Georges Dreyfus was a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for many years, studying at some of the most important Tibetan monastic institutions in India, including Sera. He eventually became the first Westerner to obtain the degree of geshé lharampa, the highest rank of geshé offered in the Geluk academies. Georges Dreyfus currently teaches at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA.
In the following essays, Dreyfus provides us with a wonderful introduction to the Tibetan monastic educational system, discussing such topics as memorization, commentary, the educational curriculum, the theory and practice of debate, the schedule of monastic educational institutions, and finally the different geshé degrees awarded.1 Dreyfus’s years of experience as a scholastic monk in the Geluk tradition make his account detailed and accurate. At the same time, his first-hand familiarity with the tradition shines through in every section. His work is especially valuable in dispelling many of the myths surrounding life in Tibet’s great monastic academies.
The following essays are excerpted from Georges B. J. Dreyfus, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), reprinted here with the permission of the author and publisher. For Tibetan words that occur solely in phonetic form, we have added the Wylie transliteration.
Most monks… start their careers when they are young (between six and twenty).2 Their first task is to memorize a large number of rituals. Memorization typically proceeds as follows. Every day, the young monk memorizes a fixed and gradually increasing amount of textual material. Usually he starts with a couple of sentences, gradually increasing to one side or both sides of a folio. Some become memory virtuosi, able to memorize five or even ten folios a day.3 In the evening, the student meets with his teacher, who examines him on the material learned that day and gives him a new piece. The teacher recites the piece, making sure that the student knows exactly how to read the passage. This precision in reading is particularly important for mantras.4 Though they are in Sanskrit, they are written in the Tibetan alphabet. Hence, they are difficult to read. The teacher’s reading is quite important: it is considered a form of transmission (lung) and authorizes the student to work on the text. Most Tibetan monks insist on the importance of such transmission (though not all agree). Once the teacher is satisfied, the student is ready for the next day’s memorization.
After rising and doing the usual chores, such as cleaning his room or that of his teacher, the young monk sits down cross-legged on a bed or on a cushion on the ground and performs a few devotional recitations; in particular he invokes Mañjuśrī, the patron bodhisattva of wisdom. This invocation ends with the syllable dhīḥ, the sonic seed of this bodhisattva, which is repeated as many times as possible in a single breath: dhīḥ, dhīḥ, dhīḥ, dhīḥ… Such repetition is thought to increase the intellectual faculties and hence to help one memorize. The young monk then proceeds to memorize the passage given to him the night before. He loudly reads it from his text bit by bit, rocking his body back and forth. He starts with the first word or two of the first sentence or line of a stanza (often but not always the text is written as poetry; the verses of seven, nine, or eleven syllables, grouped in four-line stanzas, are easier to retain than prose), reciting that element until he has mastered it. He then moves on incrementally until he has memorized the whole sentence, which he recites, still in a loud voice, several times. The same process is repeated for subsequent sentences; and after memorizing each, he recites the sentences that he has just memorized. Thus, by the end of the session, the whole passage forms a whole that can be integrated with the passages he has already memorized.
The process of memorization is aural. Without relying on visual mnemonic devices, Tibetan monks memorize their texts by vocalizing them. The only support is a tune to which the words are set. In certain monasteries (such as Namgyel, where monks are expected to memorize an enormous amount of liturgical material), the text is memorized to the same tune to which it is later chanted. In scholastic monasteries or in smaller monasteries, there is no fixed tune. But in both cases, students concentrate entirely on the text’s sonic pattern, ignoring other associations as much as possible.5
If the whole day is devoted to memorization, the session is often finished around noon, just before the young monk has lunch (often with his teacher). The afternoon is taken up in various ways, depending on the wishes of the teacher, the age of the student, the day of the month, the type of institution, and so on. Some teachers are quite strict and closely watch their pupils, who have to spend most of the afternoon reciting what they have memorized. Others allow greater freedom. At the Namgyel monastery in India, monks memorize new material in the morning and recite earlier lessons through the whole afternoon and evening. Rgan Blo bzang rgya mtsho [Dreyfus’s principal teacher at the Dialectic School in Dharamsala, India] had a much easier time: his first teacher was very a kind man who did not keep tight discipline. Genla would spend the afternoon playing with other young monks, unless there was some special event (a full-day liturgical service) or a specific task to be done.
The evening is spent practicing the texts previously memorized. The student starts by reciting that morning’s passage several times, until his recitation is fluent and almost effortless. He then goes back to the parts of the same text learned on preceding days, ending with the passage learned the same day. He may add other texts learned previously. This exercise, which usually takes one or two hours, is essential to ensure that passages once memorized are not forgotten. At first, the passage newly memorized, which could be recited quite fluently in the morning, comes in the evening with difficulty, if at all. It needs to be fixed again in the memory, a task best done just before the student goes to sleep. After a night of sleep, the text starts to take its fixed form, which has to be constantly strengthened until it becomes ingrained—a process that takes many days of repetition. In this way, the student’s hold on previous passages increases, and the new passage is integrated gradually into the memorized text as a whole. It is only when the texts are so well learned that they come to mind automatically that frequent recitation is no longer needed. At that point, reciting them a few times a year can keep them alive in the monk’s memory.
In the evening, the young monk being trained in memorization faces the biggest ordeal of the day: the dreaded exam on that day’s passage. The student enters the teacher’s room and hands over the passage he has been working on. He then sits or squats at the feet of his teacher, who is seated on his bed (the usual position of most Tibetans when they are at home), and repeats the passage by heart. Sometimes the teacher asks him to recite previously learned passages. Any mistake is immediately punished. Some teachers hit their students for any mistake. An error in pronunciation might draw a single stroke, but a failure in memory could lead to a more serious beating. Genla was lucky; his teacher, who was also a relative, was kind toward his students. Others are much less pleasant, and there are even some sadists who brutalize their students. Once the exam is over, the cycle starts again with the transmission of a new passage to be memorized the next day.
This process of memorization is practiced not only by monks and nuns, but also by laity. Most laypeople recite religious texts every day and often memorize the briefer ones, using the same technique described here. The memorization of such texts relies only on sound. A friend of mine reported that when he was a child, his parents made him memorize the maṇḍala offering, a text recited in which one offers a symbolic representation of the to the universe to the deity worshipped or the guru. It describes the objects to be offered: the sun (nyima), the moon (dawa), the precious umbrella (rinpoché duk). My friend, however, understood these to be the names of people and thought the text referred to Mrs. Sun, Moon, and Rinpoché being there (duk).
The centrality of sound in Tibetan monastic life, about which I will have more to say, is obvious to anybody who has stayed in any large Tibetan monastery. As I have stressed, a Tibetan monastery is devoted not to meditation but to rituals and sometimes studies. Far from being an island of peace and quiet like a hermitage, it is filled with activities and almost constant noise. It is, in Anne Klein’s words, “an arena suffused with sound.”6
The day often starts with a chanted ritual service done on behalf of a sponsor. It continues with the cacophony of memorization, as each monk loudly repeats a different passage to his own rhythm and tune. Later on, further ritual services or sessions of debate may be conducted, while the young monks who have not yet finished their preliminary memorization keep reciting their texts at the top of their transmissions. It is only at lunchtime that relative quiet descends on the monastery. After eating, monks relax. Friendly chats take place here and there, but loud discussions are frowned on. There is usually less noise during the first part of the afternoon, when fewer monks memorize and many either read or engage in the different tasks that have been assigned to them. But the noise picks up during the evening, when the main sessions of debate are held. Then the air is filled with the roar from the debating courtyard. When debates end, monks start their recitation sessions, as described above. At this point, hundreds of monks may be reciting as loudly as they can, and the cacophony can reach an almost unimaginable level. Around ten the noise diminishes, and by eleven only scattered recitations can be heard. There are times, however, when some monks decide to spend the whole night reciting. Religious festivals such as the full moon of the fourth Tibetan month, which commemorates the Buddha’s enlightenment as well as his passing away, are often chosen for such exercises. At these auspicious times, the practice of virtue is considered much more effective.
Reading or reciting aloud is considered virtuous for several reasons. Vocalizing a text in a rhythmic pattern helps it penetrate one’s mind, where it starts to take on a life of its own. One finds oneself spontaneously repeating the words. Such absorption of religious texts is thought to have soteriological value. The virtuous nature of recitation is also tied to a view of the world as alive with a number of invisible entities. Traditional Tibetans believe that countless gods and spirits live around us in trees, springs, houses, and rocks. Loud recitation attracts these entities, who are then able to hear the Buddhist teaching (an opportunity usually denied by their birth); hence, it is thought to be a highly meritorious form of giving (jinpa, dāna). Geshé Rabten recalls matter-of-factly,
There was a cemetery not far from our monastery; it was inhabited by many spirits and other non-human forms of life. It is said in the scriptures that if one recites kind words of dharma in the direction of such a place, it benefits these creatures. Thus, moved to be of service to them, at night when I was reciting I would sometimes turn towards this cemetery, and in a loud voice chant some fine verses of dharma.7
Tibetanstherefore view loud recitation as valuable in and of itself. It helps other sentient beings, particularly if it is aesthetically pleasing.8
A small incident illustrates the religious value of recitation and its sometimes unexpected results. During the 1960s, Trijang Rinpoché visited the three monastic seats then located at Buxa in Northeast India. One of the Dalai Lama (tā la’i bla ma)’s tutors, he was an extremely famous teacher and the guru of most of the Geluk monks. Students are supposed to please their guru by offering them their services as well as presents, and the best offering is one’s virtuous practice. What better way to rejoice Rinpoché than a highly virtuous action such as a full-night recitation? Or at least so a young monk thought. Thus, he positioned himself near Rinpoché’s room and proceeded to spend the whole night reciting at full volume all the texts he had ever memorized. Rinpoché’s reaction, alas, was not what he had expected. “Who is the idiot who kept me awake the whole night?” was his reported comment. Most Tibetan monks, however, are much less sensitive to disturbances than was Rinpoché, and they carry on their normal activities, including study or sleep, in the greatest uproar.
