Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

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Tibetan Monastic Education
by Georges Dreyfus
January 1, 2001
Section 5 of 7

Final Examinations and the Title of Geshédge bshes

Examinations concern not only the passage from one class to another but also the conclusion of the studies, the examinations for the title of geshédge bshes.

With the completion of madhyamaka, after roughly ten years, students enter a new phase. They are considered intellectually mature and able to start on the arduous hermitic life, if they so wish. However, most go on to the last two topics, the study of the Abhidharma and Vinaya. In Tibet, scholars would spend up to ten years examining these texts in great detail. The length of time reflected not just the large amount of textual material but also, and more significantly, the desire to keep these advanced scholars in residence, so that they themselves become teachers and share their knowledge before leaving the monastery. In this way, the cross-generational exchange is maximized, ensuring a strong transmission of acquired knowledge and a better socialization of the new students.66 In exile, Vinaya and the Abhidharma are examined less enthusiastically and much more briefly (for four years).

Only after they have completed these studies are students allowed to stand for the different levels of the title of geshédge bshes (pronounced “ge-shay”; i.e., gewé shenyendge ba’i bshes gnyen, kalyāṇamitra), bringing to an end the exoteric part of the training. It is the highest degree awarded by Tibetan Buddhist monastic institutions. This title, which means “scholarly spiritual friend,” has considerable prestige among Tibetans. Although nowadays it appears mostly within the GelukDge lugs tradition, its use was once widespread. Many of the most saintly figures of the KadamBka’ gdams traditions were described as geshédge bshes. Yet geshédge bshes are not always presented in a favorable light: they are often depicted as arrogant, convinced that they know more than anyone else, and – unlike the morally pure nonscholastic practitioners – overly interested in worldly concerns. One of the most sinister characters in Mila RepaMi la ras pa’s biography is Geshé TsakpupaDge bshes tsag phu pa, who attempted to poison MilaMi la out of jealousy.67

In the GelukDge lugs tradition, this title designates those scholars who have finished their exoteric studies and passed their final exams. It is important to realize, however, that it is no guarantee of the scholarly excellence of its bearer, for there are several categories of this title. At the LosellingBlo gsal gling monastery of Drepung’Bras spungs, for example, there are four types of geshédge bshes:

  1. Doramrdo rams (“scholar [examined on the monastery’s] stone [platform]”)
  2. Lingségling bsre (or sepseb, “[scholar examined by] mixing of communities”)
  3. Tsokramtshogs rams (“scholar of the assembly”)
  4. Lharamlha rams (“divine scholar”)68

These titles are ranked according to the kind of examination that candidates undergo. To receive the two lower titles, candidates are examined only within the precincts of their monastery (in this case, LosellingBlo gsal gling).69 Candidates to the third, tsokramtshogs rams, are examined by the assembly of both monasteries (here LosellingBlo gsal gling and GomangSgo mang). The highest title is awarded only to those who are examined by the three monastic seats during the Great Prayer Festival. They are supposed to be the best products of scholastic education, though even their knowledge is uneven. In Tibet, where candidates were carefully selected and had to wait for a long time (five to ten years after finishing the curriculum) before taking their exams, to obtain this title was often a sign of scholastic excellence. But many first-class scholars chose to receive instead one of the three inferior titles so that they would be free to leave the monastery. In exile, where access to the highest title has at times been easier, the lower echelons of geshédge bshes are mostly given to less-accomplished scholars. And even the lharamlha rams title is not always a sign of scholarly quality. Many candidates obtain the degree by sheer determination; much as in Western graduate studies, earning the loftiest degree (whether that be Ph.D. or geshédge bshes) is the sure sign less of a brilliant mind than of scholarly perseverance.

The process of becoming a geshédge bshes also involves the offering of a feast (tonggogtong sgo) to one’s regional house and one’s monastery. This gift, which is quite similar to the profuse wining and dining of colleagues required of successful candidates in medieval universities, is not a small affair. It involves giving tea, money, and food to hundreds and sometimes thousands of monks. Reincarnated lamabla mas are expected to go all out and make lavish offerings, but even simple monks are expected to be generous. In Tibet, where they could often rely on a network of relatives and neighbors who would gladly contribute to such a momentous event, such generosity was not very difficult. In India, where relatives are often without much resources, it is harder.

The Dalai Lama has tried to discourage this custom, but without much success. When he gave me permission to become geshédge bshes, he insisted that I use my money more usefully. Armed with his recommendation, I was able to go against tradition, paying for the printing of a book rather than a feast.70 Lati RinpochéBla ti rin po che almost had a fit when I announced that I was not going to offer a feast, but he could do nothing since I was fulfilling the Dalai Lama’s own wish. Many monks taunted me, telling me half-jokingly that they had high expectations: “With a rich Westerner, gold is going to rain down!” In the end, however, they had to recognize that the printing and wide distribution of a book, which is still being used, was more useful than a wasteful feast in a scholarly institution that had only a limited range of books available. They also knew that they could not follow my example, though many wished they could.

