, click here.

Ordinary Monks, LamaBla mas and “Religious Devotees”

The Fifth Rwa sgreng rin po che, d. 1947, the regent of Tibet who served as temporal ruler between the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas. He was one of the highest lamabla mas of SeraSe ra.

The most important spiritual/metaphysical distinction was that between

  • lamabla mas and
  • ordinary monks (drapa kyümagrwa pa dkyus ma).

The word lamabla ma is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit guru. Technically, anyone who serves as the spiritual mentor of anyone else is a lamabla ma. In GelukDge lugs monastic parlance, however, lamabla ma is essentially synonymous with recognized incarnation (yangsiyang srid, or trülkusprul sku), that is, anyone who is recognized as the reincarnation of a previous teacher.26 The present Dalai Lama has on numerous occasions stressed that this is a bad precedent, claiming that the two terms – lamabla ma and trülkusprul sku – are not synonymous. There are, he says, lamabla mas who are not trülkusprul skus (the great scholars who have earned the status of lamabla ma by virtue of their scholarly and spiritual accomplishments, but who are not recognized as the incarnations of previous masters), trülkusprul skus who are not lamabla mas (people who, while having the status of lamabla ma, have no true knowledge or spiritual accomplishments), there are also obviously people who are both (great scholar-saints and trülkusprul skus), and people who are neither.

LamaBla mas were further subdivided according to their rank. In order of decreasing rank/status these were:

  • lamabla mas who were incarnations of previous kings/regents (Gyeltrül Hotokturgyal sprul ho thog thu)27
  • lamabla mas of the Great Assembly (tsokchen gyi lamatshogs chen gyi bla ma),
  • lamabla mas of the college (dratsang gi lamagrwa tshang gi bla ma), and
  • lamabla mas of the regional house (khangtsen gyi lamakhang tshan gyi bla ma).

LamaBla mas could also be distinguished according to whether they were “great, medium or small” (lama chekhakbla ma che khag; dringkhak’bring khag; chungkhakchung khag), a classification scheme that overlaps with, but appears not to be identical to, the first scheme. Ordinary monks were in essence all monks who were not lamabla mas.28

A young lamabla ma of Sera Jé, who holds the rank of lamabla ma of the regional house. Photo taken at SeraSe ra-India in the early 1980s.

Despite the apparently strict, hierarchical nature of the lamabla ma/ordinary-monk distinction, this did not always play out in day-to-day life as one might expect. True, lamabla mas (especially lamabla mas of the highest rank) were respected in a variety of ways, but in the densagdan sas they also had to prove themselves intellectually. lamabla mas were not exempt from attending debate, and in the debate courtyard what mattered was not one’s status, but one’s mastery of the material, and one’s skill as a debater. Very high lamabla mas may not have always been slandered or jeered at in the heat of a debate the way that ordinary monks were, but they were otherwise treated the same as other monks. Where they did have some advantage – or where they enjoyed special, exceptional treatment, or miksédmigs gsal – was in obtaining official places (the right to debate) in the so-called yearly “Lesser and Greater Lineage Debuts (rik chechung tsoklangrigs che chung tshogs lang).” They also enjoyed some advantage when it came to the selection process in the final stages of obtaining the geshédge bshes degree, progressing more swiftly than ordinary monks. Of course, since lamabla mas were almost invariably wealthier than ordinary monks,29 they enjoyed greater leisure that, in theory at least, they would spend in study. Many lamabla mas also had the ability to pay for a live-in tutor (yongdzinyongs ’dzin), a senior monk who resided in, and was supported by, the lamabla ma’s household. In the end, however, everyone in the monastery knew whether or not a lamabla ma had what it took to be scholar, and if he did not, the monks were unabashed about claiming that even the highest lamabla ma had “little by way of intelligence”30 (rikpa chungchungrig pa chung chung), or indeed “no intelligence at all” (rikpa mindukrig pa mi ’dug).

Because lamabla mas (especially high lamabla mas) often had great power in the Tibetan government, they were often involved in political intrigue. In such cases they were as prone to ridicule and attack as any other political figure, even in LhasaLha sa’s humorous street songs. Some lamabla mas were even imprisoned – and a few were even murdered – as the result of political plots. It should not be thought, therefore, that a lamabla ma’s metaphysical status made him immune from criticism, nor from violent reprisal against his person.