Still, one may wonder about the utility of all this noise. Doesn’t it interfere with the learning process, much as the faithful disciple’s loud recitation prevented Trijang Rinpoché’s sleep? The counterintuitive answer is that the noise of monasteries in fact supports and reinforces the learning process – particularly memorization. Monks report that far from being distracted by the sounds of other monks’ memorizations, they find them helpful to their own practice. Learning is not just individual but interpersonal as well. When students hear each other, their energy and focus are reinforced. They are supported by the feeling of participating in a common task and pushed to memorize more than they might on their own. At times, a kind of competition develops in which students try to outlast each other, vying to produce the last tune to be heard.
Memorization is an important element of the disciplinary practices on which Tibetan monasticism rests. It integrates monks into the monastic community by enabling them to take part in the monastery’s collective rituals, which are its central activities. On entering a monastery, the young monk must first memorize its liturgy (chöchö), which is of two types. The exoteric liturgy contains a few short sūtras (such as the Heart Sutra), confessional texts, prayers in the proper sense of the word (mönlam), and devotional practices such as the Seven-limb worship. The esoteric liturgy comprises a large number of tantric texts as well as the texts necessary to propitiate the protectors.
The centrality of these liturgical practices varies from monastery to monastery. In those specializing in liturgical services, such as the Tantric Monasteries and Namgyel, ritual is the main activity. The liturgy of these monasteries includes hundreds of folios whose memorization requires several years of extremely demanding effort. The knowledge of new monks is tested: on a number of occasions they must recite the entire liturgy of the monastery in front of their peers. They are also sometimes examined privately by the higher authorities, who may deliberately disrupt the recitation in order to see how deeply ingrained a monk’s memorization is. A friend from Namgyel recalls that the Dalai Lama suddenly entered the room where he was reciting. Not content with just listening to the recitation, the Dalai Lama proceeded to scratch my friend’s back to test if his memorization was unshakable. Despite the considerable emotion provoked by this gesture, my friend did not lose his concentration and was able to continue to recite flawlessly.
In smaller monasteries like Rgan Blo bzang rgya mtsho’s, the requirements are usually less stringent, and the life of a young monk memorizing the liturgy can be quite pleasant, provided that his teacher is not too harsh. By the age of seventeen (he had started at eleven), Genla had finished the first part of his task. He had memorized the exoteric part of the liturgy, presumably together with the rituals of propitiation. Having finished the bare minimum of memorization, he was ready to go on to the next step: a three-year visit to one of the three monastic seats.
In the monastic universities, liturgy plays a less important role (relatively speaking). Accordingly, in these institutions less time and effort are spent on memorizing liturgical material. Nevertheless, only after mastering this liturgy are monks admitted as full members of the monastery, able to take part in scholastic activities.9 Thus, memorization of liturgical texts is a basic practice of Tibetan monasticism. Unlike scholarly training, which is undertaken only by a small minority through many years of intense dedication, memorization is the province of all the monks. It inculcates in them a sense of discipline central to the monastic enterprise as they follow a daily routine under the supervision of an authority. They start the day with an assignment from their teacher and end it with the teacher’s examination of that same task. This cannot help but greatly strengthen the sense of obedience that young monks develop toward their teachers – a sense particularly reinforced by the ordeals of the daily examination, and the possible punishments associated with it. But memorization’s most important disciplinary role is that it forms monks into efficient members of the ritual community. Rituals can be performed well only when they are properly memorized and recited uniformly by all monks to the same tune and rhythm. This uniformity creates a powerful effect that satisfies performers and supporters alike. The monks can feel confident of the religious power or value of such practices, and sponsors, in turn, feel justified in their support of the monastery.
Memorization is the first step in any traditional Tibetan monastic career, and initially it is practiced almost to the exclusion of other activities. It continues for those monks who wish to pursue higher monastic studies, for the curriculum is structured around the study of a few basic texts committed to memory. Unlike studies at modern institutions, which are organized according to disciplines, scholastic studies are organized around important writings – the great Indian treatises (tenjö, śāstra), the root (tsawa, mūla) texts... It is the study of these texts that constitutes the tradition.
These texts are assimilated through commentaries and debates, which themselves are not memorized. Instead, students memorize the root texts, which are written in short, mnemonic verses. The commentaries and debates are retained not verbatim but in relation to the memorized root text. That text provides a nondiscursive template around which ideas that might otherwise seem disconnected can fall into place, enabling students to organize explanations and objections. The memorization of a root text thus contributes not only to the retention of information but also to the accessibility of the information retained. Psychologists distinguish between free recall, in which subjects attempt to recall as many random items as possible, and the cued recall of items organized by rubrics. Their experiments indicate that cued recall is more effective.10 For the students, the memorization of base texts provides the rubric needed for cued recall, enabling them to recall topics more easily.
Students are also expected to memorize a certain amount of commentarial material. Some memorize entire commentaries, amounting to hundreds or even thousands of pages. These commentaries can provide decisive arguments during a debate. They also supply models for the students, helping them to gradually assimilate the highly technical and precise commentarial and procedures. Nevertheless, learning root texts by heart is much more important, for sharp students are able to reason persuasively without quoting texts. Similarly, they can rely on their own understanding to comment on texts – but only if they have mastered the root text, which provides the structure according to which knowledge is organized and stored.
This educational process reflects the belief that knowledge needs to be immediately accessible rather than merely available.11 That is, scholars must have an active command of the texts that structure the curriculum, not simply the ability to retrieve information from them. Knowing where bits of information are stored is not enough: the texts must inform one’s thinking and become integrated into one’s way of looking at the world. Geshé Rabten emphasizes the importance of an active knowledge based on memorization, which he contrasts with the approach he observed among his Western disciples: “Although it was difficult at first, I, like other monks, gradually became accustomed to it [i.e., recitation], so that both memorization and recitation came with ease. In the Western academic tradition, note-taking plays a vital role, and much of one’s knowledge tends to be confined between the covers of one’s textbooks [or notebooks]. Our corresponding stores of knowledge were held in our mind through memorization.”12 When texts are held in mind, their deeper meaning becomes apparent and the knowledge they convey becomes active and useful. Otherwise, one merely has scattered bits and pieces of information. It is only through memory that these pieces can be combined to provide actual knowledge.
Hence, memorization cannot be divorced from learning. It enables the monks to fully assimilate the content of the texts they study. As William Graham explains, “The very act of learning a text ‘by heart’ internalizes the text in a way that familiarity with even an often-read book does not. Memorization is a particularly intimate appropriation of a text, and the capacity to quote or recite a text from memory is a spiritual resource that is tapped automatically in an act of reflection, worship, prayer or moral deliberations.”13 In the Tibetan scholastic context, as noted above, quotations can supply effective arguments within a debate; commentaries can be particularly useful to corner an adversary and demonstrate the mistakes in his interpretation. It is also significant that some of the memorized texts have spiritual relevance. But by far the most important role of memorization, especially of the root texts, is to provide the organizational structure of the whole curriculum.
The cultivation of memory is central to Tibetan monasticism in general and scholasticism in particular. As Mary Carruthers has argued in a study of medieval Europe, reliance on memory is characteristic of traditional education; modern societies, in contrast, are primarily documentary. Tibetan monks memorize texts in order to internalize their content, not because of their scarcity. Printing has existed for several centuries and although texts were not always abundant, they were far from rare. Hence, memorization is not just the result of material conditions, or the survival of a practice once dictated by such conditions. The medievalist Jean-Claude Schmitt notes, “Nothing is outlived in a culture, everything is lived or not. A belief or a rite is not the combination of residues and of heterogeneous innovations, but experience that has meaning only in its present cohesion.” 14
The philosophico-religious curriculum of Tibetanmonastic scholasticism consists of three textual layers. This commentarial hierarchy makes clear both the constitutive nature of the basic scholastic texts and the mechanics of their appropriation.
The first layer contains the authoritative and canonical foundation provided by the great Indian text (gyazhung) such as the Abhisamayālaṃkāra (Ornament of Realization, henceforth referred to as the Ornament), a commentary on the Perfection of Wisdom literature attributed to Maitreya; Nāgārjuna’s Treatise of the Middle Way; and Candrakīrti’s Introduction to the Middle Way.15 Each supports an entire field of study. Thus the study of the path is organized around the memorization and study of the Ornament, and the study of madhyamaka philosophy of emptiness revolves around either of the latter two works. These treatises are the root texts (tsawa, mūla), written in kārikā (tsikleur jepa)…
Tibetans did not invent the reliance on root texts; it is part of the methodology used by both Hinduism and late Indian Buddhism. In the Hindu traditions, following Patañjali’s grammatical tradition, these aphoristic summaries of a tradition’s scriptural basis are called sūtras. For example, the meaning of the Upaniṣads is summarized by the Brahmasūtra, which is in turn the subject of commentaries. In the late Indian mahāyāna tradition, the term sūtra is reserved for the teachings of the Buddha, and these texts are instead called “treatises” (tenchö, śāstra). They fulfill the same function as their Hindu counterparts: they summarize, systematize, and explain the meaning of the scriptures. Such works are intended to serve as the basis of further oral and written commentary. They would be read in relation to a bhāṣya or a vṛtti (drelwa), a commentary that in turn could be supplemented by a vyākhyā or ṭīkā (drelshé), a more detailed gloss.16 Tibetan curricula are similarly structured. Once the mnemonic verses have been committed to memory, they are studied in the light of further commentaries, which can be of three types: Indian commentaries, Tibetan commentaries, or monastic manuals.
