Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
by José Ignacio Cabezón
March 1, 2004
Section 5 of 9

Contemporary Distinctions

Some of the positions and distinctions mentioned above are still operative in SeraSe ra-Tibet and in SeraSe ra-India, while some are not. In certain instances some of this nomenclature is still used, but with different meanings. In other instances, new nomenclature and new distinctions have emerged. For example, the “Religious Devotee” status no longer exists either in Tibet or in the diaspora.42 The institution of the dopdopldob ldob is also now defunct, both in India and in Tibet.43 No monk will enter SeraSe ra for the sake of becoming a worker monk, or so as to join a fraternity of worker monks. Today it is presumed that all of the monks who enter the monastery do so to become textualists. That this is so in theory does not mean that it is always so in practice, however. In today’s SeraSe ras, after several years of study some monks find that they do not have the intellectual gifts (rikparig pa) or the will/diligence (tsöndrübrtson ’grus) to carry out the full program of studies. These monks then become workers or administrators, rotating through a variety of positions in the monastery until they can find one that suits them, and for which they are suited.

To see how terms have changed in meaning, let us consider how the term “continuing monk” (dragyüngrwa rgyun) is used. In SeraSe ra-Tibet today the monks who live in the monastery are divided into those who have official membership (drikzhuksgrigs zhugs) and those who are living in the monastery but have not yet received official status (dragyüngrwa rgyun). (The Chinese government limits the numbers of official monks at SeraSe ra to 550, and so monks must wait until there is an opening to become official. There is a considerable backlog.) As mentioned above, the term dragyüngrwa rgyun was used in former times to refer to “continuing monks”: any monk who came from an outlying monastery to continue his studies at SeraSe ra. Thus, in former times, one could be an official monk of the monastery and a dragyüngrwa rgyun. The two terms were not mutually exclusive. Today, the term dragyüngrwa rgyun refers to those monks – sometimes from outlying areas, sometimes not – who are living in the monastery while waiting to be officially admitted. Thus the word dragyüngrwa rgyun has the sense of “unofficial monk.” As opposed to the situation in former times, dragyüngrwa rgyuns in SeraSe ra-Tibet today lack many of the privileges that come with being an official monk. In India, on the other hand, the term tragyun is hardly used at all. This makes sense, given that the original sense of the term was linked to Tibetan geography: to the practice of monks coming from outlying monasteries for continuing studies in the capital. In exile, of course, this distinction is mostly moot since all monks, in a sense, come from “elsewhere.”

There has, however, developed another distinction that is relevant to the situation of the diaspora. In India it is now the custom to distinguish monks in regard to whether they are “ripe” (pakha) or “raw” (kucha).44 Ripe monks are chiefly those monks who are part of the first wave of immigrants (or who were born in India to first-wave parents).45 Raw monks are recent immigrants, those who have recently “come off the boat,” so to speak. “Raw” monks are perceived as being linguistically provincial, physically dirty, and culturally naïve. Many recently arrived monks, of course, still preserve the accent of their native region of Tibet, they have not yet adapted their personal hygiene to accommodate themselves to the hot Indian climate, their dietary habits are different, and they are often unfamiliar with many of the hallmarks of “modernity”: to wit, technology.46 The term raw is of course derogatory, and many recently arrived monks resent it. It is interesting, however, that many recently arrived monks come to embrace their “raw” status, and turn it on the “ripe” as a way of critiquing them. In their counter-discourse, they come to equate their rawness with authentic Tibetan identity: the implication being that first-wave Tibetans have lost a good deal of their Tibetanness: that they have, in a sense, passed beyond ripeness to decay/decadence. This is not the place to get into a discussion of the sociology of the diaspora Tibetan community. The point is that as old ways of distinguishing between monks have become obsolete, new ways have emerged to take their place.

[42] It is hardly surprising that the institution of the “religious devotee” has gone by the wayside in both Tibet and in India. The granting of a special status on the basis of socio-economic class is of course contrary both to Marxist ideology of Chinese-controlled Tibet and to the egalitarianism that is increasingly a predominant part of the world of diaspora Tibetans. And even if there were not ideological obstacles to the persistence of such an institution, there are probably economic ones. The buying of such a status for one’s son is a luxury that neither Tibetans in Tibet nor diaspora Tibetans in India can easily afford.
[43] Interestingly, it is sometimes “resurrected” during certain ritual functions. On these occasions one or more monks will dress like dopdopldob ldobs throughout the duration of the event. But in these contexts the dopdopldob ldob part has turned into a kind of nostalgic parody wherein monks playact the dopdopldob ldob role almost as comic theatre.
[44] The words pakhaand kucha are not Tibetan but rather Hindi words. Given that the word “raw” is derogatory, it is clear why the “ripe” young Tibetans who came up with the distinction would have chosen to use terminology from a language that would have been (at least initially) incomprehensible to the “raw.”
[45] After a monk has spent several years in India and become acculturated to life there, he may come to be considered “ripe,” even if he came in a later wave of immigrants. The dividing-line, as one might imagine, is vague, depending more on the individual and on context than on any fixed, temporal criterion. It is also relative, someone who from one perspective is “raw” may be “ripe” with respect to someone that is more “raw” than he is.
[46] This is now changing, since monks who come from Tibet are increasingly exposed to things like the internet before they arrive in India.
Sera Monks, by José Ignacio Cabezón