Monks were also distinguishable from a socioeconomic viewpoint. We have already mentioned that lamabla mas in general were wealthier than ordinary monks. And, of course, senior scholars and administrators often became wealthy as a result of the positions they occupied. But the vast majority of monks, especially textualists, were poor, often having barely enough to eat. Some monks, however, came from the upper strata of Tibetan society. Members of the aristocracy and wealthy families were supposed to provide for the living expenses of a child who entered the monastery through the institution of the (shakchéshag chas), or “monk’s share (of the estate).”31 In addition, wealthy families would often, through a large donation to one of the colleges, acquire for their sons the status of “religious devotee” (chöndzéchos mdzad, a position that afforded the boy certain privileges and a higher status (similar to, but not as high as that of lamabla mas).


Monks could also be distinguished in terms of the rank or status they had achieved within the monastery’s administrative hierarchy. In general, having any type of official position as an administrator (lenepalas sne pa) assured one a greater level of respect. For example, it assured one a better place in the seating arrangement within the assembly hall. Some administrators were also allowed to wear special articles of clothing that ordinary monks could not wear (e.g., special shoes, and vests with brocade). The highest administrators had the privilege of riding horses, and of marching in official government processions (like the procession that escorted the Dalai Lama from and to his two palaces: the PotalaPo ta la and the Norbu LingkhaNor bu gling kha). Thus, monks could be distinguished by whether or not they occupied administrative positions, and if so, by what position they held. The following is a listing of the major administrative positions. In addition to these there were other minor positions – like “assembly monitor” (lit. “water bearers,” chaprichab ril), and temple attendant (lit. “door keeper,” gonyersgo gnyer) – that while official, appointed positions, were not of a sufficiently high rank to fall under the category of “administrator.”

1. The Abbots (Khenpomkhan po)

Two abbots of the Jé College, SeraSe ra, India. Left, the abbot in 2003, (Khen Rinpoché Lopsang DönyöMkhan rin po che blo bzang don yod); right, (Khenzur Lopsang TseringMkhan zur blo bzang tshe ring), who served as abbot in the early 1990s.

The highest administrative position was of course that of abbot. At SeraSe ra, there were four abbots: the abbots of the three colleges (Byes, Smad and NgakpaSngags pa), and the Töpa College (Dratsang TöpaGrwa tshang stod pa) abbot. The latter was an honorary position, the abbacy of a college that had several hundreds of years earlier become defunct. The TöpaStod pa abbacy was supposed to rotate between senior geshésdge bshes of the Byes and smad Colleges. 33 In SeraSe ra’s early history there existed something like an abbot of all of SeraSe ra, called the “Sera Throne Holder” (Sera Tripase ra khri pa), but this disappeared early on, perhaps when the colleges became the chief locus of power within the monastery. Before 1959, the abbots were appointed by the Dalai Lama or his regent from the ranks of the senior monks. (This continues to be the case in exile.) Traditionally, when a vacancy arose, the senior administration of the college would submit a ranked list of eligible candidates to the Dalai Lama. The latter affixes his seal next to the name of the candidate of his choice. A document of the Jé College cited by Dungkar RinpochéDung dkar rin po che34 states that the number of candidates for the abbacy is determined by the college’s board of governance (tsokdutshogs ’du) in consultation with the representatives of the regional houses. Disciplinarians (or former disciplinarians) are given preference. If no disciplinarian wishes to be considered, then geshésdge bshes may be considered (according to seniority). Ultimately, a list of no more than five candidates may be submitted to the Tibetan government. The ranking is determined through a divination enacted before the Jé College tutelary deity, Hayagrīva.

Although there may have existed a fixed term for abbots at different points in SeraSe ra’s history, there does not appear to have been a fixed term in recent memory. However, the government could – and sometimes did – exert pressure on an abbot to step down.

Before 1959 the abbacy was extremely powerful. Abbots were both the spiritual leaders and the temporal rulers of the monastery, responsible not only for religious affairs but also for enforcing secular laws and for enacting Tibetan government policy. They were also the most powerful voices on the Council of Ten Lamas (lakhachubla kha bcu), headquartered in the Great Assembly Hall, the highest governing body for the monastery as a whole. In addition, the abbots held important and influential positions in the Tibetan government.

Within the monastery, abbots were responsible for a variety of religious actions: giving formal, ritual admonitions and theme-specific sermons at different points in the calendar year, reciting required Vinaya texts in certain Vinaya-specific rituals, administering “accounting” (tsizhakbrtsi bzhag) examinations to the various classes of textualists during the study periods, supervising debates, and determining the rank of candidates for the geshédge bshes degree. Administratively, they were responsible for chairing the meetings of the boards of governance of the college/monastery, for making policy, and for representing the monastery in the Tibetan government.