The first type of explanatory text, the Indian commentaries (bhāṣya or vṛtti, drelwa), explicates a root text. For example, in the field of madhyamaka, commentaries on Nāgārjuna’s Treatise include Candrakīrti’s Clear Words; Buddhāpalita’s commentary, which bears his own name; Bhavya’s Lamp of Wisdom; and Śāntarakṣita’s Ornament of the Middle Way,17 all of which are considered important by Tibetanscholars. For studying the Ornament, there is a standard list of twenty-one Indian commentaries. Sometimes, the texts belonging to this second layer are autocommentaries (i.e., commentaries written by the author of the root text), such as Candrakīrti’s own explanation of his Introduction to the Middle Way.
Theoretically, the authority of the Indiancommentaries is extremely important; practically, they are used in Tibetan education relatively rarely by teachers and students. As translations of the Sanskrit rendered in a highly artificial language, they are quite difficult to understand; the majority of Tibetan scholars thus tend to prefer Tibetan commentaries, which authoritatively summarize them. Only extremely advanced scholars see the root texts and their Indian commentaries as the real source of their tradition and the central object of intellectual activity.18
The second layer consists of those Tibetan commentaries (bödrel) that were composed later, often between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Because they provide clear glosses on and explanations of the difficult points in the Indian root texts, they can easily be adopted by a school to define doctrinal positions. Each school has its own central commentaries, which are held to be authoritative. For example, Gelukpas use Tsongkhapa’s texts, particularly his Clarification of the Thought, as their main guide in the field of madhyamaka studies, whereas the Sakyapas focus on Gorampa’s commentary. 19 Nyingmapas rely on Mipam rgya mtsho’s texts, such as his commentaries on Śāntarakṣita’s Ornament of the Middle Way, and on the ninth chapter of Śāntideva’s Introduction to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.20 Kagyüpas have a still different central text, the commentary on Candrakīrti’s Introduction by the Eighth Karma pa Mikyö Dorjé (1504-1557).21
In the third level are found the monastic manual (yikcha), which are used quite extensively... They present easily digestible summaries of the most important points as well as the material for debate. Manuals fall into two broad categories: summaries, a genre called General Meaning (Chidön), and debate manuals, called Decisive Analysis (Takchö). The Collected Topics (Düdra) are a type of debate manual; they are a Geluk specialty, though they are certainly not unknown in other traditions.22
For each topic studied, the procedure is similar. The process starts with the heuristic memorization of the root text and sometimes of its commentaries. It continues with the interpretation of the root text through commentaries, and culminates in dialectical debates. For example, in the case of the Ornament, the first text likely to be examined is Haribhadra’s Clear Meaning,23 which provides a brief explanation of the root text. This explanation, which is authoritative but terse and unclear, is in turn supplemented by Tibetan commentaries (second level). Geluk monastic universities are likely to rely primarily on Gyeltsap’s Ornament of the Essence of Commentaries, which is often complemented by Tsongkhapa’s Golden Garland.24 These two texts explain the Ornament in the light of the other commentaries, particularly the twenty-one Indian commentaries. They also present each topic more systematically. Although these texts are more accessible than Clear Meaning, they are not always easy to understand. Hence, they are in turn supplemented by the monastery’s manuals, which are more comprehensible and better organized, though less authoritative. There, students find the clearest statement about the subject matter.
As students examine each topic, they rely on this chain of commentaries, which offers an increasingly detailed and clear picture of the contents of the root text. Each level of commentary explicates the terser or less systematic texts of the preceding textual level; ultimately, the elaborate explanations provided by the authoritative Tibetan commentaries and the manuals are read back into the root text, which is assumed to implicitly contain them. By assuming identical content of commentary and commented text, scholars can build a commentarial hierarchy of increasing clarity in which more explicit statements are projected back onto the less clear but more authoritative earlier levels. Thus the views of the more explicit texts, which reflect the views of the school or the monastery, are validated and given full authority, thereby establishing the orthodoxy of the tradition.
Such a structure does not prevent critical interpretation of these texts, as the later discussion of debate will show. Scholars do question the validity of particular glosses offered by the manuals of their monastery or by Tibetan commentaries. Such questions are often freely debated. Nevertheless, the commentarial hierarchy is so central to the construction of knowledge in their tradition that few scholars are willing to discard it. Hence, they tend to gravitate toward its interpretations despite any doubts they may have.
Students begin by mastering the techniques and basic concepts necessary to engage in debate. During this period, which usually lasts three years,25 monks are trained in the art of debate as they study the The Collected Topics. They are also introduced to the basic concepts of logic and epistemology that they will use throughout their studies. The texts used are manuals specific to the monastery and contain five parts:
- The Collected Topics (Düdra) proper (in three parts)
- Types of Mind (Lorik)
- Types of Evidence (Tarik)
The first three texts of the The Collected Topics teach monks the debate’s structure, techniques, and terminology. These introductory manuals provide the key to the practice of debate.26 The first chapter introduces the students to debate by focusing on the logical relations between colors and showing how these relations can be used in simple debates. Later chapters introduce more sophisticated topics, including the basic outline of the Buddhist conceptual universe and its main categories, and examine logical relations such as exclusion and inclusion. But not all of the topics are important for later studies; several are mere brainteasers introduced purely to sharpen the reasoning abilities of the students. In fact, the real topic of the three volumes of the The Collected Topics is training in debate.
That training is completed when epistemology and logic are introduced to the students. The lo rigs presents the main concepts used in Buddhist epistemology, a subject of great importance in the Geluk school. From this genre of text, students learn about the nature of knowledge, its types, and its objects. The Types of Evidence delineates the types of reasoning they must use and begins to supply the different logical tools that will be available to them during their studies. For example, students learn how to distinguish probative arguments from statements of consequence...
This propaedeutic phase of the curriculum is often completed by the study of doxography (drupta, siddhānta), which examines Buddhist and non-Buddhist systems of belief. In this way, students acquire a sense of the shape of the tradition as a whole—its main ideas and its most important distinctions. To help them understand the structure of the Buddhistworldview, students have recourse to another genre of text, the Paths and Stages (Salam). In this stage, they also study the Seventy Topics (Dön Dünchu), a summary of the seventy topics covered by the Ornament. Throughout the first part of the curriculum, no in-depth comprehension is expected of the students, who develop their reasoning abilities and learn the basic philosophical vocabulary needed for the rest of their studies. They also acquire a variety of cognitive maps on which they can locate all the ideas that will confront them in the core of the curriculum, the study of the five treatises.
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 Geluk tradition:
- Abhisamayālaṃkāra (Ornament of Realization), attributed to Maitreya
- Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika (Commentary on Valid Cognition)
- 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 Geluk 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 Geluk 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:
- Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma-kośa (Treasury of Abhidharma)
- 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 Lapja). 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 Mongoliangeshé 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 kokgyur, 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 (domtsik) 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 Sera to prepare for my final exams, I studied Vinaya with geshé Lozang Tupten, 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 Geluk 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 Geluk 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 is taken to be ill-suited to these texts.
Similarly, the study of the Abhidharma is based on a pre-Geluk text, the famous Great Chim (Chimchen) or Chimdzö, 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 Drup’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.
Tibetan debates involve two parties: a defender (damchawa), who answers, and a questioner (riklampa). The roles of defender and questioner imply very different commitments, as Daniel Perdue explains: “The defender puts forth assertions for which he is held accountable. The challenger raises qualms to the defender’s assertions and is not subject to reprisal for the questions he raises.”37 The responsibility of the defender is to put forth a true thesis and to defend it. Hence, the defender is accountable for the truth of his assertions. The questioner, on the contrary, is responsible only for the questions he puts forth. His questions must be well-articulated, must logically follow from the points already made, and must be relevant to defeating the defender. Their truth content is irrelevant, however, for his task is not to establish a thesis but to oblige the defender to contradict either previous statements or common sense.
The debate starts with a ritual invocation of Mañjuśrī, the celestial bodhisattva patron of wisdom: dhīḥ ji ltar chos can (pronounced “dhi jitar chöchen”). This invocation can be translated as “dhīḥ [the seed syllable of Mañjuśrī]; in just the way the subject.” Obviously, this statement is rather unclear and hence offers ample scope for various creative interpretations, as is often the case with ritual. Some scholars take the statement to mean “dhīḥ; in just the way [Mañjuśrī investigated] the subject.”38 Others, myself included, read it more simply as “dhīḥ; in just the way the subject [is investigated].” This invocation, however, also plays on the homophonic similarities of the syllable dhīḥ and this (di). Thus, the statement can also be heard as meaning “This is the way the subject is,” a statement that can be taken as having deeper implications (an explanation offered by Lati Rinpoché). The subject, this, then refers to conventional objects and the predicate, is the subject, to the empty way in which they exist.
After this ritual invocation, the questioner proposes the topic of the debate in the form of a question, which seeks to elicit the defender’s thesis. The defender answers, stating his position. The questioner may then immediately begin the debate, or he may first seek auxiliary explanations to clarify the position of his adversary. The point of this crucial preparatory phase (jorwa) is to establish a starting point for the debate, an area of agreement between the two parties. This may be one of the most delicate phases of an argument, especially if the two parties do not belong to the same tradition or monastery.
