Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Monks
by CabezónJosé Ignacio Cabezón
March 1, 2004
Section 7 of 9

Tashi Khedrup: A SeraSe ra DopdopLdob ldob

DopdopLdob ldobs, sometimes translated “punk monks,” were worker monks who belonged to fraternities (lingkagling ka). All of the great GelukDge lugs academies had such fraternities. The status of dopdopldob ldobs is ambiguous. On the one hand, they had a reputation for being pugnacious, partisan and for having more interests in worldly matters (like sports and boys) than in the religious life. On the other hand, dopdopldob ldobs were known for being forthright, honest, hard-working and extremely loyal (to their fraternities and to their college). They were also known for their generosity and their sense of fairness. What follows are excerpts from the biography of Tashi Khedrup.

A picture of an anonymous SeraSe ra dopdopldob ldob taken before 1959. Sera Project archival collection, courtesy of Gen JampaRgan byams pa

Tashi Khedrup was born in the village of Tsaparang, a two-day journey from LhasaLha sa, in 1937. At a young age he entered the household (labrangbla brang) of the Sharpa TrülkuShar pa sprul sku, an incarnate lamabla ma of the Kongpo KhangtsenKong po khang tshan of the Mé College of SeraSe ra. After the death of the lamabla ma, the young Tashi Khedrup held down a variety of jobs. He lived with nomads on the estates that belonged to the Sharpa LabrangShar pa bla brang in the region of DakpoDwags po. He was an assistant to the governor of Kyirong, and to the manager of a private estate in Nyimo belonging to a noble family of LhasaLha sa. He even worked in a restaurant for a time. The entire biography is a rich source of information about the life, economics and customs of SeraSe ra, and of the non-elite class of SeraSe ra monks in particular. The passages excerpted below are reprinted here with the permission of the publisher, Orchid Press.

Tashi Khedrup, Adventures of a Tibetan Fighting Monk, ed. Tadeusz Skorupski, comp. Hugh Richardson (Bangkok: Orchid Press, 1998), 48-51, 55-56, 58-59, 70, 71, 78-80. The narrative begins with Tashi Khedrup’s decision to enter the dopdopldob ldob fraternity.

Now, at last, I was old enough to join the [dopdopldob ldobs]. No one can be enrolled as a fully-fledged Dob-dob until he is mature and well-grown but I was now big and strong enough to be considered as a candidate. I spoke to my uncle about it, but he was not at all in favour and told me I would be much more sensible to try to get myself a teacher. He was quite calm about it and didn’t really scold me when I said I was determined to go my own way. And so, with the help of my friend Sonam who had already been taken on as a candidate, I got myself accepted in the association of Dob-dobs to which he belonged.

On Dopdopldob ldobs In General

The Dob-dob are a special body of monks, found only in the great monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden, distinguished for their physical strength and courage. Young monks who are strong and active and who can’t find a teacher or are bad at learning, are drawn to join one of the groups into which the Dob-dob organize themselves and which go in for the most strenuous sports and exercises. They used to meet, as soon as it was light, in a sandy valley to the west of Sera, take a shower under a cold waterfall or a dip in a little stream and then run naked in the sand, wrestle, or practise carrying and throwing heavy stones. The most important exercise was long-jumping off a raised ramp and formerly there were great competitions with the Dob-dob of Drepung who were Sera’s long-standing rivals. The competition had to be stopped some time ago because there was a big fight and a monk was killed; but it was a Dob-dob’s ambition to be a good jumper and tough and skilful in all sports.

They did not study books, at least when young, though some of them took trouble to learn to read and write. But they did learn some prayers by heart. One of their tasks was to play the oboe and long trumpet at ceremonies. I think Dote Chandzo [JC: one of Tashi Khedrup’s teachers] sent me to learn music because he knew I wanted to be a Dob-dob. He was one himself and had been involved in a famous fight with a Dob-dob of Drepung, whose teeth he knocked out with a pestle. Dob-dobs could be recognized by the special way they wore their monk’s dress. The skirt part of it was longer than usual, but they kept it kilted up rather higher than the ordinary monks. That gave them a bulky look round the thighs, which they exaggerated by swinging their buttocks as they walked. Their hair was worn rather long, with a big curl trained round the left ear and down on to the cheek, and they often blackened their faces round the eyes to make themselves look fierce. Round their bare right arm, just above the elbow, they always tied a red silk scarf, and they usually had a big, heavy key hanging from their girdle not so much for use as for a weapon.

