Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Tibetan Monastic Education
by Georges Dreyfus
January 1, 2001
Section 3 of 7

Central Exoteric Studies

The central part of this monastic training is subdivided into two phases. The first and more important is the study of three texts that summarize the main aspects of non-tantric Buddhism as understood by the GelukDge lugs tradition:

  1. Abhisamayālaṃkāra (Ornament of Realization), attributed to Maitreya
  2. Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika (Commentary on Valid Cognition)
  3. Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra (Introduction to the Middle Way)27

The Abhisamayālaṃkara, which is studied for four to six years, examines the Perfection of Wisdom literature. It provides an understanding of the Buddhist and, more particularly, mahāyāna worldview together with a detailed analysis of the path. Every year, one month is devoted to Dharmakīrti’s Commentary, which outlines in detail Buddhist logic, epistemology, and philosophy of language. This text also provides the philosophical methodology for the whole curriculum, as we will see later. After they have thoroughly absorbed this training, students are ready to examine what is considered the culmination of their education, madhyamaka philosophy. This philosophy, which provides the doctrinal core of the GelukDge lugs tradition, is taught with the help of Candrakīrti’s Introduction, which serves as a guide to Nāgārjuna’s seminal Treatise of the Middle Way.

The study of these three texts, which may take six to ten years, demands the kind of sustained philosophical thinking particularly valued by the GelukDge lugs tradition. Sometimes, monks who are keenly intent on leading the hermitic life leave the monastery after finishing this part of their education. Although they could benefit from further study, they are considered ready to start on their meditative careers.

In the second and final phase of studying the exoteric texts, the students already well-trained in philosophy gain more maturity and a richer overview of the tradition. It consists of two treatises:

  1. Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma-​kośa (Treasury of Abhidharma)
  2. Guṇaprabha’s Vinaya-​sūtra28

The study of the Abhidharma enriches the understanding of the Buddhist view of the world already conveyed to the students by the Ornament. The study of the Vinaya initiates the students in the intricacies of monastic discipline and the collective organization of the order. Because of their importance, both texts receive extended scrutiny (lasting four to eight years). Yet if they are important, why are they taught so late in the curriculum?

One reason is that these texts contribute little to the intellectual qualities most valued by Tibetan scholars—the ability to penetrate difficult theoretical concepts, raise doubts about them, explore their complexity, and come to a nuanced understanding of their implications. Such qualities are developed by the study of the first three texts, which are more philosophical and lend themselves to analysis through the commentarial and dialectical practices that are at the heart of Tibetan scholasticism. Hence, it is important to expose students to those texts when they are young and their minds can be sharpened. Later they will have time to study Abhidharma and Vinaya, which are less demanding but require a more sedate approach.

Moreover, the Vinaya is only partly relevant to Tibetan monastic practice. Although it lays out the monastic discipline, the vows to which monks commit themselves by becoming members of the order, and the principles around which the life of this order is organized, the Tibetan practice of monasticism does not strictly conform to the strictures laid down in the Vinaya. The vows are the same, but they are studied by monks only after ordination, in summaries called Training for Bhikshus (Gelonggi LapjaDge slong gi bslab bya). The actual organization of the order in Tibet derives not from the Vinaya but from the monastic constitutions. In addition, the monastic calendar follows the Vinaya’s prescriptions only partly.

Nevertheless, the postponement of the study of the Vinaya, the canonical discipline incumbent on any monk or nun, is quite surprising, for one would expect monks to know the rules to which they have committed themselves and the procedures they must follow. Monks notice this paradox. A caustic Mongoliangeshédge bshes is supposed to have said, “When there are vows, there is no [knowledge of the] Vinaya. When there is [knowledge of the] Vinaya, there is no vow.”29 When monks begin their careers, they are enthusiastic and pure, but do not know the monastic discipline. Instead of studying it immediately, they wait for ten or fifteen years. When they finally turn to Vinaya, they understand what they should have done—but it is too late. By then they have become blasé and have lost their enthusiasm for monastic life.30

Such disaffection is a particular worry for monks who have finished the first three texts in an atmosphere of intense discovery and intellectual excitement. They are well acquainted with their tradition and have the intellectual tools needed to gain a deeper, more inward-looking understanding. This change in approach is especially important for the study of the Vinaya, which examines the moral aspects of the tradition—more specifically, monastic morality—not theoretically and philosophically but practically. There is extensive discussion of the moral precepts: their number, their nature, the actions that they exclude, and so on. However, very little philosophical discussion is devoted to the nature of moral concepts.