Such conflictual situations have long existed in the Buddhist tradition. In ancient India, debates pitched orthodox Hindu thinkers against their heterodox opponents (materialist, Jain, Ājīvika, or Buddhist). These debates, which had political ramifications, were often witnessed by the local authorities, and the stakes could be the conversion of one group to the views of the other. In Tibet, a similar debate is supposed to have taken place at the end of the eighth century when Kamalaśīla is said to have defeated the Chinese Chan monk Mo He Yan, thereby establishing the primacy of the Indian tradition.39 More recently, the young Khedrup is said to have debated and, according to Geluk accounts, defeated Rongtön. Nowadays, such confrontations between scholars from different traditions are rare; they have been replaced among Gelukpas by debates between monasteries. Most debates take place within a single monastery, where the agreement between parties is easier to establish. Even then, however, fashioning that agreement is crucial and requires great skill. The questioner must dissimulate his real point and the defender must try to guess where his opponent wants to lead him.
Once the two parties believe that they agree on the understanding of the terms of the debate, the main part (ngözhi) can unfold through questions and answers.40 The questions are meant to draw out the consequences of the defender’s statements in order to oblige him to contradict himself or to take a blatantly absurd position. To succeed, the questioner must be able to take apart his opponent’s statements to draw out unwanted consequences. His opponent, the defender, must for his part attempt to block these contradictions by making further distinctions. In doing so, he must give one of the three allowable answers:41
- I accept (dö).
- The reason is not established (ta madrup).
- There is no pervasion (khyappa majung).
These three answers derive from the link (or lack thereof) of the reason with the subject and the pseudo-predicate. The defender can say “I accept,” if he thinks that the consequence supports his position. Or he can say “the reason is not established,” when the reason does not correspond to the subject. For example, the consequence “It follows that all dogs are intelligent because they are primates” is faulty because dogs are not primates. Hence, the reason is not established. Or he can say “there is no pervasion” when the reason does not entail the pseudo-predicate as in the consequence “It follows that all dogs are primates because they are mammals.” In such a consequence, the reason is established but does not entail the pseudo-predicate. Or, to put it more literally, there is no pervasion.
As Sapen noticed, these three answers differ from the Indian model. Most clearly a Tibetan invention is the third answer (there is no pervasion), which does not exist in Dharmakīrti’s debating tradition. There, defenders must make explicit whether the reason is contrary (gelwa) or just uncertain (mangepa), that is, inconclusive. Thus defenders have four answers to choose from and need to make their response more specific.42 This difference illustrates the originality of Tibetan practices, which go beyond imitating Indian models in responding to the Tibetan context. Moreover, the failure of non-Geluk institutions to follow Sapen’s recommendations regarding these answers shows again the domination of the Sangpu tradition of debate throughout the Tibetan world.
One of the three allowable answers must be given to all well-formed consequences. In order to be well-formed (like the examples above), a statement should contain three terms: a subject, a pseudo-predicate, and a reason. It should also avoid ambiguity. For example, if the questioner asks whether humans have male or female sexual organs, the defender will not be able to answer without disambiguating the subject (human). At that point, the defender must state his objection. In addition, consequences should not lead defenders into paradoxes (so judged by the rules of conversation). For example, consider the following question: “Did you bring back the computer you stole?” Such a statement cannot be answered straightforwardly without implying an admission of guilt. In all these cases, the defender should point to such a faulty formulation by saying, “the subject is faulty” (chöchen kyönchen). But absent such faults, the defender has no choice. The ability to give one of the three allowable answers while making meaningful statements is a sign of a good defender. In difficult situations, defenders often try to muddle the situation and break the flow of consequences by saying, “What I really mean is. . .” These explanations are not accepted and reflect poorly on the defender. The questioner may reply, “No need to say much; just give one of the three answers.” Or he may mock the defender, pretending that his adversary is a great teacher about to give a sermon. In most cases, defenders are brought back, more or less gently, to the three answers.
Another element in debate is that defenders must answer quickly. Whenever a defender delays his answer, the questioner urges him on with rhythmic triple handclaps punctuated by the words “chir, chir, chir” (i.e., chi chir, “why”). If this is a formal debate, the audience joins in, thus increasing the pressure on the defender. If the defender still does not answer, the questioner and the audience may start to tease him: “Are you here or are you absorbed in meditation?” If still nothing is forthcoming, the questioner either provides the required information himself or recasts his point in a simpler form. In this way, the debate is made so clear that the defender must answer. If he still cannot, a member of the audience is likely to step in and answer in his place. Such an outcome is humiliating for the defender, a sign that he is not up to the task.
It is in this framework that the debate unfolds strategically. The questioner tries to force his opponent either to contradict himself or to contradict common sense. To do so, he must be able to break down complex arguments into simple elements that can be expressed in a chain of well-formed consequences that follow each other logically. He must also keep track of the position of his adversary and where he wants to take him. The defender must figure out the questioner’s strategy and thwart his efforts, using only the three answers.
Let us take the example of a debate about the definition of impermanence, which is “that which is momentary.”43 The debate starts by delineating the agreement between both parties. The questioner may ask for further clarification, with such questions as “What does moment mean in this definition?” “Does it refer to a brief moment or to a longer one?” The defender may answer that the moment implied by momentary is brief. The questioner then proceeds to draw consequences, thinking that he has enough to go on. He may start, “It follows that things last only for a short moment since they are momentary.” This statement is framed to embody the defender’s answer concerning the meaning of momentariness and is considered the root consequence (tsawé telgyur), which derives from the root thesis (tsawé damcha) that the defender must be made to contradict.
The questioner proceeds by drawing out unwanted consequences intended to force the defender to give the no-pervasion answer that contradicts his explanation of the meaning of momentariness. For if the meaning of momentariness is to last only for a short moment, then being momentary must entail lasting for a short moment. To deny this and hold that there is no pervasion is thus tantamount to directly contradicting the thesis. Presented with the root consequence that embodies his view of the meaning of momentariness, the defender must try to thwart the questioner’s attempts by choosing the answer that he can defend and does not contradict his earlier point. In this example, he has one obvious choice: to assent to the consequence. The other possibility, the rejection of the reason as being not established, is less defensible, since it contradicts the fundamental Buddhist view that all things are momentary. And, as noted, saying that there is no pervasion would contradict his thesis concerning the meaning of momentariness. Hence, he will assent to the question, thereby agreeing with a classical interpretation of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. The questioner’s task is then to oblige the defender to back off from his acceptance of the root statement, forcing him to make the no-pervasion answer that contradicts his main thesis. To do so, the questioner will draw unwanted consequences from the defender’s position, pushing him to make counterintuitive statements until he reaches the point of absurdity. For example, the questioner will point to a mountain and state: “It follows that this mountain also lasts for a short moment since it is momentary.” If the defender still agrees, the questioner may point to the fact that it cannot exist just for a short moment since the mountain has been there for millions of years. He may also try to oblige his opponent to agree with blatantly counterintuitive statements. For example, he can ask: “Have you never seen any object lasting more than a moment? Have you never seen any object older than a moment? Have you never seen any person older than a moment?”44
Obliging the defender to make ridiculous statements is one of the ways for the questioner to gain the upper hand, forcing a reductio ad absurdum that can be seen as tantamount to a defeat of the defender. But although this way of ending the debate can be quite fun, it is not favored, for it is difficult to distinguish a blatant absurdity from an apparently counterintuitive but valid point. Hence, debaters prefer to end with their opponents’ self-contradiction. In our example, the defender may try to back away from the counterintuitive consequences that the questioner has drawn. He may agree that there are objects older than a moment. At this point, the questioner must take the defender back to his root statement and oblige him to contradict himself. He may state: “It follows that the mountain lasts for more than one moment, since it is older than a moment.” The questioner will try to resist; for example, he might attempt to make distinctions between “being older than” and “lasting for more than.” The defender must then try to block these attempts. If he succeeds, he will be able to take the defender back to his root statement, which he will restate: “It follows that things last only for a short moment since they are momentary.” At that point, the defender has an unenviable choice between two answers: reason not established and no-pervasion. The former implies the rejection of the fundamental Buddhistview that things are momentary. If he chooses this answer, a whole new debate starts. The questioner may try a rhetorical jab: “I thought you were a Buddhist!” But such a move can also backfire. The defender can turn the tables on the questioner, taunting him to establish this fundamental tenet: “I know what great masters such as Dharmakīrti would say. But let us see what you can do!” The questioner will then have to mount a new attack to oblige the defender to retract his rejection of this Buddhist tenet. If the questioner succeeds, the defender will have no other choice than to give the answer that here dooms him: “There is no pervasion.” This is the moment of triumph for the questioner, who will express his victory by saying: “the root thesis is finished (tsawé damcha tsar)” or, more briefly, “oh, it’s finished (o tsar)”.45
This is the end of this debate, with the clear victory of the questioner. This victory is due to a direct contradiction between two statements and hence is easily detectable. Such clarity of outcome may explain why there is no formal role for a witness in Tibetan debates. Unlike Indian debates, which proceeded according to formal argumentative criteria on which a witness could adjudicate, Tibetan debates proceed through consequences aimed at exposing direct contradictions in the views of the defender. Detecting such contradictions does not require any special skills and hence the presence of a witness is not necessary.