Traditionally, access to the lharamlha rams title is granted by the abbot of each monastery. The procedure of the Byes monastery of SeraSe ra is typical. Students who have completed the curriculum in the Abhidharma class71 enter the karambka’ rams class where they are to review both Abhidharma and Vinaya. The abbot then selects those who will go on to the lharamlha rams class to review all five treatises, with special emphasis on Vinaya and Abhidharma. In an institution such as SeraSe ra, which has at the most a couple of thousand scholars who all know of each other, reputations are well-established and the abbot has a good idea of the scholarly capacity of the more advanced students. Hence, he can choose those who can be admitted to the highest scholastic honor without formal examination. As one might imagine, this abbatial privilege gives rise to many complaints, as some of those who are passed over blame their failure on some bias. Thus, it would be a mistake to think of the power of the abbot as unquestioned.

Monks are independent-minded and they take no vow of obedience. Young monks must obey their room teachers; but once a monk is considered mature, only his guru has any authority over him. He must show the abbot the respect due to a social superior, but the abbot’s authority is not religious and hence is limited. This is particularly true in exile, where the respect for elders and authorities has greatly diminished. In Tibet, monks displayed an extraordinary degree of respect. If an ordinary monk from the monastic seat encountered the abbot, for example, he was required to bow down very low and turn away while burying his face in his upper robe. In the Tantric Monastery of Higher LhasaLha sa, monks were not even allowed to cross paths with the abbot. Khyongla recounts that once he was in a street in LhasaLha sa when suddenly the abbot appeared. Khyongla had to flee but was hobbled by an uncomfortable pair of shoes; his only escape was to hide in the courtyard of an adjacent house and wait for the abbot to leave before hurrying back to the monastery.72

In Tibet, the lharamlha rams class had enormous prestige, a special discipline, and a few (mostly symbolic) privileges. Monks were not obliged to participate in the monastery’s ritual but could get tea and offerings even while remaining in their rooms studying. But the discipline was extremely strict. While other classes met only during debate sessions, they would gather every day in a place set apart. Those arriving late to a class in session would be punished. The monks would discuss the meaning of different texts. One member of the class would memorize a passage in a commentary, often amounting to ten or twenty folios. He would recite it by heart and would discuss it with his peers. Students would spend between five and ten years in this class before being allowed to stand for the final exam.73 Nowadays, the procedures and discipline of the lharamlha rams class do not differ from those of the other classes.

In Tibet, candidates for the lharamlha rams title had to undergo a rigorous process that involved three steps.74 First, they had to pass a preliminary exam (gyuktrörgyugs sprod) at the Norbu LinggaNor bu gling ga, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace. There, the candidates were examined in front of the Dalai Lama’s spiritual assistant (tsenzhapmtshan zhabs) and sometimes the Dalai Lama himself. Candidates would be given questions to debate with other candidates, each one taking his turn to answer and debate on each of the five texts.75 Though in the next two examinations one can disgrace oneself but cannot fail, failure was possible in this first examination. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama sent a few candidates back, humiliating both the candidates and the abbot who had admitted them to the lharamlha rams rank.

In India, access to the lharamlha rams title has sometimes been easier. In the mid-1980s, when I went through the whole process, any student who had gone through all the classes could lay claim to the title. At the end of the decade, the Dalai Lama attempted to raise the standards by reestablishing the examination held by a central authority, but this proved difficult to organize. In 1995, it was decided that all lharamlha rams candidates would take a series of written examinations over seven years, administered by the GelukDge lugs Society. This change has considerably lengthened the process and created some resentment; it is possible that further changes will follow.

The second step, both in Tibet and in exile, is the monastery’s formal debate monastery’s formal debate (dratsanggi damchagrwa tshang gi dam bca’), during which candidates are examined by their own monastery. They start by visiting all the classes of the monastery, from the beginners studying the Collected Topics to the most advanced lharamlha rams class. They then defend their view in front of the whole monastery in a formal debate. One cannot fail but one can be humiliated in this difficult trial, which requires the candidate to spend up to ten hours answering questions on any topic related to the curriculum. This examination also involves a strong psychological element, since the defender stands against the entire audience (numbering several hundred to several thousand), which is expected to support and help the questioner. When the defender hesitates in answering, the audience joins the questioner in pressuring him by loudly intoning “phyir, phyir, phyir.” If the answer is still not forthcoming, the questioner may start to make fun of the defender with the vocal support of the audience. Conversely, if the questioner falters, members of the audience may jump in and pick up the debate. At times, several questioners bombard the defender with a variety of questions. Sometimes they may join in unison as they forcefully press their points. When the defender loses, the whole audience joins the questioner in loudly slapping their hands and pointedly proclaiming, “Oh, it’s finished.”