Dob-dobs are an accepted institution and are recorded as such in the books of their khamtsen. They are not supposed to wear their long locks in the monastery, especially inside the assembly hall; but they manage to hide them by tucking them behind their ears. However, those who are chosen as assistants to the Shengo at the Great Prayer can’t get away with that, and have to sacrifice their treasured hair. To make up for it, they paint a lock in black soot on their cheek and keep it there until the real thing has grown again. Dob-dobs have all sorts of jobs to do as well as playing musical instruments and being a sort of monastery police. They go as bodyguards to monastic officials on their travels; they may even hire themselves to lay officials as traveling escorts. Many of the younger ones help to make and serve the tea in the various assemblies. Those who are good at business or understand farming may become stewards or treasurers of a Labrang, like Dote Chandzo, or of the country estates of a khamtsen.

I know that they have been given a bad name in western books, as quarrelsome, violent bullies who terrorized other monks and went in for immoral practices. That is by no means the whole truth. Any Tibetan will tell you that they are not only often amazingly strong and brave, but are also famous among all for open-handed generosity. It is true that they often fight, but what else can be expected if they are allowed to cultivate strength and daring? And it is true that their fights were often about favourite boys, but what else can be expected in a community of only men and boys? That sort of behaviour was not looked on as exceptionally bad, and probably the people of Lhasa preferred that monks should keep to themselves and not worry their womenfolk. Many of their fights and favourites were in a way just part of a game. It was a long-standing challenge to the Dob-dob to try to carry off some boy of a good family from Lhasa; and that led to fights in the city. In the monastery, too, some of them felt they had to have a fight now and then to prove they were strong and afraid of nothing. There was often no question even of a quarrel, but one of them would challenge some other Dob-dob who fancied himself as a fighter. But it is not true that they spent all their lives in fighting and indulgence. Many never fought at all; and many lived together in lifelong friendship of a simple and natural kind. The toughest of them were often the most generous, and would give away their money freely to some poor monk who was in difficulties, and to laymen too.

Initiation into the Dopdopldob ldobs

The association I joined had about 36 members who came from different colleges all over the monastery. That made it possible to meet a lot of new friends. There was no entrance fee, but each member contributed what he could to a common fund from which we bought food, which we ate in one another’s rooms. Usually meetings were held in the room of the leader who was that one-armed monk who had taught me the oboe. He had been a famous jumper and fighter, but was very quiet in his manner though he saw to it that discipline was properly kept. Clubs of that sort, which we called kyidu – that means that everyone shares the good and bad alike – might last for many years or might break up and reform into new groups. If a member died, a share of his property went to the kyidu, some went to pay the men whose duty it was to cut up his dead body, and the rest to his college.

When I joined the Dob-dob I went to live with my friend Sonam, who had a room of his own. It was a pleasant change from the kitchen of the Labrang, which was always full of people…

As Dob-dob candidates we had to work for the kyidu for several months, cooking for the others and cleaning their rooms and doing odd jobs. We used to go to their exercises every day but were not allowed to take part in the jumping until we were full members. We were under the orders of the jumping master, who kept very strict discipline. We had to lay out our clothes tidily in the right order and only run or throw stones where and when we were told. The master controlled the jumping practice of the Dob-dobs and carried a spade handle with which he marked the distances. It was used, too, to keep order if the candidates were noisy or played the fool. The whole business was taken very seriously. My work in the khamtsen was to look after the horses but there were a lot of novices there, so I did not have nearly so much to do as in the Labrang.

Some days Sonam and I went to the morning assembly in our college and then, when I had finished my work, we would go about with our friends in the Kyidu. Through one of them, called Dawa, I met an older Dob-dob from Drepung known as Nechung Batsa – “Pockmarked Nechung” – because his face was deeply pitted with smallpox scars. Although there was a traditional rivalry, that did not prevent us making friends with monks in Drepung. We often met them in Lhasa and sometimes went quite easily to their colleges. And on our special ceremony in Sera, when a very holy dagger with three sides, which fell from heaven, was brought out to be displayed, the monks of Drepung were always invited to be present. They wore their yellow hats on their left shoulder entertained them to lunch…

The First Fight

About that time I was, I suppose, nearly 15 and, as a Dob-dob candidate, I was on the look-out for a chance to prove my strength and spirit to my friends. In fact, I was quite ready for a fight if one offered. And I had my first that winter before the New Year.