Not all debates end in a defeat for the defender. Sometimes the questioner is unable to force the defender into contradicting himself and the debate ends in a stalemate. At other times, the defender gives an answer that establishes his view as being well-founded. In our example, the defender may succeed in maintaining that not all things are impermanent and hence escape contradicting himself. He might end his successful defense with a little rhetorical dig, marking his understanding that he has contradicted a basic Buddhist tenet for the sake of argument: “Fortunately, Dharmakīrti was smarter than you. If all Buddhists were like you, we would have long ago ceased to be Buddhist!” This is a clear victory for the defender, especially if he succeeds in making some good points in the process. Sometimes the debate ends abruptly when the questioner’s debate breaks down (taksel ché) and he is left without anything to say. When this happens in an individual debate, the embarrassment is minimal. But in a formal debate (damcha) the experience can be quite humiliating. The questioner may be left standing speechless in the midst of a large audience for a couple of extraordinarily painful minutes, until the abbot or the disciplinarian rescues him by bringing the debate to a merciful end. The defender may then make matters worse with a few unpleasant comments—for example, “You used to brag so much! Where is your debate now?” Most questioners manage to assert, often stammeringly, a few random consequences. However, it is clear to everyone that their debate has broken down and that they are just trying to avoid humiliation.
In the cases of such a victory or of a stalemate, there are no formal criteria according to which the debate can be adjudicated. For example, if the defender is ridiculed, there are no formal ways to determine what is ridiculous and what is not. The same is also true when the questioner’s debate simply fades away. In these cases, the outcome cannot be determined formally and hence there is little role for a witness. The outcome is left to the often conflicting opinions of participants and listeners. It is only in the case of a direct contradiction on the defender’s part that the outcome can be formally decided, a remarkable feature of Tibetan debates.
One of the striking features of Tibetan debates is that they are quite physical. They are marked by emphatic gestures, such as the clapping used by the questioner to punctuate each question . The questioner holds his right hand above his right shoulder—a little over the head—and stretches his left hand forward, its palm turned upward. Then he strikes the palm of the left hand with the palm of his right and immediately crosses his arms before starting the movement all over again for the next question. These gestures are thought to have great symbolic value.46 The putting forward of the left hand symbolizes closing the doors of the lower states of rebirth. The coming together of the two hands symbolizes the union of the two aspects of the path, wisdom and method (i.e., compassionate actions). Drawing back the right hand marks one’s wish to liberate all sentient beings. Debaters are rarely aware of such symbolic meanings, however. For them, the gestures function primarily to stage debates, bringing them a clarity and a decisiveness that can help mobilize the intellectual capacities of the debaters and capture the attention of the audience.
There are also gestures used at more particular occasions. For example, when a respondent gives an answer that the questioner holds to be false, the latter must circle his opponent’s head three times with his right hand while screaming in a loud and shrill voice, “These are the three circles” (di khor sum).47 In more formal settings, the whole crowd joins in with the questioner, thus subjecting the respondent to further psychological pressure. During geshé exams, when the respondent wears a hat to mark the solemnity of the occasion, the questioner can grab his opponent’s hat and circle the latter’s head with it three times to emphasize the mistake.48
Debate also involves prescribed modes of behavior. The debate starts, as I mentioned earlier, with a ritual invocation of Mañjuśrī (dhi jitar chöchen) in a loud and high-pitched tone. The debater then puts his questions in a very low voice barely audible to the audience. During this initial phase, he also wears his upper robe (zen) in the usual way (covering the left shoulder and leaving the right bare). His gestures are contained and he often bends forward toward the defender, as a sign of humility and respect. For the parties to successfully engage with differing points of view, they must respect each other. But these gestures are also elements in the skillful strategy that debate requires. A good debater does not show his hand and does not raise expectations. Hence, he should start in a low key, masking his intentions and inducing a false sense of security in his adversary. It is only when the victim is trapped that he reveals his plan and ups the intensity. Then the initial show of respect takes on a retrospective irony, as is appropriate to this ludic and agonistic enterprise. When the questioner feels that the basis for the debate has been laid down and that he has enough material to demonstrate his opponent’s mistake, he wraps his upper robe around his waist, a sign of his understanding and control. Instead of bending forward, he stands tall and makes broad and forceful gestures, clapping his hands loudly to stress the power and decisiveness of his arguments. At that point, any pretense to humility is gone, replaced with self-assurance and self-confidence.
This decisiveness also involves some aggression. In its milder manifestations, it takes the form of loud clapping and vigorous verbal exchanges. Sometimes, however, things escalate and one party may start to taunt the other: “Come on, answer; you think you know so much, don’t you?” Things can get even more heated, and ridicule may follow. A skilled rhetorician can be devastatingly effective in a large public gathering, hurling a clever name that may stick to a person for the rest of his life. It is hard not to fall apart when one is ridiculed in front of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of scholars and students. Shoving matches are also common, when several people attempt to put their questions to the defender. Noisy demonstrations of victory and sarcasm to humiliate one’s opponents are often observed, particularly when the questioner has obliged the defender to contradict his basic point and expresses his victory by saying, “The root thesis is finished.” While saying this, he slaps his hand in a particular way. Instead of hitting one palm against the other, as in the usual accompaniment to every statement, he hits the back of the right hand against the left palm to signify that the defender has contradicted himself. In this psychologically intense moment, the questioner expresses his glee at crushing his adversary. Some take a sadistic pleasure in repeating “The root thesis is finished” several times, with sweeping gestures and humiliating comments. Stein describes a particularly colorful and graphic expression of victory: “The winner of the debate is borne in triumph on his colleagues’ shoulders, sometimes, it seems, humiliating the loser (in Sikkim, the loser has been known to get on all fours, with the winner riding on his back and spurring him on with his heels).”49 I have heard but never observed that on extremely rare occasions, respondents completely fall apart, disintegrating under the onslaught and sobbing out of control. At other times, people get really angry or vicious, creating enmity that can last a lifetime and poison the atmosphere around them. There are even reports of monks coming to blows.
How can Buddhist monks, who are supposed to be peaceful and detached, behave like this? Don’t such actions show that the soteriological claims of the tradition are merely pretense? As the earlier discussion of commentary has already shown, answering such questions is not a simple matter. The relation between soteriology and intellectual activities is complex and fraught with tension—but it is clearly not oppositional. Hence, explanations such as Sierskma’s thesis of “a conflict between Tibetan tradition and Buddhist religion” will not do.50
The Tibetan tradition is quite aware of the dangers of debate but sees them as counterbalanced by its benefits. Because debates are intensely physical, participants can give vent to considerable energy. Their exertions are heightened further by the performance involved in the debate, the theatrics of the respondent’s emphatic gestures (some people are very good at making fun of their opponents by their gestures), and occasional pokes and sharp words. Such performances enable debates to be appreciated by laypeople and uninformed monks, who take delight in the spectacle, despite their inability to follow the verbal parrying. Debaters make outrageous comments or look angry while debating, with the understanding that they are putting on a good show. As Sierskma’s informant explains, “We look angry when we are debating, but we are not angry. It is our custom. When one is only a beginner, one thinks that the snga-rgol (the questioners) are very, very angry and one is very, very ashamed. But when one has become a debater oneself, one knows that they are not angry and that it is a custom.”51 This performative aspect leads to intense emotional involvement—mere intellect is not powerful enough. As one scholar commented, the questions that debates deal with are so technical that it is not always possible to feel excited about their content alone. A little staging is helpful in producing enthusiasm and allowing participants to mobilize intellectual resources that otherwise would not be available. This intense physical and emotional involvement explains why Tibetan scholars love debate so much. They become excited when they talk about it and miss it once their training is finished. Older scholars often advise students to savor their times as debaters: “This is the best time in the life of a scholar. After this, all fades in comparison.”
Yet such intensity also can be dangerous. There are clear cases of monks using debate for the sole purpose of settling old scores or advancing their own ambitions. In twelve years of practicing debates, I have sometimes seen abuses committed. I have seen people attempting to wound and humiliate their adversaries or becoming genuinely angry. These cases are rare, however, and most debates reflect an honest interest in intellectual exchange.52 I have never seen blows exchanged or witnessed any of the other outrageous behaviors reported in the literature.53 But I have often heard teachers deploring these excesses and urging their students not to forget the real purpose of the exercise. The teachers also regretted the monks’ tendency to be too invested in immediate results. “Take the whole thing as an exercise, be open to being shown wrong, and you will learn,” was their unanimous advice. Although that advice was not always strictly followed, the overall tone of the debates showed that the attitude it reflected was dominant. As one of my teachers marveled, “Isn’t it great to have all these people displaying such engagement and even aggression within such a peaceful atmosphere? Isn’t this what the practice of Buddhism is all about?” I am not sure what to make of this last comment, for his description also captures the essence of good sporting competitions. But it does convey the overall atmosphere of debates, which are veritable intellectual sports.
The vigorous cultivation of a sharp mind also has other risks, such as encouraging pride and an inability to use the teaching for anything but self-aggrandizement. Mindful of these dangers, teachers often admonish their students to check and correct their motivations.54 Nevertheless, they are generally confident that the final result of this practice, the knowledge and insight developed by many students, will offset whatever real dangers and temptations accompany it. The teachers see no reason why something that is intellectually useful cannot be fun. One of their great accomplishments is to give life to a demanding intellectual inquiry into highly technical topics. Debate is for them “a mental sport [that] has the advantage of being most useful and delightful.”55 The enthusiastic responses of those, myself included, who have been privileged to have sufficient exposure to this discipline to understand it seem to support their confidence and testify to their pedagogical successes.