This approach to morality reflects the belief that it cannot be understood theoretically, since moral rules can never be derived from observation or deduced philosophically. In Buddhist epistemology, morality is described as thoroughly hidden (shintu kokgyurshin tu lkog gyur, atyantaparokṣa), a domain of reality that is inaccessible to direct experience or to reason. In Buddhism as in most Indiantraditions, good and bad are understood in terms of the consequences of one’s karma —that is, in relation to action. An action is bad if, and only if, it leads to negative karmic results.31 But the only way to understand that an action such as killing will lead in the future to being killed or reborn in painful circumstances is to rely on some authority, whether the instructions of a person or the exegesis of a text.32 In the Buddhist tradition, such authority is provided by the Buddha and his teachings, particularly the Vinaya, which focuses on monastic rules and by extension provides some guidance to the laity as well.

In this area, monastic studies resemble Islamic studies, which emphasize jurisprudence—particularly in the Sunni branch of Islam, in which philosophy and theology play a limited role. That tradition overwhelmingly privileges religious jurisprudence as the main subject of learning, the central and perhaps only way to gain access to the divine. The yeshivas of Jewish tradition have the same curricular orientation…These studies are in part distinguished by being concerned less with philosophy than with exegetical matters or the moral and legal questions treated by the texts they interpret. Students discuss the details of midrashic interpretations or debate the rules contained in the talmudic literature, arguing about the rationale behind the prescriptions. By so doing, they get closer to the divine.

Tibetan scholars take a somewhat similar approach to studying Vinaya and Abhidharma. Rather than emphasizing the sharp dialectical and philosophical focus required in studying the first three texts (a focus discussed below), scholars stress commentarial exegesis, which here provides not just the indispensable basis of debate but the essence of the study. Debate is not a mode of inquiry into these texts but a way to assimilate their content, and it is therefore often replaced by a less formal conversation, not unlike that in which yeshiva students engage. However, the use of this method exclusively for Vinaya and Abhidharma (considered less important than the first three texts) illustrates the difference between Tibetan monastic education, which generally has a philosophical orientation, and that of the yeshiva, which stresses the exegetical and legal. Though rules and regulations can be known only through the enlightened vision of a Buddha, their study is not the main way to gain access to such vision. Instead, the study of philosophy, which prefigures meditative practice, is considered la voie royale.

Like other parts of the tradition, the Vinaya is studied through commentaries, which in this case are particularly important. There is no other way to learn about monastic morality, for the kind of philosophical analysis suitable for the first three texts cannot be applied to morality. The Vinaya itself is said to have been proclaimed by the Buddha and hence is canonical in the narrow sense of the word. But students focus less on these texts than on their commentaries, particularly Guṇaprabha’s Vinaya-​sūtra. Contrary to what its title suggests, this difficult and long work is a treatise, not a sūtra. It is studied by every scholar and memorized by better students. Less enthusiastic students are happy to memorize the verse condensation (domtsiksdom tshig) of its topics, and the truly reluctant try to get away with committing to memory only the most important parts, which are neither short nor easy to memorize. I must confess that I belonged to this last category.

When I moved to SeraSe ra to prepare for my final exams, I studied Vinaya with geshédge bshes Lozang TuptenBlo bzang thub bstan, who was kind enough to teach me. I managed painfully to memorize the key passages of the verse condensation and was able to answer questions concerning the most important points of the Vinaya studies. My overall knowledge of the Vinaya was very limited, as my fellow students knew. Yet they did not hold my ignorance against me. In their eyes, my comprehension of the first three texts was sufficient to establish me as a scholar, and their opinion accurately reflected the consensus of the GelukDge lugs tradition in exile. Monks nowadays have neither the leisure nor the scholarly gusto for exploring the details of the Vinaya and Abhidharma, as they did in Tibet, where scholars ferociously debated the intricacies of these texts and where knowledge of the Vinaya and the Abhidharma was considered a scholar’s crowning achievement.

Another indication of the role played in the curriculum by the Vinaya and the Abhidharma is that the Tibetan commentaries used in studying them, unlike those for the first three texts, are not tradition-specific. All Tibetan Buddhist traditions agree in relying on the commentary by kun mkhyen tsho na ba on Guṇaprabha’s Vinaya-​sūtra.33 This voluminous text explains the meaning of the root text and presents a masterly overview of all Vinaya practice and literature. It is complemented by the same author’s word commentary (i.e., a gloss) of the Vinaya-​sūtra, as well as by a commentary by dge ’dun grub.34 In the GelukDge lugs tradition, the latter is used extensively, and scholars contrast its sometimes more conservative explanations with kun mkhyen tsho na ba’s broader standpoint. Moreover, though manuals exist (as mentioned earlier), they are very rarely used, since their dialectical and didactic style is taken to be ill-suited to these texts.