I was waiting one morning on the stone steps outside the Assembly Hall with a lot of other monks. There had been a little snow and we were standing about, wrapped up in our cloaks, trying to warm up in the sun before the gates were opened. I was on the edge of the stone balustrade of the stairway when another monk pushed me off. He was a boy I knew slightly and disliked. There was no particular reason; we just did not like one another; you know how it is. He laughed when I stumbled into the snow, and that made me furious. I leaped at him and hit him on the head with my wooden tea bowl – we all carried them in the pouch of our robe. Other monks restrained us because we had to go into the Assembly, where we glared at one another from a distance. I got out first and lay in wait for him and threw several stones at him. He rushed at me swinging his big key on a strap and hit me on the head. He nearly knocked me out and I was streaming with blood but I had a knife and managed to get at him and hit him in the side and knocked him down. Then I made off in a hurry. Of course, I ought not to have been carrying a knife. That is strictly forbidden except for the monks of a special monastery who carry one with a long flexible blade for making dough offerings. But most Dob-dobs usually had a knife about them somewhere, and sometimes in a fight a monk might get killed. If that happened the killer would be terribly beaten and thrown out of the monastery in a dirty white garment. And anyone found carrying a knife would be flogged even if he had never used it. So I was a bit anxious until I heard that the other boy was not badly hurt.

Lots of people had seen the fight so the Proctors soon heard about it and sent their servants to bring us to them in the Assembly Hall. They asked briefly what had happened and we told the truth. They immediately ordered us to be flogged. The other boy was beaten first and he got 30 double strokes because he had started the fight. I had to kneel on my bare knees and watch. Then the four servants caught hold of me and laid me face downwards on the floor; my robe was pulled up and I was flogged with willow branches by two servants, one on each side, who gave me 25 strokes each in quick succession. Fortunately I knew the servants and they did not take too long about it. It was very painful and drew blood, but I didn’t cry out. It would have been the end of me as a Dob-dob if I had. I bit the fold of my cloak between my teeth to help me.

The other boy and I made it up after that; at least, we did not fight again though we didn’t really like each other any better. My Dob-dob friends were quite pleased with me; and I was quite pleased with myself, too. My buttocks and legs were bruised and sore for a long time but Sonam spread raw egg on them and I lay face downwards in the sun whenever I could. Plentiful dressings of butter helped, too but I suffered a good deal for about a month. I have the marks still…

Life as a New Dopdopldob ldob

[Finally I became] a fully-fledged Dob-dob and after so long a time away I enjoyed coming back to my kyidu and being allowed to take a more active part in all the activities. I was allowed to join the jumping exercises and had to train by running with my boots full of sand. As I had some money to spend I bought some good new clothes. Dob-dobs were always very proud of their clothes and looked after them carefully. We liked a specially dark shade of expensive, fine woollen cloth for our long skirt-like garment. It had to be folded carefully into a number of pleats, rather like a kilt and when we were in our rooms we usually took it off and put it under a board and sat on it to press the pleats. The front part had to be quite flat, again like a kilt. And I could now grow my hair long. There were strict rules about the exact length and manner in which it had to be cut; the right side was brushed downwards and the left was bunched up into a big curl. We all took a lot of trouble to keep our hair well and rubbed it regularly with vaseline.

For a month or so after I got back from Kyirong I managed to avoid doing much work, but I did go round the college several times to make sure that the older monks were all right. That was regularly done by the Dob-dob, and if anyone was ill or needed help it was generally the Dob-dob who looked after them. Still, there was plenty of spare time, and a party of us used to go in to Lhasa most days. Some of the older Dob-dob would go to a restaurant, or a gambling house or go to look for girls; but I was not interested in those things and what I liked to do was to go where there was singing and dancing and where I could play the flute…

That winter I went again to the Great Prayer. There was a good deal of grumbling and discontent with the Chinese because they wanted to take away the authority of the Shengo to control Lhasa at that season. I stayed in Shasur’s house; and got myself into another fight. I was going by myself early in the morning to reserve a place in the Cathedral when I ran into a party of big Dob-dob, from Drepung, who asked who I was. When I said I was from Sera they insulted me and tried to catch hold of me, saying they would carry me off to live with them. I threatened them with my key and broke away. A little later I found I was bleeding from a deep wound in my left thigh. One of them must have stuck a sharp knife into me, but I hadn’t noticed it at the time. I thought they should not get away with that so I planned to look out for them and challenge them to a fight. I tried to get some of my friends to join me so that we could take on the lot of them. My friends advised me not to start a fight at the Great Prayer because the punishment, if I were caught, would be extra hard. All the same, I did meet one of the Drepung men later and hit him on the head with my key. He seized me by the throat, and we struggled while a lot of other monks looked on. An elderly monk from Sera separated us and, fortunately, we did not hear any more about it. Perhaps the Shengo were too worried about the Chinese to pay attention to a small scuffle like that, but we would have been in trouble if it had turned into a big fight…

