Tibetan Monastic Life in the Past and Present


Although numerous books have been written on the teachings and philosophy of the Buddha, little is known about the manner in which that philosophy is put into practice, that is to say, how Buddhist monks live and work and how the monastic system functions. The Tibetan monastic life, in particular, deserves special attention within a study of the religious life of human history. The entire social, political and cultural history of Tibet and other central Asian countries was greatly influenced by the monasteries. They represent one of human history’s most ambitious and radical social and psychological experiments precisely because they were attempting to achieve, on a massive scale, the creation and perpetuation of a subculture which institutionalized the basic Buddhist principles of non-attachment, material renunciation, celibacy and transcendental wisdom. They secure a spiritual heaven, a means of withdrawing from the temporal world with its sensual values and simultaneously act as an instrument, for bringing Buddhist philosophy and beliefs to that very same temporal world of the lay people. It is the monasteries that preserve the doctrine in the traditionally most acceptable form.

It is well known fact that the survival of Buddhism has always depended upon the health and strength of its monasteries. With the destruction of the monasteries after the thirteenth century, Buddhism ceased to be a distinct form of religious life in north India. Similarly with the destruction of the monasteries of Tibet during the present century, Buddhism has ceased to be a living force in the land.

Monasticism in Buddhism started during lifetime of Lord Buddha in the 5th century B.C. in India, the Buddhist monastery was usually called a vihara, which can also mean school in the monastery. The first large Buddhist monastery within a city seems to have been the Jetavana in a park at Sravasti which is now in the northern part of India. And it is often mentioned as a place where, Buddha stated when he preached. There was, a great emphasis on learning in these monasteries and some of them grew into university stature, with courses on many topics besides the expected expositions on Buddhism. Probably the most famous were the Nalanda and Vikramasila monastic universities which developed and lasted through most of the first millennium and upto the end of the 10th century. Tibetan monasteries originated from them and followed the same pattern of offering all Buddhist education and philosophy in the monastery and vihara. The history of Tibetan monasteries goes back to the 8th century. The first important monastery, Samye, was built under the sponsorship of King Trisong Detsen (AD 742-97) on thr advice of Guru Padhamasambhava, a tantric master from Indian. Santirakshita was appointed as abbot, thereby becoming the head of the first monastic order of Tibet. A monastic curriculum was established and at first as an experiment, six or seven Tibetan youths were admitted as novices. These monasteries attracted a number of Indian saints and scholars, and eventually, many learned scholars and translators of both countries jointly translated thousands of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan. These are today one of the main sources for doing researches on Buddhism and Indian studies.

As Buddhism spread in Tibet many other monasteries were built and a succession of other monastic orders grew around the personality of inspired teachers and saints. A good example of these are the monasteries of Ganden, Drepung and Sera which were founded during the lifetime of Tsong Khapa (A1357-1419), a great reformer and eminent scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. They have preserved their traditions and serve as an important institution for Buddhist studies.

Tibetan Buddhism is often described as a combination of Mahayana and tantrism. However, life in almost all monasteries were regulated over centuries by the ancient monastic rule of the Mula-Saravastivada school favored in central and northwest India. Tibetans of Tibet, the monasteries were re-established in India and Nepal. It has been estimated that between six to eight present of the population of Tibet – were life-long monks and nuns; and large monasteries often resembled towns. For example, Drepung, the largest monastery of Tibet, held roughly 10,000 monks before the cultural revolution of China.

Monastic life in its entirety is ruled by philosophical studies and performance of ceremonies. The four major orders of Tibetan Buddhism also have slightly varying monastic systems. But basically, study and spiritual trainings are deeply rooted in the curriculum of most monasteries. Within a large monastery there are two divisions of monastic teachings. One division is mainly devoted to the tantric studies and practices and performance of rituals and ceremonies. These involve mastering of the five Great treatises in which the enormous corpus of Buddhist scriptures is divided:

1. Pramana, the Buddhist logic and epistemology which includes the studies of many non-Buddhist thoughts

2. Prajnaparmitas which include voluminous texts of Bodhisattva practices such as the study of six perfections.

3. Madhyamika, the study of Buddhist middle views, Sunyatavada.

4. Abhidharmakosa, the Buddhist metaphysics and

5. Vinaya, monastic rules and disciplines.

They form a very demanding curriculum. The idea behind such studies is that ‘if you study, you will know the Law of Buddha and from then, you will be able to keep away from sin. It is by this means you will find your way out of the wheel of rebirth.’ Understandably not all of those willing to learn are able to immerse themselves in these studies with equal depth. The entire period of study takes more than twenty years. However the Tibetan monastic life rests on spiritual communities containing very large number of monks. But every member of these communities is not able to see the prescribed course of studies through to the end. Simples tasks are required of bearer of low monastic grades. These include maintenance of the monastery buildings, lighting lamps in the temple, working in the monastic kitchens – in short all the jobs that require no particular training. And those who have completed their courses successfully were awarded the degrees of ‘Geshe’, a Doctorate of Buddhology, by the monasteries themselves of by the State. They are now qualified to carry out the most important and most difficult rituals in the general chapels or in their colleges and are also qualified to teach in the various monasteries and universities. They can also proceed further on the higher tantric studies and practices.

Study in the monasteries is by no means restricted only to liturgical, doctrinal and esoteric teachings. The student is also offered the possibility of penetrating into the auxiliary sciences, even if these are not directly connected to the primarily religious and liturgical trainings. They are also taught medicine, astrology and astronomy, rhetoric, literature, painting and the art of drawing such religious arts as mandala and thankas. At present in Indian and Nepal, elementary modern sciences and foreign languages like English are also taught in the monastic schools.

The liturgical life in large monasteries unfolds in a multiplicity of religious ceremonies in which monks or nuns have to participate. The most important ritual performances take place in the central chapel (sog Chen) and the minor ones are in the chapel of colleges or house itself. The rites and rituals in the tantra are meant mainly for the meditation in which one’s guardian deity (Yidam) is visualized. All the instructions are given by a spiritual director for such practices at the time of ritual performance or before that. It is believed that no genuine insight can have merely intellectual value; it must always tend to become a living spiritual experience. These rituals also serve as means of purification and promote accumulation of spiritual merit.

Now I wish to draw some attention on its organization and administration. These are two principle things to be considered: the spiritual education and liturgy on the one hand and the world functions like administration on the other. Taking the three largest monasteries of Tibet (Sera, Drepung and Gaden) as an example which are re-established in South India, the spiritual authority is concentrated in the hands of the abbot who is elected and then approved by the Dalai Lama. The office of abbot is as a rule entrusted to a famous Geshe on account of his spiritual merits and learning. Under him, there is an office of Gekoe, the Dean of discipline, who is responsible for maintenance of monastic discipline. Provost (the leader of chanting) who directs all liturgical acts and also leads the collective recitation of prayers during morning and evening assemblies and ceremonies. Most of the large monasteries have two or three stewards who duty is to manage the monastic propert such as offering food and tea to the congregation at important ceremonies and is incharge of financial interest of the monastery in general. Thus the above offices are important for the monastic life from the point of view of discipline and administration. The larger monasteries are divided into two or three colleges which are sub-divided into many houses for keeping the monastery in order.

Each monastery forms a self-sufficient economic entity. All the property which it has come to possess by inheritance or any other means belongs fully and entirely to the monastic community as donations made by the entire community. Now at present in India, most of the large monasteries are allotted some lands to cultivate. So life in the monastery is a mixture of work, stuffy, prayers and meditation. It is very similar to the Catholic Monastic life of the West which is the largest monastic system of Christianity. The assets of the monastery includes corn fields, rice paddies, a small herd of buffalo and cows and a small restaurant which is run by themselves. The monks are sent out to perform prayers and rituals in the lay community. This also provides some income. Besides the daily routine of rituals, study and meditation, monastic life is periodically enlivened by religious festivals and ceremonies. The monks in the monastery are responsible for the performance of these ceremonies and the lay members are beneficiaries of their performances. It is believed that the merits will go to both monks and lay people.

Thus the obligation of monks or nuns to participate in the divine services regularly, the strict regulations of all external aspects of life, the memorization of the basic rules and mastery in the philosophical studies all keep the monastic community life into a fixed structure. The monasteries in future should also serve as a haven of refuge for the lay community by providing religious teachings, spiritual guidance, counseling and retreat facilities.

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Source by Corey Tsang