Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

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


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.

[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