Withstanding such intense psychological pressure is not easy. Being jeered or ridiculed by thousands is a disconcerting experience. Some candidates fall apart, becoming rattled, angry, or unable to answer. Most candidates, however, are able to withstand the pressure because of the long training they have undergone. It is crucial to remain calm and good-humored, while keeping an eye out for sharp rejoinders that can turn the presence of a large crowd to one’s advantage. I remember an incident that took place while I was answering in Sera JéSe ra byes. The abbot, Geshé Lozang TuptenDge bshes blo bzang thub bstan who was my teacher, made a joke at my expense, implying that my answers were weak. The whole assembly burst into laughter. I was not fazed and without blinking I replied, “Some may laugh, but I challenge them to back up their laughter!” The audience exploded. I had won the exchange.76

After the candidate has performed in front of the whole monastery, he is qualified to stand for the third and final stage of the examination: the formal debate of the Great Prayer (Mönlam Chenmö damchasmon lam chen mo’i dam bca’). This festival, which takes place a few days after the Tibetan New Year (February or March, according to the Western calendar), is meant as a way to bring about the coming of the future Buddha, Maitreya.77 It was instituted by TsongkhapaTsong kha pa in 1409, a key event in the life of the GelukDge lugs tradition. The yearly recreation of this event is the main festival for the three monastic seats; its importance goes well beyond the boundaries of the tradition, as thousands of pilgrims came to LhasaLha sa to attend this festival.

In Tibet, the great festival took place in the Central Temple (JokhangJo khang) in LhasaLha sa. This temple has long been the spiritual center of the Tibetan world. It contains the most venerated statue in Tibet – the JowoJo bo, an Indian statue, which was brought to Tibet by the Chinese wife of Emperor Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po. The temple, too, is said to date back to the emperor himself. Hence, it is a symbol of the Tibetan community, linked closely to its sense of identity. Standing for examination in this symbolic center of the Tibetan world in front of twenty thousand monks would have to be a decisive experience in a person’s life.

In the morning, candidates for the lharamlha rams title are examined on the Ornament and madhyamaka philosophy. At noon, they are tested on logic and epistemology. These two sessions are too short to allow serious debate. The real exam occurs at the end of the afternoon, when the last two topics, Abhidharma and Vinaya, are debated in front of several thousand monks. In Tibet, the study of Vinaya and Abhidharma was taken very seriously. Older geshédge bshess would examine the candidates, putting forth special rtags gsal skrub ma in which all the categories contained in a passage of the Abhidharma or the Vinaya are combined (hence the debate’s name). The candidate is then asked to enumerate them and find how many are contained in others, how many are exclusive, and so on.78 At these debates, which were real Tibetan casse-têtes, surprises occurred and reputations were done or undone. At the end of the festival, each candidate received the title of “divine scholarly spiritual friend,” the crowning achievement of often more than twenty years of arduous scholarly training, together with a ranking among the candidates (bestowed by the Tibetan government) based on their performance.

In exile, the Great Prayer festival has lost its relation to the symbolic center of the Tibetan universe. Often the three seats, which have been relocated far apart in South India, cannot get together and the festival is held in two separate locations.79 Candidates then travel from one place to the other and are examined twice. During the festival, there is little time to debate except during the evening. In exile, the Vinaya and the Abhidharma are not studied in much depth and nobody has the time to get into stirred-up debates. Thus, the evening examination during the festival is not very difficult, unlike the monastery’s formal debate. It remains a great honor to stand for the highest scholastic title of the GelukDge lugs tradition. It is the end result of a process that still has much integrity and that provides much prestige to its holders.

Many Tibetans still believe that once one has mastered the difficult monastic training, everything else can be learned easily. From a modern viewpoint that has abandoned any idea of unified knowledge, such a belief appears naive. In its own context, however, it was not unjustified, for monastic studies trained the mind well, making it a disciplined tool ready to tackle any subject. Moreover, in a world as limited as traditional Tibet, monastic learning represented a large proportion of what there was to know. Buddhism, with its complex philosophy, was also by far the most sophisticated area of Tibetan culture. Hence, those trained in it could indeed learn most other topics with relative ease. For traditional Tibetans, it seemed plausible that a person could know almost everything that is to be known. Several great scholars were thought to match this ideal and were called by such titles as the “all-knowing one” (tamché khyenpathams cad mkhyen pa), hyperbole that refers nevertheless to a real possibility in the Tibetan world.