I wasn’t ready to settle down yet. It was much more enjoyable to be a Dob-dob. My friends often came to meet in my room and we cooked whatever we had between us and had a good talk, or played dominoes, or sang. In winter there was a brazier of sheepdung on top of charcoal to keep us warm. After the last prayer assembly we were supposed to stay in our rooms by ourselves, and the head of the khamtsen went round to see that all was quiet and that lights were out. We knew when he was coming and lay low; but after he had gone his rounds we would light the lamp again and stay there playing or talking until quite late. Then if it was cold we would all roll up in a ball under whatever blankets we had, and go to sleep. Or sometimes I went to my friends’ rooms for the same sort of party; but we would be up in good time for our exercises in the morning.

Compared with the bookmen monks we Dob-dob were learning nothing. We did go to the assemblies when there was a good distribution of food or money; and we had to be careful to hide our curls, which were not allowed to be worn there. Sometimes, too, we went to listen to the scholars practising debating in the poplar grove where this took place. We found this amusing and would imitate their gestures - stamping, waving rosaries, clapping one hand against the other at arm’s length, and uttering a shout when making a point. We may have picked up some of the argument, too; but the main reason for going was that there was a distribution of food and money there on some days.

Tea Service in the Assemblies

Another thing that took us into the assemblies was that it was one of the Dob-dob’s jobs to serve the tea. That was really work only for the young and strong. The metal teapots were very large and heavy and we had to run with them over floors slippery with the grease that the monks threw out of their bowls when they had drunk the tea. We scattered sand on it from time to time and once a year the floors were scraped and the grease was sold to people from east Tibet who used it for medicine or burnt it as incense in the houses of sick people. It smelt very nasty, but because it came from a monastery it was thought to be very powerful. There might be a good deal of roughness and jostling when the tea was being served, and if a Dob-dob could surprise in the kitchen passage someone he didn’t like, he tried to bash into him with the heavy teapot or to pin him to the wall with it. The tea was made in the kitchens where the lay servants worked. They were a wild and often dishonest lot and stole as much of the supplies as they could. They had a trick of cutting the middle out of a pack of butter and leaving the two ends looking as if it was complete. They were not allowed to wear trousers in the monastery and some of them carried a leather bag between their legs in which they hid anything they could lay their hands on. And they used to take lots of things from simple villagers who wanted to make an offering for the monks’ assembly. The servants, who lived outside the monastery, used to persuade the poor people to give them their presents of dry tea and flour, promising to take them in to the monastery; but they just pocketed the things.

The biggest and most powerful Dob-dob liked to take part in the tea-making by working the big churns in which the liquid tea is mixed with butter. They showed off their strength by thrusting the plunger of the churn down so hard that the butter spouted up to the ceiling. When they did this they wore leather aprons, because they were proud of their clothes and wanted to keep them clean. The kitchen servants, on the other hand, went about simply shining and stinking of old butter.

That business of tea serving led me into another fight. One day, when I was doing it, a group of bookmen monks whom I didn’t know played a nasty trick by sticking a needle in the floor in front of them so that it would run into our bare feet. I was the first to be caught and when I saw them laughing I went to protest. They only laughed and used insulting words under their breath. I could not challenge them there, but I was ready for a fight and told them to wait outside. I was not sure that they would because bookmen usually avoid a fight if they can. But when I came out, there they were. When it was known there was to be a fight, a lot of people crowded round, including some senior Dob-dobs. Three or four of the bookmen came towards me together so I could not see which one to go for. The crowd would not have allowed the whole lot to attack me. That would have been against the custom and quite unfair. But the others distracted my attention so that their champion managed to hit me on the head with his key on the end of a strap. It was quite a severe wound, which bled all over my face. I wiped the blood from my eyes and went for the man with my knife and got him in the groin. He fell down making a terrible fuss, and his friends ran to help him. None of them came anywhere near me. The crowd shouted encouragement to me, and my Dob-dob friends standing in the background were very pleased. If the others had attacked me, they would have come to my help, but it was the rule to leave fighters alone to settle their own business unless a regular group fight has been arranged. At all events my rival did not come back for more, so that was the end. The Proctors did not hear about the fight; or, if they did, they paid no attention. Probably everyone thought the bookmen had gone too far.

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Sera Monks, by José Ignacio Cabezón