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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > History of Buddhism and Bon > Overview of the Gelug Monastic Education System

Overview of the Gelug Monastic Education System

Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II
Translated and compiled by Alexander Berzin
September 2003

Major Topics in the Curriculum

The monastic education system in the Gelug monasteries covers five major topics, based on five great Indian scriptural texts studied through the medium of logic and debate – "tsennyi" (mtshan-nyid, definitions) in Tibetan. During the course of study, monastics also learn the four Indian Buddhist tenet systems (grub-mtha’ bzhi): Vaibhashika (Bye-brag smra-ba), Sautrantika (mDo-sde-pa), Chittamatra (Sems-tsam-pa), and Madhyamaka (dBu-ma).

In Tibet, this education was only for monks. Since the reforms of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in India, Gelug nuns are also beginning to follow this course of study. In Tibet, nuns mostly only memorized and performed rituals.

The five main subjects are as follows.

  • Prajnaparamita (phar-phyin), far-reaching discriminating awareness, is the study of the stages and paths of mind (sa-lam) needed for the realization of voidness, liberation, and enlightenment. It is based on Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs-rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara) by Maitreya (rGyal-ba Byams-pa). Although Maitreya’s text is written from a Prasangika-Madhyamaka (dBu-ma thal-‘gyur-pa) viewpoint, its twenty-one Indian commentaries are written from the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka (dBu-ma rang-rgyud-pa) point of view, and most prominently its Yogachara-Svatantrika (rNal-‘byor spyod-pa’i rang-rgyud-pa) division.
  • Madhyamaka (dbu-ma), the middle way, is the study of voidness according to the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view. The Svatantrika division studied in conjunction with this is Sautrantika-Svatantrika (mDo-sde spyod-pa’i rang-rgyud-pa). Madhyamaka study is based on A Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s) "Treatise on the Middle Way" (dBu-ma-la ‘jug-pa, Skt. Madhyamakavatara) by Chandrakirti (Zla-ba grags-pa, dPal-ldan grags-pa).
  • Pramana (tshad-ma), valid cognition, is the study of the proofs for the validity of such essential points as the Three Supreme Gems, rebirth, and omniscience. It is based on A Commentary to (Dignaga’s "Compendium of) Validly Cognizing Minds" (Tshad-ma rnam-‘grel, Skt. Pramanavarttika) by Dharmakirti (Chos-kyi grags-pa). Several of its chapters are from the Sautrantika viewpoint and others the Chittamatra.
  • Abhidharma (mngon-par chos, mdzod), special topics of knowledge, covers the physical and mental constituents of limited beings, rebirth states, karma, disturbing emotions and attitudes, paths to liberation, and so on. It is based on A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa'i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha) by Vasubandhu (dByigs-gnyen) and is from the Vaibhashika viewpoint.
  • Vinaya (‘dul-ba), rules of discipline, concerns the monastic vows. It is based on The Vinaya Sutra (‘Dul-ba’i mdo, Skt. Vinayasutra) by Gunaprabha (Yon-tan ‘od).

In addition, monastics study interpretable and definitive meanings (drang-nges) for further detail about the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka views. It is based on The Essence of Good Explanation Concerning Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po) by Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) (1357-1419).

All monastics must study these topics to at least some degree. They take turns, one month at a time, to care for the maintenance of the temples and other duties.

Textbooks

All colleges within the Gelug monasteries follow the commentaries to these texts written by Tsongkhapa and his two main disciples, Gyeltsabjey (rGyal-tshab rJe Dar-ma rin-chen) (1364-1432) and Kaydrubjey (mKhas-grub rJe dGe-legs dpal-bzang) (1385-1438). In addition, each follows one of several textbooks (yig-cha) that developed to explain the fine points. The textbooks differ in interpretation of many details.

The first set of textbooks to develop were written by Jetsunpa Chokyi-gyeltsen (rJe-btsun-pa Chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) (1469-1544), called "the Jetsunpa textbooks" for short. Ganden Jangtsey (dGa’-ldan Byang-rtse Grva-tshang), Sera Jey (Se-ra Byes Grva-tshang), and Sera Ngagpa Colleges (Se-ra sNgags-pa Grva-tshang) follow them.

The next two sets were written by two disciples of Jetsunpa. According to popular tradition, Jetsunpa asked the two to write commentaries explaining some of the major texts slightly differently than he had, so that future disciples would be able to sharpen their intelligence by debating their discrepancies. One set was written by Kaydrub Tendarwa (mKhas-grub dGe-‘dun bstan-pa dar-rgyas) (1493-1568). They are used by Sera May College (Se-ra sMad Grva-tshang).

The other set was written by Panchen Sonam-dragpa (Pan-chen bSod-nams grags-pa) (1478-1554), called "the Panchen textbooks" for short. They are followed by Ganden Shartsey (dGa’-ldan Shar-rtse Grva-tshang), Drepung Losel-ling (‘Bras-spungs Blo-gsal gling Grva-tshang), and Drepung Ngagpa Colleges (‘Bras-spungs sNgags-pa Grva-tshang).