From this brief and necessarily simplified discussion, we can draw several conclusions. First, the character of debate is clearly dialogical. The course of this exchange between two parties is not determined in advance, for it depends on the choices of the participants. Second, debate is a game that is oriented toward winning an argument. The goal of the questioner is to draw the defender into contradicting either himself or common sense. Similarly, the goal of the defender is to ward off unwanted consequences, thereby escaping the questioner’s line of argument. Third, like other games, debate is intensely strategic. Each party must try to take his adversary along, either by the power of the arguments used or by lawful tricks. Good debaters keep in mind their target, remembering the starting point and the intermediary arguments. Fourth, debate is complex and instructive. Because it involves making and remembering many choices and distinctions, it requires intense concentration. It is also intellectually challenging, demanding clarity of mind and strong analytical skills. Participants and audience often learn something new from the debate. One of the marks of a good defender is his ability to provide insights into his topic without compromising the strength of his positions. Fifth, debate is performative and fun, because the discussion is enlivened by physical gestures, the intensity and rhetorical skills of the participants, and the influence of the audience. A good debate is akin to a theatrical event. It is full of surprises, with either party apt to outdo the other and escape from seemingly hopeless situations by making new and more subtle distinctions. It is indeed a thrilling intellectual sport, highly appreciated by students, established scholars, and even laypeople. And finally, a Tibetan debate is (at least ideally) impressive for its orderliness and clarity. questioner and defender have clear roles, and the alternation of questions and answers is easy to follow. This clarity is greatly enhanced by the very strict rules that a debate must follow. For, like any other game, debate follows rules that determine its nature. These rules limit rather narrowly the participants’ moves and provide standards for appraising arguments. They also impose order, enabling debate to avoid the confusion that often mars ordinary arguments. But this clarity has its limits, for the practice of debate cannot be fully captured by any formula.
The importance of debate in the Geluk tradition should by now be quite clear. Our investigation is far from complete, however, for we have yet to examine its practical modalities—the schedule that structures such a practice and the ways it was organized. In discussing the schedule of the three Geluk seats [Ganden, Sera and Drepung, JIC], we need to recognize the differences between premodern Tibet and exile. The fundamental distinction drawn in Tibet between debate sessions (chötok) and debate breaks (chötsam) is less marked in exile. In Tibet, there were eight debate sessions in the year, which alternated with eight breaks.56 During the sessions, students debated; during the breaks, they memorized and studied commentaries with their teachers. Five sessions would last one month, and three a fortnight, while seven of the eight breaks lasted from five to fifteen days; the great debate break during summer retreat lasted a month and a half. The rest of the time was apportioned to a variety of celebrations, such as the New Year and the Great Prayer festival. Each of the debate sessions had prescribed topics that students had to cover.57
An exact pre-1959 schedule is hard to reconstruct, for few Tibetan monks then had watches. Hence, accounts tend to be vague. Moreover, the precise times of activities may have also been influenced by various circumstances (the season, festivities, etc.). Nevertheless, Geshé Rabten offers the following schedule for debate sessions in the Jé monastery of Sera:58
|17:00-19:00||Evening prayer and short debate|
Though the schedule in other monasteries was probably slightly different, its rhythm was similar, as debate alternated with ritual. Monks would start the day with the morning prayer in the great assembly hall (tsokchen) of the monastic seat (here Sera), where they would pray and receive tea (hence the name of this prayer, mangja: i.e., “common tea”). Rich sponsors might provide food and money. After that, they alternated debates and more prayer sessions. At noon, they would go to the assembly hall of the monastery (here Jé). There they were given tea—and perhaps food and money, if the donor was generous. If there was a sponsor, an assembly would be held in the evening. Otherwise, monks had to provide for their own evening tea and food (if they ate).59 After the evening assembly, the evening prayer took place. This ritual usually lasted at least two hours, as long as or even longer than the evening debates. The night then went on with debate, classes, and recitations.60
The practical organization of debate in exile has undergone changes, though its overall structure has remained the same. Debate is still carried on in the courtyard, where monks confront each other in two ways:
In the individual debate (tsöda; lit., “debate with a partner”), monks pair with each other, one standing and playing the role of the questioner, and the other sitting down and playing the role of the defender. Before ending the encounter, they may switch roles. If the debate goes well, it can last for a while and attract other monks who have finished their individual debates. As the debate continues (sometimes for hours), the surrounding circle grows. Some observers may jump in on one side or the other. This is a time of high excitement for the debating pair who find themselves enveloped by tens and sometimes hundreds of monks listening attentively.
In the formal debate (damcha; lit., “defense”), the entire group focuses on a single debate. One or two students sit as defenders while the others sit in rows facing the empty space in front of the answerer(s). A student stands, moves into this empty space, and starts the debate, knowing that the whole group will support him. If he gets stuck, those in the audience can jump in and help him. Thus, in a formal debate, all who are present can question one or two defenders, who must stand alone. As we will see, this exercise is quite difficult when a large crowd is involved, as during the geshé exam. On such occasions, the candidate’s ability as a defender is tested to its limit.
Monks move through such practices in an organized and systematic fashion. They follow a prescribed curriculum in a set order, the studies being organized by classes, or cohorts. When a student starts his studies, he enters into a class of students, who study a set number of topics per year. They start together with the Collected Topics and move on to the study of the five texts, each topic being studied at the prescribed time by all the members of the class. Each year, the class moves ahead with all of its members. In Sera Jé, there are fifteen classes:
|Classes 1-3||Collected Topics (beginning, intermediate, and advanced; i.e., düchung, düdring, and düchen)|
|Classes 4-8||The Ornament61|
|Classes 9-10||Madhyamaka (beginning and advanced)|
|Classes 11-12||Vinaya (beginning and advanced)|
|Class 14||Karam (review of both Vinaya and Abhidharma)|
|Class 15||Lharam (review of the whole curriculum in preparation for the geshé exam)|
Each class chooses a reciting leader (kyorpön), who is responsible for organizing collective debates and memorizing the prescribed texts at ritual occasions.62 This reciting leader also ensures that students debate the designated subject at the proper time. Because students of the same class debate with each other every day, they spend a great deal of time with members of their cohort. For example, every day of the debate session (discussed above), monks debate collectively with their classmates, as each class engages in one formal debate. Larger collective debates involving the whole monastery or even the whole seat are done only on formal occasions, usually at examination time. When students debate individually, often young monks will seek older students to test their skills. It is considered poor form for a senior to refuse to answer a younger monk.
A given class does not share the same teacher, for each student may choose his own. This diversity is a good thing for the class, as different teachers express conflicting views, which give rise to further debate. It also drives home the point that the teachers’ opinions cannot be taken as authoritative. In a debate, saying “This is so because my teacher said so” is considered tantamount to admitting that one lacks any ability to think for oneself. Reasonings or texts, not people, are held to be definitive.
Tibetan scholars permit the quotation of texts in debate, if a questioner is unable to make his point purely on the strength of his arguments. He may say, for instance, that compassion is the loving attitude that wishes sentient beings to be free from suffering because this is stated by such-and-such an authoritative thinker (usually the author of the manual of the monastery, or Tsongkhapa and his disciples). Such an argument is allowed and used quite frequently in debates, even though it blatantly violates a basic rule of Buddhist logic: a citation cannot be used to prove a fact that can be established otherwise…
Although Tibetan scholars accept the use of quotes in debate on all topics, they disagree on the value of such a move. This disagreement parallels their different understandings of the role of debate. Some scholars see debate mostly as a pedagogical tool useful for internalizing the content of the great texts. For them, the use of a quote is perfectly legitimate in that it helps students commit the tradition to memory. Others see debate as a means of intellectual inquiry in its own right. Hence, they prefer an argument to a quote, as the use of the quote reveals the weakness of the debater’s position. Moreover, using a quote in a debate is not as strong a move as one may think, for it is often possible for the defender to interpret away the quote by providing a convenient gloss.
In pre-1959 Tibet, scholastic studies were optional and reserved for those who were really committed.63 Beginners could expect to start with several hundred students in their cohort. By the end, ten or fifteen would be left. Every year, many students would leave, either going back to their native province or settling for the more leisurely life of a nonscholar monk. On the other hand, monks who were interested in studying could expect to be able to continue if they were reasonably diligent—particularly since most examinations precluded the possibility of failure. A student might never reach a given examination, but once he did he was assured of a positive outcome, regardless of his performance.
There was no system of yearly examinations and the assessment of knowledge was not very effective. Students would be promoted regardless of their scholarly progress. Only at certain crucial junctures would they be examined. These examinations differed among the monasteries, according to the customs of each institution. The student’s first examination demonstrated that his memorization of his monastery’s prescribed ritual texts had qualified him to start his scholastic study. The next trial came several years later, at the end of the studies of the Collected Topics, when he would sit in a formal debate in front of his regional house. But as was often the case in examinations, there was no question of failing. Not every student would be examined; and when a candidate did poorly, more seasoned scholars would answer for him, suggesting that the main point was not to demonstrate possession of knowledge but to signify a ritual passage from one stage of study to the next.
When the student was well into the study of the Ornament, he would again be examined in ways that varied among different monasteries. At Sera Jé, for instance, students were tested on their memorization and examined through debates while studying the Ornament in the second class devoted to this text.64 The better students would then be given the opportunity to take part in a special ceremonial debate in front of the whole monastery called the small reasoning (rikchung). During this debate, for which they prepared with great care, students would be paired, one debating and the other answering. The debate was preceded by preliminary examinations in the form of formal debates in the different regional houses. Other monasteries, including Gomang and Loselling, emphasized the Small Reasoning less and debate between classes more. The main exam concerning the Ornament would consist of debates between the classes studying this text. On this formal occasion, the debate would be started by the recitation leader, who oversaw the whole procedure. But here again, not every student was examined. Many would sit through these proceedings without saying very much, leaving the task of dealing with the other class to their more active colleagues.65
In exile, the trend has been toward a more rationalized system in which the progress of individuals can be more tightly monitored. Unlike in premodern Tibet, where even in the great monastic seats only a minority of monks would study, in exile most now study. Accordingly, students are tested yearly on their memorization and their debates. A written examination, which is taking on increasing importance, has also been instituted. Students can be and are failed, although that outcome is still relatively rare. A similar system also exists at the Buddhist School of Dialectics and other smaller institutions, where students are examined on a regular basis. Even Tibetan monks find it difficult to escape the iron cage of modernity!