Abbots often had a large personal staff, headed by their “treasurer” (chakdzöphyag mdzod), an individual who wielded a tremendous amount of power in the monastery. Some abbots were strong and able administrators, but not very good scholars. In other cases, they were both: erudite men of great vision and tremendous organization skill. In other instances they were learned yet humble men with little experience or interest in worldly matters. In these cases especially, the treasurers could sometimes serve as shadow-abbots, making most of the decisions concerning the running of the monastery from behind the scenes. Sometimes the treasurers were upright men. Sometimes they were corrupt, seeing the abbacy as an opportunity to enrich themselves and their households.

The abbot of the Tantric College, SeraSe ra-Tibet, during a ritual function.

Being abbot was no easy thing. Abbots often had to make difficult decisions, decisions that were almost fated to be unpopular with one of two factions: the monks or the government. Their decisions sometimes brought reprisals against them. The most famous example of aggression against a SeraSe ra abbot in contemporary times occurred during the controversy surrounding the government’s imprisonment of the former regent, the Fifth Rwa sgreng rin po che , Thub bstan ’jam dpal ye shes bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan, one of the highest lamabla mas of the Jé College, who had been attempting to regain political control of the government from his opponent, Takdrak RinpochéStag brag rin po che (the Third Stag brag khri sprul , Ngag dbang gsung rab mthu stobs, 1874-1952). In this struggle, the abbot of the Jé College, the Mongolian Geshé TendarDge bshes bstan dar, took the side of TakdrakStag brag against RadrengRwa sgreng. This was seen by the Byes monks as form of treason, given that RadrengRwa sgreng was a lamabla ma of their college (and, indeed, of the abbot’s own regional house). The abbot was confronted, and when he refused to change his position, an angry mob of SeraSe ra dopdopldob ldobs murdered him.35 Like lamabla mas, then, abbots were not immune from the fury of their constituents, or from the wrath of the government, for that matter.36 When the monks and the government were at odds with one another, abbots often found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

2. The Disciplinarians (Geködge bkod) and Lieutenants (Zhelngozhal ngo)

The second highest position was that of disciplinarian, or geködge bkod. Before 1959 each college of SeraSe ra had one disciplinarian; the Great Assembly Hall had two, but these were not called geködge bkod but rather zhelngozhal ngo, a term that literally means something like “presence,”37 but that probably was originally a military term (where it perhaps meant something akin to “lieutenant”). The college disciplinarians were appointed by their respective abbots. Many abbots had originally served as disciplinarians, and so this position could be a stepping-stone to the abbacy (see above). The disciplinarian, whose title literally means “upholder of virtue,” was responsible for maintaining the monastic discipline within the monastery. In the philosophical colleges (Byes and Smad) he was also responsible for supervising the debate sessions (becoming familiar with the quality of individual debaters, deciding when the debate session was to shift from class-debate format to paired-debates, and determining when the debate session was over). He would also give specific, formal sermons on the rules of the college at set intervals in the year.38 The philosophical colleges had two disciplinarians every year: a summer disciplinarian who served for five months, and a winter disciplinarian who served for seven months. The summer disciplinarian was responsible for choosing the candidates for the Lesser and Greater Lineage Debuts.39 College disciplinarians served on the college governing council, and the Great Assembly Lieutenants sat on the Council of ten Lamas.

The present chief disciplinarian of SeraSe ra-Tibet in full ritual regalia, during an official function in the Great Assembly Hall. He carries in his left hand the “mace,” symbol of his office.
The two lieutenants of the SeraSe ra Great Assembly Hall (wearing hats) with their entourages. Taken around 1904. From L. Augustine Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, With a Record of the British Expedition of 1903-1904 (New York, NY: Dover, 1988, reprint of the 1905 ed.), 373.

3. The Chant Masters (Umdzédbu mdzad)

The chant master of the Jé College of SeraSe ra-India performs a ritual dance during the annual ritual-cake offering; photo taken in the early 1980s.