A fourth set was written several centuries later by Kunkyen Jamyang-zheypa (the First), Ngawang-tsondru (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa Ngag-dbang brtson-‘grus) (1648-1721), called "the Kunkyen textbooks" for short. They are followed by Drepung Gomang (‘Bras-spungs sGo-mang Grva-tshang) and Drepung Deyang Colleges (‘Bras-spungs bDe-dyangs Grva-tshang). Labrang Monastery (Bla-brang dGon-pa) in far-eastern Amdo (founded by Jamyang-zheypa) and most monasteries in Inner and Outer Mongolia, Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva also follow them.

Each of the textbook traditions includes several additional texts written by later scholars.

Main Course of Education

The main course of education covers the above subjects. Slight differences occur in each of the Gelug monastic colleges concerning, for instance, when the Chittamatra section of interpretable and definitive meanings is studied. There are also differences concerning when students must present formal debates (dam-bca’) before their assembled college to mark completion of certain portions of the study. Here, we shall present the form followed by Ganden Jangtsey College.

[See: A Brief History of Ganden Monastery.]

Since the reforms of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in exile in India, all monastics must complete eight years of primary school education in common with lay children. They need to study Tibetan, English, Hindi, mathematics, social studies, and science. Each college has its own primary school for this purpose.

As part of the curriculum of the fourth through eighth grades, the children cover the three preliminary subjects required for the formal monastic education. During the fifth grade, they study collected topics (bsdus-grva, dura), which deals with set theory and logical pervasions. They learn the fundamentals for debate. During the fifth grade, they study ways of knowing (blo-rig, lorig), which deals with valid and invalid ways of cognizing something. From the sixth through the eight grades, they study lines of reasoning (rtags-rig, tarig), which deals with valid and invalid logical syllogisms. Those who enter Jangtsey College after having completed their primary school education study these three subjects during their first three years at the monastery, one year for each subject.

Once they have completed these preliminary subjects, the monks spend the next eleven years studying the five major texts. First, they study prajnaparamita for five years. They spend the first two years on chapter one of A Filigree of Realizations, the third year on chapter two (which includes the third chapter), the fourth year on chapter four, and the fifth year on chapter eight (which includes the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters). During their sixth year, they study the Chittamatra section of interpretable and definitive meanings. They spend the next three years (the seventh through ninth) on madhyamaka, during which they also cover the madhyamaka section of interpretable and definitive meanings. The tenth year is on abhidharma, and the eleventh on vinaya. Since the students are novice monks (dge-tshul, Skt. shramanera) during most of their studies and may only take full monk (dge-slong, Skt. bhikshu) vows at the age of twenty-one, this study comes at the end. Starting with the study of lines of reasoning (tarig), up to completion of vinaya, they spend one month each year on pramana.

Mode of Study

The monks need to memorize the five basic texts and many other smaller works and prayers. They spend the early mornings doing that. In India, they have morning debate (dam-bca’) from 8:00 to 9:30, begun with a short set of prayers. All the classes of the college debate on the same grounds, breaking into groups of two or three, with everyone shouting at the top of his voice. The monk being questioned sits on the ground, the questioners stand. Since the groups debate right next to each other and the volume of shouting is enormous, the circumstance forces the monks to gain excellent concentration. The debates are very heated and punctuated with ritual gestures, such as clapping hands. This affords an excellent outlet for energy, since the teenage monks are celibate and do not engage in sports. The rest of the day, each class has lessons with its teachers and the students memorize and study. The monks practice reciting the texts they have memorized by shouting them aloud, usually at the top of their voices. This is also an excellent outlet of energy and keeps them awake.

In the evenings, from 6 to 8, the monks have debate ground prayers (chos-grva). During the first hour, they recite over and again Praises to the Twenty-One Taras (sGrol-ma nyi-shu rtsa-gcig), to eliminate interference for their study. During the second hour, they recite various other prayers. They then debate the rest of the evening, until at least 10:30. Many stay until the early hours of the morning.

[See: The Purpose and Benefits of Debate.]

Examinations

In Tibet, at the end of each year of study there were only two examinations (rgyugs-sprod). These were a memorization exam (blo-rgyugs) and a debate exam (rtsod-rgyugs). Monks needed to pass both exams in order to proceed to the next class. Since the reforms of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in India, they must also pass each year a written exam (bri-rgyugs), a poetry composition exam (rtsom-bri), and a Tibetan culture and religious history exam (rgyal-rabs chos-byung).

During the first year of prajnaparamita and during the final year of vinaya, monks need to make an assembly presentation (tshogs-langs), during which they debate one day before the general Ganden assembly (dGa’-ldan bla-spyi) of both Jangtsey and Shartsey monks and one day before only the assembled Jangtsey monks. Before the general Ganden assembly, they must debate a Shartsey monk who follows the Panchen textbooks. For tulkus (reincarnate lamas), the years in which they make their assembly presentations may vary.