Examinations concern not only the passage from one class to another but also the conclusion of the studies, the examinations for the title of geshé.
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 geshé (pronounced “ge-shay”; i.e., gewé shenyen, 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 Geluk tradition, its use was once widespread. Many of the most saintly figures of the Kadam traditions were described as geshé. Yet geshé 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 Repa’s biography is Geshé Tsakpupa, who attempted to poison Mila out of jealousy.67
In the Geluk 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 Loselling monastery of Drepung, for example, there are four types of geshé:
- Doram (“scholar [examined on the monastery’s] stone [platform]”)
- Lingsé (or sep, “[scholar examined by] mixing of communities”)
- Tsokram (“scholar of the assembly”)
- Lharam (“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, Loselling).69 Candidates to the third, tsokram, are examined by the assembly of both monasteries (here Loselling and Gomang). 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 geshé are mostly given to less-accomplished scholars. And even the lharam 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 geshé) is the sure sign less of a brilliant mind than of scholarly perseverance.
The process of becoming a geshé also involves the offering of a feast (tonggo) 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 lamas 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 geshé, 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 Rinpoché 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 lharam title is granted by the abbot of each monastery. The procedure of the Jé monastery of Sera is typical. Students who have completed the curriculum in the Abhidharma class71 enter the karam class where they are to review both Abhidharma and Vinaya. The abbot then selects those who will go on to the lharam class to review all five treatises, with special emphasis on Vinaya and Abhidharma. In an institution such as Sera, 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 Lhasa, monks were not even allowed to cross paths with the abbot. Khyongla recounts that once he was in a street in Lhasa 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 lharam 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 lharam class do not differ from those of the other classes.
In Tibet, candidates for the lharam title had to undergo a rigorous process that involved three steps.74 First, they had to pass a preliminary exam (gyuktrö) at the Norbu Lingga, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace. There, the candidates were examined in front of the Dalai Lama’s spiritual assistant (tsenzhap) 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 lharam rank.
In India, access to the lharam 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 lharam candidates would take a series of written examinations over seven years, administered by the Geluk 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 damcha), 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 lharam 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 Jé. The abbot, Geshé Lozang Tupten 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 damcha). 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 Tsongkhapa in 1409, a key event in the life of the Geluk 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 Lhasa to attend this festival.
In Tibet, the great festival took place in the Central Temple (Jokhang) in Lhasa. This temple has long been the spiritual center of the Tibetan world. It contains the most venerated statue in Tibet – the Jowo, an Indian statue, which was brought to Tibet by the Chinese wife of Emperor Songtsen Gampo. 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 lharam 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 geshés 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 Geluk 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 khyenpa), 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 geshé 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, geshés 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.
Note: The glossary is organized into sections according to the main language of each entry. The first section contains Tibetan words organized in Tibetan alphabetical order. To jump to the entries that begin with a particular Tibetan root letter, click on that letter below. Columns of information for all entries are listed in this order: THL Extended Wylie transliteration of the term, THL Phonetic rendering of the term, the English translation, the Sanskrit equivalent, the Chinese equivalent, associated dates, and the type of term. To view the glossary sorted by any one of these rubrics, click on the corresponding label (such as “Phonetics”) at the top of its column.
|kun khyen tsho na ba||Künkhyen Tsonawa||Author|
|krun go’i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang||Trüngö Bökyi Sherik Petrünkhang||Publisher|
|bka’ brgyud pa||Kagyüpa||Organization|
|bkra shis ljongs||Trashijong||Monastery|
|skyor dpon||kyorpön||reciting leader||Term|
|khyab pa ma byung||khyappa majung||there is no pervasion||Term|
|khri byang rin po che||Trijang Rinpoché||Person|
|mkhan chen ngag dbang chos grags kyi pod chen drug gi ’grel pa phyogs sgrigs||Khenchen Ngawang Chödrakkyi Pöchen Drukgi Drelpa Chokdrik||Text|
|go rams pa||Gorampa||Author|
|grwa tshang gi dam bca’||dratsanggi damcha||monastery’s formal debate||Term|
|gling bsre||lingsé||“[scholar examined by] mixing of communities”||Term|
|dge ’dun grub||Gendün Drup||Author|
|dge ’dun chos ’phel||Gendün Chömpel||Person|
|dge ba’i bshes gnyen||gewé shenyen||Term|
|dge lugs pa||Gelukpa||Organization|
|dge bshes tsag phu pa||Geshé Tsakpupa||Person|
|dge bshes lha rams pa||geshé lharampa||Term|
|dge slong gi bslab bya||Gelonggi Lapja||Training for Bhikshus||Text|
|dgongs pa rab gsal||Gongpa Rapsel||Clarification of the Thought||Text|
|’grel bshad||drelshé||detailed gloss||ṭīkā||Term|
|rgan chos||genchö||[one who practices] the Dharma in old age||Term|
|rgan blo bzang rgya mtsho||Gen Lozang Gyatso||Person|
|rgya gzhung||gyazhung||Indian text||Term|
|rgyal ba thams cad kyi thugs kyi dgongs pa zab mo’i de kho na nyid spyi’i ngag gis ston pa nges don rab gsal||Gyelwa Tamchekyi Tukkyi Gongpa Zapmö Dekhonanyi Chingakgi Tönpa Ngedön Rapsel||Text|
|rgyugs sprod||gyuktrö||preliminary exam||Term|
|ngag dbang chos grags||Ngawang Chödrak||Author|
|dngos gzhi||ngözhi||main part||Term|
|snga rgol||ngagöl||the questioner||Term|
|ci’i phyir||chi chir||why||Term|
|bca’ khrims chen mo||Chatrim Chenmo||Text|
|cha har dge bshes blo bzang tshul khrims||Chahar Geshé Lozang Tsültrim||Author|
|chos grags rgya mtsho||Chödrak Gyatso||1454-1506||Author|
|chos mngon pa mdzod kyi tshig le’ur byas pa’i ’grel pa mngon pa’i rgyan||Chö Ngönpa Dzökyi Tsikleur Jepé Drelpa Ngönpé Gyen||Text|
|chos mngon pa’i mdzod||Chö Ngönpé Dzö||abhidharmakośakārikā||Text|
|chos can skyon can||chöchen kyönchen||the subject is faulty||Term|
|chos thog||chötok||debate session||Term|
|chos mtshams||chötsam||debate break||Term|
|mchims chen||Chimchen||Great Chim||Text|
|mchims ’jam pa’i dbyangs||Chim Jampeyang||ca. fourteenth century||Author|
|mchims ’jam dpal dbyangs||Chim Jampelyang||Author|
|’jang dgung chos||Jang Gungchö||Winter Debate at Jang||Term|
|rje thams cad mkhyen pa tsong kha pa chen po’i rnam thar go sla bar brjod pa bde legs kun kyi byung gnas||Jé Tamché Khyenpa Tsongkhapa Chenpö Namtar Go Lawar Jöpa Delek Künkyi Jungné||Text|
|rnying ma pa||Nyingmapa||Organization|
|rtags ma grub||ta madrup||the reason is not established||Term|
|rtags rigs||Tarik||Types of Evidence||Doxographical Category|
|rtags gsal dkrub ma||taksel trupma||stirred up debate||Term|
|rtags bsal chad||taksel ché||breaks down||Term|
|ston chos||Tönchö||Fall Debate Session||Term|
|bstan ’gyur||Tengyur||Title collection|
|bstan bcos mngon rtogs rgyan ’grel pa dang bcas pa’i rgya cher bshad pa legs bshad gser gyi phreng ba||Tenchö Ngöntok Gyen Drelpa dang Chepé Gyacher Shepa Lekshé Sergyi Trengwa||Text|
|thams cad mkhyen pa||tamché khyenpa||all-knowing one||Term|
|mtha’ gcod||Takchö||Decisive Analysis||Doxographical Category|