Similarly, the study of the Abhidharma is based on a pre-GelukDge lugs text, the famous Great Chim (ChimchenMchims chen) or ChimdzöMchims mdzod, a commentary on Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma.35 One of the earliest of the Tibetan scholastic commentaries, it presents a masterful synthesis of the Abhidharma systems of the vaibhāṣika and sautrāntika schools, as explained by Vasubandhu, and summarizes the mahāyāna Abhidharma, as explained by Asaṅga. This large and invaluable sum, which covers the relevant Indian subcommentaries, is studied in conjunction with Vasubandhu’s text, which is memorized. Vasubandhu’s autocommentary is discussed as well, but in less detail. Often Gendün DrupDge ’dun grub’s commentary is also used, for it provides an elegant gloss on Vasubandhu’s text as well as a useful summary of the whole system.36 The Abhidharma can be studied for up to four years, but this is very much a luxury. Compared to the Vinaya, whose study requires a sustained effort, the textual basis of the Abhidharma is easier to master; moreover, most of its topics have been already partly covered in the study of the Ornament.


[27] Maitreya, Abhisamayālaṃkāra-​nāma-​prajñāpāramitopadeśa-​śāstra-​kārikā (Shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i man ngag gi bstan bcos mngon par rtogs pa’i rgyan zhes bya ba tshig le’ur byas pa, D: 3786, P: 5184); Dharmakīrti, Pramāṇa-​vārttika-​kārikā (Tshad ma rnam ’grel gyi tshig le’ur byas pa, D: 4210, P: 5709); Candrakīrti, Madhyamakāvatāra (Dbu ma la ’jug pa, D: 3861, P: 5262).
[28] Vasubandhu, Abhidharmakośakārikā (Chö Ngönpé DzöChos mngon pa’i mdzod, D: 4089, P: 5590); Guṇaprabha, Vinaya-​sūtra (’Dul ba’i mdo rtsa ba, D: 4117, P: 5619).
[29] sdom pa yod dus ’dul ba med / ’dul ba yod dus sdom pa med.” Because they do not belong fully to Tibetan society, Mongolians have the reputation of being unusually outspoken and candid; comments critical of the establishment are often attributed to them.
[30] A Tibetan proverb captures this loss of monastic zeal: “New monks drink filtered water. Elder monks delight in gulping down alcohol.” The monastic code prescribes that monks strain water before drinking it, to avoid killing small insects; the jaded monks may be tempted to ignore not only this minor rule but even the absolute ban on alcohol.
[31] See G. Dreyfus, “Meditation as Ethical Activity,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 2 (1995): 28-45, and C. Hallisey, “Ethical Particularism in Theravada Tradition,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 3 (1996): 32-43; both articles are available online at Journal of Buddhist Ethics (accessed February 2002).
[32] This point about the role of authoritative statement is made well by J.N. Mohanty, Reason and Tradition in Indian Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 256.
[33] Tsho na pa shes rab bzang po, ’Dul ba mdo rtsa ba’i rnam bshad nyi ma ’od zer legs bshad lung gi rgya mtsho (n.d.).
[34] Tsho na pa shes rab bzang po, ’Dul tig nyi ma’i ’od zer legs bshad lung gi rgya mtsho (Beijing: Tibetan Culture Institute, 1993); Gendün DrupDge ’dun grub, Dam pa’i chos ’dul ba mtha’ dag gi snying po’i don legs par bshad rin po che’i phreng ba, in Collected Works, vol. 2 (Kha).
[35] Chos mngon pa mdzod kyi tshig le’ur byas pa’i ’grel pa mngon pa’i rgyan (Zi ling: Krun go’i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang, 1989). The authorship of this work is not well-established. The book is attributed to a member of the Mchims clan. Though there are several possible candidates, the most likely is Mchims ’Jam pa’i dbyangs (Mchims ’Jam dpal dbyangs, early fourteenth century). See Ngag dbang chos grags, Mkhan chen ngag dbang chos grags kyi pod chen drug gi ’grel pa phyogs sgrigs (Rimbick Bazar, Dist. Darjeeling: Sakya Choepheling Monastery, 2000), 44.a.
[36] Dge ’dun grub, Mdzod tik thar lam gsal byed (Varanasi: Ge-luk Press, 1973).
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Tibetan Monastic Education, by Georges Dreyfus