Ordinary monks are not required to make food and money offerings (gtong-sgo) to each monk at their assembly presentations. Tulkus regularly make such offerings then. Some time during the eleven years of their main study, however, all monks must make one food and money offering to the mixed assembly of all Jangtsey monks (gling-bsre gtong-sgo).

Those who have not done so well in their studies or who are not interested in completing their studies may end their education by passing only a memorization exam. Although they may do this even before they begin their main education, most wait until they have finished the madhyamaka classes. They receive the Kyerimpa (bsKyed-rim-pa) degree.

Geshe Tsogrampa Degree

Those who complete the eleven years of the main education and who do not go on to higher education receive the Geshe Tsogrampa (dGe-bshes Tshogs-ram-pa) degree. They must present a formal debate before the mixed assembly of all Jangtsey monks (gling-bsre dam-bca’). They must also present a formal debate against a Shartsey Geshe before the general Ganden assembly and make a Geshe offering (dge-bshes gtong-sgo) there to all the monks. After this, they receive the title Geshe Dorampa (dGe-bshes rDo-ram-pa).

Before the reforms of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, each Gelug college awarded the Geshe Tsogrampa degree to only two candidates each year. There was a huge backlog of candidates, and many had to wait a large number of years. Most waited in the madhyamaka classes, studying further. With the new reforms, there is no limit to the number of candidates who receive this degree each year.

Higher Education and the Geshe Lharampa Degree

Since the reforms of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, those who go on to the higher Geshe degree, Geshe Lharampa (dGe-bshes Lha-ram-pa), must complete six years of Gelug Examination Level study (dGe-lugs rgyugs-sprod). At the beginning of the eleventh year of main education, the students separate into two vinaya classes according to their performance in their studies and their wishes to study further. For one group, this is their final year of study and they will receive the Geshe Tsogrampa degree at its successful conclusion. For the other group, this year of vinaya study counts as the first of the six years of their higher education.

During the six years, the monks review each of the five main subjects each year, but now in greater depth. During their main education, they studied them through the Jetsunpa textbooks. Now, they focus their study of the five subjects on the major commentaries written by Tsongkhapa, Gyeltsabjey, and Kaydrubjey. Each year they have only debate and written examinations.

At the successful completion of their higher education studies, they must present a formal debate at the annual Great Prayer Festival (sMon-lam chen-mo) before the assembled monks of the three main Gelug monasteries (gdan-sa gsum) in the Lhasa area: Ganden, Sera, and Drepung. In Tibet, this was held at the Jokang (Jo-khang, Jokhang) Temple in Lhasa. It is at this point that they also present a formal debate before the assembled Jangtsey monks (gling-bsre dam-bca’). As the Geshe Tsogrampas need to do, they must also present another formal debate before the entire Ganden assembly of Jangtsey and Shartsey and make a Geshe offering of food and money to all the monks. They too receive the further title of Geshe Dorampa.

Before the reforms of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, only two candidates from each college were awarded the Geshe Lharampa degree each year. The reforms removed these limits.

Tantra Study

With the education reforms of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, all Geshe Tsogrampas and Geshe Lharampas must continue their education at either Gyumay Lower Tantric College (rGyud-smad Grva-tshang) or Gyuto Upper Tantric College (rGyud-stod Grva-tshang). Which one they joined depended on their place of origin. At the tantric colleges, they are called Geshe Karampa (dGe-bshes bKa’-ram-pa). They must study there for a minimum of one year. There are no formal classes as at Jangtsey. Monks study privately with individual teachers. Those at Gyumay study the tantra textbooks written by rGyu Sherab-senggey (rGyud Shes-rab seng-ge) (1383-1445). Those at Gyuto follow the tantra textbooks written by Gyuchen Kunga-dondrub (rGyud-chen Kun-dga’ don-grub) (1419-1486).

Only two candidates each year at each tantric college are permitted to present the tantra formal exam (sngags dam-bca’), after which they receive the degree Geshe Ngagrampa (dGe-bshes sNgags-ram-pa). Thus, many Geshe Karampas stay on at the tantric colleges for many years. Before receiving their Ngagrampa degree from the tantric college, however, they may elect to return to Jangtsey. There, they must present a tantra formal debate, after which they receive a Geshe Ngagrampa degree from Jangtsey. Even if they receive the Rabjampa degree from the tantric college before returning to Jangtsey, they must still present the tantra formal exam at Jangtsey and receive a Jangtsey Ngagrampa degree.

[See: A Brief History of Gyumay and Gyuto, Lower and Upper Tantric Colleges.]

Although Kyerimpas have not become sutra Geshes, qualified ones may study tantra privately with individual teachers at Jangtsey. They follow the Gyumay textbooks. Upon successful completion of their studies and presentation of a tantra formal debate, they too receive the Jangtsey Geshe Ngagrampa degree.