Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

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


[1] Since the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Tibetan governmental bureaucracy had two branches that worked jointly. One was manned by non-monk aristocrats, and the other by monks who were awarded these positions largely on the basis of merit.
[2] For a description of such a ceremony, see http://www.thubtenchodron.org/.
[3] There are also female monastics in the Tibetan tradition, called nuns (ania ni). In India there existed different levels of female monastic ordination, from the ordination of novices to full ordination (gelongmadge slong ma). It has traditionally been thought that the lineage of full ordination for women was lost in India before it could be passed on to Tibetans. Recently, however, Kurtis Schaeffer has claimed that there are passages in some Tibetan historical texts that point to the existence of fully ordained nuns in Tibet; see http://www.aarweb.org/ (type A161 as session number). Be that as it may, there is no lineage of full ordination for women in Tibetan Buddhism today. There are discussions under way, however, concerning the reintroduction of full monastic ordination for women in Tibetan Buddhism. See, for example, http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/, and http://www.thubtenchodron.org.
[4] In a more general sense, the term rapjungrab byung refers to any monk or nun who has taken the vows of novice or above; that is, it is simply another name for the clergy. While it is not clear that rapjungrab byung as a monastic status different from novice and fully ordained is recognized formally in the Vinaya, it does seem to be one that was recognized in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. See, for example, Geshe Sopa, Lectures on Tibetan Religious Culture, vol. 1 (Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1983), 4: “It is permissible for (a young boy) not to take the vows of a novice or a fully ordained monk right away. Even if he does not take vows, he can become a monk (raptujungrab tu byung) by changing his clothes (for monks’ robes) and shaving his hair” (gnas skabs dge tshul dang dge slong gi sdom pa ma blangs kyang ’grigs/ de dus sdom pa ma blangs kyang gos bsgyur ba dang/ skra bregs pa sogs byas te rab tu byung).
[5] These are the upāsaka (Tib. genyendge snyen) vows: not lying, not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, and not taking intoxicants.
[6] For a list of the vows taken by novices in the Tibetan tradition, see http://www.thubtenchodron.org.
[7] This number varies from one Buddhist tradition to the next, and so the traditions do differ, but only on minor points. For example, in the Theravāda Buddhist Vinaya, practiced in most of Southeast Asia, fully ordained monks take 227 vows. Tibetan Buddhists follow the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, where the vows number 253. For the list of vows in Theravāda Buddhism (preserved in a text called the Patimokkha), see http://www.accesstoinsight.org/.
[8] This, however, is generally looked down upon. Monks who leave the monkhood are called dralokgrwa log. The first part of this compound, dragrwa simply means monk. The word loklog has two meanings: a verbal one (“to return, to turn away from”), and a nominal one (“a mistake”). The word dralokgrwa log carries both connotations of the word loklog. The ex-monk has not only turned away from monasticism, he has also committed an error. Far from being neutral, then, the word carries a negative connotation.
[9] In the context of the Vinaya, the abbot is the chief monk in charge of the ordination ceremony. Only later did the term come to be used to designate the head of a monastery. In some schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the term is also used to designate a rank of scholar, but this is an even more recent usage.
[10] For a complete listing of these, see Charles S. Prebish, Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit Pratimokṣa Sūtras of the Mahāsāṃghikas and Mūlasarvāstivādins (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974).
[11] It remains to be seen how severely the other two “defeats” were dealt with.
[12] White is the symbol of the Buddhist laity, since in India lay people wore white; using a soiled garment is symbolic of the individual’s now polluted or “defeated” status.
[13] See the accounts of Tashi Khedrup in “The Life of a Dob Dob,”
[14] Since monks were discrete about sexual encounters and relationships of this sort, we do not really know how widespread such practices were. From anecdotal evidence it seems that it was more prevalent among adolescent boys, and that it tapered off later in life. The dopdopldob ldob (on which, see below) were especially renowned for their homosexual liaisons. A typical form of sexual contact involved copulation between the thighs of the partner, a sexual action that avoided an expellable offense (“defeat”) since it did not involve penetration of the mouth or anus of the partner. Nor, it would seem, were such relationships only between monks. Melvyn C. Goldstein et al., ed., The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi Tsering (Armonck: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 26-30, offers us details of such a relationship between an older monk official and a young non-monk dancer (Tashi TseringBkra shis tshe ring himself). Tashi TseringBkra shis tshe ring also describes how he was abducted by a SeraSe ra dopdopldob ldob on more than one occasion.
[15] Today, at SeraSe ra-India, the monastery serves no meat to monks, or even to lay patrons (even if individual monks continue to buy and to eat meat). But this is a recent departure from custom.
[16] See Charles S. Prebish, “The Vinaya Piṭaka,” in Buddhism: A Modern Perspective, ed. Charles S. Prebish (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978), 49-53, for a brief overview and a list of additional readings.
[17] For example, in the DegéSde dge edition.
[18] Of these, the most important for the GelukDge lugs school was the so-called Vinayasūtra Of Guṇaprabhā. For the Sanskrit, see http://www.google.com. An outline of the Tibetan text in English can be obtained as a downloadable PDF file by clicking on Prayers, Course Syllabus and Readings on the ACIP course website. This same file contains other important texts that are studied in the Vinaya portion of the SeraSe ra curriculum.
[19] Today this has important, negative consequences for nuns, who have thus far been impeded from obtaining the geshédge bshes degree because they do not study the monastic discipline of monks.
[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 Journal 9, 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 Radreng RinpochéFifth ṛwa 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.
[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.
[47] Sde srid sang rgyas rgya mtsho, Bai ḍūrya ser po (1991), 138: “When the monastic population became too large, (Jamchen Chöjé) instituted four colleges – Tö, Mé, Gya and Drongteng, and then he placed Dargyé Zangpo, master of the ten treatises, on the throne” (dge ’dun yang ’du che bar stod smad rgya ’brong[sic] steng ste grwa tshang bzhi btsugs de nas bka bcu smra ba dar rgyas bzang po gdan sar bskos). According to other sources, however, the four colleges were instituted at a slightly later date.
[48] Sde srid sang rgyas rgya mtsho, Bai ḍūrya ser po, 142
[49] L. Augustine Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, 372.
[50] That this number is more or less on target is supported by the fact that in 1944/5 when word was sent out from the Jé College that all monks of the College from all over Tibet were to assemble in LhasaLha sa for a special assembly, about five thousand arrived; Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 444.
[51] This is something that I was not aware of until I had almost finished the survey in 2002. Were I to repeat this work, I would now interview elder monks, inquiring about the maximum and minimum number of monks that were associated with their regional house within their lifetime.
[52] The number of official monks has been declining in recent years. As monks leave or pass away, the monastery has not been permitted to fill all of these vacancies in recent years (2002).
[53] The rationale for this derives from Chinese policy that in most instances restricts a student’s educational venues to the institutions within his/her home region. To cross official provincial borders for education is not a trivial thing in China.
Sera Monks, by José Ignacio Cabezón