Each college had its own chant master, and there was a separate chant master for the Great Assembly Hall. There are two terms in Tibetan used to refer to the chant master: umdzédbu mdzad, which means “leader,” and chenmolakchen mo lags, which means “the great one.” The abbot of each college had the right to appoint his own chant master. A chant master did not serve for a fixed term; and he might serve through multiple abbacies. He was responsible for preserving the special musical/chant traditions of the college, for leading the monks in chant during the various assemblies (in the college, at debate sessions, etc.), and for scripting or directing special ritual events. Obviously, having a good chanting voice was a necessary qualification for such a position. Chant masters also had considerable power beyond their ritual duties. They served on the college governing council, for example, and were partially responsible for supervising lower level administrators.

4. The Keepers of the Stores (Nyertsanggnyer tshang)

Each of the colleges had two keepers of the stores. They were appointed by the government from the various regional houses, in rotation. Their term of appointment was for five years. They were chiefly responsible for administering and protecting the endowment (chözhichos gzhi) of their respective college. At the Mé College (Dratsang MéGrwa tshang smad), which was not atypical, their charge was quite specific: they needed to invest the college’s moneys in such a way that it produced enough income to provide at least for (a) tea service for the monks during the winter sessions, (b) barley-flour offerings to the monks during the yearly Maitreya Prayer/Offering Festival (Jammön DrupchöByams smon sgrub mchod), and (c) fried-dough cookies during the New Year (LosarLo gsar) festivities. 40 The keepers of the stores were also members of the governing board of the college.

5. The Summer Session Staff (Yarchöpadbyar chos pa)

There were three administrators called yarchöpadbyar chos pa in each of the philosophical colleges who were the equivalent of the keepers of the stores, the same in all respects (method of selection, term, their role in governance, etc.) except for their responsibilities, which focused on raising funds for (a) tea-service to the monks during the summer sessions, and (b) provisions for the monks who went to the winter logic debates (jang günchö’jang dgun chos).

6. The College Secretary (Drungyikdrung yig)

It was the prerogative of each abbot to select the college secretary. He participated in the governance of the monastery, and was responsible for all formal, written communication from and to the abbot/monastery. The position in theory required good grammar, hand-writing ability and familiarity with epistolary and other formal styles of writing.

7. The Provosts (of the Lachibla spyi) (Chisospyi gso)

Literally, the “caretakers of (the monks) in general,” the two chisospyi gsos appear to be the chief fiscal officers of the Society of Lamas (lachibla spyi), which is headquartered in the Great Assembly Hall. They were responsible for all of the financial affairs of that institution, and they sat on the Society of Lamas’ Council of Ten Lamas (Lakhachubla kha bcu).

8. The Representative to the Tibetan Government (Zimkhang Depagzims khang sde pa) (Lachibla spyi)

The zimkhang depagzims khang sde pa, literally the “government official in charge of the rooms” was responsible for the Dalai Lama’s suite of rooms atop the Great Assembly Hall. Like the provosts, he was part of the Society of Lamas administrative unit, and he sat on the Council of Ten Lamas. He represented SeraSe ra as a whole in the Tibetan government. He served for a three-year term, and the position rotated between the three colleges. Together with the two lieutenants of the Great Assembly Hall, he was also responsible for administering the law (religious and “secular”) within the monastery.41 (Besides the two provosts and the “official in charge of the rooms,” the other members of the Council of Ten Lamas were the four abbots, the chant master of the Great Assembly Hall, and its two lieutenants).

All of the positions just described were at the level of the colleges or Society of Lamas (i.e., monastery-wide). In addition to these, there were several important administrative positions at the regional-house level:

  1. The chief elder (chigenspyi rgan): the main leader of the regional house, usually a learned, senior teacher.
  2. The regional house “teacher” (khangtsen gegenkhang tshan dge rgan). This monk was the day-to-day administrator of the regional house. He was also responsible for maintaining the discipline within the regional house. He had to accompany monks who were accused of infractions of the discipline before the college or monastery authorities. The “teachers” were also usually the regional house’s representative to the college’s advisory board.
  3. The financial officer (chipaspyi pa): responsible for all fiscal matters.
  4. The tea master (jamaja ma): responsible for the regional house kitchen, and for providing food and tea at all official regional house functions.