Given the centrality of their form of learning and the impressive achievements of monastic scholars, it is not surprising that in Tibet monastic scholars had an enormous prestige – or to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term, a large amount of symbolic capital. They commanded the kind of language, the set of manners, and the orientations and dispositions that would make them successful in their society.80 Being a geshédge bshes was recognized as a great achievement, and families would often go into debt to help their offspring make the required offerings. Parents frequently expressed their pride, stating that raising a child who had accomplished such a feat was worth more than anything else in their own lives. This cultural capital was the result not of the social origin of the scholars but of their own achievements. Many scholars came from humble backgrounds and had little or no schooling at home. Thus the achievements of monastic scholars were made possible not by their social background but by their insertions into a powerful monastic network. For the most part, monastic scholars did not participate in the reproduction of the privileges of their own family, but they contributed to the prestige of their institutions. Education in traditional Tibet was a means of social reproduction, not so much of a class structure as of a social organization dominated by monastic institutions.

Nowadays the role of monastic intellectuals is different. Since 1950, modern education has spread among Tibetans. In exile, refugees have had spectacular educational successes, breaking the quasi-monopoly that monastic scholars held in Tibet. Nevertheless, geshédge bshess retain a large degree of prestige. They still often staff the modern schools administrated by the government in exile, where they teach traditional subjects – Tibetan language and the rudiments of Buddhist philosophy.

[66] The state of monasticism in contemporary Tibet clearly demonstrates the importance of cross-generational transmission. After 1959, monasteries were closed down, and monks were shipped to concentration camps where most died. When the monasteries reopened in the early 1980s, a few older monks came back to train students once again. However, there was a large gap between them and this new generation. As a result, the young monks have found it difficult to find their bearings and to become socialized in ways that make possible the renewal of their institution.
[67] L. Lhalungpa, trans., The Life of Milarepa (1977; reprint, Boston: Shambhala, 1985), 158.
[68] T. Tarab, A Brief History of Tibetan Academic Degrees in Buddhist Philosophy (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2000), 18. At Sera JéSe ra byes, the four degrees of geshédge bshes are the rikramrigs rams, lingségling bsre, tsokramtshogs rams, and lharamlha rams (Geshe Sopa, Lectures on Tibetan Religious Culture [Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1983], 43).
[69] The name geshédge bshes lingségling bsre may suggest that he is examined by more than one monastery. But this name seems to reflect more the past practices of SangpuGsang phu where the candidate was examined by both monasteries (i.e., the Upper Community and the Lower Community), than the present practices of the three monastic seats. An old title thus appears to have been integrated into a new system.
[70] Following my preference for logic and epistemology, I chose Gendün DrupDge ’dun grub, Tshad ma’i bstan bcos chen po rigs pa’i rgyan (Ornament of Reasoning: A Great Treatise on Valid Cognition) (Mundgod: Loling Press, 1985).
[71] In Byes, as in Sera MéSe ra smad, Drepung Gomang’Bras spungs sgo mang, and dga’ ldan byangs rtse, Abhidharma is the final subject. In the other three monasteries, Vinaya is last.
[72] Rato Khyongla Nawang Losang, My Life and Lives: The Story of a Tibetan Incarnation, ed. J. Campbell (New York: Dutton, 1977), 151.
[73] Geshé Rabten spent only two years in this class because of the events in Tibet and the subsequent exile. Normally, he would have had to spend nine years (Rabten, The Life and Teachings, 103).
[74] Blo gros, ’Bras spungs chos ’byung, 278-86.
[75] For a description of these difficult and tense exams, see Rato Khyongla, My Life and Lives, 111.
[76] Gendün ChömpelDge ’dun chos ’phel was famous for his sharp repartee. In one famous encounter he was answering when a Mongolian geshédge bshes tried to make fun of him by saying, “It appears that you think that all knowables are flat.” Gendün ChömpelDge ’dun chos ’phel instantly replied, “The only things I hold to be always flat are the heads of Mongols” (Rdo rje rgyal, ’Dzam gling rig pa’i dpa’ bo dge ’dun chos phel gyi byung ba brjod pa bden gtam ’na ba’i bcud len [Kansu: Kansu People’s Press,1997], 27).
[77] See H. Richardson, Ceremonies of the Lhasa Year, ed. M. Aris (London: Serindia, 1993).
[78] For an example of such a “stirred-up” debate, see Blo gros, ’Bras spungs chos ’byung, 254.
[79] GandenDga’ ldan and Drepung’Bras spungs usually hold the festival in Mundgod, while SeraSe ra holds it in Bylakuppe.
[80] See P. Bourdieu, Le sens pratique (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1980), 191-208.
Tibetan Monastic Education, by Georges Dreyfus