|dam bca’||damcha||formal debate||Term|
|dam bca’ ba||damchawa||defender||Term|
|dam pa’i chos ’dul ba mtha’ dag gi snying po’i don legs par bshad rin po che’i phreng ba||Dampé Chö Dülwa Tadakgi Nyingpö Dön Lekpar Shé Rinpoché Trengwa||Text|
|don bdun cu||Dön Dünchu||Seventy Topics||Doxographical Category|
|dhīḥ ji ltar chos can||dhi jitar chöchen||Term|
|’di ’khor gsum||di khor sum||these are the three circles||Term|
|’dul tig nyi ma’i ’od zer legs bshad lung gi rgya mtsho||Dültik Nyimé Wözer Lekshé Lunggi Gyatso||Text|
|’dul bam do rtsa ba’i rnam bshad nyi ma ’od zer legs bshad lung gi rgya mtsho||Dülwa Do Tsawé Namshé Nyima Wözer Lekshé Lunggi Gyatso||Text|
|’dul ba’i mdo rtsa ba||Dülwé Do Tsawa||vinaya-sūtra||Text|
|rdo rje rgyal||Dorjé Gyel||Person|
|rdo rams||doram||“scholar [examined on the monastery’s] stone [platform]”||Term|
|sdom tshig||domtsik||verse condensation||Term|
|bsdus grwa||Düdra||The Collected Topics||Doxographical Category|
|bsdus chung||düchung||beginning collected topics||Term|
|bsdus chen||düchen||advanced collected topics||Term|
|bsdus sgrwa||Düdra||Collected Topics||Text|
|bsdus ’bring||düdring||intermediate collected topics||Term|
|nor bu gling ga||Norbu Lingga||Building|
|rnam bshad snying po rgyan||Namshé Nyingpo Gyen||Text|
|dpyid chos chen mo||Chichö Chenmo||Great Spring Debate Session||Term|
|spyi don||Chidön||General Meaning||Doxographical Category|
|bod ’grel||bödrel||Tibetan commentary||Term|
|byang chub lam rim chen mo dang ’brel ba’i ser byes mkhas||Jangchup Lamrim Chenmo dang Drelwé Serjekhé||Text|
|byang chub sems dpa’i spyod pa la ’jug pa||Jangchup Sempé Chöpala Jukpa||bodhicaryāvatāra||Text|
|byams mchod||Jamchö||Maitreya Prayer||Term|
|bla ti rin po che||Lati Rinpoché||Person|
|blo bzang rgya mtsho||Lozang Gyatso||Person|
|blo bzang thub bstan||Lozang Tupten||Person|
|blo rigs||Lorik||Types of Mind||Doxographical Category|
|blo gsal gling||Loselling||Monastery|
|dbal mang dkon mchog rgyal mtshan||Welmang Könchok Gyeltsen||Person|
|dbu ma rgyan gyi rnam bshad ’jam dbyangs bla ma bgyes pa’i zhal lung||Uma Gyengyi Namshé Jamyang Lama Gyepé Zhellung||Text|
|dbu ma rgyan gyi tshig le’ur byas pa||Uma Gyengyi Tsikleur Jepa||madhyamakālaṃkārakārikā||Text|
|dbu ma rtsa ba’i tshig le’ur byas pa shes rab||Uma Tsawé Tsikleur Jepa Sherap||prajñā-nāma-mūlamadhyamakakārikā||Text|
|dbu ma la ’jug pa||Umala Jukpa||Introduction to the Middle Way||madhyamakāvatāra||Text|
|dbu ma la ’jug pa’i rgya cher bshad pa dgongs pa rab gsal||Umala Jukpé Gyacher Shepa Gongpa Rapsel||Text|
|dbu ma’i rtsa ba’i ’grel pa tshig gsal ba||Umé Tsawé Drelpa Tsik Selwa||mūlamadhyamakavṛttiprasannapadā||Text|
|dbu ma’i rtsa ba’i ’grel pa shes rab sgron ma||Umé Tsawé Drelpa Sherap Drönma||prajñāpradīpamūlamadhyamakavṛtti||Text|
|dbu ma’i rtsa ba’i ’grel pa shes rab buddha pā li ta||Umé Tsawé Drelpa Sherap Buddhapālita||buddhapālitamūlamadhyamakavṛtti||Text|
|dbyar chos chen mo||Yarchö Chenmo||Great Summer Debate Session||Term|
|’bras spungs chos ’byung||Drepung Chöjung||Text|
|sbyor ba||jorwa||preparatory phase||Term|
|ma nges pa||mangepa||uncertain||Term|
|mi bskyod rdo rje||Mikyö Dorjé||1504-1557||Author|
|mi pham rgya mtsho||Mipam Gyatso||Author|
|mi la ras pa||Mila Repa||Person|
|dmangs ja||mangja||common tea||Term|
|smon lam chen mo’i dam bca’||Mönlam Chenmö damcha||formal debate of the Great Prayer||Term|
|tsong kha pa||Tsongkhapa||Author|
|rtsa ba||tsawa||root text||mūla||Term|
|rtsa ba’i thal ’gyur||tsawé telgyur||root consequence||Term|
|rtsa ba’i dam bca’||tsawé damcha||root thesis||Term|
|rtsa ba’i dam bca’ tshar||tsawé damcha tsar||the root thesis is finished||Term|
|rtsod zla||tsöda||debate with a partner||Term|
|tshad ma rnam ’grel gyi tshig le’ur byas pa||Tsema Namdrelgyi Tsikleur Jepa||pramāṇa-vārttika-kārikā||Text|
|tshad ma’i gzhung don ’byed pa’i bsdus grwa rnam par bshad pa rigs lam ’phrul gyi lde mig las rigs lam chung ba rtags rigs kyi skor||Tsemé Zhungdön Jepé Düdra Nampar Shepa Riklam Trülgyi Demiklé Riklam Chungwar Tarikkyi Kor||Text|
|tshig le’ur byed pa||tsikleur jepa||kārikā||Term|
|tsho na pa shes rab bzang po||Tsonapa Sherap Zangpo||Author|
|tshogs chen||tsokchen||great assembly hall||Room|
|tshogs chos||tsokchö||small prayer||Term|
|tshogs gtam chen mo||Tsoktam Chenmo||Reciting of the Constitution||Term|
|tshogs rams||tsokram||“scholar of the assembly”||Term|
|mtshan zhabs||tsenzhap||spiritual assistant||Term|
|mdzod tik thar lam gsal byed||Dzötik Tarlam Seljé||Text|
|’dzam gling rig pa’i dpa’ bo dge ’dun chos phel gyi byung ba brjod pa bden gtam ’na ba’i bcud len||Dzamling Rigpé Pawo Gendün Chömpelgyi Jungwa Jöpa Dentam Nawé Chülen||Text|
|gzhung rnying||zhungnying||advanced text||Term|
|gzhung gsar rnying||zhung sarnying||beginning and advanced treatises||Term|
|zi ling||Ziling||Publication Place|
|zur bkod gsar rnying||zurkö sarnying||beginning and advanced separate topics||Term|
|yongs ’dzin bsdus grwa||Yongdzin Düdra||The Collected Topics of the Tutor||Text|
|rigs chung||rikchung||small reasoning||Term|
|rigs lam ’phrul gyi lde mig||Riklam Trülgyi Demik||Magical Key to the Path of Reasoning||Text|
|rigs lams pa||riklampa||questioner||Term|
|rin po che||rinpoché||Term|
|rin po che gdugs||rinpoché duk||precious umbrella||Term|
|shākya mchog ldan||Shakya Chokden||Person|
|shing slong||shinglong||wood begging||Term|
|shin tu lkog gyur||shintu kokgyur||thoroughly hidden||atyantaparokṣa||Term|
|shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i man ngag gi bstan bcos mngon par rtogs pa’i rgyan zhes bya ba ’grel ba||Sherabkyi Paröltu Chinpé Menngakgi Tenchö Ngönpar Tokpé Gyen Zhejawa Drelwa||abhisamayālaṃkāranāmaprajñāpāramitopadeśaśāstravṛtti||Text|
|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||Sherapkyi Paröltu Chinpé Menngakgi Tenchö Ngönpar Tokpé Gyen Zhejawa Tsikleur Jepa||abhisamayālaṃkāra-nāma-prajñāpāramitopadeśa-śāstra-kārikā||Text|
|shes rab le’u’i tshig don go sla bar rnam par bshad pa nor bu ke ta ka||Sherap Leü Tsikdön Go Lawar Nampar Shepa Norbu Ketaka||Text|
|sa skya pa||Sakyapa||Organization|
|sa lam||Salam||Paths and Stages||Doxographical Category|
|se ra byes||Sera Jé||Monastery|
|se ra smad||Sera Mé||Monastery|
|srong btsan sgam po||Songtsen Gampo||Person|
|gsung ’bum||sung bum||The Collected Works||Textual Group|
|lha rams||lharam||“divine scholar”||Term|
|a mchog dga’ ldan chos ’khor gling||Amchok Ganden Chönkhor Ling||Monastery|
|o’ tshar||o tsar||oh, it’s finished||Term|
|Ornament of Realization||Abhisamayālaṃkāra||Text|
|Treasury of Abhidharma||Abhidharma-kośa||Text|
|Commentary on Valid Cognition||Pramāṇavārttika||Text|
|Sthiramati||ca. fifth century||Person|
|Mo He Yan||Person|
|2.21-2.30||Small Prayer (Tsokchö)|
|3.1-3.30||Break and Great Spring Debate Session (Chichö Chenmo)|
|5.16-6.15||Great Summer Debate Session (Yarchö Chenmo)|
|8.2-9.1||Fall Debate Session (Tönchö)|
|11.16-12.15||Winter Debate at Jang (Jang Dünchö)|
|12.22-12.30||Maitreya Prayer (Jamchö)|
This is only, however, the skeleton in which many other events were integrated. For example, the Great Summer Debate Session at Sera Jé would last from 5.16 to 6.15. During this time, many events took place:
|5.16-17||Formal debates during the period of wood begging (shinglong; i.e., the period during which monks would have been allowed to leave the monastery to beg for wood and other necessities)|
|5.20-21||Examination for geshélingsé|
|5.22-23||Examination for geshérikram|
|5.24||Recitation of the Constitution (Tsoktam Chenmo)|
|5.25||Reading of the Canon in the morning|
|5.30||Special Ritual Day|
|6.15||Special Ritual Day|
|6.16||End of the Summer Session and Beginning of Break|
As one can see, monks kept quite busy! See Byang chub lam rim chen mo dang ’brel ba’i ser byes mkhas
thog mar phar phyin la slob gnyer byed tshul ni lo dang po’i dgun chos la mchod brjod rdzogs nas shing rta’i srol byed tshugs dpyid chos dang po la shing rta’i srol byed rdzogs dpyid chos gnyis pa la skyes bu chung ’bring rdzogs
|8:00-8:45||Morning monastery assembly|
|9:00-11:00||Regional house assembly where at least tea would be provided|
|11:00-13:00||Pause for study in one’s room or with teacher|
|17:00-18:00||Break for study in one’s room or with teacher|
|20:00-23:00||Night debate or recitation for younger monks not yet allowed to debate|