[20] On the qualities that characterize Tibetan Buddhism as a form of scholasticism, see José I. Cabezón, Buddhism and Language: A Study of Indo-Tibetan Scholasticism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
[21] Of course, there were also in the monastery a number of monks who did not study or engage in formal work. Some of these were senior monks who simply tended to the affairs of their household. Others were engaged in intensive practice (e.g., retreat). Still others were what, in today’s parlance, we would call “slackers.” Given that it was impossible to subsist on the offerings that monks received from their college and from other regular sources (e.g., from donors in assemblies, at the Great Prayer Festival (Mönlam ChenmoSmon lam chen mo), etc.), slackers had to have outside sources of funding to survive at SeraSe ra.
[22] Assuming, of course, that the monks were more or less equals, e.g., in age. It would be unlikely that a very junior monk of any kind would challenge a senior monk. See the memoirs of Tashi Khedrup, a dopdopldob ldob worker monk at SeraSe ra, on his run-in with some textualists:
[23] On the different types of geshédge bshes degrees, see the relevant section of the essay by Prof. Georges Dreyfus on the Sera Project Website; see also http://www.tibet.com/. Both of these articles are based on the system in place at Drepung’Bras spungs, where the terminology was somewhat different. Instead of SeraSe ra’s rikramparigs rams pa, for example, Drepung’Bras spungs used the term dorampardo rams pa. It remains to be seen whether these two forms of the geshédge bshes degree are identical.
[24] See, for example, the decree directed at SeraSe ra by the TsemönlingTshe smon gling regent in 1820. In Tshe dbang rin chen, ed., Se ra theg chen gling (Pe cin: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1995), 122-24 and 168-71.
[25] See Melvyn C. Goldstein, “A Study of the Ldob Ldob," Central Asiatic Journal9, no. 2 (1964): 125-41.
[26] Lay people in central Tibet tend to call all monks “reverend” or kuzhapsku zhabs, but within the GelukDge lugs monasteries, this term is reserved for lamabla mas. Hence, only lamabla mas are called “kuzhapsku zhabs” at SeraSe ra.
[27] For example, the RadrengRwa sgreng lamabla mas held this rank. After the Fifth Rwa sgreng rin po che’s murder, his lineage was demoted to that of a lamabla ma of the Great Assembly Hall (TsokchenTshogs chen). See Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 514.
[28] In reality the issue is not so clear-cut. For example, an ordinary monk who became a great scholar or teacher would probably not be called an “ordinary monk” by his disciples, but he would probably refer to himself as an ordinary monk (for example, if he was asked whether or not he was a lamabla ma), and in any case, he would probably never refer to himself as a lamabla ma (out of humility if nothing else). Also, “religious devotees” (see below), it might be claimed, were not ordinary monks because of the privileged position they enjoyed. Metaphysically and institutionally, however, there is a clear-cut line between those monks who were recognized incarnations and those who were not.
[29] Some lamabla mas had their own estates, and derived income from this source. Even those who did not received many donations that accompanied requests for prayers from lay people
[30] The word “intelligence” in this context is perhaps somewhat misleading, since it includes not only critical acumen, but also the ability to memorize. There is arguably no one English word that conveys both meanings in the English language.
[31] See Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 446.
[32] Much of this section is based on the work of Dge bshes ye shes dbang phyug, Ser smad thos bsam nor bu gling grwa tshang gi chos ’byung lo rgyus nor bu’i phreng ba (Bylakuppe, Mysore, Karnataka: Ser smad dpe mdzod khang, 1996), 185-87.
[33] Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 351, reports that the TöpaStod pa abbacy was often a steppingstone to the abbacy of one of the philosophical colleges.
[34] Dung dkar rin po che, in Se ra theg chen gling, 121.
[35] For a detailed account of this incident see Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, ch. 14.
[36] For an instance of the Byes and NgakpaSngags pa abbots being dismissed, see Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 440-45.
[37] The Rangjung Yeshe Dictionary suggests an alternative etymology that involves not facing, but turning away. This is also possible, given that turning away from someone of high status (not showing one’s face to him, not making eye-contact) was considered proper etiquette in Tibet.
[38] The Great Exhortation (tsoktam chenmotshogs gtam chen mo) tradition of the Jé College is an example of this. See José I. Cabezón, “The Rules of a Monastery,” in Religions of Tibet in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 335-51.
[39] Being selected for these debuts was considered a great accomplishment, often signaling a promising scholarly career. As was mentioned previously, lamabla mas had an advantage come time for such selections, and they were usually given places in the ranking simply as a courtesy.
[40] Dge bshes ye shes dbang phyug, Ser smad thos bsam nor bu gling grwa tshang gi chos ’byung lo rgyus nor bu’i phreng ba, 187.
[41] See, for example, the description of this office by Dung dkar blo bzang ’phrin las, in Se ra theg chen gling, 121.
Sera Monks, by José Ignacio Cabezón